Monday, October 15, 2012

Chapter 2, 30: Burn!

A handler works long and hard to earn an agent's trust. Because only when the trust is deep and real are you really ready to burn.

Chapter 2, 30: Burn!

Chris, tense and thrilled, changed into his Tatammy costume fatigues. It felt like a moment long ago in his childhood, gliding downhill on a bike home from school one day when it was closed early, imagining that he was escaping a horrible monster. The tightening across his chest that let him know that the change was complete was almost deflating. There was no sign of the Paradigm Pirates.

Feeling suddenly restless, eager to run and fight, he looked down the gravel road that led to Highway 97, tense but excited. He would be fighting in a moment, against Morning Glory and her friends. His palms and armpits, he noticed, were cold and sweaty. Even though he was looking forward to it, a lot, his hands had begun to shake. He slid the Blue Tranquility out of its scabbard, and, holding its hilt in one hand, tested the edge with the other. Holding it helped to calm his tremors.
A moment grew into a minute. Silence stretched, marked only by mechanical clicking as Springett fiddled with his oversized rifle. Chris brought his sword up and sighted down Lake Prospect along its blade. Unexpectedly, car headliights appeared, framing its razor sharp point.

“Here they come,” Billy whispered. It was an ancient black sedan car with wood sides, the kind of chassis that you might find rusting out on the side of a logging road in the bush, but weirdly new. Under the Okanagan moon, wet mist curled in its headlights, and the wind carried a mix of the green smells of hay and manure from the pastures across the road.
The Oldsmobile reached the turnoff from the Drive onto the beach house property, and turned onto it. It was still a block away, crossing land that had long since been sub-divided into the times that Chris remembered, but its headlights shone against the sky through the orchard, marking its progress.

“A good first rule of surprise attacks is, ‘don’t drive up to the front door with your headlights on,” Billy pointed out. “Just saying.”

“It has to be the Paradigm Pirates. It has to.” Chris hissed, although he was beginning to wonder. The excitement in his stomach was turning heavy, like McDonald’s food, an hour after you’ve eaten.

The Oldsmobile drove past the last of the trees framing the drive, and entered the circular driveway in front of the Beach House. Rather than follow around to the carport, it stopped. With an audible clack, the driver’s side door opened, and a tall man stood up and out.

It was Tyrell. “Hey, guys!” He waved. “I thought you weren’t supposed to be here for another couple weeks?”
“More time travellers?” Springett asked.

“Yeah,” Billy said.

“I’ll go –go inside.” His voice caught as he spoke, like someone who was trying not to show his emotions.
As the door clicked closed behind them, Chris hissed, “What have you told him?”

Billy looked over at Chris, his face weirdly grown up. “He has a crush on his cousin, who looks like this one time traveller he knows. She’s hanging with a guy who looks like another. I’m letting him think what he thinks is the worst. It’s kinder that way.”

Tyrell came walking down the drive, dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform, followed by Rose, Babs and Savannah. As they watched, Savannah separated from a single form to three, all dressed alike in variations of a long skirt, fur jacket and those weird old 1930s hats. Tyrell stopped and pivoted, showing off his costume. “Jeez, you would not believe how racist these old people are!” He announced. “And they tip quarters. So. What’s up?”

“We landed in the wrong time, and now we’re supposed to be waiting for a time machine, that…”

“Yeah, yeah. Got that covered,” Tyrell announced. He pointed his car keys back at the Oldsmobile and waved. It turned into a more familiar 1955 Cadillac Fairlane. The colours of the paintjob were invisible in the darkness, but Chris knew that it was pink. He was also feeling a staggering emptiness inside. How could these not be the Paradigm Pirates. Why did it matter so much to him? And where was Morning Glory right now? Or, right now in 2012, if that made any sense. He felt like going into the house and finding Springett. They probably had stuff to talk about that no-one else here tonight would understand.

Except that the way he felt right now, he’d probably screw Billly’s cover story up. Springett was smart. One wrong word, and he’d realise that his cousin wasn’t going to marry the city slicker from Philadelphia, because Elizabeth Wong would be dead in two weeks. And how would he feel about his guests from the future then? More importantly, what would he do to screw up the future?

“But I’ll bet you can’t leave ‘till past 10 tonight,” Bruce McNeely said.

“Got it in one. We’re on a stakeout.” The two groups of students drew close enough to each other that they didn’t have to worry about talking loud enough for Springett or anyone else to hear from inside the house.

“How’s that?” Bruce continued.

“So Rose did some poking around. Turned out that the Elder Worm app-spell was originally hosted in, get this, a tablet networked to the City of Osoyoos server. She figured out when it was uploaded, and that it was done by this city councillor…”

“I think I know the guy,” Chris said, a memory stirring some interest in his sudden, dismal unhappiness.

--“She ran some esoteric pattern recognition software and backtracked him and the memory stick with the app to a safety deposit box in a local bank—“

“And that’s where it got weird, because this was the old safety deposit box room, which was bought out by the Sinclair family in 1912. Hardly anyone ever uses it, so we borrowed a time machine, whipped back to when the bank opened in 1904, hid an esoteric gadget on site, and then picked it up again in 2012. Bang! The memory stick was put into the safety deposit box was put in the box—“

“Tonight,” Billy finished. “Sounds pretty careless,” he added.

Rose shrugged. “Not really. Elder Worm magic is pretty strong stuff. Hiding it in the past until you need it is a good trick. But then you need to get it where’s it needed, and that’s an old spy problem. How do you get the goods to an agent when you’re being watched? Well, you could do some crazy Tom-Cruise-hanging-upside-down thing to beat the surveillance, but it’s a lot easier to just use an agent you don’t care about. He drops, or hands over, or whatever, right out in the open, and you don’t care, because you don’t need him. It’s called burning an agent. He picks up, he hands over, he gets caught, so sad.”

“So is whoever is behind the programme. Burned this city councillor. Is he going to burn a time-travelling agent?”

Rose shrugged again. “We don’t know. Burn or not, I want to get him. I’m hoping he’ll turn out to be carrying a vial of Apocalypse Plague, and our two little little time travel mysteries will turn into one mystery.”

“So we tag along?” Billy asked.

“Don’t know,” Tyrell answered. “How do you like the 30s?”

“No Internet. We’ll come with you, if that’s okay.”

And that’s how they ended up driving into downtown Oroville, such as it was, in a convoy.

“Careful,” Springett had told them. “There’s a curfew. The sheriff might make trouble. Or even on it.”

“What,” Tyrell had asked. “Just pull someone over on the highway and tell ‘em they’re not wanted in these parts?”

Springett nodded. “Well, the White kids are too neat to be Okies, so that’s okay. And you should be okay, too, in that uniform. As long as you’re respectful.”

Chris watched a shadow pass across Tyrell’s face, but he just tightened his mouth and said nothing.

“But if someone notices Chris or Charlotte’s features? Yup. That’d be a problem. Chinese crossing the border is practically the only thing the G-men and the sheriff care about now that the bootleggers are out of the picture.”

And that was how Chris and Charlotte found themselves alone in a supposedly unoccupied crummy, with the rest of the kids spread between the Cadillac, the crummy cab, and Springett’s car.

“I’m feeling more Chinese by the day,” Charlotte announced, as soon as they got under way. “And this isn’t hurting.”
“No,” Chris muttered.

“Imagine how it must have been for Grandpa. Owning half the valley and having to pretend that he’s just a cook who no speakie English.”


“I’m going to kick your ass if you don’t tell me what’s bugging you, Chris.”

“I don’t understand. I was so sure that the Paradigm Pirates were in town.”

“Duh. You wanted to see Morning Glory..”

“Trust a girl to think that.”

“Trust a sister to know what’s going on in that thick noggin of yours. You’re in love, Chris.”

“What does a fourteen year-old girl know about love?”

“Well, I’ve read—

Chris was saved by the crummy coming to a stop. A moment later, Springett opened the door. They exited onto a gravel parking lot. Billy gestured them round. “Listen up, folks. Springett has found us a parking spot at the cannery. The cars’ll be okay. No-one’ll notice them until the janitors leave at midnight. Everyone else will think we’re plumbers or something. We sneak into town. Should be easy with Eve casting cover for us. We climb up on rooftops, stake out the bank, watch for activity. Hopefully, we’ll be done by 10, bring in the Fairlane by remote control, and be home in the future by 10:30. Springett? Sure you don’t want to come with us.”

“I can’t see nothing but trouble if I do that, Billy. Besides, I just want to be alone right now. Do some guitar practice.”

And that was how Chris and Charlotte found themselves plastered to the flat roof of an insurance office opposite the bank.

 The rest of the team was spread around the intersection on various roofs. Somewhere a block or two away, a dog caught something in the wind and howled, and the tip of Fang’s tail could be seen, snapping dismissively, from the alleyway beside the bank where the big cat lurked.

The minutes wore on. “The one thing I don’t understand is that I could have sworn I saw the lawn at the beach house acting weird, like Morning Glory was affecting it.”

“Maybe you were imagining it.”

“And maybe they decided not to attack after all when they saw how much firepower we had.”

“When they could have—“

“Springett!” Chris said. With a supple motion, he dropped off the edge of the office and hit the ground running, headed in the direction of the highway. He heard Charlotte pounding behind him. “Chris! This is no way…”

And then he heard another voice, above him. “What’s up, Chris?”

“Hey, Tyrell. I’m afraid that the Paradigm Pirates are going to…”

A rip of machine gun fire filled the air from the direction of the cannery. “Like that!”

Chris felt his feet lift below him as Tyrell’s telekinetic field enfolded him. In a moment, he was standing on a disc of empty air, the wind strangely curling around Tyrell, Babs, Chris and Charlotte as they flew towards the sound of the gunfire. Tyrell spoke into his wrist communicator. “Billy doesn’t want to give up the stakeout. He says that if we four can’t handle it, we should get more reinforcements. He also says that I should let Charlotte down, and-“

“Yeah. Forget that noise,” his sister snorted.

In a moment, they were floating above the cannery wharf where it jutted out into Osoyoos Lake. Chris looked down. Springett was kneeling, handcuffed, in front of the Black Ninja, Decurion and Morning Glory. Behind them, in a silent arc, stood five men in uniforms that looked just like the ones that the police wore in those old silent movie comedies, complete with blue tropical helmets, nightsticks and whistles. There was even one of those complicated old open police cars for them to ride. It almost distracted Chris from the fifth man, who was wearing a one man outfit. Decurion said something to Springett, but everything other than the words, ‘the veil,’ were carried away by the wind off the lake. The man in the one-man band played ominous music on his accordion, then bashed his ankle cymbals. If that’s supposed to be wacky, Chris thought, it ain’t working. Chris jumped off the telekinetic disc, landing lightly on the wharf, not six feet from Decurion.

“Surrender, in King George’s name,” he shouted. It felt dumb coming out, but it was 1934, and he was part-Canadian, after all.

“Hey, it’s the Kung Fu Boy,” Decurion sneered. “And he’s got a sword, now, too!” He turned towards Chris, advancing, square-Roman style shield forward and gladius advanced in guard. Beside Chris, his sister laid into the Keystone cops, the flat of the Peal Haromony giving of perlescent light as it knocked one, two, three of them into the lake. An explosion rocked the air, which was filled with green tendrils and silvery constructs as Morning Glory and Tyrell duelled. Babs had fired a crossbow bolt right into the Black Ninja’s arcing grenade before swinging on a line off a derrick on the loading dock into the hulking figure’s head, smacking him solidly into the lake.

Strength doesn’t beat momentum, Chris thought, as he finished analysing Decurion’s technique. There was something else that strength didn’ t beat, Chris thought, technique. The Blue Tranquility beat the pseudo-Roman’s sword through binds in all four lines about the centre of the duel. This was the difference between fencing and real fighting, he thought to himself. It’s in three dimensions, the sharp bits are sharp, and you can die if you get it wrong. And despite the fact that he was wearing armour and carrying a shield, Decurion was getting it wrong.

Chris took it slow for a moment, augmenting his strength just enough to match Decurion’s clumsy parries. Oh, he thought, of course Decurion didn’t think they were clumsy. He must think that they were super-soldier awesomeness, but the villain’s sword fighting was a lot like Bruce McNeely’s kung fu –merely technically proficient, while lacking the true master of art that came frommeditating on the Dharma.

Beside him, Black Ninja emerged from the lake. Without even thinking about it, Chris moved to his side in coordination with his sister. Without even missing a parry and reprise that notched the edge of Decurion’s shield, Chris caught the hyperstrong evil teen’s right arm while his sister caught his left. They wrenched both arms up with their leverage as Babs settled on her swingline from above to catch both wrists in a restraint from her utility belt.

That was one enemy wrapped up, Chris thought, as he watched his sister engage the one-man band out of the corner of his eye. The gadget had turned into a silvery spider exoskeleton, and she was chopping away at the legs that kept him connected to the wharf. Now it was his turn to deal with the other. Again, he took the gladius in pin, and this time, Chris used a disarm in disengage. The short Roman sword went flying through the air. It was a stupid design, no match for the Blue Tranquility Sword, even absent its powerful ancestral magic.

Chris flicked Decurion’s helmet off with his sword, looking deep into the brown eyes behind the mask that lay under the helmet. “You can surrender,” Chris said, “Or we can continue unarmed. It won’t go any better for you.”

Decurion sneered. His teeth were broad and white, Chris noticed. “Yeah. About that. Turns out this super-soldier thing has a few more tricks to go.” The world turned white, and Chris felt himself flying through the air. With a thudding shock, he felt his tailbone slamming into the ground for the second time in a day although this time with his qi power cushioning the blow. He ended up sprawled on muddy ground plus a very few inches of very cold lake water, the Blue Tranquility glowing in the night.

As was Decurion, who was now throwing energy blasts around the wharf, trying to pin down Babs and blow through Tyrell’s shields at the same time.

Someone spluttered off to Chris’s left. A very familiar spluttering, so he looked off to his left to see his sister coming up out of the lake in the light of the Pearl Tranquility, which almost washed out the navigational lights that a lakeboat tooling south had just turned on.

Chris felt relief. She was okay. And a little disappointment. He was very upset. How had he let Decurion make a fool of him again in front of Morning Glory. Well, without energy blasts, Chris knew that he could take Decurion, and there was no way that the villainous teen could keep throwing energy around like that.

But first things first, because something chose that moment to burst from the water right next to his sister. Grabbing the Blue Tranquility, Chris began wading out to her. In the conflicting wash of blue and white light, he could see it more clearly. It was a serpentine sea monster. Only it was wearing a one man’s band outfit. Chris thrashed forward, now well over his head. How could he sword fight while he was swimming, he wondered, as he desperately stroked towards his sister? Charlotte needed him!

Then he heard a boat, and heard a voice speaking Cantonese words that he only recognised because they were so familiar from his grandfather’s saying them. “All aboard!” Chris jumped in the water and grabbed the gunwales of a lake boat, a good four feet clear of the surface of the lake, then vaulted aboard, seeing a man at the engine in the back, and another, holding a submachine gun, in the front. The man with the submachine gun was shooting the sea monster, and Chris was looking straight into a shockingly familiar face: Master Lee, at 15. “Pirates!” Chris’s old kung fu teacher said, in a heavily American-accented Cantonese.

The man at the bow of the boat turned round. His face was equally young, and equally unmistakeable. Chris’s father said, “There are no pirates on this lake tonight but us.” Then he turned back to face downwards into the lake and said, “Hello, Yili.” And then he fired the submachine gun’s full magazine downwards into the water, where Chris’s sister was still floating, out of sight behind the bow of the boat.

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