Saturday, August 15, 2015

Chapter 4, 51: Cheap Trick

"I Want You to Want Me--" The song of the summer of 1975. Admittedly, Charlotte had other things on her mind that summer, but the kind of things that made music more important to her than ever.

Chapter 4, 50: Cheap Trick

On the top of the tan SUV behind her, Charlotte could hear Bruce winding up to the big finish to “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” a song that Charlotte recognised mainly because Bruce kept playing it on his phone during cricket trips.

He was good, of course, because, as he’d always remind you with that disgusted look on his face, his family was good at everything. It was a weird kind of superpower that wasn’t a power, but Charlotte was always glad to have Bruce at her back.

Right now, whatever his plan for defeating mind-control Migdalar zombies was, it was working. As far as Charlotte could see in the vast, traffic-snarled underground freeway of the Understate, cars and trucks were trapped and stopped, and pallid, rag-clothed mind-controlled zombies were stopped, and swaying to the music, instead of advancing towards the bread truck in front of her, or, worse, trying to break into the cars in which terrified commuters were cowering.

Except for right round Charlotte, where the hipsters had climbed up onto their roofs and were dancing. Ironically. If that was a thing. Was doing the Charleston to 80s power rock ironic? Was doing the Charleston ironic, period? Because, either way, a guy in a goatee and a button up sweater vest was doing the Charleston on the top of a horse trailer just ahead in a girl wearing a hippy-inspired, white translucent blouse with long, lacy tails danling down halfway over her butt. 

Charlotte was almost tempted to stop in the middle of her mission to look back over her rear and tryi to figure out if she could pull of the look. She liked it, but you had to be pretty confident you had it going on. 

Something to think about, anyway. After she checked out the guy in the bread truck. She’d check the poor horse in the trailer, which should never have been taken down into the Understate, except that she hadn’t been born yesterday.

Well, to be fair, she had. Fifteen-and-a-half years of yesterday (also plus time travel), but enough so she had a lot to learn about the world around her. Like, why Bruce picked that song. Point was, if a horse trailer showed up in the middle of the action, Charlotte had a lively suspicion about just which horse was in there, being all clever, getting ready to save the day, Tuxedo Mask style. 

Boys. The could be like that. All swaggering and cocky and asking you out when they didn’t have a chance. That was her horse, Telus. Well, not asking her out. That would be gross. Problem was, there were also the boys who never asked you out. Sometimes not the shy ones, not the ones who were probably gay, of which Charlotte had already had her fill of longing for; the broody ones, the ones who seemed to know something you didn’t, something bad.

Bruce, put it that way. 

Charlotte eyed the trailer one more time, tried to think through her gaze, “If you’re not liking it, you got yourself in there.” Then she landed on top of the bread truck cab, going down on her knees to poke her head in through the driver’s side window.

“Hey! I think I found Tupac Shakur,” she said, in her most casual voice.

“Very funny ,Char Char,” Mill said. “Now hang for a sec while I come up.”

In hardly longer than the promised second, Mill was standing next to Charlotte on the cab. 

The tall street hustler, who really did look just like Tupac Shakur (only taller) put his hands over his eyes to shade the glare of the lights overhead and pivoted on his heel to take in the scene. “So what’s your friend’s plan?” He asked.

“Well, he figured that the Shadow Cabinet would try to assassinate you here, and he figured they’d hired the Migdalar to do it, and he wanted to take the zombies away, so he rigged speakers up on the roof. He said he was planning to have some of our psionic buddies for the job, and that the music would just be icing on the cake. We don’t, as it happens, but Brian’s got a utility spell, and the music is working better than he expected.”

“Part of the Shadow Cabinet,” Mill said, firmly. “The ones’re pissing themselves so they’re jazzed that Isvatha V’han’s trying to take over here. You friend really figure out their whole plan?”

Charlotte gave Mill a sarcastic look. “What is this? A comic book, or reality? No, he’s been working his ass of for a month setting up who-knows-how-many traps exactly like this one. This is the one that worked out.”

“Sort of worked out.” Mill gestured at the nearest zombies. They were shuffling, uneasily. “Need an encore.” Mill held up a mike and knocked the head, dropped a beatbox, which had appeared from nowhere, on the roof of the cab. The reverb came from all round the tunnel, a wall of sound. 

“You’re going to drop some?” Charlotte asked, astonished. This was going to be the coolest thing that ever happened to her.

“Maybe. If I have to. First, though, you’re going to do a set.”



“I don’t know any songs!”

“Yes you do.”

“I’ve got no music.”

Mill put his foot on the beatbox. “Now that I’ll handle.”

“This is racist! I mean, black artist playing backup for. . .”

“No,” Mill said, “It’s educational. Kid getting a chance to show her stuff with her mentor there to back her up.” He stuck the mike in Charlotte’s face. “No pressure, but millions of lives are at stake. Just sayin’.”

Did Charlotte just imagine that this was going to be the coolest thing ever? Try most embarrassing. She took the mike because it was in her face, said, “I—“ And stopped, as the mike sucked it in and the sound system laid it right back down. And Charlotte knew what she had to sing, what she had to say, what she had to holla back.

“I want you to want me/I need you to need me. . .” It was time for some Cheap Trick.

Without hesitation, Mill was putting a backup track into the sound system, spinning . It took Bruce a moment to get into it, but then he came in with the base guitar parts; and Ms. Grey had spent enough time on the drum spell that Brian had it cold. 

Halfway in, the hipsters gave up on the whole ironic thing and began to groove. Charlotte was vaguely aware that she was dancing, too. Look at me, world, I’m a diva! 

And as the music died away and she came back to herself, Charlotte saw that the zombies were zombies no longer. Half were dancing, and half were collapsed on the concrete, crying.

“Not bad for white girl music,” Mill said.

“Not white,” Charlotte said. “I can see the confusion, though. That’s trailer trash music.”

“Thought that was country.”

“Whatever,” Charlotte answered, rolling her eyes. 

And then Mill was sucked into the sky so quickly even Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon reflexes couldn’t respond.

Above them, half way to the high ceiling, there was a disc of light. On it stood Professor Paradigm in his weird armour, with Mill floating in midair in front of him wrapped in multi-coloured bands of light. Eve, Mario and Madison Chung stood around him on the platform. Eve was holding glowing swords in both hands: Auralia with her right hand, the Pearl Harmony Sword in the other. Instead of her standard animal print bikini, she was wearing a heavy Medieval-style frock-thingie, shapeless and tied at the middle with a rope. She stuck her tongue out at Charlotte, but her eyes were ruined and haunted.

Madison was having no conflict though. “Loser,” she spat, throwing a chaos blast that Charlotte dodged easily. She also hadn’t lost her fashion lack-of-sense. Her white leather pants were back, this time worn with bondage pumps wrapped and strapped six different ways over her open toes, and a white leather strapped bustier that looked like it has been cut from January Jones’ wardrobe in X-Men: First Class for being too cheap. Charlotte had to force herself not to not even think another word. 

Professor Paradigm looked down at her. Literally instead of just figuratively, the way he usually did. “I really do regret this, Miss Wong. Your ambition to protect innocent life, however dubious, is really admirable. I just cannot let it stand in the way of the instantiation of a reality-based worldview. And idealist that I am, I can hardly overlook the way in which the rewards that some are willing to pay for this man’s life will contribute to that end. And to the overthrow of people so evil that they would buy a man’s death. And before you object, young lady, the irony does not escape me. I escape you, to be sure. Just not irony.”

Charlotte had dealt with, like, three, four master villains in the last year? Paradigm was the only one who followed the part in the script where you tried to talk the heroes to death. That was because he really liked the sound of his voice. Charlotte was more interested in handing him his ass.

Which was why, even after he finished, she was vaulting to the ground as Telus came smashing out of the back of the trailer. Charlotte, bounding, caught him in mid-air, swinging into the saddle as Telus’s powerful hinds threw him onto the roof of the bread truck. 

Weight, nothing. It caved behind them as Telus took to the air, soaring towards the platform. See your flying horse do this, Dora, Charlotte thought. 

Professor Paradigm screamed an unintelligible swear as he jerked the platform as hard as he could, throwing Madison to the tilting platform, while Mario hovered off the floor and Eve stood straight, as though the swords were putting her on her own little reality. 

Unfortunately, the move was fast enough that Charlotte and Telus missed the platform. By the time they touched ground, it was already a hundred meters down the tunnel. Dora and Twelve, sparking, were flying after it, while Brian had conjured a –broomstick? What was this, Harry Potter?—and was flying after, while Bruce made up the rear, swinging from lines attached to the roof in a way that let you know that in the real world, swinging was a heck of a lot scarier than Spider-Man made it look. Ahead, Charlotte could see Rose, speeding along the rooftops, about to get herself in trouble, as usual.

Not if I can help it, Charlotte thought, squeezing Telus’ flanks, although he hardly needed it to start off down the Understate, jumping cars like it was Teen Ranch steeplechase. And speaking of Rose getting in over her head and needing bailing, where was the Dark Ninja in all this?

It was a question that was answered a moment later, when the platform exploded in smoke and flames ahead of them. The Dark Ninja appeared on it. With her Eight Dragon Spirit hearing, Charlotte could follow the conversation. 

“You can’t kill Mill, Professor. It’s wrong.”

“Are you questioning me, Michael? Without me, you’d be stuck in the Special class, eating glue and cutting paper circles with safety scissors.”

“It’s wrong,” Michael Snow repeated, “And you’re mean. If I have to be in your class to have friends, then I guess I’m not going to have friends.” With the speed that surprised everyone who dealt with his massive bulk, Michael snatched Mill, glowing bands and all, and jumped to the ground below, landing in a cushioning updraft created by Rose as she ran a tight circle below. 

Charlotte was with them a moment later, as the platform came closer, with Mario leading, heading towards Charlotte with an angry expression in his face, his sword leading. As usual, Mario had a problem with not using lethal force. 

Charlotte got ready, thinking through her moves. Three-Tusk Boar would probably do, adapted to being on horseback and for a flying enemy. If she pulled it off right, Mario would be crashing into the wall of the Understate in a moment. Or his sword would be. With any luck, the darn thing would break. On the other hand, with bad luck, it would go right through her.

Charlotte really missed the Pearl Harmony Sword at times like this. And it was right there! Above her, clenched in Eve’s hands. Which, now that she thought about it, probably meant that Eve wasn’t actually evil. Hunh. Who would have thought it?

Fortunately, Charlotte didn’t have to try the Three-Tusk move, because Twelve caught Mario in mid-air for Archon-clone-on-Archon-clone Grudge Rematch Number One Billion. Charlotte hoped it went okay for Twelve. It wasn’t like he’d grown the six inches Mario had on him in the last six hours, either. 

In the meantime, Charlotte jumped Telus again, this time hitting the platform cleanly. Whatever spell Professor Paradigm was trying to weird-science-up fizzled as the big horse’s chest smashed into his armour, and Charlotte reached over to grab the Pearl Harmony Sword. Only to run into some kind of smooth, invisible force field protecting Eve.

Or maybe it was that alternate reality thing, for real. Anyway, Charlotte had just a moment of being distracted, enough for Madison to finally hit with a chaos blast. 

Which was exactly the way Charlotte saw it. Because it turned out that when you were hit by a chaos blast, it really, really hurt, the kind of hurt where you were put out of your own brain and it was like you were watching it on TV. Reminded Charlotte of having her arm broken, actually, that time she fought Eve in the control room of the Drindrian spaceship. 

Charlotte felt herself tumbling out of the saddle, landing heavily, on her knees. Madison was right above her, her hands glowing. 

Crap. And yet, Charlotte had never been closer to Madison, never seen the poor girl’s crazy eyes more square, never looked deeper into that mixed-up brain of hers. They said that bipolar was caused by an unbalance in some of the same chemicals that caused hunger. You could imagine, looking into those glaring eyes, what it must be like to have that re-hot anger that took hold of you when you were hungry, all the time, never getting itself sorted out. 

Or maybe that wasn’t what was going on in there. Point was, Charlotte wanted to know, to share, to . . . sing the same song. And with that thought, in the moment before Madison loosed the killing chaos blast, Charlotte’s left hand went out, and, somehow, pulled the Pearl Harmony Sword from out of the nowhere-somewhere it had been a moment ago. 

With a flick of her wrist, Charlotte deflected the blast, and cross the flat of her sword –Her sword!—across Madison’s forehead. The hot, angry lights went out in the girl’s head as she collapsed into unconsciousness.

Speaking of, Eve finally toppled from her weird erectness that had survived every manoeuvre of the rocking paradigm. “She has her sword back, Daddy. I didn’t mean to fail you again.” And then she strted crying.

“It’s really hard to feel triumphant when winning makes a girl cry, Bruce,” Charlotte said as he dropped to the platform beside her. 

“Yeah. It’s going to get worse when I call her Daddy out,” Bruce answered.

“He’s around? What? Is he going to backstab Professor Paradigm and Varakes like he did Sovereign? ‘Cuz I don’t think that’d work out as well for him as he thinks.”

“No,” Bruce said. “It’s another part of his plans that are coming undone. Want to talk about my musical selections, Noatar?”

Down on the ground, the shimmering that was the real-world as well as movie special-effect way that an invisibility screen appeared right next to the Dark Ninja. Almost casually, Noatar, or, as the kids knew him, Fang, reached out and lifted Mill from a surprised Michael Snow’s arms. 

Looking up, he said, “I don’t think I follow, boy.” His voice boomed, utterly unlike the mind-echoing stillness of the City of Silence. 

Bruce looked down at him. “You know exactly what I mean. I may not know exactly how important Charlotte and me getting together is to your crazy eugenic plan to stop the Shining Darkness, but I’ve got you figured out.”

“I’m impressed. Detective.” Noatar answered.

And all Charlotte could think was. Bruce. And Her. Getting together. What?

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