Dean Shomshak, everyone. I wish I could write like that.
“So Eldritch just let Professor Paradigm go?”” Tyrell sounded even more interested in that than the granola bar wrapper that he was staring into regretfully.
Chris shrugged. He really didn’t have an answer. Graydon, however, dramatically shifted his right hand off the steering wheel to press something. The monitor hanging from the roof of the Mercedes flicked on to show a newsfeed. There was Eldritch, this time in his bathrobe-like costume and hippy beard, throwing battle magic spells one after another at a horrifying, pallid wormlike creature humping its way down a hilly San Francisco street. Ahead of it came a small army of creatures in full-body humidity suits, their glistening, worm-like pink flesh visible beneath their transparent helmets. They were holding guns, and using them with enthusiasm on some fleeing (former) bystanders.
The camera panned around from Eldritch, catching the other members of the Bay Guardians, labelling them each quickly for the benefit of the viewers: Druid, Stigma, Hannibal Grey and Totem. Then a fast-flying man crossed the screen to grab a few lagging civilians. Chris recognised him as Blacklight. He took a blast as he barrel rolled to bring his body up to guard his passengers, his shadowy defence field flaring with black as it absorbed the shot . Tyrell whistled.
“What?” Eve asked.
“Blacklight better be careful. The Slug has a gadget that turns people into his followers.”
Eve sounded disgusted. “Like those things?” She gestured at the wormlike creatures in the suits.
“Or the big worm,” Anne Fay said, turning around to face the back. “That’s Condor, of Champions West. I hope they figure out how to turn him back. He’s hot.”
“I’m being objectified!” Graydon objected.
“No, you’re not. Condor is.”
“But he’s a guy, and I’m a guy.”
“That would be funny, in a world that was exactly opposite to this one,” Anne pointed out.
“Shh!” Chris said. The news announcer was talking about the “unknown” new superheroes helping the Bay Guardians. Chris recognised Billy Washington, in his Black Titan uniform, was throwing cars around on the ground, backing up Cousin Henry, in his mustard-yellow karate-inspired uniform with the horse on its back. Chris wondered if he would look that cool when he finally got to wear his gi into battle instead of his boring Tatammy fatigues. And there was Nita, in her gadget-encrusted almost armour. And there was Brad and Cousin Jenny, both flying, in matching uniforms, firing green energy beams of some kind, like yet more members of the Green Lantern Corps that no-one but a complete nerd could name.
“Why do Brad and Jenny have the same superpowers?” Chris asked. “Did they have a matching radioactive accident? I thought the Neilsen powers were like their cousins’. Somehow, it all goes back to the needfire?”
“The needfire is creepy, then,” Eve said. “The Neilsen kids lived with the Wongs for a few years, right? In the Noughts? Like, they were thirteen, I guess? And the needfire just got into their DNA or whatever and gave them matching superpowers? Matchmaking superpowers? What if they break up? It's worse than getting matching tattoos!”
“It was twue wove,” Graydon said, lisping for extra effect.
“What the lunkhead means is that they used to have different powers. The needfire didn’t get involved until they were legal. Then it had to. Because of the power of love.”
“’It’s a curious thing…’” Chris began.
“’Drives one man crazy,’” Tyrell responded, putting heavy emphasis on the crazy.
“Boys. Don’t you have any romance under those awful clothes? The needfire is about what you need. It’s practically another word for love.” Anne finished, Chris couldn’t help noticing, by looking at Graydon. Chris wondered if he noticed. Probably not. People didn’t think about that sort of thing very well when it was about them.
“So, to summarise, Eldritch couldn’t take off after Professor Paradigm because the alien slug people were about to try to take over San Francisco.” Tyrell paused for a second. “And that would be bad.”
“Hey. Hey! Maybe there’s a connection,” Chris said excitedly.
“How’s that?” Graydon asked.
“One of those Rebellion guys at Black Light’s party. He said that Istvatha V’han had a major hate on for Elder Worm magic-science-whatchamacallit. And her empire is mixed up in the Apocalypse Plague, too.”
“Crusaders of the Infinite Realities. Yea, but Istvatha’s mixed up in a lot of stuff. She’s the Empress of a Million Dimensions. Goes with the territory.” Graydon pointed out. “Look, Rose is right. Find Patient Zero, and it’ll all make sense.”
“I thought your Aunt Elizabeth was Patient Zero?” Tyrell said, nudging Chris.
“She can’t be. She was infected too long ago. If that makes any sense.” Chris said.
“No, no, it doesn’t,” Anne observed.
Tyrell started to talk“Wait, though.” Then he paused, for a long, dramatic moment, almost like a lawyer-on TV. Once you knew them both, you could really hear Tyrell’s Dad in him, and you couldn’t argue with results. Everyone was waiting for Tyrell to continue. “There’s time travel involved, right? You said that you need to take your aunt’s body back in time to bury it, and we’ve got Eve, who time travelled up from the Old Stone Age, also with Apocalypse Plague antibodies in her system. Maybe the Apocalypse Plague took a time machine to where it needed to be.”
Ooh, good point, Ty,” Eve said. “Except the divergence point between our time line and Rose’s is late last fall, and, as far as we know, there was none of this time travel stuff going on there.”
“Can you actually say that?” Chris wondered.
“Oh, sure,” Graydon answered. “Time machines leave a heck of a wake when they’re used along one timeline. Easy to see with the right equipment, or even from your own time machine.”
“And we know that because?” Chris prompted.
“Dude. We repair time machines in shop class!”
“We do? That sounds too cool for school.” Chris said, perking up at the thought. So far, all they’d done in Tech Studies was take apart a VIPER jet pack.
“Last semester,” Graydon supplied. “Mrs. Crudup’s ride.”
“What? That bigass Winnebago in her garage?” Chris asked.
“No. Well, it might be, too. You never know. Her car.” Graydon spoke almost off-handedly as he pulled off the street and into the Tatammy parking lot. It was time for another day of school.
“Okay then. Rebecca’s other mom has a time machine disguised as a 1955 Cadillac Fairlane with a paint job out of a rap video. I sure transferred into the right school.” With that, Chris got out of the Mercedes.
As he closed the door, he heard a raucous crowing above him. He looked up. Old crow was directly above him, his head twisted down ahead of his body so that one eye could look at Chris while his beak pointed into the distance. Chris followed the line of the beak. A group of boys in oddly off-matching pleather dusters, with Russian-style fur hats perched on their heads and bright Gryffindor scarfs hanging down, surrounded a small Asian girl in a cute knitted hat.
“See you guys inside,” Chris shouted, hurrying to see if he could catch up with the group, not really understanding why. The needfire must, he thought to himself, before the thought was driven from his mind by his Eight Spirit training, whispering of danger. He turned around, his hand lashing up to take a Frisbee from the air.
“Hey, good catch,” he heard. Chris looked in the direction that the Frisbee had come from. Over the low fence that separated the school parking lot from the public park beyond, he saw Mario and his expelled football playing friends.
“You almost hit me with this,” Chris said, throwing the Frisbee back.” Mario and his friends just burst out laughing. Chris, angry, went up to the fence. “What’s so funny?”
Michael caught the Frisbee. “Don’t you even know how to throw it?” He turned the disc over so that he was holding it under hand, then flicked his wrist to send it to one of his teammates. It looked like a practical way to play soccer with Frisbees, he thought he should point that out. “No. I only throw Frisbees the not-stupid way.”
“You want to come off school property and say that?” Mario asked.
“Should you and your usual gang of idiots even be here? When you’re suspended?”
“Chris, Chris, Chris,” Mario said, shaking his head. “You know, when I first saw you, with that leather jacket and the hair and the attitude, I thought you were a bad boy. A lone wolf. The kind that gets the girls, right? Now you just can’t stop finding new rules to buy into. Turns out the lone wolf was just a little doggie looking for a kennel. Instead of going down on you, the girl is going to tie a bandanna round your neck and take you down to the park to catch Frisbees and watch while she makes out with a real man.”
Now Chris was really angry, and he didn’t even know why. Or care. He took the fence in his hands, and was thinking about jumping over when he heard the clatter of a bike dropping behind him. He looked back. Snowflake was standing six feet away at the bicycle rack, stooping over, clumsily, to pick his bike up from where he must have dropped it as he was trying to padlock it to the rack. Coming up quickly behind him was Dr. Cambridge, who checked her stride when she realised that Chris had seen her. Adopting a more casual pace, she walked the rest of the way to the fence.
“Hello, Chris,” Dr. Cambridge said. “Hi, Mario. You and your friends shouldn’t be so close to the school when you’re suspended,” she continued.
Mario actually looked down, as though he were ashamed, and Chris thought for a moment that he would be sick. “I’m sorry, Dr. Cambridge. We’re all sorry.”
“Yes, Dr. Cambridge,” the five football players said, in harmony.
“And, Chris? I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed in you. I can’t believe that you’re trying to start a fight again. I thought we were making progress.”
“I wasn’t trying to start a fight! He was trying to start a fight!” Chris protested, gesturing at Mario, who was already rapidly retreating towards the far end of the block-long park, to the side with the bleachers, opposite the Panther Heights community recreation centre.
“Chris, Chris. There are always two people trying to start a fight. That’s why we call them fights, and not assaults. Or beatdowns, as you kids say.”
Chris had no idea what to even say. “But I wasn’t!” Even to himself, he sounded like a kid. This wasn’t the way that the Fonz would handle it. But the Fonz always had a line, because he was on TV. He even had a laugh track, in case his line wasn’t very good.
“Well, this isn’t the place to discuss it. I’ll make an appointment for you this afternoon during your Language block.”
“But Ms. Grey was going to go over brush work with me if I get an 80 in my Chinese homework!” Chris had worked very hard to make sure that he got that 80.
“Pff,” Dr. Cambridge waved it away with her hand. “I’ll never understand how Ms. Grey motivates you kids to do all that extra work. I suppose it’s good for you, but you should focus on what’s actually on the curriculum. Spanish isn’t a dead art form. You might actually need it in the real world.”
“It’s not a dead art form, it’s a mindful practice,” Chris began, then shut up. Was he actually starting to talk religion with Dr. Cambridge? Auntie Ma was rubbing off on him!
“Potato, potat-oh,” Dr. Cambridge said. “See you at 2:30.”
Great. The whole day was ruined, now, Chris thought, watching Dr. Cambridge walk away and checking his phone to see how many minutes he had to wait before heading for class without looking like a brown noser.
“Dr. Cambridge is my therapist. She makes me feel like a very bad boy.” Chris looked up. Snowflake was still standing next to the bike rack, his pale face almost hanging out of the huge, cloudy mass of his winter jacket, his eyes indefinitely focussed on Chris through his heavy glasses.
Chris thought about that for a moment. “Is that what therapists are supposed to do, though?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Maybe you should ask a smart person, Chris,” Snowflake said.
“Aren’t you smart, Michael?” Chris asked.
“Oh, yes. Chris. But I’m fooling people. I’m fooling everybody.”
“Everybody?” Chris asked as he looked at his phone, and mentally calculated. If he went to class right now, he’d probably arrive at the same time as Tyrell and Corey. Good enough. Snowflake didn’t seem to have an answer, so Chris waved at him and headed off towards the Old Schoolhouse.
When he got to class, Chris was relieved to see Babs sitting at the girl’s table, not so relieved to see that she was hunched over, sobbing like she was getting over a big cry. Savannah sat on both sides of Babs, hugging her, almost crowding out Eve who was bent close enough that red hair almost collided with blonde and brunette. A third Savannah was sitting with Tyrell and Corey at the boy’s table.
Chris sat down. He nodded at Babs. “Where did she turn up?”
“She stayed with Ms. Grey last night,” Tyrell answered, without taking his eyes off the far table.
“So, everything’s better?” Chris asked flippantly, getting ready to complain about Dr. Cambridge.
“No. She ran away from home, last night.”
“I thought she lived with her Dad at his apartment at the Philadelphia Club?”
“Home is where you hang out, dude.”
“You’ve never lived in a trailer.”
“Oh, come on,” Savannah interrupted. “Trailers aren’t that bad!”
“True,” Chris answered. “They’re way better than a musty old room in a zombie-filled building made of old varnish.” The gang had slipped into the Club once, just before New Year.
“I told you,” Tyrell said peevishly, “The Members are too rich to be zombies.”
“So where’s she going to stay now?”
“I don’t know,” Tyrell said, sounding worried. “Maybe she’ll go back to Ravenswood.”
“She’s going to live in the Mansion, with her uncle,” Savannah said. “I asked earlier.”
“I thought her Dad and her uncle had a huge fight about something and she was going to be disinherited if she did that. That’s how Anne explained it.”
Tyrell made an expression like he was sucking on a lemon. “She says that her Dad was going to disinherit her anyway. Because she’s a freak.”
“That’s crazy,” Chris said.
“She says he said it to her. Just like that.”
“Wow.” Chris said. “Were they having a fight?”
“Yeah. About Babs going back to Ravenwood.”
“Then he’ll probably get over it,” Chris said. Dads could be like that, Chris knew. Chris’ Dad never seemed to get angry, except when he was trying to get the kids to do something.
Then El Professore walked in. Savannah3 went back to her table and merged with her duplicates, after telling Tyrell to call her if he needed anything, and it was time for class.
El Professore turned on the Power Point. “I scheduled today to talk about tactical elements ahead of tomorrow’s Danger Room run. But it seems that we have a teachable moment going on in San Francisco right now.”
He flicked on the monitor screen. The battle had moved to the rigging above the Golden Gate Bridge, and a zeppelin moored to one of the towers. Condor’s monstrous worm form was nowhere in sight, but now the Elder Worm stormtroopers were being supported by a thing that looked almost like a giant, leathery pancake that flapped the edges of its disk to fly. With a better idea of what to look for this time, Chris spotted the Worm Gem gleaming in what therefore had to be its forehead.
“I’ve delayed the feed a little so that we can pause and get our tactics down,” El Professore said. “We’re going to shadow the Young Guardians here. Our team balance is admittedly a little different, but to get you thinking about tactics, I’m going to assign you dissimilar roles, anyway.” Which is how Chris spent the morning trying to figure out what he would do if he were Nita Guzman. And daydreaming about what someone might do if their gadget theme was “plant powers.”
None of Chris’ other classes were anywhere near as interesting as the first one. Instead of school dragging, it seemed that his meeting with Dr. Cambridge was on him before he knew it. Chris walked into her office just as the new drama teacher, a big, shave-headed man, walked out.
“Ah, Chris,” Dr. Cambridge said. “I’ve been going over your test scores. Really, young man, you are a master of dissimulation. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were normal!”
“Maybe that’s because I am normal,” Chris said, firmly.
“No-one’s normal,” Dr. Cambridge said, equally firmly. “And in your case, especially so. You know, Chris, that the first step on the road to effective therapy is admitting that you have a problem. Sociopathy like yours is nothing more than a dysfunctional defence mechanism against bipolar disorder. Your bipolar is Type II –so mild that it can’t even be diagnosed with the tools at hand. We may not have much experience in treating sociopathy, but everything I’ve seen suggests that you can make a lot of progress if you’ll just involve yourself. “
“Where do you get the idea that I’m a sociopath?” Chris asked.
“I’m an expert, Chris. I can tell when someone is faking a personality inventory.”
“But I don’t! Well, I did on a few questions, but…”
“No buts, Chris. Unfortunately, this therapy isn’t getting us very far, because if your resistance. Fortunately, as a DOSPA field agent, I have access to some unusual resources.” She opened up a lap top, pointing the screen towards Chris. “Behold the Eighth Light of Luathon, implemented in an app! And running on Macbook with Retina display, too!” The laptop fired up, and a swirling light reached out. When it touched Chris, he felt his muscles relax. But the light didn’t end there. It wrapped around the back of the laptop, reaching out to Dr. Cambridge before she had time to do more than say, “That’s odd.” When it touched her, her head flopped like someone falling asleep on the bus.
Chris tried to get up. He couldn’t. Instead, he sat there for a long moment, until a sibilant voice began in his ear. “Ah. Mr. Wong. I am devastated to admit that there have been some intentional misunderstandings allowed to grow here this afternoon. The spell that you are currently under is not, in fact, the Eighth Light at all. It doesn’t have a name, but its Yiinashc power will be quite sufficient to bind you for the minute or two that it will take Professor Paradigm to overcome your school’s pestiferous shields and wards. In the mean time, I see that some alterations would greatly improve the serviceability of your mind.”
Chris felt a gathering power, cold and slimy to the touch, impinging on his brain. He wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea of being kidnapped by Professor Paradigm, but he had no doubt that the sibilant voice meant him the worst kind of ill. He strained to feel his muscles. Nothing.