For no very deep reason.
Book 4, 32: The ‘Burbs
[Unknown Sender:] 4lw off the I?
Charlotte looked down at her phone. One thing she’d been too busy to think about ‘till now. If Brian were Scout, how had he been managing to drive the autobot all this time? It was a stupid question, maybe, because the autobot could be driving itself while Scout relaxed with his feet up in the cab. Or maybe Brian had a doubling spell he hadn’t mentioned, or he was just doing it by remote control somehow.
Sure, stupid questions, but she had to wonder. They were all based on Brian being Scout. Why did she think that? Oh, sure, Brian had the best hair and great eyes, but Rose had a theory that Charlotte was mainly attached to the idea of having a crush on Brian. It was one of those things that tended to tumble out of Rose’s mouth that sounded more hurtful than it was, because Rose was three steps ahead of everyone else in her brain and four steps ahead in her mouth. And by the time she was finished pushing her words out, her brain would be five steps ahead, and she’d give this look like she’d figured it out while she was talking, and now she didn’t think she could say it. And the look Rose had given her that time –it had been one of those looks.
She had a BF who was really, really smart. That was a blessing, Charlotte figured. One you didn’t ignore. Though something about the thought gave her an uneasy feeling, like she was overlooking something. A thought that had been coming to her more and more in the last few days.
She took another look out the window. At evening on the Babylon exchanges, on the inbound side, three lanes of traffic stretching back towards the City of Man in the twilight of a Fall evening. The expressway being run along the top of a wide slope, she could look down to her right for, it seemed, miles along the way she was going, at spots of green and clumps of housing, at big parking lots for bigger box stores and the cloak of green that marked the river that ran at the bottom of the wide valley.
And she could look ahead, of course, at the chaos on the expressway caused by five supervillains trying to outrace them, and the Babylon highway patrol back to the city, and by Rose, Twelve and Dora in a running battle with them. In the instant, and just the instant, that all of this had passed through Charlotte’s head, the white streak of Rose running at superspeed had come back up the expressway, vaulted the minivan ahead, and plunged back into the chaos.
Sure. Rose was smart. Just, sometimes, you had to remind yourself. Speaking of trying to be the leader of this ongoing circus, Charlotte lifted her phone and typed a quick reply: Y.
[Unknown Sender]: Afeared yd say tht. Hng on 2 hat.
‘Afeared?’ Scout really was out of cowboy times. Charlotte didn’t actually have a hat to hold onto, but she held it anyway as the blue-and-white stretch Hummer that was actually an autobot in disguise (because duh, “robots in disguise”) veered across the middle lane, which was empty, because people weren’t completely stupid, and then ran along the outermost lane, which was crammed with traffic trying to get into the exit lane that started just up ahead, the last one, according to the map, before the one that the Brain Trust was currently barrelling down, with a grenade or mindblast for anyone who didn’t get out of the way in time.
You had to think, Charlotte thought, that there was something wrong with the superhero code if they couldn’t grenade their way down this exit. (Something about not massacring civilians to stop crime. Hey, half the comics writers around these days had written that one out, anyway!) Oh, well, maybe Scout had a plan. Could the autobot roof surf down? Because that was the only place where there was room.
For a moment Charlotte imagined big blue-and-white feet bounding down the gentle, curving ramp of the exit, galloping over bare roofs and kicking aerodynamic sports-equipment holders high in the air, along with chunky, old-fashioned roof racks, and the green and orange tarps that stretched over suspicious piles in the back of pickups.
That was not, however, Scout’s plan. Scout’s plan turned out to be a Dukes of Hazard-style jump right over the crash barriers at the outside of the expressway, helped, no doubt, by the fact that the autobot could grow legs down there where the metal hit the road, to the extent that, and insofar as was needed.
Problem, Charlotte thought as they soared in one of those parabolas that looked so cool on TV and turned out to feel so whoopsy in your tum-tums when you were doing it: the Duke brothers (and even those lame Duke cousins) only did those jumps when there was somewhere to land on the other side.
They didn’t. They were coming down on one of those steep, outward slanted faces of grass and stone that probably had a very scientific reason to exist, with a high, brown-painted palisade at the bottom that kept the sound of the expressway out of the ‘Burbs and was probably angled to the exit so that you read a slogan like “Welcome to Sherwood Groves, Rural Living at It’s Best” at the bottom, that had all the middle aged cranky men in the area writing angry letters to the Sherwood Groves Weekly News about misplaced apostrophes.
That was the thought that Charlotte was thinking, so that she didn’t accidentally think that they were all going to die, and it would be her fault, instead. Then the wheels of the Hummer managed –somehow—to grab ground in a way that didn’t cause them to roll off in all directions.
Huge improvement, Charlotte thought. Now they were tobogganing down the slope straight at the giant palisade-sign thingie instead.
Behind her, Mr. Taurling screamed like a girl. Oops, Charlotte thought. She was forgetting that she had a job to do. As hard as it was to turn her head from the viewscreen ahead, because of the tension and also on account of the g forces, she turned back to comfort Aloysius Taurling, the bedraggled literary researcher.
That’s how she didn’t come to see the hood of the Hummer go smashing right through the sign, splinters everywhere. She did distinctly hear Bruce, beside her, mutter, “Oh yeah, Kool Aid’s here,” and see Brian, sitting beside Mr. Taurling, grinning like he was watching a TV show.
Well, to heck with comforting Mr. Taurling. He’d live or he wouldn’t. Charlotte turned back to the front, just in time to see that the Hummer wasn’t sliding down into the off-ramp, which was, of course, as crowded with traffic escaping the superfight down here as it was further up the lane.
No, instead they had launched into the air again, headed for the crest of the rise on the other side of the ramp, which happened to be crowned with half-grown trees in their fall glory of naked, scrawny branches, to which Scout seemed determined to apply the mighty power of blunt impact wood chipping.
Charlotte had doubts about that particular method of producing garden mulch, doubts that lasted for the moment it took the Hummer to somehow find a little bit of extra height, and clear the trees with enough room to spare that there was, really, when you looked at it, hardly any broken branches in the air at all to rain down on the line of backyards that the Hummer was approaching like an automotive missile that had decided that it wasn’t a flying car, after all.
And then they were hitting the ground, still on a sharp slope, but now facing just a plain old suburban back fence, and with a thicket of tangly brambles liberally festooned by those green tennis balls that people threw for dogs.
Charlotte focussed on that, because it was better than focussing on your tail bone coming up to meet your jawbone. Though, somehow, perhaps because it was anatomically impossible (it was a theory, anyway), that didn’t happen. Instead, the long-suffering hood and bumper of the Hummer hit the high privacy fence of a suburban backyard, pushing the whole thing down for twenty feet along.
Suddenly, the Hummer was careening through a backyard, straight at a Jack Russell terrier and a backyard swimming pool. The Jack Russell, understandably, got the heck out of the way like a small dog well used to the errant motions of things larger than itself. The pool might have been inclined to do the same, but, unfortunately, was not nearly so well equipped for rapid lateral motion.
Or any motion, really, so Charlotte couldn’t blame it. The usual course of action in moments like this was for the car to swerve, instead. Unfortunately, swerve wasn’t one of the options that physics was currently allowing the Hummer to select. Instead, they went straight into the pool. A white wake of water flew up around the Hummer, more spray than water, but, fortunately, some kind of half-a-second rule applied to Hummers floating, and the wheels bit on the far side of the pool, and a much slowed Hummer dragged itself out of the far end of the pool, spinning wheels with all their momentum working exactly like Mr. Vezina’s arms, pulling him spastically out of the water like that time he went into the trailer park outdoor pool to rescue her stuffy, that cold October when Charlotte had been too young to even understand how much it had asked of the old man.
Unlike Mr. Vezina, who’d gone into his trailer to have a hot buttered rum afterwards, the Hummer was still going, the long end fishtailing onto the concrete deck of the pool land throwing some left-out-for-the-winter-because-no-one-cared furniture onto the back porch of the house, while the front end of the Hummer followed the swivelling wheels and the weight of the motor (if the autobot actually had a motor) into the alley between the two houses.
Well, sort of alley. It was actually two gates, separated by another privacy fence, or which had been separated by a fence before the Hummer knocked it down. How interesting, Charlotte thought. The two houses weren’t on the same level. There was a three foot drop between them on the far side of the gap, and while the gap didn’t look wide enough to take a Hummer at all, it certainly wasn’t wide enough to take both wheels before the drop.
Except that it was. Charlotte decided not to question their luck, just marked it down to autobot flexibility as, somehow, they hit the ramp like driveway of the house, which led down into a typical cul-de-sac kind of road, with a turnaround with a lampstand in the middle at the bottom, and a stop signed T-intersection at the top, with one direction presumably leading through the maze to the way out, and the other leading you deeper into the subdivision, to some kind of frustrating dead end. Charlotte’s burbs-borne instincts tickled to the right, but she knew better than to think that the route would be a long, straightaway to a through road, and it was only a hunch. She was really hoping that Scout had a map.
“Boo yah!” Brian shouted, behind her. Charlotte looked back at him, and caught the eyes of a young boy looking out of the picture window of the living room of the house whose back yard they’d just wrecked.
“We’ll pay for the damages,” Charlotte said, mouthing elaborately, although she suspected that six-year-olds didn’t lip read well, and probably weren’t all that concerned with landscaping costs.
“Out of what? Your allowance?” Bruce asked. Incredibly, revving sounds could be heard, because now that they were out safe on pavement, they could accelerate again.
“Sure. What the heck. My allowance.” Charlotte looked over at Bruce to see his reaction, but he’d gone distant and distracted again.
Charlotte bit her lip. Something was going on here, she had a moment to think, before the accelerating SUV hit the end of the pavement again, rushing by a fenced playground-and-tennis grounds complex and darted onto an irregular, grassy field that let down into a terrace above a pond.
Apparently, the Hummer hadn’t had enough of a swim in the pool. As the blue-and-white machine lined itself up with the reed-and-lily choked pond, Charlotte had an insane impulse to throw one of those tennis balls ahead of them. Something about the machine’s mad enthusiasm reminded her of a big dog, finally let off the leash.
Again, a jump, where no jump ought to have been possible, and they were on the far side of the pond, on a dark and loamy roadway, barely wide enough for the Hummer and certainly not made for cars, park maintenance apart. Pine needles and damp, decayed vegetation spewed behind them as their ride rushed up to the bottom of a switchback, somehow made the turn, climbed and turned through another one, and emerged on a rutted track through a grassy meadow in the midst of woods.
In a repeat of earlier themes, an entire dog-walker’s worth of mid-sized, fashionable breeds scattered ahead of them, their doggy date forgotten in the face of the roaring Hummer coming from a direction no vehicle ought to come from. And then they were across the meadow, smashing, broad shoulders wide, no autobot trickery needed, through the break in the woods made by the suburban path, and then over the soft, low, asphalt curb without even pretending to jump it, and, with just enough room between a street-parked late model Beetle in suburban sweet-sixteen white and a candy-apple red Acura that looked like it belonged to someone’s spoiled brother, the Hummer finally found pavement on a straight road that stretched down a long hill towards what looked like wider boulevards meant to actually take you somewhere.
[Unknown Sender]: WR 2 N?
Charlotte looked down the boulevards, listened to her instincts. Oh, sure, they looked good, but they were too close to the expressway. That was where the ramps would be. They wanted the business frontage road.
[Unknown Sender]: Yup.
The Hummer fishtailed into the next corner, turning on a pivot that took in a pedestrian crossing the road diagonally in what was probably the scariest moment in her life, and with that they were climbing, headed back up the slope towards the expressway. After going through an intersection so fast that the rear tyres left the pavement, Charlotte could see that the top of the pavement was faced with concrete sleepers –crash barriers, and the divide between these suburban roads and the business frontage way.
Scout evidently saw it coming, because they were turning, again, at the top and then racing towards a u-turn on the road down, as though the road grid had given up on being so high up the hill, with a big house on an overgrown lot facing them over a fence, and a garage-y type building to their left.
The Hummer turned into the garage. For a moment Charlotte thought that Scout was going to go through the building the way that he had earlier gone through those fences, but at the back of the garage was a big, liftingdoor, and it was opening as they ran up the tired, cracked old pavement of the garage’s back lot. Charlotte had a moment to worry that they were about to face a car coming out, or even one parked inside, but there was no sign of either, just an empty, dark garage space, with another lifting door facing in the other direction, also opening.
Mr. Taurling gasped in relief. At least, it had to be him. Though it was a deep and controlled, even familiar tone that suggested that he was getting over his panic. Then the Hummer plunged right through the garage, hung a right, and they were out on the business frontage road, running parallel to the expressway but well down the slope, with a clear run as far as the next exit ramp, a few miles ahead.
A white streak formed up beside them.
[Rose]: Where were you guys?
[Charlotte]: ‘Burbs. W3 Brain Trust?
The white streak formed a definite hand, pointing in the direction of the ramp that formed a solid shoulder of earth and shrubbery at the far end of the narrow, cracked business frontage road, marking the end of the line of garages, plazas, and a single, sad-looking motel. Because they’d come down on the next exit ramp, of course, Charlotte thought.
It was getting dark now. If and when they ended this chase, Charlotte realised, they’d have to find a place to crash ‘till morning. And they’d probably be grounded for a week when they got back to Philadelphia for missing curfew.
First things first, though. In the darkening sky, the gold of the needfire and the plasma arcs of Twelve’s blasts showed clearly. There was fighting ahead, and they needed to get into it.
[Charlotte]: Everybody! Get them down into the valley!
Charlotte put her hands on the sides of the Hummer’s sunroof and hoisted herself up into the air again. The viewscreen was nice, but she needed a better view, because someone was going to have to navigate them back down into the ‘Burbs and finish this thing.