Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book 4, 25: Short Cut

That's the part that everyone brings up. I probably shouldn't have brought up the other bit, "the part with the chainsaw," because now you're going to look it up and have nightmares. So, just to make me feel better, can we say that at least I warned you?

Book 4, 25 Short Cut 

“Follow that Autobot!” Charlotte couldn’t help herself. Mill, in the driver’s seat of the Taurus, spared her a wary glance. 

Her phone pinged. [Rose]: Look at this place! That’s no Autobot. It’s a Decepticon!

Rose had a point. Charlotte looked out at the chaos spreading out in front of her on Understate 86. It sure didn’t look like anything Optimus Prime would have a hand in.

High overhead, illuminated signs dangled from the massive concrete buttresses that supported the roof of the enormous tunnel. They were flashing red: “Stop Ahead.” Under the underground illumination, the three downtown-bound lanes had gone crazy. The usual assortment of random commuters and business traffic were crammed into the exit/merge lane to furthest right, even though the next exit wasn’t until past the flooding up ahead. 

A cherry red SUV and a pretty Porsche were even all the way over in the bike lane. An incredibly brave bicyclist in one of those face-mask helmets was standing on the narrow concrete ledge above the lane, looking disgusted. But before Charlotte even had time to worry about him, his groping hands found the handle of an emergency exit door and opened it, and he disappeared into it. She wondered what had happened to his bike. Probably run over by now. Did bikes have insurance? That was what Uncle Henry was always worrying about when May borrowed one of the cars. “Insurance.”

There might not be an exit to go to, but the people trying to squeeze into the exit lane had a point. So did the people who had pulled out of the fast lane to furthest left, and who were now trying to edge over the wide median into the roughly finished service strip in the middle. The last time they’d been down in the Understate, Mill had found a service tunnel linking the downtown and uptown tunnels and, somehow, done a bootleg through them to end up going the opposite direction. It didn’t look like there were any service tunnels piercing the side of the tunnel in this section, but there were probably more emergency stairways.

If she could, Charlotte would have taken them, because in front of her was total chaos. Brake lights glowed red as a roadway full of semis tried to stop in front of the flooding ahead. All four of the big Piper and Norton trucks were ahead of them now, trying to slow down, two in the slow lane, two in the middle. From their angle in the fast lane, Charlotte could see ahead of the Pipe & Norton convoy to the police armoured car convoy they’d been trying to follow, which was also trying to slow down. The one thing that that wasn’t trying to slow down was the massive, robot-thingie that had transformed out of an anonymous semi right underneath of Charlotte and Bruce, just seconds ago. 

It was a weird mix of blocky and curved parts, very Lego-y,. and its red-and-white-and-chrome finish definitely reminded Charlotte of Optimus Prime, but as she watched, its great, running, machinelike left foot clipped a VW Beetle in the fast lane and sent it tumbling end over end forward. 

That, Charlotte thought, was not very nice. So, Decepticon, then. A blue of white was Rose, rescuing the driver of the Beetle. A flash of actinic gold was Dora shooting the giant robot, but Dora’s needfire couldn’t muster the damage to penetrate the robot’s armour, and a gun abruptly emerged on the wide, shoulder pad-like platforms on the robot’s torso.

So that’s what Blake Lively was doing with that dress, Charlotte had a moment to think. A paparazzi gets too close and. . .

The gun’s muzzle whirled a bit, as though looking for a target. Only one person that could be, Charlotte thought. “Dora!” She yelled into her phone. “Look out!”

Dora crouched and swivelled in a quick motion, sending her surfboard cutting into the air into a sudden bottom turn. 

It was almost enough. Pulses of red fire spit out of the automatic gun, like in a Battlestar Galactica space battle. The first two missed, but the third one caught Dora square. The surfboard winked out of existence, and Dora began to fall. 

Only for a second, though, as Twelve came rocketing out of the sky to catch her. And the fifth fireball out of the gun, which knocked him out in turn.

Charlotte watched Twelve plummet, Dora in his arms, right in front of the lead Piper & Norton truck in the middle lane. He was conscious enough to twist and take the impact underneath Dora, breaking her fall, but that left the truck barrelling down on them. Charlotte had a moment to let a strangled “No!” rise in her throat before Dora’s golden nimbus flickered back into light. She must have been too dazed to fly, though, because the protective bubble that snapped around Twelve and Dora just went skittering across the pavement to the safety of the median. 

“That’s it!” Charlotte snapped. “I’m tired of sitting here, watching while other people fight!”

“You get tired pretty quick, then,” Mill said. “It’s been, like, five seconds.”

“Whatever,” Charlotte said, as she spun out the window and onto the roof of the Taurus.

Though Mill did have a point. The robot-thingie was a good dozen car-lengths away, and as fast as it was moving, and as hard as Mill was braking, they weren’t getting any closer. Plus, the designer had forgotten to add any convenient boarding ladders on the shining curves of the hull/body/whatever-I’m-not-in-charge-of-naming-robot-parts. 

Charlotte examined the thing closely, nevertheless. It had taken out two of her friends and had Bruce captive inside somewhere. There had to be a way to get in close and introduce it to the Pearl Harmony Sword.

You know, like, “Say hello to my little friend?” When Charlotte remembered that line, she always got it confused with the part in Scarface with the chainsaw, which she totally wasn’t allowed to see, because of being fifteen, but which she’d seen anyway, and which still gave her nightmares. The point was, it was awful scary, and she was feeling like doing that to the big, stupid robot, even if it was probably being piloted by Thief Handeln, and she kind of liked Thief Handeln, and definitely wanted to talk to her about stuff. Like, fashion and girl stuff, and what the flinking heck was going on with her mission. Yeah. Mainly that.

A white blur came streaking by the Taurus on the right. Charlotte’s phone beeped. 

[Rose]: Cannonball.

Even Rose couldn’t text fast enough to explain what she had in mind, but Charlotte figured that she could guess. 

Well, that or be road pizza in a second when she hit pavement still going well above thirty, she thought as she launched off the Taurus in the direction she figured Rose was headed. Charlotte had a good, solid moment to watch the road suddenly getting very close as she fell towards it, Pearl Harmony Sword in hand. And, just at the last second before it was road pizza time, she felt Rose’s hands around her waist from below.

Rose must have had to stand on her head to slow down enough, but the point was right. Hoping Rose wouldn’t mind too much, Charlotte pivoted, got her feet on Rose’s shoulders, and then was flying forward again, this time with Rose’s momentum behind her and the Pearl Harmony Sword out and ready for action. 

With a shower of sparks, the oricalchum blade bit hilt deep in the massive robot’s leg. Then, the blade was free, and Charlotte was rushing through the air. Now it was road pizza time.

Charlotte hit the pavement with her qi wrapped around herself in an Eight Spirit Dragon protection field, but the rough concrete still bit deep into the protective mantle of her Tatammy Universal Fatigues as she rolled to a stop, taking the final, winding impact on her shoulder to spin her back onto her feet.

And then dodge frantically as a stumbling, falling mass of robot came right at her. Dodge, roll, jump, all in the split second of king fu time as the spiralling red and white rolled at her like it was trying to kill her for messing up its ankles.

I’m sorry, Charlotte thought to the air as she jumped. They’re nice ankles, for a robot. Like, you could be a ballerina with those ankles. A giant robot ballerina, but that could be a thing, right.

She might, she thought, regret it if her last though in this life was a cheeky monologue, but as her jump crested, Charlotte knew that it would not be this minute. Somehow, she was clear of flailing robot bits. Charlotte landed neatly, next to where the transformer-bot’s head/cockpit was digging into the asphalt. 

Charlotte walked over to it, a bit stiffly, she realised. She was going to have bruises on her bruises in the morning. The Taurus pulled up beside it on the left, and Rose came skidding to a stop beside her. In the next lane over to the right, the now-stopped armoured cars disgorged armed policemen. 

A seam appeared on the seamless robot-head-thingie, and began to clamshell back to show Thief Handeln seated in a pilot’s chair, dressed in a beige helmet and a tight, mauve jumpsuit that showed off her dark skin perfectly.

“Busted,” Charlotte said.

Thief Handeln just looked at her for a second. “What do you children think you’re doing!” She sounded very cross.

“Stopping a hijacking,” Charlotte explained. “Your hijacking. Which we figured out was going to happen and which we stopped.” 

Charlotte paused for a moment. “Now you go. ‘And I would have got away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids’ is traditional.”

Thief Handeln just sat there, looking irritated as Dora and Twelve appeared behind her and Brian got out of Taurus and the police began to surround the ‘Bot. 

That just left Bruce, Charlotte found herself thinking. “So?”.

Thief Handeln exploded. “What about them?” She waved her arms in the direction of the traffic stop ahead. 

Charlotte looked the four Piper &Norton trucks were stopped at a highways services barrier. Except that the people who were stopping it weren’t the usual way-too-old construction workers and bored flag-girls that you saw these days around Philadelphia. They were…

They were just people, Charlotte realised. The kind of people you didn’t notice. The people that you walked by on the street, and later you couldn’t remember what they looked like, and how they were dressed. Which was crazy, made no sense at all, because she was staring right at them. As soon as Charlotte realised that, they changed.

Because they weren’t people. They were migdalar. Well, migdalar plus one guy. A guy in a dirty brown trenchcoat and a fedora like some guy who’d wandered out of a black and white movie, standing right in the middle of a bunch of massive, pallid, muscular, brain-eating monstrosities with their faces in the middle of their chest, which meant that he was probably even scarier than the migdalar. And, standing amongst monsters and the mysterious High Priest of Lolth or whatever the heck he was were the drivers of the four Piper & Norton semis. Two of the migdalar, she saw now, were climbing out of the middle semi with their arms full of boxes of stuff. 

Crap! Charlotte thought. It’s not one hijacking. It’s two hijackings. Thief Handeln had been after the Choker, and the Migdalar were messing with Piper & Norton some more. This was another of the ambushes and hijackings they kept pulling on Piper & Norton for whatever their reasons were.

The migdalar, realising that they’d been made, turned towards the police and the team. Charlotte felt the familiar squeezing in her head that foretold the mind control powers of the creepy, pallid Illithid wannabes. But this time the team had their defences. 

Too bad that the police didn’t. As one, they turned on the team, levelling their guns. Charlotte raised her sword to deflect the bullets, raising her qi field as she did so, because she really wasn’t very good at the whole knocking-bullets-out-of-the-air-with-your-magic-sword thing yet. Like, at all.

She needn’t have bothered, fortunately, because Dora’s protection field sprang up around them, and the white blur of Rose went running through the police, confiscating their pistols at superspeed. It took only moments, but in that moment, the Migdalar, the guy in the trenchcoat, and the drivers vanished.

“Come on,” Twelve yelled, rocketing ahead. “I saw them get away through the wall!”

Charlotte hesitated, looking around. Where was Thief Handeln?

Brian looked at her as though he knew something. Charlotte sent him a questioning glance. Elves always knew something. Even half-elves.

“Thief Handeln flew off with the Migdalar!” Brian said.

“Damn it!” Charlotte couldn’t help herself. “Bruce is locked up in that robot!”

Rose turned around. “Leave him, Char-Char! He’ll be fine! But the Migdalar are going to eat those drivers’ brains if we don’t stop them! And probably Thief Handeln’s, too!”

“Oh, no!” Twelve growled. “Not ‘till she’s told me what’s going on with my clones!” 

Eat their brains, Charlotte thought as she ran to the wall of the tunnel, the inches-deep water that was puddling on the roadway splashing under her feet, , and possibly ours, too. “You know,” Charlotte said, “There’s downsides to being a superhero. It’s not all running around in awesome costumnes.”

“You should talk,” Rose said. “At least black and white looks good on you.”

“Black’s for Goths, Asians, and . . .”

“Don’t, Dora. Just don’t,” Charlotte warned. They’d been down that road before, and it didn’t hurt to be polite.

The boys, who had no idea that black was slimming, said nothing. Charlotte stepped up on the little ledge that she’d seen the bicyclist standing on so many seconds ago, and probed the smooth-cast concrete wall for signs of some kind of secret door, or something like that. Pretty nutso bicyclist, she reflected, now, being down here on the Understate, even if it did have bike lanes. There had to be a crack somewhere here.

“Hey, this part is just an illusion!” Brian announced as he walked right through the wall about six feet to Charlotte’s left. Or not.

Sure enough, the wall turned into a gap just three feet to her left. A gap about a lane-and-a-half wide, level with the pavement, and leading into a tunnel just wide enough, and at just enough of an angle to the slow lane of the Understate that you could hit it at highway speeds.

“It’s just like Mario Kart!” Dora announced. “We’ve found the short cut!”

“Come on!” Charlotte said, waving her sword and taking two long strides down the hidden route before realising what an idiot she must look. I is leaderising! She thought sarcastically at herself. Because this was so obviously a trap.

“You sure, Char-Char?” Rose asked. Because Rose was smart.

Charlotte looked back at her buddy. “Yeah, I’m, sure. Stakes haven’t changed. All we know now is that someone’s gone to an awful lot of trouble to set a trap for us, and we don’t want to disappoint them.” 

“You really think so?” Twelve asked. “Sounds a little self-involved to think that they’re after us.”

Charlotte shrugged. “Yeah, I know. Uncle Henry says you’ve got to assume the worst, though. And the worst is that they’ve planned on us interfering, and laid an ambush. Bruce would say that we ought to have had a plan ourselves.”

Bruce probably did have a plan, Charlotte thought. But he’s trapped in that damned robot, and it’s my fault. But we don’t. “I don’t know. We don’t have a plan. It’s too late to have a plan. What we have is our talents, and ourselves, and I really don’t think that these losers have a handle on what we can do.”

Her team looked at her. She could see the doubt in their eyes.

“Okay, yeah. They kicked our butts last time, but I told you, we were going to come back strong. We’ve got an answer to their mind control, we’ve done some exercises. We have those psionic jammer grenades Mr. Brown gave us if they try to use mind-controlled flunkies or invisible ninjas or whatnot. Look, Mill’s back there, the police are back there, Jamie and Booker are looking for these guys. It’s dangerous, but we’ve got backup.”

That’s better, Charlotte thought. She was acknowledging the danger, and indicating that she thought that the team could handle it, and acknowledging that they at least had to try, because there were innocent lives at stake. Make your team believe they can win, Uncle Henry said. And keep your eye on the ball. Because those drivers might be migdalar plants, and that would blow this hijacking stuff wide open. Plus, a mind-controlled Thief Handeln might spill all the secrets that Twelve wanted to know so bad.

Or they could get their brains eaten.
This, Charlotte thought, is why everyone thinks that Cyclops is such a goof.



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