Monday, December 3, 2012

Chapter 2, 36: Not From Around Here

Bats and swords, bats and swords.

Chapter 2, 36: Not From Around Here

The Ravenswood Fieldhouse was an impressive place to play cricket, Chris had to agree. It was almost as big as their pitch at home in Phildelphia, and even though there were walls around it instead of open space, they could be set to “sticky.” It wasn’t quite a home run if the ball was there to be snatched off the wall, but, then, with the kinds of powers the players in the Super League had, no ball was ever really hit out of play.

Or maybe that could be a challenge for the real brick players. There were no really strong players in this game to worry about the walls, or, for that matter, the ceiling high overhead, from which a few small arrays of lights dangled that were apparently enough to keep the grass on the floor of the Fieldhouse in a shade of healthy green. 

The Fieldhouse was impressive, all right. Chris did not really expect its team to live up to the facility, though. Ravenswood had not been even as competitive as Tatammy against Old Sarum and India so far this year, but, unfortunately, the preppies were improving. They started off with some strong batting from a high strength brick with an uncanny ability to see Amy’s misleading bowls. He got five runs before Tyrell retired him with some telekinetically assisted balls.

 Jason bowled for power next, but a telekinetic netted his ball into his bat,  bouncing it off the far wall under an uninterested Eve, who spent the game texting. She scored five times before Emily teleported under the falling ball, grabbed it, and blinked back into the field to dismiss her. Ten runs down after only twos bowlers, things looked grim until Rafaella rallied the side with some skillful bowling that set Tatammy up to bowl.

Unfortunately, Ravenswood seemed to have scouted the team, matching the telekinetic up against Jason’s high speed power bowling, and a stretcher who put the ball across the plate in even weirder places than Amy’s strange, gravity-altering powers could match.

By the time that John bowed out, it was clear that the Grade 9s were out of sorts. Probably, Chris thought, because they were tired by their fight with the Destructoids in Europe. It was Savannah who scored for Tatammy first, splitting into her three main forms just as the ball left the bowler’s hands and swamping the pitch. They needed video replay to see that Savannah had scored three times, once for each triplet, but unfortunately one of them dislodged a bail. Two Savannahs glared anger at the third, Savannah2, as far as Chris could tell. The triplets were a lot easier to tell apart when they were allowed to dress themselves!

 Then Tyrell deployed his telekinetic field in a duel with the Ravenswood girl, and managed three scores before she reached around his shield and nudged the ball as Tyrell’s bat impacted it. The ball ricocheted off her shield and back into the wicket. After a long discussion, the volunteer umpires, Anvil of the All-India Super Division and Revolutionary III of China’s official Tiger Squad, decided that that counted as a deliberate use of power skills and so as a hit wicket. Tyrell was out.

Babs, relying on sheer skill, because, of course, McNeelys turned out to be good at cricket, managed one run. Unfortunately, her new bowler was a plant controller. Chris watched him, feeling a strange, empty pit in his stomach as the plant-controlling bowler set the grass on the field, which flourished strangely in the artificial light, swaying from one end of the field to the next. Babs managed to hit his ball, but the grass just grew up around it for a caught ball.

Uncle Henry, standing beside Chris, said, “I wish we had someone with those powers on our team.” Chris looked at his uncle, and whatever his uncle saw in his face made him wrap his arm around Chris’s shoulder for a long moment. For once, Chris didn’t mind being treated like a kid.

With the Grade Nine frosh out, the team was down to the last two sophomores, Chris and Eve. No-one was expecting very much from Eve, who was last in the batting order. Chris stepped up to the line, and cracked his bat against the turf. There was a commotion on the Ravenswood deck, as their coach argued with the slight and pale telepath that Chris had hoped would bowl against him. Reading minds could be an awesome power, but Chris didn’t see how that would help in cricket.

But, finally, things were decided. Instead of the telepath, the coach opened a door in the wall and brought out a familiar, power-armoured figure. It was Max Zerstroiten. Of course it was Max Zerstroiten. As Max floated onto the pitch, Chris tried to look unimpressed, examining his bat for something, anything that might screw with his choices. The true swordsman took care of his weapon. It was an extension of him, or he of the weapon. Of course, this was just a wooden cricket bat, not the Blue Tranquility sword, but the principle was the same. As Max landed on the bowler’s Chris swung the bat through its range of motion, with the slow deliberation of tai chi. Initially, he wasn’t sure that it would help, but as he passed through the motion, he felt his body come into focus. His training was good: he was his body, qi flowing through it un clear channels. He levelled his gaze at Max. Last time, Chris thought, you got inside my head. That won’t happen this time.

Max looked back at Chris. He was a real threat, Chris knew. The power suit gave Max assisted strength and speed. He could hit hard, or hit fast. He could also fly, which he might use to get the pitch in from an odd angle, and he had whatever gadgets he’d put into the suit today. He was even wearing a sword, like the one that Doctor Destroyer wore, supposedly to look “regal.”

Except that Max’s blade was big, and worn over the shoulder, like an old-time Bavarian Landsknecht, and not some social-climbing sociopath. Max had told Christ that, before the game. And he’d also told Chris to watch his temper. “Your powers come from your self-mastery. It wouldn’t be fair for me to not test it.”

It had sounded like an apology in advance, but, as they said, “words can never hurt you.” Except that as Max stared back at him, Chris felt the pit in his stomach open up again. Because hearing Max’s German-accented voice had brought back memories that Chris thought that he’d forgotten.

And then a voice, Max’s familiar, German-accented voice, sounded in his ear. Because, apparently, the gadget that the teenaged German mastermind had chosen was a ventriloquism caster. “I saw your uncle hug you, Chris. Isn’t it too bad that your Dad never did?”

Just like that, Chris was back on the cold tarmac of the pavement at the entrance to the trailer court, where they used to play road hockey. The rain was bouncing off the asphalt, hard, like they were only rain on the outside, with a middle of shattered ice, and the same rain was soaking through his jean jacket and running down his face as the kids around him, and it seemed to be Max’s instead of his Grade 6 nemesis, Hermie Schmitz, big even for a Grade 7, who was chanting, “Ha, ha, where’s my Pa/Gone to China, Ha ha ha.” As if those four long years had never passed, Chris was ready to launch himself against his tormentor and lose again.

The ball whizzed by Chris, and he lashed out at it angrily, only to clip it and send it spinning towards the wicket. Then, somehow, some core of the patience and tranquility that he had found a moment before in his sword exercises, spoke to him. “You don’t want to let them win again, Chris.”

Time had stopped, the way it did in the middle of a clinch, when Chris seemed to have all the time in the world to try a move or a hold. That is to say, it didn’t really stop, it was just that he was moving so fast, his eyes carried in a rake across the Ravenswood bench so quickly that he couldn’t even be sure that the telepath’ flinched as their eyes met. Oh, a mind reader sure could beat you at cricket, Chris thought bitterly, as he pivoted on his leg and brought the bat around.

The ball was headed for the wicket, but Chris could feel the bat pushing back against his hand, because he was moving it so fast that the very air seemed to slow it down. Power poured through him, through elbow to ankle and the bones of his hands, that now wrapped themselves around the bat’s handle like they did around the Blue Tranquility. It was no longer a tool. It was him, and it was going fast enough to connect with the ball before it hit the wicket.

Time speeded up again as Chris watched the ball, intercepted in midair, smash against the turf and skitter off the pitch. The two benches erupted in noise. Ravenswood yelled, “double touch,” arguing that Chris was dismissed due to hitting the ball twice, while Tatammy answered with a chant of “De-fence, De-fence,” just like at a football game, but  suggesting that Chris was properly guarding the wicket.

Revolutionary III jumped up from his seat, his excitement easy for Chris to read behind the double taciturnity of an old Chinese soldier and good Party cadre. But he couldn’t be the final word, Chris knew, because, like so many, he was an old friend of Uncle Henry’s. Now it was Anvil’s turn to put his hand on someone’s shoulder, as he restrained Revolutionary III and pulled him close. Anvil was young and awestruck to be around  Revolutionary III, a veteran of three battles with Doctor Destroyer amongst many other epic fights, but Anvil knew cricket.

The two umpires whispered to each other urgently. Chris’s heart sank. Surely if the ruling were to go Tatammy’s way, it would have already been called. But, he reflected, getting emotional had put him in this situation to start with. So, to calm himself, he went back to his exercises as the two umpires began to review the video imagery.

Finally, Revolutionary III trotted out onto the field and held his white-gloved hands aloft, for all the world like some old-timey PLA man doing the traffic cop thing on some evening news story out of Peking. Or Beijing, Chris reminded himself. “After review,” the veteran hero said, “The officiating team is agreed that this was a case of defending the wicket. The batter may is still up.”

Chris went back to his position, and flashed a grin at Max. “Is that the best that you can do?” He whispered, in case the Bavarian supersuit was equipped with enhanced hearing today, too.

Evidently, it was, because the next ball came rocketing past as Chris finished talking. Chris had followed the ball all the way in, and knew that it was going to miss the wicket, so he just stepped away from the super-powered bowl. Behind the massive servoamplified muscles of the suit, there was a real boy, and a pretty skinny one, at that. He can’t keep that up for long, Chris told himself. 
The next time, Max fired his boot jets just before he reached the release line. He was seven feet in the air before he released, and the ball came in, boring at the wicket, at a steep angle. Chris, expecting it, got air himself, cricket leaping into the ball. In a split second, Chris was soaring almost as high as Max, the bat at the six o’clock position, below him to the right. As he came into the ball, he swung the bat through a blazing full circle, giving nit a massive slap down. The whole empty chamber of the Ravenswood Fieldhouse rang to the slap of ball hitting bat, and, again, the little white spheroid skittered on the turf. This time, however, it was in play. Like a watersnake, it moved so  elegantly in the grass, it headed at top speed to the right, about as far as it could be from the right outside fielder as it could be without hitting the wall.

Except that the outside fielder was a metamorph, and turned into a squid-like thing and fetched the ball in with an extended tentacle before delivering it back to the pitch at top speed.

The tentacle swept into the infield, holding the ball in the flanges at its tip like some kind of weird eye on a stalk. Babs, seeing it coming, threw herself back into the safe area, but Chris was determined to score once. He had known that the right outside fielder had shapechanging powers, but not what she could do with them. He had worried that they would turn out to be the key unknown variable in the set-up in front of him, but that did not change the fact that right now, he needed one score. Timing the sweep of the tentacle to the split instant, Chris leaped over it, landing just to the right of the wicket, arms and legs desperately tucked in so that he did not brush a bail. He went down in a roll, and up.

One score, then, and andhe had the crucial information.  Ravenswood did control the deep outside of the field right around his range. The telekinetic was in the left outside, and Ravenswood had a teleporting speedster in the middle. Someone with powers very much like Headmistress Rowan’s, or Sai, Ravenswood’s second most famous alumnus after Gloriana. The metamorph could control the right of the field.

So Chris could not put the ball long, and, even qi-assisted, he was not fast enough to score runs with infield hits. And, unfortunately, because it was Babs on the far end of the pitch, he couldn’t count on his partner, either. She was a McNeely. Anywhere else, that translated into sheer frustration with perfect people who were smart, good looking, a world-class athlete, and always prepared. People hated them for being perfect, and the McNeelys acted as though it was some kind of curse. “Oh, woe, Katie Holmes has fallen in love with me and I don’t know what to do.” Or maybe that was just the guy in the movie.

Unfortunately, this was not everywhere else. On this field, she wasn’t as fast as an Olympic sprinter. Instead, she was only as fast as an Olympic sprinter. She would not be any more able than Chris to score any runs in the time that the Ravenswood fielders would give them.

Chris looked around. So now he knew the score, but he still didn’t know what he was going to do about it. Come on, Chris, he thought to himself. There has to be somewhere on this field you can hit to and make a run. Only there didn’t have to be. If only it was one of the speedsters or teleporters up here, and not Chris.

On the bright side, he thought to himself wryly, all that was assuming that Max served up another easy bowl to him. Come on, Max, put the ball somewhere I can hit it, before your power gets the better of me.

But the only sign that Chris gave was a nod to Max. It wouldn’t be cricket to try to play head games back, he thought.  The next delivery was conventional, a straight run to the release line, and an underhand release. It had the power of Max’s armour behind it, but it was just a conventional fast pitch.

Except, Chris knew, that Max had a bit of the Wong disease. He would try too hard.  Chris held his move. You’re not done yet, you German too-smart-for-your-own-goodpants, Chris thought.

And, sure enough, Max tried to hard When the ball was half way to Chris, the Bavarian reached out his hand and fired his wrist blasters into the ball. An orange beam followed after the ball, hitting it and pushing it at Chris so fast that Chris’s qi­-accelerated vision could see the cover beginning to peel. As fast as he could, Chris brought his bat up into the ball. But he only succeeded in hitting the ball straight up.

“Yah!” Max yelled. Or “Ja,” Chris supposed it actually was. The Ravenswood bench gave out a massive cheer, recognising an easy fly ball. The wicket keeper stood and stepped under the ball, holding out his hands, their armoured skin glinting in the lights, while the fielders ran in to collect the falling fly ball,  if for some reason the keeper and Max managed to mess up their positioning.

From the spectators’ stand, Chris heard Charlotte yell, “Butterfingers!” A half-beat later, Dora took it up with a chant: “Butterfingers, butterfingers!” In the third iteration, Rose joined in. Chris grinned. Well, whatever happened, at least he had a cheering section. It would just be nice, he thought, if he had a girlfriend here today, too. And maybe the Ravenswood fielders would miss the easy catch, Chris thought. Stranger things had been known to happen.

Chris just stood and watched the ball that he had just hit rise and rise. The Fieldhouse was big and its ceiling was very high, and with Max throwing and Chris hitting, there was a lot of power behind that cricket ball. It seemed as though it soared forever, ever slowing, and for a moment Chris was worried that it would actually hit the ceiling. Finally, just before it hit the shadowed run of ceiling, the ball came to that strange, momentary pause that happens as a fly ball hits the top of its arc, and begins to fall back downwards with whatever small lateral motion that the batter had managed to give it. But It really was taking forever.

In fact, it was taking so long, that Max trotted up to Chris, his hand shading his visored eyes, as though his armour suit didn’t have polarised lenses. Of course, maybe it didn’t. As smart as Max Zerstroiten was, he was only sixteen, and sixteen year-olds, even genius sixteen year olds, had been known to make mistakes.  “Sorry about the barbs, old man. I…” he trailed off.

“No worries, mate,” Chris answered, not taking his eye off the falling ball. “You warned me, and I’ve lost a few too many fights lately after losing my temper.”

“That’s what Jason said,” Max answered. “Is that red-head in the game?”

“No, she’s just a spectator,” Chris answered, gesturing in Rose’s direction. It was an odd way to describe Rose, although, come to think of it, “red-head” was probably as close, or closer, than “blonde.”

“No, your team-mate,” Max said, sounding exasperated. “The one in the jungle-girl costume.”

“She’s not going to try,” Chris answered. “I’m amazed that she even agreed to come on the field trip.” Chris paused for a moment. “Good thing she did. We have some questions for her, about time travel and diseases and a slough that’s survived as many ice ages as she has.”

Max looked back at Chris. “I will want an explanation for that remark the next time we meet.”

“Next game?” Chris asked.

“I understand that there’s going to be a Valentine’s Day dance in Lythrum,” Max answered.

“Are you asking me?” Chris said, grinning.

“No,” Max said. “My gaydar is surprisingly good. But I want to meet this nemesis of yours. Right after I dismiss the cave girl.”

“I hope that works out for you, Max. Except the dismissing.” Then, because Chris could have sworn that he’d been looking up long so long that he was getting a neck crick, and because it was all over, he added, “Because you won’t  have to.”

And, with that, the ball came to a clunking halt far above, as it fell onto the top of the light fixture, high above the field, and lodged in the crooks and crannies that Chris had hoped might be up there. Chris let his grin rake past Max as he rocketed towards the far wicket, not even breaking his stride to high five Babs as he went by.

Behind him, Chris heard Max’s boots ignite. Too late! He thought. He and Babs only had to score once before Max fetched the ball back down to make it 11 to 10, with Eve left to bat. From the Tatammy bench, Chris heard Tyrell yell, “Hey, Ravenswood! Up your noses with a rubber hose!”  

Uncle Henry looked at Chris, and smiled, and Chris grinned back. And grinned and grinned and grinned with happiness until he almost thought that the grass under his feet was stroking his shoes.

So far, this was shaping up to be one heckuva day.  

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