Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Chapter 3, 27, Set Your Feet Upon the Path

Mandaarian is a cool name for an alien race, because it sounds like it might be a real word, and tells you everything you need to know about them. They've got a mandate, and that mandate is to keep you from doing all the stuff you want to do. Trust me. You'll thank me when you're older.

Chapter 3, 27, Set Your Feet Upon the Path

The group returned to Geithner’s Strike Hospital the way that they had come, sweeping out of the brazen afternoon sky to the turnout of pavement that served for the town’s Emergency driveway.

It seemed to Charlotte as though the grown were jumping at them. Here, the brown sage of summer-wilted range and pasture; there, the permanent green of pine forests, and, down closer to the town below the irrigation line, the endless ranks of fruit trees in the town’s orchards. In the soft fruit groves, the harvest was already beginning. Children and teens, earning pocket money –or more than pocket money—were swarming through the trees. You could hear them chattering a thousand feet up.

At the last moment, Dora stopped their plunging descent, and the golden disc dissolved into an aureate mist. Charlotte had just found her footing on the hot pavement when the mist began to sparkle away. “Dramatic entrance for the win!” She announced, turning to give Dora a high five.

“Plus infinity!” Rose added.

“To infinity,” Dora began.

“And beyond!” Charlotte chorused with Rose and Bruce.

From where they were standing under the awning that gave the Emergency sliding doors just the slightest protection from the sun, Agent John shook his head and winced in affected despair, and Doctor Kahale nodded agreement. “If you’re quite finished?”

“You’re not the boss of us!” Dora said, throwing a pout and shaking her shining brown mane so hard it would have put George Cloony on the curb.

Dora was apparently testing the limits of the uniform guidelines again. Guilty, Charlotte reached up behind her head, where she had cut out the back of the cowl so that she could wear her hair drawn back in a ponytail. If you could call her mass of black-and-brown frosted, wavy hair a ponytail.

“Actually,” Rose said, “Isn’t he our boss? I mean, your Dad is always on about our duty of aid to the civil power.” Only Rose could say that seriously.

“Whatever,” Dora snapped back.

Charlotte sighed. “Yes, Agent. We’re finished. What have we got from Brian?”

“Just a moment, Redeeming Daughter. What do you guys have?”

“Well. . . We found another cache of exotic artefacts, just like the one we turned up at Makeout Log yesterday. Goblin Boy?” Charlotte turned to Bruce.

“Same as the first one. Clearly placed to attract someone’s attention. It was under a boulder at the natural spot for recreational climbers coming up from Geithner’s Strike to stop for lunch. All they would have to do would be to shift the boulder looking for a hollow to start a fire in.”

“And your theory?” Agent John asked, stabbing a finger at Bruce. “That the artefacts communicate what was previously misdiagnosed as malaria.”

“Based on?”

“Well, that Ken had malaria, and knew the location of the Makeout Log cache. That and the fact that Brian Ferguson was showing ‘malaria’ symptoms after running into weird artefacts.”

“So are you saying that the artefacts are a Terraformer trap?”

“Of course not,” Bruce answered. “They weren’t planted fifty thousand years ago. We might have watched the mountain cache being planted.”

“So the Terraformers are still active?”

“That’s one possibility,” Bruce said, slowly. He didn’t add that in the plot of the science fiction novel Rose had read, the artefacts turned people into a new generation of aliens. That was just a bit of a leap.

Agent John put up his hand. “Well, here’s an interesting fact. Dr. Kahale has been calling local patients with malaria histories. They were not surprised to hear from him. Apparently, not only had Mike Suzuki been to see them to take blood samples, but a follow-up researcher from the university has been around in the last few weeks to see if they’ve had any delayed symptoms.”

“Tall, bald, very intense guy, always making weird remarks?” Rose rhymed the description off as though she had met him. Which she had. Professor Paradigm had somehow wiggled out of charges for his crimes and was teaching drama at Tatammy High.

Agent John nodded.

“I knew it!” Charlotte said.

Agent John nodded again, acknowledging that he had been wrong. “Now all we have to figure out is how the Paradigm Pirates foxed the Mandaarian sensors.”

“That’s easy,” Bruce began. “The renegade--” But a glare from Agent John stopped him. “Yeah. That’s the last piece of the puzzle, all right.”

“If we can go in?” Dr. Kahale asked, gesturing towards the door. “My patient hasn’t been out of his coma for very long, and he should rest.”

Dora smirked. “Because after a coma, what you need is some rest!”

Dr. Kahale didn’t even bat an eye. “Yes, young lady, it is.”

Inside, they found Brian, lying elevated in his bed, with his sister and parents. A moment before, they had been talking, but, for some reason, four superheroes walking into the room left them looking a little stunned. Agent John went over to them and spoke to them quietly, and Brian’s mother put her hand around her daughter’s shoulder as they pulled back, stepping into the corridor so that the costumed champions of law enforcement could crowd around his bed and look a little stupid. What were they here for?

Dr. Kahale sensed the mood. “What did you tell me earlier, Brian?”

Brian looked up at his doctor for a long moment, looking puzzled. Then, his eyes brightened. “Oh, yeah. The weird feeling I got when I touched that glowing green gemstone. It was just like what I felt when I got lost in the woods above Crescent Beach Park, back when I was a kid.”

Charlotte sneaked a peak at Agent John. He was trying hard not to smile at the idea that Brian used to be “just a kid.”

“Not much to go on,” Bruce said.

“But a clue is a clue,” Charlotte said, thinking for a moment. Then, decisively, “It’s late in the day, and I don’t want to stumble into anything in the dark. If Doctor Cambridge can get us out of activities at camp tomorrow, I say we follow up when there’s more light.”

“What time?” Bruce asked.

“Werewolf killing time. Just after dawn.”

“Oh, man. I’m going to have to borrow a truck and drive down from the camp through the dark.”

“An hour after, or so, then,” Charlotte conceded. “7:30.”

“Oh, man,” Bruce said. “I’m going to have to get up early.”

“Sucks to be you,” Charlotte answered, unsympathetically.

“Hey,” Dora answered. “Morning people are outnumbered on this team 2 to 1.”

Rose waved for attention. “Ahem.”

“What? You’re a morning person? And I thought you were nice.”

“I’m neither,” Rose answered. “I’m neutral. Switzerland. I just thought I’d announce that fact.”

“If you’re Switzerland,” Charlotte began, a dangerous tone creeping into her voice, she noticed, “Then where’s your chocolate? ‘Cuz I can totally see calling off my eternal war with night people and waging war for chocolate!”

“Because girls like chocolate,” Bruce mansplained to no-one in particular.

Charlotte slammed her shoulder into Bruce’s so hard that even the solid McNeely boy staggered a little. “Truce is off.”

But Bruce slipped with the nudge, coming around and grabbing Charlotte’s hair with unexpected speed. “Hey! What is this thing? A mace?” His hands were unexpectedly gentle in her hair.

Still, there were things that you just did not put up with. Except maybe from your Mom. Charlotte put her left hand on Bruce’s wrist and, with her right hand, pulled the tip of her mane out of his grip. “Look but don’t touch,” she said, then felt embarrassment creeping up over her like a red, flaming, rising tide. It was something like a mace, she had to admit.

Agent John’s loud, outside-ordering-agents-around-voice cut through the chatter. “Will you be needing police backup, Charlotte?”

Charlotte thought about it. They weren’t looking for a fight, but they’d met man-eating trees, acid-blooded lake worms, Paradigm Pirates, the werewolves, and a shapechanging alien monster/weird were-sabretooth lion. In theory, they could meet any or all of them up at Crescent Beach Park. On the other hand, Charlotte wasn’t feeling it. The whole mess of them could attack the Colonial Building right this minute, for all Charlotte knew. If they were working together, if that was their plan. There were so many things she didn’t know!

Meanwhile, their best bet of pushing the investigation forward was to not go trampling all over the weird stuff. “No,” she finally said. “Just monitor our wristcomms and come help us if we get in over our heads. Just like we’re doing for you.”

It seemed a lot scarier in the dawn of the next morning, with the sun still well below the ridge and a wisp of cold mist lingering on the lake. Charlotte would have been more scared if she weren’t focussed so hard on her breakfast. The orange juice was fresh-squeezed and the bacon was incredible. Charlotte speared a piece of waffle, smeared it in the syrup, and added a piece of bacon to make the perfect salt-and-sweet morsel as she distractedly played with the salt and pepper shakers on the table in front of her, trying to work out a combo play that would allow her and Dora to take out a room full of acid-blood worms with a single sweep cut.

“Cat got your tongue?” Rose’s blond hair was tied off in a long braid with a pink ribbon and pulled forward over her green sweatshirt. She was holding a McKenzie’s hash brown in her hand, contemplating whether or not to dip it into watery Camp Paradise ketchup. Ginger rapped the window from outside.

“It’s getting kind of scary,” Charlotte offered. “There could be a spaceship full of Mandaarian renegades out there.”

Rose shrugged. “And a spaceship full of Mandaarian police, just as easily.”

Charlotte hadn’t thought of that. Just the thought was a huge relief. “You think so?”

A thoughtful expression crossed Rose’s face. “Actually, no. They’d be all over the place like there was a new sheriff in town. But they could be on the way. In fact, I think they’re probably on the way.”

Well, that had to be good enough, Charlotte decided. “Hopefully we’ll have this wrapped up in a nice little bow by the time they show up. You think that if Dora could turn her discs step-sized, you could skate on them?”

“Like flying discs? We had them in the future. Most people just ended up hanging off them.” Rose picked up the ketchup bottle and turned it upside down to illustrate.

“It was just an idea,” Charlotte said. Damn, she thought. That sounded defensive.

Dora pulled a chair out from the table and collapsed into it. “Helllo, evil morning person. Hi, Rose. That doesn’t look like Alpen.”

“I run fast. It might not be the coolest power ever, but I’m always good for takeout.”

“Gah. Throw up now. Coffee me.”

“We’re not supposed to drink coffee,” Charlotte pointed out. “You’re a very bad girl.” Then Charlotte smirked as Rose put a big paper cup full of McKenzie’s best in front of her friend.

Dora sucked back a greedy swallow and then fanned her hand in front of her face. “Woah. Hot. Uhm, does everyone get one? If Swiss Miss here starts tweaking while we’re on mission, you can forget the way I rock the Jo role in this little ensemble, cuz I swear I will narc her out myself.”

Rose pitched over dramatically, her head coming down on the table right in front of Dora. Her button nose wrinkled as she let out a heroic snore. Then her body twisted under the table as she turned herself over to face Dora without taking her head off the table. “Don’t worry about me. I can hold my caffeine.” She paused. “You watch the dumbest shows.”

Dora looked down severely. “And you recognise my references. Do they have Facts of Life in the future?”

“In the dark future where there is only dial-up, we watch a lot of old reruns. Are we ready to go yet, Charlotte?”

Charlotte checked her wristcomm. Bruce was waiting for them at the dock. “Yes. The highway ferry doesn’t start running for another hour, so we’re going to take a boat up to Crescent Beach.”

“Stupid civvies mission,” Dora explained, helpfully.

Dora’s protests aside, the teens were soon headed north down the lake, across the mouth of the arm towards the wild slope of the lake beyond the Narrows, where only a two-lane gravel highway broke the wilderness between the beach and the crest, and where logging had hardly even begun to cut into the ancient forest. Five miles north of the opening of the Narrows, the slope of the mountain took an abrupt slump and fell away into the lake in a great bowl. At the bottom of the bowl, between a marshy forest and the lake, was the miles-long, gleaming white sand of Crescent Beach. Darkened firepits dotted the sand, and at the north end, a few tents were pitched behind pulled-up canoes. But the team was not going there, but rather to the far end of the beach, six miles and more than twenty minutes more cruising.

At last, the razorbacked rocky ridge that terminated the beach emerged from the early morning fog. The road here was blasted into the far end of the ridge, right above the lake, to save the climb, crawling up the ridge from just behind the North Beach campsite. Beyond the road, the forest, flanked on one side by the high ridge, gradually climbed up the bowl towards the ridge line, all of it utter wilderness, beyond the road that was the last boundary between the human world and a forest of gigantic trees and monsters out of Earth’s Pleistocene dawn.

Wow, spooky much? Charlotte thought as she stepped out of the boat and felt the cool lake water seep into her runners as she grabbed the motor boat by the gunwales and helped carry it up onto the beach. Her own first reaction had been pretty melodramatic, she thought. I must be even more worried about being out on the edge than I thought.

Turning to her team, Charlotte gathered them round with a gesture of both arms. “Okay, guys, Brian doesn’t remember exactly where he was when he had his reaction, but it was grad time, so the bottom land was probably still soaked. He figures that he would have been following a lateral fault along the flank of the ridge about fifty feet off the ground. Should be easy going. We’ll sweep it for as far as you can reasonably expect an 8 year-old to wander. A couple miles, maybe? Should take about two hours. Hopefully by that time we’ll have found a crashed spaceship or an ancient ruin guarded by a living statue, and we can ask them if they’ve seen anything out of the ordinary. Got it? ”

The team nodded. Okay, Charlotte, she thought. This is your plan. It goes wrong, you own it.

Soon, the team had crossed the empty highway at the point where it switchbacked up onto the fault, and were picking their way through the underbrush. Charlotte took right flank, carefully edging along the sudden drop off where the rocky slope fell away down into the marsh. It was hard to see in the undergrowth, and she was tempted to pull the Pearl Harmony off her shoulder and probe the ground.

Even if she knew that she would just get it snarled in the thorns. She wondered what anyone watching would think. The point of doing the investigation in civvies was to not draw any attention. But you had to think that someone climbing through the brush on a hot and sunny day was going to look just a tad conspicuous with a frigging golf umbrella strapped to their back.

Her wristcomm buzzed. It was Bruce, next on her left in the search line. “Are we ever going back to the crashed spaceship? Just asking.” Bruce was a good touch typist and autocorrect seemed to work for him.

“No.” Charlotte texted back. Then, thinking, “Wasp nest. Don’t wrry. 7th coming.” Cavalry, that is. Hopefully.

She thought about it. “If gangsta Mand. think authoritah already here, they be respecting.” The renegades might stay low if they thought that the Mandaarian enforcers were already on the scene. And why not? There were already superheroes and two mysterious CBI agents around who wouldn’t give their last names.

“What about Mr. Diavolo?” Bruce sent.

Good point, Charlotte thought. Maybe if they really begged, Mr. Diavolo would help, but the point was that for all the renegades knew, Mr. Diavolo was just waiting for them to show their faces so he could kick ass Malvan style. Malvans didn’t usually get involved. But if he thought they were going to screw up his beauty contest before the swimsuit competition? Yeah, he’d bring the trouble all right. How was it that the Phazor got his way? Like the professional version of Darth Vader. ‘Nice planet you got there. Shame if something happened to it.’

Oh oh. She’d taken her attention off the forest for just a second to compose a post, and somehow she’d taken a wrong turn. Instead of an approximately level forest floor, she was on a slope. She looked upwards. Nothing but unbroken brush. How had she even got down here? Charlotte looked down. The marshy forest below was rank and overgrown. And, right now, it seemed even more overgrown, darker and more menacing. Not again.

Her wristcomm buzzed. Dora. “Think I’m lost.”

“Me too.” Rose. “Can fly?”

“Can’t call needfire.”

Bruce sent. “Don’t forget compass and altimeter under utilities on phone.”

“Duh.” Dora. “Not helping. You?”

“No.” Bruce admitted. “Char-Char?”

“Also lost.” Then she noticed that the reception bars on her wristcomm were shrinking towards zero. How the hell? Rosa had relay satellites directly overhead all day.

Trouble. That was the only possibility. “Watch out for incoming,” Charlotte yelled. Her voice bounced off the trees, muffled by the woods. Distantly, she could hear Bruce yelling. Far too distantly. He was supposed to be literally an arm’s reach away. Charlotte had just about decided that she hated spooky space forest science magic, and she would definitely complain to management when she got out.

If she got out.

No comments:

Post a Comment