A Whateley Academy Tale
Gearheadby E. E. Nalley
Elaine whistled tunelessly to herself as she turned the wrench and her right foot tapped on the shiny floor of the Devisor Lab (Vehicle) to a completely different beat. It was a nervous habit that drove those around her to distraction, but here, in the relative solitude of the shop, she could let her leg have a mind of its own without upsetting anyone. So the redhead lay on the shop creeper, a vintage ’69 Mustang over her suspended just enough to give her ample bosom clearance, immersed in gearhead heaven.
She was in the process of bolting on what, in effect, was an after burner of her own design that would collect the hot gas of the exhaust from the dual pipes she’d already tapped. They were funnelled into the large silver casing she was in the process of mounting to the passenger side of the lower engine compartment. Here, a catalyst contained within the case would strip out the unburned fuel and raw carbon then force it back into the blower she’d already installed for the engine to re-burn.
In theory, it would increase by about a third the horse power of the 427 V-8 she’d spent most of her freshman year rebuilding while doubling the engine’s fuel efficiency.
‘Doc’ Nalley didn’t especially care whether it lived up to that lofty goal or not. Working on paper was mentally challenging, but here, in the shop getting grease under your fingernails was where she found herself. Here, the few words that were exchanged were done so with kindred spirits who understood the harmonies of bending metal, applying chemistry and mixing paint with adrenaline.
It didn’t even matter what those kindred spirits thought of her or her often hair-brained contraptions that centered around tech they thought decades out of date. Elaine liked working on old things and making them better. The Mustang wasn’t as new as the Spider that Ringo two bays over was desperately trying to turn into a car even James Bond would be envious of, but the engine compartment had a lot of room that just cried out for modification. It was easy to work on and, in its own way, was helping Loophole come out of her shell.
Elaine stopped whistling and frowned as she accidentally thought of the ‘codename’ Mrs. Carson had given her her third day on campus. She set down the socket wrench to replace it with a torque wrench to finish the bolts into their mounting, the click of the tool making a counter point to the angry bent her thoughts had taken.
It wasn’t like she wanted to be a rules lawyer. CLICK! She had just been born this way. CLICK! It wasn’t like she was trying to get away with something. CLICK! If people weren’t going to follow their own rules why have a rule book in the first place? CLICK! She didn’t have any problems owning up if what she had been doing was wrong. CLICK! She was just having fun and if Mrs. Carson didn’t want any filming done on campus that’s what she should have put in the rule book! CLICK!
“It’s what Ah get for come’n north for mah education,” she muttered to her self as she finished with the torque wrench and set it down. Placing a greasy hand on the newly installed afterburner Elaine closed her eyes and reached out with her power. Unlike most mutants she’d heard of, Elaine had always been able to do this for as long as she could remember, always understood how systems worked and came together, even if her ability had gotten a lot stronger the last few years. In her mind she became the engine, oil taking the place of blood, air and gasoline replacing sugar, and steel instead of skin.
She relished the pressure and heat and yearned to be on an open road in late autumn, rubber clad wheels hugging onto asphalt with her throttle wide open. It was raw power mixed generously with freedom that took her breath away for a moment; then she was back on the creeper with three quarters of a ton of Detroit steel over her. She’d hook the motor to the dynamometer to prove things to Mr. Donner, but she already knew it would work.
Elaine wheeled herself out from under the car and got up, tsking between her teeth once more at the car’s body condition. While there wasn’t a lick of rust anywhere on the former Detroit Steel Queen, or a dent for that matter, she was not a thing of beauty to behold. The roof and the scalloped ‘fastback’ along with the frame were the car’s original color of silver blue metallic, but none of the other panels were. The driver’s side front quarter panel was candy apple red, the rear was once Wimbledon White but at some point had been painted banana yellow. The passenger sides were Sahara Beige and Honey Gold Metallic respectively. Both doors were Raven’s Wing Black while the hood had been Royal Blue with a pair of white racing stripes and the trunk was Ivy Green Metallic. All had come from a collection of different scrap yards as when Elaine had bought the car four years ago it was a rusted-out hulk a peanut farmer in her native Georgia had found in his field.
Elaine felt the fifty dollars she’d paid for the hulk money well spent. “Don’t fret, baby girl, Ah’ll get around to a coat of paint,” she promised the car as she hooked up the dynamometer. That accomplished and her tools back in their drawers, she turned out to the shop’s floor and waved down Mr. Donner who was making a slow circuit of the room.
Melvin Donner was a tall, wide brick of a man whose hands were larger than most of his student’s heads. It was apparent that teaching was as close to a ‘desk job’ he’d worked in his life and his love of all things mechanical shown in the lopsided grin he perpetually wore as he passed on his love to a new generation of gearheads. “What ya got for me, Doc?” his deep voice poured out in a thick Milwaukie accent as he ambled over.
“Well, sir, Ah have installed mah catalyst-based afterburner here in the passenger side firewall. It’s fed from the two exhaust lines, here and here, which, ya’ll already signed off on, if you recall.”
“I do indeed,” he rumbled around his smile. “What is your power source for the after burner?”
“This first chamber, sir, is a turbine. The pressure from the exhaust spins it, generating its own power for the catalyst.”
Donner beamed. “Very elegant, Miss Nalley, and the catalyst reintroduces the mixture back into the carburetor through the blower, yes?” Elaine nodded, flushing from the teacher’s praise. “Very nice. Now, what do you expect the dynamometer to show?”
“Well, Mr. Donner, Ah expect a third more horsepower and double the fuel efficiency.”
“Lofty goals, Doc, lofty indeed,” Melvin commented, rubbing his chin in thought. “Well, let’s fire the old girl up and find out.” Elaine nodded, trying not to feel on the spot as work about the shop came to a halt. Everyone’s eyes always found their way to a test. Doc tried to put that out of her mind as she verified none of the four wheels touched the ground, that the hydraulic lift was firmly centered on the frame and that the twin hoses that routed the exhaust out of the shop were both in place. Wiping her hands on a well used rag from her back pocket was the last hurdle. It was time.
Satisfied of the safety of her test, Elaine slid into the leather bucket seat; made sure the car was out of gear and turned the key. The V8 growled to throaty life as if throwing a challenge to the newer, quieter cars in the bay. Melvin flipped on the dynamometer and gave her a thumbs up. A long breath to calm her nerves centered Elaine as her power subconsciously merged with the complicated system she sat in. Without willing it, first the blower whined to life, then below it a jet-like wail of the afterburner.
Doc’s foot pumped on the accelerator, bringing the growl to a roar of a street monster, impatient at confinement and straining to be free. But as it always seemed to be, the moment was fleeting as Mr. Donner signalled for the test to come to a stop. Reluctantly the Mustang returned to its slumber as Doc climbed out of her favorite project to see how she’d done. “Care to guess?” chuckled Mr. Donner as he blocked her view of the readout of the machine with a smile.
“Ah know it works,” groused Elaine in good humor.
“I don’t think you realize how well,” the teacher replied. “I clock you at just shy of seven hundred horsepower. We’ll need a road test to figure out if your fuel savings are where you think, but I think you might be pleasantly surprised there as well.”
A polite round applause started from her fellow sophomores to be picked up by the freshmen. Respect from the kindred spirits the first years would learn. Melvin joined them for a moment before waving them to silence. “But, that will have to wait as it’s now lunch time and bodies need fuel just as much as engines do!” he announced to the class as a whole. “Doc, you’ve got your combat final this afternoon as well, so we’ll take her out to the proving grounds in the morning.”
“Assuming you’re not in the hospital,” muttered Ringo from his bay. There was no venom in his comment towards Doc, only in the general feeling that Devisors and Gadgeteers always came out on the short end of these finals. The room definitely sobered, the students filed out of the shop, each thinking of their own looming meeting at the hands of some ‘flashy’ powered mutant that lurked at the end of every semester.
“Ah don’t understand the need for these finals,” muttered Elaine as she poked half-heartedly at her salad. Supposedly the meat for the hot meal was fried chicken and as much as the young lady from Atlanta missed it, she knew good fried chicken was not something she could find north of the Mason-Dixon Line. She’d given up trying to explain to the cafeteria ladies about grits after six months of trying. “As if high school doesn’t have enough psychopathic violence against those of us who ain’t on the A-list, now we’ve got to formalize it?”
Dee ‘Fractious’ Castle shook her head as she looked at her nails, a file in one hand, a war behind her eyes. The nails needed buffing to be clean and presentable and everything around her needed to be clean and presentable, but the filing would leave debris of nails that would go everywhere. “Maybe Mrs. Carson was a late bloomer and she’s taking her revenge…?”
“Mrs. ‘Don’t Hate Me Because I’m A Grandmother And Still The Hottest Thing In Shoe Leather'?” snorted Rebecca ‘Foxfire’ Corbin, her namesake glowing around her for a moment as her features morphed into those of the Head Mistress before returning to normal. “Please. If ever in this world there was a beautiful baby, it must have been Elisabeth Carson.”
“It’s just the violence inherent in the system,” replied Simone Bender in a near whisper.
Elaine snorted out a laugh and exclaimed, “Help! Help! Ah’m being repressed!”
Arachne rolled her eyes and ignored the glibness. “I’m being serious,” she continued after the giggling at the table had settled. “Violence settles everything here, whether it’s the idiots over there in spandex who call themselves heroes or villains or the empty suits at the head table who think they’re ‘teaching’ us something. Of course they think the only way we can learn something is to beat each other’s brains out.” She snorted in disgust having made her point. “It’s disgusting.”
"Well, the world is a violent place," placated Lifeline. "Part of why we're here is so that we can learn how to survive in it."
"And the only way we can do that is to beat each other up?" sneered Simone. "That's a shoddy coat of paint over dry rot."
Elaine chewed thoughtfully as her friends debated the logic of the combat trial. At the end of the day, it didn't matter what the Literary Chicks clique thought about what was the best way to teach survival. The Faculty and Staff of Whateley Academy liked the Combat Trial and nothing was going to get her out of hers this after noon.
"Ah man, yet another boredom match coming up," Greasy moaned. "What is it with this week? Bad enough we haven't had a single wardrobe malfunction, but between the freshmen and now it seems like every other match has a lit chick in it. Do these girls do anything besides read about having a life?"
"I don't know, Greasy," Peeper's nasal whine interjected. "Look at that killer match we had with Fractious and Stopwatch. Talk about bringing down the house!"
"Oooh, a tie, that's sure to sweep the Nielsens!"
Doc walked back towards Whitman from the Crystal Hall, her thoughts in a tumble but one ear listening to the WARS broadcast from her iPod. There was something there, something that her friends were skirting around but not quite hitting the mark. Her current background noise selection wasn't exactly helping. Elaine would rather listen to nails on a chalkboard than the banter between Peeper and Greasy, but she didn't know who she'd be facing and that would make a difference in what she got from her dorm before heading to the arena.
Her own MID was flashing across every screen on the campus and that was cause to further grind her teeth.
In the photo she'd been startled and turned into the camera, wide eyed from the start. She'd been in the process of attaching baby girl's blower and her face was covered in grease, her hair a wild scarlet corona around her head that looked like it hadn't been washed in a week. If she ever found out how the MCO had gotten a hold of that photo from Ringo's phone someone would suffer.
She knew it was an act of revenge from the five hour session of endurance she'd gone through with the classifier the MCO had sent over last year. Loophole smiled an evil smile in remembrance of five hours where she'd done her very best to aggravate the man's ulcer to new and far more painful levels. As it stood her MID currently read:
|Ratings:||Homo Sapiens, STUBBORN Further notations pending|
|Techniques:||ASE Certified Mechanic|
|Weak Vs.||Normal Human Weakness|
|Backup/Team||Gearheads, Literary Club|
|Affiliation||The Law Firm of Mark Reed & Associates|
Mrs. Carson hadn't been very happy with her for filing a lawsuit to challenge the MID, but as she technically had one, even if it mentioned nothing about her powers she had been allowed to return to the school for her sophomore year.
She admired her handiwork for a moment, then suddenly she passed one of the sheltered benches that were scattered around campus. They were rather like a bus stop save that the school had no buses, or a need for them, but the local businesses in Berlin sponsored clear plastic shelters around them with the proviso they also got to rotate a series of advertisements in what amounted to movie theater marquee boxes. It was one of the ways the school supplemented its budget.
As Loophole walked by one her eyes fixed on the marquee; this one an advertisement for AT&T cell service. Suddenly it all fell into place for Elaine and she knew exactly how she would deal with the Combat Final. Her steps given purpose, she hurried on to the Dorm. She only had a short while to change and get to the arena before the final.
“So, here we are sports fans for what should be a really short fight,” Greasy’s voice rumbled from the speakers. “Hey, no offense to our local chapter of the Dead Tree Society, but the odds are currently twenty to one against Loophole and they haven’t even announced her opponent yet!”
“Yeah, gonna be pretty tough for her to argue her way out of a fight!” Peeper joined in with a nasal laugh. “I think we’ve got some video of the waiting room now and, whoa is thatLoophole?”
“I thought she wore glasses!”
“I thought she wasn’t that much of a babe!” Peeper rejoined. “Lord have mercy how’d she even get those britches on!”
Elaine’s jaw was working over time, desperately in search of a supply of glass to grind into sand. After the hundredth time of Peeper and Greasy replaying the ‘otaku panty shot’ from Dee’s unfortunate battle with Stopwatch, there was no way she was going to wear the school uniform. While it wasn’t exactly like the sailor type favored in Japan it was close enough for some very rude comments from the resident broadcast rats and Doc would be damned before she’d give those two more to crow about. Trouble was, her so called ‘super hero uniform’ she’d been forced to make last year in Costume Shop I fit her body of last year.
Doc had filled out considerably since and if she would allow herself to notice, she’d realize she was well on the way to a ‘40’s pin up girl figure. But Doc hadn’t allowed herself to notice, normally she was in coveralls in the shop or the normal uniform which, unless you were an over the hill Japanese Businessman with a socially unacceptable pre-occupation wasn’t exactly flattering. So Elaine had very quietly blossomed without letting herself realize it.
Now she didn’t consider herself a super hero, and had protested loudly last year that she was just a Tomboy with an engineering bent. However, no matter how much she’d argued that Hawkins woman hadn’t let her get out of Costume Shop, and so she’d bent her talents that way, passed the class and hung the garment in her closet, expecting never to wear it again. The outfit’s base was Kevra, a sub-atomic combination of Kevlar with the body freedom of Lycra.
That patent was currently paying her tuition.
However, this wasn’t a super heroine body stocking. The bottom portion she had dyed so unless one were very close, they simply appeared to be a pair of tight jeans and a matching denim halter top. This look was aided by the wide white hip belt that carried a number of interesting gizmos disguised as rhinestones. A thicker weave of the Kevra into a ‘denim’ bolero jacket concealed her father’s service automatic and an ASP™ expandable baton. She might not consider herself to be a heroine, but a girl had to take care of herself. For mobility a pair of sneakers completed the outfit.
These had all fit rather loosely when she’d last worn them a year ago.
Now they hugged every curve making the young woman extremely self conscious. Back in the privacy of her dorm room she would have been thrilled with how she looked, but she wasn’t anywhere near mentally ready to be on TV wearing something this revealing. The contacts she’d never get used to, but wearing glasses with a fight in the offering wasn’t the smartest way to go about things.
So she paced as Gunny Bardue entered the small waiting area, a piece of cloth in his thick hands. “Loophole,” he greeted in his gravely voice.
“How do, Gunny?”
“You don’t have your own mask?”
“No sir,” she replied, unable to stop pacing as all the possibilities of the coming test played out in her mind. “Ah’m not a super heroine.”
The former Marine held out the cloth in his hand. “Be that as it may, this test is recorded and no matter how many precautions we take they always end up in Vegas. So, humor the old Marine and protect your identity.”
“Yes sir, thank you, sir.”
She took the mask and got it settled as Bardue chuckled at her nervousness. “You don’t have to call me ‘sir’, young lady; I used to work for a living.”
“Sorry, sir, it’s subconscious.” Bardue found that funny as he gave her a good luck thumbs up and indicated one of the over head screens that had been displaying her MID, where a new MID popped up next to hers. Seeing it stopped her in her tracks as it was the last person she expected to have been matched against. The photo in the ID had obviously been taken by a professional photographer and great care had been taken in making the subject as attractive as possible. A pair of deep emerald eyes smoldered out of a triangular face framed by jet black hair in a stylish pixie cut.
Elaine considered the face for a moment wondering if her love of a good argument had at last come back to haunt her. The impassive face of Darcy 'Sizzle' Dyer met her gaze from the screen, giving no clues as to what the IDs owner thought of the match up.
“Good luck,” the sergeant wished her as he withdrew. Doc sighed and took out her cell phone. It was time to put her plan into action. After two rings the line was picked up.
“How would ya’ll like to be famous?”
“All right!” exclaimed Greasy as the new MID popped up on the screen. “You talk about flash and razzle-dazzle, Sizzle has all that in spades! Rich! Beautiful, stylish, what more could anyone want?”
“It’s a shame she got paired with Loophole,” Peeper agreed. “I would rather have seen her take on Cytherea or Aztecka or anybody who won’t try to talk her to death!”
“And we’re underway!” shouted Greasy as the buzzer sounded. “Both contestants are in the city, and, what is Loophole doing? Is she talking on her phone? Clearly she doesn’t have her head in this match at all!”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind her head in my…”
From the control booth over looking the arena, Gunny Bardue joined Ito-Sensei and Staff Sergeant Wilson who were already looking out onto the holographic simulation. “Any opening salvos?” he asked, casually scooping up a soda from the craft services table on his way to the window.
“Thus far, Dyer-san and Nalley-san are content to simply move towards each other,” the diminutive martial arts instructor replied, his eyes darting back and forth between the monitors that tracked the young girls. “Nalley-san appears to be on the phone…?”
“I thought the arena blocked all the carrier waves?”
Wilson was perplexed as he examined the readouts on the panel. “They do, Gunny, its part of the security protocols!”
“Then who, the hell, is she talking to?”
“Maybe she’s faking it for some reason…?” Wilson speculated.
Ito’s eyes continued their dance as at last the two girls turned onto opposite ends of the same street. “She is talking to her opponent,” he declared quietly.
“Well, I knew this would be short, but man!” laughed Greasy.
“They’re both on the same street and moving towards each other. We should have our winner shortly! Wait…”
Doc swallowed as she caught sight of her opponent, just coming onto the street she was on, no more than a block away. Sizzle smirked as she caught sight of Doc and turned away from the spire in the center of town and began strolling towards her. “Why on earth would I do what you ask?” she purred as she picked up her pace slightly. “The odds are ridiculously in my favor and by all rights this should be an easy A for me.”
“This time,” agreed Doc as she threaded through the crowd towards her adversary. “But if something doesn’t change what will you do if you get paired against say, Skybolt next term? Or Bloodwolf and no one can stop him fast enough? Or the Don himself; want to bet he won’t do permanent damage to your mind on his word?”
“You make an interesting argument, but how do I know you’ll keep your word?”
“Ya’ll already pointed out Ah’m any easy mark. Chances are pretty good even if Ah do try and pull a fast one, Ah can’t knock you out in one go, so Ah look even more pathetic and ya’ll look even better for the win since Ah got a lick in. That doesn’t matter ‘cause Ah am telling you the truth. This has to stop.”
The two women had come face to face with each other now as Doc closed her phone and returned it to a pocket on her jacket. With a sigh she extended her hand. “So, what’ll be Sizzle? Ya’ll want to be famous and help me stop this?”
From the booth, Gunny felt his jaw clinch as Sizzle slowly reached up and shake the offered hand from Loophole. “What the hell is she doing?” he muttered as the two girls sat down together and it became obvious they weren’t going to move.
“If a battle cannot be won, why fight it?” quoted Ito with a great measure of mirth in his tone. “It would appear that our Loophole has decided to try a third alternative.”
Wilson began to laugh uncontrollably as Bardue leaned forward and keyed on the loudspeakers in the arena. “Ladies, the clock is ticking down. Unless you want to fail, I suggest you be about the scenario.”
“No!” the pair shouted up in chorus.
“If ya’ll need Sizzle to beat me up to prove something to you, Gunny, Ah have to wonder about how good that could be!”
“Do…do they not realize…” stuttered Wilson around his mirth, “this is supposed to be a survival situation?”
A small smile graced Ito’s face. “They appear to be surviving quite well, sergeant.”
“They’re not the only one’s who can change the rules,” muttered Bardue as he worked the controls.
“What is this, a love in?” groaned Greasy. “They, they’re just sitting there!”
“I don’t know what this will do to our ratings, but the odds are going crazy I tell you! We’ve got one bookie giving two to one Loophole is going to get away with this!”
Elaine was feeling particularly proud of herself until the passersby suddenly froze in mid-step. The hackles came up on the back of her neck as she heard Sizzle get to her feet behind her. “Did you piss him off?” she asked as the clothing began to flicker on the eerily frozen pedestrians.
“Ah think maybe Ah might have,” admitted Nalley in a low voice.
“You fighting Sizzle isn’t about giving us the joy watching you get beaten to a pulp, Loophole,” the Gunnery Sergeant’s voice drifted, god-like from the heavens. “It’s about interjecting a human element into a computer scenario, to make you worry and think outside the box. If this was only about carnage we’d test you one at a time just against the computer!”
Darcy swallowed fearfully as the downtown business district they were in suddenly shimmered and became a seedy warehouse district, litter strewn everywhere with decaying newspapers blowing in the breeze. “Ok, now I know you pissed him off.”
“Well, congratulations, ladies, you have certainly thought outside the box,” Bardue continued. “Trouble is, that’s not the only thing we’re testing you on here. So, if you won’t fight each other, that’s fair enough. You’ll both fight me.”
The business men and young mothers that had made up the ‘generic innocent passers-by’ about them shimmered as well and now were collections of unsavory looking toughs and down-on-their-luck longshoremen, and more than one had a Humanity First! shirt on. “Now, that being the case, it looks like the two of you are in a pretty bad part of town. And it looks like your neighbors don’t like you very much.”
The toughs began to pick up make shift clubs as a circle began to close around them. Several were breaking bottles and none had what might be called a pleasant look on their face. “Me and mah big mouth,” muttered Elaine quietly.
“So, you two now have to survive for thirty minutes, or get to a nicer part of town where the police might actually help you. Oh, and I feel I should warn you the arena doesn’t like to have the scenario changed all of a sudden like this. There might be problem with a couple of the safety interlocks. But that shouldn’t be a problem to two out of the box thinking young ladies like you two, right?”
Darcy’s back forcefully came to a stop on Elaine’s as the circle began to tighten even more uncomfortably. “I’m not sure who I want to hit more now!” she snapped in frustration as she gathered the friction of the contact to turn into the fire aura around her hands that gave her her code name. “Him or you for getting me into this!”
“Seeing as Ah’m currently the one watching yer back, Ah’d suggest you hate Gunny!”
“You got any more bright ideas or did your plan stop with the sit-in?”
Elaine ran her thumb across the belt counting rhinestones in her head until she found the one she wanted. She snatched it off and hurled it at her feet. “Ya’ll will find Ah’m full of surprises!”
The stone broke open with a flash many times brighter than its size would have led you to believe it capable of, and the two girls were enveloped in a tremendous cloud of smoke. The street toughs rushed in, but by the time it cleared both girls were gone.
“Alright!” screamed Greasy into his microphone. “Alright, it’s on now boys and girls and this is gonna be the Combat Final of the Century! Loophole and Sizzle against Gunny Sergeant Bardue in a no holds barred steel cage match!”
Elaine and Darcy broke from the alley at a dead run, fortunately finding a back street clear of pursuers, and hustled to the other end of the street to the shelter a loading dock and dumpster offered to catch their breath. “What…what was that…you threw?” demanded Dyer around her ragged pants. “I thought for sure we had it right then,” she managed as Elaine was taken over in a coughing fit.
“Hyper compressed CO2,” she panted. “Ah developed it in case the shop caught fire. It’s basically a fire extinguisher in grenade form.”
Darcy swallowed as despite the sprint they’d just run she was still cold. “That’s why it put out my flames right? Why was it so cold? And how did we get through the crowd?”
“Same reason,” panted Doc. “Expanding gasses get cold as they do so. It’s why your fridge works. The thugs aren’t people, they’re Red Ants.” Seeing the confusion on her new partner’s face, Doc continued. “Everybody in here that isn’t a student is a robot, Ants which are the ‘innocents’ we have to save or not hurt are basically just animate crash test dummies; really stupid and really fragile. Red Ants are the thugs, cops, trained henchmen, anything that’s supposed to be a human and fight back. They’re tougher than the Ants and they have weapons.”
“How did we get by them, though?” demanded Darcy, “and could you not use devisor speak when you answer?”
“Ah’m not a Devisor,” muttered Nalley.
“Whatever! Just tell me in English!”
“The Red Ants have two visual tracking modes, a CCD camera so they can be controlled by the booth operator and an infrared camera for independent work. Mah fire extinguisher grenade’s cloud took out the CCD and since it’s really, cold our skin temperature plummeted so they couldn’t pick us out from the ambient air.”
“So, we were invisible. That’s all you had to say,” she snapped.
“But, we weren’t,” Doc started, but was cut off by a bottle bursting against the brick wall above her head, showering the pair in broken glass. Both girls' heads snapped up to find two groups converging on them from opposite ends of the street, three on one side and two on the other.
"I'll take these three you get those two!" snapped Sizzle as she charged off in the direction of her group.
"Wait!" shouted Elaine, but the headstrong girl was already halfway there, her speedster powers letting her 'skate' from one foot to the other as her power transferred the friction into motion in a way that would have severely bothered Sir Isaac Newton. Her fire aura now fully recovered, she charged into the group by skating up the nearest wall and falling into them from above. The screams the robots gave off were unsettling.
Doc drew the old .45 from its holster and at once her power wrapped itself around the weapon. There were flashes of hot jungle and the suicidal screams of Japanese soldiers for a moment before she popped up from behind the dumpster and pointed it at the two she'd been assigned. "Turn around and run or Ah swear to God Ah'll end the both of you!" she shouted.
"Mutant bitch!" one shouted back and a half second late Elaine noticed she'd brought a pistol to a shotgun fight. The flash was unexpectedly bright as Elaine forced her legs to buckle so she could drop back below the dumpster. She felt a sting across her cheek and couldn't keep her off hand from coming up to feel the blood that was now oozing from graze. "We're coming for you, Mutie!" drifted from beyond the dumpster over the racking of the shotgun.
Elaine looked at her own blood for a moment, seeing red in both senses. It was obvious that the Gunny was playing for keeps. Snapping her eyes back to the dumpster between her and the two thugs she felt her power reach out and perform a series of geometric equations and feed the results to her legs. They in turn unfolded into a sprint, a hop on the top of the dumpster for added height, and she was tumbling through the air.
The shotgun blast passed harmlessly below her as her arm stretched out and locked when she was at head level to the two astonished robots, upside down and six feet in the air as the muzzle came in line with each face. The pistol barked twice and each robot had a new third eye in the center of its forehead as Elaine completed the somersault/cartwheel and landed in a crouch.
"Greasy! We're broadcasting here, buddy! FCC and all!"
"Did you see that? Did you SEE THAT?
"Holy shit!" breathed Sizzle as she skated back over. "How did you do that?"
Elaine stood up as she dropped the magazine from the pistol and replaced the two bullets she'd used from a pouch on her belt. "Ah did the math," she replied. "Now, let's get out of here before the gunfire draws more of them."
"You can't keep up with me," Sizzle told her. "You need wheels."
"Well, Ah need a bit more material to make something."
Sizzle snorted a laugh. "There's a racing bike back there. Can you ride?"
Doc stretched her neck until it popped. "Not yet."
Tatsuo Ito watched Loophole swing her leg over the racing bike and lay her hand flat on the tank. His sharp eyes picked up the briefest of glows around her fingers before she was moving again, her activity centered around the key switch for the bike. After a few seconds of fiddling she triggered the starter and had obviously hot wired the bike. Taking attention from the screen he regarded the big, bulky Gunny next to him through the corner of his eye. "You may not like what you are creating here," he cautioned softly.
Bardue's jaw worked for a moment before he turned to the diminutive Japanese man beside him. "You read the same reports I do, Ito. We've given Loophole nearly a year and a half. She's talked a good game, I'll give her that, but it's high time she woke up to the fact she can't talk her way out of every situation."
Ito considered this for a long moment, his memory going back to his own attempts when Elaine had attended his introductory Aikido class. "Do you intend to run the entire session with the safeties off?"
The larger man turned from the display to give his full attention to Ito. "I do. You have a problem with that?"
"The safety of our students is our first priority."
"This is a school for Mutants, Tatsuo, high time Loophole became an active mutant, don't you think?" The two polar opposites stared at each other before Bardue looked slightly over his shoulder. "Wilson, double time it over to Poe and fetch Donohugh back here."
"Banned Aids?" Wilson replied. "Right away, Gunny."
Bardue sighed and locked his eyes with Ito once more as Wilson trotted out of the booth. "Satisfied?"
"Well, what would an action epic be without a chase sequence, right Greasy?" As the pause drug out Peeper took his eyes from the screen to check on his fellow WARS personality to find Greasy staring, slack jawed at the screen. "Greasy?"
"What are they reading over there in the Lit Chick meetings? How to be James Bond for Dummies? Where did Loophole learn to ride a bike like Jason Statham on crack? Who IS this chick and what did she do with our Rules Lawyer?"
Elaine's hair had long since come loose from the braid she'd started the final in and now streamed out behind her as she pushed the bike to its limits. Currently four police cars were chasing the pair along with a large panel van with MCO markings. If either girl thought they were their ticket out of the simulation a shotgun blast had dissuaded them of that notion very quickly. Beside her Sizzle was skating along, but it was obvious the girl was beginning to tire. "I don't think they're going to stop chasing us," she managed around a weak grin.
"Well," Elaine shouted over the wind, "we really have been pretty busy racking up a body count."
"I have heard the police aren't fond of that," Sizzle snapped back. "Think they'll let us explain that it's all just a big misunderstanding?"
"Ah think we've got a better shot at World Peace," Doc fired back. "Let me see if Ah can get us some breath'n space. Get up ahead and set as much stuff on fire as you can!" Darcy nodded and pushed herself ahead while Doc began to slow. As the distance between the closest patrol car and the rear of the bike shrank she carefully drifted a bit to have a straight shot, sent a fearful prayer heavenward then reached up and pulled the front wheel break as hard as she could.
The cafe racer stood up on a front wheelie as Elaine fought the forces of Newtonian physics to not be thrown from the bike. The patrol cars flew by, one causing a lucky crash as the computer running the Ant who was driving it decided the 'cop' was too awestruck by the sudden maneuver to pull out in time.
Doc let up on the break and the bike dropped back onto two wheels, the rear squealing for traction and fishtailing slightly as it did so. The .45 back in her off hand, Doc urged the bike faster as she over took the police car that was now ahead of her. It locked up its brakes and squealed to a halt, blocking most of the road.
"It'll work, it'll work," chanted Nalley to herself as she drifted over and snatched the handlebars in the opposite direction. The bike wobbled then tilted as it fell over, wheels spinning and now perpendicular to the former direction of travel. Doc didn't fight laying the bike down, but went passive with the skid, clutching the pistol like a talisman.
The force of momentum kept it sliding on the asphalt, just clearing the rear of the patrol car by millimeters, Doc's gun hand actually passing under the car. There wasn't time to aim so she trusted in her power and the pistol barked, the round finding its mark in the cruiser's gas tank and opening a large hole.
Then the bike was clear of the cruiser and back in the sunlight. Doc locked up the rear brake which caught with sufficient force to snap it back up onto its wheels. She then gunned the engine and chased Sizzle. True to her word she'd started a veritable wall of flame up head, leaving a small gap for the bike to roar through. Clear of it Doc stopped the bike and motioned Sizzle on.
Just as Darcy reached her, the patrol car with the now ruptured gas tank passed through the wall of fire causing the leaking fuel to promptly explode. The car was thrown into a flip and blocked the road completely. Doc didn't spend any time admiring their teamwork but gunned the engine to complete their get away.
"Where are we going?" Shouted Darcy in her ear.
"The one place Ah hope we can finish this!" she yelled back.
"This is getting out of hand," murmured Ito softly. "Someone is going to get seriously hurt."
"Look at the monitors," Bardue replied calmly, his face lit in the random lights of the firestorm below the booth in the monitors. "Nalley's vitals are all over the map, we're close, Tatsuo."
"None of that will matter if one of those girls gets killed. Turn the safeties back on." Bardue turned and locked his gaze with the Sensei for a long moment. "Neither of them will notice the difference if we press them and don't give them a chance to think. We'll get what we're after and the risk of losing either of them drops considerably."
The Sergeant considered this for a long moment before reaching across the panel and flipping a switch.
"Wow!" screamed Peeper into the microphone as the flash from the explosion died away. "Did you see that, sports fans! Unbelievable! Absolutely unreal!"
"The odds are going crazy," Greasy exclaimed. "And I can tell you this is going to be a historic battle! Epic!"
Dyer and Nalley darted through the warehouse door they'd forced open, then jammed it shut as quickly as they could. Both girls were dirty and obviously tired from playing foxes to Bardue's wolves. Sizzle sank to down on the floor and tried to catch her breath in ragged gulps. "Now, what?" she demanded.
"Every system has...a failure point," panted Loophole. "A place where if you damage it there's a kind of chain reaction that will break the whole system. That's what you're going to do."
"Me?" squeaked Dyer. "You're the techie...!"
"Ah'm going to find the point for you," she replied. "But you'll have to knock it out."
"But I don't know anything...."
"All you have to do is destroy it!" shouted Elaine. "And it has to be you, because Ah've never tried to understand a system this big before! Ah don't know if Ah'll even be conscious!" Dyer swallowed again and finally nodded.
"Ok, Loophole, you tell me where and I'll make it happen."
Elaine grinned as she worked herself up into a sitting position. "Call me Doc."
Her hand against the cold concrete of the floor, Loophole reached out with her power. A hundred thousand voices yelled at her, emotional echoes from the previous battles as her power dug deeper. A tendril happened across one of the buried camera lines and suddenly her perception was magnified a thousand fold. She could see every square inch of the arena, to include herself, sitting with Sizzle who had a concerned look on her face.
Loophole was everywhere, a thousand cameras stashed all over the battlefield to capture every angle, a wireless link to every Ant that was frantically searching for her and Sizzle, then as the power touched the robots it expanded exponentially. Loophole was a pair of Cray 9 series mainframes that were running the holographic simulations that were painted over the robots. She was an IBM Blade Center, one of a cluster of fifty with more computing power than the combined thought of mankind, she was hydraulic systems that raised and lowered the platforms to create buildings, she was an army of robots that populated them, a river of information that gave them skin and purpose and life.
She grunted and stretched herself, further than she'd ever gone, further than she'd ever dreamed of going, water pipes and sewer tunnels, cooling fans and telephone lines, and it was all so simple if you could just step back far enough and understand how it all fit together. "Ninety yards south west," she cried out, "there's a manhole cover, lift it and sever the cable trunk you'll find below it!"
Elaine wasn't sure if she'd spoken aloud or typed the urgent message across every computer screen on the campus. She tried to pull herself back, but there was so much, so far, so connected. The cameras saw Sizzle race off from the still form with her hand on the floor, saw the look of agony across her face and this too was added to the mixture. Glands in ducts at the corners of her eyes released moisture in response to neurons firing, carrying their message of agony to the pain center of her brain, her heart racing trying to keep up the flow of oxygen, breathing in and out.
She was Elaine.
She was Whateley Academy.
She could see it all and it was simple.
Loophole screamed as every camera recorded a tremendous flash of light, but for her, there was only darkness.
Elaine came awake very slowly, fighting her body that seemed to want to stay in the thick, comfortable sleep she escaped. Her first impression was that she was in the same hospital room where Fractious had recovered, and looking around in a daze, she almost expected to see her friends waiting on her. That hope was dashed as she realized the amount of rules quoting it had taken her to get to see Dee and the knowledge that they had probably been stymied in that quest.
That, and the fact that Mrs. Carson was sitting in the chair in one corner of the room, tapping away at her laptop. Almost as soon as Elaine had seen her the Headmistress became aware that she was awake, put the laptop aside, and fixed a steely gaze on Elaine. "How do you feel?"
"Tired, ma'am," Doc admitted and caught sight of the pitcher by the bed. "A little thirsty too, if ya'll wouldn't mind?" She was connected to what seemed like a battalion of monitoring machines that wouldn't allow her to reach the pitcher on her own.
Carson stood with all the grace of a leopard and crossed the room to the pitcher. She handed Elaine the cup and watched her drink greedily.
"Am Ah in trouble, ma'am?" she asked softly.
"Some," Mrs. Carson admitted. "We'll get to that. Why don't you start by telling me what you thought refusing to take the combat final would accomplish?"
Elaine considered the steely gaze she was withering under carefully from the water glass she was hiding behind. Finally she found her voice again and said, "Ah was hoping Ah'd get a commendation for original thinking..."
"You're not Captain Kirk," the administrator snapped.
"No Ma'am. Ah guess Ah didn't understand the point of making the two of us fight. It seemed silly and Ah resented it." Carson rocked back on her heels and crossed her arms.
"Oh I see. And I imagine now you have our entire curriculum figured out?"
Doc rubbed her aching head. "For a while there," she muttered.
"Not everything we do here has an obvious reason," Carson told her. She started to say more, then thought about it and held up a finger. Curious, Doc watched her cross the room to the window. There, almost invisible hung a tiny web with an equally tiny spider in its center. "Go tell your mistress she's awake and they can come see her," Carson told the insect, which promptly scurried away through a crack between the window and the wall.
"Now that we're alone," Carson told her with her first smile of the interview. "I suppose I can tell you why what happened did so. I don't think you feel like Sergeant Bardue conducted the test they way he did out of spite, do you?"
"Ah imagine, ma'am, if Gunny wanted me dead, Ah would be. Am Ah gonna have a scar?" she asked, hazarding reaching up to the graze across her face. Her fingers searched in vain, finding only smooth cheek skin.
"Exemplars don't scar, Elaine," Carson told her.
"Ah'm not an Exemplar..." she started before the Headmistress cut her off.
"We don't know that for sure, but I think we'll know better once you go through powers classification." Carson waved off her protest while refilling the glass and returning it to her. "Don't bother quoting rules to me, girl. You and I both know the manual clearly states all newly activated mutants, arriving to the school, will under go classification of their abilities. And now that your mutant gene has finally activated, we're going to get a better idea of exactly what you are."
"Mah, wait, what?"
"You told us yourself, your ability to understand complex systems and devices you'd always had, since you could remember. Well, Dr Hendricks was amazed that someone could have a mutant ability with a mutant gene that was dormant. You hadn't had some stressful situation that had activated it, and your very cautious nature and dictatorial use of our own regulations against us made sure your time in the simulators were tame at best." She smiled a warm smile and rubbed Elaine on the arm in condolence. "We had to give you that stressful moment so your gene would activate and you could learn to control all your powers, not just the one that manifested early."
"Ah wasn't a mutant, but now Ah am?"
Carson laughed. "Elaine, you were always a mutant, but now you're just like the rest of the student body and your gene is active. So you will go to classification again young lady and you won't give them a lick of grief about it. Understand?"
"Good girl," she said with an almost motherly pat on her hand. She turned and began to pack up the laptop. "Your friends will be here in a minute, so I should be on my way. You got a B- on the final, by the way."
"Oh yes, and that's already gone through the appeals committee so don't try anything there. Your original grade was F." Elaine's jaw hung open in shock as the steel came back into Mrs. Carson's gaze. "You know full well that cheating is not condoned here at Whateley Academy Miss Nalley, and I very nearly let that grade stand!"
"Ah didn't cheat...!"
"You didn't solve the simulation. You didn't deal with the problem of the simulation; instead you attacked the simulator itself to force it to fail. However, given your...unique...original solution, and the fact that the research department now has the best documentation and material on what happens during a mutant gene activation event ever gathered, I'm inclined to be generous. However, that will not be tolerated again." She smiled to soften the rebuke and winked at her. "Now, I'll send the nurse in so you can get unhooked from all that and get dressed. You have a vehicle trial later on I believe."
"Ah don't have to stay over night...?"
"I think we can bend the rules just this once, don't you?" Carson opened the door to find it crowded with the entire Literary Club just reaching to open the door. She allowed the friends into the room before letting herself out with a smile.
Elaine hadn't expected the entire lab to meet her with applause when she entered Devisor Lab (Vehicle). But all her fellow Gearheads were clapping and cheering her, arranged in a semi-circle around the door to the ladies changing room as she emerged, zipping up her coverall. Mr. Donner was joining them, heaping congratulations to one of their own that had come out on top of the dreaded combat final.
Doc blushed fiercely couldn't keep from developing an embarrassed posture of being put on the spot. Mr. Donner put a stop to it with an ear-splitting whistle, but not before they'd gone on too long as far as she was concerned. "Ok people, we've got a field trial today, so let's get to it! Ringo, would you open the shop door please?"
"Ok, Mr. Donner!"
"Doc, I'll give you a hand with the old girl and we'll see what we can see." Nalley led the teacher over to the impatiently waiting Mustang and the two quickly had the wheels un-chocked. In neutral, she easily rolled off the lowered hydraulic jack as Doc worked the wheel to get her turned towards the door.
The lab was buried deep in Kane Hall. The door they were currently pushing the car to should open onto granite bedrock, some forty feet below the level of the rest of the campus. Instead, it opened onto a wide, windswept salt flat.
There are no salt flats in New Hampshire.
It bothered Elaine every time they went through this door, but given everything else she'd seen here, it wasn't really all that odd. Now all that was left was to give baby girl her ration of gas and see how far she went before she ran out. From the doorway she grabbed a jerry can that had been marked to set it apart from the others and began to unscrew the circular Mustang emblem on the back of the car that disguised the fill point.
“Leaded gas!" exclaimed Ringo as he saw how the can was marked. "Where did you get leaded gas? Do you know how bad for the environment…?”
Elaine scowled and snapped, “Did Ah ask you where you got that stinger missile you’ve spent the last month trying to shoe horn into the trunk of that over engineered abortion of yours?”
"Let's all play nice," rumbled Mr. Donner as he walked around the car with his clip board, making the final inspection before the run.
Doc grinned and winked at Ringo. "Besides, this engine was designed to run on ethyl. Even if Ah was running unleaded, Ah'd have to add some lead additive to keep her running right. More to the point, with mah afterburner baby girl here should have lower emissions than yours."
Ringo flushed and turned away. "We'll see."
Finally the preliminaries were out of the way and Doc slid into the seat. As the car idled impatiently under her, Doc paused as she reached for the steering wheel. She hadn’t used her power since the traumatic overuse of the previous day. Mrs. Carson’s enigmatic visit from this morning left her a little hesitant. Elaine wasn’t entirely sure what would happen if she used her power and then gave the Mustang her head to run flat out. She reached up to adjust the mirror and noticed what looked like tiny flicks of gold in the blue/green eyes that hid behind her glasses.
“Well, baby girl,” she told the car as she reached out and connected to it with her power. “Let’s see what we can do!”
The oversized racing tires in the rear threw up a pair of rooster tails as the Mustang roared off the starting line.
Loophole burst into her dorm room at Whitman, still bouncing with misplaced energy from her bonding with the car. Three hundred miles an hour and still getting that incredible MPG! That had to be a first somewhere! She was buzzing so hard it was difficult to think as her thoughts were in a blur. “Maggie? You home?” she called out, finding it empty.
“Lifeline has not yet returned, Miss,” said the open laptop on her desk.
Elaine threw down her books on the bed and began to dig into the dorm fridge she shared with her roommate Maggie ‘Lifeline’ Finson. She never claimed to understand how the assignments were figured or why a techie like herself had been paired with a healing mage. “Cool!” she announced to the laptop “Carmen, Ah’d like to open a new project file, and Ah want it encrypted and kept off the school’s net completely.”
“This isn’t another of those terrible romance novels you experimented with last year, is it?” the computer’s somewhat motherly voice complained. “I have to tell you that one scene was anatomically impossible…”
“No, no!” Doc snapped as she opened the Coke can and took a swallow. “This isn’t a document file at all. It will be a tech project, and Ah don’t want it finding its way into DARPA or any other government agency.”
“Dear me, this sounds dreadfully secret; shall I name it The Manhattan Project then?”
“Ah don’t recall programming a sense of humor into you,” snapped Nalley without real venom. In a lot of ways it helped her think to have a computer that back-talked her.
“Considering my circumstances and the amount of trouble we would both be in if the administration found out you’ve been experimenting with Turing Level V Artificial Intelligence on school property I should think it would be a necessity,” Carmen replied blithely. “What would you like me to name the project then?”
“File name is Iron Maiden.”