“Shh!” Billy interrupted. And, with that, they were back standing under the naked cherry trees in front of the house.
“Is there someone there?” Rebecca asked. Billy nodded. “Costumes, please. Oh, Hi, Doctor Dawson.”
“Um, hi, Miss…?
“This is Rebecca Hirsch, Aunt Sandy. You’ve seen her at the Golden Dynasty. And this is Billy Tatum. He’s the guy with keen, animalistic senses.”
“Is that Green Tea, by Elizabeth Arden?” Billy asked.
“Why, yes, Billy. Thank you for noticing,” Aunt Sandy said. “It’s a gift. Is there something wrong, Chris?"
“Billy says that there’s someone out there. We think they might be looking for Uncle Springett,” Chris explained.
“Who has been dead for almost 70 years. Tell me. Are stupid supervillains more dangerous than smart ones?”
“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” Rebecca said, pulling out her phone to text maniacally for a moment, both thumbs flying. “If you can just go inside and sit well away from any windows for a minute or two, we’ll have this sorted out. Now get into your costumes, boys, and let’s go check out the back yard again.”
“Because we..are…the…Backyardigans!” Chris sang.
“Hunh?” Billy asked.
“Here’s an idea. Next time the community day care has to go off site, let’s have it at the Institute instead of the Yurt,” Chris half-answered. Then he relented. “It’s a kid’s show. About the wild, imaginative adventures you can have in your own backyard.”
“Throw in a time machine, a spaceship, and a dimensional portal, and you’ve got our lives," Billy pointed out. "And a daycare would liven the Institute right up. More experimental subjects.”
“Yeah. Now come on.” Chris gestured his friends forward as he led the way around the side of the house.
The back yard was still empty. Chris stood still, straining to look out over the lake. Where were they? Beside him, Billy asked, casually, “How can this be the same address that a World War II vet lived at? All the houses look newer than that.”
“The beach house was renovated in the early Sixties, same time as the property was subdivided and the new houses put up.” Chris went quiet, too tense with anticipation to keep up the conversation, but Billy gestured for him to keep talking.
“They had to do some pretty massive work anyway, what with the town sewer line coming in.”
“They didn’t have plumbing here in the 1950s? Like, Leave it to Beaver time?” Rebecca asked.
“Oh, no, they had plumbing. It was just a septic field system.”
“A what?” Rebecca asked.
“The pipes led to an underground gravel pit. The fluid and …stuff just drained away into the ground.”
Rebecca wrinkled her nose. “Gross! Didn’t everyone get sick?”
Chris shook his head. “Apparently, by the time sewage has percolated very far underground, it’s basically all filtered out. Amoeba may be small, but they’re a lot bigger than water molecules.”
“Hunh,” Rebecca said, doubtfully. “So. What about what your Aunt Sandy said? Do you really think that Professor Paradigm is likely to get two Springett Dawsons confused when they were born 40 years apart?”
“Well, think about it,” Chris replied, shading his eyes with his hand as he desperately tried to make out small details on the beaches of houses fronting the lake to the north of the Point, past the border. A car went by, flahing into sight through the willows as the road came out directly over the beach, down towards the lookout at the tip of the little peninsula. There was nothing out there.
Protest rally noises continued to float down from Canada. He continued. “The whole point of giving him a codename in the first place was to protect his secret identity. So it stands to reason that if he survived the war, and he was done being Achilles, he could take off his mask, go back to his hometown and live a regular life. That’s why we have costumes and codenames. So we can retire. There’s lots of World War vets in Oroville, and, anyway, maybe super soldier serums make you live longer.”
“So Babs is going to look like that forever? Lucky Tyrell!” Rebecca said.
“Are they actually dating?” Billy asked. “And do you like Babs?”
“I wouldn’t turn her away, if you know what I mean. Are they dating? I don’t know,” Rebecca said. “Probably not, actually. I think we could tell if they were. Jealous?”
“Of Tyrell? No,” Billy said. “Not my type. Jameel, on the other hand…”
Rebecca sounded secretly amused by something. “Really?”
“Are you saying you have a thing for Rose or my sister?” Chris said.
“Your sister is hot,” Billy said.
“Gross! You’re a hundred years older than she is!”
“For dating purposes, I prefer to think of myself as a retarded Senior,” Billy pointed out.
“Maybe the retards could go for Rose, instead?” said Chris. “Speaking as Charlotte’s brother. So. Okay, so she’s in Grade 8, and you’re in Grade 12. That’s not that much better.”
“Not so much with the “r” word, Seventies Boy,” Rebecca said.
And it was at that exact moment that Decurion and Big Ninja from the water just past the dropoff where the good swimming started. “I was wondering how long they were just going to lie there, holding their breaths, while we talked teen soap opera stuff,” Billy said, grinning.
“You’re a mean one,.Wolverine Boy,” Chris answered.
“Right back at you, KFB,” Billy replied.
Rebecca took in the scene. “Okay, I’m backup. I don’t like us engaging without being able to pull out of the fight when Paradigm or Tesseract shows up. “Billy, you take the big guy. Chris, you handle Decurion.”
Chris ran down to the beach, flexing his right hand, but the blue sword didn’t appear in it. Weren’t you supposed to get swords out of a lake? That was right. A girl’s hand reached out of the water and handed it to you. But not today, because, as Chris set his legs in Crow Stance, Decurion came lunging out of the water, leading with shield and spatha out, point thrust low and scooping.
Chris sidestepped. Crow was a good stance for sand, because it kept your weight over the feet and planted them on short strides. The step shifted his centre of gravity just enough to miss the point of the blade. Now he was inside the weapon, and he shifted out of Crow to Crane, drawing his outside, right knee up and launching a snap kick. Knowing that Decurion was fast enough to interpose, Chris put his qi power into the blow. As he expected, Decurion took a long step back to absorb the momentum, and slipped going down into the water.
Beside Chris, the massive, black-clad, black masked brick charged by, trying to get a bead on a fast-dodging Billy. Then he disappeared. “Heads up, Chris,” Rebecca called. So a big chunk of brick was about to come crashing down on the beach in a second. Never fight a teleporter, Chris noted, if you’re allergic to gravity.
Chris moved into the water, following Decurion. The fall didn’t seem to have dented the villain’s arrogance, because even as he scuttled back, trying to get room to stand up, he caught Chris’s eyes and sneered. “You hit me so much harder than you do my …colleague. I wonder how hard you’d hit if you knew I was stabbing her, too.”
Chris flushed with anger, considering Bear stance for a moment. It was good for water fighting, but he didn’t need to be fussy. Decurion was down, and it was time to put him out.
Then, just behind Chris, came the massive thump of the ninja-brick hitting the ground. It shouldn’t have distracted Chris, but it did. Chris flicked his eyes back to catch the big guy bounce off the ground and back into action, booming a roar as he ran after Billy. Not that allergic to gravity, then, Chris thought, looking back to Decurion, who had used the moment’s distraction to get back to his feet. The pseudo-Roman flashed his blade through a couple of moves, ending with a hammering blow to his own shield with the flat of the sword.
This was bad. Now they were both in the water. Chris’s main advantage, his fast footwork, was neutralised. He scrambled back towards the beach, splashing in the water, while Decurion pressed his advantage, thrusting and slashing with his long sword. Chris couldn’t use his qi to enhance speed and strength at the same time, so he was left on hair trigger speed, fast enough to slap the sword aside each time it came in, but not strong enough to touch Decurion through his armour and shield on counterpunch.
They fought silently for a long, slogging moment, exchanging grunts with thrusts and parries until Chris’s feet hit dry land. “Heh,” Decurion said. “Where’s that wuxia elegance? I thought you’d just jump backwards out of the water.”
Chris didn’t respond. He’d noticed that Decurion dipped his point when returning to garde from a thrust. Chris slipped into a traditional Monkey stance and focussing his qi on the power of his Eight Spirit punch. This time his dodge would go left, across the blade while it dipped. That would put him on his foe’s shieldless side. Even if his punch didn’t knock the villain out, it would surely knock his helm clear.
Too late, as Chris unweighted his following, right foot to come into stance, he saw Decurion reverse his sword’s motion out of the dip below garde. He’d been decoyed, and his body was in motion. Desperately Chris hunched to the left, dissipating his blow into a chop at Decurion’s wrist. In almost the same moment, the keen edge of the Roman sword bit into Chris right arm above the elbow while his left slapped Decurion’s arm greave.
The sword went arcing through the winter sky in a red spray of arterial blood. Chris was in trouble.
Again the disorienting flicker as Chris was teleported and, without the transitions that made the world make sense, he was standing on the porch of the beach house. Decurion’s sword clattered to the ground beside him as he clenched his left hand over his wound, putting pressure on the cut to stop the bleeding. The worst part, Chris realised, was that Decurion was right. He could have just done a cricket leap backwards out of the water, but he hadn’t wanted to seem to run away from Decurion, and he wasn’t even sure he knew why. What was it that had made him so angry? Chris knew that Morning Glory would never go for a creep like Decurion.
“He won’t be much trouble now that we’ve got his sword,” Rebecca said from the side. “Uhm, how bad’s the cut?”
“It’s pretty deep,” Chris admitted. “I need a moment to tourniquet it before I go back in.”
“Okay,” Rebecca said, doubtfully. “Billy’s going to have his hands’ full, dealing with the two of them. Oh, crap.”
Rebecca was responding to the sight of Professor Paradigm, sliding towards them like some particularly smooth skateboarder, only six feet above the surface of the lake. The weird lights of the lamp-like things bathed his face in mixes of colours belonged in out-takes from Yellow Submarine. Behind Chris, the slide door of the porch opened. His Aunt Sandy came out, placing a white triangle bandage lightly over Chris’s left hand, now red with blood.
Chris gratefully took his hand off his wound as his aunt applied the sure pressure of over forty years’ experience to a pad directly on the wound. She then tied off the bandage, quickly, and so easily, that she didn’t even sound distracted as she spoke to the newly arrived combatant. “Professor Paradigm, I presume?”
“Indeed. Mrs. Dawson?”
“Doctor Dawson,” Aunt Sandy replied, firmly.
“Ah. Doctor Dawson, to be sure. We are looking, I am informed by my Internet-savvy employees, for a relative of yours, one Springett Dawson.”
“My son, Springett, and my grandson both live here. Would you, perhaps, be so kind as to explain why you are looking for them, Professor? And why one of your employees took it upon himself to stab my guest?”
And then, Chris found his eyes drawn back to the road down to the point, just barely visible from a standing position from this corner of the porch. A man on a moped was coming up from the lake, an open-faced white helmet towering above a long face from which a cigarette dangled dangerously over an ample stomach protruding in a blue denim workshirt, below which the rider for some reason wore a white towel over his lap. Big green gumboots in lieu of proper motorcycle boots complete the bizarre ensemble.
Chris stared, vaguely aware that there was something more than normal of his attention. He was reminded of the way that a ball on a trampoline rolls towards something heavy. He was even more reminded of it when the moped left the road and, somehow, just passed through the darkness of the willows and into the light of the beach, not twelve feet from Professor Paradigm.
“I would also be fascinated with your answer, Professor.” Unlike his aunt, the newcomer’s pronunciation dripped with sarcasm.
“Who are you?” Professor Paradigm asked, as the moped braked to a stop, complete with a slight rise of the back tyre, even though it was six feet off the ground.
“Ah. I’m sorry. I was just on my way back from campus when the text came in.” The odd-looking man on the moped turned into a standing man in a tattered bathrobe with strange symbols on the chest, sandals with straps that laced halfway up his calf. His lean, ,cigarette-enhanced face suddenly wore a beard, and his short hair turned into a wild, hippy mane held back by a headband with more mysterious symbols.
“Eldritch! You will pay for intrusion into my affairs. Your quaint and self-deluding apprehensions through the mystic are as nothing compared to the power that is unleashed science!”
“You need therapy, Paradigm. Or at least a better connection. And a rather longer list of hacked spells than you’ve ever used before if you think you can beat me.” Eldritch held up his hand, and lights exactly like the ones that played across Paradigm’s face flickered between them. He paused for a moment. “Seriously. About the drugs. Let me know. We can set you up.”
“I am not some addlepated druggie,” Paradigm protested, his voice rising a little. “And even if you know counterspells to the Lights of Luathon, I still have my Pirates!” Morning Glory and Displacer appeared on the beach behind Ninja and Decurion. Chris’s face crimsoned. She was smart. She would realise in a second he’d lost his fight with Decurion. This was turning into the worst day of his life.
“Oh, dear. I think I see where you`ve gone wrong, Paradigm. Unlike yourself, I`m an actual professor, and I have assistants for things like this.” Behind Eldritch, four figures flickered in the air. Chris recognised the new costumes of his cousin Jenny, her boyfriend, Brad, and Nita Guzman. A tall, slightly stooped, skeletally thin figure in the ack was presumably Billy Washington, completing the new Bay Young Guard. “I should caution you,” he continued, “That Berkeley students are the best in the country. Although they tend to be disappointingly conservative these days, I believe that there might be some class participation credits on the table in consideration of a tidy resolution of this little confrontation.”
“No need for that, Professor,” Billy Washington said. “No one calls you addlepated and gets away with it. Not at least when I’m pulling a 4.0 in your class!”
“You do seem to have a natural aptitude for macro, Black Titan. I also rather like the way that you deal with supervillains.”
“The hippy professor superhero teaches economics?” Aunt Sandy asked the air.
“Chair of the department, for my sins,” the familiar voice said, but originating in the air over the porch, with no sign of Eldritch actually speaking.
Paradigm, on the other hand, sounded defensive. “There will be no fight here. I apologise for the intrusion, Doctor Dawson. We were apparently under a mistaken impression about your family tree and your guests. There will be compensation once I rule this dimension. And rather sooner, if the young gentleman would consent to join my Pirates.” Chris shook his head, looking at Morning Glory, trying to project reluctance as he did so. He didn’t want to join the Pirates, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t want to join Morning Glory! That, however, was probably a more complicated message than you could send with a look.
Professor Paradigm and the Pirates disappeared. After a long moment, so did the Young Guard. Then Eldritch followed. A moment later, back in his commuting clothes/guise, he was standing on the porch. He reached over to Chris and touched his wound. Health flowed through his arm from the old professor’s touch. Chris let his hand drop. The bloody gash was reduced to a dry, healing wound.
“I’m sure you know some specialists who can finish up that working,” the old wizard set, taking his cigarette from his mouth with his other hand. “Now. I gather that Paradigm was here on a misconception, Miss Hirsch?”
Chris looked at Billy, who had just come up from the beach, expecting him to be offended by the way that Eldritch looked to Rebecca for leadership. But he wasn’t. Billy was more the lone wolf type.
Rebecca, after her own short delay, replied. “Yes. We’ve recently learned that Achilles, the World War Two superhero, used to live at this house. So does a great-nephew of the same name. Evidently, Paradigm got the idea that they were the same person.”
“Ah. Ah.” Eldritch said. “I see that a call to Philadelphia and . . .other places is long overdue. I’m glad to hear that we won’t need to provide special protection to this house, however. The forces of good in this world are overstretched, underfunded, and not much appreciated these days.”
“What’s going on, sir?” Chris asked. “There’s something…”
“Indeed there is,” Eldritch replied. “But it is not my secret to share.”
“So we just go on fighting evil in the dark?” Chris answered, his anger rising.
“Young man, you are not fighting evil right now. You are learning to fight evil. Please, do focus on this precious opportunity to learn before it passes you by. For all that you now wish it on, life will be a stop past the one you wanted before you know it is moving. Now, if you will pardon me, I have to feed my cats.”
“Are you sure that you wouldn’t prefer to stay for tea, Professor Eldritch?” Aunt Sandy asked. “In my experience, cats can wait a little longer for their dinner than they’ll have you believe, and I have scones and some very nice marmalade.”
“Thank you, but I’m afraid that I can’t, Doctor Dawson. Not to be all spooky, but you are about to receive another academic visitor.” Eldritch vanished.
As Aunt Sandy led them into the living room inside the screen doors, she explained. “A scientist from the Osoyoos Botanical Station is coming down to visit about this. A Doctor Konoye.” She reached down to the coffee table and carefully separated a flimsy piece of copy paper from the pile of comics and video game covers.
Chris took the page. It was a yellowed copy of the front page of the Osoyoos News with old-time advertisements down the side and a date that blurred out after the numbers 194-. Chris read it. “Boundary resident Ning Li Wang Wins Injunction Against Chinaman's Bar Lumber Harvest.” Chris scowled. “They spelled Grampa’s name wrong. What is this about?”
“An injunction is a legal order to stop doing something,” Aunt Sandy said. “In this case, cutting the spruce grove in the bog behind Chinese Bar. If we could just figure out why the injunction was issued, Dr. Konoye might be able to get another one issued and save the environment. And her job.”
“That’s far-fetched,” Rebecca said. “Just because there was an injunction then, why should a judge issue one now?”
Aunt Sandy shrugged. “The bog is sacred to the Okanagan Band. Maybe it’s a culturally modified site. The thing is that Henry Wong would have had to have evidence to convince the judge. We can’t find it at Cherry Grove or the Dynasty, but some of his papers were stored down here. Not that I can find anything. Dr. Konoye is going to be so disappointed. Think of losing your job at her stage in life. And with a daughter to support.”
The doorbell rang. Chris started towards it. He really wanted to see Dr. Konoye again, and convince her that he wasn’t some kind of nasty hoodlum. More importantly, he wanted to be with his aunt. Somehow, he knew that with her warm competence, everything would be all right. It was something that Chris realised, he had forgotten how to feel some time in the years between when he’d last seen Aunt Sandy and gone to live with Auntie Ma.
But Rebecca took his shoulder, holding him back. Chris looked over at her. She was holding her phone in one hand, and shaking her head. “I’m meeting someone at the mall in five minutes, and she’s not going to be impressed if I’m late. Your aunt is out of danger, you need to have a healer look at your arm, and Billy needs to get at least some of his homework done.”
Disappointment, humiliation, defeat. It would have been Chris’s worst day ever if they hadn’t been able to save his Aunt Sandy.