Chapter 3, 25: Derelict
“Let me see, let me see,” Charlotte said, impatiently. She shoved at Bruce’s surprisingly solid back. He moved with Charlotte’s push, surprising her. Charlotte was used to her brother digging in and shoving back when she tried that.
“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” Bruce, said. “Can you see now?”
Charlotte could. In the dank, dismal kitchen of the little cabin, lit by a flickering Coleman lantern hanging from a wire suspended from the ceiling was one of those small-scale maps with all the contour lines and grid squares that said, “I am an Official Map of Important Things.” In spite of being important and official, it was as food-specked as the dirt floor.
“And that’s it,” Agent John said. He sounded disgusted with someone. Probably himself.
The hulking CBI Tactical Agent standing beside him fidgeted with his pulson blaster. “I’m sorry, Agent. I guess we blew our surveillance.” he answered, stuttering. Agent John had told Charlotte that with more than half of the immigrants coming to Landing being clones of Teleios’ soldiers-for-hire, only the very best were able to get on with the CBI. This guy didn’t seem like the best. At least, he wasn’t full of swaggering self-confidence, like the Special Forces guys that posted online or stuff.
“It’s not your fault, Agent Brown,” John answered. “We blew the surveillance. I had a man on this place for two weeks, but then he slipped up.”
“No, sir,” Charlotte interrupted. “It wasn’t Scout. It was me. I tagged along the night before, and . . . the guys in here must have spotted me.” Charlotte didn’t drop the name of Professor Paradigm. There was no point in starting a fight over that right now.
“That doesn’t sound like you, Char-Char,” Bruce said. His voice had that awkward note it took whenever he tried to deliver a compliment.
“Whoever’s fault it is, it can’t be helped now.” John flicked the map. They had found it rolled up in a corner, beside the pot-bellied cast-iron stove that had probably left the cabin sweltering even hotter than it was right now, sometime last night when the Paradigm Pirates burned the rest of their papers. “The point is, I brought the tactical team up from Landing Town for this raid, and we’ve come up goose eggs. But if we can figure out this map, maybe we can salvage something from this mess.”
“Well,” Bruce said, hesitantly, “This is a geological survey map, right? Prospectors use them. These smudge marks? They might be stakes, might be camps.”
“Or someone didn’t wash their hands before they handled the map,” Rose pointed out. “This place is disgusting. Except over the corner of the bunkroom.” Actually, several of the bunks were clean. But one of the clean ones had a shuriken-grenade case on it, and Rose Would Not Shut Up About It.
“Professor Paradigm was tots a prospector for reals! Hyar!” Dora interrupted, hunching over and bugging out her eyes like Mr. Piccolo when he imitated Roy Rogers’ old sidekick, Whatsisname Hayes, to the complete bemusement of anyone in his class born after 1961.
“The theory that the desperadoes in this cabin are the Paradigm Pirates is a mistaken theory. It is wrong, to be precise. And that particular development of it makes less than no sense whatsoever.”
“That’s a double negative. That means we’re totally right!” Dora crowed.
“Actually, technically, I don’t think that it’s a double negative,” Rose pointed out, cautiously. “Not that that means that Wacky Girl here is wrong.”
“Uhm, excuse me?” Agent Brown interjected. He had both of his hands folded over the carrying handle of his blaster and was fiddling his fingers nervously. “Aren’t most claims staked in creek beds?”
“What?” John said.
“Exactly,” Bruce interrupted. “See this plateau here?”
“The what now?” Dora asked.
“The bit Bruce is pointing at with the smudge and no contour lines.”
“The squiggly lines.”
“Oh. I thought those were there to make it harder to read the maps. You know. So you can impress people.”
“That’s… Actually, that’s a good explanation,” John said. “Yes, this level area above Forty Mile Ranch is a pretty unlikely site for a claim. Let’s get everyone aboard the helicopter, Agent Brown.”
Agent John said it loudly enough that they could hear it outside. You could tell, because as soon as he said it, another Tactical Agent, his forest camo and ballistic armour stripped off to reveal a white wife-beater undershirt, now approximately ruined by long, greasy black stains over the shoulder, poked his head in, setting the plywood door of the cabin swinging creakily on its one remaining hinge. “Don’t worry, sir! Chief has almost got the packing of the main rotor out. Probably have ‘er fixed in two hours, top.”
Agent John hit his head with his heel to show frustration. “Goddamit. Who told Chief Johnson to tear down the helicopter?”
A shorter man in an orange jumpsuit and helmet with the radio-mike thing that tells you that he’s aircrew shouldered past the first guy in the wifebeater. “The rotor told me on the way up here. What with the whine of imminent failure and all. My apologies, Agent.” Frankly, Chief Johnson didn’t sound sorry at all.
“Never mind,” Charlotte said. “We’ll go scoop the place out.”
“No, uhm, Redeeming Daughter,” John said. Trust him to remember codenames, even if nobody else did. “That’s why I brought the Tactical Team up here in the first place. You kids aren’t ready to take the Paradigm Pirates.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Charlotte answered. “Besides, a) you’ve got no-one else, and b) that team’s ready to fall apart on its own.” I hope, Charlotte continued to herself. I really, really hope. “Let’s compromise. We’ll bug out if the Paradigm Pirates show up.”
“You promise?” John asked. He sounded skeptical for some reason. Maybe because he knew teenagers, Charlotte figured.
“Uhm. . .” For some reason, Charlotte didn’t want to lie to him.
“Please keep clear of real trouble. I’m getting to like you kids.”
As Dora’s platform lifted off from the little corral outside the cabin, cool, high speed air buffeted Charlotte. But it didn’t even begin to take away the flush of heat that came from that compliment. Charlotte was very, very pleased to hear Agent John say that.
The golden platform was soon directly above the cabin. They could see not only the building itself, but the draw that reached down to the gulley of Geithner’s Creek, which ran into Long Lake just at the end of the S curve bend, and the trail that Charlotte and Scout had followed two nights before, when they had tried to track the red-headed boy they thought was actually Eve.
“Hey, do you think Ken gets that Eve is actually a girl?” Charlotte asked no-one in particular.
“Yeah.” Dora said.
“Yes,” said Rose.
“Think so,” Bruce finished.
“Me, too. Wow. I thought I was imaginging that vibe.” Charlotte loosened up the Pearl Harmony in her scabbard. Last winter, one of older super girls had seduced Eve into trying to break up a boy and a girl that she was actually interested in. Well, it was a super girl with Triplicate Lass-type powers, so, strictly speaking one of her duplicates. But still. The point was that her brother and his girlfriend had exposed the whole thing at the Valentine’s Day dance and totally humiliated Eve. And the more that Charlotte got involved in the pageant, the more sympathy for Eve was leaking through. She was starting to hope that things would go better for Eve this time.
She’d still kick Eve’s ass if she caught the cave-bitch, though.
The platform slid over Long Lake towards the mountains. The lake below was sparkling so hard so that it almost hurt the eyes. The beach below Geithner’s Strike was crammed with kids. Distracted from swimming and beach volleyball, they were all staring up into the sky at the superteam, their eyes shaded from the butter yellow sun. In the water, boat wakes spread up and down the lake like curly feathers, and even from this far up, Charlotte could see logs rocking in the waves and imagine the wet smell of the spume.
Ahead of them, though, was the east side of the lake, where the ranches were under siege from the sabretooths, and practically the only people moving were militia patrols. It was actually scary. There were only enough militia to escort two convoys through a day. Geithner’s Strike was weirdly isolated, and would stay that way until either the sabretooths were defeated, or the mine opened its sluices and flooded the Narrows. The last time they’d been up here, Charlotte thought, Professor Paradigm and his team had ambushed them. Would history repeat itself?
The platform rocked as it began to lift, skidding high towards, and then above the forbidding peak of Mount Geithner. Soon, they were above the treeline.
Charlotte touched the hilt of the Pearl Harmony again. And her wristcomm spoke in her uncle’s voice. “You need to learn the Eight Spirit Dragon Fist, Charlotte.”
“I didn’t even ask you!” Charlotte snarled, her frustration with her uncle’s teaching programme boiling over. Her friends looked at her, but didn’t say anything. Probably wisely, Charlotte thought. Bruce, though, rolled his eyes a bit.
Charlotte rounded on him. “What?”
Bruce looked nervous. Oh, wow, Charlotte thought. Maybe I should dial it down a bit. But she was so mad. “Why is the programme interrupting now?” Bruce gestured at the wristcomm. Even his hands looked nervous. Below them, the white flicker of a glacier passed beneath as they continued to climb.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care!” Charlotte turned her shoulder to Bruce, but, somehow, it di didn’t make her feel any better.
“Well, there it is,” Dora interrupted, just in time. She gestured down at a plain square of verdant green suspended over the glacier like a platform, sticking out from the forbidding bulge of a solid rock positioned like an extra support for the high summit of the mountain. “Attention passengers. We are going to have to make an emergency water landing. For those passengers who can swim, land is half a mile to the right. For those who can’t thank you for flying Maid of Gold Airlines!”
“What?” Rose asked.
“It’s the punchline of a joke.” Which Charlotte had told Dora as an ethnic joke about Alitalia. Even Dora had just given her the stinkeye at that, like, what century are you from? Come to think of it, was there even such a thing as Alitalia anymore? Charlotte hopped free. Lichen coated the thin soil of the high meadow, and a puff of dry, vegetable dust sprayed up around Charlotte’s uniform leggings as she alighted. She stood in the middle of a patch of verdant green. From this angle, she could see Long Lake, but dozens of miles upstream to the south over a low notch in the mountains to the southeast that extended the masses of bare, sharp edged stone that Mount Geithner presented towards the valley. To her right and curving around to surround the mountain on three sides was a glacier that filled the hollow. Charlotte wondered if anyone had even climbed Mount Geithner. Probably, but not that many. At the foot of the glacier, to the north, a stream plunged down over a cliff.
“Look at that stream over there.” Bruce pointed. “It’s going exactly the right direction to be the stream where we fought the Paradigm Pirates last time.”
“Hunh,” Charlotte said, a little distracted from trying to figure out what made this little patch of alpine meadow so special.
“Maybe we should look closer to the mountain,” Bruce suggested. “It looks like there might be a bit of an overhang there.”
Charlotte headed in the direction that Bruce suggested. As they climbed across the green, passing between shrubs while birds protested. Ginger, still perched on Charlotte’s shoulder, angrily cawed back.
As they got closer, the overhang Bruce had proposed materialised out of the dark bulk of the stone and, as they got even closer, turned into a cavemouth, menacingly dark. Charlotte looked at Bruce, suspiciously. “Have you been up here already?”
Bruce didn’t answer. But he did blush. Hunh. Charlotte didn’t push it. She figured that Bruce had been up to a lot, thanks to his being a boy, and being allowed to wander the valley on his own for the last three weeks. And when the time came, she would punish him for it. Well, tease him, anyway. One thing that Charlotte realised that she missed now, was the chance to tease either her brother or Bruce.
Rose sped forward and then back, stopping in front of the team, her face flush, so that Charlotte almost thought she was winded until she remembered that Rose didn’t get winded. “Oh. Wow,” Rose announced. “Wait ‘till you guys see this.”
“What? What’s up there?” Dora spun a golden nimbus and lifted off, flying towards the great wall of rock. Behind her, Charlotte broke into a run, feeling the ch’i of her soul rise in her to speed her legs. She was flying so fast when she hit the rim of the meadow and dropped into the hollow below that she almost stumbled, coming down instead in a fighting crouch, the Pearl Harmony in her hands, casting its light. Above her, Ginger circled, silent for a change.
“Wow.” For a change, Dora had nothing to say.
“I told you,” Rose said, sounding smug.
“Is that a . . . spaceship?” Bruce said, coming up behind. Now he was puffing.
“Yes,” Charlotte said. It wasn’t precisely a cave. The great sweep of rock, she could see now, was not that convex, climbing instead almost vertically to join the bulging shoulders of Mount Geithner. The reason that you couldn’t see the shiny, silver spaceship was that it lay in the hollow below the level of the meadow. A little creek ran at the bottom of the hollow, water damming up at the sweeping 50s Sci-Fi novel fins of the spaceship. Bushes grew around the ship.
“Well, at least we know that it’s been here for awhile,” Charlotte said, as she walked down the slope to stand in front of an airlock, its door irised open sideways to show that the ship really was tipped on its side, as she’d first thought.
“There’s something sort of familiar about this,” Bruce mused.
“No ‘sort of’ about it,” Rose answered, as their wristcomms pinged in unison. Email incoming. Charlotte clicked to read it. It was a picture of the spaceship that they saw in front of them, only standing properly on in its fins and in a different place.
“Is that . . . Mars?” Bruce asked.
“Yes. This is the Mandaarian spaceship that came to rescue Jason and Amy Wong and John Roy, Emily Neilsen and Rafaella on Mars.” Rafaella didn’t really have a last name because she was a princess and the Heir If-I-Have-Anything-To-Say-About-It of a crosstime pirate kingdom.
“Mandaarian renegades,” Bruce tapped his head with his fingers to show that he had figured it all out at last. “It’s all starting to make sense.”
Charlotte bent down and pulled some shrubs aside so that she could see under the half-buried belly of the ship. “And not just Mandaarians,” she said. She put the Pearl Harmony’s tip in the shiny white bone that she had seen, and pulled the strange, vertical section, almost like a wheel with spokes and an axle into the sunlight of the afternoon, that was just barely starting to fade. “I think I’ve met one of these.”
“Ooh,” Dora said. “It’s like in Aliens, when it turns out that the weird spaceship was carrying a load of eggs as weapons.”
“Was that really Aliens? Or did it come later?” Bruce wondered.
Dora rolled her eyes. “Like, the other movies? Aliensses? Alienssers? Nobody watched those.”
“No,” Bruce protested. “The comics. Or maybe the Aleins Versus Predator movies?”
“Guys,” Rose protested. “You’re killing the mood! This is, like, the big reveal!”
Dora shook her head. “No, it’s not. The whole Mandaarian renegade thing was the only one of Bruce’s theories that still worked. This pretty much had to be here. The real question is, ‘where’s the crew?’”
“Um, guys?” Charlotte said, the back of her neck suddenly prickling as the light of the Pearl Harmony was abruptly bisected by a line of black. “We might be about to find out.”