Monday, September 9, 2013

Chapter 3, 21: Charmed, I’m Sure

Cratons are usually a lot bigger.

Chapter 3, 21: Charmed, I’m Sure

“Item,” Dora announced over the tinny roar of the official CBI sedan. “Dr. Cambridge knows who the Dark Ninja is. Dark Ninja, right? I like Black Ninja better.”

“Get over it,” Rose growled.

“Which means,” Dora continued, “That he must be a student at Tatammy High.”

“We knew that already,” Charlotte pointed out, reasonably. “Although ‘must’ is pushing it.”

“Okay, he’s probably a student at Tatammy. In the Drama Club. Darn. If one of the olds were here, they’d probably know who he was.”

“Counter-item,” Rose said. “The older classes’ve fought fought the Dark Ninja lots of times. But they don’t know who it is.”

“Yeah. Mystery there. Item: the Paradigm Pirates are here.”

“But. . .” John began from the driver’s seat.

“No ifs, ands or buts,” Charlotte said. She knew it was the Dark Ninja that she’d talked to the previous night at the concert, just before Bruce finally got there.

John shrugged. “All of our evidence is that they’re not. We’ve confirmed that we’re dealing with alien shapeshifters. Maybe Roi’nesh, maybe not. Don’t some shapeshifters read your mind, or assimilate your RNA or something and take your memories?”

Rose snorted. Yeah, like that was scientific, she seemed to be saying. “Your evidence is wrong. The Paradigm Pirates got off the island that Rosa put them on. They’ve foxed the Mandaarian sensors. With the help of the shapeshifters. Duh.”

“Hey! I’m the sass-master around here,” Dora snapped.

“Well, like, do your job, dudette.”

John shrugged, his eyes on the pot-holed road up to Aspen Grove, and on the low, soft-paved shoulders, which were crowded with kids on bikes, horses, long boards, and even old fashioned tie-on skates. “The one thing we had going on with our investigation was the knowledge that the only people who could fox Mandaarian sensors were Malvans. And you kids are determined to rule our Malvan suspects out, too.”

Now it was Charlotte’s turn to shrug, even though she knew that Agent John couldn’t see her in the passenger’s seat. “Mr. Diavolo is crazy in the can’t-get-stuff-done-way,” Charlotte paused, remembering the sadness in Bruce’s voice when he’d said that, “And Roach is a nice guy under all that bluff. 

Rose continued the thought. “So it’s someone else. Who knows? Extra-dimensional, from another time, another galaxy.”

“Those Star Trek reruns are making you cra-a-a-zy, Rose,” Dora pointed out, helpfully.”

Rose reached down and pulled her light blue tank top down on either side of her pink short shorts. “Make it so, Numbah One.”

“No, that’s a fair point,” John answered, nodding his head, or possibly just bobbing as they hit another pot-hole. An oversized teenager, biking on the wrong side of the road holding a fishing pole in one hand and wheeling a bike beside him with the other, turned around to glare at them, and went straight into the ditch. 

It didn’t look that bad, but John braked for a moment, as if to go see if the kid was okay, and then let up on the pedal. “Poetic justice. Anyway, it’s a big universe out there. Could be lots of things. It looks like we’re back to square one. Charlotte.”

Charlotte started, and instinctively looked down at her new charm bracelet. Her left hand was twisting it on her wrist, bringing the weird, ornate embossed shapes around. “I know I should have told you about the bracelet sooner, Agent John, but I never thought it was an archaeological treasure.”

Dora put her head over the shoulder of the seat and her hand on the bracelet. “Again, Doctor Jones, we find that there is no costume jewelry that you can possess which I cannot take away.”

“I don’t think it’s costume jewelry, though,” Charlotte answered.

“Hopefully, we’ll know more about it after we’ve seen the dig at Aspen Grove,” John said. “Or after our guest does.”

Charlotte was skeptical that a professor from the college would be there that day. Patsy Kane had told two stories about having to go through road blocks and pull over for mounted patrols up on the Forty Mile Road. It seemed like sabretooth packs were attacking every small group that travelled that way. “Is the archaeologist from Landing Town really going to be there?”

“Well,” John answered, as he swung the wheel to take them off the road into the visitor’s parking lot at the Aspen Grove construction site, “That’s the car John requisitioned, so I’d say that his floatplane got in just fine.”

“He flew?” Dora sounded amazed.

“It’s kind of a big deal, you know,” Agent John said, almost apologetically. “This is only the second archaeological site we’ve found.”

“You’re not counting the spaceship wreck on the moon that Rosa found,” Rose corrected.

“Plus the wreck. Which it’s not like we’re going to be able to go see any time soon. Yes. And this one is far richer than the one in the Northern Isles. The statues alone transform our knowledge of the Terraformers.”

“And if their stuff looks like my bracelet. . . “ 

But John interrupted Charlotte. “If it looks like the bracelet, we know that there’s some kind of connection between the shapeshifters and the Terraformers. At least, that they can use each other’s technology.”

“Which is a big deal, when you get down to it. Earth scientists can’t make heads or tails of half the alien tech they’ve captured,” Rose pointed out.

John pulled into a parking space and folded his tall body out of the car. Leaning back in, he said, “Which is hard to understand. Technology is technology.”

Rose got out on her side, still talking. “Nuh-unh. No-one can figure out Gadroon gravitics or Qularr biotech at all.”

Charlotte stood on her side. She was wearing short-shorts, too, but black, with a white blouse, crisp and almost impenetrable by the heat of the Long Lake noontime. She heard John answer. “And that’s what’s so frustrating for me as an investigator. Technology that you can’t understand might as well be magic.”

“No,” Dora interrupted. “Magic’s completely different.” A sparkle of gold light ran along her hand, and she half twisted her wrist, as though she were throwing a ball in the air, and a rainbow burst over her head. A rainbow that had somehow been refracted by a gold mirror.

“Dora! You shouldn’t waste the needfire like that. What if you need it later?” Dr. Cambridge was standing beside the Paradise Valley camper, which she had driven up from the garage in town that morning. She looked awful, with sagging eyes and sallow skin. Grownups, Charlotte thought, didn’t belong at rock concerts.

“I’m sorry, Doctor Cambridge, I won’t do it again.” Dora sounded sorry, but she dropped her head as she said it, and her long, black hair fell over her orange tee, hiding her eyes so that only Charlotte, standing beside her, could see her eyes flash and her mouth crook into a quick grin.

Charlotte grinned back, even though inside she was worried that Dr. Cambridge was right, for once. Oh, well, Dora would have to learn when Dora was ready.

“Besides,” Agent John said into the silence, “Is the needfire even magic? I thought it was one of those things on the border between magic and science. Like psionics.”

“Ya way,” Dora answered. “Totally. Opa’s neefire powers were psychic down the line. So are my brother’s. But my sister gets her super science genius and gadget talents from the needfire. Super gadgets from a super brain from super science from super magic. Well, okay, not so much super magic. I mean, all magic is ‘super.’ Have we decided what ‘super’ means?”

“It’s the meal after loonch,” Charlotte pointed out, and Rose giggled. A moment later, they were all giggling.

“Girls!” Dr, Cambridge snapped. “The agents have been kind enough to invite us on an official Colonial Bureau of Investigation inquiry. Now I want you in your costumes, and no silly business!”

Charlotte glared at Dr. Cambridge’s back as she deployed her Tatammy black-and-whites. She hated wearing her cowl. It played heck with her hair. 

And not just hers. The girls had hardly had a chance to rearrange their hair in stupid old under-a-mask superheroine save-me-Cyclops pony tails before Dr. Cambridge was motioning them out onto the road and across to the open gates of the construction site and the visitor’s area.. Easy for her to do. The instructor’s version of the Tatammy All-Weather Fatigues had an open mask-hat combo that was hella mysterious and cool. The grownups would keep the good stuff for themselves. Meanwhile, the teen supers had to put visitor’s badges around their necks and wear yellow hard hats.

Bruce, who was waiting for them, had put his hard hat on sideways. “Are you doing that ironically?” Charlotte whispered, feeling strangely pleased to see him.

“I, um, what’s the right answer?”

“Ironically,” Charlotte answered, the pleased feeling vanishing.

“Yeah. No, not that.” He paused for a moment. “I did ironic before it was cool. Now I’m the kind of person who wears his hats sideways on purpose.” Bruce stuck his tongue out and bugged his eyes. He was awesome good at impressions.

Charlotte snorted. And there it was, back again. Bruce was such a goof. Though she wished that he could be more like Scout sometimes. In fact, if he were like Scout., wouldn’t that be something? Charlotte made a note to herself to mention that to Rose. And Dora, too, although she’d probably make fun.

“Okay, kitted up? Time to move it,” John said, briskly, as Charlotte adjusted her swordbelt one last time. Ginger, out of nowhere, settled on her shoulder. She sat there as they walked out of the Visitor’s area to the edge of the great lip where the tip wagons climbed over the lip of the pit on their way to dump the dirt. There was horse manure everywhere, and the girls had to pick there way through it to the top of a stairway that zigged back and forth down the edge of the excavation to the bottom, where the construction machines were doing all the stuff they did.

“Psst. Good secret identity keeping,” Dora whistled, as they walked down the stairs, one after another.

“You’re just jealous because you don’t have a squawking poop machine on your shoulder,” Charlotte whispered back. 

“Shhh, both of you!” Rose said from below. “We’re being very, very serious here.”

At the foot of the descent, Dr. Cambridge was looking up at them crossly. Charlotte decided not to push her luck, and shut up. Soon, they were walking along on the muddy floor of the excavation towards the corner where the canvas screen had hidden the deeper dig. Standing beside an opening in the screen were Agent Kieran and a stocky man wearing a Tilly hat. 

“That man,” Dora said, with a sound of heavy disappointment, “Does not look like Harrison Ford.”

“Well, of course he doesn’t look like Harrison Ford,” Rose answered. “He’s the kind of archaeologist who teaches classes, not the kind of archaeologist who loots excavations just because Nazis got there first. Which would be bad if it were a French guy looting your site. Or just some stuff you stole from a temple. Like archaeologists do.”

“It was a different time. They had different rules back then. Right, Charlotte?”

“Sorry? Oh, you interrupted me just as I was planning to steal all your land and make you live on a reservation.”

“I thought you were, like one-eighth Indian, Charlotte?” Rose asked.

“That and a quarter will get you a just-goddam-well-shut-up-about-it,” Charlotte answered, evenly. “Lots of people are one-eighth Indian where I come from. You’re even allowed to boast about it once you’re one sixteenth. But not before. And if you think us one-eighth Indians didn’t steal land in the old days, you don’t know how the old West worked.” 

“Girls,” Dr. Cambridge said, “I hate to interrupt your little history lesson, but this is Dr. Lalonde, from Landing College. He will assess the state of the excavation for us, today.”

“Well, isn’t this something,” Dr. Lalonde said, sounding nervous for someone so old. Fifty, even. “I have high hopes for this find. And to meet you. Superheroes all the way from Earth. Will there be a rescue ship soon?”

Charlotte felt like there was a lump of cold porridge in her stomach. She shook her head.

“Ah,” Dr. Lalonde said. He took his glasses off and polished them with the check shirt he was wearing under a denim vest, apparently impervious to the heat of the Sun, focussed down into the deep excavation. “Well, I expected as much. We have made our homes here, and there’s almost 1.2 million people on this planet, and more every day.” Charlotte couldn’t help noticing that his hands trembled on his glasses as he said it.

A middle aged man in a white hardhat came through the screen, striding briskly. But, as he came up to them, his steps slowed, and he took his helmet off. “Agents. Dr. Lalonde. Uhm, ladies, gentleman. I’m so sorry that we didn’t inform the College of this discovery earlier, but the board felt, well, the board felt that, uhm, we would be financially irresponsible not exploring all options.”

“If there were legislation, Mr. Pallavicini, you know that you would be in flagrant violation of it,” Dr. Lalond said, severely. “But, alas, there is not. I do, however, have a cease-and-desist order from the Department of Mines. Although you and your team may remain and assist with the rescue excavation.”

“Well, that’s something,” Mr. Pallavicini said. “At least we’ll be able to keep the crew. If we had to lay them off, they’d all be hired on somewhere else by the weekend, and good luck getting the works going again this summer.”

“The thought,” Dr. Lalonde said, “Had crossed the Secretary’s mind. Now do please lead the way.”

Mr. Pallavicini turned and signalled two men standing on either side of the small entrance through the canvas screen, through which nothing but dirt was visible. They started rolling back the screen.

It was kind of disappointing, Charlotte thought. Nothing like ruins in the movies. Just paving here and there, sticking out of the dirt and gravel of the ground, a few broken columns in no particular order, four or five statues, all broken, and, down at the end, vaguely, if you squinted, at the centre of all the stuff, a seated statue of something that looked like a man, only with the head of a dragon. He held out his hand, or, rather, his arm, ending where his hand should be, for it was broken.

Although, unlike the statues, with their broken heads and whatnot, which were just gone, the hand of the sitting dragon man was still there. Right in the middle of the excavation, sitting on a pavement of black, shiny stone or tile divided into weird patterns, surrounded by yellow caution tape. Which was distinctly weird, because, Charlotte saw as they came closer, the hand was clasping a glowing, red jewel the size of a big apple.

“Wow,” she said, drawing in her breath. “Why didn’t someone steal that?”

Mr. Piccolomini turned to her. “Someone did. Third day of the excavations, just after we’d pulled those statues we sold to Mr. Diavolo out of the way so that we could dig around that pavement you see over there. One of our day labourers got in here somehow past security at lunch time and tried to climb up the back wall with it. He was eight feet up before before the statue came to life, chased him down, and pounded him into, well, let’s just say, you’ve probably seen that Driver’s Ed film.”

“Uhm? Statue came to life? Should we be down here?” Dora asked.

“Oh, no worries. One of the horses on the wagons, a big two-year-old stallion, broke out of its traces, ran over, smacked the statue a good one, and knocked the gem to the ground. Soon as it rolled back into the middle of the pavement, the statue went right back to its throne and sat down. It hasn’t moved since, and we haven’t gotten too close, either.”

“What about the horse?” Charlotte asked.

“Ran off in the confusion. I hear one answering to that description showed up at the dude ranch next day, and I dropped them a note. It did us a good turn, and he’s a little light-boned for a carthorse, even if it he is tall as a Clydesdale.” 

Charlotte couldn’t help grinning. A certain four-legged rascal had a little more public spirit than he allowed.

“Well, shall we proceed. Mr. Piccolomini?

“Just a moment,” Mr. Piccolomini said. “Paul, this shouldn’t take long, and then we’ll want you to go get Mrs. Harper with the picture folio.”

A boy who had been squatting on his heels down by the canvas screen got up at the mention of the name. “Yes, boss!” His voice was familiar. Charlotte recognised the kid with the .22 and a sister from last night, and in the daylight, she realised that he was her age. And she’d been treating him like a kid. Embarrassing! 

Dr. Lalonde had held back as long as he was able. “Is that what I think it is?”

Mr. Piccolomini nodded. “The pavements frame an Archaic basaltic block. God knows how it got there. Two billion years is a long time for a rock that small to survive, but it’s just like the formation Dr. Geertz described in the Northern Isles. And there’s more!” His middle-aged voice sounded excited, now. “See these tracks in the basalt? See how regular they are?”

“Oh, God. Are you saying that they’re anthropogenic? From the Archaic? That’s two billion years ago by the isotope counts.”

Mr. Piccolomini said, “Anthropogenic? You mean ‘man-made?”

“Well, not actually men, but, yes, artificial.”

Mr. Piccolomini nodded. “Yes, that’s what we think. Two billion years old, and this site was a Terraformer temple to even more ancient visitors.”Yes, that’s what we think. “

“It must be a mistake,” Dr. Lalonde said. “They can’t possibly be that old.”

And that’s when they were interrupted by Agent Kieran, who had fallen onto the stone hand that held the jewel. He was prying at it, and moaning like a hungry dog. 

Without even thinking about it, the Pearl Harmony was in Charlotte’s hands as she crossed between the statue and Agent Kieran. Bruce was beside her, sidling, and she could see that he had a wire Goblinarang in his hands, perfect for snaring a statue’s marble legs.

The needfire crackled in the sky above them, and gold light reflected off the blade of the Pearl Harmony, blending with its perlescent glow. Behind them, they could hear Rose urging, “Let go, Kieran, let go.”

The moaning stopped. “No! It’s mine! I must have it!”

And Paul’s voice. “No, Mr. Agent, sir. It’ll kill you!”

Not if I can help it, Charlotte thought. At least, if her sword could cut stone. Probably it could, as long as she breathed in right nostril, breathed out left nostril. 

“Kieran, no!” In front of her, as if responding to John’s anguish, the statue came to life, swiveled its head, half rose in its throne, and then gave a dismissive wave of its intact hand and slumped back into the throne with a crack of stone on stone so loud that it hurt Charlotte’s ears.

Well, the statue didn’t seem upset, so Charlotte chanced a look back. Rose caught her eyes. “He’s swalled it!”

“It’s okay!” Paul said. “I know what to do. We can make him throw it back up!” Taking Kieran’s head in his hands, Paul dug deep into his mouth with his index fingers. 

And Kieran did, indeed throw up. Unfortunately, it was weird, glowing vomit that looked like worse news than the jewel going down. Rose was fast enough to avoid it, but it splashed over Paul, who collapsed on the ground beside Kieran.

Slowly, spasmodically, Paul’s bootheels beat on the black paving stone laid down by aliens fifty thousand years before to mark where even more alien aliens had been, two billion years before that. The hot Long Lake sun beat down, and Charlotte listened to John talking urgently on his walkie talkie with someone at the hospital.

“What a great day this is turning out to be,” Bruce said. And all Charlotte could think was how much the patterns of the black stones set in their pavement looked like the embossing on her bracelet.

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