Chris`s uncle turned slightly, as though to sit on his bed. “May I?”
“Sure,” Chris said, turning around himself to sit with his legs over the side of the bed. The crease of the mattress pushed into the folds of his knees.
The mattress sagged under his uncle’s weight. Henry Wong held Chris’s report in his hand, with the copied Chinese figures on one side and Chris’s translation on the other. “Figure it out?” The former Furious Fist asked, running his index finger over the characters of the original text.
“It’s the Analects, Book Twelve, Chapter 19. Once I got “Duke of Qiu,” I just put it in Google. Made the rest of the translation pretty easy.”
Uncle Henry smiled. “It isn’t mean it to be hard, Chris. I’m not trying to replace your school work, which, hopefully, you’ll be doing again tomorrow afternoon.. Not much of a way to celebrate Chinese New Year, I admit, but your aunt didn’t want you missing any more class time. And we get to see you bat against Old Sarum again.”
Chris looked down at his lap. He wanted to go back to school, but he couldn’t quite believe that it was actually going to happen. “What about the hearing?”
“PRIMUS has backed off. Rashindar will listen to the board. You just have to persuade a majority of the parents on the Advisory Committee that you’re not some soulless sociopath. It’s tough, I admit, especially since your aunt has to recuse herself. You have to get three out of four, but I think that’s doable.” His uncle paused for a moment, then shuffled Chris’s translation on top of the pile of papers in his hand. “Now let’s have a look at these characters.”
Chris frowned. He was unsatisfied with his brush strokes, to say the least. “I don’t understand why I have to use a brush when everyone on Youtube just uses else a calligraphy pen.”
“You kids today with your social media. When I was your age, we had a single Telex terminal in the basement of the monastery. You had to schedule a session a week ahead. . .” Uncle Henry trailed off as he stared intently at Chris, gauging his reaction. “Also, dinosaurs snow uphill both ways.”
“Can you show me how you swept that Tyrannosaurus’s leg some time?” Chris asked.
“Who told you about that?” Uncle Henry scowled.
“May. Why? Is it a secret or something?”
“It wasn’t a real dinosaur. Just somesupervillain. It’s not right to gloat about beating up some sad lunatic.”
His uncle sighed. “But, yes, I will show you that move. You never know when you’re going to run into a serious shapeshifting tyrannosaur. Or allosaur, even. And as for why you have to use a brush, it’s because you’re a Wudan master in the making. Do you know how many initiates there are into the inner secrets of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu?”
“Well, there’s you, and Henry, and May, and me and Charlotte, and, uhm, does Dad count?”
A sad frown passed across Uncle Henry’s face, just slow enough that Chris could see it. “He does now. There’s also Spirit Fist. Not a member of the family, unless May isn’t telling me something.”
Uncle Henry paused and smiled. “Or David, come to that. Anyway, the point is that you have rare and special abilities and you need to learn the skills to go with them.” He ran his index finger along the line of one of Chris’s strokes. “Would you let your sword’s point wobble like your brush did, here?”
Chris shook his head. “No. I think.”
Uncle Henry raised an eyebrow. “You’re not sure, Chris?”
Chris began uncertainly. “When I fought my Dad on the boat in Osoyoos Lake on Thursday –or 1934, or whenever it was, I went for a disarm. My blade was easily an inch off position. I can`t believe I could be so careless. He was trying to shoot Charlotte!”
Uncle Henry put his hand to his chin again as he sat, silent, for a long moment. “What did you think about the text you translated?”
“Kings have to be true kings if the kingdom is to flourish. I don`t understand the big deal. Confucius is always talking about government, but I`m not a king!”
Uncle Henry flashed a smile. He liked talking about this. “Master Kong taught government because kings were his students. It was his road to teaching ethics. Yes, kings have to be true kings, but he mentioned fathers and sons in the same breath for a reason. We all have to remember our duties to each other.”
Chris nodded. “I aimed killing strokes at Dad twice on Thursday. If I hadn’t pulled them, he’d be dead. That’s terrible, right? A son killing his father?”
Uncle Henry looked at his nephew for a long time. “Yes, Master Kong would say so. But you were trying to save your sister.”
“The second time, anyway. And Morning Glory saved me. Do you think she still likes me, after what I said to her?” Chris looked his uncle in the eye, intently, dreading the answer.
“Time will tell, Chris. But I think that a sincere apology will go a long way. Can you look her in the eye and tell her that you’re sorry?”
Now it was Chris’s turn to think. “But I’m right. She only goes along with Professor Paradigm because she’s confused him with her Dad.”
Uncle Henry put his hand on Chris’s shoulder. “Ah, Chris. So prematurely, cynically, wise. The question is, where is the sly charmer who would know not to blurt that out loud?”
Chris blushed. “I don’t want to treat Morning Glory like a mark!”
“Don’t want, or can’t?”
“Whenever I’m with her, I open my mouth, and words just come out. Dad always said that you couldn’t do that, that it would just get you killed.”
Now Uncle Henry took Chris’s other shoulder and turned his nephew to face him. Chris felt the edge of the bed shift under his butt. “Chris, your Dad is a supervillain. There’s not a person in this world that he can trust with his true feelings. You don’t have to go down that road. You have nothing to hide from Morning Glory. But it wouldn’t hurt to be gentle with her feelings. Being abandoned by a parent is hard on kids.”
Chris nodded. It hadn’t been easy for him, that was for sure. “So I shouldn’t try to warn Morning Glory about Professor Paradigm?”
Uncle Henry shrugged. “She strikes me as a smart girl. She probably knows. Help her figure out why she’s still with him. That’s my advice.”
“How do I do that?” Chris asked.
“I never said that it was very good advice. Maybe find her real Dad for her, instead, if it’s easier.”
Chris’s phone buzzed. He looked at it. “It’s Tyrell.”
His uncle stood up, with a pause in mid lift as he dealt with the unimaginable aches and pains that came with being so very, very old. “I’ll leave you to your social life, Chris.”
Chris held up his translation. “What should I do with this?”
“Take more care with the brush work on the next one.” He opened the door of the room and stepped halfway through it, leaning back for a moment to look down at his nephew, a broad smile on his face. “Good night, Chris.”
The moment the door closed, Chris tapped, “Answer.”
“Hey, Chris,” he heard Tyrell say.
“Hey,” Chris answered.
“Want to come out for a minute?”
“Sure. Who’s chaperoning?”
When Chris got to the end of the block, Tyrell’s Reliant convertible was nowhere to be seen. A plain, white minivan that pulled up under the streetlight instead. The back door slid open, and Tyrell looked at Chris over the seat. “Hey, dude. We’re going cruising with The Man.”
Chris got in. The driver looked back at him. He was wearing sunglasses, in spite of being past 8 at night. “Good evening, Mr. Wong. I’m Agent Smith,” he said.
“Agent Smith?” Chris snorted as the door closed behind him.
Agent Smith pulled the SUV out into the road. Once it was in its lane and rolling, he looked up at the rear view mirror as though to check whether Chris was quite all there. “A kid named Wong is bugging me about my name? The reason there are so many ‘Smiths’ around is that there are a lot of Smiths. You know that, right?”
“Smiths are common, Wongs are common. All Chinese names are common. That’s how it works. Have you seen The Matrix, Agent Smith?”
“Of course I’ve seen The Matrix,” Agent Smith answered. “And the other two. It’s part of anti-interrogation training at PRIMUS now. You learn to resist relentless boredom. And going on too long if you haven’t got a good story. Speaking of field training, next time, ask to see my badge before you get in my car, okay?”
“But Tyrell was right there!” Chris protested.
“Someone who looks like Tyrell,” the person in the front seat said, the voice changing as he or she dipped her face into her hands for a moment, and came up looking like Babs instead. She grinned at Chris.
Tyrell’s voice came from behind the seat. Chris cricked his neck back to see him leaning over the seat back. “Awesome, hunh? She’s practically a shapeshifter. Way better than her brother.”
Babs snorted. “Of course I’m better than the pipsqueak. I have a gift.”
“I’ll ask to see badges next time,” Chris mumbled. “So what have you two been up to?”
Tyrell glanced at Babs and blushed. “Nothing.”
“Okay then,” Chris said, rolling his eyes. “What are we up to?”
“We’re doing a good deed. Visiting the sick.” Tyrell answered.
“Visiting hours at 8:30 on a Sunday night?” Chris knew hospitals very well, and that didn’t sound likely.
“PRIMUS facility, PRIMUS rules,” Agent Smith growled. “And in this case, the rule is that the annoying teenagers whose Mom rags on the Special Agent in Charge about how her precious boy isn’t going to miss his first day back at school gets to see the patient and be home before curfew.”
Chris opened his mouth to correct the Agent, but shut it again without saying anything. For some reason, he felt a flush of pleasure at the thought that someone had mistaken Auntie Ma for his Mom.
Instead he went for defence. “Why is everyone on my case? “I didn’t ask to be expelled!”
“Yeah,” Agent Smith growled. “That’s what they all say. And next thing you know, they’re trying to take over the world.”
Tyrell hauled out his phone, and they played Minecraft for the rest of the trip, which wasn’t long. The PRIMUS hospital was only ten minutes from the McNeely Hill neighbourhood, hidden underneath an abandoned factory. They paused at the entrance, while Agent Smith handed out ID badges. Chris looked at his. It was a laminated piece of cardstock with a computer-drawn picture of himself in the corner that looked like something that you could make for yourself at Kinko’s. “This doesn’t look very professional,” he pointed out.
Agent Smith shrugged. “Yeah. Those are temporary passes. We kicked a request for proper passes upstairs, but it’s been pending all afternoon for some reason. Now come with me.” He led them down the corridors and past a series of security stations into a hospital room that looked more like the kind of laboratory that you see on TV than anything else.
A patient lay the bed, nestled in a huge machine that connected to a massive hose leading to a mask that covered his lower face. A doctor stood at the left hand side of the bed, holding a tablet, while a PRIMUS field trooper in urban camouflage sat on the right side, his blast rifle propped against his leg and a Kindle laid down on the bedside table.
“Good evening. I’m Doctor Braun, and this is Agent Sanchez.”
In spite of the mask, Chris recognised the patient. “That’s Twelve, isn’t it?” He asked.
The doctor looked at Chris. “You can actually tell him from the other clone warriors in his batch?”
Chris thought about it for a moment. The patient just looked like Twelve, he thought for a moment. But then he paused for a moment, trying not to think. He heard the strains of the Heart Sutra in his mind, and the singer sounded more like Morning Glory than ever. “Yes. I can see the difference. He and his brothers are one in body, but their souls are their own.”
Behind him, Agent Smith slid his foot across the floor. In his hyper-meditative state, Chris could see the scene as clearly as if he were actually watching it. He knew exactly where and how the Agent was standing, heard the intake of air that meant that the Agent was about to talk, and, somehow, even knew that it was not going to be very serious. He wondered if this were how his Uncle perceived the world all the time.
“Oh, great, Eastern mysticism to the rescue.” Agent Smith even snorted at the end.
“Exactly,” Chris answered. “What happened to him?”
“He was fine up until the day before yesterday, and then his body just shut down,” the doctor said.
“How? Some kind of programming?”
“No,” the doctor said. “A lot of clones that you’ll see, and regular super-agents, too, have had these automatic loyalty treatments. It’s like a switch in your brain that someone can set with the right equipment. Probably has something to do with mirroring neurons. The instincts in the brain that allow us to learn from example, anyway.”
“But?. . .” Babs prompted.
“These guys don’t have that switch. Some people don’t. It’s strange that Teleios is producing agents without it, since it seems to be genotypical, but it is genotypical in a non-genetic way.” The doctor paused for a moment. “I should explain.”
“Don’t bother,” Chris said. “It’s like their immunity to the Apocalypse Plague. A metagenetic trait that Teleios can’t manipulate in the lab.”
“Um, yeah,” said the doctor. “Anyway, Twelve can’t breathe because some nanotech devices came out of hiding and burnt the part of his brain that’s in charge of breathing.”
Babs sucked in a breath of air. “My prisoner is brain dead?”
“The doctor shook his head. “No. It’s healing back. Which is even weirder. Brains aren’t supposed to do that. It’ll probably get worse, too.”
“Why?” Tyrell asked.
“We did a DNA search to find out who he was cloned from. Archon.”
“The Sentinels member from the 70s? Flying brick with energy blasts?” Tyrell asked.
“Yes, him.” Doctor Braun answered. “We need him in Stronghold-class restraints before he starts showing those superpowers.”
“So let me guess,” Babs said. “I bet you checked to see if he were a mutant first thing, right?”
Doctor Braun nodded.
“And he wasn’t, but now he’s showing signs of having Archon’s powers. Which are also ‘genotypical’ but not in the DNA.”
The doctor nodded again.
“Uhm, Doctor Braun?” Agent Sanchez said, holding his phone. Braun took it.
“Oh, crap,” he said. “I’m sorry, I can’t answer any more questions. Agent Smith will see you home.”
“What?” Tyrell protested. “He’s our prisoner. We’re the ones investigating the Apocalypse Plague! If you have any useful information, Doctor, we need to hear it!”
“I’m sorry, this is orders from the Director’s office,” Doctor Braun said. “We’re in enough trouble for what we’ve already told you.”
“You’ll be in even more trouble if the Apocalypse Plague goes epidemic,” Tyrell said, almost shouting.
“It’s okay, Ty,” Babs said. “We’ve got what we need. Let’s go home.”
We do? Chris thought. Well, that was the problem with hanging out with two of the world’s greatest detectives. You never got to finish your own crossword.
They followed Agent Smith out of the room. “Our elders are keeping one helluva secret from us,” Babs said to to the air as they walked down the hall. “But that’s okay. The more you hide, the more obvious the shape of what’s hidden is. Chris, are you ready for your hearing?”
Chris thought about it. He hadn’t realised that it might be the kind of thing that you had to get ready for.
“I want you at the match htomorrow afternoon,” Babs continued. “Because we’re going to have a little conversation with a certain red-headed cave girl.”