Chapter 233

               “When this week is over, we’re going to have to do a night of celebration,” Vince said. “We know Alice has a good reason for one, and hopefully, after the other finals, so will everyone else.” He stooped down to pick up a box of balloons, which Hershel was stuffing with slips of paper that would represent points. It was a tedious task, though oddly, neither young man felt burdened by it. In fact, after weeks of craziness, it was actually nice to deal with something so simple.

                “Roy can barely contain his excitement over the Weapons test,” Hershel said. “He’s hoping for another shot at Professor Cole.”

                “Personally, I’ll be glad if we never have to fight another professor again. Once was enough,” Alice said. She was hunched over, painting the front of one of the many booths that had become decrepit over the years.

                Around them, the entire junior class buzzed about. They’d been brought to the underground section where the carnival equipment was stored to begin work on their various tasks. Some of the more astute noticed that this work seemed to have been purposely scheduled for finals week, and the smartest of them even figured out that it was meant to keep their minds busy. None of them suspected the deepest hidden truth though: that all of the professors enjoyed the carnival, but loathed doing any of the work.

                “At least Alice is going to have options,” Alex added. “I’m hoping to do well enough in Focus to make it through, otherwise, I’m in deep crap. There’s no chance I’ll be able to cut it in Control.”

                “You’re going to do fine,” Mary told him. “I think you may even have more telekinetic finesse than Professor Stone. That alone will carry you through.”

                “Finesse is good, but I’d prefer if it came bundled with at least a little more power,” Alex replied.

                “Control always beats out strength,” Vince said, setting down a new box of unstuffed balloons. “Chad’s a walking testament to that.”

                “Though, Chad is also pretty strong,” Hershel pointed out.

                “Of course he’s strong, but my point is that—”

                Alex’s scream halted Vince, as well as all other conversation in the room. It was a sound that tore its way from his throat unbidden, screeching out in an inhumanly sustained note before tapering off to a sickly sustained pitch. He grabbed his head, fingers pushing against his skull, and began to rock back and forth. Sasha appeared at his side, zipping over from across the room and grabbing him in her arms.

                “Alex? Alex, what’s wrong?”

                “Oh . . . oh God, no.” Mary’s face turned pale, and her eyes began to water. “Someone
. . . someone just set off a bomb in one of the aboveground buildings. People are running around. They’re so terrified; no one knows what’s happening.” Mary tried to calm herself down, tried to focus on what was needed instead of drowning in the sea of sudden terror that had risen up above her. It was all she could do to move from thought to thought. She couldn’t even imagine what Alex was going through; his power was so much more empathically tuned than hers.

                Then, just like that, the thoughts were gone. She whipped her head up, nearly smacking Hershel, whom she hadn’t realized was holding her. Sure enough, there he was, the only man who could have possibly stopped the flood of thoughts so easily.

                Dean Blaine strode into the room with an expression none of the students had ever seen on his face. Before he spoke a single word, they knew something was up. The man that stood in front of them was scarcely recognizable as their kind, patient dean. Instead, he looked like the incarnation of Wrath, scarcely being constrained by a human form. In an instant, it was clear that something bad had happened, and it was just as apparent that someone would pay for it.

                “Everyone, drop what you’re doing and come with me this instant. If any of your friends are having trouble moving, help them, but don’t fall behind. This is an emergency situation, and moving you all is a top priority.”

                As freshmen, they might have blundered about, uncertain about what was happening. Three years in the HCP had trained them on more than how to throw punches, though. Before Dean Blaine was entirely done speaking, his students were lining up in front of him.

                Mary staggered to her feet slowly, leaning on Hershel for support. Alex seemed to be slowly coming back around, as well, thanks to Dean Blaine cutting off their powers. Vince and Sasha picked him up between them, carrying him more than helping him walk. Mary felt another hand slide around her, and smiled up at Alice, who was looking at her with a face full of pinched concern.

                “What do you think is going on?”

                “I honestly can’t imagine,” Mary said. “Who has the sort of death wish that would make them attack an HCP school?”

                “I’ve got a guess,” Alice replied. She didn’t say it out loud, though, because, even without her powers, there was no way Mary wasn’t thinking the same thing. Nathaniel had already blown up a club, and that was just to try and knock Nick off his game. Deep down, Alice truly hoped that it wasn’t that crazy orange-eyed bastard, though.

                Because if it was, then there was no way he was going to stop at one building.

*             *             *

                As soon as Nick heard the explosion, he knew what had happened. There was no need for deduction, or guesswork, or even contacting resources. He’d been waiting on this for months. True, he might not have known the exact form it would take, but he’d known it was coming. He grabbed the small briefcase he kept behind his couch before his windows had even stopped rattling and tore out the door.

                He could see an orange glow in the night sky, the tips of the flames visible over the other buildings obscuring his view. By his calculation, it was probably the Business and Mathematics building that had gone up. The good news was that they had precious few late classes there, so it would have been largely empty. The bad news was that it was between two dorms and in the center of campus, so there had to be ample collateral damage.

                The worst news, however, was that it was where Nick took most of his classes. No question about it, Nathaniel was piloting this shitshow, and he wanted Nick to know it. This wasn’t a warning shot or a cheap trick. Nathaniel was gunning for him, and he was using Nick’s friends as bait.

                Sprinting down the stairs, Nick slapped an earpiece on just in time to realize his phone was ringing. He accepted the call but didn’t slow down, metal case still firmly in his grip.

                “Did you see that?” Eliza’s voice rang out, genuine shock and panic audible for the first time since Nick had known her. That had been Nathaniel’s intention, of course. Shock and awe; come out so strong that no one knows what to do.

                “I see it, and there’s sure to be more to follow. Take Jerome and get the hell out of here. Grab one of our stashed cars in case the usuals are being watched.”

                “Are you out of your fucking mind? I can see you running across the parking lot toward campus. You really think we’re going to let you go alone?”

                “This has nothing to do with you,” Nick snapped. He vaulted the border between Lander and the surrounding areas, coming down on the soft grass of a well-tended college campus. “The moment Nathaniel brought this fight here, it was no longer a Vegas battle. As of right now, this is an HCP issue.”

                “Even if I bought that, you aren’t even in the HCP.”

                “Maybe not, but I . . .” Nick trailed off as he watched the yellow dome slam down behind him. It was opaque enough to see through, but from the way it was burning the grass where it settled, Nick had a feeling he should avoid touching it. Just to be sure, he threw a coin from his pocket and watched as it hopped and sizzled against the yellow barrier. Lifting his head, he traced the massive concave enclosure as far as he could see. By his estimate, the entire campus had been surrounded by this yellow force.

                “Eliza, I think this debate has become pointless. Lander just got cut off from the rest of the world.”