|Of course people ride their bikes in Philadelphia in January. You know, the crazy people!|
And because Charlotte references it, and you know the kids today, with their unironic love of 70s pop.
Book 5, 22: Slimy Tentacles: A Post Valentine’s Review
Across the gray pavement of the square in the middle of Vale of the Thin Mountains, a slimy, writhing tentacle made a bulging move at Charlotte.
Yeah, Charlotte thought, that’s just a little obvious. She jumped, pivoted in mid-air, came down on point just to enjoy her incredible new boots, with the built in gyros so that she could do do that kung fu that she did so well in high heels.
It’s funny, she made fun at herself, because it rhymes. In Charlotte’s mind, explaining obvious jokes made them funny. She couldn’t always get that across to her friends, though.
Whatever. The Pearl Harmony Sword came down where the tentacle had ended up, severing the rubbery, gray pseudo-flesh of the anicon, the weird robot-thingie that the Valites used to harvest the bottom of the planet (where the air was too thick too breathe.) There was a reason she was having trouble taking this seriously.
“So, like,” Charlotte announced to the air, “Remember how, after the holidays, every class was a repeat of what we learned last year? Adverbs and stuff, the rules of geometry? This feels like that. Tentacles in review.”
A tentacle reared in the air, began to wrap itself around Dora’s waist, until a blade of golden light severed it and sent it rocking and sliding and falling to the ground. Well, not really the ground, because Vale floated in mid air. So groundish. “Yeah. We totally needed a slimy tentacle session, because there’s like, a million jokes that I probably can’t tell without getting in trouble with certain prudes around here.”
“Hey! Charlotte’s ears are blushing,” Brian said from above, where he was floating and throwing spells.
“I don’t get it,” Rose stopped her blurring motion to say. “We’ve never fought tentacles before, so how can it be review?”
“Well,” Charlotte said, “My brother did, and he told me all about it.”
A writhing mass of tentacles suddenly exploded as Twelve flexed his muscles out from it. “But not us,” he pointed out.
“Actually,” Bruce announced, coolly pinning a central tentacle to the pavement with a crossbow bolt, “He did debrief us. Weird, Chthulhuesque tentacle-thingies in an alternate Philadelphia that was contaminated by Three Mile Island radiation.”
“Oh!” Dora said. “That explains it! That’s where Chris and Kumi got all sweet. No wonder Charlotte won’t talk about it!”
“Yeah, can we drop it?” Bruce asked.
Charlotte. In spite of herself, felt a wave of gratitude. She had no idea what she could even say about the thought of her brother and his stinky girlfriend off being romantic on some other dimension, kissing on some abandoned rooftop while horrible menaces gathered round them.
Kissing. Just the thought made Charlotte remember Scout’s strong arms wrapped around her, his full lips on hers, his eyes, the night. Not that she ever forgot.
“She’s got to—“ Rose began.
“And you and Michael?” Bruce interrupted.
“I—“ Rose began. “Okay. Okay. I’m not being fair to you guys, and I need to talk this out. But you boys might want to cover your ears, because this is going to get all relation-shippy. You know how—“
A massive presence suddenly dropped into the middle of the square. It was the Sixteenth Sword of Vale, holding a long spear. Old fashioned, with a sharp metal butt spike. She held it like it was a kayak paddle, ready for action at either end. A churning turn showed that that was no illusion. Severed tentacles began to rain down. “Are you kids going to chat about boys all day?”
“Hey, don’t look at me. I got no time for relationships while there’s night to be avenged,” Bruce protested. “So much for the tentacles.”
Charlotte gave Bruce a long, hard glare at that, but he didn’t seem to notice. And, truth to tell, she was impressed at how quick it had been. There might be fifteen better swords in Vale alone than the Sixteenth Sword, but she was very good with a spear. Hmm, Charlotte thought. Hmm.
Rose reappeared, dragging something thick and oblong and black-gray and rubbery. “Here’s one of the anicon control units. Now we find out who was behind this, right?”
The Sixteenth Sword bent over it, touched it. An inspection panel sprang open. “No, unfortunately, we don’t. There’s an anonymizer in here. All we can tell is who this anicon was registered to, and I’ll bet five lakhs the owner will have reported it hijacked this morning. That’s how smuggling scams work, so I guess it’s no surprise that it’s how an assassination would work.”
But you will investigate, right,” Bruce asked. “From the look of things, Professor Paradigm, our enemy from our home dimension set this up. And we would really like to know why. Like, whatever your boss said, I’m not convinced that Auralia isn’t hidden in your temple.”
“The Beadle-Prodomus is not my boss, but he was not lying about the temple. Yes, I will investigate this matter, and perhaps discover who arranged for this. But I can hardly pass on my results.”
“Oh, sure you can,” Charlotte said. “Just let Rafaella know.” Actually, Charlotte had no idea if the Sixteenth Sword had any contacts amongst the conspirators of the White Fleet who were backing Rafaella King’s attempt to take over from her uncle as the Subadar-Captain. “Or ask the Second Sword to do it.” But she had a very lively suspicion that the Second Sword of Vale was all over it. Just like the Fourth Sword of Aphasium. The guy the Second Sword had the super-obvious, requited crush on.
Charlotte tried not to smile at that with her face. With all the mega-messed-up relationships going on, it felt good to be a matchmaker on one that could work.
The Sixteenth Sword paused. At last, “Yes, we will pass any leads we get on through that channel. Now, my duties to my city call. You must return to your home dimension before you can be a burden on Vale.”
Just like Charlotte had tried not to smile a moment ago, now she tried not to roll her eyes at that crack. Either they were being called a bunch of hobos, or a bunch of kids out on the town with no allowance to spend. It reminded her of getting the eye from the drug store owner while hanging out with her friends in downtown Hope, in the old days.
This was the second place they’d got the same crap, after the 31st Century, and Charlotte was getting a bit tired of it. Problem was, being not-nice, well, it wasn’t nice, and there was enough day-ruining crap in the world that everyone’s job ought to be to take a share of it away. She just wished that other people felt the same way.
The Door that Vale sent all its hoboes through was actually kind of neat. Whatever place they came from, you walked through, and you were back. It would probably suck big time for a lot of runaways. Hey, small town girl on the midnight train? You’re going right back to your lonely world, and good luck with that.
Fortunately, it was perfect for the team’s purposes. After all the trouble they’d been through getting here, with no idea how to get back, it was nice to be able to walk through a door and be right back in Philadelphia in good time for dinner. If not to check in with Auntie Ma and Uncle Henry and stay out of trouble.
Well, it would be perfect if they’d been allowed to follow up on the lead. Seriously. If the Professor and his Paradigm Pirates had been here, there was a solid clue that Auralia was somewhere on the Old World. He could be wrong. Sure, probably was. For a mastermind, he was wrong a lot. It was kind of a type, Charlotte realised, even less than two years into the superhero life. Some supervillains were supervillains because they were wrong about everything and tried to blow up the world so they wouldn’t have to admit it to themselves. But, whatever! They could at least find out what that clue was!
As it came Charlotte’s time to step through the door, the Sixteenth Sword looked her in the eye and said, “Goodbye, and good luck, young warrior,” and shook her hand.
Charlotte stepped, and, once again, was standing in the ramp down to the loading bay of the Price Rite supermarket in the Panther Heights Mall in west Philadelphia, colder than Vale, but with air so full and rich that it made Charlotte realise just how thin it had been in Vale. She stopped.
Which was why Bruce bumped into her from behind. “Did the Sixteenth Sword pass her phone number to you?”
Charlotte turned and grinned. “What? Why?”
“Oh, come on,” Bruce said. “I know the old, pass-on-a-secret-message handshake when I see it.”
Charlotte’s grin widened as she opened her right hand, showing the slip of paper that the Sixteenth Sword had passed on. She looked at it. It was just a slip, with a sixteen character string of numbers and letters. “Phone number? Secret message? Credit card number? No idea.”
“It’s something, though,” Dora said. “I kinda figured that lady was alright. Outfit notwithstanding.” Dora tossed her straight, brown hair and reached out to take the message. Charlotte handed it over. “Nope, can’t make head nor tail of it.”
Without seeming to change location, it was in Rose’s hand. “Not a secret message.”
“Hey, girl, manners,” Dora said, sounding a bit cross.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Rose said.
“It’s a phone number,” Brian said, arcane light sparkling on his fingers. “It’s an easy divination, because we’re supposed to know it.”
“Well, glad to know that,” Bruce said. “Too bad we didn’t see any phone booths in Vale.”
“There’s never any phone booths these days,” Charlotte pointed out. Although, truth to tell, phone booths were kind of gross. You never knew what you were going to touch when you reached into the little cupboard to get the phonebook. Which, when you thought about it, phone books. Just pick it up, and right there in alphabetic order, everybody’s phone numbers. With not even Caller ID. Stalkeriffic!
“Okay, guys, time to head home, check in with the parental units,” Charlotte said.
Bruce made a face. “Do I have to? It’s not like he cares.”
Charlotte couldn’t help letting pity cross her face. The anger with which Bruce responded made her flush. She mouthed, “I’m sorry,” but he had already turned away.
Fifteen minutes later, Charlotte put her bike up on the porch, out of the cold and snow in which only a crazy kung fu artist would touch two wheels, opened the door, and leaned in. “I’m home.”
Auntie Ma was sitting at the kitchen table, her favourite blue mug in front of her. “Hello, Char Char. There’s chai on the stove.”
“And milk tea, too.” Auntie Ma sighed. Fifteen hundred years out of the High Altai, and Auntie Ma was still convinced that everyone would love salted, butter tea if they just gave it a chance.
Weirdly, though, it sounded good to Charlotte, and even though she’d heard it very accurately described as “cream of mushroom soup without the mushrooms,” she poured a big cup, and sat down in front of her Auntie.
This was a weird way to get into trouble, she thought.
“So. You missed curfew, Char Char. One cup of chai, then it’s piano practice, followed by sparring, dinner, meditation, homework, bed.”
She couldn’t help her sigh.
“Don’t give me that, young lady.”
“But I just got Lords of Shadow! I was going to play the first level today!”
“And now you’re not.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Emily and Rafaella are very upset with you and your friends.”
“We were just trying to keep the base secret!”
“I understand that. I also understand that you think you made the right call at the time, for the right reasons. That’s why you’re not grounded. But, please, Char Char. You’re growing up into a darkening world. Kids your age, especially Chinese kids, probably can’t hope to be lawyers and teachers any more. Maybe not even engineers, the way things are going. All those opportunities are getting closed off. You need to be ready for what’s coming, and that means that you have to study and practice. If something has to give from your schedule, it’s going to be screen time.”
It all seemed so awfully far away, and Charlotte was so afraid that she would glare if she kept looking in her Auntie’s face that she dropped her eyes to her mug.
After a second, her Auntie’s hand covered hers. “Oh, Char Char. It’s all gone so bad, so quickly. Henry and David just slid right through college, and now they’re saying that you shouldn’t even think of law or pharmacy school. What’s next? Medicine?”
“Before that,” Charlotte pointed out, “Doesn’t there have to be a world? It’s one thing that most law school grads can’t get jobs any more. It’s another that Takofanes is getting ready to put out the Sun.”
“Emily says that you’re just wasting time.”
“Emily is wrong! We’ve got our best lead yet on the location of Auralia –the sword that’s stopped Takofanes twice before!”
“Auralia is on the Old World?”
“Maybe,” Charlotte admitted.
“But you didn’t go there looking for it.”
“No, but we did go there because those blue warriors have been getting into the mix. Today was not the first time, let me remind you.”
“Yes. There was that night when they interrupted you and Scout in your investigations.” The hand that wrapped Charlotte’s tightened so that Charlotte could feel its warmth, and she could have sworn that the crinkles around her Auntie’s eyes were smiling.
Charlotte blushed and blushed until not a part of her was not aflame with tell-tale fire, and as she jumped up to run to the living room and the piano, she could have sworn she heard her Uncle’s laugh, quiet and soft and pleased, coming from somewhere in the house.