Monday, November 2, 2015

Book 5, Chapter 10: Through the Ages

This author is, in fact, aware that early January in Philadelphia does not count as autumn. In this author's defence, however, close continuity policing would require more time than this author has to spare on his hobbies. 


This author wasn't thinking about this when he put the "Senor Chang" reference in the text, but here we are, anyway.

Book 5, Chapter 10: Through the Ages

Charlotte flexed her knees, lifting herself as she hit the speed bump. That was one of the nice things about riding a bike. You could go over it without even braking. Cars had to slow down, and on this dark, January morning, that was what everyone was doing at the last speed bump on the wide lane between the campus-edge chain-link fence, and the big, main campus building of Tatammy High.

Ahead, just past the right-angle facing the ridiculous, old-timey architecture of the Old School Building, student cars and even some late faculty cars were turning, one by one. But, right ahead, brake lights flared in the dimness as one car after another accordioned up the vehicles ahead of her. 

She really ought not be in this crowd, but she’d come onto campus in the wrong direction. That happened when you came in this way. Charlotte hated doing it this way. The bike route onto campus, which led through the city park on the corner and through a nice little gate at the back, was great, but just as she’d been about to cross the street on the bike route, she’d seen Bruce’s Dad’s car, in the lineup of particularly clueless Parental Delivery Units that were trying to make the drop-off on the wrong side of the street. Without even thinking, she’d turned onto the sidewalk, instead of crossing with the pedestrian light, and ridden right by the creep-and-idle line of SUVs, through the incredibly-faintly-gasoliney-air-by-1975-standards.

Three cars in, way too far back, she’d gone flashing by Mr. McNeely’s 2013 SRX, with Babs and Bruce in the back. They’d been visible, because their window was open, Philadelphia in January never mind. They both looked like they’d been in an argument and lost, which they had been, considering that they were in their Dad’s car. But when Charlotte caught Bruce’s eye, she could have sworn she saw it light up for a moment, and then she’d felt his eyes on her backside all the way down to the sidewalk where she’d cross over with the pedestrians, like the most backsidey-backside cyclist there ever was.

That was how Charlotte phrased it in her head. In that other part of her head that commented on the first part, she was well aware that that sentence made a lot more sense with a swears. But she wasn’t that kind of girl. Or tried not to be. Tried too hard, maybe; but that was the Wong way. 

And for the millionth time, Charlotte asked herself why it mattered what Bruce thought. Also for the millionth time in the last month, she reminded herself, Bruce had had his chance. Scout was a hunk –hella cute, Dora said, hard as it was to tell under his bandanna—and he was interested. Tots interested. 

But Bruce was so miserable. And Charlotte didn’t even want to guess how much more miserable he was this morning, him and his sister both, with their Dad inserting themselves into their lives to drop them off at school, like a ride was needed when he only lived four blocks away. And now, from the timing, you had to figure he’d be getting a tardy. 

Times like this, Charlotte just wanted . . . 

Fortunately, she didn’t have to figure out what she wanted, because she was distracted from her distraction by a tootling horn behind her. 

Because, ahead of her, was Madison’s white Jeep, being driven by one of the werewolves, with the other scowling, arms-crossed, in the back seat, a posse of idiots who, apparently, didn’t give a rat’s ass –backside! Backside!—for the Jeep’s shocks or themselves.

Charlotte peddled a little harder, came over the bump with just a bit of a front wheel wobble, and finally had room to pull out of the line of cars, going by them on the outside just a few feet from the crazy, angled pavement at the foot of the stair that led up to the second-floor entrance to the Old School Building, then around the corner and to the long, bicycle parking stall. 

Charlotte pulled up at the first available stand (which was the first, because it was January, and the kids coming in on the bike lane were parked down at the other end), pulled her Kryptonite lock out of its mounting, and secured her bike.

Funny name for a lock, since Kryptonite made Superman weak, not strong, but you never knew where you stood with the old Silver Age Superman stuff. Like, did Clark Kent’s glasses still have super-hypnosis effect?

And why did she even think about that right now?

“Hey, Char-Char.”

Charlotte just about jumped out of her skin. Her hand went instinctively to her hip, curled just so to reach through the tiny little hole in spacetime to grasp the Pearl Harmony Sword. 

She didn’t draw, though. There weren’t many people who could sneak up on her, so odds were, this was bad news, said her instincts, but her instincts weren’t always good at recognising voices. “Billy.”

Billy Tatum faded out of the shadow in the corner of the bike stall and the Old School Building. He was wearing his brown leather bomber jacket, unfashionable, boot-cut Levis with a grease strain on his left thigh, badly scuffed cowboy boots and a black synthetic beanie, pulled low over his forehead for a little bit more insulation, because it was freaking cold to be riding a motorcycle. 

“Got something for you.” His hand went into his jacket. For a second, Charlotte’s Eight Dragon senses caught the smell of something weirdly unseasonable, flowery.

“What?” She looked at him, curiously.

After a second, Billy’s hand went down, and his face flattened. “Info. I’ve got info.”

“Such as?”

“Well, you know how Bruce an’ me hooked up to investigate the Campus Crusade for Kilburn, right?”

Charlotte nodded. Bruce had been falling up on Father Asplin’s lead, while Billy was investigating the latest mad scientist at the Institute for Advanced Research, the one with a chapel to the Old Blue Heaven in his lab. The Institute was fine with holding the grave-robbed research collection of a World War II super-soldier project, and with graduate students who raised rampaging plant monsters on the front lawn during their thesis oral defence. But a shrine in a lab was apparently one step too far. 

“Professor Brown is researching time travel, right?”

Charlotte nodded.

“I mean, not a time machine or anything. That’s dangerous. Half of all time machines kill their operator or strand them in time. And that’s the successful ones. The failures, now they’re dangerous.” Billy snorted at the end, because he wasn’t very good at pulling off jokes.

Which was charming, in a way, Charlotte thought. “The Institute is full of scientists doing crazy, dangerous stuff though. Remember that guy who thought radiation was like a vitamin?”

“Hey!” Billy interrupted. “Dr. Acworth’s experiment worked on Grond. Sort of. I mean, he sure is healthy, now.”

Charlotte rolled her eyes. “If you call a ten-foot tall, four-armed monster with the strength to throw a battleship around and the mind and temper of a six-year old healthy, then yes. If it was his treatment that did it.”

Billy shrugged. “Doctor Acworth says his test subject had the brain of a six-year-old before he even volunteered for the experiment. Anyway, Doctor Acworth says that he’s almost eliminated the side-effects. He says that if PRIMUS lets him do another run, his subjects will be advanced to the next stage in the human evolutionary scale, a million years more advanced than. . .”

“Yeah, I read that book, too. It didn’t end well? But this is about Dr. Brown, right, not Dr. Acworth?’ Charlotte asked because, from Billy’s snippet of information, it sounded like Acworth might be making artificial Empyreans, and that could turn out to be related. 

“Yeah. Dr. Brown. Anyway, Dr. Brown is trying to map the tips of time probes active on Earth right now. You’d be able to use it to track people and things that were out of their proper time. Like, if they were brought here by economy time machines.” 

Billy hesitated. “So his map is showing a time probe active right in the neighbourhood.”

Charlotte nodded. Between Tatammy, its elementary school feeder and the retirees in the neighbourhood, there were eleven time travellers living within twelve blocks of the Institute that Charlotte knew about. It made sense.

“Possibly. The cluster might also be a self-induced echo in his machine, in which case he needs to calibrate it better, but depending on how he does the statistics, it’s offset from the Institute and the school. It’s also –he wouldn’t explain this to me, so I don’t know why he thinks so—maybe related to the Kilburn cult. But it’s also not centred on the university campus. It’s . . .” Billy held out a map.

Charlotte looked at it. There were pinpricks at the school, and the Institute, and even the university, of course. But also in two close-by suburban neighbourhoods. You didn’t have to be a Google Maps expert to recognise Mrs. Crudup’s backyard, with the little apartment above her garage, and the Edwards house. “Jamal,” she said.

“That’s what I figured,” Billy answered. “It makes sense. He is a time probe, after all.”

“But from the future,” Charlotte said. “The Thirty-First Century, for Pete’s sake. I mean, look at all the actual time travellers the machine could detect. There’s Rose, there’s Father Asplin, there’s Chris and me . . . Lots of people! Now, if the cluster was around St. Elizabeth’s, the clues would make sense. Father Asplin used to be a paladin of the Old Blue Heaven. Heck, the Pearl Harmony Sword glowed blue for a second last night, and Chris’s sword is Father Asplin’s old Holy Avenger. Religion in the Galactic Federation barely even has God. They for sure don’t worship Kilburn. This doesn’t make sense!” 

“Didn’t you used to have a crush on Jamal?”

“Oh, you do not go there, Billy Tatum! Yes, I had a crush on Jamal. So did Rose. We were kids, and he is hella cute.” Oh, great, Charlotte thought. Now you’ve got me doing it, Dora. “But. . .”

The school buzzer rang. “Oops, gotta go, or I’m going to get a tardy. Text me if something comes up. Wait, no, text Bruce.” Bruce might not be talking to Charlotte, but he was still the team detective, the one who’d put it all together first.

Although based on recent events, Charlotte hated it when Bruce put it all together. 

First class was Spanish, and was kinda racial, which meant Chinese kids sitting together. Charlotte nodded to Eason and Tim at their table, then plopped down at the girl’s table. The twins, Tracy and April, sweetheart that they were, were spread out in the middle so that Madison and Charlotte could sit on the outer edges and not have to acknowledge each other’s presence. 

She was practically in at the lock, so she got to be one of the glaring eyes that stared down Bruce as he came in, presented his tardy, and slouched his way to join his clique, the rich white boys on the far side of the room, which was just as sucky for him as it was for her, because he had to hang out with the younger werewolf. 

Mr. Jimenez waited for a second longer, in case one of the absents showed up, then got up, leaned on the front centre desks, Mannie and Anna. “Sometimes,” Mr. Jimenez began, “People ask me why I teach Spanish.”

Oh, great, Charlotte thought. He’s doing Senor Chang. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a point about Mannie and Anna. This was the class they aced, because they spoke Spanish at home, and Mr. Jimenez really, really liked going down the rabbit hole of racism and reverse racism on that one. Presumably, he wouldn’t be doing this if they hadn’t aced the refresher exam yesterday, and Mr. Jimenez was going to be all sensitive about the looks he was going to be getting from this side of the classroom.

She turned her paper over. Seven out of ten, of course. Because he graded on a curve, and Charlotte was tired of complaining about it. She didn’t have to peak over to see that Tracy and April had got the same. It was the paragraph translation at the end of the quiz, of course. Spanish into English. Tough stuff to match up to Mannie and Anna. And, for that matter, Rose and Dora and Bruce. It was times like this that Charlotte wanted to take a different class. A class with dumb people.

And you could feel that coming off Mr. Jimenez. Well, let him be Mr. Sensitive. He didn’t have an aunt who’d take one look at an A-minus paper and make a sarcastic remark about Harvard entrance standards. 

On the other hand, living up to Auntie Ma’s standards made Charlotte feel good. It was good to have standards. And it was good that Auntie Ma let her take Spanish. In spite of the B grades. 

Meanwhile, Madison was doing her bit for getting rid of all stereotypes by crumpling her quiz up, and throwing it into the wastebasket in the middle of the room. 

Mr. Jimenez’s glare turned into anger as Madison followed up by elevating a foot in a white, tooled leather boot, into which an expensively distressed, skin tight blue jean disappeared, onto the table. 

April pulled her opened work book out of the way just in time.

“Miss Cheung,” Mr. Jimenez said.

Madison didn’t reply, just tipped her sunglasses down at him.

Mr. Jimenez didn’t say anything more, just opened a folder off his desk, pulled out a disciplinary slip in a way that let everyone in the class know that he’d seen this coming a mile away. “Principal. Now.”

“Whatevs,” Madison said, then sauntered out the door, ass –backside!-- wiggling for effect.

Tracy leaned over to Charlotte and whispered. “I don’t understand how she isn’t suspended!”

“She’s acting out,” Charlotte explained.

“Acting out being a spoiled brat,” April whispered. Actually, she said, “gui hei.” To April and Tracy, Madison really was the type who thought even her B.O. was cute. Charlotte could. . . 

Charlotte could try explaining, and find herself defending Madison, of all people. Or she could nod, and go along, because she really didn’t want to lose Tracy and April from this class, and she easily could. Their parents weren’t the type to dream of Harvard, but even UPenn had standards.

Class over, Charlotte joined Rose and Dora in the hall, quickly whispered to them what Billy had told her.

Rose wavered, vanished for a second, returned. “Wow. Bruce got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Anyway, he says that the Thirty-First Century angle is worth following up. Thirty-First Century archaeologists know a lot more about the Old Red Aeon than we do. Even if they don’t worship Kilburn, they might have his relics.”

“I’m still not sure what the connection is supposed to be,” Dora answered. “I mean, of course his time tip probe map shows Jamal. Why wouldn’t it? He’s a time probe. And there’s a million reasons why the others won’t show up. Father Asplin, Charlotte and Chris all came up from down time. That’s basically the way everyone travels through time, just faster. Rose, you’re from an alternate timeline. That sixth grader, whatsisname. . .”

“No,” Rose said, “We need to treat the Kilburn angle as legit. At least to check it out.”

“Why?” Dora asked.

“Because it means we get to take an afterschool trip to the Thirty-First Century, dummy!”

“Awesome!” Charlotte shouted. And made herself, by sheer force of will, not ask out loud whether Bruce was coming. In fact, maybe they could invite Scout, instead.

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