Chapter 2, 37: Behind the Curtains
Chris bent over slightly, fished in his wallet, and finally pulled his phone out. It was 4:45 already. He was starving, and they were already late for the party back at the Yurt. He didn’t want to be disrespectful, but the post-game handshakes were going on forever!
Reluctantly, he put his phone down and took Max Zerstroiten’s hand. Max had his face plate lifted, so that Chris could look him in the eyes. Which was good, because Chris wanted to give him the, “I think you like getting all up in people’s business way too much.” He wasn’t sure how you made that particular look, but, heck, maybe Zerstroiten’s telepath buddy would fill in the gaps.
Unlike Zerstroiten, the telepath wouldn’t meet Chris’s eyes. Good. She was also second-to-last in the line, before the plant manipulator, a guy named Jesus, although he pronounced it ‘Hey-sus.’ No-one else found that funny, but it was still pretty hilarious to Chris. That’s me, he thought. You can take the redneck out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the redneck. Even if he leaves in a time machine.
Jesus grinned widely, flashing bright teeth and bright eyes. “Good luck, dude.”
“Good luck with what?” Chris asked.
“Stuff. You hear things. Through Yggdrasil. About mistletoe and stuff. Like, she’s pissed at you, dude.”
Oh, God. Kids in Millennium City were talking about his love life. Chris just nodded. “Yeah, I knew that.”
“But she can’t stop talking about you. Might be a good sign.”
Now Chris wanted to stay and find out more about how plant controllers talked through the Astral Plane of plants, but he also wanted to get this done and get home for New Years, so, freed from the handshake line, wandered over to where Babs was standing with Corey, Billy Tatum, three Samanthas, Rose, and, drawn slightly apart, May, Jason, John, Emily and Amy.
Babs was distracted, her eyes on the bleachers, where Eve sat alone, except for Fang, who was out of his pocket dimension or wherever and lying sprawled on the bench with his head in Eve’s lap. Eve bent over the tiger, her bikini top blending into its furred head, her arms wrapped around its head from both sides to support her phone in one hand while texting with the other.
“Everyone ready?” Babs asked.
John looked across the half-pace gap between the two groups. “No. Do you have to do this now? We’d do a better job of getting your backs if we had some rest. And some food. This’ll be my first Chinese New Year, you know.”
“Yeah, and we’re ordering pizzas at the mansion tonight. Everyone’s got something they’d rather do, but Chris thinks we’re on a time limit.”
Chris nodded. It had taken him a while to figure out, but he knew exactly how the Apocalypse Plague had gotten out on Eve’s home timeline, and why and when it would get out on theirs. If they let it happen, it was their fault as much as it was Istvatha V’han’s. Well, mostly it was the other’s fault. The one who thought he was being so sneaky.
Finally, Tyrell sauntered over. “Figures,” he says. “The Black kid is always at the back of the line.”
“Except when. . .” Chris started.
“It’s more of a tendency,” Tyrell conceded. “We going to do this thing?”
“Yes,” Babs said, stalking towards the bleachers. Fang looked up as they approached, giving a titanic, sabre-showing yawn. Eve gave no sign of noticing until they were standing around the edge of the bleachers. Then, without looking up, she put her phone down, before finally giving the crowd a once over.
“Wow. My milkshake really does bring the boys to the yard. And Babs, no surprise. But you, Savannah?” Chris couldn’t help a sidelong glance at Savannah3. Was she blushing slightly? Chris wondered if Eve could possibly stop thinking about herself long enough to have figured it out.
“We’re not here to admire your fur bikini,” Babs began.
“Speak for yourself, girlfriend,” Eve interrupted, giving a shake that somehow you knew was directed at a target. It was Tyrell’s turn to flush.
“How old are you, Jungle Bunny?” Babs shot back.
“That’s racist---“ Eve began.
“Not to you,” Babs answered. “You’re White. Or something.”
“Something?” Eve smirked. “All that preppy edjamacation, and they couldn’t be bothered to teach you words like ‘hot,’ or ‘fabulous? Your Dad needs to get his money back.”
It was Chris’s turn to interrupt. “One: you were born 90,000 years ago. Two: you have the same weird metagene that makes Okanagan Indians and the superhero Archon immune to the Apocalypse Plague. Three: you were exposed to a reservoir of the Apocalypse Plague in your recent past.” Four, although Chris didn’t say it. You crossed the wrong person.
“Five: Profit!” Eve finished. She didn’t need to spell out her South Park reference. Chris knew that he wasn’t sounding like he made sense. Oh, well, too bad, mean girl, because I’m just starting, he thought. He and Babs had figured it out.
“You didn’t come up from the Pleistocene by time machine. You walked. You’re immortal, girl.”
“Or very long lived,” Babs corrected.
“What? How do you know that?”
“Pay attention, super-skank. This is what detectives do. They use logic. They pay attention to what’s going on, and they put the facts together, and they induct a theory, and they test it. Chris and Charlotte were born in the past. They came up on a time machine, but a special time machine, one that embedded them in 2012.”
“And how do you know that I didn’t, Pippi Nerdstocking? I don’t know how I got to 2012, and you don’t know either any more than you know how to accessorise!”
Babs paused for a moment. Counting to ten? “Because if someone took the trouble to bring you up in a time machine and wipe your memories, how did they let you expose yourself to the Apocalypse Plague?”
“Duh. I caught it back in the Pleistocene! Try to keep up, Sensible Shoes.”
“Unh-unh,” Chris said. “There were no cavemen in America back then.”
“Cavepeople,” a Savannah whispered behind Chris.
Eve turned her eyes to Chris. “And now you’re going to tell me that I have to grab the feather from your hand before you’ll bother to explain what you mean.”
“The Apocalypse Plague,” Chris said, trying to ignore the racist part. “It can live in the environment indefinitely, and we know that it’s been out there for a long time. Heck, maybe since your tribe’s days, back before the Würm Ice Age. There happens to be one completely isolated ecosystem that gives people who wander near it the Plague: the slough at Chinese Bar. That’s the reservoir. And your tribe wasn’t living near it, because your tribe didn’t live in the Okanagan bloody valley!”
“But how could I be 90,000 years old?” Eve asked, her attitude collapsing. Now she just looked bewildered. Fang growled, low in his throat, and she put her hand down onto the back of his massive head, stroking absent-mindedly.
“Metagenes,” Babs answered. “Same as the supervillain who has been trying to manipulate us.”
“Chris and I, we tried and tried to figure out why Istvatha V’han’s forces were so interested in Plague samples from the Institute when there’s an entire Earth overrun with it that they can just visit. We’ve got it the wrong way around. The V’hanians weren’t worried about what Dr. Konoye was doing with the Plague. The Botanical Research Station didn’t make the Plague. They found it. The V’hanians made it in the first place, and they released it on Earth, a very long time ago. Now they want to know what happened to it.” Babs made a little hand flourish to Chris to show that he should take up the story.
“Because the Plague isn’t aimed at regular humans. That’s why it’s got all those latency and commensual adaptations. It’s meant to spread through the environment ‘till it finds its real target.” Chris paused for a second. “The Elder Worm. What better way to get rid of a bunch of ancient magic mutant weirdos than by wiping them out with a plague back all the way back before history even started?”
Now it was Babs’ turn again. “Only someone hijacked the Plague, way back when. And he or she has been holding onto it ever since, while the Elder Worm mutation spread through the regular human gene pool, until everyone but a few metagenetically immune individuals were vulnerable. Until now. The perfect moment to use it to destroy the human race and the Elder Worm.”
Rose finally spoke. “My world was a dry run. Almost perfect, but enough of my people survived to keep it going.” She paused. “And the Morlocks, down in the caves. So whoever’s behind this has been spending the last month or so tweaking. When it’s done being tweaked, we’re all hosed. . . .”
Eve glanced from one of them to the other, her eyes suddenly wild. “I can’t be 90,000. I’m a teenager!”
“That’s what they want you to think,” Babs answered.
“Who?” Eve asked.
“The ever-so-cute whoever who won’t tell us what is going on, and kept feeding us clues instead. Your people.”
Babs cocked her head. “Okay, that I don’t know? Elves? Mandaarians? Martians? Frankly, I keep imagining those guys from the Gaiman series. The Eternals, you know? Ancient race of superhumans created by the Celestials a million years ago? Long-lived people who hide from everybody but senior superheroes?”
“Okay, now you’re just jumping to conclusions, Barbara,” Eve said.
“No, no I’m not. We’ve been manipulated. When we hit a dead end, some PRIMUS guy just pops up out of nowhere and takes us off for a briefing, and then it’s, like, ‘Oh, we didn’t mean to tell you that, could you just forget we said anything?’ Sh’yeah, right. I’m surprised he didn’t just drop some papers on the ground nor whatever, and then it’ll be, like, ‘Oh, I totally didn’t mean for you to see those. Please don’t memorise them or anything while I go away and get a paper-picking up thing.’ “
“No, wait,” Eve said, than stopped, focussing instead on her hands, as she widened the strokes of her hand down Fang’s enormous flank. There was something wrong, Chris thought. He could tell just by the way that her hands were moving. She was thinking, and she didn’t like what she was thinking. Samantha1 put her own hand on the silky fur that spread between the sabretooth’s back legs and began combing it, slowly, carefully. Fang’s answering purr was so deep and heavy that Chris could feel it through his feet, coming up through the ground, like the slight but sensible touch of an opponent stepping up behind him. The hair on Chris’s neck rose.
“Look, whatever happened before, it was the Sentinels who turned me over to you guys. They didn’t go wiping my memory or they would have found that reservoir already. Chinaman’s Slough, you said. It’s your enemy, your guy. That’s who wiped my memory. And you know what that means? That guy’s on to you.”
The cavegirl psychi/shaman paused, and her eyes narrowed like she was figuring something out. “Yeah. That’s why you’re all here. This isn’t some Bitch Dependency Syndrome intervention. You’re here because you expect Mr. Mysterioso to just pop out of the woodwork now and fight you. That’s why your leaders aren’t here. They’re up in the Ravenswood CIC right now, ready to step in or call the Champions or whatever.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” Babs sneered. “You’re probably a Sapphire fan. Her and Carly Rae.”
“Yeah. As much as I’d enjoy slanging Tegan and Sara right back atcha, Slick, you gotta admit I’m right.”
Rafaella’s voice snapped through the air. “Okay, you’re right. We’re up here, and we’re ready.”
“It’s very nice up here. You guys should see it,” Jamie Neilsen added, in the same crackly old-time radio voice sounding tones.
“We should do the Liberty Legion CIC like this,” Jameel added.
“Hey,” John Roy protested to the empty air. “That old place happens to be a classic look.”
“Classic?” Chris asked. “It looks like the lounge at a Howard Johnson’s!”
“It’s a stage,” Tyrell said. “First, it’s in style. Then it’s what you see at a crappy hotel. Then it’s the good old days, and then it’s classic.”
“The Sixties will never be classic,” Chris said. “It’s all hippies and tie dies and drugs. And movies where James Bond is bald.”
“Hey, we don’t knock the Seventies in front of you,” Tyrell pointed out. “And you know I got Roger Moore material.”
“Yes, you do knock the Seventies. Remember when you watched that episode with me and asked if the Fonz was forty?”
“Which he was. Close enough.”
“Guys, guys,” Babs began. “Knock it off. Yeah. That was our plan.”
“Your stupid plan,” Eve pointed out helpfully. “Trying to get Mr. Mastermind-of-a-plan-that’s-been-ongoing-since-the-dinosaurs to show up for some face punching because some sixteen-year-olds figured out one angle of it, probably exactly on schedule.”
“Yeah,” John said, sounding a little worried. “It’s like when I thought that I had your Dad’s plan figured out, and it turned out he was trying to get me all overconfident so I’d kill someone and, like, totally go over to the dark side, just like my clone Dad.”
“Yes, that’s a very sweet analogy, John, and a lot of Daddy issues for everyone to sort out,” Eve said. Her face had closed back into a little moue of perfect irritation. “Which you can do without bothering me, I hope? Now, I’d hate for you guys to be late for the bird’s nest soup and the noodle-judging contest on cable access, so I’ll let you go.”
There was a brief, stunned silence. Babs looked like she could kill Eve. Then Jason Wong sprang into the middle of the group. “Yeah, you think that, but you’ve never done a Lion Dance,” Jason pointed out. “It’s like the choo-choo, only better!”
John stepped up behind Jason and put his hands around his friend’s hips. John did a dance step while grinding his hips towards Jason. . “It’s traditional!” He announced.
Oh, well, if the Grade Nines could be that secure, Chris thought, and he grabbed John the way that he had grabbed Jason. “And vaguely homoerotic!”
Babs arched her eyebrows, but a grin slowly snuck over her face, as though she couldn’t fight it. “Vaguely?”
Amy did the eye thing one better, rolling hers. “If the three of you have quite finished disrespecting Honoulable Ancestors, we probably should get moving.”
John let go of Jason’s hips. “Damn skippy. I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry, my sweet mastermind-patootie,” Amy pointed out.
“Well, he’s not the only one tonight,” Chris interjected, with feeling, and he was glad to follow the crowd through the door in the wall that led to the auditorium/gym where they had come through from Philadelphia two hours earlier. The disappointingly calorie-free, highly rehydrating buffet was gone, and in its place there was Mr. Piccolo’s brazier, and also Mr. Piccolo, this time wearing a sorcerer-y cloak instead of a sweater vest.
Charlotte, Rose and Dora were all standing around Mr. Piccolo, watching the door anxiously as they came through. They looked a little disappointed, and Charlotte came over to meet Chris halfway across the gym. “Did you catch him?”
Chris shook his head. “No. Eve says that anyone smart enough to pull this off is smart enough not to show up in the middle of Ravenswood Academy.”
“You think that, too?” Charlotte asked.
Chris shook his head. “Nah. This guy’s plan’s been cooking for, like, an entire Ice Age. He’d show and do the witnesses in a second. If he thought that he could do them. That’s the issue.”
“He knew it was a trap?” Charlotte asked.
“Or figured that it had to be. Or didn’t care, for some reason,” Chris said, ticking off the options on his fingers. “We just don’t know enough.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” Rose said, speaking from beside Charlotte. “We’ve got my 23rd Century database. Everything but cultures of the Apocalypse Plague virus in the first patients. And now we don’t need those, because we know why it spread the way it did. We have what we need. I’m sure of it.”
“Okay, okay, big fizzle, everyone’s sad,” May Wong said, coming up behind them. “Now let’s everyone get the hell changed so we can go home!” The Tatammy Black and Whites were not exactly proper New Years clothes. Chris followed the crowd into the change room. He had a bright red shirt and white pants that his sister had picked out for him. Very patriotic.
And then it was time to hold hands and teleport back through to Philadelphia, the whole gang of them, with Mr. Piccolo somehow dumping the entire guest list on the front lawn of the Yurt. Red paper lanterns were strung on a strand above the walk, and the Fu Dao was painted on the door in a black wash.
Principal Guzman, who evidently counted as senior member of the family by virtue of his daughter being engaged to Henry, led them up onto the porch and, when they were all gathered around, flung open the door with a loud announcement of “Gung Hey Fat Choy!” Letting the delicious smells of cooking roll out into the cold Philadelphia night
Chris joined the greeting, feeling only slightly embarrassed. He was home, and, for this one night, it didn’t matter who was behind the curtain.