Book 4, 31: Wild Hunt!
Charlotte didn’t know if there was a word for the feeling you get in your stomach when a giant robot running at seventy miles an hour suddenly leans over the semi trailer that you’re tied up in and aims a shoulder-mounted mini-gun at you. Probably not. Wouldn’t normally come up in conversation, she thought.
Because other people evidently had strange lives. The good thing about the weird autobot showing up when it did was that it had to tear open the roof of the trailer, and that happened to be where the chains she was dangling from were attached. The top ones, anyway. And the one holding her right hand had popped two of its three bolts. Or screws. Attachy-thingies.
Whatever. The point was, it was loose. Charlotte called up her qi through the focus of Eight Spirit Dragon practice and pulled until she could taste blood and nose and light-headedness and iron in her mouth, till her arm ached and her wrist screamed and it seemed like her shoulder would give way.
Instead, it was the last rivet. Free, Charlotte took around. It had seemed like it was taking forever, but it was only moments. Bullets were lashing around her, but not hitting her, or her friends. Instead, they were striking the deck around the members of the Brain Trust. Who were scurrying towards the front of the trailer, and the door (which the Department of Transportation said totally shouldn’t be there) leading to the tractor cab. The zombie was bringing up the rear, because it could only shuffle so fast. Charlotte couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor thing. Zombies weren’t sprinters. That was a fact. Except in Twenty-Eight Days Later, but those weren’t real zombies.
Sorry, that is, until she saw that it was carrying the Pearl Harmony Sword.
“Hey,” Charlotte shouted, grabbing the chain around above her left hand. “That’s my sword! Give it back!”
The zombie ignored her, and continued tottering towards the door. A few bullets hit it now. Charlotte strained at the chain, but even with both hands and all the power of her kung fu, the chain wasn’t going to budge when the long-holdy-thingies weren’t popped. Charlotte watched, helpless, as the zombie reached the door and went through it.
Instantaneously, the trailer began to slow and slew. Charlotte swung like a pendulum for a moment before a massive shadow fell over the hole in the roof, and the trailer began to straighten out. An almost equally massive, robotic hand reached into her field of view, took a delicate grip on the chain, and broke it free. As Charlotte dropped to the deck of the trailer, two precisely targeted shots cut the chains on her feet.
Charlotte dropped to Monkey posture, three-down, and looked up. The autobot was lying across the top of the trailer, like someone riding a sled on his chest and steering with his legs. From this angle, she was looking straight up at the massive, robotic head, and could see through a glass panel that revealed itself as –perhaps?—a cockpit. Inside, an indistinct but very familiar figure gave an even more familiar shrug.
Scout! Scout! It was Scout up there! For a second, Charlotte thought she was going to faint, like some stupid heroine in some girlie book about cupcakes and babysitting clubs. (The kind of books that she secretly liked, and traded with her Cousin Amy.) But she didn’t, because she was bloody well a master of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu, and she had a world to save.
With Scout, she thought, and felt warm inside.
“Bruce!” Bruce! You coming?” Charlotte heard head Dora ask as she stood up. Without the Overbrain watching over them, her friends were all back in action. Even as Dora shook Bruce in his chains, Charlotte watched a golden knife of light slide up and down her limbs, cutting the manacles free from her body. Her bracelet, she noticed, had somehow become real and substantial again.
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.” Came Bruce’s familiar voice. “Got a last dose of those sleep nanites, there. Sorry.”
“Come on!” Charlotte almost shouted. “They’re getting away!”
“On it,” Rose shouted, and vanished through the back door of the trailer.
“So, uhm, how are the rest of us going to chase a runaway tractor trailer?” Bruce asked. “Dora’s the only one of us who can fly at highway speeds.”
“She can carry us!” Charlotte snapped. Couldn’t he see that time was wasting? It was, she noticed, getting much brighter in the trailer of a sudden, and the light was that slanting darkness of late evening that reminded her of home in Canada, far to the north.
“Uhm, I’m really not sure how long I can keep up with all four of you piled on. ‘Sides, if I pulled out all the stops, Twelve would get car sick.”
“Try me,” Twelve growled.
A sharp whistle, with an amazing musicality, cut the conversation. Brian was pointing at the back of the trailer, where the doors, torn from the rolled-back roof to start with, had just flown open. Instead of a giant blue-and-white robot running behind them, there was a blue-and-white stretch Hummer with a wide-open sun-roof and tinted windshields. “Uhm, guys? Our ride?”
As they gaped, the trailer began to lurch and swing again.
That settled it. Charlotte bounded over to Mr. Taurling, threw him over her shoulder in a fireman’s lift, and jumped off the back lip of the trailer, hitting the hood of the Hummer. Taurling was squirming on her shoulders, and for a moment Charlotte felt her balance fail.
That was why you didn’t stop for a freaking status report in the middle of these things, she scolded herself, committing to another jump that brought her on forward-pivoting ankles to the edge of the sunroof on the high roof of the Hummer, with her momentum folding her into the vehicle, and just enough counterbalance to hold, poised, on the roof if she needed.
She did not. Three ranks of three-deep seats in plush white-and-blue sat empty and waiting for them. Over the rushing asphalt, the barely-taken in suburban landscape scrolling by on either side of the multi-lane express way, the traffic screaming by in the wrong direction in both surrounding lanes, horns sounding, desperately, dopplering back as they passed, Charlotte could even smell, or imagine that she smelled, a new car smell.
With a shotput style heave, Charlotte put Aloysius Taurling firmly in the back seat, then bounced right back off the top of the front bench, spinning in the air to land on the roof, facing the back of the trailer, to see to her team. No need for that, though, because Twelve was in the air, flying free, as was Dora, in her needfire nimbus, Brian held in a giant, golden hand. And Bruce, of course, was. . .
No, wait, Bruce wasn’t. He was still in the trailer, standing, almost as though he was afraid to make the jump. But that wasn’t Bruce, Charlotte thought, staring more closely. Actually, if he reminded her of anything, it was like when they were shopping in the mall, and he was zoned out, listening to his iPod.
“Bruce,” Charlotte shouted. And was amazed to realise that her fists were on her hips, like when she had to come back out of Zumiez and drag him in. I’m having a tantrum, she thought to herself, amazed. It was like he was her brother, or something.
Though, in some ways, he kind of was. Whatever, Bruce finally looked up, focussed, and made the jump. Charlotte reached out to stabilise him, but he made the landing fair enough, though he had to go down on his hand to make it. He looked at Charlotte. “Uhm, traffic?”
Good point. Unlike in the movies where this happened, the drivers on the expressway were slowing down ahead, halfway back to Babylon, it looked. Almost around a gentle bend far ahead, where the road curved to go around a huge, wooded mountain trimmed with fancy-looking houses with bright lights beginning to go on in the evening gloom, a free tractor trailer was busy smashing through the guardrail and onto the soft and low median between the out-of-town and in-town lanes. It was a crazy thing to do, because of the culvert that ran in the middle, but not so crazy, she realised a moment later as the tractor made an incredible jump across the culvert, if you had a telekinetic brain in a jar aboard.
And, she thought, still angry about that, my sword. Speaking of crazy, nearer to hand, the trailer was slowing and skewing across the lanes while cars swerved around it. Scout was doing a good job of staying behind and clear of it, but at this rate they’d be stopped in a minute.
Charlotte whispered into her wristband receiver. “Guys? Can you get that trailer out of traffic?”
“Yeah.” Twelve was brief.
“On it.” Brian dropped right out of the sky in to the second bench of the Hummer, and Dora turned tight, in an almost Tinkerbellian crackle of needfire sparkles to follow Twelve, who was taking a solid hold on the side of the trailer. It looked like a bit much of a load to Charlotte. Maybe Archon could do it, but Twelve was just a kid.
Except that he had Dora to help him. A golden forcefield spread along the side of the trailer, and in a moment it was spinning in the air, to land clear over the lanes in the middle of the median, just clear of the culvert. Immediately that the way was free, Charlotte felt the Hummer swerve.
Even as the swing began, the air crackled with an impersonal, computerised voice that still managed to sound like Scout.“Everybody, get clear or get inside!”
Don’t have to tell me twice, Charlotte though, dropping into the back of the Hummer. Bruce landed beside her, in the front bench. Ahead of them, the driver’s compartment was walled off by more privacy glass, so that Charlotte couldn’t even see Scout’s silhouette through it. She understood. It was all about the secret identity. But she still couldn’t help being disappointed.
She also had no idea what was going on ahead as Scout raced across three lanes of traffic (more swerving brakes, more honking), hit the wide median, somehow took the soft ground and shrubs of the median without slowing down, much less rolling over, jumped the culvert, and headed straight for the in-town lanes.
You could feel, right through the seat, the moment that the tyres bit on pavement instead of sod, the power of the six litre V-8 finding its element. (Or whatever engine this autobot actually had.)
They were on pavement, and Charlotte couldn’t take being a passenger any more. She jumped for the roof.
Bit of a mistake at one level, she thought, as she hit the roof. They had to be going a hundred clear, roaring down the fast lane, and Charlotte had to crouch, holding on with both hands and ducking her head to create an air pocket so that she could breathe. Not to mention that this was definitely not the Autobahn, and there were slow cars hogging the left lane, so that a moment after she got up there, the Hummer cut left onto the median to pass an old, brown K –Car.
Charlotte gave the driver a wall-eyed look. She looked like someone’s granny, but not with an expression you’d want to see on your granny as she laid into the horn with an open hand, letting the reckless driver feel the punishing disapproval of a thousand granny sighs. Until, that is, she saw the superhero in black-and-white tights clinging to the roof of the SUV.
Slack-jawed, the granny stopped pounding the horn and swerved to give the Hummer extra space as it barrelled by. Charlotte put her wrist to her mouth. “Rose?”
“With ‘em. Still headed in-town. They’re moving pretty fast for a tractor trailer. Eighty, ninety?”
“Well, we’ll catch up pretty quick, then,” Charlotte answered. “Can you do something to slow them down?”
“You’re the speedster. Take their engine apart while they’re moving, or something?”
“You read too many comics, girl,” Rose answered. “Maybe Kinetic could do something like that. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Oops. They’re shooting at me. Going to have to focus on the road for a minute.”
“Okay,” Charlotte said. “Stay safe.” Then, “Dora, could you get up there and make sure Rose doesn’t bite off more than she can chew?”
“I’ll follow up, Char-Char,” Twelve interrupted. “Those two airheads will just get in even more trouble together.”
“Airheads? Eat my princess-sparkles wake!” With that, Dora took off like a rocket. And she did, indeed, leave the prettiest sparkles as she went.
Headlights were going on as the Hummer hit the curve of the road where the Brain Trust had regained the road. Charlotte noticed that they had not been anywhere near as gentle with the traffic as they went. Smashed up and rolled-over cars were speckled on the median, with people standing around them, looking dazed. Charlotte wasn’t too worried, knowing that Rose would have made sure that no-one was too badly injured, but the sight made her even madder at the Overmind. Apparently, just because your asshole had been amputated, that didn’t mean that you couldn’t be one.
Plus, she thought, he has my sword. With a moment to think about it, she ached with the need to hold the Pearl Harmony Sword again. And with the effort to hold onto the roof. They were speeding up again. She felt a firm, boy’s hand on her wrist, tugging gently. Her wrist beeped.
[Unidentified Sender]: Wind Rez u hold back.
Charlotte wasn’t sure just how much wind resistance she could contribute, but she was having to hold on and bracer herself pretty hard, so maybe. She pushed herself down into the passenger compartment. Instead of an amber, tinted, privacy screen, the back window of the cab now showed the view ahead of the car on a beautiful, plasma-quality screen. She could see the four lanes stretching on towards the City of Man. A screen of forest now obscured the view of the out-city lanes. Sloping down below the road was the parking lot of a big mall, with fields broken up by blocks of housing, and, at the lowest in the great bowl of valley, a trailer park spread along both banks of a river headed towards Babylon.
My people, Charlotte thought. Although they were in easy bike ride of a mall, and for a moment she felt jealous for a childhood she had not had. Hope didn’t have malls. Hope didn’t have anything, except cheap diners lining the highway out of Vancouver. And as for Gennessee, Washington, well, ghost towns didn’t have anything. That was why they called them “ghost towns.”
Above her, the sunroof closed, and the passenger compartment closed. “I wish I had an Orc right now,” Bruce said. This would be a cool Wild Hunt.”
Charlotte looked at Bruce side-eyeswise. “Your Grand-Dad’s Orcs are just helicopters with a bit of pimping. Meanwhile, you’re riding in an autobot. A Transformer. More than meets the eye!”
Bruce shook his head. “Yeah, but one bit of that pimping was the searchlight controls and flares. You know, so that we could light the Goblin Moon. You know. ‘The-“
“’-Moon that makes mice of men!’ You know, I bet there were a lot of trailer park kids that ran scared of your Grand-Dad’s moon.”
Bruce put his hand on her shoulder, like her brother did, when she mentioned Mom. But slower, like he wasn’t sure where he was going. “I’m sorry, Charlotte.” Then he paused for a moment. “Got a plan?”
Charlotte shrugged. “Catch up, board the tractor-trailer, beat the Brain Trust. Turn ‘em over to Reddit for crimes against nerddom.”
“Because they don’t have a cowboy? Charlotte, nerds don’t care about cowboys any more.”
“Okay, pirate, then. Yarr. Better?”
Her phone crackled. “There’s an overpass ahead,” Dora said. “Highway Patrol is putting up a roadblock.”
“Or just deal with them at the roadblock,” Charlotte said.
A pause. “Bruce?”
Then, over her wristphone, Twelve’s voice. “Look out!” And, a moment later, in the view ahead, Charlotte saw what they were looking out for as three cars came, rolling and bouncing along the expressway, straight at them.
Charlotte had a moment to take in the white streak of Rose’s speed as she rushed to save the drivers and passengers before the Hummer turned, around them, into a running blue and white robot. The comfort of a limousine-sized backseat turned, in a moment, into a cramped little metallic space in the front of the robot.
On the bright side, Charlotte could see what was going on just fine. On the less bright side, her face, and Brian’s, Bruce’s and Aloysius Taurling’s, were full in the blast of the slipstream as they stood, cocooned and helpless, in some oversized kangaroo pouch, looking at two beaten up two door compact sedans, an F150, and a forest green SUV came rolling and bouncing at them. Charlotte had a moment to wonder how the transformation was helping before the autobot was bounding through the sky, clearing the pickup truck at the peak of its arc and hitting the pavement.
Ahead of them, a scene of burning wreckage and chaos spread across the expressway.
“I think we’re the bad guys in a Fast and Furious movie,” Bruce said. “This isn’t going to end well.”
“They’re going off the expressway!” Dora shouted over the phone.
Instinctively, Charlotte looked right. The mall parking lot had given way to a strip development, fronted by a narrow business frontage road leading towards a broad viaduct over an underpass.
“Yeah,” Charlotte answered. “Right into my country. Now let’s get down there and feed Doctor Asshole-in-a-jar and his gang the full ‘Burbs.”