Chapter 197

               Roger’s voice boomed over the microphone’s despite its ever-present detached tone, making him sound like an overlord who really couldn’t be bothered with any of this and would very much like to get back to his proper duties. He called names as the women walked out, most of which were entirely foreign to Alice. She recognizes a few others as girls she worked with at the bar, but the only people besides Angela that Alice knew especially well were Jill and Violet. They gave a polite wave which Alice returned when their eyes met; the maximum amount of greeting possible with the throng of women between them. They were ahead in line, and a few moments later that duo headed toward the repurposed dance floor as Roger’s voice announced their names.

                “Our next duo coming up is Violet Sullivan and Jill Murray.”

                A loud burst of cheering rang out, much the same as what had greeted the others as they left, though Alice thought she recognized a few familiar voices amidst the cheers. Once they were gone, there were only a few teams left before she and Angela walked out. Alice felt the familiar sensations of nerves in her gut, and then immediately chastised herself for such a sentiment. She’d fought Supers and robots and professors, this was not the sort of thing that should worry her in the slightest.

                “Buck up,” Angela said. “You look like you’re thinking about puking. Which, if that’s the case, please do so while we’re back here. No one is going to root for the gals who vomit.”

                “I’m fine,” Alice replied. “Nothing to worry about at all.”

                “Uh huh. There’s nothing wrong with a little stage fright, you know. No shame, I mean. Almost anyone would get it in a situation like this.”

                “You seem pretty calm,” Alice pointed out.

                “True, but you’re forgetting that I’ve already done this thing once before. Plus, and this part is super important, I am really fucked up overall. The sorts of things it takes to scare me are neither healthy nor reasonable, so I should in no way be used as the litmus test for what fears are natural.” Angela’s tone never wavered; she delivered such a self-effacing statement with the same sly grin and cheery voice that accompanied most things she said. In a way, that made it all the more unsettling for Alice.

                “That’s a fairly weird thing to think about yourself.” Alice was clawing about for what to say in response, ultimately deciding to keep her reply as neutral as possible.

                “First rule for any warrior is to know thy self. What makes you strong, what makes you weak, what parts of you are fortified and which pieces are broken beyond repair. When you know everything, then no one can use your own flaws against you. At least, not easily.”

                Despite the fact that Alice would have very much liked to have continued the conversation, the line moved forward and it was their turned to head out into the club. The one upside of talking to Angela was that Alice’s nerves about the games had altogether vanished. Now she was more preoccupied with wondering just what sort of things Angela had been through to produce such sentiments.

                And, more importantly, if another year in the HCP would lead Alice to think in the same way.

*             *             *

                The table erupted in cheering for Alice and Angela just as they had for Jill and Violet. A nearby group shot them a few dirty looks, but said nothing as the cheering died away once Alice and Angela took their spots on stage.

                Two more teams came out, and with that the entire roster of entrants in the Cowgirl Rodeo was officially lined up. Dozens of young woman were there, some looking shy, others waving to the crowd in an attempt to win favor. The pageantry only lasted a few moments before Roger’s voice came over the speakers once more.

                “Another big thanks to everyone who entered our competition this year. I’m proud to report that this is the largest amount of entrants we’ve ever had.”

                Though nothing in Roger’s words called for it, another round of cheering erupted from the contestants and the audience, because alcohol and a show are known for producing a very easy to please audience. Once it died down, Roger’s narration resumed.

                “However, as many of you know, we can only accept ten teams into the events. Which means right now, we’re going to have a contest to see how who makes the cut into the official games. Bartenders, if you would.”

                From the back came a parade of bartenders, Chad and Roy included, who carried quarter barrel kegs, better known as pony kegs, out with them. Some men carried only a single one, while the larger or stronger ones had a keg in each hand. They made their way across the stage setting a single keg down in front of each team. As the kegs were being doled out, Roger’s voice continued with its explanation.

                “Our first event is a simple test of determination; we check to see which contestants want to make it the most. On my signal, your team will lift the keg in front of you up from the ground using any grip you like. All team members must have hands on the keg, however. After that, all you have to do is keep it from touching the ground. Last ten teams with their kegs still up in the air are our qualifiers. Couldn’t be simpler.”

                Alice thought she heard a bit of snark creeping into Roger’s voice, then decided she must be imagining it. Roy appeared in front of her seconds later, carefully setting down the pony keg in front of she and Angela.

                “Technically speaking, we’re neutral in all this, but I’m still gonna wish you both good luck,” he said.

                “I’ll gladly accept it,” Angela replied. “Every advantage helps.”

                Roy nodded and moved on to the next team, setting their keg down without adding the bit of good cheer. Alice and Angela positioned themselves around the metal cylinder, each gripping one of the handles. They didn’t need to speak or coordinate; the task before them was obvious.

                Just don’t quit. That was all they had to do. Alice almost felt bad for everyone else there. They had no idea how much experience the HCP women had at refusing to give up, no matter how weary or battered they felt.

                “Everyone, lift!” Roger announced.

                And just like that, the Cowgirl Rodeo had officially begun.