Monday, January 23, 2012

Chapter 26: Running Down the Road

How did the Eagles end up being a Muzak staple? I ask, but I'm inclined to just go ahead and blame them for it, on the grounds that I really, really hate "Hotel California." "Taking it Easy," on the other hand, I kind of like.

Chapter 26: Running Down the Road

“Pretty. I bet I could build that. Some of it, anyway.” Emily put a finger to a shiny gyro wheel on its gimballed mount, just to the left of where a wire on a lagged mounting connected via three sandwiched cams it to a block of metal seemingly formed entirely of shiny, interlocked gears.
“Hey! Don’t touch!” John protested.
“Ahem. I know what these do. Do you?”
“No. But I know how to set them. Well, Henry does.” John finished defensively. They were looking under the hood, to a tiny cutaway somehow snugged into the mass of the Fairlane’s huge V8 engine. The time machine. Or, actually, the time machine’s controls, since the actual machine apparently had a dimension all to itself. The electrical instruments in the dash were, strictly, just controls for the controls. It would be silly to run the time machine electrically when some dimensions didn’t allow electricity. More importantly, right now, the dashboard controls wouldn’t let John do what he wanted to do. Or, at least, Henry hadn’t known how to make them do it when his skills were transferred over to John.
“I wonder where Henry drove the Fairlane,” Jason wondered aloud. He was standing, impatient, with the rest of the team while John turned calipers and set tensions.
Amy shrugged. “China? The Old West? Screwing around with the family history, wherever he went.”
“You figure?” Jason said.
“That’s time travel for you. It’s not really messing stuff up until it gets back to you. Better yet, once you’ve messed up continuity, you get to drop heavy hints about mysterious secrets ever after.”
“Henry doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’d pull that stuff,” Rafaella said. “He’d just keep his trap shut.”
“Jenny not so much,” Amy answered.
“Your brother and sister took a field trip through history? I would so pay to be in the backseat for that one.” Rafe put her fingers in her ears to suggest the obvious drawback to being cooped up in a car with a pair of Wong siblings for all eternity.
“Eh.” Jason shrugged. “Henry and Jenny aren’t like Amy and me.”
“’Amy and I?’” Rafaella wondered.
“No. me is right,” Amy said.
“English, she’s funny,” Rafe replied.
Anyway, Henry and Jenny are too much alike.”
Emily had wandered away from the front of the car to stand with the others at the edge of Rosa’s cargo bay. “That doesn’t stop you two from squabbling.”
Amy turned on her friend with an exaggerated wheel. “After all the things I’ve done for you, Em,”
“Aren’t you going to yell at your brother for saying ‘anyway?’”
“Saving that for later.” John stopped adjusting for a second to watch Amy mime putting something away in a box. “Let’s get back to a certain former BFF suggesting that I’m just like my idiot brother.”
“Shoe fits, girlfriend wears it.” As Emily talked, Jason, standing just behind her, bugged his eyes out and flailed around, complete with Three Stooges sound effects.
Amy put her fists on her hips and drew herself up. John kept watching. “Oh. Oh. You are so off my list!”
“You’re only like the good bits of Jason,” Emily relented.
Amy stepped up and gave Emily a hug, quick and shallow to say that the gesture was as much a lark as the fight. “Remind me not to go nuclear again for at least six months, Em.”
“Eh.” Said Emily. “Maybe by that time it’ll be over and there won’t be a list.” John was lost.
“Em, I’m only fifteen! And a half.” Were they talking about Amy getting married? Girls were crazy. And Emily was crazier.
Emily shrugged. “Time travel’s in play? Remember? Besides, I might get married first.” Rafe coughed.
Time travel was in play. Especially if John didn’t get the adjustments right on the controls. Going from Mars to a location in the free zone between the Philadelphia portal and the outskirts of Babylon was tricky work. John thought that he could insert them neatly enough that they wouldn’t gain or lose any distance along the world line, but this was the first time he’d ever actually done something like this, and he might be wrong. Ending up time travelling would be the perfect end to a day that was already long and confusing enough.
“Okay, done,” John said, loudly.
“Are you guys sure that you don’t want to wait for me to take you back to Earth,” Rosa asked? The “guys” rang faintly odd in Rosa’s cultured, vaguely European accent. But she was being very careful not to call them “children,” which John appreciated.
“That’d be, what, almost another two hours, right?” Rafe asked. “No. Uncle Kwan is a schemer. Book is bait for a trap, and we have a chance to ruin that trap.” It sounded convincing, even if Rafe was actually even more eager for action than the rest of him. Having to run away from her uncle’s forces must have been very tough for her, John thought. “Okay, guys. Let’s …”
“Shotgun!” Amy yelled. Interrupting was the only way to get ahead of Jason.
They piled into the car. John’s hands were trembling as he fumbled with his seat belt. This was going to be real driving. Not like parking the Fairlane. Automatically, he looked over at Amy, and she smiled back at him. His stomach clenched in a new way, now that he knew that Jameel was after her. Whatever. Jameel hadn’t kissed her. Had he? All that went through his head as he looked into her sweet smile, and John knew how badly he needed a distraction. If he didn’t look away now, he had no clear idea what he would do, except that he wasn’t just going to sit and stare at her forever, even if he wanted to. John turned away abruptly, and turned the key in the ignition, leaving a muttered, “I’ve got to get us started” hanging in the air after him. He wondered if she’d even heard. John wished that he could be smooth, like Jameel. So that he could… What could he do? This really was a confusing day.
“Okay, everybody, seatbelts on, tuck yourselves in.” For a moment, John considered warning them in more detail, but that was stupid. They’d figure it out as he raced the engine through one gear after another, the rear wheels spinning ever faster on their rests, the engine roaring loud enough to hurt ears. Then, John hit the little toggle, and everything began to happen.
They were on a road, two lane, asphalt so old that the black had gone to grey, reaching out into the almost-barren distance between sandy plains of low brush. The light was no longer Rosa’s friendly fluorescence, much less the dim, tired red of Mars. It was harsh and bright, the kind of desert mid-day that you could only imagine in Philadelphia. There was a blast of air through the Fairlane’s ancient vent windows that really did smell of sage.
It was a blast, of course, because they were going 120mph in a direction only vaguely similar to the one that the road was encouraging them to go. John was hauling on the wheel, swearing as he did so, trying to veer out of the ditch to the left hand side, as the tyres shuddered and the outside scenery shifted, almost more like steering a Mario Kart than a real car. He’d been hoping for 90, but he was still good to haul short of the far ditch, and wander back into the correct lane. Of course, now he was headed for the ditch on their side.
“Holy crap!” He heard Jason shout. Emily wasn’t just screaming.  Rafe, he wasn’t surprised, didn’t say anything, and Amy reached out to grip his shoulder. It was the best feeling ever, if he could just get the car under control. John felt the engine speed drop into range, and downshifted as fast as he could –two gears. As the third-gear spin hit the road, the old Fairlane felt as though it had hit a wall for a second, but transmission and tyres held, and the last even stopped their shuddering. Were they that unbalanced? John thought, as he steered into the endless succession of faded white dots in the middle of the road. Faded white on faded black; this was a Tatammy road, he thought to himself with a smile as he gently sped up and brought the car back up to fifth gear. According to the map, the road was going to veer to the right, soon, and take them towards the mountains that pinched in the plain, bare rock reaching towards a sun too bright to be faced square.  John put his sun visor down, and smiled as he looked at the cosmetics mirror, and the little cross on it, as he thought about Mrs. Crudup.
“Anyone want to stop in at Sarah & Sylvia’s for soul food on the way home?” John asked.
 “Who’s paying, big spender?” Amy was the only one with pocket money, because of the baby sitting. John hadn’t meant to suggest that she pay, and she wasn’t serious, anyway, he figured. Her hand hadn’t left his shoulder.
“Book, I figure.” John said. “He’s going to owe us.”
“Oh! Oh! The Tilapia, with Mac and Cheese and yams,” Emily said.
“That’s good food, at least by pinkie standards,” Rafe replied.
Emily replied quickly. “You’ve been paying attention, right, Rafe? Soul food is…”
“Black, White, Asian, you’re all pinkies to me,” Rafe replied. “Nothing wrong with that. Some of my best friends are…”
“Oh!” Jason yelled. Then, to change the subject, “So, what are you having, Amy?” The question was strangely inflected, but John couldn’t look back, as he was too busy watching the road. Amy’s hand slowly fell away from his shoulder. Damn other people! Not that John cared. Still, he wouldn’t have minded if Amy had left her hand there for a while longer.
The road was definitely headed towards the mountains, now rolling through tougher ground. John reluctantly slowed down. There was still no sign of other traffic, but he didn’t want to encounter the first one while drifting around a blind corner. With all of Babylon waiting at the far end of the free zone, hardly anyone lived out in this wild country where the Parterre of the City of Man faded into the metaphysical incomprehensibility that was the border between the dimensions. Hardly anyone, for those who chose to live out here were generally the people who couldn’t get along even in Babylon’s wildest districts. Or so John had been told. He figured that half the stories that May and Corey and Jameel had told him were a little exaggerated.
The Fairlane crested a rise, and John geared down again. At the bottom of the hill, the road crossed a dry gulch on a beaten-up single lane bridge over bare metal planks. John took it slow. Beyond, the pavement ended, and dirt and gravel took over, feeling almost greasy under his wheels. Now the road turned even twistier, taking sharp switchbacks up the side of the canyon, until it abruptly turned, and they were clenching the side of a canyon wall, the entire height they’d gained, and more besides, suddenly given back to the gorge to their left. It felt almost like John could reach out and touch the edge of the road, and, in reality, he had no idea what they’d do if they ran into oncoming traffic. There was barely room for one car on this road, never mind two.
And then it got worse. Ahead of them, even the narrow lane disappeared in a long-past washout. Just two canyon walls, one way too close, the other a hundred feet away across a gap that went down at least three hundred feet. And, in front of them, a deep gully cut through the road, leaving a rocky, steep, slope leading back up to the rest of the road on the far side. No doubt it was just as steep on their side, even if John couldn’t see it with the hood in the way.
“Okay, guys. I guess it’s time to get out and walk,” John said.
“I don’t think so,” Rafe answered. “The only reason why I went along with this crazy scheme is that this car’s basically a tank these days. No way am I fighting Takofanes’ B team with just us.”
“More like C team, I’m guessing,” Emily said.
Jason broke in. “Can’t you just levitate the car over the gap, John?”
“This is vintage Detroit iron, Jas. Too much weight for me.” John answered.
“And Rafe and I can’t carry it over… I don’t think. Let me get out and have a look around for a trail….”
“Never mind, bro,” Amy said. “I’ll just use my T.K. to lighten the car. Then John’ll be able to lift it.”
“That’ll work?” Rafaella asked. “Very creative.”
“I think so, Rafe,” John answered.
John waited for a long second as Amy focussed. “Okay,” she finally said. “Go ahead.” John reached out with his mind, and lifted. Even with Amy’s help, the big old Cadillac was almost at the limits of his strength, but only almost. In a moment, they were drifting through the air forwards, and then, moments later, the front wheels cross the edge of the washout, five feet above the ground. For a long moment, John focussed, aware of what would happen if, somehow, he lost it and let the Fairlane go. Then, it was over, and John could let it settle back to the ground.
Thump! “Hey! A little more gently next time, John!” Emily said.
“Gently what?” Jason said. Out of the corner of his eye, John saw motion from back to front, as Jason punched his twin lightly in the shoulder. What was that about? A moment later, John realised what it was about, and if he weren’t busy now, slowly picking the Fairlane’s way through the now boulder-strewn stone, he would have given Jason a good glaring.
“The car’s invisible now,” Amy announced to the compartment.
“Awesome,” Rafe said. John heard her stand behind him, and then the sound of the wind over the Fairlane’s roof changed. After a second, John realised that Rafe must have deployed the roof turret. “Keep the gun barrel inside ‘till you need it, Rafe,” he said. “It’s bad for gas mileage.” After a second, John realised that the comment came from his Henry memories. John hadn’t even thought to worry about gas! A quick look at the gauge fortunately showed it three quarters full. The Fairlane, John remembered Billy Tatum once telling him, got considerably better mileage than the original specification. The old engine was a beautiful machine, but there’d been a lot of room for improvement, even without using computer chips and whatnot. It looked like they weren’t going to run out of gas, at least, because the bottom of the gorge was marching quickly up to meet them, and that meant that they were going to be driving on the canyon floor in a moment. At that point, they would see the ghost town where Takofanes’ creatures were hanging out marching up the side of the canyon walls on bleached wood tiers, with an abandoned mine at the top. Hopefully, that was where Booker was being held.
“Okay,” said Rafe, above him. “John, we’re actually going to drive through the town to the head of the canyon. There’s a pullout here shown on the satellite view –there can’t really be a satellite over the free zone, can there?—where we can hide the car. That’ll let our stealth team go detached and find Booker, with us in reserve ready to ride to the rescue like Seventh bloody Cavalry.”
“Yay! General Custer wrote our plan!” Said Jason.
“Damn straight.” Rafe answered. “No loser wimp stuff like ‘surviving’ for us!”
It seemed like an eternity as they drove slowly by the ghost town. There could be a million eyes looking out of the black, glassless windows of the strangely quaint and pretty buildings on their left. John slowed down a little more, as though the sound of the engine might have anything to do with Amy’s power to keep them from being noticed. And, who knows, maybe it did. As much as they’d all experimented with each other’s powers, it wasn’t exactly obvious to anyone how they might hold up against serious opposition. Fortunately, they had the Fairlane, bristling with guns and able to escape through the dimensions if they had to do so.
At last, they were past the town, to where the road, even narrower and more heavily rutted than before, began to climb up to the level of the plateau through which the canyon cut. There, just as the impossible satellite view predicted, they found the cut out, nicely masked from the town by a free standing clump of rock. John pulled in behind it, stopped the car, and cut the engine. Finally, he noticed how hot it was. A little drop of sweat plinked against his shoulder. Rafe’s from where she stood above him in the turret, he thought, gross.
“Okay, team,” Rafe said from above. “This is where we split the party.”
“This plan just keeps on getting more awesome,” Jason said.
“Amy and Emily go into the town. Double invisible, walking on walls and ceilings, Emily ready to pull you both out by teleport the moment anything goes wrong. Remember; we’re extracting Booker, not dealing with the bad guys. We can leave that to the Liberty League. Car team is me and John. John drives, and keeps in touch with Amy. Any trouble, and it would be awesome if your teleport powers were to kick in again. Jason, you can chill in the back seat if you like, but I want you on foot, running interference for us. This plan puts you at worst risk of getting left behind for later pickup, so you get first pick of the survival gear in the trunk, Amy and Emily second.”
A long pause, as though Rafe were waiting for protest, and John really felt like protesting, for all that he saw that this was the best plan.
Jason, however, did speak up. “I want to go with the girls.” And now John felt free to say, “Me too.”
Rafe just bored straight ahead. “Guys, that’s the way it’s going to be. The stealth team only works if it’s inconspicuous. We’re in as much danger as the girls. You’re in more, Jason, because you’re outside the Fairlane with no means to teleport back in.”
“Yeah, but…”
“No buts, Jason. We’re coming back with Booker.”
“Or…” Jason said.
“There’ll be no-one to pay for my pork chop platter,” Rafe finished. “Besides, you really need to remember how  your sister’s powers work.” John looked around to the passenger’s side seat and then behind. Amy was already gone, and Emily, too. John opened his mind’s eye to see if he could spot her. He couldn’t. It was just a view of the ghost town, from above, where he could be flying, instead of waiting here under cover while Amy and Emily wandered into what could be a trap.
He looked down, obscurely proud that this, like his intermittent predictive powers, was something that his still-mysterious clone-father couldn’t do.  The bone white wood was hot and bare under the afternoon sun, and the only motion that he could see was an honest-to-God vulture swooping over the town. For a long moment he looked down, scouting the town for buildings large enough to hide Booker’s SUV. There were several. In fact, there actually was the hood of a car, a Model A, it looked like to John, sticking out of a shed beside what looked like a school house. It must be old, he thought. It was actually rusted, in spite of the dry climate.
There was a lot of cover down there in this lost mining town, John thought. What did they mine in the free zone, anyway? How did they get satellite views on Google Dimensions? What the heck was Google Dimensions? This was a big, mysterious world, and John was glad to be part of it. Even right now, when it was scary.
Not least because a black SUV had just emerged from the canyon below and began to proceed up the road, straight towards them. Behind it came a familiar Hummer, and then another SUV.
“Rafe…” John began. “Something’s going on. Something….” He didn’t finish, because while the lead SUV and the Hummer turned off the track into the town, the last one continued up the road, straight towards them. All it had to do was pass them, and the team’s cover was blown.

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