Friday, August 23, 2013

Chapter 3, 18: A Hole in the Ground

Giap's is a Vietnamese name!

Chapter 3, 18: A Hole in the Ground

It smelled green, sweet and deep. It filled your nose and your brain and made you think about every wonderful that you ever did on a beautiful morning, until the scent of the flowers you just passed came riding in over it and made you think about nothing but those beautiful blossoms. Juncos and chickadees sang for all they were worth, and a crowd of children ran through the orchard that stretched up the hill on one side of the road, throwing ripe apricots at each other and laughing. Across the road, two boys with fishing poles over their shoulders, about 15, walked down towards the lake. They checked out Rose, Dora and Charlotte as they rode past, trying so hard to be casual that it was hilarious. A hay wagon that had just passed the girls on the way had two girls in the back, one with her nose in a book, the other with an ancient Gameboy held in her lap. The girl with the book had noticed the boys, and Charlotte had noticed that. The girl with the Gameboy hadn’t.

Coming up the hill from going around the hay wagon, the horses edged over towards the side of the road. Charlotte wasn’t the most practically dressed rider today, wearing black short shorts and a yellow tee, especially when she was taking a chance on riding Tellus, but, what the heck, if you’re a kung fu princess, sometimes you should take a little advantage, right? Dew streaked her bare legs from brushing past the shrubs on the side of the road.

It didn’t make her cold. The morning sun was bright and warm, promising real Long Lake heat in the afternoon. Coral bells, cinquefoil, and bleeding hearts wavered in an air just slight enough to be called a breeze. Bees buzzed happily, dipping from one blossom to the next. Summer in Long Lake Valley was drunk on three day’s rain.

Tellus, Charlotte noticed, was plodding. Charlotte eyed the back of the big horse’s head, warily. What was he up to? Sure, he had calmed down a bit since the rain started, and Charlotte hoped that he had settled into being a bridle horse, but you never knew. Fortunately, he was hemmed in from the sides by Kieran and John on their powerful quarter horses, both geldings, Agent and Smith, with Dr. Cambridge riding behind on another gelding, an indifferent but docile roan named Shanks, and Rose and Dora ahead, Rose on a spirited local mare named Brandy, and Dora on her space-horse, Kawaii, the wings and sparkles toned down for a change. Heh. Of course horses could have secret identities. At least if they were tiny little things like Kawaii, they could. Throw a mask on Tellus and he’d still be Tellus. No-one was going to say, “I don’t recognise that seventeen-hand horse that steps like a Lippazaner.” And Charlotte would still be towering over everyone.

Rosa’s voice began again from Dora’s phone. “So I’ve decided not to salvage any parts from that alien wreck my probes found on the moon. So that means that repairs are back on schedule. Five more weeks, end of summer.”

“Good,” Kieran answered. “The mine opens the sluices on August 24, and high water hits the Narrows the morning of the 26th. We’ll be shipping the gold and the summer harvest in a convoy just behind the log booms from Cove Point. It’s always a crazy scene, and it’ll be nice to have the kids around when the goods move and the Big Bad jumps.”

“You’re sure that Big Bad is after Mr. Suzuki’s laptop?” Without waiting for an answer, Doctor Cambridge added another question. “Have you figured out what’s on it that Roach could possibly want so bad?” And, since apparently that still wasn’t enough question, “Something to do with the Roi’nesh resistance?”

“Oh, Good Lord. The CBI is not on that case, and still I’d ask if we had any evidence that a Roi’nesh resistance even exists,” John said. “Anyway, whoever the Big Bad is, all that we really know is that there’s got to be something in the laptop besides a boring population DNA survey, or B.B. wouldn’t be trying so hard to get it. Just don’t ask us what that is. Maybe the Mechanic, or Tetsuronin can figure it out, if you take it to Earth. But, you know, considering that there’s a kidnap victim involved, maybe we should focus on finding Mr. Suzuki? Preferably before classes start at the College, and they have to find a new genetics instructor? I have been told, very firmly, that this is important. The Medical School starts this year!”

“Rosa,” Kieran asked, “May I ask why you decided not to salvage anything from the wreck?”

“Three reasons, Kieran,” the spaceship answered, from almost 200,000 miles away. “First, because the wreck is old. The archaeology app on my probe shows 45,000 years by dating isotope decay in the warp core. So I am guessing that it was one of the ships that whoever-it-was used to terraform Landing. And I do not want to have anything more to do with anyone who could operate spaceships on Earth as it was 45,000 years ago than I can help. The people who had the power in those days were not good peope. Except—“

But Rosa did not finish that sentence, probably because she wasn’t allowed to talk about the secret ancient astronauts or Eternals or what-have-you to people who weren’t in the know. Which just made Charlotte burn all the more to be let into their secret. Were they still around on Earth today, living in caves in Peru or a lost city in the Himalayas, all hanging out with grown-up superheroes? They could trust her! She could keep a secret!

“Second,” Rosa continued, “It’s creepy. I have never seen a spaceship that looked anything like that. I can’t even find records of it in the Malvan archives. The thing is, the Malvan archives are automated. There’s lots of horrifying things in there that people probably don’t want to know about anywhere near as much as they think they do. Like the Internet. Anyway, the apps don’t let you see that stuff, so if you don’t’ find something in the archives, chances are it’s because they’re thinks you’re not meant to know about.

Rosa paused, and the phone she was speaking through crackled like an old-time radio until she started again. “Third, because it was wrecked by the same thing my engines were, a hyperspace anomaly, and the parts I need are about as useful as motherboard schnitzel.”

That last reason is probably the best,” Kieran said.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Dora answered. “I’ve fought some of the things that leak through the higher hyperspace dimensions. Frankly, if robots want to delete their pictures from the Malvan archives and keep us away from their spaceships and whatnot, more power to them.”

Which left Charlotte wondering about something. “Excuse me?”

“Yes, Charlotte?” Asked Rosa.

“What is it with hyperspace anomalies and this planet? Is Chthulhu going to eat it soon?”

“Chthulhu is just a story,” Rosa answered. “A story that pales before the qliphotic evil of the Kings of Edom.”

“You know what I mean, Rosa.”

“No, there’s nothing spooky here,” Rosa answered. “There’s just a hyperspace mass associated with Planet Landing. It’s rare, but it’s perfectly natural.”

Charlotte was not exactly reassured by that. “Wait. There’s a huge mass floating up in high hyperspace, and we don’t know what it is, and there’s a chance that it’s artificial, but the authorities think it’s completely natural? All I need now is someone with a deep voice saying ‘In a world. . . .’ and this would be the trailer of every science fiction horror movie ever.”

“I appreciate your concern, Charlotte, but rest assured. We have sensors and Malvan data. It looks like either XF5611 or the Velaran Anomaly. The first is a planetesimal that passed through a hyperspace manifold. The second is a Progenitor city-ship. And, well, I understand that it sounds frightening. The Progenitors were powerful and ancient, and some say that they destroyed whole civilisations that disappointed them. But that was pretty much the exception. All we can say is that if they’re up there in their ship, if it isn’t a derelict, they’re there until they choose to come down, because there’s no way we’re going to get up to it.”

“So what’s so creepy about the wreck, anyway, Rosa? If not weird, non-Euclidean geometries?” Rose was such a nerd.

“The art,” Rosa said, her Bavarian accent coming through clipped and short, like she really didn’t want to say any more about it. 

Oh, Charlotte thought. “Like, naked guys and stuff?”

“Ja.” Rosa, Charlotte thought, sounded very upset. 

“What have you been up to, Miss Wong?” Dr. Cambridge asked, sounding upset. “Is there something I shall have to tell your aunt and uncle?”

That I’m not doing my Chinese reading? That my teacher is a drip? Hmm, no, Charlotte thought, Dr. Cambridge wouldn’t care about the first bit, and Auntie Ma and Uncle Henry already knew the second. “Only it sounds like the statues that Mr. Diavolo has in his mansion. We saw them at the party.”

“Oh,” Dr. Cambridge answered. She sounded jealous. Well, of course. Her huge bud hadn’t even invited her to the party. Then she collected herself and forged gamely on. “Well, Mr. Diavolo is a cultured man, and collects great art. It may not be to your taste, Miss Wong, but his collection is the finest in the valley.”

“No, wait,” Kieran said, slowly. “There are statues in this fifty-thousand year-old wrecked spaceship that was probably involved in terraforming this planet in the first place that look like the ones that Mr. Diavolo has all around his mansion? Are you thinking what I’m thinking, John?”

“That he’s plundering an unreported Terraformer archaeological site?”

“Or that he’s gone up to the wreck and picked them up. But, yeah, archaeological site.”

“What would that mean, John?” Dr. Cambridge asked. “I didn’t even realise that there was archaeology on this planet.”

“Oh, sure,” John answered. “A professor at the college has found two Terraformer sites down in the Northern Isles. They’re not much to look at, just scatters of used ship tiles, but he flies students down to excavate there every year during classes. Mostly in February.”

Dora shook her head and muttered, “Hard life.”

And, then, sounding like he had just had an idea, Kieran said, “Dig.” 

John whistled. “Dig.”

“I’m sorry?” Dr. Cambridge asked.

“The College is excavating around those sites in the Northern Isles because any really good artefacts are going to be buried deep. Professor Marquez thinks that the reason why we’re not swimming in Terraformer stuff is that we haven’t been doing a lot of digging, yet.” Kieran waved his hand in the air and, then, “But. Listen.”

Charlotte listened. You could go into crazy raptures talking about how beautiful and nice it was, this summer morning. You could talk about bees buzzing and birds singing and cows mooing and children laughing. (Or, alternatively, that kid up the hill screaming about how it wasn’t fair that his sister got to go with her friends while he had to stay in the yard.) But the fact was that most of the noise being made around here was by construction equipment. Part of it was the front-end loader digging a trench for the sewer main down on Long Lake Road, but part of it was coming from just up the hill and down to the left, where a road along the bench broke off from the one that they were following up, and then curled down into some aspen to the right. Someone was digging down in there.

When they reached the turnoff, Charlotte was not surprised that John led them down into the hollow, instead of on up towards Prospect Point. Almost immediately they started passing tip wagons filled with dirt and gravel, pulled by Clydesdales, tall as Tellus, but blockier, built for more strength and less speed. Soon they came to the bottom of the hill, and around a slight bend. There, on one side of the road, was a hand-painted sign that said, “Coming Soon! Aspen Grove Mall, with over 85 retail outlets to serve you! First Bank of Landing, The Giap, Landing Outfitters, Aimsworth & Fosters, Hernandez’s, McKenzies, Pottery House. . .Air Conditioning!” People on Landing were clearly too busy to make up good names. It was like China, only with no Engrish. 

Below the big sign was a convenient line of hitching posts on a long, semi-circular pull-out, with steps leading down to a culvert that opened up below to let muddy water gush into a streambed. Some kids were hanging around, playing hop scotch on the road, which was paved for half-a-block on either side of the gate to the construction site. They stopped to watch as the horses drew near.

At the sound of water, Tellus’s ears pricked up, and he edged towards the sound. Charlotte took a firmer grip on her bridle.

Kieran and John dismounted, hitched their horses, and then walked across the road to a chain-mesh fence that guarded the construction site beyond. A bare-chested guy in dirty, brown pants and an orange construction helmet got up out of his chair and put out his hand in a “stop” motion. John got off his horse and walked over to the man, pulling out his CBI badge. They talked, and then the security guard put his walkie-talkie to his mouth and said something, then opened the gate for the agents. They went in, and the guard closed it behind them.

“Well,” said Dr. Cambridge. “While the agents are investigating the construction site, I think we should stop and water our horses.”

Good idea, Charlotte thought. Because us superheroes should certainly just hang out here while the big, strong agents find out if the construction workers are about to unleash Things People Were Not Meant To Know. As happens at construction sites. 

Charlotte hitched Tellus to one of the rings of the hitching post and took the water can off its hook on the back of the saddle. She wasn’t mad about being left out of the investigation. No. Well, a little mad, maybe. She stepped down onto the first step, only to feel a silent presence. She looked to her right. Ginger had settled quietly on a branch on the nearest aspen. Silently because she held two long, white McKenzie’s chips in her beak. The magpies in the trees noticed at the same moment, and began squawking, but Ginger threw her head impatiently and somehow managed to swallow the french fries. Go find your own! Then she looked at Charlotte, before very firmly twitched her head back towards Tellus.

Charlotte followed her crow’s gaze to see that Tellus was looking at her. There was a distinctly devilish gleam in his eye, and he had dipped his jaw far enough that there was a distinct slack in the bridle. Oh, don’t you dare, Charlotte let her glaring eyes say, silently. Behind her, Rose said, “Charlotte, you’re holding up the parade!”

“Never mind, found the loo,” Dora said from above. “Other side of the road.” She sounded distant, and, as she finished, Charlotte very clearly heard a wooden door creak shut. It looked like Dr. Cambridge had found the necessities, too, because it was just Rose and Charlotte at the watering steps now.

And the horses. Tellus nickered, and Agent and Smith looked over at him, their ears half down, as though they were thinking, “Oh, yeah, pass the popcorn, ‘cuz the big kid’s gonna blow.”

“Tellus!” Charlotte shouted, and headed back towards her horse. Too late! With a deceptively casual toss, Tellus pulled the ring free of the hitching post. It went flying like a bullet, and Tellus went flying, too –the other way, right across the road and down into the aspen forest that followed the fence that surrounded the construction site. It was thick with underbrush, but Tellus seemed to pass through it like a ghost, disappearing in moments.

“Crap!” Charlotte shouted. “Okay, I’m going after him!” The blur that was Rose resolved into the actual girl as she hit the edge of the brush. “What’s taking you?”

“I hope the horses are going to be alright with us running off into the woods,” Charlotte said.

“The guard’ll look after them,” Rose answered. “Crap. With all of these thorns and vines, I’m as slow as you are!”

“I’m not ‘slow,’ I’m ‘special!” Charlotte laughed. Michael Snow, the disabled kid who hung out with the drama class liked to say that. Charlotte was pretty sure that he was making fun of himself. Did that make it okay for her to say it, or was it like white people saying the “n” word? That was a tricky one. Could a Eurasian girl make a joke about ‘Engrish?’ Hell, could a white kid? 

Together, Rose and Charlotte plunged into the woods, following the surprisingly distant sounds Tellus made as he ran through the bushes. Charlotte didn’t want to say anything to Rose, but she was starting to worry. The Pearl Harmony Sword was still strapped to Tellus’s saddle. What if they had to fight someone in here? 

Somehow, as though the forest itself were like the quiet kids in the class who only went along with what they wanted to go along with, Rose and Charlotte found themselves edging along the fence, where the undergrowth was cut back a little. Here, the fence turned rickety and low. Eventually, they could see over it, and down into the construction site, which was the usual great big hold in the ground, only with more horse-pulled equipment and fewer big, yellow machines than the usual kind.

Oh, and there was a great big fence inside the site, with a concealing mesh net draped over the top of it, too. From their vantage point, it was obvious. But they could also see, way down in the excavation, that Agents John and Kieran probably couldn’t see it from where they were walking, being led by an important-looking guy in a white hardhat.

Charlotte gestured down to the enclosure. “Way to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I tots got a secret.’” 

“Unh-hunh,” Rose answered. “Because they’re looting a priceless archaeological site and selling big old statues to rich collectors. It’s absolutely disgraceful. We need to tell John about it, if he doesn’t find it.”

“Yeah, but I bet you a hundred bucks that before the find it, the construction dudes are t going to dig up a living mummy or fire-breathing kaiju or alien robot or something.”

Rose nodded. “It’s funny how construction workers don’t read comics, or they’d know that they’re all going to end running like heck, all shouting, ‘Run! Godzilla!,’ with bad lip synching. We should book this in our diaries: Tuesday: fight alien space ghosts.”

“Say,” Rose said. “Did you notice that construction worker down there, second to left?”

Despite herself, Charlotte was distracted. “Yeah. Hot. Zing. Wait. I see what you mean. That’s the ginger that was at Mr. Diavolo’s party! The one that Scout was following!”

“Weird--,” Rose began.

But Charlotte interrupted. “Did you just notice how quiet the forest just got?” Because it had. It had totally gone quiet. And something was tickling her senses. Without quite knowing why, Charlotte turned and took up a blocking stance.

Just in time to put her fist into the head of a sabretooth cat coming springing out of the bush. It was like a brick wall had just run into her. Charlotte flew free, until her back hit the side of the site fence with another solid oomph. 

With only moments to recover, Charlotte spinned into a pivot kick, just barely avoiding the out-stretched claws of the mighty cat. Her blow landed weakly, because Charlotte was using every ounce of her chi to keep her speed up. Stupid cat was fast!

So instead of following through, Charlotte somersaulted up and backwards onto a branch. Treed again, damn it.

“I hope,” Rose said from just behind her, “That you’re starting to carry your sword in hammer space.”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “That is totally my plan. Except for hammer space not existing. The scabbard is hanging from Tellus’s saddle.”

“What about that fancy Iron Fist-thingie your brother does? The Eight Spirit Dragon Fist?”

Charlotte felt shame burning in her face. “I haven’t learned how to do that yet. Every time I try to get my uncle to teach me it, he starts talking about breathing and quoting Confucius.”

“Ancient Chinese secret…”

“Oh, don’t you start, now.”

Below them, the sabretooth suddenly flickered. Where a predatory cat had stood a moment before, there was now a dire bear, ivory fangs glistening with saliva. It put its massive arms around the trunk of the massive tree on which Rose and Charlotte had taken shelter, and, somehow, began to shake it.

“Um, Charlotte? Might want to try breath in right nostril, beath out left nostril right now.” 

“Very funny.”

“Alternate plan?”

“Help button? Dora could get us out of this.”

“No can do,” their wristcomms buzzed. “Needfire won’t answer.” At least Dora was monitoring.

“Your needs are important to us. Please stay on the line,” Rose muttered.

“Maybe Scout’ll show up again,” Charlotte said. “Or the Black Ninja.”

“What are you? Princess Peach? The sisterhood can save itself!”

“Forgive me, Ms. Modern Girl, if I want to fight evil alongside two hot guys.”

“You really think the Black Ninja is hot? He wears a full face mask!”

Charlotte shrugged. “So sue me for being an optimist. He has nice eyes, Scout has a nice mouth. I’d prefer to think that the rest of the package is even better.”

Rose sighed. “Me, too. You know, if we’re not eaten by a shapeshifting cavebear in a minute, I can totally see us double-dating.”

“What about Dora?”

“She’s got a boy, right? On the other side of space and time.”

“And my boyfriend is in Canada!”

“That even works for you, Char-Char. ‘Cuz you’re Canadian.”

“Dual citizen! Dual citizen!”

“Whatever,” Rose answered. “Say, do bears eat Canadians? Or are they the wrong flavour and stuff, because they have maple syrup on their poutine?”

“What? Yuck! Also, no. I think we’d better get ready to jump for the next tree, if we can.” Of course, the way things were going, the next tree would be a person-eating tree, because things were getting as deadly as they were repetitious.

Only there wasn’t another big tree in reach. And, underneath the girls, the tree suddenly cracked and lurched. Charlotte tensed. 


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