Chapter 3, 26 Coming Out
Charlotte punched Bruce.
“What?” He asked.
“Monkey tree. Do you have a drone up?”
“Of course I do. I’m prepared for any contingency. I’m the goddamn Hobgoblin…’s grandson. One of them.”
Dora looked back at them from where she perched on the edge of the rise, where she could look out of the hollow and down the slope of the alpine meadow beyond. “What happened to ‘Batman is a fictional character, and any similarity between my grandfather and Batman is because of lazy writers stealing ideas?’”
“Damn lazy writers,” Bruce muttered. “I mean, there is a connection. Batman’s cool. I’d like to be cool some day.”
Dora looked at Bruce severely, as though if she were a librarian, she would tip her glasses and hold her finger up to her mouth.
“It could happen,” he said, defensively. “A new costume, maybe.”
In the stretching silence, they could hear Rose muttering in their wristcomm as she scouted below in invisible superspeed. “Still can’t see anything. Maybe over there?”
“And a new name.”
Still, Dora stared, impassive.
“A new schtick?”
At last she shook her head. “Face it, Bruce. You’re never going to be as cool as Batman.”
For some reason, Charlotte felt the need to defend Bruce. “No-one can be as cool as Batman. He’s made up. And nowadays, he’s made up by people who think he’s the coolest thing ever. How hard do you have to try when the whole universe is set up to make you cool?”
“Hey,” Charlotte answered. “I just fought a monster worm in a facemask, snorkel and flippers in front of two boys yesterday. Bruce and me can be the charter members of the Uncool League of America.”
“Ooh,” Rose said over their wristcoms. “I’m from a postapocalyptic future where Kardashians are extinct and the science of reality TV is lost. Can I be in Uncool League Dark?”
Bruce looked over at Charlotte and muttered, “Thanks.” He was blushing, again. Then, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and flicked the screen so that it desynced with his wristcomm. An image of the meadow from the air appeared in it. At first, there was nothing to see but low, green shrubs, brilliant lichen, wildflowers and rocks. Then the focus box appeared out of nowhere around a little square of bush in the middle of the screen. Looking closely, Charlotte saw a brief flicker of motion in the area captured within the white lines of the focus box. Rose’s avatar swept across the screen at the top. Clearly the speedster had seen nothing.
“Some kind of camouflage effect,” Bruce said. “Not quite invisible, but good enough, unless you’ve got Doppler Lidar scan. Let’s see if I can magnify that.” Bruce flicked the image wide with his fingers, but it refused to resolve as anything more than a blur of brown and green.
Dora leaned over the screen with avid interest. “If that’s a leprechaun, where’s the Trix?”
Abruptly, something dark and fast emerged from the blur and headed right at them. Before they could react, the image went black. “Damn. Shot down,” Bruce put his phone back in his pocket. “That was definitely not magically delicious.”
“Rose!” Dora said. Ginger squawked and jumped into the sky.
Well, her bird’s instincts were pretty good as long as they didn’t involve nutrition. Charlotte ran after Dora. This was not the time to catch a ride. They could easily be shot down together. Charlotte could hear Bruce, behind her. Gang’s all here, she thought, and it made her happy. Stupid leprechaun was going to find out that Trix were for kids. Unless it was that leprechaun from the movies, in which case they might be in trouble. Teens and cheap horror movie villains were not exactly your ideal matchup.
All the more reason, Charlotte thought, to get to Rose as quickly as they could.
But when they crested the slope, all they found was Rose standing in the middle of the meadow, looking down at the ravine that blocked off the mountain from the ridge that separated it from Long Lake. “I still don’t see anything,” she announced to no-one in particular as Dora flew over the slope above them. Ginger squawked again, and flew out in a soaring circle over the ravine.
Bruce came past Charlotte, hopping madly down the slope. “Woo hoo.”
Charlotte followed him. This was one of her favourite things to do at home on the Bench.
In a flat spot just above a scree slope, Bruce stopped abruptly, winding his arms frantically for balance. Charlotte deflected her course over to catch him, but she needn’t have bothered. Bruce collected himself and knelt down. First, he picked up the frazzled remains of his drone, and put it in one of the pouches that he had added to the belt of his Tatammy Uniform Fatigues. Then he lifted something else from the ground that had been there long enough to half-embed.
“Hah. I thought so!” In his hands was a half-charred burgundy soup can. Sunlight showed the white enamel of the inside of the empty can.
Charlotte walked over and took it in her hands. “Why am I not surprised that they have Cameron’s Chunky Soup around here? Someone carried this all the way up from Long Lake?”
Bruce shrugged. “Maybe the outdoor store in Geithner’s Strike isn’t very good. Point is that this is the perfect place. Probably started climbing at dawn so you could be off the peak by dark. You’ve come up out of the ravine, probably six hours up from lakeside. The meadow is nice, the view is nice, the ravine is a bit of a struggle, now you’re looking at the peak, getting ready for some real climbing. So you stop to have lunch, and while you’re doing that you find. . . .”
Ginger landed on a white, lichen specked rock slab an arm’s reach from Bruce and gave her “Humans are stupid!” squawk.
Bruce reached over and grabbed the slab, preparing to lift. Ginger gave two quick half-strokes and lifted into the air, her talons skittering as she slid for a few inches along the flat, stone. Charlotte noticed that what she had thought was lichen did not come off. It was the stone that was green specked.
It was also surprisingly thin, concave so that from the side it seemed thicker than it was. Kind of like the hollow in which they’d found the spaceship. Bruce grunted, and it came free of the hillside.
“That was easy,” Rose said, bending over the hole.
“Of course it was,” Bruce answered. Rose reached in, but Bruce slapped her hand away. “Careful! Those are contagious.”
Charlotte went over, knowing what she’d find. “What? Did you find another of the treasures?” Bruce and Rose didn’t answer. They didn’t need to. Underneath the stone lay the same set of items that she had found in the secret compartment at Makeout Log. Except that this one included a bracelet that looked almost like hers.
“Can I touch them?” Charlotte asked, holding up her arm so that the intaglio on her bracelet caught the light. “Looks like I’m immune.”
“I’m sure most people are,” Bruce said. “I already know I am.” He lifted the short sword out and swishing it through the air to test its balance. “We just don’t know whether Rose is.”
Dora landed next to them. “So you’ve seen one of these before?”
“And leprechaun dude is running around spiking the countryside with them?”
“I figured someone was doing it. Now we know.”
“That’s one totally crazy plan Leprechaun Dude’s got going on there,” Dora said, doubtfully.
“Wait. No. I read a science fiction novel about this once,” Rose said. “Some redneck settlers on another planet keep finding treasure chests buried in the woods, and the kids who touch them turn into this lost alien race. Complete with green skin and pointy ears. Turns out the space elves went extinct years ago when they were attacked by, uhm, possessed spacesuits or something, and before they went extinct they left the treasure chests so that future aliens wandering around their planet would be turned into them?”
“That,” Dora said, “Makes no sense. None. In fact, it makes negative sense. I have less sense for hearing it.”
Rose shrugged. “It’s a metaphor.”
“Ooh! That helps! And by the way, did you notice that that was my sarcasm voice?”
Rose shoved Dora in the shoulder. “I’m just glad to have such supportive friends. It was obviously a metaphor for coming out gay back in the ancient times. I just figured that once the author got past that part, she kind of lost interest in the whole plot thing.”
“You could write books like that?” Dora answered, skeptically.
“If the first bit was juicy enough. Lots of confused kids wandering around the suburbs in those days.”
“And probably Long Lake nowadays, too,” Charlotte said, meditatively. “Does that mean that the treasures only turn gay kids into space elves? I mean, Ken, Agent Kieran. . .” But Charlotte trailed off. That didn’t make sense. Agent Kieran was gay, and he didn’t get turned into a space elf. It was the other kid. Brian. Was he gay? That’d be kind of a shame. He was kind of cute.
“Metaphor, Char-Char. Metaphor.” Rose put her hand to her mouth in her thinking position. “We actually don’t know what makes people susceptible it could even be-“
“-Mr. Suzuki,” Bruce interrupted.
“What?” Rose’s eyes were wide, as though she were—Oh. Charlotte realised where Bruce was going. If it was genetic, well, Mr. Suzuki had that genetic survey data. But. . .
“What I don’t understand,” Bruce continued, “Is that all of the people around here are clones from Teleios’s labs, or the children of clones. Even the ones who think they aren’t. Why would you need to do a genetic survey of them?”
“But we know that Eve’s Dad is working with Teleios, or maybe even manipulating him,” Rose pointed out.
Dora put her hands to her hips, master villain-style. “Bwa-ha-ha. My secret plan to activate the genes that I have inserted into Teleios’s clone soldiers by having them sent to another planet where they are fooled into handling contaminated costume jewelry by a space leprechaun is even better than my last plan to take over the Earth using Death Commando Monkeys with Prehensile Armpit Hair!”
“There actually is a Marvel Comics hero with prehensile hair,” Rose pointed out.
“And she is an Inhuman, and even Dan Abnett can’t make the Inhumans happen,” Dora answered.
“It’s a metaphor.”
“For coming out?”
“For coming out.”
“Is there something you’re not telling us, Rose?”
Rose glared daggers at Dora.
Bruce held up his hand. “What she’s not telling you is that there are a lot of confused kids around, living a lie and longing to break free of it.”
“All kinds of lies,” Rose said.
“It’s called being a teenager,” Charlotte pointed out. “My auntie says that even the best adjusted teens have something inside just waiting to unspool.”
“What about Scout?” Dora asked. Sometimes, Dora was a pain in the neck.
“Even Scout,” Charlotte answered. Although she wasn’t sure that was actually true, she didn’t want to lose the argument, either.
Yeah, that Scout is totally screwed up,” Bruce said.
“Jealous?” Now it was Bruce’s turn to glare daggers at Dora.
“Really. He just gave Char-Char that bracelet. Even if he didn’t know they were contaminated at the time, it was a dumb thing to do.”
Charlotte looked down at her bracelet and shrugged. It was a very nice bracelet.
“So what do we do now?” Dora asked.
“Weren’t we getting ready for a fight?”
“Oh. Yeah. I am totally ready to take on the Paradigm Pirates,” Rose answered.
“Surrender, Black Ninja, or I’ll give you such a hickey!”
“Aw, hon. The Ninja’s not going to fight. He’s totally crushing on you.”
“Oh my God. Are you sure?” Rose said it with unusual animation, her hands fluttering as she spoke, and a bright smile breaking over her face.
“Hey, remember, my sister’s a Goth, too, with the dark clothes and the moping. I know the signs.”
Charlotte grinned. Dora was on the right track, Charlotte suspected. But about that fight, she reminded herself, and looked at the Pearl Harmony Sword. The black streak was gone.
“Nope?” Charlotte announced. “Danger’s gone. Hey, Great Detective? What do you suggest now?”
Before Bruce could speak, their wristcomms buzzed as one. Charlotte looked at hers. It was a message from Doctor Cambridge. Doctor Kahale had called from the hospital. Brian Ferguson had come out of his coma, and he wanted to talk to the police.