Book 4, 33: A Goblin Moon Overhead
Charlotte clenched the roof of the blue and white stretch Humvee that was actually an autobot and looked at the looming bulk that was the ramp down from the expressway ahead. That was the ramp that the Brain Trust had come down. Wherever it led, they were there, while the team was trapped on the business frontage road that ran along the expressway. Charlotte had told her team that she knew the ‘burbs, which she did, that she knew where she was going.
That part, she scolded herself, was a bit hopeful. What she was really thinking was that she needed to go forward and make plans when “forward” ran out. It might or might not be good leading, but it was all she had.
It was dark enough now that the lights had gone on down in the valley below. Ahead of her, as behind, the low-rise, close-set grid of a trailer park showed down below in the bottom, where the river flooded. If the rivers in this suburban part of the extraplanar parterre of Babylon, City of Man, quintessence of human city, flooded. Which it probably did, she thought, or why else would there be a trailer park down there, full of the white (or Eurasian, whatevs) sons and daughters of hard-working waitresses with far-away Dads.
And yet the light, the light was funny. Charlotte scanned the horizon, and caught a gibbonous moon rising. A moon that was full yellow, and which had a face across it. Not the familiar man-in-the-Moon face, either, but the long nose and exaggerated chin and squinty eyes of a goblin.
If she’d had the time, in this truck rushing towards where she’d have to figure out which way to turn to get around the exit ramp, Charlotte would have rubbed her eyes. She knew that face from old-timey newspaper pictures from Philadelphia. Only there, it had been a combination of fireworks, a helicopter and an automatic searchlight with weird frequency do-hickies that hid its origins on the McNeely estate.
It was the Goblin Moon. And, even without wiping her eyes, Charlotte could tell that it wasn’t the real Moon. Better fireworks than anything the Hobgoblin had had, back when he’d fought urban crime in Philadelphia in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but fireworks, of some kind.
Charlotte let go of the roof with one hand and tapped Bruce McNeely on the shoulder, just in way of asking him how he’d done it. She glanced at her phone. There was no sign of a reply, which, to be fair, there wouldn’t be. Bruce was a pretty quick texter, but not that quick.
Nice trick of his, she thought. Now if only my pretend claim to be the white (or Eurasian, whatevs) queen of the ‘burbs were just true, Charlotte thought, going over that old ground with ever more force, on account of the way that the end of the business frontage road was hurtling towards them, in the form of a line of trees against the exit ramp that must mark a “T” intersection.
Only.. there were the trailer park lights. Something was up with that, something weird. Charlotte risked taking her eyes off the woods ahead, checked the country to her right for the long line of streetlights that would mark a road leading to that first trailer park from this side, from this exit. Nothing. Nothing down there that led to the trailer parks, nothing, that is, from the big mall they’d just passed by the side of the expressway.
If she’d been writing it, she’d have thrown in an “of course.” Though there was no certainty about it, just a feeling about the way things had to be that fit with her sense of what belonged in this streetscape.
“Go down to the T, bootleg left, get ready to turn hard right,” she screamed, because there wasn’t time enough to text. She hoped that Scout, if he was in the cab, or Brian, if he was really controlling things, could hear.
Evidently, whoever could, because they went through the intersection in a fishtail that the Dukes of Hazard –no, Burt Reynolds—would have admired, left, and barrelling down a road that was wide, with paved shoulders, because of course just where the ramp met the interchange, it was a viaduct, not a ramp, and there was a dipsy doodle down into a ravine with a road that ran under the viaduct and under the expressway to serve whatever neighbourhood lay on the other side, and a big, if treacherous intersection, because suburban malls were for trailer park people, and they had to have a way to drive there that didn’t take them through the nice neighbourhoods on this side. This exit up ahead, it was for the trailer park people.
The hummer swept through the crossing without even braking, leaving cars honking and skidding on both sides. “Right! Right!” Charlotte screamed, although she hardly had to, because they were on a main drag now, one that led between car lots on one side and warehouses on the other, and then past a big furniture store and a gigantic toy store that advertised one of those tubes-and-ball-pits adventure areas, and then down through a big park-and-ride. Past that was a long field in big, orange pumpkins.
The pulson blasts she could see ahead told her that she was closing on the action, too. They were coming from the left, down the valley towards Babylon, because the Brain Trust were ahead of them, of course. The traffic coming the other way probably knew that, because they were driving wild, searching for ways around the traffic, all slowed nearly to a halt by everyone’s hurry to get away. A yellow Trans-Am was coming up on the paved shoulder, perilously close to the big ditch that ran alongside the road. Charlotte felt a pang of jealousy. She really didn’t want a Trans-Am. They just seemed like a bit too much to her. But the colour was totally sweet.
Her phone beeped.
[Unknown sender]: Hld t8t
With no more warning than that, the Hummer pulled right into traffic. The oncoming sedan hit the brakes, horn blaring. The Trans-Am was not so lucky, veering right into the ditch. Charlotte winced, although it was going too slow to be really badly damaged.
Of course, she thought, taking that long second to watch the ditch come at them, there’s us, too. But she wasn’t really worried. Sure enough, the Hummer grabbed air again like a ‘boarder, went over the ditch, and landed in the soft and treacherous loam. A rumpled spray of pumpkin gizzards sprouted to their right, but for the most part the big gourds were far enough apart, or low enough, for the Hummer to pick a path. At least, if the soft and yielding soil would allow it.
The engine, or convincing facsimile thereof, screamed in protest at going too fast for the wheels again as the Hummer made its way through the field, finally finding a lane, fishtailing to the right with a special verve on the treacherous soil, and smashing through a fence onto a wide, four-lane road. Across the street, was a big campus of buildings that screamed “school,” and a scrubbed patch of graffiti on the giant wall of the presenting wall told Charlotte that it was the kind of school with a great football team and a not-so-great-at-all debate squad.
Trailer park kids. That was the theme of this particular ‘burb. Charlotte had already figured out that part. It was the rising urge to show people what a trailer park kid could do that she had to deal with. At least they were headed townwards now, and from the flash of the blasts, the light of the needfire, and the incessant cry of the highway patrol sirens, she could tell that they were getting closer.
About time. Charlotte was itching to get into action. That was when the white, open-top Corvette convertible pulled level with them. Charlotte glanced down at it, irritated at the driver for getting in the middle of a dangerous chase, but reminded by the colour of who it could be, but hardly believing that it was.
That was before Madison Cheung stood up in the passenger seat. She was wearing, Charlotte coldly noted, her skintight pants again, also, white again. The difference from the first time they’d met was that they were white leather instead of denim, and matched to a white leather bustier that made Madison look like she was trying to steal the Emma Frost casting away from January Jones. Her hand was sparkling. Charlotte braced herself for the shot.
But it was Bruce, standing beside her at the last second, who took it. It was a powerful one it looked like –because it lifted the Hobgoblin’s grandson right out of the Hummer. Before even Charlotte-s Eight Spirit Dragon reflexes could put a hand on him, the windstream took him.
“Bruce-“ Charlotte yelled, but even as she did, she could seem him rolling up to take the impact of the road. He was conscious, he was tough, he’d be alright. She told herself.
So she vaulted out of the Hummer instead, landing on the hood of the Corvette. Madison was still standing, braced against the wind, with a very pleasant, gawping expression on her face. Without further ado, Charlotte’s roundhouse kick caught the so-called Chaos Girl midriff on the bare skin exposed by her tacky bustier, lifting her bodily out of the car to send her tumbling out onto the road.
A moment later, two bodies were tumbling down the road behind them. Bruce, rolling like a SEAL or a ninja, true to his training, Madison scraping all that bare skin in a much less practiced way. Gotta hurt, Charlotte thought, as she dropped into the passenger seat, feeling a bit guilty, doing her best to conceal it as she faced the hulking, black-clad form of the Dark Ninja, driving.
As soon as she was down, he gave her a martial spear strike, three fingers darting at her throat. It was slow, sloppy. She took his arm, twisted it around. He still had one to drive. He could also probably break free easy enough, so Charlotte leaned in and hissed, “Go! Madison’s in trouble.”
“Professor said—“ Michael Snow began.
“Professor sent you to bring me a ride.” Charlotte said. “He double crossed the Overmind. Wants them put down as much as we do. Go on. You can catch up later.” Charlotte had no idea if it was true, and, again, she felt guilty, because Mike was a special.
His phone wasn’t though. Or, rather, it was, the other kind of special. He glanced down at it.
Then, “Yeah,” and the Dark Ninja backflipped out of the car, wrenching her arm out of his grip in a way that let her know that he could have broken the hold if he’d wanted. That was kind of the point of using her weakest hold, though.
Hunh, go figure, Charlotte thought. The Dark Ninja wanted to help the Professor and Rose’s team. She was guessing that was why he went for her plan. She just didn’t know whether it was because what she was saying was true. More important right now, she had a ride. A sweet, sweet ride.
Charlotte took the steering wheel as she slid over. She knew how to drive, of course. Mr. Vezina had taught her, and she’d spelled off on her brother on their last family trip, their mother too tired from her cancer to keep on driving. But, of course she didn’t have her license.
I’m a bad girl at the wheel of a Corvette convertible, Charlotte thought. It doesn’t get any better than that. Too bad about the colour. She wondered how she’d explain it to the Highway Patrol at the end. For now, though, she had a chase to catch up with. She hit the accelerator. And darn near lost control of the machine, swerving towards the ditch for a long moment until she managed to correct back into the flow of traffic.
A moment of driving was enough to tell her that this was nothing like her Mom’s Camino. The steering was crisp and responsive, the engine felt like having the Lion Stallion beneath her. A little better prepared for the power she was going to unleash, she pushed the accelerator pedal again, and took off. In a moment, she was running beside the Hummer. The shadowy figure of Scout in the privacy cab gave her a slightly slow-motion, slightly jerky thumbs-up. The “robot Scout” theory was looking better by the minute. The question was, where was the real Scout in all of this, and was it Brian?
No time to brood about how awesome Scout would look in long hair, like Taylor Kitsch in the publicity shots for John Carter. There were bad guys to get. Charlotte unwound the engine a bit more, only to watch, amazed, as the Hummer kept up while the traffic that they were weaving through began to catch up, in that reverse way of slow cars being overtaken by fast ones.
Then, ahead in the still gathering darkness, a shower of sparks –plain, ordinary sparks, not the “glowing Princess sparkles” of her friend, Dora—showed that she really was catching up. Another intersection ahead. Now it was Charlotte’s turn to time a run through an intersection on a red light. Thankfully, the flow of traffic was light. “Drive time in the suburbs is being seriously affected by the ongoing superfight, Frank. Might want to plan on taking an alternate route.” Still, her heart was in her throat as she nudged the machine through, barely missing yet another interchangeably forward-body four door sedan.
And, right beyond that, the souped-up cab of the Brain Trust, still dragging the latest highway patrol cruiser to try to blockade it, a spike belt flapping from one of the rear tyres. Charlotte pulled alongside it.
What now? She had only a moment to think it, though, because a sudden feeling of weight in the suspension made her look back.
The Dark Ninja was crouched on the rear hood, hand down, gripped firmly on the passenger seat to hold himself on. “Chaos Girl’s all scraped up. You hurt her!”
“I’m sorry,” was all that Charlotte could think of to say. And she was. She had no trouble with kicking Madison flat on her butt, but road rash was another matter. Nobody deserved that. Even if they did dump Bruce on the road, first.
“Rose made me promise not to fight you.”
Oh. Oh. Oh. Well, that explained how he’d got back to the car. On the other hand, that was definitely a fact to go with all the Rose-and-Mike facts that she was putting together in a big scrapbook of not-making-sense yet.
To cover her furiously speculating mind, Charlotte dared another glance back at him. “You ready to take the wheel?” Then, without waiting for an answer, she jumped out onto the back frame of the Brain Trust’s semi. She really hoped he was. It was a nice car.
Ready to take the wheel, that is. She was ready, to take Black Mist’s ninja-to between her clapping palms as he appeared out of nowhere, balanced on the frame. She still missed her sword, though.
He was strong, she thought. And fast. Without her Eight Spirit Dragon qi focus, he’d overbear her quickly enough. Probably even with it. Fortunately, she’d been expecting this attack, and she was already moving into an ankle block.
Black Mist’s dark eyes focussed on her, as though to say, “Oh, no, you don’t,” but then darted away in rapid response to the shuriken that came whizzing from the Dark Ninja’s direction. With that amount of distraction, Charlotte’s left foot found the Brain Trust’s ninja’s ankle just as she pulled and twisted.
Led by his short sword, Black Mist plummeted off the back of the semi, the third body to hit the pavement in less than a minute all told. A lance of elven magic caught it as it went rolling by the Hummer.
By that time, Charlotte was flush against the back of the cab. It was an oversized sleeper compartment model. There was a door here somewhere, she knew. The only thing between her and her sword right now. She just couldn’t see it.
No problem. She had skills. Mad skills. Mighty kung fu skills. And if she didn’t stop delaying, she’d never get to use them. Reaching deep for the serenity that so often escaped her, Charlotte brought her focus to the perfection of the art that was cultivation of the dharma. The power of the life fore, the qi was in her, in deep pools ready to be called forth. If she could tap them. “Saint Elizabeth and the Holy Sangha, pray for me,” she whispered. “Patron mother of those left behind, prayerful community of the eightfold path, I call upon you. Absolve my sins and lead me to right action.”
Yeah, yeah, that part of her that was a modern girl thought, as close to sneering as it dared, at all the religion stuff. It wasn’t fair that you had to be so square and so dumb to master these things. Or maybe, she thought, as she felt the qi gather in her fist, it was the fairest thing in the world that this power came to those who cultivated it.
She punched. Halfway to the cab, the other half, unfortunately, pulling out of the feint against the presence she’d felt sneaking up on her just outside of her peripheral vision. I hope it’s the cat girl, she thought as she guided her punch in to land.
It wasn’t. It was the big ape, and he grabbed her wrist and held it with a strength that she’d only felt in the Dark Ninja. It was a weird grip, clumsy, easy to break, but far too close. She was staring right into the yellowing fangs of a bull gorilla, remembering the story about the lady who’d had her face ripped off by the pet chimpanzee.
I like my face, thank you very much. Oh, sure, it was a bit long, especially for a halfie, but she was used to it. Charlotte shifted her focus, let her energy flow to her muscles, feeling a boost to her strength that was still not nearly enough to keep her face out of range of those tusks, shiny with saliva.
Good thing that a white streak swarmed up behind Ape-Plus, snagged a grenade off its belt, and dropped it down the back of the camo web vest it was wearing mainly to hold all those grenades. The shaggy gorilla had enough time to roar and reach back for the explosive before it detonated, slamming him forward and into Charlotte’s upraised foot.
A moment later, Charlotte’s stomach slammed against the metal of the big rig’s frame. She ignored the pain, hauling up on her legs as she focussed on not letting them drag on the pavement rushing below, while scrabbling for a grip with her hands. A moment later, she found it, and pulled herself back up into a standing position on the deck. Where, she thought, was Ape-Plus.
Then she saw him, clinging on to the driver’s side rearview mirror, his simian body waving in the wind like a pennant in playoff season. Darn. She’d hoped to put him on the road with that risky suicide throw. Oh, well. She turned back to the cab, to the door she couldn’t find before.
Ahead of her, the protesting sound of the wind trying to get around the distinctly unstreamlined shape of the cab changed. Someone was letting Ape-Plus inside. Well, he was on their side, so it was only fair. Charlotte tried to imagine what the cab must look like, and failed.
“Hold on!” Rose screamed in her ear. Instinctively, Charlotte grabbed for the cab, not that there was anything solid to hold onto, but hoping that, somehow, friction would be enough as the g-force of a sudden swerve began to build in the machine.
It did. Barely. Eyes smarting from the wind, Charlotte watched as the cab ploughed through the turn out into a very familiar kind of scene. Loose wood splintered, and then they were roaring by a concession stand, roller-skating waitresses getting desperately out of the way. Ranks of cars sat, facing a giant, faraway screen where Lynn Collins was busy trying to escape bizarrely-armoured boarders. Charlotte didn’t have to watch any more than that to know exactly what was going to happen, because she’d seen this movie twenty times already, and could afford to focus on holding on.
She was still focussing on holding on when the tractor went through the back fence of the drive-in without even slowing down. At least, Charlotte thought, as they hit air and began to drop, they’d slow down now. No road to drive on, wind resistance, that sort of stuff. Was going to be a rough landing, though.
Instead, a soft and sparkly, familiar feeling enveloped her, lifting. A moment later, she was standing on a glowing, golden disc, flying behind Dora Guzman.
“I thought you couldn’t keep up carrying all of us?” Charlotte yelled.
“For such a tall girl, you’re pretty light,” Dora answered, quietly, although it carried perfectly. “I meant with all of you. ‘Sides, look.” She gestured downward.
Below them, the tractor cab had somehow managed to land on its tyres, and was proceeding down a rutted, green, muddy looking road-sort-of-thing between high hedges. What with the traction, it couldn’t go that fast.
Well, the traction and the sheep. Sheep everywhere, and more than a few cowboys, cutting in, trying to push their charges up to the side of the animal-herding thingie. And not just sheep and cowboys, either.
They were coming up on an ox train now. Charlotte looked down the road. Not far away, you could see Babylon start. From this angle, it was pretty obvious, on account of the sixty-foot-high masonry walls, topped by movie-style castle-blocky-bits and guttering torches.
“I hope they can get the animals clear,” Rose whispered. “I can’t possibly move them all. I don’t think I could lift the oxen at all.”
This must be one of the low-tech parts of Babylon, Charlotte thought. So how was the cab even moving?
>I’m pushing it.<
Oh. Telepathy. Good thing she had friends who did that stuff, or she’d be freaking right now. >Overbrain? There’s no way you can get away now. Give up and we won’t press kidnapping charges. You’ll probably get a fine and your license suspended.< Charlotte wasn’t inclined to make a deal, but there were way too many innocent animals down there to risk a fight, if Rose couldn’t save them.
>On the contrary. I will get away.<
He seemed awfully confident, considering that the spikey bars thing was already falling across the open gate of the city.
But then the tractor cab leaped ahead, and a soft rain of mailed bodies began to fall from the top of the wall, while a body, big as a human, but tawny as a cat, and as fast, moved behind them.
“That—“ Charlotte stopped herself from using the B-word.
“Never mind,” Dora said. “Got’em.” The gold glow of the needfire caught five guards, and Twelve the other two, while Rose cleared animals out of the path of the tractor. And then, before their eyes, the Brain Trust entered the City of Babylon.
A moment later, Dora and her lifting platform crossed the wall, and Charlotte could see the organised chaos of tents and waving banners and paddocks of temporary brush fencing and people in armour and people in brightly coloured tunics and people in practically no clothes at all, and over all of it an overwhelming smell of manure.
And, standing, doors wide and empty, the abandoned tractor cab. Charlotte looked at it, and knew, somehow, that her sword wasn’t in it. Where it was, in all of this press of humanity and a few hundred thousand of its not-meat-unrelated favourite animals, she did not know.
She paused. She looked up. The Goblin Moon still lit the scene. She almost swore at it, her heart going out at the knowledge that she’d run the race, and lost.
And then she saw, in the midst of all the commotion and the animals, a very familiar horse, with an equally familiar crow poised on the saddle pommel. Yellow light gleamed on the highlights of Telus’s shining body, and from Ginger’s equally shiny black feathers.
Her crow at her and squorked in a very self-satisfied way, and Charlotte couldn’t help grinning back.