This installment dedicated to the what-drugs-were-they-on architects who originally designed the Woodwards Food Floor at the Oakridge Centre Mall in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Book 8, Chapter 18: Breaking Bulk in a Loading Dock
Rosa’s upper air lock onto a metal balcony that ran around the top of the underground hangar. It was dim, it was cold, and it was kind of scary. She extended her senses. Nothing. The space around her was as empty as the interstellar void that Rosa swam.
Well, not actually. There was dust, and humidity, and the little, computerised motes that communicated with Rosa and made up the complex’s security system. But it made for a good analogy.
Charlotte moved to the left. There was a door set in the wall, with the same dual-swipe security hatch that all the other outside doors in the complex had. She crouched in front of it, tugging a little at her costume as she did so. “Crouching tiger” pose wasn’t really a thing, as the crouching tiger is a metaphor for the weighty things of life that were invisible to the eye, but, right now, Charlotte wanted to be invisible.
There was something exciting about being on the hunt, knowing that you had the advantage, that you knew the other guy was there, and they didn’t. It was exhilarating, but also dangerous, because the tables might be turned at any minute, might already have been.
Bruce crouched down beside her. He held his phone out so that Charlotte could see that he was looking through the crappy fish-eye cameras of a store security system. Two big semi-trucks were backed up against a loading dock, crammed and piled with stacks of stuff. From another camera, she could see the wall of the loading dock, obscured behind skids of groceries. Set somewhere in those walls were the secret doors to the hangar.
In the cameras, a man went by, driving a cargo streak pulling a pallet stacked high with plastic crates of milk. He gave no sign that he was right next to a pair of sky pirates from an alternate reality.
Charlotte couldn’t see them, either. “Where are the blue guys?” She asked.
Bruce touched the screen on the left side of the screen showing the wall, just beside the open arch leading from the loading bay into the rest of the Price Rite, and the Panther Heights Mall, beyond. The screen de-pixilated, and there were the two blue men, in their helmets, harnesses and loin clothes, trying to quietly dismantle a mixed-up stack of soda pop and boxes of groceries of every shape and size.
“They’re right,” Bruce said. “There’s a door into the hangar set in the wall. They’re sure to find it eventually.”
Charlotte drew the Pearl Harmony Sword an inch, then clicked it back into its scabbard. “Too bad we can’t just come bursting out of and arrest them.”
Bruce nodded. Obviously they couldn’t. That would just tell the pirates they were looking in the right place. The team had to come at the pirates from behind, like they were responding to an alert.
Bruce changed the image on his screen. Now it was a congested space, full of columns of metal ducts, five feet high and criss-crossed by lattices of pipes that broke it up into even smaller cells. Aluminum rat-trap boxes lay on the ground here and there, and it looked like the pest control guy was the only one who’d been up there in years, from the way that dirt and grime lay on everything.
“Eww,” Charlotte said.
“Yeah, well that’s what you get for wanting your milk cold,” Bruce said. “The Freon gas has to get up to the rooftop condensers some way.” He touched the screen showing the wall of the loading bay, and it zoomed in on a little loft on the far right hand side, at the other end of the bay from the pirates, who were still trying to move stacks of groceries without being spotted by the employees and truck drivers who occasionally walked through the bay. The loft was closed off from the front with chicken wire, except where a wooden ladder from the floor allowed the pest control guy to get up there.
“So we’re going to go through this door,” Charlotte said, “We’re going to try to get through this loft without getting our uniforms dirty, and then we’re going to go down the wall, into the loading bay, spread out, and then it’s, like, “Avengers Assemble,” and at them.”
Bruce nodded. “That’s what Rosa said we should do.”
“Rose? Civilians out of the way?”
Rose crouched beside her. “I’ve talked to the store manager. We don’t want to alert the bad guys, but the moment you signal, he and the assistants are going to close off the loading bay from the store side. He hasn’t done any superheroeing in thirty years and he’s way out of shape, but he’s got a very big gun, which has to count for something. Dark Ninja’ll be there in a few minutes, at which point he’ll have solid backup. Hopefully they’ll be too distracted by us to try to knock down the blast doors. Be a bit of a surprise to the employees when those things spin shut!”
“Okay,” Charlotte nodded. “Not ideal, but we work with what we’ve got. Who are we fighting?”
Rose spread her fingers to focus on the belts of the blue pirates. “As we thought, they’re sky pirates of the White Fleet of Aphasium on the Old World. That’s the fleet that Rafaella King’s Dad raised, and that her uncle usurped. The crests on the belt are of the Fourth and Twelfth Swords of Aphasium, so they’re pretty good –probably the best Aphasian fighters to swear their swords to Subadur Luke. Given that, they’ve probably been in Philadelphia before, when the White Fleet raided here two years ago, and they’re probably looking for Rafaella.”
“Hunh.” Bruce stroked his chin, pretend-pondering. “Martial artist girl with a sword, carries it in an umbrella sheath, leads a team of teen superheroes?”
“You think they’re after me because they’ve mistaken me for Rafaella,” Charlotte said. It wasn’t a question, because it wasn’t a new theory. “Don’t they know that blue is so not my colour?”
“They may not be up on Earth fashions. The Old World is just about as far from our Earth as it’s possible to be in this Assiatic band, and in the Earth sheath.”
“Meaning?” Charlotte asked.
“That they have about the same amount of magic and high technology as we do, that their universe has about the same cosmology as ours does, meaning that their Earth ought to be a lot like ours, and that if it isn’t, it’s because of historical changes way, way back in time.”
“How far back?” Charlotte asked.
“Put it this way: the dinosaur dimensions are closer to us than the Old World.”
“There are dinosaur dimensions?” Brian asked. “Why aren’t we there right now?”
“Because they’re boring,” Dora answered. “All fern and pine jungle, and you won’t spot a single dinosaur from the ground in hours of trying to crash through the undergrowth, unless a big old tyrannosaur pops its head down and tries to eat you. Unless they’re intelligent dinosaurs, in which case they’ll find you and have a conversation that goes slower than trying to text with an old. Cold blooded, you know?”
“I thought they were actually warm blooded?” Brian said.
“Actually, neither concept is very useful when you come to terrestrial animals that size,” Rose said. “But their metabolisms are slower than mammal metabolisms, and talking to intelligent dinosaurs usually is a pretty slow process. According to what I’ve read. Dora’s probably gone there on vacation, so she’d be the one to ask.”
“Uh-oh,” Bruce said. O the screen, one of the pirates had been able to reach the wall, and was running his hand across the smooth concrete, looking for the hidden mechanism of the door that his sensors suggested was there.
“Fun Dinosaur Learning Time is adjourned for today. Brian?”
“Cloaking spell is go,” Brian said.
Charlotte swiped her card in the slot, followed by Bruce. It swung open, and she hurried through the loft as quickly as she could, and not without brushing her cheek on something icky before she got to the edge of the loft.
“Patience is a virtue, and virtue is a grace, and Grace is a little girl, who wouldn’t wash her face,” Bruce said, beside her.
Charlotte looked over at Bruce, who had a giant poster of Grace Kim on his bedroom ceiling. “Point?”
He flushed, “You’ve got a smear on your cheek. It’s cute.” Then he flushed even harder, like he was about to go nuclear from embarrassment. Something inside Charlotte smirked, while another part of her was able to not get too upset at the fact that she was about to go into battle with a big old grease smear on her right cheek. Because if Bruce thought it was cute, that . . . mattered.
Why did life have to be so complicated? Well, for one thing, because there had to be something that going into battle was the cure for. Charlotte straight dropped off the edge of the loft, taking the momentum of the twenty foot fall with a forward roll only because she didn’t want to waste it.
Another half roll, and she was down on the floor of the bay, between the two trailers, headed towards the big, roll up doors of the bays. Where to, now? She looked at her phone.
Brian: Strt thru doors; only illusions since 3 min
Okay, Charlotte thought, nice trick. Walking through a wall is always a bit of a leap of faith, and she couldn’t help waving her hand in the space where the door should be, before she walked through it.
Outside, on the wet, sand-gritty pavement of the ramp leading down to the doors of the Price Rite loading dock. A lonely truck, parked at the corner, was waiting its turn to dock.
“And now we come bursting through like the cavalry,” Charlotte summarised, as her team joined her.
“And if we want to avoid any further trouble with the White Fleet,” everyone should focus on not calling Charlotte, ‘Rafaella.’” Bruce said.
“What? Can’t I be gay for you, Char Char?” Dora asked.
Charlotte looked at her friend. Who, incredibly, blushed, while her boyfriend looked on in stony disapproval.
“Sorry, thought I could pull that off. Anyway, my cousin is dating Rafaella, so. . . “
Rose cocked her head. “Actually, having two needfire-wielders, no matter how different the manifestation, in the two teams, probably isn’t helping.”
“You’re not helping!” Dora answered, fiercely.
“Guys, girls, we’ve got cavalry charging to do!” With that, Charlotte grabbed the knob of the fire exit door. It was unlocked. She threw it open, and walked back into the loading bay. “Free Brothers of the White Fleet,” she boomed in her loudest, most paladin-y voice, “Surrender! You are surrounded and outnumbered, and will be treated according to the Usages of the Wide Ways!” Wow, she thought. Sky pirates sure were pompous.
The loading bay boomed as the massive, questionite metal door that probably not a single employee even knew was there suddenly spun into place to block off the lbay from the store.
Blue pirates appeared on the rim of the bay. Only now there were twelve of them, not two. The one in the middle, the one Charlotte recognised as the Fourth Sword of Aphasium, put his hands to his hips and threw back his head, exactly like Errol Flynn. “Outnumbered, I think not. Surrender yourselves, and give over the renegade who claims to be sired out by our Subadar-General, the late, the mighty, Raider of Worlds, and it is you will be treated according to the Usages of the Wide Ways.”
Charlotte felt, rather than saw, her team gather at her back. “Unfortunately, your rightful captain is a whisper in the winds of Babylon. The conquering feet have not touched this Earth. We cannot give you what you want.”
The Fourth Sword drew his blade. “And then you may die, as lying dirt-flesh!” He did not so much as leap off the lip of the dock onto the concrete of the bay, as disappear from the upper level and reappear on the bottom. But there was no mistaking his movement when he seemed to invert gravity by ninety degrees and run along the trailer’s vertical walls towards them. “White Fleet and Freedom,” he yelled.
“White Fleet and Freedom!” The other eleven pirates yelled, as they spread out along the roofs of the trailers. Unlike their swordsmen leader, they drew pistols from their belts.
Twelve, flying to the level of the trailer roofs, caught the first pistol blast. It threw him across the loading bay to crash into a concrete pillar, still surrounded by a ember-red glow, whose edges were barely tinged by the gold of the needfire.
Oops. Charlotte jumped, hammered the left trailer with a kick, and spun her body up to kick off the right trailer with both legs. Momentarily horizontal to the ground, she met the onrushing Fourth Sword’s flurry of strikes and parries with her own block, and parry, riposte, and. . .
Damn. Charlotte dropped to the ground, the red sting of the cut to her shoulder all too present in her mind.
“That’s enough of that,” Bruce said, as his climbing line coiled around the Fourth Sword’s ankle, and he pulled with all his might.
On a cut string, since the Fourth Sword’s blade had already lashed out to cut the cord without losing a position in his duel with Charlotte. Before Bruce could even react, in another reverse, the Fourth Sword brought his hilt down on Bruce’s head.
“Bruce!” Charlotte said, as her team-mate crumpled. Oh, this was bad.