Book 5, 32: Drop the Mic or Whatever
Charlotte couldn’t decide what was worse. First, she had tried to stab her brother. Oh, it was a stupid thing to do, and Charlotte could perfectly well remember the moment in Grade 8 when she’d first realised, body flushing hot in embarrassment, that she used to do and think stupid things. Or maybe it was before that humiliating moment? Anyway, ever since, she’d had that thought a lot. That she had done something stupid, because she was young and immature. And, what was worse, that she would keep on doing stupid things and then realising it later.
None of that helped, though, because she’d tried to stab her brother. It also didn’t help that he’d forgiven her, either. Not one bit, because that was what brothers did.
Okay, put that away. Because, also, deep down in her heart, why she did it mattered, too. She didn’t want to believe it, but once the words crossed her lips, she couldn’t not. Dad. The Dad who was a lich in the service of Takofanes now. The Dad who used to be an enforcer for Yin Wu. The Dad who was a mobster before that. Who murdered her aunt and her Uncle Henry’s dad. His own brother and sister. Her Dad, who was a bad, bad man. And she wanted him to not be that man. Because she was afraid that he didn’t really love her.
You are so messed up, Charlotte, she thought to herself, and shook her head.
Probably the wrong thing to do when you’re sitting around the table in a rec room in the McNeely Mansion, with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the TV and your buds talking about how crazy Mr. Burcato was.
“Char-Char?” Dora asked. “You okay?”
Dora had a weird look in her. A warning look. Charlotte put her hand to her eyes. Figured that all that crying would make her eyeshadow run. For only like the millionth time in her young life, Charlotte regretted that she didn’t have the kind of superpower where you could either stop your face from getting messed up, or at least feel what was wrong. Instead of having to make a super-embarrassing bathroom run.
“It’s okay, you look fine,” Bruce blurted.
‘Fine!’ That tore it. Though, at the same time, it warmed Charlotte a bit that Bruce would try to reassure her, however much he sounded like a dumb old boy. Charlotte got up, turned, and headed for the bathroom, but in the last moment before she turned, the expression on Bruce’s face hit her in the stomach.
Charlotte was peering into the mirror in the bathroom, amazed at the lighting and the heat lamp and all the cool stuff that the McNeelys bothered to put in a guest toilet all over again. She wasn’t going to admit it to anyone, but she actually looked as okay as her blah, Halfie features would let her look.
The door opened behind her, and Dora came in. “I’ve got my purse,” she said, holding it up.
Also on the list of things that Charlotte wasn’t in the mood to talk about in front of the group right now was the fact that she couldn’t remember where she left her bag. She was about to fess up to Dora when Dora held up her other hand. “And yours, too! You left it downstairs.”
“Gimme!” Charlotte said.
“I thought paladins were supposed to be polite,” Dora said.
“What kind of paladin stabs her own brother?” Charlotte asked.
“The you kind of paladin, Char-Char. You’re still out there, wielding your holy sword and focussing your qi on smiting evil, so you haven’t fallen, or anything. In fact, all the paladin-y stuff you’ve done is since then.”
Charlotte snorted. “Falling is a thing in a game. A western game, too. Wuxia doesn’t even have paladins. Not really.”
“Legend of Sword and Fairy?”
Charlotte looked at her friend, not wanting to argue.
At last, Dora opened her purse and pulled out her compact and a brush. “Just a second to touch you up, and you’re good to go.”
Not wanting her friend to lie for her sake, Charlotte put her hand on Dora’s. “It’s okay. I know my ‘shadow didn’t run. I guess I made a scene out there, and I really hurt Bruce’s feelings.”
“Oh, him,” Dora snorted. And stopped at Charlotte’s face. “It’s okay. He understands.”
“In that case, we’d better rejoin the conversation over who was more responsible for the Apocalypse Plague, Noatar or Istvatha V’han or blah blah blah. ‘Cuz I’d like to have my whole squad with me the next time I’m ambushed today.”
“Yeah, about that. . . “ Dora trailed off.
Rose was talking when they went in. “So Istvatha V’han wants a plague that will decimate the population of Earth, and for some reason she gets a scientist from our Earth to make it. Only the scientist is really working for Noatar, who wants a disease that will purge away all the humans without enough Empyrean ancestry to be useful for his breeding programme to make a new and better Empyrean race.’
“Race?” Twelve asked.
“Race,” Rose said, firmly. “We’re talking about breeding human beings, and there is no way that doesn’t get squicky.”
“So, anyway, whatever V’han thinks the Apocalypse Plague is good for, Noatar wants to put it in a this incredibly gimcracky reservoir, and, to make things even more mindblowing, does it ninety thousand years ago, with a time machine. The reservoir is set up to hold the plague vectors ‘till some humans come along and blow up the ridge that separates Chinese Slough from Osoyoos Lake, at which point, woosh, it’s in the Columbia and spreading like the superplague it is.
“Next, Noatar invests who knows how much personal time and time travel into setting it up so that he’s the next farmer down the way, and he can release the Plague at the ideal moment, after buying the Slough in an estate sale, without being fingered by someone. I’m guessing his relatives down in Arcadia. In my home dimension, he finally releases it in the fall of 2011, after Charlotte’s aunt dies, and the estate sells the reservoir to Noatar in his secret identity. But what it does in my home dimension apparently isn’t enough for Noatar, and because he’s a. . . a . . complete tosser—“
Rose was probably using an English swear because no-one was supposed to know what it meant, so it wasn’t a real swear. She was that kind of girl.
--“He peaked at our alternate history and decided on a new plan. Which got all screwed up when Charlotte’s aunt got killed back in the Thirties—“
“Stupid time travel,” Bruce said. “You make everything not make sense.”
“And then he made a new plan, which Chris and Kumi and their team foiled. Now we’ve cleaned up the Apocalypse Plague reservoir, and have samples of it, so that we can make antivirals and contain it in time, anyway. So, no Plague.”
“But,” Bruce said, “He’s still out there scheming. Twelve is a clone of his nephew or whatever, Archon, made by Teleios. If Noatar can clone all his relatives, he can have his new Empyrean breeding population –Yuck. My mouth just made words that make me want to throw up.”
“Told you,” Rose answered. “That’s why I went with race.”
“And then there’s Landing,” Twelve said.
“Except that’s where Noatar and Teleios are experimenting with Elven genes in human populations, am I right?” Brian asked.
“But what if there’s a connection?” Twelve asked.
“In your dreams, Giant Boy,” Brian answered.
Twelve flexed his guns. “You can look, but you can’t touch.”
Bruce slouched a little more in his chair and put up his hand. “Guys? Before we have to decide whether you’re going for homoerotic or homophobic, can we get back to the business at hand?”
Good a time as any to interrupt, Charlotte thought. “And when you big brains have that figured out, maybe you can tell us what my Dad and the King of Ivory have to do with it.”
Bruce sat bolt upright in his chair, and an unreadable expression crossed his face. Like, Charlotte thought, he had ideas. Well, that was the thing with having a super-detective on your team, all strategizing and stuff. He probably did have an idea, but it wouldn’t work out if he revealed it too early, or something like that. Or was that just in stories?
“That part,” Bruce said, “Doesn’t make sense.”
Charlotte sat down, but Dora, it seemed, wasn’t quite done looming over the table. “Yeah, I’ll bet it doesn’t.”
“What do you mean by that, Dora?” Rose asked, all innocent-like.
“Noatar is back on our agenda because his daughter ambushed us today.”
“Yeah,” Twelve said. “But she’s in Professor Paradigm’s class. She was probably working for him.”
“Not that genefreak that attacked us back at the mall. That was pure Noatar. You know. In the other ambush that almost got to us today.”
“You think there’s a connection?” Rose asked. Now Charlotte was sure that Rose was playing along.
“I do. I think there’s a cloaking effect going on. Brian? You tried casting your cloaking spell again today. Could you maybe have got a longer duration than you intended, and, like, somehow, it went both ways?”
Brian shook his head. “No. IN fact, if we hadn’t been able to sneak up on you guys at the food court, I wouldn’t have thought the casting worked at all.”
“Hunh,” Rose said. “So maybe your cloaking effect combined with Eve’s? Or some such cloaking or blurring or hypnotising effect?”
“I’m not feeling good,” Bruce blurted, pushing away from the table so hard that the muscles on his shoulders, smaller than Twelve’s giant sinews, but so cut you could see them flex, bulged through his Sonic tee-shirt.
He seemed so stricken that Charlotte almost went after him. She had to remind herself that he was just a friend and a team-mate. A hunky one, for sure, but just a friend. In fact, she shouldn’t even have to remind herself, after the way he treated her. Or the way Scout treated her.
“Charlotte?” Dora whispered. “Focus! Ambushes, remember?”
She shook her head. “We’re facing a guy with a time machine. It can be all ambushes all the time until he gets it right.”
“Oh, don’t be a Debbie Downer,” Rose began.
Dora whirled on her friend. “Debbie Downer? For reals? You know, I was going to let ‘gimcrack’ pass, but if you don’t start talking like an actual person, girlfriend, you and I are going to have words.”
“Oh,” Rose said. “Now we see the oppression inherent in the system.” She looked around. “What? Monty Python. I never get to quote Monty Python when Bruce is around.”
Charlotte pursed her lips. “Look, Rose. We’ve already banned the Marx Brothers. You want us to ban Monty Python, too? You want to reduce us to communicating entirely in South Park references?”
“Family Guy” Brian asked, hopefully. Charlotte whirled and glared at him, mock angry. It was good to fool around with your friends, forget that . . . .
And there was Bruce, framed by the doorway, lit by the ceiling lamp in the hall, looking just like . . . just like. Charlotte’s eyes scanned her friend. Same tee, same jeans, same slightly mismatched belt, which was because he only had one, and probably didn’t even realise that anyone noticed. Same watch, chronometer, actually, the one that Captain Chronos had given him. The only thing he didn’t have was the silver medallion that he’d hung from the watch, the bangle that look so much like. . .
Charlotte couldn’t hunt down that memory. Perhaps because her memory was failing her, perhaps because the whole world was sucking the air out her lung with one thought, too big for one universe to contain. Why had she never had this thought before?
Why had she never wondered if Scout might actually be Bruce?