Monday, January 16, 2012

Chapter 25: And One Car That Will Do

I had no idea that "Pink Cadillac" was a Springsteen song. Or what most of its lyrics were, either.

Chapter 25: And One Car That Will Do

The team looked up at Rosa, her blue-and-white finish faded out in the red Martian twilight. Night was falling on Mars, and John could feel the nip in the wind, blowing so fiercely that he could actually feel it, blowing puffs of dust along the sloping surface of the oldest feature on the face of this ancient mountain. John was watching Amy out of the corner of his eye. She looked worried about something, and he could guess what.
Her voice came up his wrist. “Shouldn’t we do something about the werewolf?”
Rafe replied. “I don’t want to sound mean, but what? Don’t let our little fight with him go to your head, Amy. We would have had as much trouble hitting him as we would have hurting him if he’d just cared to dodge. He was dragging out the fight. We can’t let him out of that cell.”
“And we’re almost out of air,” Emily added.
“Besides, he’ll be okay down there. He’s a werewolf.” Jason added.
Amy wasn’t ready to give up. “But he’ll change back to a human. And he’ll die.”  
The thought made John sick. Behind the werewolf was an ordinary man, who didn’t deserve to die, gasping for breath, in a Martian cave.  Still, who knew when that would happen on a planet with two moons? If you could even call the tiny rocks orbiting Mars “moons.” Although magic didn’t necessarily work like gravity. It could be more like quantum chemistry, where what mattered was whether the orbital was full…  “Eventually,” he said. He moved closer to Amy, without being quite sure what he wanted to do, swinging his hand down towards where hers hung loose at her side.
And then, with breathtaking speed, something artificial broke over the distant northern horizon, high enough to glint in direct sunlight, flying towards them so quickly that it was pulling up to land in a graceful manoeuvre before they could even absorb what they were seeing.
It looked like the ideal of a spaceship, and, in fact, vaguely reminiscent of Rosa. As it pulled up to vertical, they could see the same melted-glass tubes below that Rosa had, but flickering with a bright light, almost as blinding as Brad Neilsen’s welding iron. The team stood and waited as it landed. Then, a door opened in the hull, and a gangway extended down to the ground, just like at the start of the cartoon where Bugs Bunny gets sent to the Moon and runs into Marvin the Martian. The gangway dug into the Martian soil only a few yards away. Rosa’s voice came over their ear mikes. “Good evening, class! Congratulations on your victory. Our visitors are Kelvar and Trine of Mandaar, and they would like to join you in my ship’s mess to discuss our shared interests in an atmosphere of a little more Gemütlichkeit.”
It was hard to argue with that. Four minutes later, John was in the lounge, waiting for Rosa’s little robots to finish setting the cheese platters out. Who knew that meat paste and pickles on those hard rye bread cracker thingies could be so good? He really wanted to try the cheese now. The wine was also tempting, but, in the end, John thought, that was what grownups drank, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to be a grownup just yet. Jason, on the other hand, had filled up one of the tiny glasses with the champagne, and was sipping it, trying to look sophisticated. Did you even sip champagne?
The door opened. The Mandaarians were coming in. John’s people. He straightened up. To his side, Amy caught his eyes and made a brushing movement over her chest. John looked for a second, burning with embarrassment but unable to look away, until he realised that she was signalling that he had crumbs on his fatigues. He brushed them away hastily as two tall, pretty people in tan jumpsuits walked into the room.
John was disappointed, They looked like the Mandaarians in the pictures, and that just reinforced the fact that he looked nothing like them, apart from being tall. They had stange, short haircuts drawn up in horns at the front, an effect that looked far more normal in comic books than in real life, and which looked natural, rather than teased, as when Victory did it. Their skin was a rich, golden tone, and their eyes were gold, with metallic flecks in them, rather the way that Doc Savage was always described. John, on the other hand, was boringly White and blue eyed, with curly hair that had gotten away from him in all directions, much like Hayden Christensen’s in the Star Wars prequels, but with much less to do with hairdressing, and much more to do with the fact that he thought that he hhated getting haircuts and had been dodging one for two weeks now. At least he was reasonably tall, like them.
“Live Long and Prosper, Earth Humans!” said the male Mandaarian.
“You’re hilarious, Kelvar,” said the female. “Hi. I’m Trine, and, in my defence, I did get Kelvar to agree not to say ‘take me to your leader.’”
Kelvar gave his partner a long stare. “You’re just jealous that I can make Earth humans laugh, Trine.”
“Oh? When did that start?” Rosa asked.
“Oh, give me a break, gracious lady. Your old crew were Germans. Germans have even less of a sense of humour than regular Earthians, and that’s saying a lot.” Kelvar sounded miffed.
“’Gracious lady?’” Rosa asked.
Gnädige Frau,” Kelvar said.
Trine prodded her companion in the ribs. “You’re even more out of date than I am, Kelvar. Did you even look at the files that Rosa sent us?”
Kelvar looked down at his feet. “No. I’ve been too busy. Mars is so fascinating.”
John waited for the aliens to get serious as he nibbled the incredibly strongly flavoured but tasty cheese. Were they serious? What if they weren’t? It would be a good way to relax the kids. He looked at Trine, and she looked back at him. I’m on to you, he thought.
<I know, John. We’ll get to the point.>
“I see that the Tatammy Class of ’16 is going to be a credit to its school,” Trine said. “You probably have some questions.”
“Are you taking John away?” Jason blurted. John felt a surge of fear. He didn’t want to go anywhere! Beside him, he could hear Amy suck in a breath.
There was that long pause that, John knew, disguised “no” as “yes.” “If that’s what John wants.”
Beside him, he knew, almost as though he felt the movement on his skin, Amy stirred. It hurt more than he had expected.
“But I’m one of you,” he said.
“So you are, John,” Trine said kindly, “A Mandaarian, and a very special one, with human DNA and the mind of a man we had long thought dead. A Mandaarian who is already in the best place for him.”
“It figures,” John said, awash with bitterness. “I’m too human for you.”
<Is that really what you think, John?> Trine’s telepathic voice was warm, almost motherly.
<I don’t know.> He had to answer.
Her eyes bored into his. .<You feel rejected, don’t you, John?>
John felt his shoulders fall into a hunching shrug. He really didn’t like that idea. Why should he care what these stupid aliens thought about him? He had plenty of friends! <When you say it that way, it doesn’t sound right.>
<It’s okay to feel that way, John. People need people. You have to reach out, and, sometimes, you’re turned down. It’s supposed to hurt. And you’re supposed to go on.>
<You mean someone has a plan for me?>
<I don’t know about anyone else’s, but life has a plan for you, John. Adopted children often feel like they’ve been rejected. But, in the end, everyone has to leave their family behind and make themselves a new one.>
The whole “First comes love, then comes marriage” stuff did not do it for John. <My friends don’t have to leave their families behind. Amy and Jason talk like their great-great-grandmother that’s been dead a hundred years was waiting to bake them cookies! Even Rafaella is fighting for her father’s throne.>
<Make no mistake. Even they have had to leave their childhoods, and the families they had then. They may not realise it yet, but past is past. John, the reason we agreed to have you at the Wongs is very simple: you’re a child. Mandaarians just don’t have that much experience with childhood anymore. Kelvar and I have been trying to save up for a child of our own for three hundred years now. We may never have one.>
<Mandaarians buy children?>
<No, silly! To be able to afford one. Mandaarian law requires both parents to take work leaves for the first forty years of a child’s life. Only the richest or the most thrifty can manage that.>
John snorted. The other kids looked at him. Except for Amy. Was she following along? It was hard to tell with telepathy. <You have faster-than-light drives and immortality and all that stuff, and you have to work for a living?>
Trine nodded and gave a half-smile to acknowledge how silly it sounded. <Even in a post-scarcity society, we find needs to fill our time. But there’s more to it than that. There are grave dangers threatening us. Your planet, the galaxy, even our universe. The …man you were cloned from believed that we Mandaarians should conquer the galaxy to save it from these dangers. We rejected that idea, so I guess we have to work, instead.>
John wasn’t any more convinced by that. <Grave threats, monsters in the shadows. I’ve heard that stuff. Mr. Wong says that if there’s pipes leaking in the basement, eventually they’ll flood the foundations and you’ll lose the house. That’s not a good reason for not calling the plumber.>
<And you begin to see why we placed you with the Wongs.>
John pouted. That hadn’t gone as he’d expected. <I thought you were going to say that Mr. Wong was talking like my clone …original.>
<John, your clone-father would have solved –I guess, will try to, whenever he comes out of hiding—solve leaking pipes by blowing up the house. That’s why we turned his ideas down. Mr. Wong is teaching you to fix plumbing. There’s a difference.>
John smiled. That was funny. Or maybe it was hearing it from Trine.
Then she shook her head. <Last question, John. Do you really want to leave your friends?>
<You can’t lie like this, John. Answer me.>
No! No I don’t. But…>
<But there’s one in particular, isn’t there, John?>
John put his eyes down and his blocks up. He didn’t have to take the stupid third degree from yet another person! And yet part of him wondered why Trine had brought this up. She meant Amy, and it wasn’t like she was dumb, or anything. Did she have a point?
And, again, Trine looked into his eyes, and smiled, this time a full smile, happy. “It’s good to be around children again,” she said, aloud.
“We’re not children!” Rafe spat, her eyes probably flashing like they did.
“Pardon me,” Trine said. “Young people. People of the bright morning, who think that life’s problems have solutions, and are hurtling towards them, even when they have no idea where they’re going.”
“Life’s problems don’t have solutions?” Jason prodded.
“Every solution is a new problem, Jason Wong. But they’re wonderful problems to have. Problems that you may well have before Kelvar and I do.” Jason looked puzzled by that, and John made a note to explain it later. If he understood.
“One last thing,” Rafe began.
“Two things, actually,” Kelvar said. “First, it will take an hour for us to get you back to Earth. If you have made alternative arrangements that are faster, I recommend that you use them. Second, we’ll take charge of your sorceress and your werewolf. There’s enough ride coming over from Earth tomorrow to take them both home easily enough. We found an honest-to-Cosmic-Telos canal at the excavation site, yesterday, and Victory is bringing up a load of instruments and whatnot to document it tomorrow, courtesy of the Sentinels. Apparently, ancient water management techniques are a special interest of hers. ”
“For a superhero, Victory is such an…” Amy started.
“Don’t be too harsh on her, young lady,” Kelvar said. “She senses great importance in this. Those canals are a way into some of the great mysteries of time.”
“The what now?” Rafe asked.
“We’ve probably said as much as we can already,” Trine replied. “Which is probably as good a moment as any to say good night.”
Rafe turned away from the two aliens as they left the mess. “I guess that’s our dose of the Huge Gigantic Secrets of the Universe for today. Now we need to finish making our arrangements.”
Emily looked quizzical. “Arrangements?”
Rafe tossed her head at John, her short hair bobbing. “I imagine John’s set to navigate the Fairlane through the dimensions to the free zone.”
Emily set herself, facing Rafe, in a stubborn pose. “Yes, but how do we know where to go once we’re there?”
John smiled. “That’s the easy part. Remember that spell I told you about, that Gyre cast to track a werewolf by bouncing it off the Moon? Takofanes is the creation of the Scarlet Gods, and Uncle Kwan is a lich raised by Takofanes. They’re all under the sign of Mars, and we’re on Mars.”
“Easy for you to say,” Emily mumbled, but even as she said it, her right hand was sketching patterns in the air. “Yeah… could be… Not really tracking, more of a scrying…I… Amy, your phone has an 8 meg camera, doesn’t it?”
Rosa interrupted. “If you need a camera, Schatzie, I think I can do better than 8 megabytes.”
“I’m sorry, Rosa, it has to be personalised. We’ll email the image to you. You can do a way better job of processing it than some smartphone.”.”
Rosa sounded even happier than usual. “I’m glad to be of help.”
“Can we watch?” Kelvar asked. “You don’t see much magic in the Mandaarian Enclave.”
“Not much to see,” Emily said, distractedly, as she quickly set up a silver wire framework on the buffet table, dropping pendants from the horizontal bar and pulling glittery little crystal lenses out of her pockets to hang from the pendants, so that the light of the late Martian twilight made muddy marks on a wall that Rosa hastily darkened. And then, flaring in John’s mind, a map appeared, too complicated to be understood, but with the perfect detail of a dream just barely not remembered in the morning. “Got it!” she said.
A moment later, Rosa said, “And I have it, too. Hmm. I see agents here or there, but no sign of anything like a concentration. Is Takofanes even on Earth?”
“No,” Amy said. “Telantassar says that he keeps his troops in pocket dimensions. But what’s in the free zone?”
“Zooming in,” Rosa said, “Courtesy of Google Dimensions!”
“Is that a thing?” Jason asked.
“You need to pay attention in class more, Jas,” Amy answered.
“Not an answer.”
“How awfully sad for you.”
“Kids?” Rosa said. “I hate to interrupt, but there’s one concentration of Takofanes’ agents in the free zone, right here, in this arroyo about two hours drive north of the Philadelphia portal. I can’t tell you that that’s where your friend is, but I can tell you that there’s no other place that Takofanes’ people could be holding him in the free zone.”
“So that’s it,” John said. “Road trip.”
Jason looked over at John and waited for a long second. “You had this planned all along, didn’t you?”
“Mostly,” John admitted. “I didn’t figure out how to use our being on Mars until we were in the caves, though.”
Jason shook his head in admiration. It made John feel surprisingly good. Cocky. Even elated. For some reason, he found himself saying, “And when we get back to Earth with Booker, I’m going to have a chai!”
Amy turned and looked at him. “First things first, bud!” But her cheeks flared with heat. And John felt his own lighting up in response. Why had he said that? What had he meant? Then he let it go. It was hard to think about anything else when he was about to drive a pink Cadillac down Route 666.

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