Chapter 25

“Would you care to elaborate?” Mary prodded as the others merely stared at Nick silently. They’d grown a bit too used to his pageantry to be surprised by such declarations anymore. Nick nodded his agreement and produced a set of playing cards from his pocket. He sat down in front of the coffee table and dutifully began setting out one card after another until he had displayed seven different cards in a line, face up.

“Let’s go with a more visual explanation,” Nick said. “Each of these cards represents a member of Britney’s team. The numbered cards represent non-combat abilities, while the face cards represent fighting prowess. Higher is, of course, more powerful.”

“So there are three Jacks,” Vince noted.

“Michael, Allen, and Hector,” Nick said. “All three at the lowest level of combat skill when compared to the rest of the class.”

“That leaves a nine, two sixes, and an eight,” Alice observed.

“Correct,” Nick confirmed. “This only takes into account the usefulness of the super abilities of the person in question, not any other extraordinary qualities they may possess. So the nine is Adam, the eight is Britney, and the sixes are Gilbert and Terrance.”

“That doesn’t seem bad at all,” Roy said.

“Oh? That’s my fault, then. I should have given you a standard of comparison.” Nick began doling cards out again, this time face down, one to each person in the room. He placed one down in front of himself and sat back down.

“Only a Jack? That’s bullshit,” Roy declared after immediately turning his over. “I’m in the top five of the men’s class.”

“So is Michael – who was initially higher than you at that - but I gave him a Jack, too,” Nick pointed out.

“I guess that would make me one as well,” Vince said, flipping his own card over to indeed reveal a Jack.

“If we’re so weak then who in the class has those higher cards?” Roy demanded.

“There are a few Queens, but I’ll tell you this: since I evaluate people based on the scale derived from only the skill levels present in our class, there is only person at the top of the heap. There is only one King.”

“Chad,” Camille said softly.

“Bingo, give the girl a prize,” Nick confirmed. “The only people we’ve seen bring him down were professors.”

“I can accept that Chad is at the top, but no way that I’m still on the bottom rung,” Roy insisted.

“My evaluations are made from the latest data I have. Show me something to change my mind in our match and I’ll happily hand you a new card,” Nick offered.

“Fine,” Roy said succinctly.

“I’m a nine?” The voice asking wasn’t loud but it was audible and familiar all the same.

“Of course. Healing is a ridiculously useful power in almost any scenario. The only person with a more useful non-fighting power is Rich,” Nick said.

“Oh, fuck you!” Alice yelled, jumping up from her seat. “A four? The girl who turns invisible is an eight but I’m only a fucking four? You can be such an asshole.”

“Alice-” Vince said, trying to get her attention.

“No, don’t defend him. I know I’m not the best among us, but I’ve been a little useful. My four of a power was enough to save his life.”

“Alice-” Vince tried again.

“I mean, I’m not deluded or anything. I just hate being publicly branded as the weakest, most ineffectual of the team like this.”

“Alice, look at Nick’s card,” Mary commanded. Her instructions penetrated where Vince’s kindness had failed and Alice swept her eyes to the small rectangle of plastic set before Nick. During her rant he had flipped it over, revealing a two of spades for all to see.

“Like I said before,” Nick said in the sudden silence that descended. “I only took powers into account in these evaluation systems. It doesn’t reflect anything about the wiles or capabilities of the person outside of those confines.”

“You really think you’re only a two?” Vince asked.

“I know it. My power, while strong enough to get me here, is unpredictable at best. That means it can’t be relied on consistently so it has very limited application in any competitive scenario. That does not, however, mean I consider myself to be useless.”

“Oh,” Alice said as comprehension dawned. “I’m sorry.”

“Honesty comes with hurt feelings,” Nick said. “That’s part of why I avoid it.”

“Hey, why do Alex and I have aces?” Mary asked. “I thought everyone was either a number or a face card.”

“Most everyone is. But there are a few people whose powers are extremely useful both in and out of combat. Since an ace can represent either the top of the card progression or the bottom, I felt it was a good symbol of those with dual function,” Nick explained. “In terms of just fighting ability, Mary is a Queen and Alex is a Jack.”

“Sounds about right,” Alex agreed before anyone could raise hell at Mary’s placement above the others.

“Now, set your cards down in front of the other team and tell me what you see,” Nick told them.

They complied, and it was Mary who drew the obvious conclusion.

“In a straight-up fight it seems like we have the advantage.”

“We don’t have an advantage, we have a slaughter,” Nick corrected. “Not only do we have an additional member of our team with fighting capabilities, that person is a Queen. Add on the healer and they’d have no shot in hell if this were a brawl.”

“So how does that make us fucked then?” Alice asked.

“Because our advantage is so disproportional we know that it won’t be that type of event. It wouldn’t teach either group anything and it wouldn’t force us to use our heads,” Nick explained. “By the same token, since they outclass us so seriously in the non-combat side, we know it won’t be purely about avoidance, either. No, the only kind of event they could match us in where we start on even ground is one where the strategies could be either battle- or tactically-based. That way each team can choose a strategy best suited to their strengths and the better of the two will win.”

“So again, why are we in trouble?” Roy asked.

“Because their team is composed of lots of people who are used to having to outthink their opponents,” Alex realized. “They’re better on their feet than most of us. So if it comes down to a game of who can come up with the best strategy on the fly...”

“Exactly,” Nick said. “I can give us a starting plan once we know what the test is, but a necessity in this type of situation is adapting as things change, and if we have to splinter that will put several of you on your own.”

“So how do we close the gap then?” Vince asked, eyes already twinkling at the prospect of a new challenge.

“We learn to think in teams,” Nick replied. “Circle up close, everyone, because this next part will affect us in every match for the rest of the year.”