On the other hand. . .
Chapter 4, 49: The Light of Morning Breaks
“Woo-hoo!” Dora yelled. “They’re running!” Dora’s phone was chattering with the semi-familiar sound of the voices of some Philadelphia late night TV news personalities. And that after-midnight cable horror movie host. Who was babbling something about the Goblin Moon breaking through.
Charlotte could sympathise. If it was morning in Rome, it was midnight in Philadelphia, and fighting Takofanes’ hosts under the Red Moon was scary as heck. If the Goblin Moon was replacing the Red in the skies of Philadelphia, that was a sign to everyone in the city that its defenders were winning.
“This just in, we’ve got live footage from the East Side, where the King of Ivory’s forces are in full retreat as Battleline and The Wideway take it to them!” The phone sounded even more excited.
Dora held her phone up. Squinting a bit, Charlotte could make out Jamel pinioning the human form of Black Fang while Kerry Washington gestured magically at him. Charlotte liked Kerry’s outfit. Kerry had actually worn a modified version of the Tatammy fatigues through college, but now that she was an associate at her Dad’s firm (“These days in law, it’s not what you know,” she liked to say at parties, with guilt breaking through the humour, at least as Charlotte read it, “It’s your Daddy getting you a job.”) Kerry’s new outfit was a body suit in a camo-style print that broke up into tribal animal motifs in right-this-minute taupe and hot orange. And she was a top psychic, right up there with her Cousin David in psi wattage, with “power out of the ancient depths.” Right now she was doing the space-eyes thing her younger brother was always trying to pull off, and apparently it had been too much for Takofanes’ werewolf general.
“Hood, represent!” Dora gloated.
“It’s a new day for race relations in Philadelphia,” Twelve said. “Not.”
“Does everything have to be about race to you guys?” Brian asked.
“What is with the denial from you, Brian?” Dora snapped back.
Charlotte waved her friend down. “Oh, come on, Dora, if you can’t say something nice. . Let’s just be glad that Takofanes’ forces are retreating in Philadelphia, and focus on figuring out where the baddies took the swords.” Charlotte’s voice caught at that. She wanted her sword back. And she wanted to know why Auralia had rejected her. It was irrational as heck to be upset about it, but she had to admit it. She was.
“It’s not just Philadelphia,” Bruce growled. “It’s everywhere. Taco’s pulling back.”
“Well, that was mad superheroes he was fighting,” Brian pointed out.
“Dear, The World:” Dora announced, doing her pretend-nice voice. “Please stop trying to make ‘mad’ happen. Hugs and Kisses, Dora. #fetch #hella .”
“You going to keep recycling that joke forever?” Brian asked, sounding annoyed.
“I’m going to keep recycling it ‘till people stop trying to sound cool by using slang that’s just not going to catch on ‘cuz it sounds stupid.”
“What Team Word Police Dora is trying to say, I’m sure,” Bruce continued, “is that obviously this wasn’t Taco’s big push. It was just a diversion, and odds are it was a diversion from the op here in Rome. Now that it’s over, he can stop grinding.”
Charlotte looked around the grotto that they’d discovered under the Casa di Cola di Rienza. You’d think, she thought, that an ancient Atlantean shrine would be more impressive, with mighty columns and marble flagstones, or whatever you called it when they made the floor out of shiny white rocks, and everything like that. This wasn’t it. This was all old and dark and made of old-looking grey stones. It might be impressive to a building-stuff-out-of-stone guy, Charlotte had a suspicion. It was just so neat and well fit together. But who knew? It’s not like they had courses like that in junior high or anything. Ahead was what was apparently the lost ancient Roman altar of the Mater Matuta, the goddess Aurora, and in front of that, the weird, wooden pillar, swelling out into curves in the middle and arching to the ground in two split trunks, which Charlotte had pretty much ruined pulling the sword Auralia out of.
Now, no sword Auralia. No Pearl Harmony Sword. No Tattered Man, no Paradigm Pirates, no Migdalar. All gone, no bye-bye. Charlotte had an idea where they’d gone, but she wasn’t going to waste the team’s time following up on her hunches. Not when she had an ace boy detective in charge of hunches.
“So, Ace Boy Detective? What is this Migdalar mission that they’re blackmailing the Tattered Man into joining?”
“Assassinating Mill, I’m thinking. So they’ve headed back to Babylon, which is why Taco’s down with pulling back here on Earth.”
“Okay,” Charlotte said, “But where?”
“In the Understate, Char Char,” Rose said, firmly. “Mill knows he’s in trouble, so he’s going to head for the Forbidden City, and they’re going to jump him on the road. After Understate 42 goes under the river, after it passes under the boundary of the Forbidden City. He’ll relax his guard there, and that’s when the Migdalar will hit him. The Migdalar, and Varakes Archlich, and their allies within Babylon City Government.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said. “I can see that.”
Mill was going to run to the government for help? There was obviously something she was missing about their street hustler West Side gangbanger buddy. But, hey, that’s why you hung with people who were smarter than you. So you got the benefit. Not that Bruce was smarter than Charlotte, or so he said. He just had a knack for detecting. Or so he said. Charlotte was pretty sure he was full of baloney on that one, just too modest to realise what he had going for him.
Whatevs. Sometimes, it seemed like Bruce had a totally overblown ideas about her. It made Charlotte feel –well, it made her feel different now that they’d almost kissed, back in the Library of Babylon gym. Gosh, she wanted to talk this out with Cousin May, right now. Because it seemed like “different” meant “good.” And that just frightened the heck out of Charlotte. She’d imagined what having a boyfriend was like. She’d imagined it a lot. She’d imagined having Scout as a boyfriend, for example. Dreamed about it, was more like it. But Bruce?
Give your head a shake, girl, she thought. You got business. “Brian? Can that trick with the phone number get us back to Babylon?”
“Uhm, I don’t know, but I can try?”
“Fair enough. Okay, everybody, let’s stand real close to Brian while he do-do that voodoo that he’s going to do so well.”
And, quick as the transition to Rome had been in the first place, they were elsewhere. “Hee,” she heard Dora say, “Car Char said ‘doo-doo.’”
Charlotte looked around her. It was the Esplanade on the banks of the River of Babylon, in front of the Forbidden City. It was dawn here, just like in Rome, when they’d left, because that was the way that Babylon was. A jogger went by, young and muscular and incredibly fit, wearing tight jogging clothes and running like a tribal warrior chasing buffalo.
Charlotte tore her eyes off him. “It’s a song! Okay. Esplanada. How do we get to the Understate from here?”
“Look for a ventilation/emergency shaft.” Rose’s voice had that certainty that said that she knew what she was talking about. Even if sometimes she cheated and used it when she was pulling stuff out of her butt. “We’re . . . three hundred meters south of the east gate of the Chrysophase, should be some kind of covering structure right there.” Rose pointed at what looked like a tiny little ancient Greek temple just up the esplanade.
Her finger-pointing direction, Charlotte noted, went through a clutter of yummie mommies pushing expensive strollers and carrying walking-around coffee in those Styrofoam cups that companies that wanted you to think that they were way more exclusive than Starbucks gave out.
Because of course there were Starbucks in Babylon. In fact, the only reason they weren’t on every corner in Babylon was that there was so much else that wanted to be on the corners of the City of Man.
Great, thought Charlotte. Yummy mommies sucked as much as their nickname. If a bunch of teen supers went pushing through them on their way to save the world, it would serve them right if their perfectly gelled short ‘cuts got messed up, on account of their having their lives so together.
Except that other people had that idea, as a cluster of what looked like college kids wearing black matching shirts and pants with “Junior Leader Programme” blazoned on the back of the shirt. It wasn’t that they were being rude. It was that they were hustling. On the flank of the group, three of them were actually jogging to keep up on the wheel, and the short Asian girl in that group was moving faster than anyone should be able to jog.
“Why isn’t there a Junior Follower Programme?” Twelve asked.
“Because it would be for losers?” Dora asked.
“In this world, most of us are going to end up followers. That’s the programme we need.”
“And you approve of that?” Bruce asked.
“No! I disapprove of leaders! Sorry, Charlotte. Self-appointed leaders. Programmes like that one—“ Twelve gestured at the oblivious college kids, “Teach them to expect the rewards of leadership, not the duty of its practice. Truth is, most of the time and for most purposes, social groups not only should make their choices collectively, but actually do. When you see how the world’s screwed up, and you know that the purpose of institutions is to do what they do, that’s when you realise that you have to reject leadership before you can have a better world. Be a follower. Together. And change the world.”
“This is the part where he starts talking about global warming,” Dora announced to the air.
“Well! It’s important!”
“No politics!” Dora announced. And launched herself at her boyfriend. Or, it looked like, her mouth at her boyfriend’s mouth.
Bruce stepped in between them. “Dora, before you go tree climbing, maybe some perspective? We’ve got evil to fight. You can kiss your communist later. And thank him for shutting you up so that the rest of us can get in some good lines. Heck, Rose is gonna be cracking jokes next.”
“Hee,” Brian said. “He said ‘tree-climbing?’” Brian looked around, trying to look embarrassed. “What? I don’t have much practice at this comic relief stuff. Figured I’d steal Dora’s line and work my way up.”
In front of her bickering friends, Charlotte tried to push through the knot of Moms with trailers and Junior Leader Programmers. Considering that a superhero in a black-and-white cowl was trying to get through the crowd, they seemed pretty calm, looking towards another cluster of random people coming around the temple-exit-building-thingie. Well, random except for the fact they seemed way too well-put together for dawn-in-the-morning.
In the middle of the clutter, one guy put his violin case down and began to play something familiar.
Charlotte tried to edge around them, heading for the little temple structure, but now there were even more people coming down the esplanade. By now she was close enough to see the big, emergency-type doors. Nice. She figured it had to be locked from this side, of course, because you didn’t want random people wandering onto the Understate.
Charlotte was seriously thinking about putting the elbow into the small cracks between way too many people, Hong Kong-style (awesomest Spring Break ever!), when she heard a tinkle of change on change from behind her.
A chill, incomprehensible, went down Charlotte’s back. She looked back. One of the yummy mommies had thrown change into the violin case, and then stopped to fish something out of her case.
It was a violin, of course. She started playing it, the same familiar tune as the first violinist. The other yummy mommies had by this time formed a semi-circle around the two performers, looking like people who were waiting for Something Important to happen. One of them even pulled her baby out of the stroller and began dancing the baby, who was dressed in an adorable pink jumper, by her chubby little arms.
Two of the Junior Leaders stepped up. The little Asian girl had produced some kind of mouth-blowing thing from somewhere, and now a third one came up on the esplanade from a ramp down into the plaza in front of the Technical University, pushing some kind of drum. But by this time more “random” passersby were congregating from all directions. More and more instruments were joining the performance, which was even more familiar to Charlotte now.
Bruce stepped beside her. “Flash mob,” he spat out, mouth grim. Another group of “random” passersby formed up in a group and began to sing, Classical style.
“I never thought anyone in Babylon could be so evil,” Charlotte said, trying for lightness. Truth was, she only found flash mobs annoying, not evil. But still. Not her business. They just had to get to the Understate.
Except that now there were a couple of police on Segways gathered around the emergency exit. Charlotte elbowed over to them. “Hey, officers. We’ve got information about an emergency on the Understate, right below here.”
The nearest officer looked at her through frosted sunglasses that seemed ridiculously too dark for the dawn’s light. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. We can’t have people opening up restricted accessways. They’re restricted for a reason.”
“But this is an emergency! We have to get down there.”
“We’ve no information about an emergency on the Understate, Ma’am,” said the second officer.
“There will be soon!”
“As soon as we have confirmation of that by dispatch, we will open the accessway for you, Ma’am,” said the third officer.
“It’ll be too late!” Charlotte protested. “Why not just let us in now?” From the corner of her eye, Charlotte saw the Junior Leaders Programme Junior Leader step out in front of the group and begin conducting. He had the giant, oversized gestures of every self-important conductor ever, but mainly he reminded her of her band teacher, plucking and gesturing through “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and “Oh, Canada.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” said the first officer. “A bystander might be hurt!”
“It’s a flash mob!” Charlotte said. “There are no bystanders! It’s all a put-up!” Too late, she realised that she probably sounded a little angrier than she ought.
Yet another person stepped around the emergency exit, so short that Charlotte could only see his legs through gaps and spaces for a moment. Her legs.
Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre. She looked at Charlotte. “Tone, young lady! If you have a point, it will not suffer from maintaining an appropriate tone. If, on the other hand, you are being hysterical again. . .“ The librarian’s voice trailed off, dangerously.
“But you were kidnapped!” Charlotte protested, weakly.
“Appearances can be misleading. I have been attempting to secure the city’s legacy from reckless misuse. And, now that that is well in hand, we can all enjoy some music in a culturally uplifting setting.”
Behind them, the choral voices soared in triumph.
Charlotte tensed. If this came to a fight—
Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre jerked a thumb at the sky. Charlotte’s eye was drawn up. A police zeppelin had floated up from the still gloomy west. A turret, hanging ponderously from the gondola, flicked back and forth with an apparently randomness that somehow suggested that it was just this close to opening fire on the Tatammy team.
“It sure would be shame if some of these random bystanders caught a rubber bullet shot hard enough to affect a superhero,” one of the officers said. His mouth broke into a smirk for just a second as he said it, before reverting to I-don’t-care calm.
Message received, Charlotte thought. The police, and Director Nazfre, had hostages. And even if they were flash mobbers, they were still people.
Besides, attitude. Babies and kids didn’t know that their parents were taking them to some dumb old flash mob event. Well, maybe the kids did, considering that they had to be up at 4 in the morning to get there, but at least the babies were innocent.
“Well, at least this’ll end in a minute,” Dora said, coming up to her right. The officers stared back, while Director Nazfre, without even saying good-bye, apparently decided that the conversation was over, and turned her back.
“It’ll end once Mill has,” Bruce announced.
“Yeah. This has been pretty obviously set up to cover the ambush,” Rose said.
“What do we do about it?” Charlotte asked, exasperated, tense, angry.
“Relax and enjoy the music,” Rose said. “Everyone’s coming to see it.” She pointed.
A gigantic balloon man was bobbing its way up the esplanade, multiple cords held by –mimes?—each struggling with their tie down, even though there didn’t seem to be that much wind to make the ballon man dance. Actually, it almost looked like the balloon was moving on its own.