Zatanna (image source, Wikipedia)
Probably not actually a good look for cricket.
Book 4, 13: Playing Fair
By Friday afternoon, Rose had convinced herself that no awful people were going to come and stop her from going back to the library. In only a few hours, they would go to Eldritch’s portal, and, if the magic were working right, walk right through it to Babylon without even needing his help. It was on. Their parents (and Mr. Jackson, Rose’s guardian) had agreed to pay room and board at the mansion in Queen’s Hill for one night a week for the rest of the school year, plus a little extra set aside for emergencies. It was on. Which was good. Charlotte was getting just a little tired of reassuring her, even though it took her away from her own worries.
Which were pretty darn serious when you got down to it. That afternoon, after school, the junior cricket team was meeting for practice ahead of Sunday’s game with the Tiger Squad. And thanks to the deal done at the PTA, they would also be introducing the drama class to the game, and the league. There, Charlotte would have to explain how it was all her fault.
“It’s all your fault, sis,” Chris announced. Kumi stood, silently, beside him, her hand on his arm. Which was unusual for Kumi, who was usually talk-talk-talk, Char-Char this, Char-Char that. Charlotte hated it when Kumi called her ‘Char-Char.’ She never said anything, though, it would be rude.
So was what her brother had just said. Charlotte didn’t say anything, but it must have shown in her eyes, because her brother looked down at his arm, and then up at her. “I’m sorry, Char-Char. Just teasing. Madison went after you in public, and now her class gets to be in the cricket league. It’s not even like it’s a win for her. Can you imagine Madison playing sports?”
Charlotte continued to glare at her brother. But she felt better. She’d probably talk to him after class, in the mini-van on the way to the practice field. Right now she had last period, with Mr. Brown and Shop –Technology Studies.
Mr. Brown was sitting at his desk at the end of the class. As usual, he was wearing his jean jacket-jeans combo, over a khaki turtleneck with a rolled neck that stopped just below the neatly trimmed beard that represented about 80% of the hair on his head. Mr. Brown was the only member of his very large family that Charlotte knew to be bald, but somehow it made his familiar-looking features kinder and gentler than the already-gentle look of the other Browns. His mild hazel eyes surveyed the class through large, old-fashioned, round glasses.
Tucked away neatly under the desk, Charlotte knew, were most-unteacherlike sneakers.
Behind Mr. Brown, between his desk and the window that overlooked the concrete and metal of the underground shop floor below the classroom, stood a corkboard screen.
Mr. Brown waited, quietly, patiently, for the seven frosh to find their seats, chattering as they went; about the Library, about cricket, and also Justin Bieber. Who would have believed it? Yet, somehow, as the clock turned to the hour, a simple throat clearing brought them to silence. They had finished this week’s module (high tech cars) early, the previous day. Today, Mr. Brown would give them a preview of next week’s focus.
They knew what it was, of course. The seniors had told them what it would be. Still, Charlotte couldn’t help starting when Mr. Brown stood up, folded away the corkboard, and exposed a mannequin dressed in the familiar Tatammy fatigues. Not because of the boring fatigues, but because of the wide, brown, rhinestone-set belt that the figurine was wearing.
Mr. Brown looked at the mannequin, and back at the class. “So, what do you think?”
“Ten Demerits for House Dummy. Violating Dress Code.”
“Definitely a thought when we bring in a demerit system,” Mr. Brown conceded.
“I have a short list of members of House Dummy right here,” Brian whispered behind Charlotte. Charlotte had to stifle a laugh.
Mr. Brown stuck both hands in his pockets and hitched up his pants like an old-timey movie cowboy getting ready for a fight. “Mr. Ferguson.”
“Yes?” Brian asked.
“Calling other people ‘dummies’ is like running with scissors. You know why?”
“Because you’ll fall and hurt yourself?”
“No, because of some reason that I can’t think of right now, because the end of that line slipped my mind.”
“’Excuse me, sir,’ will also do. Everyone has ‘dummy’ moments. Making fun of other people for theirs just brings it back on you.”
“Yes, sir.” Brian didn’t sound that impressed. Charlotte couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Brown was right, even though he was being awfully mean coming down so hard on Brian.
“Now,” Mr. Brown continued, “Our mannequin is violating the dress code. Terrible. Can anyone tell me why you shouldn’t violate the dress code for Tatammy Fatigues?”
“Because they’re the rules? The stupid, stupid rules?” Dora asked.
“Of course not,” Mr. Brown answered. “Harmless rules like dress codes are made up to be broken. Better have a fight with teenage rebels over the dress code than drugs or worse. No: there is a dress code for the Fatigues because they work.”
Mr. Brown gestured at the mannequin, and a tongue of flame leaped out from his hand and played over the mannequin. Nothing happened. Except that the beautiful belt caught fire. Then he gestured with his other hand, and a blast of cold snow played over the belt. In moments, the fire was out, and the charred belt was smoking.
Mr. Brown held up his hands. He had chunky rings, big as water squirters, on both index fingers now, and another one over the first knuckle of his left ring finger. “Flamethrower ring, and fire extinguisher ring. You never wear just one, so they come in matching pairs.”
Then he put his left hand to the mannequin. An eye-hurting white blaze came from the point where they touched. The Fatigues seemed to shrink away from his ring finger. “As you can see, the Fatigues are moderately flame proof. Perfect for rescuing people from burning buildings, but not a protection against serious heat weapons. Tatammy fatigues have a number of advantages. They resist normal climate variation, they adapt to metamorphic bodies, and they deploy instantaneously over your body, replacing your existing wardrobe. All three functions come from the dedicated nanotech devices that impregnate the special fabrics of the Fatigues. Anyone want to guess what happens when the nanotech hits that belt?”
Bruce put up his hand. “Uhm, nothing?”
“No, worse. The nanotech in these fatigues are an ancient, deceptively simple design that can only survive in this special fabric. The devices reproduce themselves quickly until every bit of new fabric that is produced for them is fully loaded, and then stop. They don’t stop because it’s built into the machines. That’s the kind of mechanism that is just begging to go wrong and leave the world buried in a grey goo of malfunctioning nanotech. They stop because the can only flourish in this one environment, and because they interfere with each other on the pulson spectrum when they are too closely packed.”
Mr. Brown reached down and hooked his index finger under the belt. The bright flare came again, and Mr. Brown stepped back hurriedly as, this time, the entire suit caught fire with an explosive poof, blazing away merrily for a few seconds before a sprinkler mounted above the deck began to spray, just missing Mr. Brown. “The belt has compromised nanofunction in the waistband fibre.”
“What’s the belt made of? Is it a cellulose acetate mix? Because residual sulphur can. . .” Rose asked, waiting a few seconds after holding up her hand and waving, to be as polite about interrupting the teacher as Rose could be.
“Indeed,” Mr. Brown said. “The belt is not rayon. It’s an artificially treated leather. The chemistry is different, but the reaction is the same. Atmospheric moisture produces a mild, organic acid, compromising the pH balance of the fatigues.”
“So there are residual chrome mordants?” Rose asked.
“So if you want to accessorise your Fatigues with a belt, you need to be sure that there’s no potential acid residue on the belt?”
“That is an overly narrow conclusion to draw, Miss Eley. I’ll offer an alternative. Don’t accessorise. It could, literally, be the death of you. For the next week, we will be looking at the ins and outs of this nanotech application, and others, both related and independently developed, and the strengths and weakness of your Tatammy Universal Fatigues.”
Hunh, Charlotte thought. So, by the end of the week, they would have learned a very important lesson about not accessorising their Fatigues. She glanced down at her bracelet, at its gentled, golden luster and the mysterious, Drindrish characters that chased themselves around its circumference. And they would also know what kind of accessory would not set off their Fatigues. Just in case.
Charlotte looked at Mr. Brown, and thought about what he had said about the purpose of a dress code being to give people a chance to rebel. And as she did so, she could have sworn that, for a moment, he looked straight at her and winked.
The warning bell came five minutes before the end-of-school. That mean a principal’s announcement, which turned out to be about extracurriculars over the Columbus Day long weekend. It was kind of interesting, because Charlotte was getting to the point where she could tell the difference between Principal Guzman and his Professorebots.
Charlotte leaned over to Dora. “What’s it like having a Dad with dozens of lookalike robots?”
“Eh,” Dora said. “They’re not so smart. And you can tell them apart after a while, too. That’s 41 on the announcer. It’s a pushover. I’ve given up asking it for stuff. No challenge.”
“Are you sure that’s the robot?” Everyone said that Mr. Guzman was a bit of a pushover with his youngest daughter in general.
“Like how whenever Doctor Doom or Thanos gets beat, it turns out to be a bot? Could be. Don’t think it would work on my Mom as well as it works on the Avengers, though. Mom’s more like Squirrel Girl.”
Then the real bell rang, and it was time for everyone to rush out of the classroom and down to the school parking lot, where Tony McNeely was waiting at the wheels of one of the Mercedes V Mininvan the McNeelys liked so much, in case anyone forgot that they were rich, but also family people. Charlotte climbed in through the side door. Her Cousin Amy squeezed in behind her, followed by John Roy, Cousin Jason, and Rafaella. Other bodies shook the vehicle behind them, as the rest of Charlotte’s year got on, with Emily Neilsen, together making up the full Junior Team.
As soon as the door closed, Charlotte could sense the relaxation of the psionic fields that disguised Rafaella and, to a lesser extent, her girlfriend, Emily. God knew who might be watching. In the discharged atmosphere, Amy looked over at her brother and said, “No.”
Jason looked defiant. “All I’m saying is, if we’re going to Tibet tomorrow anyway, it might help to have some local support.”
“Tibet, Kerala State. Practically next door,” John said into mid-air. “We know…”
Jason interrupted. “Of course you know, dumbass. What there’s a rule I can’t see my girlfriend, even when she can help us with a mission?”
Tony McNeely turned back from the driver’s seat. “Seatbelts?” Tony McNeely asked? “Because if we’re ready for liftoff, it’s time for you meddling kids to get on with your next adventure.”
Father Asplin, sitting beside Tony, turned as well, his eyes deep and thoughtful. Charlotte felt her head go a funny place and a funny size, like a balloon just above where it should have been, the not unfamiliar feeling of being really tired, but in a moment when she mainly felt excitement and energy. IN that weird moment, she understood that there was something sad, or regretful, behind what Tony had said. The realisation reminded Charlotte of her mother and her grandfather. The others seemed to get it, too, and a sad silence passed across the van that lasted until they were out on the road, when John and Jason began pushing each other in their seats and laughing.
When they got to McNeely Park and pulled into the quiet, private parking space behind the stadium that the McNeelys provided for cricket practice, Charlotte held back when her friends and the Juniors rushed into the park, so that she could talk with Father Asplin.
“What was that we felt in the van back there?” Charlotte asked the time-travelling paladin-turned-priest.
“Projective empathy. Something I don’t expect teenagers to have, but certainly does you good to feel.”
“What does that mean?”
“I let you know what Tony was saying in his joke.”
“Is he sad?”
“Of course not! He’s had two great careers, and now he’s a young father and working on a third. But he does miss being a young superhero and an astronaut.”
“So he is sad.”
“Only in a different sense of being sad. We move forward in life, not back. We do not realise what’s past us until it’s gone, and we can never know for sure what’s ahead of us. Backwards is security and comfort; forward is uncertainty and risk. The past was never the past when it was the present, and now will someday be the past of a future looking back.”
“I don’t understand?”
“This isn’t something for understanding, Char-Char, at least to start with. It begins with sharing. From there we get to insight.”
“Wong!” Charlotte looked up. Darn it. There was Madison, making a beeline for her.
Father Asplin cleared his throat. Charlotte glanced at him. “In the meantime, try to enjoy the best years of your life.”
“This?” Charlotte gestured incredulously.
Madison stepped up in front of Charlotte. “Good to see you losers could make it. Is that what passes for a cricket uniform? You know, when I heard formal sporting wear, I thought, ‘finally, a chance to be fashion forward.’ Too bad you guys are such sucks.”
Charlotte goggled. “You’re a Zatanna cosplayer?” She guessed at last.
“Fishnets are very practical for this kind of thing,” Madison answered.
“What kind of thing is this I can’t even.” Said the wolfman standing behind her. “Why do we have to play this loser game? Why can’t it be football?”
“Eh, think of it as baseball with stupid extra rules, Seb,” the second wolf answered. “Crush, brush, spike….”
“Bite,” the too-this-point silent third wolf finished.
Charlotte pulled on the handle of her umbrella, exposing the blade of the Pearl Tranquility. The perlescent light leaked onto the grassy ground, and as though from nowhere a strand of aquamarine, a shadow in light, stretched out across to meet it from the Azure Tranquility. “There’ll be none of that. Not here, not ever.”
The wolves threw up their hands to cover their faces, even though they were in human form. Whether because the light hurt them directly, or because of bad memories. “Maddie!” The third wolf complained.
“Save your toy for alone time, Wong,” Madison said. “We’re not going to be the ones cheating here today. Rules of super-cricket say that we can use our superpowers. Sebastian, Darius and Trevor are werewolves. That’s their power, and they’re going to use them. Not to bite and infect people. You’ve got sorcerors for that, anyway. To catch and bat and run.”
“And your power?” Charlotte asked.
“Is to cause chaos,” Madison answered, swinging around on her running shoe lifts with a gentle wiggle of her hips. From the rear view, Charlotte could see that the fishnets went up under a tight pair of black yoga shorts, hidden from the forward view by the tails of her tux-like jacket, but ending in a lace band across her thighs from the back. “My milkshake brings the boys to the yard, Charlotte Wong. And the elves. Good luck with everything.”
Panicked, Charlotte risked a glance back over her shoulder in the direction in which Madison was giving her over the shoulder look.
Brian Ferguson was transfixed. And not by her.