I tell you kids what, in my day. . .
Anyway, apparently no-one ever takes pictures inside the library stacks without an ulterior motive. (Young folk, avert your eyes!)
|See all those wonderful books? No wonder they're excited! Charlotte's hair is about the same length, but less curly, and she doesn't usually wear it up like that. And it's black, of course. She's also got more arm tone. Kung fu, you know.|
Chapter 4, 45, The Secret Place
Charlotte looked around at her team. Help wasn’t coming. They were on their own, and out of their league. She remembered that old cartoon of the WWI soldier on the rock waving his fist at the airplane. “Very well, alone!”
“Very well, alone!” No. That did not sound nearly as good when you said it as when you read it. Her team looked at her.
She started again. “Okay, let’s prioritise. Yeah, we’ve had tough days in this town. But that’s because we kept getting mixed up in this East Side-West Side thing. Moral of the story: no more rap battles for us. We don’t bust rhymes good, so we leave that to Mill and the Belly Bottom Boys. We focus on what we need to do.”
Brian looked like he was going to object for a moment, but didn’t. Charlotte continued. “Which is deal with the Tattered Man, and that comes down to winning the race to Auralia. We know he’s moved on Nazfre. But as far as we know, Nazfre was standing in our way. Not his. If we’re right about the information about the location of Auralia being in that missing encyclopedia volume---“
“Document collection,” Rose corrected.
“—Document collection, well, he’s got the one copy that he stole from Taurling. Plus, he probably knows what’s in it, anyway, because we figure that he’s got Taurling under mind control, anyway? Right?”
“Makes sense,” Bruce said. “Except that the situation at the Smythe House is like an Agatha Christie novel. It’s always the one you don’t suspect. First one to die is actually the murderer, everyone’s the murderer. You know, like that.”
“Spoilers!” Dora hissed.
Bruce looked over at her, then returned to the head hunched position he’d been holding for the last five minutes, like he’d just heard that his Mom was dying. Instead of being, like, dead and all. Like Charlotte’s Mom. Okay, girl, get a grip. This is not the time to be all poor-little-old-me, Charlotte thought. But Bruce looked sad, and she wanted to comfort him.
“Point is,” Charlotte continued, “They took all this trouble because Mr. Snot-Rag-That-Walks-Like-A-Man wants to stop us. So we’ve still got a chance.”
“Or,” Dora said, “He’s going to follow us. Like the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Where Belloq steals the idol after Indiana steals it?”
“Hella point,” Charlotte conceded. “On the other hand, we’re not scientific archaeologists. We don’t have to dig stuff up with, like, brushes and stuff.” She rolled her eyes as she said that. Because, you know, sarcasm.
Dora snorted. “World? Just stop trying to make ‘Hella’ happen.”
“So helpful,” Charlotte snarked back.
“Also,” Dora went on, “This might be like the trap in the Dungeon of Dorukan.”
“The who the what now?” Brian asked, getting into the spirit of things.
“In Order of the Stick,” Twelve explained. “Nale fools the Order into unsealing a trap, because only Good characters can operate it.”
“We’re being manipulated, is the theory.” Dora tried to sound smart when she said it, hard as it was when she couldn’t stop peeking, shining-eyed, at Twelve every second word to see if he was looking at her. Spoiler, Charlotte warned the world. He was . “So we’re going to get to Auralia first, and we’ll pull the mighty sword out of, oh, I don’t know, the chest of some dried-up old zombie, and it bursts into flames with bright lights and trippy 1970s special effects, and then, bam! Out of nowhere, the Tattered Man shows up with Belloq’s burn about how he can take anything we find. Which also we have to find on account of we’re good and everything.”
“Seems rather unlikely,” Rose said. “Someone stole those books out of Taurling’s carrel. Seems like everyone who thinks that they’re the key to the Ultimate Secret of Reality wants them for themselves, not in our hands. And we still don’t know what’s in them! I mean, sure, maybe they’ll tell us that Auralia’s in Knossos or Catalhoyuk or wherever, but that’s not the Ultimate Secret or anything. Unless. . .” Rose paused. “The book entries cinch Auralia’s origins, maybe even have a clue about what the big deal to that is.”
“That Auralia and the rest of the Twelve were forged on ancient Mars?” Charlotte asked. “I thought we’d figured that out.”
“No, dummy, I mean, No, sorry. Mind racing. Mind blown. Mic ready to drop. . .” Rose held his hand out as if to stop Dora from responding. “That was for you, girl. What no-one says out loud about Mars is that if Captain Chronos is right, the Martians were the first intergalactic nation in our galaxy, and the first by literally billions of years. Having them off way in the past, that was one thing. But if they’re still influencing things today? Now that might qualify as an ultimate secret.”
“Okay,” Charlotte said. “That settles things. We need to go find those books.” She glanced at Bruce. He hadn’t said anything for the whole brainstorm. She gave him a moment to suggest the next step. A moment that dragged.
Brian broke it. “What, like, the stolen ones?”
“I’m thinking that Charlotte means the ones still in the restricted stacks.”
“How do we do that?”
Bruce, at last, spoke. His voice was thick with something, and Charlotte’s heart sank to hear it. “Charlotte found a way in to them? Remember? Our first Library battle?”
And, with that, they were standing on the familiar roof, in front of the roof exit, where Charlotte had fought Madison only four weeks before. “Bruce asked me to make this one of my fixed teleport locations,” Brian explained.
“Hope the door’s still ajar,” Bruce said. He reached out and took the door. It swung open. “Let’s hear it for smokers. Breaking important security rules in this universe and every other one.”
“This sort of thing is inevitable when a practice comes to be seen as transgressive. Throw in a psychotherapeutic effect, and you’re just asking for resistance,” Twelve replied.
“Plus, smoking’s cool,” Brian added.
Charlotte looked over her shoulder at her team. “Well, wouldn’t this be a horrible conversation to have some time when we weren’t racing to save the world.” Then she dropped down the stairs to emerge in the mouldy silence of the highest restricted stack level.
“Let’s see, B17, B18, to the left, B19 to the right. .” Rose counted from her shoulder. “You need to follow me down this aisle. There’s a stairwell to a mezzanine level halfway down it, and another stairway from the mezzanine to an intercalated level that leads out of this tower. Once you get down to it, continue to head right ” she continued from ahead down the aisle.
“That’s it, we’re def going backpacking in Europe with Rose after grad,” Dora said. “I can’t wait to tour a cathedral with her.”
“What are you doing?” Twelve said, in a voice that might very generously be called a complete failure to imitate Rose. “You’ve been looking at that ceiling for five whole seconds now.”
We’re. Because Dora and Twelve were already planning their lives around, while Charlotte’s mind kept racing round and round of Scout and Brian and, well, now Bruce. Bruce? Bruce? How could she think of him that way? She did love him. Charlotte was sure of that. As a brother. Because that was what he was. The kind of brother you always knew would be with you, strong and smart, and so stupid every time he opened his mouth you had to cringe in advance. That’s why her actual brother knew to keep his mouth shut.
Him and Scout. Strong and silent types. Charlotte appreciated that. She’d appreciate it a lot more in Chris if she hadn’t lost him to stupid Kumi. And now she was losing Bruce –to that part of her mind that couldn’t keep it straight just what she wanted from him.
Determined not to think about it anymore, Charlotte strode down the aisles between books and oversized folders and boxes full of magazines to the stairs, which led down to a glass-fronted room self a half-floor above the next level, full of leather-bound volumes in various colours with titles in gold ink, and the Library Coat of Arms at the top of each spine. For a moment Charlotte wondered how these books came to be in restricted stacks, with their own room, no less. She almost stopped to pull one down before reminding herself that she had no time for that.
The next set of stairs were easy to find, and led down into a big room –far bigger than the other library stack levels she’d seen the last time she’d come this way. So this room was probably built out of that tower –intercalated, as Rose had said. Unlike the tower levels, it was bright, not just because the lights were brighter, but because the floors were white, if slightly dusty, linoleum. Charlotte headed right, following Rose’s instructions.
The room went on forever. They were literally a block down it when the sizzle of pulson beams came from ahead. Charlotte began to run.
As she came even with a big, white-washed beam sticking out of the wall, Charlotte saw that the blast was coming from across the gigantic room. Redoubling her speed, she burst out from amongst the books into an inset alcove on the inner wall where there was just room enough for someone to maybe put some tables, if this were a regular library room. Otherwise, it was just open space, and room enough for someone unfamiliar to be having a gunfight with Rose.
Not a very productive thing to do, Charlotte thought, as she came on, drawing up in Crane stance. Whoever he was, he had his back to her, but Charlotte declined to think that he was unaware of his presence. Maybe it was the pressure she was feeling in her brain, the familiar thrum of her mindscreen bracelet. Not an alien, threatening presence like the Migdalar, but one that meant her harm, nonetheless.
He turned, details unfamiliar, but a blocking motion. One of Bruce’s gobllinarangs bounced off the back of his palm as Charlotte settled an arm hold on him, setting for a joint break. Vicious, and she felt bad about it, but she needed this guy down.
But he wasn’t having any of it, throwing himself with the breaking motion to somersault out of close quarters. It was all that Charlotte could do to put some English on the spin so that he came out slamming the small of his back against the end of the nearest high, gray shelf.
He came up facing them. Charlotte looked at him. Tall, bronze-skinnd, his hair golden, and rising around his high brow into what were almost devil horns. He was wearing a tight old Star Trek-style jump suit, except with bulging pouches all along the midriff belt. Charlotte recognised the features of a Mandaarian from fighting Sovereign. He wasn’t Sovereign, though. Sovereign would never have deigned to wear a mask.
Or use a gun. The masked Mandaarian waved it at them. “No-one has to get hurt. Tell the speedster to hand the book over, and we can all go our separate ways.”
“Yeah,” Charlotte answered. “But no. A raygun is not going to cut it.”
“How about these, then?” The Mandaarian grabbed at the pouches, and small and innocuous things tumbled to the floor.
Small and innocuous things that turned into giant, spidery robots as soon as they touched the linoleum. Charlotte didn’t even hesitate, lunging straight at the nearest robot. A squawking, black, winged shadow stooped low over her head just in time to make Charlotte duck out of the way of a pulson blast, and then she was in the grip of the nearest robot.
“About time you showed up,” Charlotte muttered at Ginger as she turned within the metallic, icy-strong grip of the robot, feeling for the exposed and vulnerable joints that allowed it to imitate a human. The power of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu flowed through her as she applied a version of the Falling Tower manoeuvre against its hip, hoping for enough torque.
There was. Broken like a Thanksgiving wishbone still held by a strand of gristle, the first robot went flying back into the Mandaarian, sending him falling back. Except that, of course, you can’t fall back when your back is already against the thwart of a shelf. Momentum still wanted to be conserved, though, and, flailing, pulson gun flying, the Mandaarian fell to the floor.
As Charlotte kicked the knee-joint out of another robot in time for it to be caught and torn apart by the power of the needfire, Bruce appeared over the Mandaarian as he scrabbled for his gun.
“That’s enough, Kelvar,” Bruce said.
“What? I’m not—“
“Save it,” Bruce said. “That move where you showed up just too late to save Jason and Amy and John and the gang? Too smooth by half. As for these robots, well, Charlotte by herself might have a problem with a whole team of them, like when you gave a bunch to Madison Chung. But our whole team? Not a problem. So. We going to talk Martian archaeology now?”
“I’m not telling you anything.”
“Fine,” Bruce answered. “I can hear Library Security coming up, now. Is there a Mandaarian Embassy in Babylon? Because you might be needing some consular representation soon.”
“Hunh?” Charlotte said, as Library Security led the unmasked Kelvar away. “Nice detecting? Was that actually relevant to our mission?”
Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t know. Probably not. But except in novels, when you’re following up on deductions and putting two and two together, it doesn’t always lead to the solutions of the same problem. John Roy and I had a suspicion that the Mandaarian archaeological team on Mars had one of Sovereign’s agents in it. It’s nice to have that confirmed, and I think it is proof that this whole thing’s got something to do with Old Mars. But. .. “
“Rose?” Charlotte asked.
“Good news and bad news. Good news, I know where Auralia is. It’s in a basement shrine in the temple of the local goddess associated with the Goddess of the Dawn, in an Atlantean colony in Europe. Just like we figured.”
“Bad news?” Charlotte asked.
“Town’s named Choirostoa.”
“So where’s that?”
“That’s the bad news,” Rose answered. “It’s the old Atlantean word for the place. Might mean Pig Place? Point is, name’s been changed. Look. There’s even a picture. Here? See?”
Charlotte looked. “Hunh. I saw a statue like that when I was chasing Madison the other day. It’s out of the Library, in, I think, next wing over. Except it had a grasshopper in it?”
Rose disappeared. And reappeared, a huge grin on her face. “Ah, young Grasshopper. Aurora. Mater Matuta. The presiding goddess of the Forum Boarium--”
“Got that right,” Brian interuupted.
“European vacation!” Dora shouted. “The Griswolds are going to Euro-Disney Land!”
“You are one strange girl, Dora,” Charlotte said.
“What? Suddenly you can’t reference Chevy Chase movies?” Dora protested. “Fine. I won’t bring up Fletch, as long as we’re in Rome fighting the Tattered Man in, like five seconds. In the meantime, let me see that book. I wanna look at those illustrations.”