Chapter 160

               Mary sat quietly as the rest of the Focus class filed out of the room, pretending to be digging in her backpack for some non-existent item. Most ignored her, though Alex paused to throw her a curious glance on his way out. As the only other… well perhaps not telepath but someone who was close enough, he’s been able to hear Professor Stone’s message as well as she had. If he was curious about why Mary was being asked to stay after class, he kept his curiosity to himself. Alex stepped out of the room, making sure to shut the door behind him.

                “Did you have a nice break?” Professor Stone asked. She was still seated at her desk, pen in hand, as if there were nothing clandestine at all about their meeting.

                “It was alright. I tried to spend more time with my family than I usually do.” Mary stopped pretending to dig through her bag and zipped it up. “My parents were happy about that, but the rest of the family felt uncomfortable around me.”

                “For those with advanced mind abilities, such is the default reaction. I’d offer you ways to cope with it; however, the sad truth is that the only methods are to find those who trust you enough to not care about the mental intrusion, or hide what you can do from everyone you meet.”

                “That’s a great pick-me-up. Why don’t we go ahead and skip the rest of the small talk. I’ve got a class topside in half an hour.” Mary stood from her seat, slinging the backpack over her shoulder.

                “Certainly. I wanted to schedule some time with you to work on your dream-walking abilities. Now that you’ve progressed to the point of entering minds that are merely unconscious, to say nothing of bringing others with you, I feel it’s time I took a more hands-on role in your training.” Professor Stone glanced down at the small calendar on her desk and tapped it with her pen. “Also, could you have Alice swing by this week? From what I saw of her mind, I think she’s easily grown stable enough for us to attempt another memory viewing. If she’s still interested, I mean.”

                “Trust me, Alice is still interested,” Mary assured her teacher. “Even if you didn’t remind her, I’m sure she’d have been by your office soon.”

                “I rather suspected as much. For your training, how about we try and meet every other Saturday morning, to start?”

                “No can do. I’ve recurring chess game that I can’t miss. If I’m not working at the restaurant, I could do afternoons, though.”

                “Do you really consider a board game more important than furthering your abilities?” Professor Stone asked.

                “Not usually, but you’d be amazed how much I’ve learned from playing this particular opponent.” Mary allowed herself a small, cocky grin. There was no way Professor Stone didn’t know about Mr. Numbers, his skill, or how long they’d had their standing game. She wasn’t sure what her teacher was trying to test, but on this account she would find Mary unyielding.

                “Very well. We’ll plan for Saturday afternoon, assuming you don’t have to work. Meet me in my office by one, starting this Saturday.”

                “You going to have someone passed out on hand for me to dive into?” Mary asked. Lander had some excellent training resources, but that seemed to be pushing it, even for them.

                “Let me worry about that. I promise, you’ll have everything you need.”

                Though that was really more ominous announcement than answer, Mary let it slide. After over a year of working with Professor Stone, she trusted the older woman would deliver on what was needed. They didn’t always agree on everything, but Professor Stone knew how to train an advanced mind, that much could never be called into question.

                “I guess we’ll see on Saturday.” Mary let herself out the door and headed toward the lifts, the conversation already relegated to the back of her mind. Clandestine meetings and dream-walking training were all well and good, but if she didn’t make it to her Biology class she’d be starting the semester behind in one of her worst subjects. Now that was something to really worry about.

*              *              *

                “Hey, Alice! Hold your ass up for a minute.”

                Alice turned to find Angela jogging toward her, clad in the white uniform of a Lander senior. She was sweaty, with her hair pulled back tight. There was no chance someone this far in the program had worn themselves out with a light jog, which meant she’d come directly from training. Whatever this was about, she’d clearly wanted to catch Alice as soon as possible.

                “What’s up?” Alice halted her trek to the lifts, turning to speak with her co-worker.

                “Oh, you know, another day, another ass-kicking to deliver.” Angela paused to take a few deep breaths, then continued. “I wanted to give you a heads up about the Cowgirl Rodeo.”

                “The who-what-where?”

                “The Cowgirl Rodeo. Shit, I know you’ve only worked at Six-Shooter for one semester, but I figured you’d at least heard of the events they hosted.”

                “I was pretty busy with, you know, the whole Hero Certification Program thing.” Alice managed to hide the exasperation that was trying to seep into her voice, but only barely.

                “That’s no excuse. Win or lose, you only go to college once. You have to make the most of it. Have some fun. After this it’s pretty much all seriousness and reality.” Angela wiped her still sweating forehead on her sleeve. Alice couldn’t ever remember seeing the girl this worn out. Whatever training she was doing must have been intense.

                “I thought you wanted to tell me about a rodeo,” Alice said.

                “Right, damn near forgot the reason I ran you down. Anyway, just before spring break Six-Shooter puts on the Cowgirl Rodeo. It’s a way to kick off the festivities and get everyone in a party mood before they leave town. Horribly sexist series of events: gelatin wrestling, bikini bull riding, you get the idea. It’s mostly students who enter, but they’ll ask employees if they want to sign up as well.”

                “Wow. Thanks for the warning,” Alice said. She really was grateful, if not for the low-down on what it entailed she might have inadvertently joined up. After all, just calling it a rodeo sounded fairly harmless. “I’ll make sure not to put my name down.”

                Angela’s face flickered with confusion, and she shook her head as realization dawned. “Fuck all that noise. I came to talk to you because I need a partner for the team events. Two hot blondes with HCP training, we can win that son of a bitch with a hand each tied behind our backs.”

                “Ah. Right.” This one was really all Alice’s fault. She couldn’t imagine why she’d thought Angela would be steering her away from pageantry and ridiculousness. “I’ll… have to think about it, I guess.”

                “Don’t think too hard, or someone might snatch me away.” Angela leaned back, conjuring a series of pops from her spine as she did. “In all seriousness, you should do it. Once we’re out of this place, we’re adults at worst, Heroes at best. We don’t get to be as dumb, irresponsible, and carefree. I mean, I’ll still be all those things, but most of you will tone it down. You have to squeeze in the stupid shit while you can.”

                “I’ll keep that in mind,” Alice said.

                “You better, I’m not losing because I’ve got a crappy partner. Not this year, not again!” Angela thrust her finger in the air with her last words, then headed back down the hall toward whatever course lay in next on her schedule.

                Alice watched her go, torn between being impressed by and embarrassed for the half-mad senior at the top of the class.