Diane Castle / Fractious / Stress Fracture
(the Fractious Combat Final)
by Diane Castle (with plenty of stress from the rest of the Cabal)
“I’ll say,” replied Greasy. “But it may take the medics quite a while to cut him out of that trash can.”
“As you would know from personal experience, oh Stinky One.”
“ … ”
Dee “Fractious” Castle whimpered, “Oh God.” She was a nervous wreck after sitting there all day waiting her turn, and now there was going to be a ten or fifteen minute delay while they repaired damage from the last fight. The bulletin boards told people what day their final was, but nothing else. For all she knew, she was going to get fed to that crazy Tennyo girl, or something even scarier. She knew she’d totally lose it if she had to fight Phlegm. At least she knew she wouldn’t have to face Tarmac, since Bugs had handled him already.
She would have been in even worse shape, but she’d cleaned her seat that morning. Okay, she’d cleaned her seat and the two seats on either side and the three seats behind her and the three seats in front of her. That was why she carried around such a big purse all the time. Everyone else on campus with a purse like hers had a bag full of their costume, or weapons, or power armor components, or something Whateley-ish. She had cleaning supplies. Cleaning supplies, neoprene gloves (she didn't like the powder inside the latex ones), seat protectors, toilet seat covers, handsoap, antiseptic, surgical masks, and everything else… Well, she had a lot of stuff she needed to carry around.
Loophole turned down her radio system for a moment. Foxfire and Lifeline turned to Fractious and carefully patted her on her shoulders. Fractious patted both of their hands. Neither one complained that she was doing it while wearing a pair of flesh-tone neoprene gloves.
Lifeline tried to sound reassuring, “Look Dee, it’s okay. Just take deep breaths and try to relax. Your turn is some time this afternoon, and then you’ll be done.”
Loophole added, “Just be glad we’re not in the Crash, like the Kimbas and the Outcasts. I mean, I still can’t figure out how Chaka did that thing with the tornado. It should have ripped her apart and flung her out at about a hundred miles an hour, but I’m sure she took it over, because there’s no way it just happened to steer itself exactly where she wanted it to go. I mean, that’s like ‘Storm Queen’ power level stuff, and she’s not even a weather manipulator…”
Lifeline calmly interjected, “Not quite, since Storm Queen can create the storms too, and-”
Loophole insisted, “She’s not a deviser, and I don’t see how she could’ve had a devise that would prepare her for that kind of threat, and it wasn’t like she was carrying anything that big on her, and Lifeline said Fey didn’t alter the disasters from outside the arena, and-”
Another girl slid into the aisle in front and interrupted, “Hey, what’d I miss? Anythin’ good?” It was Selkie. There was no mistaking that gentle brogue.
Most of the Lit Chix looked at each other and burst into giggles. Even Fractious, despite her nervousness. Foxfire snickered, “Yeppers. Two matches ago. Aquerna versus Buster.”
Selkie winced, “Why on earth would I want ta watch that jerk beat up one of the Underdogs?” Then she frowned angrily, “And why the hell would you think that’s funny?” Fractious had heard that before. As Selkie got pissed off, she’d lose control and her brogue would get worse.
Arachne waved her arms, “Oh no, he didn’t beat her up. She… She… Pffffft!” Then she broke into giggles so uncontrolled that a large drip appeared on her lower lip.
Foxfire poked her, “Psst, you’re drooling venom again.”
“Damnit, I hate that!” A neoprene-gloved hand reached over and handed her a sanitary wetwipe. “Thanks, Dee.”
Selkie tried to keep her temper under control as she glared, “Okay, is anyone goin’ ta tell me or not?”
Foxfire tried, “Look, you really had to see it. Aquerna totally trashed him. With squirrels!”
Selkie looked like she couldn’t quite believe that whopper.
Reverb burst out in a deadly imitation of Buster’s voice. “SQUIRRELS! HELP!” Everyone except Selkie burst into howls of laughter.
Selkie’s brow wrinkled as she wondered aloud, “She threw squirrels at him?”
Lifeline managed to stop laughing long enough to explain, “No, she tricked him into following her into a park, and she sicked every squirrel there on him.”
Loophole dissolved into another giggle fit. “They chewed his clothes off!”
Arachne was holding her side in pain as she laughed, “He was streaking all over the arena screaming for someone to save him!”
Foxfire snickered, “Gotta say, I didn’t think Anna had it in her. She made him look like the biggest goober on campus.”
Loophole giggled some more before she got herself under control. “Look, I’ve got a system set up back in my room, and it’s grabbing the live feeds off the arena system. I’ll show you the whole thing later.”
Selkie finally said, “Aquerna? Beat Buster? This I have got to see.”
Fractious sat back and tried to enjoy the moment. She caught herself as her fingers came up to her mouth. She was not going to start biting her fingernails again. It had taken her half a year in sixth grade to stop biting her nails to the quick, and now that she had decent-looking fingernails again, she wasn’t going to start. She wasn’t. Seriously. She wasn’t.
She sat on her hands to keep them under control.
She didn’t mind having a mutant power. Her family was pretty nice about that, even if her Aunt Marilyn’s husband Morris was still a little squirmy around her. One good thing about being Jewish was the support you usually got for being different. A few thousand years of persecution for not being like everyone else will do that for a People.
She still remembered the day that her eyes started changing color. Her mom had taken one look and had said, “Oy gevalt. My little Dee gets to be a mutant on top of everything else. Maybe you’ll get the power to keep things clean enough to keep you happy, hmm?” That was it. Her dad had come home, gotten the news, and had said, “Okay. Let me know if anyone at school starts giving you tsuris about it.” Her big sister had shrieked, “Oh my GAWD! Dee’s gonna be a superhero! This is so KEWL!” That was it. She heard most families went postal when their kids manifested.
Okay, the day she got upset and found out what her powers actually did? Not so great. She’d gotten upset about about dirt tracked in through the back door, and she’d had her usual OCD-charged rant about it. But she’d also warped a slice right through the middle of the hall table, and destroyed a dozen feet of the parquet floor, and ripped up a lot of the wallpaper. She’d had to pay all the damages out of her ‘car’ account, which had wiped out her savings account for the nice car she had planned on getting for her sixteenth birthday. Still, on the whole, powers? Not so bad. Hardly anyone at school even noticed, since she was telling people she was wearing her big sister’s cool new colored contact lenses.
But she absolutely hated her obsessive-compulsive disorder. It made her life just massively sucky. She’d had more tsuris from her OCD just in the last couple months than she was ever going to get because of her power. No one looking at her was ever going to guess she even had a power, if she was wearing the brown-tinted contacts her mom had gotten her. Her irises had gone from a dark brown to an odd pastel green color, but the contacts completely hid that. Heck, she’d seen regular normal people with weirder eye colors than she had.
No, the real problem was getting her OCD under control. At least she was managing it in classes. She shuddered inwardly as she painfully recalled that math test in fifth grade. It had been on the seventh of October. She was never going to be able to forget that. Never ever. She wrote her name at the top, and the date… Then she had needed to fix the ‘7’ in the date. She had erased it, and re-written it. And erased it and re-written it. And erased and… When the bell finally rang, she was still trying to write the date, and there was a hole worn in the paper the size of her finger. That was when her parents had made the school get her some accommodation for her ‘disability’.
She hadn’t done anything like that this year. Yet. Her meds were helping her enough with that, even if she was still turning in papers that were the wrong length. Her history teacher had asked for a five to ten page paper, and she hadn’t managed to stop at anything under twenty-three pages. Which still wasn’t as bad as the ‘short story’ she had wanted to write for the rest of the Whitman Literary Girls; it had ended up a 600-page novel. Even Lifeline had told her it was way too long, and Lifeline hardly ever said anything harsh about anyone’s stuff. She was still cringing over Foxfire’s review. Calling Becky’s review ‘scathing’ would be like calling a forest fire ‘toasty’.
But her meds were NOT helping her with her anxiety disorder, which had been steadily getting worse since about fifth grade. She hated being afraid of everything, but her anxiety levels were just totally out of whack on everything. Cleanliness was the worst part. She couldn’t handle dirt or mud or mold or mildew or pollen or…
She took a deep breath and tried to stop thinking about it. But her need for cleanliness and order had a host of weird side-effects. Everybody on the floor liked having her on the floor, because she was constantly cleaning in the bathroom and the hallway. They had the cleanest floor in school. Compiler said her hall was even cleaner than Jimmy T’s back in Hawthorne. And considering how Jimmy and Plasmoid cleaned that hallway… Just ick.
Everybody liked having her on the floor. But nobody wanted to room with her. She was the worst roommate in Whateley. Everybody talked about it. She-Beast had gone through like six roommates in a year and a half - which was four terms. Bloodwolf had gone through five in a year and a half. Killstench had gone through three in his entire time at school, before they decided he had to have a single. Fractious was on her fifth roommate in one term, which was apparently a tie for the all-time worst roommate in Whateley history. And just to make things worse, the guy she was tied with had graduated like twenty years ago and was now an A-list supervillain.
And she just knew her new roomie Jo hated her. It wasn’t her fault! Okay, it was her fault. But she hadn’t been able to stop cleaning when she came in and found someone had moved a pile of stuff onto the other side of the room. By the time Lifeline and Foxfire found her and stopped her, she’d thrown out three pair of tattered rags (meaning Jo’s cherished blue jeans) and scrubbed and repaired a piece-of-junk sports gear (meaning completely wrecked Jo’s special skateboard with hand-painted design from her boyfriend). How do you fix things after that kind of first impression?
Everyone in Whitman talked about how awful Fractious was to room with. Psydoe had lasted three weeks, and had been willing to move in with Diamondback to get away from her. Diamondback! Dee totally hated that. Psydoe was really nice, apart from the occasional nightmare. But Dee had completely lost it when Psydoe started shedding. Then Gavotte had lasted less than that, and had been willing to move in with Harpy to get away from her. Then Angelique had gotten out of the room just as soon as Mrs. Horton would let her. And Dani had lasted for two days before that argument and the… Oh God, Dee couldn’t even think about that confetti explosion without wanting to start cleaning things. And then Dee had caused problems for Jo before they even met. And Jo was some sort of empath and precog, so if they were in the room together for too long, Jo started turning from Oscar Madison into Felix Unger, until they were practically doing synchronized cleaning, and then Jo was a wreck until she’d been away from Dee for long enough. God, who wouldn’t hate a roommate like that? Dee just knew that Jo would be gone by the start of next term.
And yeah, Dee knew all about Felix Unger. And Adrian Monk. And Monica Geller on “Friends”. (God, even her friends back home had nicknamed her ‘Monica’.) And Niles Crane, and Ned Flanders, and Danny Tanner, and Bree Van de Kamp, and every other television character who’d ever had obsessive-compulsive traits. And Hannelore Ellicott-Chatham in that stupid webcomic, and Melvin Udall in “As Good As It Gets”, and on and on and on. Like everyone in school didn’t make references about the stuff around her.
She sighed again, just as the announcer’s voice blared throughout the arena seating. “And our next match is.. FRACTIOUS!”
“Oh my God oh my God oh my God…”
Foxfire patted her on the shoulder, “Come on Dee, you gotta get going. You can’t be late!”
Fractious grabbed her purse and trotted down the aisle. She was wearing what she always wore. A tailored Whateley uniform, perfectly-clean, carefully-ironed, with highly-polished black shoes. One-inch heels. Exactly one inch. She’d had to sand the heels on one pair for hours when she found out the heels were one and a quarter inches. She had nine identical uniforms. It was the only way she could keep from spending two hours trying to decide what to wear. And Foxfire had showed her the rule in the Whateley handbook about the dates when girls could wear long pants instead of the pleated skirts, so the Literary Girls had made her just switch over from skirts to pants for the winter months. It made getting dressed so much easier. Otherwise, she would have stood there trying to decide between skirt and pants for God only knew how long.
She tried not to look up as her MID appeared overhead on the screen. She hated that photo. She was wearing a pixie cut in the photo, but it didn’t do anything for the shape of her face, since it made her nose look even bigger. It was just so much easier to care for a pixie cut. She had worn her dark-brown, slightly-curly hair down past her shoulders for years, ever since she could remember, but her OCD had made her long hair just totally unmanageable.
|Warper - 4|
Level 1 ruptures
Level 2 ruptures
Level 3 ruptures
Level 4 ruptures
Level 1 splintering
Level 2 splintering
Level 3 s//
|normal human vulnerabilities
level 1 avatars
level 2 avatars
level 3 avatars
level 4 avatars
level 5 avatars
level 6 avatars
level 1 devisers
level 2 devisers
level 3 devisers
level 4 devisers
|Whitman Literary Girls|
She winced just looking at her MID. She hadn’t been able to stop adding things to the lists. She was pretty sure she was the only Whateley student the MCO representative had ever asked to stop writing more stuff down.
Peeper turned to Greasy and smirked, “Okay! If it isn’t Whateley’s own little ‘O. C. Dee’. Heh-heh. Now Fractious isn’t one of the campus Exemplar babes, but at least she’s got a pretty good rack for a frosh. So, any word on what kind of costume she’s going to go with? Any chance of something with major cleavage?”
Greasy replied, “Well, word is that she’s just going to be wearing her Whateley uniform. She’s pretty obsessive about her clothing too.”
Peeper groaned, “What’s wrong with these girls? Don’t they know they have to play to their strengths? And her strong points isn’t that nose of hers. No, she needs cleavage, cleavage, cleavage!”
“Hey Peeper, what’s an obsessive-compulsive J.A.P.’s favorite wine?”
“I don’t know, Greasy,” Peeper replied in a ‘Mr. Bones’ voice.
Greasy tried a high-pitched, nasal mewl. “Daddy, somebody needs to clean my room again!”
Peeper actually laughed. “Good one, oh homorous minion!”
As Fractious made her way toward the arena doorway at the base of the stairs, the announcer blared the rest of the match-up.
“VS. … STOPWATCH!”
She winced. Well, it could have been a lot worse. Still, Stopwatch always had dozens of inventions in his pockets, and she wasn’t very good at handling devises. She might have learned something about that in Survival I, if Mr. Anderson hadn’t told her to drop the course…
Well, at least she wasn’t going to get beat up by someone like Slab, or blasted by someone like Thuban. She shuddered just thinking about that match.
Stopwatch was sitting with Dash and Haywire and a couple of his deviser cronies.
Dash was bemoaning his fate, since he’d had his usual lame performance that morning, and gotten has ass kicked. Dash muttered, “If only I could have ten minutes to charge up! Hey, you think Phase could get someone to bust into the computers and find out what time my match is supposed to be, so I could prep for it?”
Stopwatch was about to give him a scathing reply, when the announcer blared, “vs. … Stopwatch!”
Stopwatch groaned, “Ugh. Fractious. Well, at least it’s not someone competent.” He wasn’t going to admit that he really wanted to catch Phase in the combat finals and blast her arse. The snotty bitch. He was still mad at her about the whole ‘laptop trap’ matter. He’d bought two new devises, at least one of which ought to knock her for a loop. Oh well, he’d find a use for them next term…
He left his special ‘Phase attack’ bag and his ‘emergency’ bag with Dash, and he headed down to the arena with his standard bag over his shoulder. He deliberately avoided looking at his MID display up on the big screen. He hated the ‘scrawny teenaged nerd’ image on his card - even if that was exactly how he looked.
|Ratings:||Exemplar-4(limited) / Esper-3:g / Warper-2|
|Techniques:||Assorted gadgets and holdouts|
|Weak vs.:||Normal human vulnerabilities|
|Backup/Team:||The Bomb Squad|
He sneered at the thought of his MID. He detested that Exemplar-4(limited) tag. The exemplars who had the physical package but were dumb as a sack of rocks, like Buster or Solange, got a pass on that. No, the ‘limited’ modifier was reserved for people like him. Completely unfair. At least he’d managed to keep his real power off his MID. Apparently, the bloody Yarders didn’t chat with their American colleagues as often as they were supposed to, so no one at Whateley or in the American MCO had any idea that he had a powerful Warper ability that let him speed up or slow down time in a local area. If that inspector hadn’t tricked him into a time-dilation bubble of his own creation, he never would have been caught. Ever since then, he’d sworn not to use his real Warper powers in any of his capers. He’d fooled the powers testing boffins at Whateley, and he’d easily convinced the MCO officer that his Warper ability was being able to track time and sense temporal distortions. And they’d accepted that there actually was a team called the ‘Bomb Squad’. There was certainly no way he was going to admit he was part of ‘The Masterminds’.
As far as Whateley and the American MCO were concerned, he was just a smart gadgeteer with minimal side talents. Which was just the way he liked it. And there was no way he was going to use his Warper powers here in front of Christ only knew how many people. Not that he’d need them against someone like Fractious.
He hurried down to the doorway onto the arena floor. He had a small half-mask that looked like real skin (he’d bought it from Greasy), and a domino mask, and a full-face mask that also covered most of his hair. He’d seen that there were a wide range of scenarios being played out, and he’d planned for several hundred strategies, depending on the scenario he got and the opponent he landed. Since he hadn’t gotten stuck with one of the real campus threats, he had left his emergency bag with Dash. Frankly, it would have been fun to take down one of the so-called ‘good guys’ like Thunderbird or Interface. Ending up against Slab or Tennyo or fey? Not so fun.
Never mind. He had to focus on the current task. He had fourteen plans for basic mutant powers, and seventy-two options spinning off those, and 644 alternatives to run off of those options, to handle most of the lowerclassmen he could face. Fractious would be easy.
All he had to do was get to the spindle before she did, or get to her before she got to the spindle, or waylay her before she could move to the spindle, or…
Fractious was wearing a facemask that covered her nose and mouth and eyes. It counted as a mask according to the combat finals rules, but that wasn’t why she had it. She’d bought it from Loophole. It was great protection dust and pollen. She actually worn it outside on several green flag days this fall, when the pollen count had been up or the particulate count had been uncomfortably high. It looked more-or-less transparent, although that was the fleshtone tint on the surface. It had filters for her mouth and nose, and clear covers for her eyes. If Stopwatch tried something like a gasbomb, she was prepared.
She looked around. This was one of those ‘get through the crowds to the spindle’ scenarios. Heyoka had gotten one of these and had beaten Alvin. Basically by using Alvin’s mental illness against him. Which made Dee extremely uncomfortable. She was pretty sure someone like Stopwatch was figuring out how to do something similar to her.
She walked quickly through the crowd, moving as fast as she thought would look okay. She didn’t want to attract attention. She just wanted to get to the spindle before Stopwatch did. If she got there first, she was pretty sure she could use her Warper powers to defend her place inside the spindle while she typed in answers. Well, she could defend against someone like stopwatch. Not someone like Compiler, who could rip open the spindle door. Or Foxfire or Lifeline, who could use magic against her. Or…
‘Stop it, Dee!’ She mentally smacked herself, reminding her not to get compulsive about threats she had already dodged. Like not getting Phlegm. Or Plasmoid. Or Jimmy T. Or…
‘Stop it, Dee!’
She turned the corner.. and backed up abruptly. Right there in front of her was a homeless person. A dirty, smelly, filthy man in nasty-looking ragged clothes. His fingernails were blackened and looked like he’d been digging in a coal mine with his bare hands. His teeth… Oh God, she couldn’t even look at his teeth.
The man gaped at her, “Got any spare change?”
She darted across the street to the other sidewalk, and was nearly hit by a passing taxi. When she reached the other side of the street, she had to stop and hyperventilate for long seconds before she could make herself move on.
“Well, it looks like Fractious is going to take herself out of the test before she even gets to the spindle, declared Peeper.
“That was pretty lame,” agreed Greasy.
Peeper added, “I would say it was embarrassing, but after YOUR final, it’s hard to declare anything as embarrassing anymore.”
Foxfire listened to Loophole’s live feed of the W.A.R.S. broadcast, and ground her teeth together. “If those bastards say one more mean thing about her…”
Stopwatch kept peeking at the holographic screen standing up above his wristwatch. The live feeds not only told him what Fractious was doing, but where she was. Still, if she had been pestered by a panhandler, then… Dozens of potential new scenarios rushed through his thoughts.
“Ay! Ay kid! How’s about a couple bucks so I can buy me some food?”
Stopwatch looked over that the panhandler getting in his way, and checked out the crowd around him. He had eighty-one reasonable options, but…
He feigned a French attitude and pulled up a French accent so bad that half the Beret Mafia would yell at him. “Comment? Are you zee American ‘oo gives out moneys? Iz that what you are say? You wish to give me zee dollars? Zank yoo!”
The panhandler waved him off. “No, you stupid Frog! Geddoudahere!”
Stopwatch hastily walked past him, trying to look confused, while smirking on the inside.
“OH! That was nicely done! If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that was Kismet speaking down there!”
Greasy hesitated, “Umm, Kismet’s Belgian, I think.”
Peeper waved him off, “France, Belgium, whatever. Somewhere where they eat frogs and stuff… I’m still waiting for Fractious to accidentally warp her clothes off!”
Stopwatch could see the spindle from where he was. He glanced again at his holographic display. Good. That was Fractious, and he was sure from the background that she had to be about a block on the other side of the spindle.
He pulled out a pair of wraparound shades, tapped the buttons on his watch until the encrypted Bluetooth II connection linked his glasses to his holographic display system. Then he pulled something else out of his bag. It looked like a balsawood airplane with a plastic propeller. No one around him paid any attention to a toy airplane. He threw it into the air and let the uplink do the steering for him as he targeted Fractious.
Fractious glanced around at the people jostling against her. It was all she could do not to stop and sanitize her school uniform. Again. Why were there so many dirty-looking people all over the place in her sim?
She could just make out the top of the spindle from where she was. And there was a hotdog vendor she was going to have to go around. She shuddered just thinking about what was in those ‘hot dogs’. Street vendor hotdogs? Probably somewhere between ‘health code violation’ and ‘typhoid Mary’.
And there was a toy airplane buzzing her way. She moved across the street to get away from the smell of the hotdog-like objects.
The little airplane changed direction and headed straight for her. The hair on the back of her neck stood straight up. It had to be Stopwatch. Some sort of gizmo to attack her.
She’d been practicing and practicing, but she still wasn’t any good at hitting what she aimed at, or keeping the damage down.
She focused on the little plane as it buzzed toward her. ‘Concentrate… Concentrate…’ She tried to split the plane in half.
A ‘rip’ flashed in the air just behind the toy. It was gone before anyone could notice it, or convince themselves that it had been something real.
She tried again. A rip flashed through the air, slicing off one wing and the tail. The toy spiraled downward out of control, hitting a plate glass window of a clothing shop. When the spinning propeller hit the window, there was a jagged flash of light. She blinked to clear the spots form her eyes, and she realized the ‘flash’ had melted a hole in the safety glass that was big enough to put both hands through. What the heck had Stopwatch just tried to do to her?
Stopwatch scowled as the view from his ‘toy’ plane zoomed in on a window and then vanished. He had been hoping that a quick Taser shot would take care of Fractious.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he muttered to himself. He felt in his bag and pulled out what looked like a toy rocket on a little launchpad. He put it on the sidewalk and quickly stepped away. It launched straight up before its gyroscopic control system came on and aimed it toward his target.
Fractious saw the smoke trail of the little rocket. She knew it had to be Stopwatch. She said some bad words under her breath, and forced herself to walk back to the hotdog vendor. She reluctantly stepped under the small red-and-white striped awning covering the stand, and peeked upward to see if she could spot the rocket.
Stopwatch used his ‘sunglasses’ to track the path of his rocket. His miniature ‘helicopter’ would have been a better launch vehicle, but all he had in it were webloads, and that would probably make Fractious lose it. He didn’t like scenarios that drove his opponents into unpredictable paths.
Oh. She’d stepped under a small awning. Good tactic on her part. So she’d spotted the rocket and figured out it had a guidance system. If he didn’t have a clear shot at her, the rocket attack had a high probability of partial to full failure. He’d better get his next attack ready.
“Whaddaya want, honey?” gritted the guy behind the cart.
Fractious tried not to look at his nose hair, or his greasy locks, or his hands. She just had to stall until the rocket couldn’t find her and it crashed, or exploded, or whatever else it was supposed to do. “Uhh.. umm.. d-do you have vegetarian fare?”
“VEGETARIAN?” he yelled. “Vegetarian? It’s a fawking hotdog stand! It ain’t a hot-carrot stand, ya bitch!”
Just as she turned and ran, the rocket punched a hole in the awning and dove headfirst into the open vat of boiling hotdogs. Whatever it was supposed to do to her, it did to a couple gallons of hotdog-flavored water. She didn’t turn back to see what the sizzling sound was. She just ran toward the spindle.
Stopwatch checked the video feed of the sim. Fractious was headed his way at a run. If she’d been a speedster or a brick, he’d have been worried. He wasn’t worried about this little bint. And besides, even with a mask on she looked to be in a right panic. He wondered if the rocket had been more successful than he’d calculated.
He took out the sphere. It was about twice the volume of a cricket ball. He was determined that his next iteration was going to get down to cricket ball size, so he could conceal it better. No one ever suspected sports equipment of being a threat.
He was nearly at the spindle, and she was a good forty meters off. That was about as far as he could hurl the damn thing. There were definitely times it would come in handy not to have that ‘limited’ tag on his Exemplar abilities. He heaved the ball into the air.
Fractious spotted the ball coming her way. Oh God, he was already at the spindle! She kept running, and she tried to concentrate on the ball. God only knew what it would do to her if it hit her. There was no way he was throwing an ordinary ball at her. She tried to make a split in reality right in front of the ball to cut it in half.
She got it on the first try. ‘I got it! I got it!’ The ball split almost exactly in half, and exploded in a cloud of smoke.
She looked back down when she heard the metallic rasp, and she realized she’d been suckered. It was just a diversion.
Stopwatch sprinted forward as soon as the ball was in the air. If she had nailed his prop plane, he computed there was a 97% chance that she’d nail the ball-bomb on her first or second try. So it was merely a diversion. Something so she wouldn’t be looking down the street as he ran at her.
He pulled the cable-launcher out of his bag and fired it at her as soon as he had a clean shot.
Fractious almost screamed as the quarter-inch metal cables wrapped her up. The end of the cable was a metal disk the size of a silver dollar. It hit the sidewalk between her feet and hammered itself into the concrete with a loud SPANG.
She was stuck. She tried pulling, but she couldn’t get loose. And the cable was moored to the sidewalk. There was no way she could stop Stopwatch from getting to the spindle first. She didn’t even think she could get loose in time to stop him from entering all his answers.
Stopwatch froze. He had Fractious in a cable snare, but it was temporary. A Warper like her ought to be able to get free in a fairly short time. Roughly 22 to 39 seconds, with a fairly high probability. And if she freaked out over being wrapped up like that, there was no telling what a Warper-4 could do to him. Or the spindle.
He pulled out his hypodermic spray injector and set it to ‘fast anesthesis’ using the wireless control in his wristwatch. All he had to do was run up, pump a dose into her skin, and wait roughly seven seconds until she would be too woozy to use her powers effectively. Then the game was all his.
Fractious struggled futilely. She gulped when she saw Stopwatch coming her way with some sort of spraygun. She panicked.
She looked at the artificial people around her and screeched, “HELP! CALL 9-1-1!”
Stopwatch saw her screech for help. Well, that complicated things. He’d better go with the tranquilizer dart pistol, even if that required careful aim and the drug would take longer to make her groggy.
But he knew he had her. He stepped to within four feet and took careful aim at the wriggling girl.
Fractious tried to focus. She tried to slice through the cable holding her to the base. But she was so frantic that she missed. She split a cable several coils higher, and suddenly found herself dumped face-down on the sidewalk.
Stopwatch stared unhappily as a ‘police car’ pulled up beside Fractious. Bloody Yarders, couldn’t keep their noses out of anything.
The car stopped in a puddle, splashing mud all over Fractious. She screeched like the car had stopped on top of her.
“Uh-oh,” he muttered.
“Okay, I think this is gonna be it! She’s gonna Monk out!”
“Well Peeper, she might just-”
Fractious screamed as the mud splattered all over her. On her legs. On her clothes. On her hair. On her facemask. Everywhere.
Dee screamed, and reality sliced all around her.
Her clothes ripped in eight places.
The cables wrapped around her split in six places, springing away from her as they did so.
A vicious crack split through the concrete sidewalk, moving toward and away from the police car. The noise sounded like a jackhammer having a seizure.
The nearby fire hydrant split down the middle, and water erupted skyward.
The police car split in half with a ferocious groan of violated metal, its front half and back half suddenly falling inward so the middle of the car smashed against the asphalt.
The sidewalk crack raced to the brick wall behind her and tore jaggedly up the wall.
Someone behind her screamed, and she turned her head in time to see the whole freaking brick wall, now separated from whatever girders had held it in place, falling on top of her and Stopwatch and all the pedestrians.
She pushed with everything she had, and the entire falling brick wall split in half.
Then there was a terrible pain, and everything went dark.
Stopwatch groaned in pain, and opened his eyes. “Oh bugger.”
He was in the hospital, lying in a bed. He head hurt like.. like someone had dropped a wall on him. He had a bloody great headache, and his back felt like Aries had been playing the xylophone on his spine with a couple hammers. The girl was mad as a box of frogs. He was lucky she hadn’t killed both of them with that stunt.
He looked up as a doctor ushered in the little Japanese martial artist he’d seen before, along with two men in military uniform. The old black man said, “Stopwatch? I’m Gunny Bardue. This is Staff Sergeant Wilson, and this is sensei Ito. The docs called us when you woke up and set your monitors off. We came by to give you your grade.”
Stopwatch groaned. He knew this was going to be bad. “Tell me one thing. Did she win?”
Wilson said, “Nope. It was a tie. The wall dropped on both of you. She’s in the hospital too. If she hadn’t split the whole wall across the middle to protect you…”
The little guy said, “You showed much planning, starting with your choice of facemasks, and moving through the inventions you used against Fractious. You handled the ‘beggar scenario’ effectively, and made clever choices to avoid attracting attention. Now. Were you moving to Fractious to taunt her, or to sedate her?”
Stopwatch explained grumpily, “I computed I didn’t have enough time to win before she would get herself free, so I decided to sedate her. I had several options, but I changed over to the dart pistol when she started screaming for the police. But my aim isn’t all that great with it, so I closed in so I wouldn’t miss. I didn’t expect her to drop a wall on me.”
Bardue summed up, “So you only got beat by pure bad luck.”
“I thought I had that planned for,” Stopwatch argued.
Ito nodded. “This is as we had concluded. Your grade is an ‘A-’. You planned well, within your own parameters, but you did not have sufficiently broad options because of your own chosen limitations. You would do better to expand your options… Or at least to use the powers that you pretend not to have.”
He just stared at them. How the bloody hell did they know about that?
After they left, Stopwatch rubbed the back of his head. It hurt, but what had clearly been a big lump had been healed down to a large sore spot. “What the hell. I can live with an A-.”
Fractious groaned in pain. Her head hurt. Her chest and back hurt. Her legs hurt. Her ankle really hurt.
Oh yeah. It was all coming back to her. She’d dropped a huge brick wall on herself. What a stupid thing to do. The whole school was probably laughing about it.
She stared at the ceiling. The hospital monitors around her were beeping and stuff, so she figured that meant she was still alive. She looked around the room. Standard small single room. One whopping big flower bouquet on a table in the corner. Huh. Wonder who that was from.
Loophole came walking in behind a big nurse in starched whites. “Hey! You’re awake! Great. You have no idea how much arguing I had to do to get in here. I had to quote hospital regs at ‘em for almost an hour.”
Dee couldn’t help but grin. She could just imagine Loophole torturing the hospital personnel with every twist she could think of on the stock hospital rules, until they gave in just to get her to stop.
While the nurse checked Dee’s vitals and looked over the monitor readings, Loophole went to the big flower arrangement. She studied the card, and finally handed it to Dee.
The card said, “Nice combat final. Most of us only fantasize about dropping a wall on Stopwatch.”
Loophole muttered, “Hmm, no name… Could be the Spy Kidz, or maybe some of the Capes, or… I dunno. You want me to put Foxfire on the case when she gets here? She oughta be here in a couple.”
Dee shook her head no, which really hurt. She blinked and said, “Unh-uh. I’m fine. I don’t need to know who sent it. Just that somebody did.”
As the nurse walked out to get a doctor, Loophole picked up the clipboard in the slot on the wall. “Lemme see. Concussion, contusions, bruised ribs, fractured talus. Hey, you broke your own ankle!”
Dee tried to sit up, and settled for using the bed controls to tilt herself forward. Naturally, Loophole had to fiddle with the controls and get things just right. And there was her right foot, in a cast that went halfway up her calf. As soon as she looked at it, it started itching.
She leaned forward and tried scratching around the tight-fitting cast. “Hey Elaine, could you get me something to scratch under this? It’s already itching like crazy.”
Loophole stroked her chin for a second and said, “Don’t you think that’s your OCD, instead of a real itch?”
“Well yeah,” muttered Dee. “But it’s still driving me crazy!”
There was a knock. Loophole called, “Come on in!” before Dee even decided whether she wanted to answer the door. Maybe she was more dazed than she realized. Maybe she had a ton of Valium in her again. It wouldn’t be the first time.
A smiling man in a suit and a white labcoat came in and politely took the clipboard from Loophole. He turned to Dee and said, “I’m Doctor Raul Tenant. We’ve patched you up, but you’re going to need to stay here overnight-”
“For observation,” inserted Loophole. “It’s standard.”
Dr. Tenant didn’t even roll his eyes at Loophole. Dee decided she liked him. He calmly said, “Yes. If all goes well and you don’t make the monitors burp, we’ll let you go around lunchtime tomorrow. You’ll want to get well, so you don’t have to eat what they serve at lunchtime.” He smiled, “They claim it’s food, but I have my suspicions.” When Dee grinned back, he continued, “Well, other than the concussion and the broken ankle, you’re pretty lucky. Most people with normal human vulnerabilities get a lot more damaged when an entire brick wall falls on them.”
Dee winced, “I sort of used my powers to split a big hole in the middle of the wall so we wouldn’t get crushed.”
He nodded sagely. Then he pointed at her cast with a pen and said, “And I’d appreciate it if you’d leave my handiwork alone. If you damage the cast, you’ll probably make us have to re-set your ankle.”
Dee looked at him and thought for a second. “A pen! Can I have a pen? That would be great for scratching under this thing!”
He still didn’t roll his eyes or anything. But he did say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’ll check your med regime and see if the nurse can give you something so you won’t feel such a need to scratch. Okay? Maybe haloperidol won’t be contraindicated.”
Dee sighed, “Okay.” But she really, really needed to scratch under that cast!
The doctor then said, “And I have three gentlemen waiting to see you.” He turned to Loophole and said, “Young lady, this is your cue to exit also.”
They left, and three old men came in. She didn’t know any of them. The two big ones were obviously military, so they had to be from the ranges and stuff. The little really-old one was in a karate uniform, so he had to be one of the martial arts instructors. Maybe the Sensei Ito guy that Sandra thought was so amazing.
The older soldier said, “Fractious? I’m Gunny Bardue. This is Staff Sergeant Wilson, and this is sensei Ito. We just came by to give you your grade.”
Dee whimpered, “Is Stopwatch okay? I really didn’t mean to knock that wall over.”
Gunny Bardue nodded tightly. “Yeh, he’s fine. Less damage than you, anyway.”
She sighed in relief. She didn’t like seeing people get hurt. She really didn’t like seeing people get hurt because of something she did.
The old African-American guy gave the not-quite-so-old Exemplar type a twitch of the eyebrow, and that guy - Staff Sergeant Wilson they’d said - stepped forward. Was the old guy his boss?
Wilson said, “We wanted to make sure you were all right. Combat finals are not easy. They’re not supposed to be easy. They’re designed to show you what you can do when you have to, and what you need to work on. You, Miss Castle, need to work on a lot of things. First, you need to get your OCD under some sort of control…”
“I’m trying,” she cried. “I’m on my fourth medication trial this term, but I’m growing, and my metabolism is changing, and my hormones are changing, and just my monthly cycle is screwing up at least one of the drugs, and now they tell me my power affects the serotonin levels in my brain and that’s really linked up with my OCD, so just using my powers screws things up worse!”
Wilson staunchly said, “That’s what your doctors tell us. That doesn’t change the fact that you need to cope with this, or you’ll be at the mercy of your OCD for the rest of your life. And if your OCD can trigger uncontrolled emotional outbursts that have power eruptions, then you’ll also spend the rest of your life at risk of exposing your powers in public when you have no defenses.”
“I… I already know that,” she muttered. Why did they have to be so mean about this? She already knew all this stuff. It wasn’t like she wasn’t trying to get control of it. She wanted to be a mensch, not a schlemazzel…”
He went on, “So you need control of your OCD, and your powers. Then you need to learn how to deal with the rest of the world. If you’re not going to take a martial arts class, you should at least take Survival I and II.”
She whimpered, “I tried to! Mr. Anderson told me not to come back ‘til I had my OCD under control and I could stop disrupting his class! And he was really mean about it!”
He calmly nodded, “Then you know what you need to do. No one says it’ll be easy. Few worthwhile things are. Sensei Ito thinks that you might want to look into meditation as a start. There’s a course Spring Term you might benefit from.”
She sighed. “You think that’d help?”
He shrugged, “Maybe. I wouldn’t know personally, but I know that if sensei Ito says it could, then it could.”
She murmured, “It’d be nice to have a roomie who didn’t hate me. And friends. And other normal stuff.”
He stressed, “You’re not the only person here who has problems. In fact, there are a great many people here who would give their right arm to only have your problems. You do know that, don’t you?”
She nodded unhappily. “Yeah. I live in Whitman. Almost half the girls there are GSD cases.” She looked up again. “Did I fail? My dad’ll kill me if I get an ‘F’. He wants me to go to Tulane, his old alma mater.”
He almost smiled. “No, you didn’t fail. We’re giving you a ‘C’ grade. You didn’t plan for eventualities, or think enough about coping with your OCD and your anxiety disorder. You handled most of the things Stopwatch threw at you, which shows you’ve been working a lot on your powers. But your lack of control nearly killed you, along with half a dozen innocent bystanders and two police officers.”
She just cringed. It was all she could do not to burst into tears. After they left and Loophole slipped back in, Dee went back to compulsively scratching around her cast.
Dr. Tenant walked in, took one look at her, and sighed. He pulled out a cell phone and said, “It’s Raul. I’m in room 302 with Fractious. Please see if you can get Prism or Fey over here ASAP. We’re going to have to heal this and get her cast off before she wrecks her ankle.”
“I’m trying to stop scratching it! Honest!” She scratched some more, as she looked at the gorgeous bouquet. She wondered if she was allergic to anything in there…