Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chapter 29: Heart, Wolf, Monkey

So, it's Valentine's Day. I'd resolve the main romantic arc today, except it would blow my longest-laid cliffhanger. So you'll have to settle for the other romantic resolution. Don't blink or you'll miss it.

Chapter 29: Heart, Wolf, Monkey

Well, not that dark. The Pennsylvania night was lit by the sky glow of State College behind them as the Fairlane settled into the winding country road. John kept it on the road with a little tug of the steering wheel as Amy put her hand back in her lap. John wondered how long the gate behind them would stay open. Not that it mattered. They were back home, with the Liberty League in easy range. Takofanes and his forces were attacking the Indian Superhero Division right now. There was no way he had the strength to fight another battle against A league opposition in Pennsylvania.
Rafe seemed to agree, because she let go of the turret frame above his head and sat down. “And that’s the end of that. World safe for democracy, time for pie.”
Jason replied. “Spoiler alert: Not.”
“We’re back in Pennsylvania, headed towards your cottage, right next to Goblin Deep. Is there any place safer?”
“Eh,” Jason answered. “There’s a VIPER Nest as close as Goblin Deep. So not the point, though, because this is where Uncle Kwan attacks.”
“You think?” Emily asked.
“It’s how I’d do it. There’s an ambush up ahead.”
“That doesn’t make sense! How would he know where we were going to jump?”
Jason’s weight creaked on Amy’s seat back. John glanced back. Jason was leaning against his crossed arms, ready to pontificate into the hushed air of the cabin, gone quiet with the engine geared down to second and the whistling of air over the window vents stilled by their low speed down the moonlit country road. “Anyone here ever played Hearts?”
“No,” John answered, a second before Rafaella.
“Of course. We taught you. Remember, dumbass?” Emily said.
Jason ignored them. “Hearts is a game where you all have a hand of cards. You go around the table, throwing in a card, and the highest card following suit wins the hand. If you can’t follow suit, you throw in a discard. Now, the trick is that you don’t want to win the hand, because highest score loses. You get points for every hearts card you have, which is why the name. But, if you win all the hearts cards, you don’t get any points. Everyone else gets that many points instead.”
“Em told you…” Amy started.
Jason wasn’t finished. “So you can do two things in a round of Hearts. You can try to play it cool and stay out of trouble by losing all the hands where hearts cards are played. Or you can go for the master plan and win all the hands.  That’s the tricky part. It’s not often that you can win every hand straight out from your hand. You have to get other players to let you win some hands, which means fooling them about what you’re trying to do until it’s too late. Then, if you’ve got enough winning cards in your hand, you can run it out.”
Amy rocked back in her seat. “And your point would be?”
“People have this idea about masterplans, that everything’s settled, all down the line. Like, Uncle Kwan meant us to go to Mars on November 10 with Rosa and this car in the cargo bay, and that he meant us to come back and save Book, and that he was just herding us into the ambush that we’re going to hit on switchback curve halfway up the hill up from the bridge that’s down around this bend.”
Jason hesitated with the hesitation of Incredibly Dramatic Revelations Following. “But that’s not how it works at all. It’s like a round of Hearts. You start with your hand, you add to it from the discards, and then you play. Real careful; one card, another card. If you’ve done it right, if you’re inside the other player’s heads, eventually, they’ll play all the cards they have that can stop you, and then you can just lay the rest of your cards and take all the hearts and win big.”
John looked back. “Again with the cards, Jason. I don’t get it. Why did he go to all that trouble to get Gyre to chase me?”
“I hate to break it to you, John, but you’re not the only guy in the world. Sure, this was a plan about you, but I bet we don’t know half the cards that Uncle played.  One of those cards happened to be Gyre’s thing about teleporters. That made her a card to play to get you to the right place at the right time. He had other cards to play for Theera, and others for Book, and Agent Byrne. He even played Rafaella’s uncle to get her here right now.”
Amy squealed. “Emily!”
John hardly heard Amy, because his body was shivering, as though it were all as cold and wet as his armpits, although in fact it was as hot as a furnace, and it seemed like the heat was escaping through his neck and his forehead.  It couldn’t be true about him and Amy, because if it was true, it was scary and he’d already screwed things up so many ways. It was something that could happen. In the future. When he was ready to be in something so grownup and scary. “I don’t get it, Jason.”
“John, if you don’t stop playing dumb, I’ll…”
“Jason!” Amy said sharply. John felt a rush of gratitude. He really liked it when Amy stuck up for him. The analytical side of him said that …but he squelched that thought. Nothing that good was ever going to happen to him until he was the kind of person that people liked, the kind of guy who could always say the right thing and just hang out with everybody, the way that Cory or Jameel always did, never feeling awkard or stupid. Or was that just what he told himself when he was being a chicken? He focused on the bridge, one of those painted steelwork country bridges that looked like the inside of a girder. The sudden smoothness of the bridge floor as the tyres rolled over it made the cabin even quieter. John fancied that he could even feel the slight knock as the unbalanced left front tire rolled along.
John heard Rafaella stand up again behind him. “Okay, Jason, I’m sold. I just hope these guys don’t know we brought a tank with us. Let’s get ready for a fight.” A moment  later, Rafaella popped the turret.
Amy, meanwhile, took a moment to fold down her gunsights. John waited for a moment for her to get ready, then tested the headlights, flicking the manual override off. The nightvision Heads Up Display appeared on the windshield on cue, leaving the gigantic full moon strangely muted. Beside him, Amy hit the switch that folded the passenger-side headlight back to reveal the rocket port, and launched a practice round that bloomed a trail of white smoke ahead of them. John was about to tell her to put the headlight back up when she did it herself. Then he flicked the headlights back on. No point in giving the ambush advanced warning that something wasn’t right.
John hoped that it would make a difference. They hadn’t had a chance to fire their rocket clips back at the ghost town. It should come as a surprise to the orcs or whoever would be waiting for them up the hill. Unless they’d heard somehow. Gyre wouldn’t know about them, but Mr. McNeely would. John had a hard time believing that Mr. McNeely was a traitor, but he wouldn’t hesitate to talk about them. John stared again into the oncoming moon.  The werewolves they’d fought before, just a few miles away. Were they in on this? They’d come out by daylight last time, but they might be even more dangerous under the moon.
As soon as the car cleared the bridge, the back right door opened, and Jason slipped out. John heard Emily whispering to Booker. “Book? Book? Can you hear me? We could really use your Artifice Gun right now.” If he heard, Booker Crudup gave no sign. John hit the rising slope of the road. The trees were close in to the road, growing practically up to the shoulder and slightly raised to the bank, their branches encroaching above the road to give it a close in feeling, as though they hadn’t left the bridge after all. Up above, the road seemed to disappear into the forest as it turned into the switchback.
John kept his hand on his override switch. Amy was doing the same. As they came out of the corner, John glimpsed two cars parked in a “vee” across the road, just like in the movies. Jason was right! He flicked off the headlight, and a streak of tracer fire crossed the night sky above him, aiming at something John couldn’t see even in the headlights. Then came another of Emily’s blindingly bright machine lights, blossoming over the scene, and John saw two figures crouched in front of the cars to the left, three on the right. As if on cue, someone opened up on the left with an energy weapon, and from the right with an electric blaster. The shields on the front of the Fairlane took both, but just barely, as Amy returned fire: one rocket to the right, the second to the left, the third to the right again.  They didn’t burst explosively, but that wasn’t their payload. You can fit a lot of aerosol in a rocket warhead, and stun gas didn’t set things on fire.
“John, stop!” Rafe yelled.
“’Get there…’”
“I don’t care what your stupid Nazi general said! We can back up if we need to get moving again. In the mean time, let’s not smash up our only tank in the convenient trap!”
John pouted. But he also pulled to a stop. Rafe was the pirate princess captain boss, and she had a point. Not about the quote though. He wasn’t going to go all General Guderian. That was “speed is armour,” and that was stupid. He was going to quote Nathaniel Bedford Forrest. Confederates were totally different from Nazis. Well, not that different, counting the racism and the wars and the crazy  people on the Internet, but different.
The Fairlane sat there for a long moment in the silence. There was no motion from either side of the road. Or was there? And then the scene was lit again, this time by the headlights of a truck coming up the road behind them. A familiar blue and white SUV that abruptly slewed to a stop as it turned the corner. As John watched, his head cranked around on his neck to get a glimpse of what was going on, Jason materialised from the side and jerked the driver’s side door open.
A frightened Liam came stumbling out onto the pavement, falling to his knees. “Who are you guys? Superheroes? Oh thank God, thank God.” Another of Emily’s lights bloomed over the scene, letting John notice fine details, like the pee stains down the inside of the right leg of Liam’s sweatpants. “There’s these things. Like fucking monster faces.”
He stopped and panted, mouth open, tongue out, like a dog, naked panic on his face “They just jacked my ride back in Phillie, put this UNTIL agent they snatched in the back, and drove me out to the desert. Like, the fucking desert, with the Road Runner and everything. Then you guys shot us up and there was a roll over, and the agent is all, like, ‘let’s get a ride,’ and we fucking steal a truck, and he’s like, go this way, go that way, right off the side of the road down into this fucking canyon like in the Road Runner. And, like, a minute ago, we hit the highway right in the middle of this fucking desert. And then there was this hole that opened up in the road where you guys were, and we were here and it was night. This is fucked. Fucked. You owe me a car.”  He looked up, and must have seen Rafe in the gun turret. “Oh, shit. We can work it out. Don’t shoot me, man.”
Agent Byrne slipped out beside him. It was the first time that John had seen him in the flesh. Above him, Rafaella said, very loudly, “Aren’t you a little short to be an UNTIL agent?”
He cocked his still-sunglassed eyes back up at her. “Aren’t you a little butch to be a superhero?”
So not the way it works,” Rafe shrugged with her voice. “Now, Mr. Situation’s-Little-Brother. About your awesomely story that I totally believe. Is there a reason why I shouldn’t just plug you now?”
“Because you’re a super, and I really am an UNTIL agent?” Agent Byrne held out something in his right hand. Jason took it. This was a problem. Amy and Jason knew Byrne. They knew he was an UNTIL operative. They also knew that he was crooked. The question was whether he was being crooked right now?
“How did you get through the gate, Agent Byrne?” Rafaella asked.
Byrne reached up and pushed his sunglasses higher on his nose. “There’s a gizmo on the dash.” John felt his shoulders slump. Of course there was. Booker didn’t have the power to push a whole SUV through the dimensions, or he would have brought it over directly from Babylon.  They’d even left a gate behind them for the gizmo to go through. It seemed hard to believe that they’d managed to get by the washed out road, too. Liam’s explanation didn’t make sense from what John had seen, but he hadn’t seen everything, either. Would Rafe really shoot these guys in cold blood? Not if she could help it, but maybe leaning on Liam would work. He was just a kid, after all. Which thought made John smirk to himself a bit. They were all just kids after all. He couldn’t even. . . .He looked over at Amy, but she wasn’t watching what was going on behind them. She had her eyes on the ambushers ahead of them.
“There’s something going on up there. I’m checking this out.”
“I’ll come with,” John replied, sliding out of the door. Amy didn’t show any sign of disagreeing, leaving John to argue it out in his head. Should they be going forward? Well, they didn’t need a driver or a rocket gunner anymore. The Fairlane was blocked in, and there were only three rockets in the clip. John slid around the hood, slipping his hand by the mine dropper as he did so. Somehow, he ended up right in Amy’s path, instead of going around her, and they almost bumped. For a crazy second, John wanted to throw himself in front of her again, to get another chance. Instead, they settled into a sweep pattern, John four feet to Amy’s side and slightly ahead, to engage with TK and ranged attack and hopefully give Amy a chance to break focus and go invisible. It was too bad John hadn’t figured out how to store bright light in his internal batteries and flash people. It would be the perfect complement to Amy’s power set. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? Why couldn’t he learn to be practical and smart and grownup around her, and not goofy?
John and Amy walked up to the big group together. They were orcs, just like John figured, unconscious from the stun gas. They were all splayed face up, fallen straight over on their back, so that he could see their chain mail and weird helmets and their distorted, tusk-mouthed grey-green faces, just like in Lord of the Rings. Weird crew-served guns, like the Engineer’s machine gun in Team Fortress, but with more drippy flanges, stood on tripods on the narrow shoulder, facing the road. So John guessed that they were more like Orks than orcs. And people said that Warhammer 40,000 was unrealistic!
There was one more thing that John had to do here. He hated it in stories and comics where the heroes didn’t take advantage of moments like this. The operators were down, the guns were right there. He could solve this one problem right now. So John lifted the machine guns with his telekinesis and gave them a good, solid hurl into the woods, where presumably the good guys would find them tomorrow. They were very light. And it was odd that they were in front of the barricade, now that he thought about it.
<One of the orcs in the other group is moving.> John carefully didn’t acknowledge Amy. Instead, he extended his own clairvoyance for the first time. And got a shock. This might be night, but between the full moon and Emily’s flare, the lines of the ambush scene were etched in clear black and silver. But in his mind’s eye, it was shrouded with fog that made it hard to see what was going on. It was the opposite of how things were supposed to be, but the fog wasn’t heavy enough that he could miss the fact that one of the two orcs on the right side of the road was  moving slowly.
He heard Amy’s voice in his mind. <I’m going to slip into the woods and go invisible. Before I get any closer to that thing.> John nodded, then reconsidered. She wasn’t necessarily watching him.
<Cool. Just be careful. I’m still expecting werewolves.>
<They can’t climb trees.>
<Bet they can. I don’t like this plan.>
<Can’t climb them like me. Don’t worry. The advantage to my kind of invisibility is that it works against werewolf noses as well as it does against people’s eyes. As long as I steer clear of Rafe’s arc of fire, I’m safer than you guys. And you’re safe, too. We’ve got, like a thousand rounds of silver-tipped 5.56mm penetrator in the turret ammo box.>
<Suddenly I’m beginning to appreciate knowing rich people. Now I’m going to check out the orc. From a safe height.> John lifted off from the road. He’d missed flying for as long as he’d been playing driver. He drifted over to the stirring, changing orc. Only it wasn’t an orc. It was some kind of wolf man, with a long snout and brindle grey fur. And then  it got up and jumped at John, cupping its paw-hands and seeming to go for height, but not quite making it. From the car, a blaze of tracer stripped across the scene, and the wolfman dropped to the pavement again. Sparks flew just behind it as a clip of silver-tipped bullets cut across the edge of the asphalt just behind it. This wasn’t shaping up to be a good day for wolfmen. And something, suddenly, was bothering John. Something wasn’t right here.
“Rafe!” He yelled into his wrist radio. “Don’t shoot!”
“Shit, John! We can’t fight a pack of werewolves. That’s why we’ve got a machine gun with fucking silver bullets!” But she didn’t shoot. There was something wrong; a pattern, a move.. . That was it! He’d seen that move before. Amy had done that, the first time he met her.
<Why does that werewolf crouching on the road remind me of you?>
<Oh crap oh crap oh crap. Because it’s May. . . .She must have been bit back in August.>
Well, that wrapped it all up in a neat little ball. This was the plan all along, to set them up to gun May down. And that, John knew, was what they would have to do. They would have to put a clip of silver bullets through snooty old May’s wolfy skin. He’d never have to tell her that he hid the grey pumps, and he would never have to hear her put him down again. And they had a heart to  heart talk with The Captain. If you could have a heart-to-heart with a dog. John felt awful. Just a minute ago, he’d been wishing to be a grownup, and being ready for all this sort of stuff.
But this was what being a grownup was like. One minute you were hiding May’s grey pumps on a lark, the next you were realising that you had to ….kill her to save the lives of his friends. Just like that, no more cranky, angry, funny, pretty May. John was about to become a member of the secret order of grownups. It didn’t seem nearly as good an idea right now as it had been a few minutes before. Maybe the silver bullets would only wound May? No, that was just an unrealistic thing to hope.
Besides, then they’d have to hear her explanation for betraying the family she loved. It had frankly never occurred to John that someone could betray the Yurt. Just thinking about it, about all the kindness that he’d been shown in that house made it hurt all the more. Yet Uncle Kwan had betrayed his family, killed his parents and all but one of his brothers and sisters. It could happen. It was in the blood. Just as there was about to be blood.
“John? What’s wrong?” Rafe shouted.
In the darkness beyond the barricade, John could make out things moving forward with the rocking movement of running dogs, or wolves. “Nothing.” Heartsick, John raised his hands in a signal to shoot.

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