Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chapter 30: Trying Too Hard

Well, that's not quite it. Still one short chapter and an epilogue to go.

Chapter 30: Trying Too Hard

<No no no no no. You can’t kill my sister!>
That was it, really, but some part of John didn’t want to lose the argument, and continued in that frozen moment of telepathic exchange between when Rafe decided and actually pulled the trigger. <Amy, we have to make the hard choices if we’re going to survive. It’s like Walking Dead.> With that stupid thought, John knew what part of his brain wanted to argue. The crazy part that wanted to throw Amy away, and he was sick to his stomach.
<No prob, John. You’re leaking all over the place again.
<Leaking about what?> He asked, knowing the answer, and got back a wave of flushing red, so that in his mind’s eye the moonlit night was the colour of a blush blooming in chai-coloured cheeks, and his own flaming embarrassment rose in reply as he remembered every moment that he’d spent  obsessing about Amy this long, long day. This telepathy thing made life hard!
<Not to worry, John. Like I told you, there’s not much you can learn from telepathy that you can’t see in a person’s eyes.>.
He didn’t trust himself to reply, and a momentless moment later, Amy continued, <Now yell at Rafe or something before she shoots my sister!>
With that, John’s brain blew out like a lightbulb going out in reverse. He could see into Rafe’s mind, filled with passionate regret, and it took just a touch of his telekinesis to freeze the trigger. And he could see so much more. Agent Byrne was crashing. A moment ago, he’d been elated over getting away from his kidnappers. Now his instinct for being on the winner’s side was kicking in, and he was wishing desperately for a gun so that he could shoot Jason and make for the woods.
 John would have broken in and warned Jason, but Jason didn’t need the warning. Jason had a suspicious mind, John already knew, and he had half an eye on Agent Byrne and even Liam, whose mind was much less frightened and much fuller of disturbing red-black than John had expected. The rest Jason’s attention was on the bending curve of the forest that tracked the corner behind them. Jason fancied that he could see ominous stirrings out there.
John, stretching out his mind, could see that Jason was basically right. Not about the edge of the road, but two hundred feet away in the blackness on the slope of the hill above the bridge, John’s mental senses brushed the Lion Stallion. The mighty animal’s heart was pounding with an adrenaline rush. A nightmare lizard had just risen from the brush in front of the stallion’s gallop towards the ambush site, swinging the huge and sharp poisoned stinger on the end of its tail at the horse’s face. The Lion Stallion had just barely swerved in time and was pivoting on  its rear legs to strike as armed orcs broke from the shrubs into the little windfall clearing that the wyvern had chosen for its ambush. From the earthen-coloured horse came a mental shout to John, giving voice to the neigh that was about to break from its lungs: “Save the herd!”
John turned his attention ahead. Where the ambush had started, the five stun gas victims were still sleeping, inaccessible to him. Even May, who had seemed to be stirring, was still dark with unconsciousness. John thought about trying to probe closer, before realising that this had to be more than unconsciousness! Beyond them in the darkness were more fleeting minds, full of red black. With that, the puzzle came together in John’s head. There was a crate blocking this passage, a crate in the way there, and pretty soon there were enough crates to build a ramp right over the barrier. Someone had put a nice little plan together. Someone who maybe had watched a few too many zombie movies. More to the point, someone who just plain tried too hard.
Finally, his mind flicked back over Rafe’s full of passionate regret as it all-too-slowly pulled tight on the trigger. You would have been too late, anyway, pirate princess, John thought, as he pushed back on the trigger with his telekinesis.
“The trigger’s stuck,” Rafe’s voice came over the team radio.
“I did that,” John replied.
“What? We have to…”
“No, you don’t have to shoot my sister,” Amy interrupted.
“No. You don’t. Someone thinks that we have to,” John answered. “Jason! Watch Liam!” John turned around.
In far less time than it had taken three people to say 28 words, Liam’s human head had been replaced by a wold’s. Words, far more bestial and uncontrolled than even Black Talon’s, broke from the Liam-thing’s muzzle. “You killed my brother!” Without hesitation, Jason laid into him so hard that the werewolf flew off the road and into the trees, dragging a drape of brown, winter-killed brambles after him.
“What are you talking about, John?”
“We’re under another of those illusion generator thingies. It’s on the Fairlane.
Jason, backing up, bumped into John from behind. “Let me guess. It’s attached to the left front wheel.”
“And wired to the battery. Someone probably installed there during the Halloween ambush.”
And, with that, flaring sparks came from the ground as the lights of the Fairlane cut out. John could feel a mild tingle of electric shock, even standing a good dozen feet from the ground. Finally, he thought, a break our way, as he pulled the energy in and augmented it from his own reserves.
Rafe’s outraged voice came from the roof. “Damn it! We’ve lost our tank!” She vaulted to the ground landing beside Emily as the Neilsen girl came out of the door.  The red black minds that John had sense came surging forward. He was about to mention them when Rafe, alerted by her keen night vision, opened fire with the pulson blasters in either hand, six shots, each illuminating a wolf leaping towards them. The pulson energy wouldn’t do anything serious to the werewolves, but it would knock them back. “I don’t understand. If the wolves are out there…”
“Look,” John said, sweeping his hands. The sleeping orc-wolf-thingies were now Jamie and May to one side, Rebecca, Don and Jameel on the other. Freed of whatever effect the device on the Cadillac was having, May and Jameel’s accelerated healing powers were bringing them both around. As John watched, they grabbed their friends and with easy strength carried them back to the group.
“You’re not who we were expecting,” May whispered to Jason, with her eyes sweeping to signify a question. Was Amy  out there somewhere?
Jason nodded, his lips tight. “Booker’s in the Fairlane. He’s still out. John?”
“Let me guess,” John said. “You guys followed a hot lead through a gate somewhere in Babylon, and here you are, set up for a blue-on-blue.”
“Yeah,” May said. “Where’s my-”
The Captain came butting by John’s leg, then brushed May’s more softly as it ran, launching itself into the air and taking a werewolf by the throat as it soared over the trunk of the car on the left. Evidently, the dimension-walking dog had figured that it wasn’t needed to sort out the over-orchestrated little play on the road. An attacking pack of werewolves was another matter. As the next werewolf after the first came down, John lit it with electric fire that ran harmlessly down its side through silvery trinkets. Of course they were prepared for Don’s attack! It leaped into them, only to take May’s Tatum-black boot to the head, hard.
Rafe’s hands were free of the blasters of a sudden, so that she could cut at a third wolfman thing, strangely familiar to John, with her rapier. That didn’t mean that the blasters were out of action, though, as Agent Byrne stood at on the hood of the car and shot at the fleeting shapes, not nearly as accurately, shouting, “Down, boy! Down!” We already did that joke, dude, John thought.
Behind him, John could sense Jason wrestling with a particularly large wolf. Liam, no doubt. Jameel had two in his hands that he was flailing together energetically. Memo to light fighters, John thought: don’t let the brick grab you, especially if he’s a one-man army from the future.
That left one animal-man out of the pack to deal with, and it was bounding straight at Emily, who was crouched over her sister, a pendant hanging from her hand and shining a little more than moonlight. John reached for that wolf with his telekinesis, but his move was clumsy, little more than a block in the road, and not enough to stop a charging were. It did, however, delay it long enough for Jamie to fire her massive automatics. A silver-tipped bullet from a Desert Eagle was not going to be stopped by any armour that a werewolf could carry, and three of them went down, turning back into naked human bodies as they hit the ground. Unexpectedly, however, the wolfman did not. No wonder it was familiar. It was Fenris! He clearly did not appreciate being shot, however, because he dived right back over the car, followed by the three surviving werewolves that had hastily wiggled free of a shocked Jason and Jameel.
I’d vote for you to be dogcatcher, Sis,” Emily said in a loud whisper.
“I killed those guys,” Jamie said, her voice shocked.
“No help to it, girl. Weres are nasty stuff,” Jameel said back. “So? Anyone want to hit Applebees?”
“Even if it were over up here, which it isn’t. the Lion Stallion is fighting a wyvern and so many orcs I can’t even keep track of how fast they’re going down.” John said, giving the desperate fight in the woods a little attention.
Hissing and shrieking, barefoot, barely human forms came rushing over and around the barricade. Jameel rushed them, blocking and carrying a good dozen backwards, yelling over the battle, “Fast zombies? Uncool, man!”
“Totally!” Jason replied, taking a rush from behind on the left side of the Fairlane, while May took one to the right, back to back with Rafe, Rebecca flicking in and out of the fight, ruthlessly snapping zombie necks from behind like some teleporting, undersized Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the centre Jamie, Emily, Agent Byrne and Don swept whatever was trickling past Jameel in the centre and to the left with blazing fire. Post-living waves aren’t going to be the answer, either, Wong Kwan Lee, John thought to himself, as his mind went out to the cat and mouse game in the woods to the slopewards side, where three huge figures brushed through the woods, while Amy lept sideways and downwards through the canopy above them, waiting for her moment to strike.
John lifted off, flying as fast as he could into the boughs, one hand over his eyes to protect them from whipping branches while his mind searched out in lieu. It didn’t take a moment for one of the huge things to sense and turn towards him. When it broke the darkness, John might have run if he hadn’t known that Amy was watching him. It was huge, 11 feet tall, with the same distorted features and mouth-too-full-of-fangs as an orc, and, despite its size, it was very, very fast as it unlimbered the bi-faced axe hanging by its backblade from its shoulder and brought it swinging around at him. John had a moment to appreciate that his telekinesis shield was not going to hold, and another to dodge desperately out of the way.
The axe cut the loam, throwing stinging mulch in John’s face as it went right through a rotting log, pinging as the blade hit rocks and pebbles beneath the rot-soft wood. The giant pulled it back in with almost the same motion, but that gave John a moment to hit as hard as he could with his telepathic blast. He was a lot stronger than he’d been when Fenris had brushed off his blow back in September, John was glad to see. The monster froze for a moment, long enough for Amy’s telepathic lance to finish the job.
The giant hit the ground harder than its axeblade. But behind its stretched body loomed another of the giants, reaching out for Amy, visible in the backlit of her lance, or however a befuddled mind rationalised the cloud of confusion that her powers wove around it. Amy dodged and dropped two grenades at its feet. She need a distraction! John grabbed the log and threw it into the giant’s face with his telepathy. Behind the screen of sodden dust, Amy vanished as the third giant emerged from the darkness.
For a moment, the two giants stood, staring at John, while the first one brought the second up to speed in its surprisingly musical tongue. Great, John thought. “Our trolls are different.” Then they separated and came at John from either side. Even the slipperiest small thing can’t dodge in both directions at once. But were they smart to beat John’s one good trick? Probably not; they were so closely coordinated that they even stepped off together.
John took a good long moment to stare at those over-sized torsos clad in studded leather armour, the cap helmets on top of the grotesquely toothed faces, the over-sized muscles under the grey-green skin, and the overwhelming stench of sweat and dirt that wafted from them. They didn’t get any the less frightening, but, somehow, knowing that you had to do it made all the difference. And was there a tweak of someone’s attention in the corner of his mind when he thought that, as though someone was eavesdropping? Some people were just too sneaky for their own good. Then he hurled himself forward, his kinetic-energy-absorbing shield that wasn’t strong enough to stop a punch yet above him, for all the good that it would do, and his telekinesis stretching out, his weight behind it.
Just as he planned, John caught both feet uprooting. Sweep the leg! Above him, he knew, two giants half the size of trees were up-ended, flailing, their axes coming down at whatever angle accident and intent combined to give. He was dead if they hit right, dead if they grabbed him while falling.
John rolled over, and watched as the two giants’ direction of fall suddenly reversed. Now they were headed for the sky, or, rather, the lace of feathery branches high above that were bowing upwards under Amy’s weight. The giants were far too heavy for the branches to support, of course, and as Amy bounced free, they tore right through and headed skyward, rapidly breeching the limits of Amy’s gravity-changing trick and falling back towards the ground. Yeah, eat gravity, you square-cube-law defying monstrosities, John shouted in his head, before reaching out with his telekinesis to catch Amy softly in his arms. Hardly daring to believe what he was doing, John bent down and kissed her. I’m probably doing this wrong, he thought, but I don’t care.
<No, no, not wrong at all. Still think I’m too sneaky for my own good?>
Scared. John was so scared right now, and beginning to understand some deep, natural plan. How could a man be brave enough to fight werewolves and zombies and trolls if he wasn’t brave enough to ask a girl out? “Amy, will you go to the school dance on Saturday with me?”
“You bought tickets? For Sabine?”
Oops. This wasn’t going right at all. “Four of them. We were going to double date with Tyrell, and Tyrell and I were going to ditch Tyrell on Sabine. It’s Cory’s plan, actually.”
“What? Cory’s super-secret master plan to get Tyrell together with Sarah was to make her jealous?”
“Um, yeah?”
“Could work.”
“So, will you come to the dance with me?”
“Come around to get me Saturday afternoon, and I’ll tell you then.”
“If you don’t think that I haven’t earned the right to be a bitch on wheels, you’ve got another think coming.”
“Excuse me, young gentles?”
John and Amy looked up, shocked. One of the trolls, its leg bent strangely beneath it, was looking at them. “I would lief grant the field and give you our parole.”
Shocked, John could only say, “Hunh?”
“You need to read more fantasy, John. They’re surrendering.”
“As the maiden says. My brothers and I have more than done our part for the Undying Lord today. And I gather that your folk have a time machine, the boon of which we can perhaps repay in some kind with information about the noble battle that  you have fought here today.”
“Yeah, un-hunh, whatever,” John answered, his mind’s eye already going to the battles flaring around them. The zombies were drawing back, while the Lion Stallion had just broken hard skull bone with a flailing hoof to bring its battle to an end. Good, they might have help soon. John had a feeling they would need it even before the sound of weird voices chanting to pipes and drums began in the night before him, and he caught the impress on the moonwashed air of two slowly-beating leathery wings. “Talk to you dudes later. We gotta go play Shield Maiden and Stupid-Even-For-a-Hobbit.”
“Yeah,” Amy whispered. “Theoden King, old dude, hate to break it to you, but that whole ‘Death’ thing isn’t doing it for me.”
The two of them broke out of the brush onto the shoulder of the road just in time to see that it wasn’t Uncle Kwan on a dragonlike mount. It was an actual, freaking dragon. From Jamie, Don, and Emily  came fire reaching up from the ground. Jamie had switched from physical ammo to energy. Was there such a thing as anti-dragon energy? John hoped so, but didn’t really expect it. Speaking of which, John flew down to  hover over the midst of the group. “Emily! Augment me!”
Just in time, too, as the dragon opened its mouth and flared. John’s energy absorbing shield caught it with not nearly enough capacity to absorb it, but with Emily’s help he was merely stunned by the overwhelming heat. Unfortunately, he did not black out hard enough to miss the agony as his body crunched against the ground, the breath squeezed out of him.
Helpless, John watched the dragon drop out of the sky, landing in the pavement between the Cadillac and the blockading cars, squishing zombies and zombie parts as it did so. In his mind, John watched the Lion Stallion, only fifty feet along from the last ambush, run into a giant spider that webbed the forest in front of it. It did not surprise John that, now that he knew what he was looking at, he could see even more giant spiders scuttling through the forest, not towards the Lion Stallion, but towards them. That would be the next round, if they survived that one. John hoped for reinforcement, but he could sense that even the Lion Stallion was beginning to tire now, sweat chafing over the saddlebags that, for some reason, it was wearing.
The dragon began to settle, only, as it did, gravity went strangely off-kilter to one side. The sound of its drumstick snapping could be heard over the weird music. Amy materialised to one side, vaulting nimbly aside as another blast of fire went astray, scouring the pavement and blasting gravel out of the ditch before setting the brush to the side of the road alight in spite of their dripping wintery wetness. Jameel and Jason jumped at it from either side, wrapping their strong arms around the dragon’s neck and twisting. Rebecca wasn’t the only member of the team who could pull that trick, John thought, as the sick sound of bone breaking was heard on the battlefield again.
Rebecca, May and Rafaella materialised in the middle of the group, May and Rafe holding the arms of an oversized lizard/ape man pinioned. “This is what’s up next,” May explained.
Rafe added, “They’re stronger than they look. But not sword proof.”
“Maybe the giant spiders will be. You know, just for a change,” John muttered, his breath coming back.
“Ick,” Emily said. “Uhm, I have a free movement buff to protect you guys from webs, but it’s pretty much the only spell I’ll be able to cast.”
Jason, his hands on his knees, breathing hard, dragon blood dripping from his fatigues, looked up at that. “Em. Coming over to the D&D dark side?”
 “If your campaign ever did anything but kill monsters, maybe I would. There’s such a thing as roleplaying, you know.”
“I know,” Jason said, winking, then cupping and moving his hands like Alison Brie on that episode of Community.
“You have a dirty mind, Jason Wong. When we’re all dead, don’t think for a moment that I’m going to have anything to do with you.”
“You know what? You kids are absolutely the shits at morale boosting,” Agent Byrne complained. “Have you considered surrendering?”
“As one of, like, four people here that Uncle Kwan doesn’t definitely want dead,” Jameel began, “I’m personally open to the idea.”
“Counterpoint,” Don said, “That’s strictly a minority position. Also, we’d have to hang out with Agent Asshole here.”
“Don, you said ‘asshole,’” May observed.
“Shoe fits, asshole wears,” Don replied.
“Also, it’s three of you at best,” Rafaella said.
“Rafe, you’re . . .” Don said, a surprising amount of emotion in his voice.
“Emily and Rafaella sitting in a tree,” Rebecca Hirsch began.
“Uncle Kwan wants everyone that’s here dead,” John  said, firmly. “Except Agent Byrne, so he’s got a point there. That’s the point of the whole ambush. Good thing Uncle Kwan’s a Wong, and Wongs try too hard.”
“Tell me about it,” Amy said. “Imagine if my Mom had planned this.”
“You say that like she didn’t,” Jason said, as the lights of dozens of VIPER hovertanks lit over the battlefield, and the Lion Stallion burst from the brush. “Oops. Looks like a certain evil mastermind shouldn’t have planned an ambush that used a bunch of some VIPER Nestleader’s guys moonlighting as werewolves and a truck that just happened to have a VIPER bug planted on it so she could keep tabs on her daughters.”
As if exhausted by talking so much, Jason went over to the Lion Stallion where it stood at the edge of the road and opened its bulky saddlebags, lifting something out. It was a hot foil pan like the kind of dish that Chinese takeout was served in, and John’s hungry, hungry nose caught the smell of sweet and sour. “Picnic time,” he began, as Jameel snatched the dish out of his hands while overhead and to the sided, VIPER blasters scoured Takofanes’ undead forces from the side of the road.
“Just a minute, before anyone opens that, there’s rice and noodles in separate dishes, chopsticks, knives and forks in the righthand bag, and a big thermos of milk tea in-”
“Yuck on milk tea. Now give,” Emily said, popping up at Jason’s side.
“Wait, I’m supposed to explain-”
Rebecca stood by his other side. “Yeah, yeah, we know the DL. There’s special snowflake love in every dish, so everyone should get some and blah blah blah. Do you want a ride to Wellington Cantonment or not?”
Rebecca blinked out with Jason so fast that they almost dropped food behind them. John stood frozen between friend and food for a long moment until Rebecca popped back in again. “Battle’s over in India, too.” In the same moment, Amy thrust a paper plate into his hands, and John inhaled his first bite. At the same moment that he wondered when Beef Stroganoff became Chinese food, he realised that it didn’t matter. The masterplan that worked was the one where you did what you wanted all along.
“Do you think that I would ever have really got to know you if your Mom hadn’t set us up to be cooped up in the house for six weeks?” He asked, looking at Amy.
“Who knows? You do still think like Sovereign sometimes. Why take a chance?”
Sovereign. The Thirty-First Century Mandaarian master villain. Well, that was the least surprising revelation, ever. “Every day that I don’t is a day to the good.”
“Every day that you don’t is another victory for Mom’s master plan. Now eat.”

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