Nate was the first one out of his class, the instant it was dismissed. He made a beeline down the rapidly growing crowded hallways of Elba Hall Science Building. Just in time, he reached the bathrooms, plunged into a stall and locked himself in.
It took a few minutes to get his breathing under control. Nate used the time to reshuffle the contents of his backpack, making sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. The Department of Variant Human Affairs gave him that backpack along with its binder and basic school supplies including a tablet that came preloaded with PDF documents of all his text books. It might be the nicest thing they’d ever done for him.
Right now he needed nice. Someone came into the bathroom and used the urinal next to his stall. Nate just ground his teeth and rode out the wave of anxiety and emotion still surging raw inside.
His cell phone vibrated as the bathroom visitor washed his hands and left.
“Uh, hi?” he asked, answering it.
“Oi, it’s lunch time, where are you? I thought we’d get a bite together.” The crisp intonation of Finn Barnaby spilled out of the phone like a stream of cool water on Nate’s fevered skin.
“Sure. Sorry. I’m just…I’ll just be a minute.”
“You feeling alright there?”
“I’m fine, it’s fine. I just…” Nate laughed a little as he realized how ridiculous it was to talk to his roommate on a phone in the bathroom instead of just seeing him. “It’s so many people, man, you know? For four years, the only people I ever saw were on a monitor screen and now, here they are, all around me. It’s freaking me out.”
“Sounds serious,” Finn said, his voice stern and sober. “Only one thing for it.”
“What, more people?”
“I was thinking a pint. Seeing as you’re not legal, though, how about we have lunch with more people? There’s this girl, you see-“
Nate laughed again. “How fast do you work, dude?”
“Just call me Finnetic,” the cheerful English voice said over the phone. “Now come on then. Enough of the mobile. Let’s meet up, shall we? I fancy McKinnon.”
“I’ll see you there in a minute,” Nate said, once he remembered where McKinnon Cafeteria was.
Hanging up, he stepped out of the stall and washed his hands at the sink. Nate checked his reflection and groaned. His skin was clammy, his red hair all skewed from sweat and ill care. Nate washed his face, wet down his hair and combed it back with his fingers before patting everything dry with paper towels.
Mike was waiting for him outside when he left. The telepath didn’t say a thing but Nate thought he saw a bit more sympathy on the upper classman’s face than he’d had earlier. Of course, Mike could hear everything he was thinking. Including the meltdown in the bathroom. Including his pitiful need for sympathy from a man who was only here to keep Nate from hurting others.
Mumbling something apologetic, Nate ducked back into the crowd and followed it out to the outside. The air was fresh, the weather clear and the sun shone hotly. It was so hot here! Nate slowed to a stop, taking in the heat and the humidity, before he plodded on towards McKinnon.
He stiffened, realizing someone had spoken his name several times. Flushing, Nate spun on his heels and almost tripped over the pavement. Mike just heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes.
“Uh, hi J-Julie.”
Julie Campbell, telepath, Jia’s roommate and his night warden had come up from behind and now stood there on the sidewalk with him. At least she had a smile. The soft white dress with black print flowers really went with her dark auburn hair. At least, Nate thought so. Truth be told, she was maybe the prettiest girl he’d ever laid eyes on in real life.
When she ducked her head and cleared her throat, Nate blushed even harder. “Shit, I’m sorry. Of course you can hear everything I th-I mean…um, how was your day?”
“Good,” Julie said. “I’ll tell you about it on the way to lunch?”
Nate’s jaw literally fell open. “You want to have lunch with me?”
“Well, Finn invited me to join him and Amara. Jia has something going on right now and you seemed free so I thought I’d take over, give Mike a break for lunch.”
“Hallejah,” Mike said quietly. Flashing her an appreciative smile, he peeled away from the two of them and went his own way.
“Tough first day, huh?”
Julie’s question surprised Nate, as did her several steps ahead. Only then did he realize she expected him to follow. He obliged, plodding along after her while trying to figure out why she would possibly want to spend a lunch she didn’t have to around him.
“Yeah. I mean, it’s fine. I’m just-“
“I understand. So many people.” Julie fell into step beside him and walked silently for a moment. “I can’t imagine being so…alone for all those years. You really never had any visitors?”
“I’m not safe,” Nate said. He hung his head. “As afraid as the DVA and the Army are of me, they’ll never be as afraid of me as I am. If I slip, if I do the slightest thing wrong…oh shit, I’m not supposed to talk about this in public!”
Julie laid a friendly hand on his shoulder. The warmth of her touch made him jump. Touch was something else he’d forgotten about.
“It’s fine. Just keep your comments general. Most students aren’t paying attention to us anyway, as quietly as we’re talking. And I’m shifting attention away from us. You won’t have any problems.”
“You can shift people’s attention?” Nate stared at her, fascinated. “How?”
“I’m really good at it, actually,” Julie said, smiling slightly. With pride, Nate thought, though she deserved it in his opinion. “Remember how I told Finn that people talk loudly in their heads? I can…well, it’s complicated but to use that analogy, I can dial up the volume of their thoughts. I can basically make people preoccupied with their own thoughts so they stop paying attention to what’s around them.”
Nate’s stare turned from fascination to amazement. “That’s incredible! It’s kind of like…mental invisibility?”
“That’s how I’ve used it,” Julie said, nodding and seemingly pleased. “So, how did you end up Jia’s roommate? Can I ask?”
“Do you even need to?” Nate asked back. He was still half credulous at the conversation, partially because she had to ask, partially because this girl who was so out of his league was talking to him at all.
“It hasn’t come up yet in anyone’s thoughts. And it’s not appropriate to pry.” Julie looked a bit self-conscious as she explained. “Reading someone’s surface thoughts is like sitting on a park bench reading a book when someone walks by while having a conversation. You can’t help what you overhear. Probing is different. That’s more like…looking at someone’s email behind their back or spying on them in the shower. Most of us can’t help but notice surface thoughts so it’s not really a legal violation of privacy. An unsolicited probe is illegal, though. They’ll cover all this in Ethics.”
Nate took a moment to collect his thoughts. They reached McKinnon Cafeteria in the meantime, though, and gratefully stepped into its air conditioned environs. Like most of the buildings in West Private, McKinnon had a kind of distinctive rippled concrete interior with wooden slat overlays across the top half of the walls. Doors were an almost rusty red and in universally excellent repair. Floors were chiefly concrete as well but featured impressions that varied from building to building. In McKinnon, pictures of influential Americans and a short name and biography were standard.
Finn and a girl were already at a table. Waving back to the Brit’s enthusiastic greeting, Nate got in line with Julie. The smells were incredible and his stomach rumbled.
“Well, this guy recruited us all,” he began as they picked items for their trays. “Um, Major Isaiah Diaz. I’m not really supposed to talk about it but, you know, you’re going to see it come up in my thoughts sooner or later. Basically-“
Julie came to a complete stop in the line. Her expression was one of shock. Then she picked up her tray and said nothing more until they reached the end of the line. Nate tried to sort out his food card while she paid for her meal. Thankfully, she took mercy on him and briefly explained the college food program on their way to Finn’s table.
The handsome black man leaned back in his chair and popped a grape into his mouth. “Nate, you look half past. Tough classes today?”
“Is it true?” Julie interrupted, looking him in the eyes.
“Yes,” Finn said swiftly. Then he said, “Wait, no. Unless it’s yes. Maybe? It might help if I knew what was supposed to be true.”
“She found out we’re here to find a lead on the Ringmaster,” Nate said.
Finn looked surprised. Then he laughed nervously and held out a hand towards the girl sitting at the table with him. She was a pretty thing, a bit small but very sleek with rich chestnut hair worn short in a way that looked so much better on a girl than a guy. Finn’s guest wore a tank-top tucked into a pair of shorts. A small tattoo of some Asian character lay on her upper right bicep. Otherwise, she seemed an ordinary if pleasant girl.
“This is Amara. Who, I’m sure, has no idea what you two are on about. Come to think of it, neither do I. Have you both gone daft or something?”
“That’s Amara English,” Julie said, sounding annoyed. “She’s a freshman too. Just like you two. Exactly like you two.”
Nate and Finn said “Oh!” at exactly the same time.
“Oh, you’re here for-” Amara started.
“Look, there’s been enough skirting the rules here,” Julie said, shaking her head at the conversation. “I’ll let it go. We’re talking about this tonight, though.”
“So this is my mate, Nate Insley,” Finn said, deciding the only way to handle the conversation was to pretend it hadn’t happened. “We’re rooming together this year. That’s Julie Campbell, she’s sort of our roommate too.”
“Hi Nate,” Amara said. Her voice had a husky quality to it, the kind of sexy smoldering Nate had always heard in those femme fatales in movies or lounge singers.
Both boys and both girls tucked into their food with the kind of relish that came from social embarrassment as well as real hunger. The flavors were extraordinary. Nate couldn’t help sounds of delight escaping his lips as he cut into a freshly made chicken burrito, a side of cheese-covered refried beans and a small pile of chips to dip with. Even his Coke tasted better than he remembered.
Glancing up, Nate realized his companions weren’t nearly as enthralled with their choices. Instead, they spent much of the lunch talking about classes, professors and what to expect for the afternoon. For his part, Nate ate silently and simply watched.
And wondered for the millionth time if he was the Ringmaster’s son.