Monday, September 3, 2012

Chapter 2, 24: Suspense

"Watery tart." It's a Monty Python and the Holy Grail reference.

This is way creepier.

Chapter 2, 24: Suspense

And just like that, Ms. Grey and Chris were standing in the Danger Room, with Rashindar nowhere to be seen. “My sword!” Chris said again.

“Where did you put it, Chris?” The ageless Elven teacher asked.

“I think I heard it hit the pond.”

“Well, Chris, I’m sure that it will show up again in the hands of some watery tart.”

“What? My grandfather gave me that sword, and now I’ve lost it!”

Telantassar the Grey half-turned towards Chris, taking him by the shoulder with one hand. “It will turn up again. As I’m sure you’ve realised by now, it’s not the sword’s location that’s important. And you need to focus on more important things right now. You understand that you’re going to be suspended from school, don’t you.”

Chris’s anger returned all over again. “That’s not fair!”

TElantassar sighed. “If I got a quarter for every time I’ve heard that from a teenager, I would have a far better excuse for being a teacher than any I’ve ever been able to give anyone on this world. And, no, in this case it isn’t fair. But it comes down to your word against a DOSPA Special Agent. We don’t have to take this to the school board to know how it’ll play out.”

“She’s deliberately trying to screw me over!”

“And you’re letting her get away with it, Chris.”

“I am not!”

“Think about it, Chris. Now. I think Principal Guzman is ready to see you.” She gestured at the old, polished wood door set in the subdued, metallic grey of the wall of the Danger Room. The door was slightly ajar.

Chris knocked on the door.

“Come in, Chris,” came Principal Guzman’s gruff voice.

Chris walked in. The principal sat in El Professore’s place, across the wide, teak desk. He was in blue denim shirtsleeves, with a red tie pulled loose, and shirt undone at the neck. His grey blazer was draped over El Professore’s captain’s chair. Behind him, the somber oil painting of the Millennium City Memorial was somehow drinking in even more of the light and giving it back. At the corner of the desk, a Christmas cactus seemed to be pulling in its blooms away from Chris.

“Chris,” the Principal began, “This is a conversation that I always hate to have. I know that you’re a good boy, but even good boys can get into trouble. And when they do, there are consequences.”

“I didn’t try to mind control Doctor Cambridge! She’s crazy if she thinks that I did!”

“That’s a harsh accusation, Chris. Be that as it may, it’s also a second offence. I’m sure that you’re not going to deny getting into a fight in the halls. That was only a week ago.”

“I. . . No. But Mario was beating Michael up right in front of me!”

“Unfortunately, that’s not the version I have from either young man, although I have reason to believe that Michael. . . In any event, we’ve already dealt with that matter in a much milder way than the apparent circumstances warrant.”

Chris felt his anger giving way to misery. He hadn’t even wanted to go to this school to start with, but now he had friends here. How would he explain this to them? Somehow, his arms wrapped themselves around his knees, and he looked down at the reinforced black fabric of his Tatammy uniform fatigues. Somehow in all of this, it hadn’t even occurred to him that he was talking to the principal in his costume.

“In the light of this latest episode, Chris, you are suspended pending further investigation. I’ve asked one the senior students to escort you off school grounds. Your teachers will be in touch with your Aunt about homework. I would imagine that the investigation will take about a week to complete. One way or another, you should know by the lunar New Year.”

Chris nodded.

“And, Chris?” Principal Guzman leaned back in his chair as he swiveled it until he could gesture up at the painting of the memorial. “Can you read what it says? There in the corner?”

Chris looked at it. “Et in Arcadia Ego. Where’s Arcadia, and why’s it so conceited?”

The office went silent as Principal Guzman stared at Chris, and stared for a long moment. Then he burst out laughing. “That’s an excellent question, actually. Two excellent questions. I wish I could give you the answers.”

Then, as quickly as he began to laugh, his face went stern. “It means, ‘Even in Arcadia, I am here.’ Nicholas Poussin put it in two of his pastoral paintings. You’re young, you’re in love—“

Chris grimaced. Why had he brought up Morning Glory’s Dad? Would he ever even see her again?

“But, in the midst of life, there is death,” the principal continued. “This canvas was specially commissioned for this school, to remind you kids of what we’re doing here. Dr. Destroyer is, well, not to waste words, he’s a sad little nut. If the UNTIL profile is correct, he’s a narcissist of the classic kind, with underlying rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. He’s grandiose and paranoid, and he lacks the insight to even see why he does what he does. And because he’s literally thousands of times smarter than normal geniuses, he’s the most dangerous man on Earth.”

The principal paused, and put his fingers together. “Do you understand, Chris? You’ve probably seen people with exactly the same basal brain biochemical deficit in the street downtown, raving and tweaking and collecting bottles for money for crystal meth. Only he’s smart, so instead he keeps trying to blow up the world, under the delusion that he wants to rule it. And he’s come very close to succeeding.”

“I’m sorry, sir?” Chris asked, politely.

“Oh, I could talk about Takofanes, or Teleios, the Slug or the Demonologist, but El Professore fought in the Battle of Detroit and lost friends there. Chris, there are many of these monsters. They’re different, and yet they’re alike. They’re mad, bad and cruel, and this world of ours puts vast power in their way. This school trains the next generation of heroes to stand in their way. You could be one of those heroes. I think that you’re going to be.”

Again, the principal paused. In the silence, he turned back towards Chris, and held out a finger, thick with muscle and, Chris noticed, a little bent, as though it had been broken once or twice. “And that’s why you’re going to solve your problems without dragging Eldritch and Rashindar into it again. Do you have any idea just how busy those men are? They’ve got planet-eaters to fight. This school is to train you to help them, not drag them into new fights.”

“I didn’t ask Rashindar to get involved,” Chris protested. “And as for that fight in Oroville, what else was I supposed to do? Let my cousin’s place get trashed?” Though he was thinking to himself that much worse could have happened.

“Rashindar’s involvement is an unfortunate given for the foreseeable future, I’ll admit. As for the fight in Oroville, you need to learn to find a way to win.”

Chris’s anger was flooding back. That was crazy! “Against Professor Paradigm? He’s an Omega-level threat!”

“Against his Paradigm Pirates, Chris. There’s a way, if you can just find it in yourself. Now, you really need to get going. I’m sure that Rebecca has plans.”

Chris got up and slouched out of the office. In the classroom beyond, Rebecca Hirsch was sitting at one of the desks, wearing a green down vest over a blue jean jacket over a red tartan shirt, with fingerless gloves drumming on the desktop and massive, mirror-polished boots directed at Chris. One hand supporting her jaw, one finger on her lip, just below her nose ring. She was slouching back in the desk like she was too cool to care.

“Chris,” she said. “Long time. Gonna change?”

Chris nodded, and flicked his quick-change ring to turn back into his street clothes. When he was done, Rebecca stood up, producing his winter jacket from on her lap, and threw it to him. “Lucky you didn’t have much in your locker. Easy to clean out.”

“You cleaned out my locker?” Chris asked, trying to sound nonchalant. But the words somehow had to climb a hump in the middle of the sentence before he could finish it.

Rebecca looked at him coolly as he spoke. “Get the jacket on and we’ll haul ass.” Chris hurried to slip the jacket on and zipped it up before pulling his gloves and hat out of the pockets. The moment he was in them, they were standing in a Philadelphia street that Chris recognised from jogging. They were two blocks from the Yurt.

“Not that I should be complaining, but isn’t the point of being able to teleport that you can get from here to there instantly? As opposed to halfway?”

“Little over halfway, Chris. Figured you’d want to talk.”

“About what? Everyone thinks I’m a liar, anyway!”

“No, no, they don’t.”

“Dr. Cambridge does. And the Principal does. I told him that I didn’t try to mind control her, and he flat-out told me that that was a lie.”

“Doubt it. What’d he say, exactly?”

“That it was a harsh accusation.”

“There you go. That’s not calling it a lie.”

“It might as well be!”

“That’s the most innocent thing I’ve heard all day. Chris, teachers stick together. When you accuse a teacher of lying to the Principal, and the worst he says is “that’s harsh,”, you’re not the only one in trouble.”

“Well, why am I suspended, then?”

“Little thing called proof, Chris.”

“Why don’t you just look at her laptop, then?”

“Two reasons: first, ‘cuz of privacy. Second, what do you think this is, kindergarten? There’s a spaceship parked down there,” Rebecca stomped one foot, “That’s using more computer power to follow soap operas right now than there is on the whole Earth. We’ve already looked.”

Suddenly, Chris felt frightened. “That programme was there this afternoon. I swear it!”

“And it still was when Rosa looked an hour ago. Rosa?”

A mellow female voice with an unplaceable accent spoke, “It’s good to finally be introduced to you, Chris. I get so lonely down here, doing nothing all day but collating information into reports that hardly anyone bothers to read. Hmm.”

“Rosa?” Chris asked. This was crazy. He was talking to a spaceship’s brain, like on Star Trek.

“Indeed. That’s quite a frightening little programme there. One that I would rather not be using as evidence of anything, if it can possibly be avoided. You might have guessed that the individual who wrote it is potentially significantly more 
dangerous than Paradigm. I should very much like it if we could quietly take him into custody, as opposed to publicly, with loud histrionics and people flouncing about in all directions.”

“So I can’t use it to prove that I’m innocent?”

“We know you’re innocent. You know you’re innocent. That’s ninety percent of the battle. The last ten percent, I’m sure, can be improvised. And then you’ll be free to do anything. Even visit me. And do please bring your young lady.”

Chris flushed. Why should he be embarrassed now? “I don’t know if I could do that.”

“Never mind. I will settle for some video. Or pictures, even. You can find the most amazing things on computers these days. Even things that you don’t expect. Such as Dr. Cambridge’s full Google profile. In an email on your phone right now, Chris. I hope that I’m not being too subtle.”

Chris pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked at it awkwardly. He still had a lot to learn about it.

Rebecca held out her hand. “Here. Let me.” Chris handed it over.

She tapped and swiped at it for a moment. “Ah. Ah. Thanks, Rosa.”

“Any time, Rebecca. Now, if you young folk will pardon me, I’m going to delete this instance so that I can honestly say that I have no memory of any such conversation. Say ‘hello’ to your brother for me, when you see him next.”

Rebecca paused for a moment, her slow pace slowing down further. She swore, loudly. “What does it take to keep this, this asshole off the street?”

Chris looked over at her. “Dr. Cambridge thinks she got the software from DOSPA’s experimental branch, but it was actually a mirror site. Her browser was hacked after she emailed one Keith Tuney.”

“Who?” Was he supposed to know that name?

“A renegade UNTIL agent who tried to get close to the graduating class last year. He ended up ambushing them up at the Bench in August with a Segway crammed with special equipment and countermeasures from various supervillains, at which point there were crazy time-travel shenanigans that ended up with Rashindar’s ward, Vijay Kumar, getting killed on a mission led by your uncle. While trying to save May’s life. Or something like that. I’d been hijacked by that point, so I don’t know the details.”

So, what are we going to do?”

“Eh. Billy has an in with Tuney. Between your suspension and him skipping class, you should be able to run your own investigation. You can go find out what Tuney has to say for himself. After that, I’d suggest that you borrow some equipment off my Moms and check out the Bench. And, meanwhile, stay out of Rashindar’s way. That guy’s got a serious vendetta going against the Wong family. As for me, I didn’t get all old school diesel for nothing. I’ve got a date, and I need to be getting to it.”

Somehow, having something that he could do lightened Chris’s spirit. “Thanks, Rebecca. You’ve been a real help. I hope Auntie Ma is half as square with this.”

Rebecca snorted. “The Dragon Lady? Yeah. Ain’t half the crap she got into at your age.”

“I thought that Auntie Ma was a Buddhist nun when she was my age.”

“She was a princess, then a nun. Between princess and nun, she was a hell-raiser. David, May and Jason are the three of her kids that take after her, if that tells you anything.”

Chris whistled. It did, actually. By this time they were standing in the alley behind the Yurt. Chris took the door latch in hand and opened it, then, thinking of something, turned back to Rebecca. “Good luck on your date. You know, with everything.”

“Eh,” Rebecca said. “I’m just trying not to rent a U-Haul in my head.”

“That’s a lesbian joke, right?” Chris thought he got it, even if he had a hard time imagining a seventeen-year-old moving in with someone.

“Yeah. Now go get ‘em yourself, tiger.”

Chris stepped inside the gate and walked up the paving stones through the back garden to the long verandah. Auntie Ma was on the back porch, watching as her husband hung the mistletoe back up on its hook. She brought her hands down as Chris approached, and levelled her gaze at him. “Two berries gone, one left. We had a call from Mr. Guzman a few minutes ago.” His uncle looked on, impassively.

Chris realised that he had forgotten everything he’d meant to say. Or, no, he had to admit that that wasn’t true at all. He certainly had not had much time to prepare talking points while hanging out with Rebecca, but he actually had a pretty clear idea how he might direct this conversation. Truth to tell, he’d thought of a script in El Professore’s office, and yet he hadn’t used it then, and, he realised, he wasn’t going to use a script now. Even if he could manipulate his aunt and uncle, he didn’t want to do it. His Dad would be mad at him if he knew, but the idea disgusted him now.

Silence, again, hung over the conversation. At last, his uncle spoke. “Well, at a minimum, I’m glad that I’m not getting any excuses to disappoint me further.”

His aunt began speaking right after her husband. “If you could go to your room and write out a proper copy of the Heart Sutra by dinner, it would much relieve my heart. You’ve got an hour.”

Chris nodded. It was much less punishment than he’d been expecting.

“And, Chris,” his uncle added, “Get some sleep tonight. You, Charlotte and I will be keeping funeral vigil for Aunt Elizabeth tomorrow night.”

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