It's not always a bad idea to listen to your muscle. Maybe one of them will turn out to have tactical talents that you're wasting in their current position. This is probably more likely when you're an insane supervillain, but it probably comes up elsewhere these days, too.
Book 4: 30, Brain in a Jar
But it was the ninja who struck first, his ninja-to slicing in from the left and below so fast that Charlotte could feel the Pearl Harmony Sword pulling her hand into place to parry.
Metal rang. Charlotte could feel the Pearl Harmony’s oricalchum blade biting into the mere steel of the ninja-to, but her opponent flicked his wrist, and his blade slid, disengaged, into the hilt guard of the Pearl Harmony. Charlotte twisted into the clinch, putting her qi into the strength of her guard while stepping lightly in from below to sweep the ninja’s leg.
No joy. Her opponent blocked her footsweep, leaving them interlocked at the leg and clinched above. Well, Charlotte thought, her face inches away from the ninja’s, with the right guy, this could actually be romantic, but not with this dork, plus also yuck, bad breath.
She pushed, gently, testing her opponent. He was a grown man, and strong for his size, but after sparring with her uncle and El Professore, he seemed almost slight before Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon enhanced strength. I, Charlotte thought, am going to have to schedule doing something girly for tomorrow, just to remind myself that I can.
Gender identity issues notwithstanding, Charlotte thought, might be nice to win the fight first. Confident in her centred balance after the test of strength, Charlotte pushed through an advantaged disengage. Again, though, Black Mist was too skilled to be taken advantage of, somersaulting back and coming up, still in a single-handed pose, his other hand free to—
“Look out, Char-Char!” Bruce yelled from behind, but Charlotte was already in motion, trying to shift her focus and bring up an Eight Spirit Shield. It was in time to ward the second and third shuriken, but not the first, which stuck her shoulder, sinking point deep.
“Thanks. Bruce.” Charlotte shouted moving in for the kill. Over her shoulder, a flight of goblinarangs spun, but the ninja warded them with lazy flicks of the wrist. To her right and above, the aureate nimbus of the Maid of Gold and the invisible, yet sensibly herbaceous lushness of Elven magic flickered, containing a barrage of grenades and energy blasts. Dealt by the warrior gorilla in his outlandish Beatnik outfit. Mental pressure, which she had disregarded in the heat of the fight, told her that the Overbrain was making his own, ineffectual contribution to the fight.
Charlotte moved in quickly to close the distance before the ninja pulled something else out of his bag of tricks. So quickly was she moving that her sword crossed the ninja-to at the same moment that Bruce’s deflected goblinarang sprang its capture net futilely against the plastered, white walls and narrow windows of the wall of the Library corridor. Again her strength was too much for the ninja, and again he recoiled, but this time towards the wall.
With nowhere for him to dodge, this would end quickly, Charlotte thought. That was just before the cat girl sprang from the now-concealing grenade smoke at her undefended side.
Charlotte pivoted on her hip, stamping down her left foot with knee elevated, ready to block a Cat-style attack as her new foe closed, aware that it was too little, too late.
Fortunately, she was a member of a team. Bruce tackled the cat girl, American football-style, rolling her into the corner where wall met floor with a bruising, full-body impact. Charlotte didn’t know what to think about that, but turned back into the ninja, only to find him gone.
Her senses screaming, Charlotte did a blind back parry, swinging the Pearl Harmony over her shoulder to parry the incoming ninja-to. She got a grip on the blade, enough so that it didn’t run her through, but not enough to stop it from slicing into her side.
Cold, sharp pain. Charlotte Spun under her sword in a follow-up, she faced the evidently-teleporting-or-maybe-dematerialising ninja.
Damn. Probably that last. Now that she thought about it, Rafaella had mentioned that this dude liked to pull that stunt. Black Mist! That was his name. Maybe it took some pain to remind her. Blood flickered in the side of her eyes, and her enhanced senses picked up Bruce’s familiar scent. An instant later, his familiar backside was pressed against hers.
“Hurt?” Charlotte hissed.
“Little bit. Claws. You?”
“Here.” A man’s hand, trying to be caring, but hard and aggressive, pressed something soft against the wound on Charlotte’s left side. She reached with her free hand while sparring with the ninja with her right. It was a compress. She held it against her side, distantly noting that her hand was shaking.
This was not, Charlotte thought, the way to win a fight.
Out of the darkness of the smoke, Twelve loomed. He had the big zombie in the tuxedo in a standing full nelson, which zombies apparently didn’t mind in the least. “The legs, Twelve,” Charlotte yelled. “Sweep the legs!” There was probably a zombie movie or comic out there where zombies were immune to gravity, but this wasn’t comics.
Twelve looked over at her, and then tried a foot sweep that was so clumsy it made Charlotte cringe to look. Against a zombie, though, it was more than good enough. The clumsy mass of pallid flesh went down, unfortunately taking Twelve down with him.
As they fell, spinning metal disks scored his back.
“Damn it, cut it out!” Charlotte yelled, pressing her attack against Black Mist. “Uhm, sorry about the—“ before deciding that now was not the time to be apologising for her swears. No-one hurt Charlotte’s friends.
At her back, Bruce conformed with her advance in his own fight with the cat girl, Lynx. Lynx. That was her name. The one that Cousin Amy said joined up with the Overbrain for free feline-reassignment surgery. Not to judge, not to judge, Charlotte thought to herself as she pressed her attack.
“Ow! Goddamn it!” Dora yelled. “Watch for those flechette grenades, Brian! If one of them gets us in the eyes, we’ll need a lot more than bandaids!”
“Char-Char!” Bruce said behind her, but Charlotte didn’t need her detective to know that something weird was going on.
Unfortunately, she had only a moment to contemplate it before the blur of motion of to her left suddenly stopped, turned into Rose, and levitated into the air, something metallic and blingy falling and bouncing off the floor as she rose. Her psi-shield armlet, Charlotte had a moment to realise before everything went black.
“Charlotte,” something seemed to whisper, but there was no sound.
“Nanites!” A tinny, metallic voice was gloating when Charlotte regained consciousness. “Fools! Why waste time with fisticuffs when I can surreptitiously infect you with metabolism-damping nanites?” Excellent question, sir, Charlotte thought.
But this wasn’t class, even if Tactical sometimes was like this. That is, it hurt. Charlotte hurt right now. Her arms hurt, because they were pinioned above her to what looked like, as near as she could tell, some crazy mad science contraption, with also leads going to some kind of cold, contact-y helmet on her head, the kind that always led to brainwashing when you saw them in comics. Her side hurt, because she’d been sliced by a sword, and then treated with what felt like one helluva incompetent dressing that prickled and pulled at her skin at the adhesives, and her shoulder hurt from the shuriken puncture.
She hurt, and she felt cross, and so that was why she looked the brain floating in the clear-liquid-filled jar mounted on the tripod-y robot body in front of her and point out the obvious. “You know, there are much better voice synthesisers out there. Have you heard Siri?”
“Char-Char. Can you hear me?” A familiar voice was buzzing in her arm. “It’s Bruce. I’m broadcasting an induction through your bracelet. You can reply by subvocalizing. I’m going to shut down the nanites in you by Wifi now. I’ve got the codes for the ones in the others’ bodies, too. Say the word and I’ll turn them off, too.”
“So brave,” the brain hissed. Charlotte started, but he was talking to her, not Bruce.
Sinister hissing. That, he’d programmed his voicebox to produce. Figured. “Remember last time I had you in my clutches? How you promised to deal with me? Where is your bravado now, in the face of the Overbrain and his Brain Trust?” The Overbrain’s voicebox did a mad scientist laugh while Charlotte tried not to giggle, because that wasn’t how you handled crazy people.
Also, Lynx and Mr. Zombie looked puzzled. Fair enough, Charlotte was puzzled. It wasn’t like she’d ever fought the Overbrain before. Black Mist would probably be puzzled, too, if he weren’t sitting at the far corner of this weirdly long and rectangular and very cold room, carefully repairing the edge of his ninja-to. Charlotte could make out the wrapped form of the Pearl Harmony Sword beside him. My sword! She thought.
“You are not the mentalist. The powerful one, for which the reward is offered. I know this. He is a man, of course, as superior intellects are.” Lynx looked uncomfortable again. “You are not the girl with the ninja powers, either, or you would not wield the magic sword.” The platform skittered closer.
“Char-Char, you’ve got to pull yourself together.” Funny. Charlotte couldn’t feel her bracelet. And, yet…
Now we’re turning into one of those crap movies with mechanical spiders, Charlotte thought. On the bright side, maybe Will Smith’s wife would show up and save them.
But the Overbrain was not finished. “Which of the boys hides these powers?” Overbrain gestured at Brian, Bruce, Dora, Rose, Twelve and Aloysius Taurling, of all people. All, save Bruce, hung limp, unconscious. “I thought it was the gadgeteer. A superior intellect, obviously. But he has nothing. Nothing!”
Bruce grinned, then winced as though his mouth hurt to smile, and spat blood on the floor. Bruce!
“If I wake the strong one or the magic-user, I test my restraints rather more than I want. I consider all contingencies, you see. Let them sleep under the nanites, while I question someone more fragile. Shall we see how fragile you are? I know you are a pervert, sword girl, but you are still of the weaker sex. Now answer me! What of the boy?”
Charlotte took a long, measured glance at the Overbrain. Oh, boy. It’s a homophobic, misogynistic, crazy brain in a jar. The best kind! “I get the feeling that you’ve had some bad luck with women in the past, sir. You know, a lot of us like the brainy types.”
Could a brain preen? “I had a colleague at my last place of employment, VIPER. I thought we’d connected. She even agreed to go to coffee with me, eventually. But then I got cancer. She didn’t even show up for the funeral!” Preening turned into anger pretty quick when you were a brain in a jar. Or bipolar, whichever. Unless he was a bipolar brain in a jar, which was probably not that unlikely. Charlotte wasn’t sure. They hadn’t covered brains in a jar in science class, yet. That was the problem with junior high school science. You never learned the practically useful stuff.
Meanwhile, Lynx was looking upset now. Mr. Zombie just looked puzzled.
In her head, Charlotte tried to subvocalise, the way El Professore had taught her. “Bruce? Can you hear me? Are you alright?”
If a subvocalized voice buzzing through your bones could be relieved, this one could be. “The big ape worked me over a bit. Other than that, I’m fine. They decided I didn’t have mental blocks, and moved on to you. You better be ready, though…”
“How am I hearing you, Bruce?”
“Got a radio in my mouth. Couple actually, but one’s a crystal set. Retuned it to use your bracelet as a receiver. Tricky, but very Victorian, thought of it at Smith House. Can’t talk long, though, uses a lot of juice, and Overbrain might pick it up, long wavelength or not.”
“I’m not wearing my bracelet. They must have taken it.”
“Yes, you are. It turned invisible or something. I’m thinking there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about that bracelet.”
“Scout gave it to me on Landing.”
“I know. You told me. Several times.” Bruce was sounding weird again. Almost like he was jealous of Scout for some reason. Which was dumb, because he was her friend just as much as Scout was. Well, maybe a bit less. That was it. Bruce needed a girlfriend. Charlotte thought for a moment about which of her friends might make a good match for Bruce. Ordinarily, she loved that game, but a moment’s meditation made her realise that she couldn’t see any of them with Bruce McNeely.
“Young lady? You seem bored. Distracted. Let me introduce you to the science of the Overbrain!” The snap of a switch and a crackle of electricity gave a split-second’s warning before an overwhelming wave of disorientation pulled her out of her surroundings. Abruptly she could taste yellow and black, like the day, so long ago, when she looked at her Grandfather’s garden and could taste the orange of some ornamental berries. This time, however, there was no black and yellow in sight. Instead, she was imagining those colours.
Imagining, or seeing? That was the question. Because unlike an ordinary daydream that you had to force into existence and contemplate in your mind from every angle to make it real, the flood of yellow, with its shining specks and spreading splotches of black, filled her mind so that she couldn’t not think about them. They were everywhere, spilling and pressing.
Fear rose in Charlotte, but also the Om Padme Hum. She remembered her brother describing this. He had fought it off with his favourite sutra and the power of his sword, and because he was a boy, he thought of Faye Wong chanting the Hope Sutra. Charlotte did not have her sword, but she did have the power of the soul seeking the Dharma path. The flood of yellow and shining back stopped rising in the cellars of her mind.
“Impossible!” The Overbrain shouted. “You showed no sign of this level of resistance last time!”
Mr. Zombie took off his unlikely top hat with one clumsy, pallid hand and scratched his head with the other, sending a visible spray of dead flesh into the air, while Lynx, beside him, stood with visibly clenched mouth.
His tone changed, to something that a really bad programmer might imagine was gently persuasive. “If I increase the voltage, your brain may suffer permanent damage. Submission to the Overbrain is no sin. All will bow before the world’s greatest intellect before long.”
No sin? Charlotte struggled, teetering, her brain under the invisible pressure of a mental power that was just exactly sin, evil incarnate. The Overbrain might not even really understand how this mind control magic worked. In fact, from what her brother said, Fang didn’t understand, either. He just bought it from some magic shop, which, you had to know from the literature, never ended well. If she could get that across, Charlotte thought, they might even get some cooperation from the guy.
Okay, assaulted, under siege, trying to maintain spiritual balance, she was now going to have to think her way around dealing with a crazy person, contradicting them without threatening them. Why couldn’t life ever be easy? “Have you experienced these effects, sir? Because there may be some ramifications of the experience that you have not considered.”
“MY apparatus is the product of MY genius! You dare ask if I understand how it affects the brain? How can you look at me and not see that I am, I am-“ It turned out that a brain in a jar could sputter. So much, Charlotte thought, for talking all sciencelike to get through to him. Probably turn out he thought it was patronising. Smart move, she thought to herself, and the sarcasm turned into some kind of pump that pulled the yellow-and-black up further.
Oh, St. Elizabeth and the Holy Sangha, defend me now, she prayed. The flood relented, and she could speak. “A brain surgeon, sir?”
“Indeed. Strange. Your profile is showing some anomalies.”
“Sword girl was blue!” Mr. Zombie interrupted.
The Overbrain ignored his henchdeadperson.
“This is a different group, Master,” Lynx said. “There’s six of them, instead of five, and the swordswoman who led the other group has blue skin.”
The light went on in that part of Charlotte’s brain that wasn’t under siege by the slimy, yellow flood. The Overbrain thought they were Rafaella’s Grade 10 team. How he could think that, she didn’t know. Well, actually, she could. The Overbrain was crazy, the Black Mist was bored, Lynx was giving him the silent treatment over all the mansplaining crap, Mr. Zombie was dumb, and the big ape was somewhere else. Which was weird.
“Where’s Ape-Plus?” Charlotte mouthed.
“He’s driving,” Bruce answered.
And at that, the moan of highway sounds from outside the room made sense. They were in a tractor-trailer.
“What? What? There is no boy? This is a complete waste of my time? That cannot be! I am the Overbrain! Wake, you pathetic wretch! The nanites I have injected into you command you!”
Aloysius Taurling’s eyes snapped open. “No, no! Don’t hurt me!” He sounded hysterically scared. Well, he seemed to have a pretty good grasp on the situation, Charlotte thought.
Then his voice changed. “I hear and obey, Overbrain. I am a researcher,” he began, and went on to go over the same, boring spiel all over again, but this time with an even more boring tone in his voice. Charlotte listened to the familiar details of alternate-universe Edgar Rice Burroughs death scenes with, at best, a quarter of her attention. The rest of it focussed on the relentless pressure of the mind-control machine and a certain sense of comfort from Bruce’s frantic encouragements to hold on, because help was probably on its way. Probably. Maybe.
Oh, she felt encouraged, all right, and more than a little hopeful that Bruce had some kind of TV Batman last second death trap escape going on that for some reason he couldn’t tell her about, because then it wouldn’t work. She just wasn’t that encouraged when she considered the horror creeping into her
“I went to all this trouble arranging an interdimensional excursion to kidnap a literary scholar?” The Overbrain yelled, electronically distorted, as Taurlling’s voice finally droned to a stop. “Professor Paradigm is going to pay dearly for sending me on this wild goose chase!”
“In Paradigm’s defence,” Bruce interrupted, “Taurling is some vampire lord’s Renfrew. So he’s probably researching something a lot more dangerous than a good Journal of Literary Literariness Stuff article.”
“Renfield,” The Overbrain corrected, pedantically. Because of course he did. “Well,” the brain-in-a-jar said, skittering closer to Taurling. “Tell me what your Master really sent you to find.”
Some unseen command turned off the mind-control device, and Charlotte was free. Taurling was not so lucky. From this angle, Charlotte could barely see his face, but she could see his body arc in convulsions. “Auralia! The First Light of Dawn! The magic oricalchum sword that once ended the King of Ivory’s reign, though the dust of the Earth cries out for his tread! The Undying King seeks his bane, and his spells tell him that the clues to its location are to be found in the Library of Babylon!”
“Interesting,” the Overbrain mused. “It would be very useful to be owed a favour by Takofanes.” Charlotte felt invisible forces pull on her as the truck began to slow and change lanes.
“No,” Charlotte yelled. “You can’t turn Auralia over to Takofanes!”
The Overbrain looked over at her, to the extent that floating brains could look. “Then perhaps I will find someone to pay me for its oricalchum. After all, I already have one sword to smelt.”
And that’s when the roof of the tractor trailer peeled back. Whipping wind, and needling raindrops carried along with it, blew against Charlotte’s face, as a very large and very familiar autobot reached inside, grasping with at the Overbrain with smoothly unfolding mechanical gauntlets.
“Awesome!” Bruce yelled.