Chapter 3, 29: Treehouse
At ground level, the grove of silver-green pine trees was even more amazing. Looking up from the bottom of the cleft in the rock, Charlotte could see the sun through breaks in the foliage, letting a butter-yellow heat down through the slightly cooler shade. Close up, the lack of low undergrowth was even more amazing. It was just deep, green grass growing right up to the massive roots of the big trees.
It would have been a lot more impressive if Charlotte didn’t have that creepy sense you get when you think that you’re being followed.
The rope ladder on the first tree came to five feet above the ground. Bruce grabbed onto the lowest rung and pulled himself up on it athletically. “This doesn’t look forty thousand years old to me.” His voice was muffled by the fact that he’d pushed his face right up against it.
“On the other hand,” Rose said, “If it’s just some teens checking the place out, they wouldn’t use a rope ladder, right? Who even makes rope ladders?”
Bruce flexed his arms, pulling himself up and away from the tree, then braced his feet against the trunk and did a backflip to the ground. “Nah. No nylon ropes on sale at Hernandez’s. They’re back to old-fashioned hemp rope here on Redneck World.”
“You checked that?” Rose asked, in a tone that implied that Bruce was being too much of a nerd even ofr her.
“Yeah, I checked that. It’s what detectives do.”
“Maybe in Sherlock Holmes stories they do. In the real world, they need their phones to find a donut store.”
“It’s what good detectives do,” Bruce amended. “Anyway, the fibre’s perfectly fine, so if we want to check out the treehouse, we can use the rope.”
Charlotte jumped her height onto the side of the tree, sticking it with ninja climbing hooks that she’d carried along just in case.
“Or we could just, you know, go it our own ways,” Bruce finished.
“Whatevs.” Dora looked down on them from overhead, and her golden nimbus flared. “Just so long as I don’t have to be the elevator.”
Rose put her hands on her hips and pushed up her upper body in mock indignation. “What? You love carrying us around and reminding us that you’re the only one who can fly.”
Dora looked down, trying to hold a serious ‘I’m totally offended’ expression to match Rose’s. “Yes, but being an elevator is different. Demeaning. It undermines the long struggle for Hispanic-American. . .” But then she ruined it by giggling.
Rose waved her hands in front of her face, flexing at the wrist to show complete consternation. “For too long, la Raza has been content to be the superpowered elevator operators in mysterious abandoned alien tree towns. We demand. . .” Then she started giggling, too.
Now, Dora started laughing.
Charlotte squirreled the rest of the way up to the first hole in the bole of the tree, lifting herself up into it and turning herself round in the same motion so that she sat in the bole, looking down on her friends, the mystery of whatever might be inside ostensibly ignored. Though, of course, she’d checked it out long enough to know that it was boringly empty. The creepy feeling had not gone away. “You guys going to be coming up, or are you making it a civil rights issue?”
Rose put her hands back down on her hips, shifting to her Trailer Guy voice. “In the dark, post-apocalyptic future, the only civil right is to die. And talk on your phone during movies.”
“Wow,” Bruce muttered from where he was swarming up the ladder below Charlotte. “The future really is a dark place.”
“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “Not so fast, there, buster.” She put her boot in front of Bruce’s face, miming kicking him off the tree, but careful not to actually kick him. “I’m the king of the castle around here.”
High above them, Dora alighted on the first branch off the tree. “Okay, first, this is not a playground. This is a very serious investigation. Second, I am totally the king of the castle.”
Bruce climbed past Charlotte. As he passed her, he punched her, lightly, in the shoulder. “Monkey tree. Gotcha back.”
“Oh. Gee, guys. You might want to see this.” Dora’s voice floated down from above.
“What?” Rose said, appearing on the branch next to Dora. “Alien furniture? The Rescue Rangers? Lots of nuts?” She looked in. “What?” Her voice trailed off.
It took almost a minute for Charlotte to climb all the way to the hole. She looked in. It was as empty of alien stuff as the first room that she’d looked at, far below. But it did hold a heavy tartan blanket, rolled up at the side of the room, an empty, cardboard 24-case for beer.
Dora stepped inside the room, followed by Rose. The golden light of Dora’s nimbus suffused through the room. On the smooth, organic lines of the tree’s wall, it picked out multicoloured spray paint graffiti. The designs that had been tagged on the ancient tree were familiar.
Charlotte looked down at her bracelet. Very familiar.
Bruce lifted himself over the sill and into the room a moment later. “So this is a teen hangout now.”
Charlotte shook her head. “Not unless they’re immune to that bewilderment charm.”
“So let’s concede that they’re immune to the charm.” Rose sounded thoughtful. “I think we can see why. They’re more ‘malaria victims.’” She gestured at the wall.
“Lots of people got malaria around here in the outbreak,” Bruce pointed out. “If the Mandaarians, or Professor Paradigm, or the space leprechaun are looking for them, all they need is the hospital records. But they’re going for Mr. Suzuki’s population genetics data instead. They must be looking for a particular victim. I . . . Oh My God. Brian!”
A dark shadow fell over the entrance to the room.
“Uhm, which of us was on guard, again?” Dora asked.
Charlotte could have kicked herself. She should have thought that they might be trapped in here. She reached over her shoulder and put her hand the Pearl Harmony. It slid smoothly in its sheath, ready to wreak havoc in revenge for having to disguise itself as a golf umbrella again.
A familiar, black-clad figure slipped over the sill into the room. Its eyes unerringly picked Rose out and held hers for a long moment, until Charlotte felt a twinge of jealousy. Someday, she wanted to star in a romance novel, too. Then, the Dark Ninja looked away from Rose to Charlotte and said, in his deep voice, “None of that.”
“So why are you here?” Charlotte asked, her voice sounding, even to her, more angry than usual.
“Well, per the Professor, I’m shadowing you guys and making sure that you don’t run across this place. Per me, I heard Brian’s name, and figured that you guys had finally figured out that he needed armed guards. And since I’ve already taken care of that, I thought I’d poke my head in and tell you to chill. There is stuff to find here, if you take your time.”
There was a long silence, finally broken by Bruce. “What did you do?”
“Professor sent me to steal a blood sample. People he’s working for want to know if Brian is the Promised Chosen One, crap like that. I switched his for another patient, one they’d already sampled.”
“Uhm, why? Why? Why did you do that?” Rose’s voice seemed stuck on ‘Intense’ setting.
The Ninja shrugged. “Dunno. These guys the Prof is working for creep me out big time. And the Prof is acting even crazier than usual.” The Ninja looked around, as though he was worried that he might have been followed. “And I don’t even like him very much.”
“You’re so brave to come to us like this,” Rose said. Part of Charlotte wanted to roll her eyes, and part of her wanted to go, “Daaaw.”
The Ninja looked down and scuffed his shoes. He’s bashful, Charlotte realised. Adorable! “Wasn’t nothing.” He also talked like Scout. Or, really, any guy who never seemed to know how to put two words together.
“Why don’t you join up with us?” Rose continued.
The Ninja hesitated visibly.
“Who are you, really?” Rose asked, reaching out.
The Ninja jerked back. “No! You can’t!” Flowing through the motion, he did a backflip out over the sill.
In the silence of the room, Rose enunciated very clear. “I sure fucked that one up.”
Dora looked sideways at her friend. “I wasn’t even sure you knew that word.”
“Yeah, save it ‘till you need it, I figure. Fuck.” Rose was visibly tearing up.
Charlotte put her hand on Rose’s left shoulder, matching Dora’s on her right. She took a second to glare daggers at Bruce, who was giving the old ‘Girls, who can figure them’ look.
“It’s okay, Rose,” Charlotte said. “He’s sensitive about his secret identity, is all.”
Rose looked at her friend. “I know that. I knew I shouldn’t have pressed him. But it doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t he understand that? I don’t care who he really is! I don’t care if he’s a Morlock agent from my future. I don’t care if he hangs with Professor Paradigm’s gang. I just want . . . I just want. .. ” She started crying.
“Hon, you need to tell him that.”
“And make him believe it,” Dora added. “Which might be harder.”
“Pff,” Bruce said, throwing up his hands. “A girl that looks like Rose tells a guy that she’ll go out with him if he likes Taylor Swift as much as she does, he’ll pretend to like Taylor Swift. You can’t tell me that flipping your secret ID is half the commitment of listening to six hours of breakup music.”
Dora looked crossly at Bruce. “Hey, you can stop trashing Taylor Swift any time, bro. You don’t hear me getting down on Arcade Fire.”
“You just did,” Bruce said, sounding a bit angry.
Rose put her hands on her friends’ chests. “Hey, guys, when did this escalate into battle of the bands?”
Charlotte smiled. That was Rose, for you. Too busy being the peacemaker to remember to be emo. And from the flash she caught in Dora and Bruce’s eyes, she could see that the same thought was going through their heads, too.
Missed sentry assignment and all, they were a team, damnit. “So. Anyone want to go looking for hidden treasure?”
Which, in spite of the Dark Ninja’s promise, they did not find. Six trees with twenty rooms later, all they had seen were empty rooms hewn out of the living wood of these ancient trees.
It was late afternoon when they gathered under the last tree to be searched, the final one where the cleft in the rock ended in a sharp “Vee.” A silver curtain covered the rock from about four feet above the level of the grass, water welling out of the deep rock and forming a pool of beautifully clear water from which a stream bled away down the valley.
Charlotte looked down into the natural pool, at a blue rock that appeared, as though magnified, in the circular lens formed by a ripple in the pond. It reminded her, Charlotte thought, of the memorial pool that her grandfather had built by damning the little creek that came out of the cliff at The Bench. Or of how she imagined the pool in Lothlorien from which Galadriel took the magic water she gave Frodo. At least, how she imagined it before Peter Jackson ruined it for her.
Charloote kneeled down to take a handful of water, just in case whoever was in charge was reading the same book. Evidently not, she thought, as she sipped. It was nice and clear, but not obviously magic In her imagination, of not reality, the sun that glinted in the pool was beginning to take on a reddish hue.
“Why the hell,” Charlotte asked of the air, “Did we waste this entire day climbing trees and looking at wood?”
“Because,” a disembodied voice said, “You were asking the wrong questions.”
“Holy crap,” Dora observed.
“Blue! No!!” Rose shouted.
“Is this really the time to be quoting Monty Python and the Holy Graili?” Bruce asked. “Oh, hell, forget I asked.”
“So,” Charlotte asked conversationally, mainly so that she wouldn’t just break down and freak out, “What are the correct questions?”
“What?” The disembodied voice replied.
Instead of freaking out, suddenly Charlotte was feeling exasperated, instead. “Look, you’re the disembodied voice. This is where you’re supposed to tell us how to defeat the final boss or like that. As opposed to, say, asking us to speak up, you young whippersnappers.”
“I heard you perfectly, young lady. I am the oracle of this place, and you’re a member of a hierophantic family You know what questions to ask.”
“A what now?” Charlotte was completely baffled.
Rose nudged her. “Psst, Char-Char. It’s the word for priestly lineages that tended mystery shrines and oracles in ancient Greece.”
Charlotte looked at her friend for a long moment. Rose was smart as well as knowledgeable, so presumably she would come up with something more useful eventually.
Charlotte waited another moment. Oh, hell, she thought. I’m too impatient for this. “And this helps me how?”
“The Bench,” Rose hissed.
Charlotte felt the shock of recognition you get when somehow echoes your random thoughts. “What?” We’re giving that word a workout today, Charlotte thought.
“That weird, spooky place that your family likes so much, that you’re always dragging us too?”
“I thought you liked the Bench?” Charlotte hissed back, feeling defensive, suddenly. “It’s a special place.”
Rose looked at her friend impatiently. “And it is an oracular shrine, and you’re a member of the hierophantic family that presides over it.”
“What?” Again with the ‘whats.’ “None of that is . . . Where do you get all of that?”
“Big windy voice spilled the beans,” Bruce pointed out. “Unless your family has another secret shrine-place that an evil sorcerer is trying to get his hands on.”
“Yes, I did,” said the disembodied voice, sounding as embarrassed as mysterious voices that hand out plot-critical lore can. “When places get caught up in time travel loops or major hyperspace involutions, they can become sites of oracles, places where the future can be seen and manipulated.”
“Like . . . magic?” Bruce asked.
“Same thing,” Dora pointed out. “It’s all about interdimensional energies.”
“Listen to your friend,” the voice said.
“So what about us? What are you going to tell us?” Bruce asked.
“Nothing,” the disembodied voice said. “Forget I said anything.”
“I. . .” Charlotte paused for a moment. “Does anyone else get the feeling that Big Windy Voice is gone?”
Her friends made noises of agreement.
“And does anyone else totally not buy the idea that it just accidentally spilled the beans about The Bench being an oracle?”
“Pretty much,” Rose said.
“Yeah,” Bruce answered. “I’m just wondering how the Dark Ninja knew that this was how it was going to go down. Like, if we’d just wandered away. . . ”
“Because Big Windy Voice set the whole thing up?” Rose asked. “Probably told him what to say. It’s like the Watcher in Marvel Comics. He’s not allowed to interfere, but he always finds a way to do it anyway.”
“It’s a theory, anyway,” Charlotte said. “Now. The important question. Can we get back to camp in time for supper.”