Chapter 2, 46: Masked Ball
Rose’s voice came from the backseat of the Fleetwood. “So let me get this straight. The Apocalypse Plague has been sitting in this weird little reservoir your family owns for, like, a hundred ice ages. In my timeline, it was released in the fall of 2011 when the land was sold to the long-time leaseholder after the owner, your Aunt Elizabeth, died. The leaseholder bulldozed a ditch to the lake to drain it before the freeze. But not because he’s a farmer looking to grow eating snails –like, ,eew—but because he’s evil. Double eew. In our timeline Aunt Elizabeth didn’t own it because she wasn’t alive, and he had to wait a few months, which meant waiting until the melt this week. But, anyway, he would have waited because he’s, like, replaying the game from the last save point. Because he’s a snail-eating immortal evil dude who is also a rage-quitter. Triple eew.”
“It’s pronounced with more ‘u’ in our timeline. Like, ‘uww.’” Charlotte explained to Rose.
“In our dark future, only ‘ees’ make a noise. Also, all restaurants are Taco Bell.”
“What?” Rose asked.
“Ha. Usually you and stupidhead up there are the ones with the weird reference jokes. It’s a 90’s movie. We watched it last week at the Washingtons because Aunt Miriam was over and she has a crush on Wesley Snipes. She knows all the lines.”
“Isn’t Mrs. Crudup gay?”
“She says just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you can’t like Wesley Snipes. And she also likes Sandra Bullock.”
“Charlotte?” Chris asked, for, like the third time.
“You’re ignoring my question,” Rose said.
“I’m ignoring what?” Charlotte replied. “You didn’t even ask a question.”
“I don’t need to. We know how to fix my timeline now. Just divert the stream that keeps the slough wet.”
“Rose?” Chris asked.
“Shh, Stupidhead. We’re ignoring you.”
“Chris?” Kumi said, her voice gentle and quiet. “Leave your sister alone. She’ll talk to you when she’s ready.”
“Hey, stick a root in it, Mooning Glory.” His sister shot back.
Kumi turned around in the wide front seat of the Cadillac so that she could look, Chris presumed, at his sister. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what I mean. Could that skirt be any shorter?”
“Yes. Yes it could. And then I’d look like I was dressing like an Eighth Grader.”
“Charlotte,” Chris began, but Rose interrupted him. “Okay, everybody, settle down and don’t distract Chris while he’s trying to drive through the Sixth Dimension.”
Kumi turned around and threw herself in her seat with a “hmmph.” As soon as the car’s slight rocking subsided, Chris could feel as much as hear his sister imitate Kumi.
“My question, Charlotte.” Said Rose.
“I, I guess. You’d probably have to get a time machine and go back to, like, 1955 or whenever and fight the Big Bad, but. . . . Oh, Rose, I don’t want you to do it. You and Dora are my best friends in 2012. My best friends ever.”
“I love you, too, Charlotte. But there’s a whole dimension depending on me. And the fight should be no problem. We have to beat up the Big Bad and take his time machine, anyway.”
“But, there’s, like, one version of your future that you come from, and then there’d be another that’s completely different that replaces it, and all the people in your future will be gone. I don’t understand why that’s an improvement.”
“Trust me. Living in my dimension is worse than not existing.”
“I don’t trust you. That sounds crazy.”
“It’s what the people who sent me back decided.”
“And what about those Morlocks you mentioned, the ones that don’t agree?”
“What about them?”
“Will they exist in your dimension’s future if you stop the Apocalypse Plague?”
“I ….don’t know. I guess not.” Rose sounded troubled.
“I know you’ll do the right thing, Rose.”
“Um, Charlotte?” Chris asked.
His sister didn’t reply. Fine. He was never going to get a chance to apologise at this rate. Or even figure our what his sister was so mad at. It wasn’t like she was in any danger. He’d been sure that Kumi was watching and ready to intervene when he stabbed Charlotte back there by the berm. Pretty sure.
Actually, he thought, he was pretty bumbed out by it. Okay, Chris thought, I can admit this to myself. I really want to hear my sister say that I made the right call. And when he put it like that, he realise that there was a lot of that going around. Right action comes from right perception. And as the Cadillac passed through the gate into the at-least-you-could-see-it-through-the-windshield weirdness of Hod, Chris hoped mightily that his perceptions were right. It was a tough call when you were trying to drive a 1955 Cadillac through empty space while a guy on a flying dragon was overtaking you on the left. Oh, well. At least the helm-guy on the flying ship ahead of them that was going so slow was a slouched old man with a big old hat. No matter the dimension, some things were the same.
“Hey. Isn’t that Cousin David?” Charlotte asked.
Chris didn’t answer. It did look like David Wong, but his sister would probably be mean to him if he answered. He wondered why that mattered so much. She was in Grade Eight! Kumi reached over and put her hand on his shoulder. Chris felt a little better.
This time, Chris was ready for Loezen, and so was Battlecomp. Weird dance music flooded the cabin, and the computer’s voice announced, “Ladies and Gentleman, the mambo stylings of Perez Prado.”
“Uhm, Battlecomp,” Kumi asked, “Why do you have a British accent now?”
“I’ve thought about it. I like the Battlecompvedere persona.”
“Persona. It’s an AI thing. Makes you relatable for humans. I was thinking about Kitt, but now I’m going with Mr. Belvedere.”
“Do I, like, get something for suggesting it?”
“I won’t bring up your hemline, if that’s what you mean, Ms. Konoye.”
“Mr. Battlecompvedere!” Kumi answered, her voice rising into a full-on whine at the end, before she cracked and started laughing, and her head followed her hand to rest in the crick of Chris’s shoulder. With Kumi’s face buried in his chest and her hair dangling down into his lap, Chris flushed as the mambo song finished and “Mr. Sandman” started.
“Hey. Eyes on the road. This is a bad place,” Charlotte said from the back.
Chris’s eyes jerked back to the road, just in time to avoid something that looked like a cactus in a Coyote and the Roadrunners cartoon would look if it were a pallid white and had too many wrinkles. Under his breath, he was surprised to find himself saying the Ave Maria.
“Please do focus on the road, Chris. Ms. Konoye, could you please sit up?” Great. They had a British male nanny all of a sudden.
The fact that the Cadillac could fly in Hod might not be any weirder than its ability to stay out of trouble under the dying sun of Loezen. Chris’s neck was crawling so hard that he was starting to shiver before they finally came to the gate to Lythrum, and he could almost feel the disappointment of something incredibly powerful and dangerous when the taillights of Mrs. Crudup’s time-and-dimension travelling car vanished into the portal to Lythrum.
On the other side, the dark-yet-lustrous light of Lythrum’s sky had advanced, so that somehow Chris could tell that it was evening on Valentine’s Day. Or, technically, the Saturday night before Valentine’s Day, because the dance couldn’t be held on a school night. Not that it was Saturday in Lythrum. Or Valentine’s Day. Time travel was confusing. Chris even forgot what year it was half the time.
Chris pulled into the gravel yard behind the garden hall that had, by now, filled up with cars from Earth. The Drama Club’s schoolbus was still there. Mario was leaning against it. He was smoking. Chris turned around and said, “Okay, everybody, this is the tricky part. If we spook the Big Bad, he’ll be gone before we know it. So go in, mingle, and follow my lead.”
“Does that mean that we’re all going to have to go out and measure our wangs against Mario’s?” Kumi asked. “Because I don’t, you know, actually have one.”
“Could have fooled me,” Charlotte said from the back.
“I’ll deal with you later, Tagalong,” Kumi shot back.
“No. Me and Mario will talk about guy stuff. You kids go in. Kumi?”
“If someone will show me in to the Hall, that’s all I need. I can teleport my frock out of the bus, and I only hung out with Mario in the first place because his parents paid me to be his friend.”
“Well, Professor Paradigm. Same diff.”
“Well, seems like someone’s a Tagalong around here, all right,” Charlotte said. “Don’t get into any trouble, Chris.” She chopped down on her brother’s name as though she was remembering, too late, that she was still giving Chris the silent treatment.
Chris parked on the driver’s side of the bus, to make sure that there was no trouble. Well, no trouble that Mario didn’t start.
He got out, closing the door behind him, and straightening the Blue Tranquility, which stood out a lot more now that his clothes had turned back into his leather jacket, jeans, T-shirt and boots ensemble. Damn, that duster had been cool, and perfect for wearing a sword around. Too bad the cowboy look wasn’t his thing. Maybe he could figure out where Mario hid his sword? And his shield, and his armour, come to think of it, if he really was Decurion.
Chris walked up to Mario, who flicked his cigarette down and ground it out with a smooth swivel of his shoes as Chris came up. He was wearing black, polished, pumps, Chris noticed. Pretty boy. “Where’s your dogs?” Chris asked.
“Yeah,” Mario said. “Didn’t think I’d need any more muscle tonight, so I left ‘em behind.”
“One thing. What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Professor turned stoolie for immunity. Finked out some asshole who outbid him for this weird old spell. Now the big kids are inside exorcising some wacked out sorcerer who was trying to turn himself into a worm or something. Don’t know the details. Anyway, what matters is, you’re stuck with us. Tatammy Class of ’14, Represent!”
“What?” Chris said, his eyes narrowing.
“We’re going to be classmates, Wong. At least till the day I show you what I’ve learned, because you and I just might be graduating early. If you know what I mean.” He smiled and rolled back his sleeve. A fresh bandage gleamed in the sideways light of Lythrum.
“I don’t think so,” Chris said, shaking his head.
“Don’t worry. We won’t be taking any of your special little classes. We’ll stick with the Professor.” Mario must have caught Chris’s disbelieving look. “Oh, yeah. If the Professor’s immune, his secret identity is safe. So if Tatammy tries to fire him, they’re in for a world of union pain. Congrats. You’ve got a new drama teacher.” Mario grinned.
“If you get in my way tonight…” Chris started.
“Yeah blah. Boy superhero wants to save the world. Well, hell, I like the Earth. It’s where I keep my stuff. Now. If some chump wants to save it, that’s his big deal.”
“There’s someone in that hall,” Chris said, “Who played you like a fool. You were never exposed to any supersoldier serum. You’re…”
“Yeah, I heard. Lost child of some wise and ancient race. Well, you know what? Fuck that noise, and fuck your Big Bad. Or, you know, you can do that for me. Point is, I got powers? I’m going to use them, not hide in some fucking City of Silence and contemplate whether I want to dream for the next million years lying on my left side—“ Mario twisted around to present the other side of his torso, “Or my right side.”
Chris glared at Mario. Then, with a long, deliberate action, Mario pushed his index finger through the part in his curly hair. Chris noticed that blond roots were showing at the base of the strands. He also noticed that his hand was on the Blue Tranquility, and that he was very, very angry.
“Come on, Chink,” Mario sneered. “Right now.”
The Blue Tranquility was half way out of Chris’s scabbard when a soft hand took his. “Come on, Chris. This jerk is just trying to start a fight,” Kumi said.
For a long moment, Chris’s anger raged in half his brain, while the other half was lit with a different kind of fire, just knowing that Kumi was taking his side. Then Kumi continued. “Remember what’s at stake here. Your cousins, your aunt, your uncle, your sister….”
Chris’s hand gripped on the hilt of the Blue Tranquility. For a moment he could see, plain as day, Father Asplin riding into battle, the ancient blade thrust out towards Takofanes’ legions of vampires and worse. The wielder of this blade was the person who used it for the right reasons. Slowly, Chris pushed the sword back into its scabbard, feeling and hearing the oricalchum edge lock into place, ringing, and, in his mind, the bell tones turned into a familiar song. Or not just in his mind. He looked to his side. Kumi was singing, very quietly. The Heart Sutra.
Chris put his arm around Kumi’s shoulder, and she around his, and he did not resist as she drew him away from Mario. He had more important things to do tonight.
And as he found time to see other things, Chris realised that Kumi had changed. She was wearing a white dress that came down below her knees with a wide teal necktie neck that blended into a patch on either side of her body and then spread out into patterns on the dress part. “You were really going to wear that into the ball tonight? I would have figured out your secret identity in a second!”
“We were originally coming in masks. Why do you think you would have figured it out so fast?” Kumi asked. “Because of the Sailor Scout reference?”
“No, because I would never have been able to look away.”
She smiled. “Thanks, Chris.”
He brought his arm down around her waist, and they walked into the ballroom together while the band sang about the nights they couldn't remember. Everyone was looking at them, and Chris didn’t care. Kumi was his girlfriend. That was one thing about this dance that wasn’t a secret. But someone else here right now has a secret, Chris thought, and before this night is through, we’ll know it, too.