Book 5, 34: Old Red Planet
This was crap. Crap. Monday was crap. Monday morning was crap. Charlotte was tempted to swear, here inside her head where no-one was listening Except that when you lived the life, there sometimes was someone listening to your thoughts.
More importantly, what you said on the inside had a way of coming out, and that would be a no-win situation.
Madison Chung finished her long, deliberate look over Charlotte’s shoulders. “Highlighted and everything. Barf. You know you can try and try to fit the stereotype, but you’ll never be a goody-two shoes Asian girl, Wong. You’re a halfie, an orphan.” Madison let her voice hold to show a breathless pause, and made to pat Charlotte on her head, incidentally right on the tight-pulled bun that Charlotte had spent the morning pulling her hair into for its unforgiveable disobedience to all hair products known to humankind.
It wasn’t a gesture anyone else would have noticed, but Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon senses picked up the breeze of the moving hand on the back of her neck, and Madison knew perfectly well that she had. “And a mess. Boy trouble? Maybe I should make a move on that cowboy of yours. If he’s got yellow fever so bad, I can give him the real China Doll.”
“You’re disgusting, Maddie,” was all that Charlotte could think of to say. As it came out, she realised that she didn’t even want to be all Mean Girls back at Chaos Girl. That would just be playing her game. “You know, every nice girl named ‘Madison,’ is cringing right now.”
Madison sat down at the table, her binder and laptop slapping the surface and the brass fittings on her black leather jacket clicking against the wood as she slumped down, her head lying on her arm as it stretched across the table, almost like she was sleeping.
But she wasn’t. Her deep, black eyes were staring straight up at Charlotte, and her lustrous, raven’s wing black hair draped her face. Oh, you bet I’m jealous right now, Charlotte narrated in her head to that invisible observer that followed her around –probably followed everyone around, just to laugh when they did something stupid.
“Nice zit,” Madison said. “See? That’s what you get for worrying about stuff. Stress. Like, all that work you put into your homework. It’s cuz you’re playing their game. Trying to learn stuff, trying to attract them, you know. There’s usually only three or four questions in a chapter in our math class, and they just change up the numbers a bit. That’s all you’ve got to know. Boys are even easier. Just two answers.”
Of course Madison was wearing a tight, tan, v-necked sweater under her jacket, and of course she seemed to have forgotten to put a top on underneath it. “Well, three, actually,” Madison said, slapping her ass with her free hand. “You know, if you just worked it a bit more, Char-Char. . . “
“Don’t call me that!” Charlotte hissed.
“Beat it, witch,” Dora’s voice came from above. Rose stood beside her, and Charlotte could almost hear the word Dora would have used if her friend hadn’t been near. It smelled like skunk, and was spelled like it, too.
But Madison didn’t even turn her head to look up at Charlotte’s friends. “This is the witch’s table. I’m the wicked witch of sexy. Don’t mind my buddy, East. She’s mostly melted.”
Dora’s phone clattered on the table. “What an interesting picture to cc around.”
Madison’s voice started up, broke, like a car motor not getting it done on a winter morning. “You wouldn’t.”
“Of course I wouldn’t. It would be wrong.” Dora said, in a gloating tone that suggested she might be down for a little wrong.
Madison got up, Dora and Rose sat down. “For today’s math class, we’re skipping the separate-but-equal thing.” Ordinarily, Charlotte didn’t like sitting with Rose and Dora in class, because that just led to the whole clique thing. It was bad enough for high school dynamics that they hung out all the time. Even if Dora said that Charlotte was a “starts with ‘s,’ ends with ‘tick in the mud,’” over it. “What’s up, guys?”
“Mars,” Rose said. “That’s what’s up.”
Bruce and Twelve sat down on either end of the table, and Brian, but with his chair turned around so that he faced the teacher’s desk, like the too-cool-for-school kid he was. Inside, Charlotte groaned. This kind of thing didn’t just ruin high school social dynamics. It gave away secret identities, too. “Like the super-genius said, ‘Mars.’” Charlotte couldn’t help noticing that Bruce wouldn’t make eye contact with her.
“Just way too much Mars. And now we find out that the Old World was Marsformed? That’s like being Terraformed, only instead of a planet being engineered to be more like Terra, which is the fancy name for ‘Earth,’ it’s made more like Mars.”
Brian interrupted. “After you’ve told us all about Mars and the Old World dimension, can you spent a half hour telling how Rosa’s faster-than-light drive works? Only because you haven’t gone on half long enough explaining stuff in your explaining voice.”
“Pardon me for catching us up on the basics,” Rose said, a little huffily. “Of all the infinite parallel dimensions, the Old World is the one that’s most like our Earth, but the one whose history diverges from ours the longest ago. Before the dinosaurs, even. That doesn’t take us all the way back to the Martians, but it does take us back so far that the Martians are the only ones around with history.”
“Actually, have you read ‘A Colder War?’” Bruce asked. “Pre-Cambrian, Lovecraftian aliens. Spooky.”
“Yes, I’ve read it,” Rose answered. “And it’s science fiction.”
“So is Lord Kalvan,” Bruce pointed out.
“Just because we have a plot similarity with an old science fiction novel where the Martians colonised the Earth in ancient times doesn’t mean that I’m pulling this out of a book I read. Heck, there are dimensions where actual Martians who look just like humans, actually did colonise the Earth. In the infinite Multiverse, these things happen. Point is, they’re not windows into our history. The Old World is.”
“Point taken,” Bruce said. “And Dora has a plan.”
Charlotte looked over at her friend. “We skip math, then English, for those who have it, then my Dad’s Tactics class, and get back here after lunch. We have my Dad for two classes, and Telantassar for English. Rosa can do Earth-Mars in an hour, unless she has to reboot. An hour out, an hour in, and we have two hours there. Rosa subs for English and Math, and just being on Mars ought to count for Tactics.”
“And you get your Dad and Ms. Grey on board.”
“Ms. Grey’s on board, already,” Bruce said. “I ran into her in the parking lot and asked her. Also, we’ve lined up guides for Mars. Those Mandaarian archaeologists have offered to show us around.” He held up his phone to show the text on the screen. Charlotte remembered what John had told her about them. They were alien archaeologists; Mandaaria was a small empire halfway across the galaxy; they were highly advanced, peaceful, telepathic, and had annoyingly perfect golden hair; they couldn’t tell the United Nations, because the Mandaarians couldn’t find the personnel for a diplomatic mission to ask permission; they were here anyway, and cooperating with NASA, which would be embarrassing to NASA and stuff if anyone found out; they were here because Mars was so important; and they were mean to John, although John hadn’t actually said that. Add to that, they apparently had iPhones. And iPhones had service on Mars? Maybe?
Mr. Guzman walked in, sat down at the desk, and called the class to order. He gave the team a wide-eyed look, as he surveyed the changed seating chart in the room, but didn’t say anything. Charlotte stared back at him, finally caught the subtle tells. This wasn’t Dora’s dad. It was one of his robot doubles.
Charlotte looked over at Dora. Her relationship with her Dad’s robots was a little. . . It was a little, was all Charlotte could think of. Nevertheless, Dora went up and gave her Dad a note.
There was grumbling in the class. Ordinarily, Dora bent over backwards not to be her Dad’s pet. Today, though. . . The robot read the note, looked up at Dora, said something, too low to catch even in the small classroom. Dora said something back. The fact that Charlotte couldn’t hear meant they were doing some super-powers-and-robots thing. And probably meant that Dora was making some kind of concessions that would embarrass her in front of her friends, like agreeing to be in early all weekend, and be nice to her sister, and probably something about the wedding. Charlotte wondered if the bridesmaids’ dresses were about to get even more hideous.
Robot-Double-Guzman looked up. “I’m frankly a little disappointed with the results of the first quiz. Since today is a double-math class day, I am going to do the practical section in the morning instead of the afternoon, and instead of discussing the additive and distribution properties, I am going to assign the optional questions at the end of the Workbook section, page 112 as a class project. We will go over the results this afternoon, and then I think a ten-minute snap quiz will be the perfect way to end a Monday afternoon.”
A buzz broke out in the class. Most of the students could figure out that somehow, Dora had got them out of a 9AM Monday morning trigonometry lecture, and were grateful, even if the cost was a quiz, because it was still hours and hours away.
And that was how the team ended up sitting around a table in Rosa’s wardroom, with cups of Vienna-style latte coffee and some kind of tortes (which sounds like “torture,” Charlotte thought, but definitely wasn’t) in front of them.
But also math homework. And English, too. Way to suck the joy out of interplanetary travel, Venn diagrams, Charlotte thought. “Do you really think we sucked that much on the quiz?”
Rose, sitting by herself in the corner while she worked on something gigantically big-brained, looked up. “Yes, you sucked. Look, you need to learn this stuff or algebra is going to blindside you, and you will fail all math forever, and the only job you will be able to get is at McDonalds’, and not the good jobs, either, so better get used to smelling like grease.”
“The deep fryer’s kind of cool,” Bruce said. “Basically, we’re supposed to learn about how equations work before we start solving them. All this stuff about kinds of numbers and diagrams is just getting us there.”
Charlotte slammed her pencil down on the table (eraser side down, so she didn’t mark Rosa’s furniture). “Who beat who on the last quiz?”
“One time! And only by one point!” Bruce said, sounding hurt. Which was true. Still, Charlotte was proud of what she’d done. It was tough being competitive in a group of such big brains.
“Also,” because she couldn’t resist stirring the pot one time, “Madison says that you don’t have to learn this stuff. You just have to figure out how to do the three or so kinds of questions in every chapter.”
“It must be opposite day, because she’s actually right,” Rose said from the corner. “Most math problems either can’t be solved exactly, or require techniques you don’t have yet. That just leaves a couple types of problems, and once you know how to recognise them, the exams are pretty easy. They’re also pretty pointless if you don’t actually learn the stuff.”
Rose looked at Charlotte. “You’re the one who taking all those extra classes and stuff. Think of it as a chance to try too hard.”
Charotte mock glared at her friend. “You’re in so much trouble the next time we go into the field, Speedy.”
“No, no,” Rose said. “Speedy’s an archer. I know it doesn’t make sense, but. . . “
“Actually,” Bruce began. “No, wait, drug humour, paladin with a holy sword at the table. Never mind.”
Charlotte shot Bruce a look. “I grew up in a trailer park, buster. I know what ‘speed’ is.”
“So you won’t spank me. . . “ Dora tittered, and Bruce blushed into silence.
“No,” Charlotte said, the devil inside her not at all done for the day. “I’m saving the spanking for Scout.”