Thursday, July 3, 2014

Book 4, 8: On the Roof, Down the Stacks

If you imagine that the continent of Sart in Hero Games' Valdorian Age is Australia, the city of Elweir is Darwin, not Melbourne. 

Sorry about any confusion.

Book 4, 8, Roofies

Charlotte drew her sword and assumed Tiger-Claw stance. Tiny, tiny little robots rolled and skittered to surround her, and with each turn, they unfolded another wing or segment to grow a little larger. 

Great, Charlotte thought. She was fighting Decepticons, and no Optimus Prime in sight.

With one eye on the robots, Charlotte kept the other on Madison. This bit of the Library had a flat roof with the kind of pebbled asphalt roofing that reminded Charlotte of a school. It wasn’t quite hot enough to smell the asphalt, but the memory of the smell tickled Charlotte’s memory. The edge of the roof was a concrete parapaet, just barely high enough to be a guard rather than a trip hazard. Beyond it, other wings of the Library rose in towers, some of steel and glass like the one that Charlotte had come out of, others in soaring stone spire, yet others with the upturned roofs of a pagoda.

Madison was twenty feet away, leaning on the red-brick walls of a little shed on the roof of the building. Charlotte took in the scene, imagining what should be there. Yes! Charlotte spotted flecks of white on the black asphalt. 

Charlotte smiled to herself, making sure to give no sign to Madison. You had to be mindful of things, her Uncle Henry would say. 

A buzzing sound brought Charlotte’s attention back to the near ground. One of the robots had slipped around behind her, and couldn’t resist a motor-y sound of triumph as it lunged at her backside. Charlotte let her instincts guide her blade, warding half way down her jeans-clad ass. 

The clang of the Pearl Harmony Sword ringing off a metallic blade peeled across the roof.

Charlotte looked at Madison, and new she let herself smile. Girl wasn’t known for patience or planning. She needed to learn that erratic and impulsive was not the same thing as unpredictable. “Something something milkshake.”

Sure enough, Madison’s eyes flashed. “Oh, you think you’re so hot, do you, Princess. Suck on this!” The Paradigm Pirate raised her hand and threw a chaos blast.

Charlotte vaulted, pivoting her body around the flashing blade of the Pearl Harmony Sword. The chaos blast hit the sword. She felt her blade’s hilt twist in her hand as it absorbed the force of the blast and deflected it behind her, right into the robot.

Charlotte risked a glance behind her. The robot was waist high now, and the blast had caught it in the midst of deploying a metal mandible that was unfolding into a lethal looking spike. The spike trembled for a moment, rust spreading across its shining surface with lightning speed. Then the unfolding reversed and the spike jackknifed closed with so much force that the hinge sprang loose on an uncoiling spring, like a cartoon character freed from a ten ton weight. 

From a tiny little mouth that Charlotte hadn’t seen before, a tiny little robot voice said, sadly, “Bozo is sad.” And the robot collapsed into parts that spun and rolled unevenly on the pebbled surface. 

Crap, Charlotte thought, as she alighted on the asphalt clear of the arc of robots. One down, five to go, and it turns out that the little things are kawaii!

“Shit!” Madison yelled, as she processed the consequences of her blast. Girl didn’t watch her mouth, either.

Somewhere nearby, a crow cawed in triumph. ‘Bout time you showed up, Charlotte thought to herself.

“Shut up, stupid bird,” Madison yelled, and a chaos blast flashed above and to Charlotte’s right. Wasted, of course. Ginger wasn’t going to be caught by that. 

In the meantime, Charlotte had to think about how she was going to beat five killbots, hopefully without smashing any more of the cute little things. They’d formed an arc now, trying to flank her again, one just a few steps away from Charlotte, the farthest right up against the parapet. 

They were still unfolding and shaking out, and now they were almost as tall as she was. Somehow, the thought made Charlotte feel awkward again, and she flipped in and landed Frog stance on her left foot, sidekicking to her right at the robot closest to the parapet, adding just a touch of Eight Spirit Dragon qi to the kick in case the things were more solid than you’d frankly expect, considering that they’d started the size of a toy soldier.

It wasn’t. The robot went flying towards the parapet, and right over it, falling out of sight. Oops. 

A chaos blast flew at her from her left. Charlotte got her sword on it and deflected it, but couldn’t quite land the blast on one of the robots. 

“Slippery!” Madison announced. “You know that if you’d just stand and fight for a minute, we’d get this whole boring scene over with.”

“Yeah,” Charlotte answered, “And if you’d dressed in an outfit that’d hold your boobs in, we could mix it up and end it that way.”

“That’s what you’re going to go with in this fight? Slut shame? Eve’s right about you. You know what? I have the right to dress the way I want to!”

Girl had a point, Charlotte had to admit. Or would if she weren’t a crazy bit of attention-seeking work. At least Eve had the excuse that her Dad had kidnapped her, wiper her memories, and regressed her brain to teenager. Oh, well, maybe Madison had a tragic backstory.

“Let’s try a target that stands still for a change.” Madison fired a chaos blast at the ground. In a moment, the asphalt under Charlotte’s feet turned hot and bubbly –and sticky. The four remaining robots warbled in machine triumph. Now that they were all as big as football players, their voices had gone from tiny and cute to synthy and annoying, like dance music from back before people realised that enough was enough. 

Their bodies, Charlotte couldn’t help noticing, now ended in articulated appendages, each equipped with one of a tasteful variety of razor edges, serrated blades, whirling buzzsaws, bladed pinchers, roaring chainsaws and spinning drills. 

“In the end,” Madison gloated, “We’re all just pieces of meat. Some of them better put together than others. Because my boys are about to tear you in pieces, I should probably explain, for the slow people in the audience.” 

Madison looked at Charlotte and smirked as she said it. “Char-Char.”

Oh, that does it, Charlotte thought. No-one calls me that but my friends. Forget the tragic backstory. I’m coming for you.

If she could get clear of the asphalt trap before the robots closed. No problem, though, Charlotte thought, slamming the tip of the Pearl Harmony Sword into the asphalt and lifting against it with both arms on the hilt while channeling qi through it.

For it seemed like forever, her feet held in the gluey mess as roaring chains and spinning blades got closer. Killed by a crazypants was not how Charlotte wanted to go. She’d never have a chance to introduce Madison to the miracles of lithium! Plus also juvie. 

Then her feet came free with a popping suck. Even as she got air under soles, Charlotte was shifting her weight, stretching to touch toes to the parapet, like a ballerina crossed with an acrobat. 

Oh, wait. That just was Chinese opera, so heritage for the win! Flexing her calves, Charlotte bounced through the air, trailing her sword behind her, landing crouched on the roof of the utility shed.

Charlotte took a lazy swipe at Madison with her sword, not fast enough to hit, but fast enough to let girl know that if Charlotte was playing for keeps, Madison would be short one over-big head just about now. 

Ginger cawed a warning note, and Charlotte dropped from her hand rest to put her cheek flat to the roof of the shed. 

A scythe blade swept the air where her head had been a moment before. A robot was hovering above her, its complicated, shiny, metallic body suspended between two whirly blades at a tippy angle just great enough to provide a helicopter lift, although it couldn’t be much, considering that she hadn’t even noticed the downwash before Ginger warned her. 

So, apparently, the things could fly. Charlotte hoped that this was the one that she’d knocked off the roof. It was stupid to be so worried about robots, she realised, but she could still hear that little voice in her head. Too bad, because the cute little robot was now lowering a stinger that looked big enough to harpoon a whale.

Worse, from this angle, Charlotte could not keep her eyes on both robot and Madison. Not my best look, Charlotte thought to herself as she spun on her side to get her body on the far side of angled, pitched slate roof of the shed. 

“This isn’t a game!” Charlotte heard Madison yell behind her.

You think? Charlotte thought. First clue: it wasn’t any fun. 

“You should have finished me when you had a chance!” Madison screamed. Girl was seriously mad at not having her head cut off. 

“You know, if you want people to take you seriously as a supervillain, you might try dressing like one.” And I can help, Charlotte. She tried not to grin. Madison didn’t really need any help getting crazypantsier.

“You are so dead!” The zing of a chaos blast gave force to Madison’w words. Charlotte had a moment to wonder what the effects of a blast on a slate roof would be before the long, thin pieces of shaped stone under her hands began to crack and shatter, like the rotten stone of that cliff near her old school in Hope that the boys kept trying to climb, even though hunks of the rock would come off in their hands. Charlotte could remember that feeling all too well from falling from rather higher than she ought to have been. It was a good thing no-one had told her Mom, or Chris.

Charlotte finished the spin about her left side, feeling the sudden emptiness below her as she came off the edge of the shed on the side opposite Madison, every nerve keyed for what she had to do next.


And so it was. The door that the smokers who threw away the cigarette butts on the far side came out of, was there. The outside door was even one of those big clasp doors that emergency fire exits had, big enough for Charlotte to get her left hand through the handle, plus the three fingers of her right hand not busy dangling the Perl Harmony, and one foot on the top curve of the handle, held in place against assorted kinds of slippery by the strength of her arms.

And there Charlotte hung, sideways of the side of a door, exactly like Spider-Man in the comics.

Except that Spider-Man stuck to walls, a trick that Charlotte hadn’t learned yet. So there she was, suspended between a roof that stuck like glue and another one that shattered when she touched it. God damn powers with environmental effects, anyway. 

Now alert to the warning, Charlotte felt the breeze of the flying robot’s killer downwash. She looked up. It was poking over the edge, its stinger deployed again, reaching towards Charlotte. 

But the door was swinging. She’d bet right. A darting black form flew by Charlotte and turned through ninety degrees and then swooped around to disappear in the crack forming between wall and opening door. Charlotte loosened her grip on the door handle, and, in the moment before gravity took hold, grabbed the edge of the door and swung around inside. 

And then Charlotte was standing on a set of concrete stairs, two steps below the little landing that gave onto the door. The bright green “Exit” sign lit the stairwell almost better than strip lights above. Without her weight on it, the door clanked closed.

But not shut, thanks to a tiny, battered, inconspicuous door wedge at the bottom. One that didn’t look like it had been moved in a while. 

A metal appendage clunked on the inside of the door, and it began to open again. Charlotte didn’t fancy the idea of fighting inside an emergency stairwell. A bit close for good kung fu, she thought. So she grabbed the metal railings, and she jumped out and up. For a moment she was suspended in mid-air, in that tiny little well of unobstructed space that goes right to the base of the stairwell. 

People, Charlotte reminded herself, managed to kill themselves with this much space to fall. And it was a surprisingly long way to the bottom. Her feet swung over far enough to take her body centre over the landing to the next stair down, and she released. A moment later, she landed on hard concrete, and listened to the solid thump of the reverberating masonry as it echoed down the stairwell. 

The door at this level was also propped open, although without a thought to subtlety, just pegged hard against the concrete wall. The inside of the door read, in six-inch high red letters, “Emergency Exit Only. Alarm will sound.” And, “In Case of Emergency, Exit the Building From the Bottom Floor.”

Apparently not at this level, though. Charlotte ran out into the building. 

It was a library. Only the working kind, with a low ceiling that crawled with wires and ducts, and floors in the kind of linoleum that came looking dirty so that you didn’t have to worry about getting a good finish when you waxed it. Everywhere there were book shelves, spare skeletons of solid metallic grey, supporting boxes and huge volumes on their sides, and here and there series of volumes, mostly all of the same length and same binding, like the reference books back in the reading room. Even though there were a lot of books here, it had all the coziness of a particularly depressing toolshed.

Yuck, thought Charlotte. This place is depressing. Although Rose would probably try to read her way from one end to the other. So many books, all so strange and mysterious. 

A clink drew her attention back to the stairs. The robots were coming. Charlotte darted down the stacks, towards a little space out of sight that had that had that sense that spaces sometimes had, of leading to an exit. It was the kind of sense that had led Charlotte through many a mall.

She was right, because when she turned the end of the row of shelves, she was in an alcove with a desk on one side facing a turnstile leading to a closed door. 

The turnstile was missing its arms, and the desk looked like no-one had worked there in a long time. A chaos blast missed Charlotte’s head by an inch and hit the wall, causing paint to bubble and a chunk of stucco to slide off. She hoped that at least the door worked.

It did, although this one was alarmed, and the bells began to ring as she slammed though. 

Okay, Charlotte thought, let’s try not to get kicked out of the Library on our first day. She was in an office corridor, walking on thin, institutional carpet again. Frosted door windows faced her, and a sign proclaimed “School od Library Studies.” People rustled and bustled inside. Charlotte hoped that the robots and Madison wouldn’t mess with them when they finally got out to see why the alarm was going.

Charlotte had no intention of being there when they did. You didn’t figure that there would be only one exit in and out of the library stacks on this floor, and her gut instincts told her that it would be down this corridor.

It also didn’t hurt that that a flitting black form had just flown down the hall ahead of her in that direction, wings tucked in for maximum rate of roll. Ginger thought she knew where she was going, and that was pretty much the job description of a spirit guide. 

And, yes, Charlotte admitted to herself, having a personal spirit guide from the afterlife was a bit of a cheat. Unfair advantages, Charlotte thought. I takes them.

The next door was propped open. Charlotte had kind of figured that. The smokers had to get in somehow, and, apparently, Library Studies students gave themselves a pass on library security. Charlotte grabbed the door edge as she ran by and swung round to face back into the stacks.

Her shoulder hurt, but Charlotte wanted speed, and distance, because those meant time for her friends to catch up. 

Though she had to wonder where Rose was right now. 

Barrelling back the way she came, Charlotte spun at the edge of the bookshelves and came out on a little corridor that ran down the middle of the floor. She ran down it towards a cross-corridor with a green stripe down the middle that said “Exit” to her. At the stripe, she spun again.

She was headed towards the exit door she’d come in through. Turned out that being a mall rat was good for something!

Too bad about the robot, though. Hovering there in mid-air, blades and buzzsaws towards Charlotte, keening in metallic frustration. Too bad for it, Charlotte wasn’t running from one robot. She was running from five. The Pearl Harmony Sword came up in Snake Stance as she ran. 

Charlotte braced herself for sadness. The robot had just a moment to understand that it was going to be spited before the radiant blade smashed through its light metal body.

“Disintegrate! Disintegrate!” The robot said in a plaintive voice as it fell apart. It was said and tinny and small again, like the first robot she’d destroyed. Charlotte bit her lip. Even the silly Doctor Who joke couldn’t make her feel any less guilty. If she could just get to her friends, Rose would have no problem reprogramming these things. She really needed to get to her friends.

So she jumped into the vertical tunnel in the middle of the stairwell. Balancing on the top rung for a moment, she finally deployed her Tatammy Universal Fatigues. In a split second, the stylin’ sophomore was replaced by another superhero in TAtammy white-and-black, her only concession to style and individuality the curiously-wright golden bracelet that Scout had put on her left arm that day last summer. Charlotte took a breath that had to go through a knot of hurt in her middle, and dropped. 

Closed “Emergency Exit” doors flashed by as she fell by one floor after another, kicking out against the railings to slow her plummet to safe speeds. This is what she would have done in the first place if the damn robots couldn’t fly. 

They would follow her, of course, but with the alarms already going, they wouldn’t know which floor she’d gone out by. Three stories from the bottom, Charlotte bounced to a halt, one foot on the railings on either side of the stairwell, and dropped down onto the landing. She opened the door, dropped the little peg that you were supposed to use to prop the door open in an evacuation, looked around, curiously, to get the lay of the land.

Within the stacks, she could see a wide, battered table of blond wood, with people reading great stacks of books. A girl looked up at her, eyes wide. Apparently, people ignored these alarms around here, too. Interesting. You could get into the storage level from outside without triggering the alarms, but you had leave by the School of Library Studies.

Then Charlotte let the door close on the peg and, with a glance upwards to see if her pursuers had caught up, let herself drop again. She was going to be subtle enough to delay the pursuit, but she wanted Madison to catch up. 

A metallic scree from above let her know that the robots were in the stairwell. Charlotte dropped to the bottom of the well and cracked the door that read “Building Exit.”

She was in a shallow concrete stairwell, golden, tattered leaves on the ground and rain water pooling in little dips in the rough concrete. Charlotte took the stairs at her fastest stride. 

She was standing on the concrete plaza through which they’d entered the Library, but around a corner from the stairs, where the plaza came in close to one of the Roman Colosseum-like towers. From her angle, she could just barely see the Shackman food truck.

That reminded Charlotte of something. She touched her pocket. The last hush puppy was still there, wrapped in its paper napkin. 

“There you are!” 

Charlotte looked. Madison was coming across the plaza, followed by four robots, now full sized mechas. She couldn’t help noticing that the concrete of the plaza cracked under their feet, too. Nice trick, Charlotte thought.

Madison held up her hand. And fired. Charlotte dodged a chaos blast a foot in diameter. An SUV picking up passengers at the loop took the brunt of the bolt, a full block down the plaza, and disintegrated in an explosion of rust, leaving the passengers in a pile of debris looking like bloody ghosts.

Crap. The power of magic and science varied from place to place in Babylon, and it looked like she’d picked a place where chaos blasts were at their peak. Why couldn’t it be Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu, instead? 

And then Charlotte felt the familiar grip of the needfire around her middle. In a moment, Charlotte was lifted into the air to stand on Dora’s levitation platform behind her friend as she formed up for a strafing run. 

Charlotte hated being a passenger, but when ranged fighters were going at it, that was how it was, sometimes.

“Where’s Rose and the guys?”

“Rose is tangling with Eve. I think the guys ran into more Pirates,” Dora answered, shortly. 

From halfway up the tower, Charlotte could sense the boom of one of Twelve’s bio blasts. She hoped that the guys had had time to get into costume. 

A chaos blast ripped by them, slashing through Dora’s needfire shield like it wasn’t there. All four of the surviving robots were in the air now, rotors whirring in some cases, wings flapping in others. “Crap! I think we need more fire power!”

As though in answer to her spoken prayers, a tight burst of bullets spanged off each robot, showing that a sniper who could put accurate autofire on target had their back.

Charlotte’s heart leaped. It couldn’t be him, here. Could it? Of course it could. If he were who Charlotte thought he was. “Scout!” She said, that name escaping her lips.

“As long as your crush don’t hurt us, I’m fine with him backing us up,” Dora said over her shoulder.

“He’s so dreamy,” Charlotte conceded. 

Now more mechas spilled onto the pavement, but in the colours of Library security. 

“Time for by-by,” Dora said, as the world turned flashing gold for a moment and the flight disc accelerated into overdrive. 

People were finally trickling out of the Library through various emergency exits when Dora and Charlotte, back in civvies, came to mix in. The guys and Rose were waiting for them. Charlotte threw a questioning glance at Brian, but he pretended to ignore her. 

Or just plain ignored her. It was a theory, Charlotte reminded herself. She didn’t know that Brian was Scout. 

“Hey,” Bruce said. “Was worried about you guys.”

“Where were you?” Charlotte asked. 

“Avant Garde led us into a little museum across from the reading room and down one floor and put on a freakshow for us by animating some Atlantean armour suits that apparently will fight by themselves if you know the trick.” 

“Gosh darn!” Rose said. “We’re late for the portal. We’re going to miss curfew!”

Charlotte looked up. A low slung sportscar was approaching the Shackman truck. Ginger was perched on the truck awning, looking like dinner was about to be served. Or that it was garbage day. Pretty much the same thing for a crow, admittedly.

Greedy guts, Charlotte thought.

Except.. She fingered the hush puppy in her pocket. As she did so, the cook from the truck got out of the sportscar, pointed his finger at Ginger like he was cocking a gun, and pretended to shoot. Across the wide plaza, Ginger locked her gaze on Charlotte and cawed insistently. 

“Yeah. Maybe we can get a ride,” Charlotte said.

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