I had some difficulties finding my source material. Turns out that I'm thinking of Mario Kart courses, not Lego Racers. I should probably have paid more attention when I was playing them, but in my defence I found them a bit realistic. They don't have Ba-Bombs in the Indinapolis 500, do they? You'd think that if they'd let those speed-addled (and no, I don't meant that they drive fast) lunatics have bombs, they'd let us commuters have homing, streetbound anti-vehicle mines, they'd let commuters have them, too. Only fair, right?
Also the gold coins. No-one leaves gold coins on my route home from work. (That's Number 2 Road to the foot of Granville to Adera to Arbutus, gold coin dudes.)
Book 4, 24, Heist
They were on the road. They were going very fast. They were very cramped.
That last bit was part of why Charlotte had called shotgun. She’d had an entire, comfy, front Taurus bucket seat to herself. For about five seconds. Then Dora had wiggled her way out of the back to sit beside her. Charlotte was busy telling herself not to be selfish. Dora was talking. So pretty much normal, except for the part where Thief Handeln was about to heist a priceless, 80,00 year old (at least) artefact from the armoured car taking it to the Treasury in the Forbidden City.
“Stop squirming, Char-Char. There’s, like four people back there, and Twelve smells.”
“Do not!” Came the loud protest from the back. “Hygiene is an important part of—“
Dora turned, her black curls whipping Charlotte in the face. “No politics!”
“Pshaw, right. I’m the smallest person in the car, and you’re going to be in here for about another five seconds before you go car surfing again."
“Hey! I’m just a chop-socky girl. You can fly! Why is it me who has to be Ms. Fast and Furious 2012?”
Dora whirled on Charlotte, and her eyes blazed for just a second before they softened. “’Have to?’ Char-Char, May car surfs on her skateboard, and I’ve never seen May do something that you didn’t try to do the first time you had a chance.”
Charlotte thought about that for a moment. “True that. Too bad I didn’t bring my skateboard. Can we turn back and get my horse instead.?”
Mill didn’t even take his eyes off the road. “No.” As if to emphasise the point, the police scanner radio spat comprehensible noises again, something about traffic slowing up ahead of the armoured car.
A breeze blew down Charlotte’s neck as the back window rolled down. “I’m going aloft if no-one else will,” Twelve announced over the growing roar of the air.
“I’m buffing the car!” Brian announced.
Charlotte turned around to see if he was serious. Bruce was gone.
“You have spells for that? And where did Bruce go?”
“Out the window! And yes, I have spells for that. Worked them out with Mr. Brown when we did our vehicle module last month.”
Charlotte shook her head, foucssing on not worrying about Bruce, although the reaction she read in Rose and Twelve’s face suggested that she wasn’t very successful. Focus, Charlotte, she thought. Car buffing spells? Be useful, especially since it looked like Brian was going to be the only one left in the car. She was pretty sure there weren’t any car-enhancing buff spells in the basic Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook. Maybe it was in World of Warcraft? A splatbook? Real life? Probably real life, considering that Brian was actually going to cast them. Charlotte didn’t answer for a second.
Charlotte’s phone beeped.
Charlotte looked around and up. Where was Bruce?
Mill was gunning down the middle lane, headed towards the gaping entrance of Understate 86. In the left, fast lane, they were letting a wood-panelled station wagon eat their dust. Not that the driver seemed to notice or care what was going on around him, or he would have pulled over to let the minivan tailgating him by. No sign yet of ominous black SUVs, although the minivan was black, and going awfully fast for a minivan. On the right was a line of three semis with the Piper & Norton logo blazoned on the side. Bruce was on top of the first of the three.
When he saw that she had seen him, he waved.
If you’re going to put it that way, dude. Charlotte hand-cranked the window down, just like in the old days when all cars had cranks, and threw herself through it, jumping from the sill to get the height needed to land three-point on the roof of the semi, scabbarded Pearl Harmony Sword in her free hand.
Bruce crouched next to her. She looked at him. “Semi-back is baby car surfing!” She announced.
“Baby got what back?” Bruce asked, looking as elaborately puzzled as he could through his Tatammy mask. Which had acquired an addition, a nicely sculpted, orange, goblin nose. Charlotte reminded herself to tell Bruce how much she liked it, and made a point to show her bracelet as she put her hand out to fingertips-grip the deck of the semi. He wasn’t the only one to go fashion forward with his accessorising! Now if only she could get her hands on a set of compensating heels so she could do acrobatics without having to wear flats. . .
Anyway . . . “Never mind!” Charlotte announced to both Bruce and herself. Throwing herself forward on feet and fingers, she ran to the front of the semi and jumped off, aiming for the smoothly curved roof of a modern sedan in the lane ahead of the Taurus, clearing the jump easily. That gave her an excellent view of Mill squeezing the Taurus into the rapidly widening space between the station wagon and the four motorcycles in a police-style diamond formation, but with riders in distinctly un-policelike tight leathers and skid-lid-style helmets, more like Pride Day Parade marchers than real bikers. The guy in the station wagon must have thought so, too, because he chose the moment to honk at them. The bikers paid no attention. Or maybe he was honking at Mill for cutting the merge so close.
As it came full into the lane, a cable-grapple of four magnets fell around the Taurus, forming a cradle.
Bruce landed in his cradle, like a teamster who has crawled forward to drive his team from horseback. Behind them, the driver of the station wagon honked his irritation at the weird going’s-ons. Ahead, Charlotte watched as the diamond formation broke up, and one motorcycle after another arrowed into the middle lane right ahead of the sedan she was riding on.
There was something familiar about those guys, Charlotte thought. Maybe Thief Handeln wasn’t the only one after the Choker. But before she had time to process the thought, familiar hands gripped her around the waist, and a soft, golden force lifted her up and around to stand behind Dora, who had turned her usual lift platform into a surfboard.
“Hold on to my waist!” Dora said over the earbuds. “I’m trying something new!”
“This is infantilising!” Charlotte announced.
“Hey, remember, you’re not dumb, you just act that way?”
“You’re the one dropping polysyllabic words. I’m just keeping it real.”
“Never mind,” Charlotte said. “Drop me on the Forester over there!”
“Car girl talk fancy talk. Dora simple magic cave girl. No understand models and years!”
“That green SUV in the fast lane, three cars ahead of the Taurus- Mill!”
Dora dropped Charlotte on the Forester. It would take Mill a minute or two to weave through traffic and catch up. In the mean time, she could take the chase in. From here she could see the beginning of the artificial opening in the traffic in the slow lane where the armoured car convoy started. It was down a slope, because the Understate in this area was slowly descending, to well below the level of the river bottom in order to pass under to the left bank. According to the traffic information sign that had just passed not far overhead, clearly legible in the strangely dim, reddish lighting of the Understate tunnels, that was the deepest point in the whole Understate system.
The hair on Charlotte’s neck rose. For a moment she thought it was a reaction to that thought. Then she realised that someone was shooting at her. She ducked and rolled, as much as she could and still stay on the roof of the SUV.
Wouldn’t be enough, she thought. Those fashion disaster motorcyclists were shooting nets at her. Avant Garde, obviously. Only he/they was/were obnoxious enough.
A thwip whistled through the air. In its wake, a cable anchored by magnets connected the Forester with another semi, separated by two car’s lengths from the first big rig of the Piper & Norton mini convoy. Without hesitation, Charlotte threw herself at it, rising to stand, feet akimbo on slanted tightrope connecting semi and Forester.
Charlotte risked a glance back. A second motorcyclist/Avant Garde clone was levelling a pistol. “Come on!” Bruce’s voice crackled through the earbuds. Charlotte didn’t hesitate, running up the cable to the roof of the semi.
“Thanks!” She said, as Bruce’s hand gripped hers at the rim of the semi. “Some help here?”
That was enough warning to parry, taking a massive sword smash on a glancing angle. It was hard doing a fencing parry from a crouched position, but one thing she knew about Mario was that he thought that “mercy” and “fair play” were overrated.
Because it was Mario. Her brother’s nemesis was decked out in his totally not-gay-not-that-there-was-anything-wrong-with-it Decurion outfit. Armour, shield, short Roman sword and everything.
Crap, Charlotte thought. Mario was an even match against her brother. Charlotte didn’t particularly look forward to finding out if she had improved enough to fight him since the last time Chris had kicked her ass in practice. Yesterday.
Fortunately, if Mario’s going to fight dirty, he’s going to find out that we’re a team, Charlotte thought. She gestured curtly with her left hand. Ac crossbow bolt flashed by.
Mario was fast enough to catch it easily, of course, and still parry a killing thrust from the Pearl Harmony Sword, and thank Heavens, Charlotte thought, because the day was going to come when she ran out of luck and one of her killing strokes did connect.
What he wasn’t was fast enough to pull all that off and still prep himself against Twelve doing a full move-through smash from behind on his clone-brother.
Mario went flying through the air, a rag doll of spinning limbs. He was too tough to be seriously hurt by the impact, but sparkles of familiar energy up and down his body showed that he was also too out of it to fly properly.
Then, at the summit of his arc, he vanished in a puff of smoke. The Dark Ninja was looking out for his team mate. As opposed, Charlotte thought, to fighting us. Charlotte felt relief. She didn’t know what would happen to Rose if she had to fight the Dark Ninja directly.
Speaking of, Charlotte looked back again. The white streak that was Rose in full gear went ripping through Avant Garde’s motorcycle formation. In the blink of an eye, each of the two-wheeled machines went out of control in exactly the same way, shooting with uncanny accuracy through the space between the station wagon and minivan to slide to a rest on the roughly finished cavern-floor-and-metal mesh median.
The driver of the minivan threw his machine after them onto the median. There goes more Paradigm Pirates, Charlotte thought.
“Still think that riding a semi is cheating?” Bruce asked.
“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “But the other guys are cheating. There was only supposed to be one person after the prize.”
“Paradigm might not be after the prize. Might be after us,” Bruce pointed out.
“Yeah, no. It's probably not all about us.” Charlotte said.
“Didn’t think so. Paradigm is all about secrets and the way reality really works. If he’s got wind of the Veil and the Silence and the Ur-Elves, and all that Stuff” –Bruce’s emphasis let Charlotte know that ‘Stuff’ was supposed to be significantly capitalised—“It would drive him mental.”
“Mentaler,” Charlotte corrected. “Hard as it is to believe.” She looked forward. In heist movies the stunt was always so clever that you didn’t figure it out until it was already happening. That could be the way that Thief Handlen was going to run this, but she didn’t think so. Simple usually worked better.
“How would you break up a convoy like this?” She asked Bruce.
“Traffic stoppage ahead disrupts traffic flow. A few asshole drivers in the back break up the convoy. One of those asshole drivers is driving something that can scoop up the armoured car, or put somebody aboard. You grab what you want just as you hit your exit, peel into it, transfer to another vehicle out of cameras –maybe pull into an exitside warehouse or the like—and bob’s your uncle.”
“Bob’s not Charlotte’s uncle,” Dora announced over the earbuds. “He’s mine.”
“You shouldn’t call your uncle Bob, Agent of Hydra,” Bruce answered, sounding annoyed. “Even if he is married to a Viper Nest Leader. It’s disrespectful.”
“But hilarious,” Dora said.
“Guys?” Rose said? “I think Bruce’s right. There’s hazard lights ahead at the bottom of the hill. The lead armoured car is slowing down.”
A traffic information sign went whizzing by, surprisingly close to their heads. “Flooding on Route 86. Some Delays.”
So the Understate tunnel underneath the river had sprung a leak at its deepest point, Charlotte thought. How conven-i-e-e-nt. Except that it kind of blew a hole in Bruce’s theory, because there was no exit up ahead. And no non-Paradigm Pirate asshole driver.
-She thought as the Forester suddenly veered lanes, cutting off the semi that Charlotte was riding on so close that the driver couldn’t possible decelerate in time.
Charlotte threw herself to the roof of the semi and braced for the collision.
Except that there was no collision. Somehow, the semi did manage to stop in time. Only not by braking, but by by rearing back. The deck slanted under Charlotte, and the roof of the cab somehow appeared above her sightline, above the rim of the trailer in front and high above her. She did not have to use much imagination to visualise the the front wheels leaving the pavement and the back ones digging in –somehow.
“Holy Crap!” Came Twelve’s voice over her earbuds. “It’s transforming!”
Yeah, Charlotte thought. Got that part figured out. Underneath of her, the semi roof collapsed like a folding door giving way in the middle. Behind her, she distantly heard Bruce go “Oof,” as though the wind had been knocked out of him. Bruce!
But she had to take care of herself, before she was in a position to save Bruce. Charlotte made a desperate grab for the edge of the fold, where, for the moment, two slabs of metal came together to form a ridge along the line of the original edge of the semi roof. One hand full on, the other with fingers free from grasping her sword, she swung herself into a desperate cartwheel, adjusting her aim in mid-swing as best as she could to hit the Taurus as she spun round again.
Hey, it was a tough jump to land, but the alternative was road rash on the bottom and car wheels ono top, which didn’t seem like very much fun. Spinning so fast that she could feel herself blacking out, but still able to hang her scabbard on her belt, Charlotte’s face came up to level not a yard from the Taurus. Her hands slambed down on the open window sill. It took all her strength to stop her spin and bring her feet up against the door panels of the rushing four-door muscle car.
In a moment she was back inside, grabbing at her phone as she watched what used to be a semi-and-trailer complete its transformation into a giant, humanoid robot running down the pavement of the Understate.
The twisting momentum with which she had come through the window could only be stopped one way, but letting her body slammed against the backseat. Charlotte didn’t even try to cushion the blow, so frantic she was to check her phone, and in spite of Mill’s strangled protest at her treatment of his car.
A moment, and Bruce’s telemetry scrolled across her phone screen. Charlotte felt relief so profound that it was as though her heart had stopped. He was alive but unconscious, his location showing as being inside the trailer. Thief Handeln had him prisoner.
Well, hopefully it was Thief Handeln. She didn’t seem to play rough, and she was the only one of the baddies who’d shown their heads in this who might have an autobot suit kicking around for just in case she needed to pull a vehicle heist.
“I wonder if some of my car buffs will work to debuff that thing?” Brian sounded a little scared as he speculated from the back seat.
“Probably, Brian,” Charlotte said, not looking back. “Uhm, Mill? Can we follow that autobot?” She gestured, in case Mill didn’t know which giant, metallic, running robot she meant. Around the vehicle, the barely-visible streak of Rose running, and the energy wakes of Twelve and Dora flying –well, surfing in Dora’s case—escorted the Taurus forward.