Mary fidgeted nervously as she waited in the empty room. While all the rooms underground in Lander had concrete walls and a Spartan feel, the thick metal door and lack of any décor left no doubt that this was a space used for battle. She wondered why she was the only one here. She’d heard Professor Stone give her the instruction to come to this room after class, but only because she’d been listening to the older woman’s thoughts. In the rest of the Focus, classroom the only other person who might have picked up the message was Alex and the Professor had been adamant that she not discuss her hearings with anyone else.
Mary knew she was being a bit paranoid, but given the events at the end of last year she felt that, if nothing else, it was prudent to show some caution. So before coming, she had let her friends know who she’d be meeting with and in what room. She’d also had them pass word to Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport. She’d felt a bit silly doing so - after all, this was probably nothing more than a quick teacher-meeting over something she needed to know. Still, she’d held out hope that someone else from the Focus class would be here, that Professor Stone had communicated with all of them in some way to send the message.
The older woman stepped gingerly in the door and extinguished any hope Mary was still holding onto that this might be a communal meeting.
“Good afternoon,” Professor Stone greeted cordially. “How were the rest of your classes?”
“Ranged Combat was enjoyable,” Mary replied. “Control was somewhat tedious.”
“Give it time, I’m sure Professor Hill will challenge you soon,” Professor Stone assured her. “Of course, eventually someone with your talents will find your specialty in Focus. That much is certain.”
“Is it now?”
“Without question,” Professor Stone reiterated. “Control is a useful course for anyone who moves the world around them in that it forces one to elevate their geospatial thinking and their awareness of the objects surrounding them. Control, however, is ultimately the manipulation of outer forces upon outer forces. That is a poor fit for those like you, Mary, because your skill is inwardly oriented. Thus, you will find the most benefit in Focus.”
“Good to know. Is that why you asked me here?”
Professor Stone laughed, a soft tinkling sound that dried prematurely in her throat. She stepped further into the room, walking gingerly across the hard floor. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t waste my time telling students what should be obvious. No, I called you here because while Fletcher has a crude sensibility to him, the man’s tactics do present a certain amount of efficiency.”
“I see,” Mary said, her foot stepping back ever so slightly.
“Relax, little one, I don’t wish to harm you. It is simply that I didn’t get to test you last year, so I don’t know nearly enough about your limits to teach you effectively,” Professor Stone explained. “This is an evaluation, nothing more.”
“Ah,” Mary said, a trickle of relief seeping through her bones. “I suppose that makes sense.”
“A benefit of the truth: it holds together effortlessly,” Professor Stone said with a smile. The metal door to her left slammed shut forcefully, and across the room Mary could hear a locking mechanism click into place.
“I thought this was just an evaluation.”
“It is, but we take safety very seriously here in the Hero Certification Program,” Professor Stone said.
“How does locking us in make us safer?”
“It wasn’t our safety I had in mind,” Professor Stone informed her. “I’ve seen your fights and read your file. A girl with your talents will likely cause significant collateral damage before she reaches her own threshold.”
Mary gave the elderly woman a half-smile. “Not to mention the amount of power necessary to bring me there.”
Professor Stone returned the cheerful grin. “Yes, that, too.”
* * *
Chad was in the gym doing a bench press when he heard a distant rumbling through the walls. Briefly, he wondered if it was thunder. After a moment’s pause, he realized any thunder strong enough to be heard all the way down here would leave the topside of Lander in splinters and destruction. He considered investigating, then shrugged it off and finished his set of reps. Whatever it was, it probably didn’t concern him.
* * *
“Very impressive,” Professor Stone said, stepping over the newly-formed rubble at her feet. “You can pack a lot of wallop in your attacks.”
“I’ve been told I’m strong for my age,” Mary said graciously.
“Don’t be ridiculous: you’re strong, period. Age has nothing to do with it.” Professor Stone reached down and selected one of the biggest hunks of concrete, plucking it from the ground with a frail arm that couldn’t have budged the miniature boulder without mental assistance. “Of course, raw blasting force is only one aspect of our abilities. There are other things, too. Things like sustained effort.”
Professor Stone tossed the concrete in the air and it zoomed toward Mary. Mary took hold of it when it was a little over halfway to her, slowing its movement only to discover that something was still pushing it forward.
“Think of it as an inverted tug of war,” Professor Stone explained. “We both push it toward one another until it reaches someone.”
Mary understood and ratcheted up her effort level. The concrete moved back to the middle of the space between the two women where it stopped abruptly. Mary tried to push it further, but Professor Stone seemed to be able to match her perfectly, increasing power when she increased, and dropping when Mary faltered. Mary adjusted her foot positioning for comfort. If the old lady wanted to make it an endurance contest that was fine by her. She’d spent the first seventeen years of her life in constant mental alert to deal with the voices splashing through her mind. Mary could hold up a rock for days if she had to.
“You really could, too. This is almost effortless for you,” Professor Stone complemented.
Mary blinked. It hadn’t occurred to her the professor might be reading her own mind.
“Of course not; you’re accustomed to being the only telepath at the party,” Professor Stone said. “That’s why you’re so prideful and careless.”
“You’re prideful. Despite what has happened, you still have a disproportionate sense of your abilities. Right now, you really think you can best one of your teachers in their field of specialty. Did it perhaps occur to you that George and Professor Fletcher aren’t flukes? That all of us are quite adept with our skills?”
“And as for careless, well, coming here alone in the first place was rather stupid of you. I know you told people, but by the time they knew you were gone you could already have been beyond retrieving. No, you showed up because at the end of the day, you believe that the only reason you were taken last time is because you were caught unaware. You think that if you’re cognizant, you can handle yourself in any situation.”
“No, of course you didn’t. Well, let me lay it out for you, young lady. You are one of the strongest advanced minds I’ve ever encountered. That said, if I’d come down here to do you harm, you would already be unconscious. You need to start being cautious, you need to start watching yourself, and most importantly, you need to realize that ‘one of the strongest’ is not the same thing as ‘the strongest’.”
Mary felt the concrete tear through her own force as it sailed toward her small body. She tried to press back, but she couldn’t do more than slightly slow it down. A few feet before impact, the giant piece shattered and sent a spray of concrete shards around her. They tore against her arms and legs, but not one piece touched her torso.
Mary realized that at some point she’d closed her eyes. She slowly peeled them open to reveal Professor Stone slowly making her way toward the door, which was now open.
“I look forward to teaching you, Mary. You’ve got a lot of potential. Go see a healer before you head above ground.”
Mary glanced down and realized she had dozens of small cuts along her appendages, each one about the same length and depth. Only then did she understand what the professor had really done.
“Every piece... you were controlling every piece after it broke, all of them simultaneously,” Mary said, her shaky voice betraying the shock in her words.
Professor Stone didn’t bother stopping or turning around. She’d seen how far the girl could go, and seen where she was weakest. All that remained now was to see if she had the determination to take her talents to the next level.