Chapter 135

Alice leaned back in her chair and let out a groan.

“Ugh. I’m sick of this. What asshole created calculus in the first place?”

Mary glanced up from her own pile of books. “I think Isaac Newton is credited with a lot of it.”

Alice arched an eyebrow. “The gravity guy? I can see why the apple took a swing at him.”

“That’s actually just a story,” Mary said, her eyes going back to her work. “Like Einstein failing math as a kid. I think they circulate them to make geniuses seem more human.”

“After spending a week reading over this crap, people who comprehend calculus seem less human to me than the coffee maker,” Alice replied. She stretched her back with a series of audible pops and settled back down to her own tasks.

The duo was sitting in the library, the above-ground one for all Lander students, along with several hundred of their peers. With finals pressing down on them, the Lander populace was hitting the books with the determination available only to the truly committed and the incredibly desperate. Oddly, the two categories were often one and the same. Every table in the place was occupied, with an abundance of students prowling along the walls, eyes darting about for any seat about to become open. The instant it did there was a mad flurry of movement, concluding in triumph for one lucky soul and bitter failure for the others. If any of them paused to reflect on just how much study time they were wasting by trying to study alongside everyone else, the thought had as much effect as pointing out to an amateur writer how much time and money they wasted each day by insisting to commute to Starbucks to pound out their masterpieces in view of apathetic patrons.

Alice and Mary had set up shop earlier in the day, staking out a table and leaving only in shifts while the remaining girl gave death glares to anyone approaching the empty chair. They’d been working together as finals drew closer, keeping the other accountable for the amount of effort they had to put in for each class. It was, of course, tempting to slack off, but with the other always at hand, giving the guilt eyes, they’d managed to stay on track for all their tests so far.

“Shouldn’t we be devoting more time to training?” Alice asked a few minutes later.

“Think it will make a difference?” Mary asked.

“Honestly... no. Not really. I think I’ll just need to warm up for a few days before. I don’t see me getting much better than where I’m at, though,” Alice admitted.

“Same here. Think another few hours figuring out this math will help?”

“Eeeeeerrrrrmmmmmmm... probably,” Alice yielded.

“Then back to it,” Mary replied. “Only another two hours and we can break for dinner.”

“That’ll be nice,” Alice said.

“Yeah. Plus we can use flash cards to drill each other while we eat,” Mary pointed out.

The thump of Alice’s head slamming into her books was loud enough to draw a chorus of shushes from the nearby tables.

*          *          *

Alex turned the page in his book and let out a deep breath. Unlike the girls, he was doing his study time alone in his dorm room. His roommate was off training his body for the exam, so Alex had the place to himself. That was a good thing; he functioned best in peace and quiet.

Alex sat cross-legged on his bed, a biology book resting comfortably in his lap. All around the small room various objects were floating in the air. Pencils, books, toothpaste, and a pillow were just some of the levitated furnishings. About once an hour Alex would add another object to the fray, splitting his concentration into yet another new direction. He’d been at this for a few days, and he’d successfully raised the maximum he could handle while studying from fourteen to nineteen. His goal was to hit twenty-five before the exam.

On that note, Alex realized it had been an hour. He mentally scooped up his alarm clock a few feet from the ground and turned the page in his book. Alex felt really bad for the people who had to pick between working on their academics and their HCP material. For his money there was no strategy quite like multi-tasking.

*          *          *

To the untrained eye it would look like Nick was watching television in the middle of the afternoon when he should have been studying. To the trained eye it would look the same, except they might notice the depression on the couch and the lines on his face that indicated he had been there all day. Nick let out a yawn and switched the channel.

He’d have to go out with Bubbles tonight - she was proving to be too excellent an excuse and shield to let go of anytime soon - but for now he was just relaxing. He’d browsed through his class materials on the first day off and decided he had an A- to C-grade understanding of everything he would be tested on. That meant he was free to use his study time to sit in front of the television while mind-numbing schlock flickered across the screen. It would have been a terrible strategy to employ... if he’d actually been watching it.

The problem with both the trained and untrained eye is that they wouldn’t see the cogs whizzing about in Nick’s brain. They wouldn’t know that he was going back through his entire year, day by day, interaction by interaction, and scanning each minute for information about the people he’d be coming up against. No set of eyes, regardless of training, could discern that the boy lounging lazily was in fact readying himself for his upcoming trials by searching out every weak point and emotional lever he could find in his opponents. 

Which, of course, was exactly the reason Nick’s body told the story of a boy blowing off his academic responsibilities.

*          *          *

Thomas fought the urge to vomit while struggling to gulp down some air. His entire body was slick with sweat as he pressed his hand against the cold concrete of the training cell for support. He’d been down here for hours, and he would be here for hours more.

Thomas had used his week off of training to think long and hard about new ways to apply his power in combat. He’d been unable to think of anything entirely new, but he had recalled a technique he’d tried and failed at when he was younger. Deciding to give it the old college try, Thomas had spent his first several days back in the gym making it work. He’d eventually succeeded, leaving him less than a week and a half to get this new strategy to a point where it was viable in combat.

Coach George would have undoubtedly encouraged him to use his time more wisely, and Thomas would in no way have listened. He’d been beaten in the first trials of the year by being ill-prepared for what his fellow students would bring to bear. Now things were different. Now they’d had months upon months to see the capabilities of each person’s power. Now there were no surprises left.

No surprises, except for what one could conjure in the scant two weeks afforded to them. Thomas finished catching his breath and stood up straight. A vibrant orange glow emanated from his hands. His days were short.

It was time to train.