Chapter 21

Nick had solved the puzzle from Subtlety before his first afternoon class was done. It wasn’t all that hard, provided one had a basic level of pattern recognition and a head for numbers. No, the interesting part had been the second layer of it, barely noticeable unless you were looking for it, where a number equivalency substitution spelled out a separate code from the location-based one. This bit of information instructed the deciphering student to show up in a separate room twenty minutes prior to the start of class. It was clearly meant only for the overachievers to find, a test within a test to see who had the goods and who had the greats.

Nick felt his interest in Professor Pendleton rising even as he debated whether or not he should show up. It would mark him as intelligent and capable, two descriptors he worked adamantly to keep away from his character, but at the same time, it seemed Subtlety was his best bet for surviving into the next year. He was skilled at Ranged Combat, of course, and Weapons had gone well, however he’d easily been outstripped by those with abilities more rooted in the physical world. No, if he was going to make it past this year’s cuts it would have to be in Subtlety, and he did want to get as much training as possible before the descent of the proverbial axe. Still, it compromised the uselessness that he worked so hard to convey to the others, and while his secret might be blown to his own team, it was still an element of surprise he could utilize against others in the competitions.

The risk-to-reward ratio was high, but Nicholas Campbell wasn’t feared at every poker table in Las Vegas because he lacked the ability to make the hard choices. That thought put a smile on his face as a new plan coalesced in his mind. He didn’t really have to make a choice. All he had to do was outfox Professor Pendleton at his own game. That seemed a far more fitting way to demonstrate his skill in the course anyway.

Mind at ease, Nick went about working out the logistics for his plan. He only had the morning to act, but given the general disarray of such a period, he was confident he could pull it off with relative simplicity. He didn’t notice it, but he wore a grin as he worked. For the first time since he arrived at Lander, Nick wasn’t just running a con or sneaking by: he was issuing a challenge. The prospect of a genuine opponent couldn’t help but excite him.

*    *    *

Professor Pendleton opened the door to the classroom to find it jammed full of students. He’d secured this room, anticipating a three- or four-person maximum attendance. The code he’d buried in the back of the syllabus wasn’t exactly government-level encryption, but for sophomore students not even looking for it, only the most adept minds would even be alerted. That said, the moment he heard the buzz of noise it was evident something had gone horribly wrong.

The ruckus subsided as soon as Professor Pendleton’s lean body stalked through the door. He surveyed the faces before him and confirmed, to his horror, that everyone enrolled in his course was here. He took a deep breath and analyzed the situation calmly. There was no way all of them successfully decoded the message of the early meeting. That left the next logical explanation.

“Perhaps I failed to properly explain,” Professor Pendleton began, his voice even only thanks to his remarkable self-control. “The point of these exercises is to develop your own minds and skills. To that effect, collusion is greatly looked down upon in this class. Now, I’m sure the few of you who cracked the code only wanted to help a person or two each, to make your friends stand out, but as you can see, this is what happens when such behavior is indulged.”

“Um, what are you talking about, professor?” Alice asked uncertainly. She was seated at the front of the room, hand eagerly raised even to convey this informal query.

“The hidden message in yesterday’s puzzle that was clearly disseminated too freely,” Professor Pendleton replied.

“What message?”

“The one that told you to come here.”

“You mean the note?” Alice reached into her pocket and produced a folded piece of computer paper. Professor Pendleton snatched it from her hand, unfolded and began scanning through its contents.

“We all found them in our bags and uniform pockets this morning,” Alice added helpfully.

Professor Pendleton heard but didn’t acknowledge her; he was too absorbed in analyzing the document before him. It claimed to be a note from him, instructing the students to meet in this room at this time to discuss key changes to the syllabus. It hadn’t been signed, but of course the students would believe documents snuck onto their person could only have been accomplished by the teacher of the Subtlety class. There was nothing unique about the ink or paper. If he had to guess, it was likely the same used in the library above-ground. Someone had been thorough and thoughtful.

Professor Pendleton refolded the note and handed it back to Alice. He might not know who the culprit was, but he was able to recognize a shot across the bow. Someone was calling him out. He suppressed a smirk that tried to manifest itself at the thought that there might actually be some talent in his group after all.

“Everyone get to the classroom,” Professor Pendleton instructed them. “I’d try to split you up so only the ones who solved the puzzle could find it, however, at this point I don’t care. Just go. I’ll be in shortly.”

“What about the syllabus changes?” Alice asked.

“You found a mysterious note on your person and blindly trusted that it was from who it indicated,” Professor Pendleton said. “That is expertly idiotic, and the only reason I’m not dropping down on all of you like a hammer is because I don’t have any way to truthfully delineate who came here on their own and who only came because of the note. That said, Miss Adair, if you insist on asking such a relentlessly stupid question as to why I’m throwing you all out, after being clearly surprised by a note that I supposedly wrote, then maybe your day would best be spent focusing on one of the classes you have a better chance of still being enrolled in come next year.”

“I... I’m sorry,” Alice said softly, ducking her head down and all but bounding out of the classroom. The others followed at a respectful distance, none of them daring to pipe up after his unloading on the tall blonde girl.

As they filed out, Professor Pendleton reflected that he might have been harsher than intended. Still, the message was an important one. This might not be as physically-oriented of a major as the others, but it still demanded the same levels of excellence. Failing to analyze a situation or piece together details, even only once, could have just as disastrous consequences as failing to stop a speeding bus or catch a falling plane.

Better those who couldn’t cut it turn their eyes elsewhere sooner rather than later. It seemed that wasn’t the whole class, however. One of his students wanted to challenge Professor Pendleton and see what the old man was made of. He ran his index finger and thumb across his chin as he contemplated. He’d teach today’s class as planned. After that, it was time for a little detective work.