Chapter 86

Testing season commenced across Lander with a flurry of final all-nighters and a run on energy drinks at the surrounding gas stations. The exams were spread across a three-day period, allowing for some recovery time if a one had a fortunate schedule and a gauntlet of intellectual trials if one were not so lucky. As the days advanced, the populace dwindled, students hightailing it back home on winter break as soon as their final blue book had been handed off to a sullen TA. By the final day only a smattering remained; those who had tests on the last day were cursed or blessed depending on whether they prized the extra study time over the chance to take an early leave.

Vince counted himself in the blessed category as he pored over a practice test, eyes darting between failed problems and the steady progress of the clock on the wall. He was so engrossed he didn’t even notice the sound of the front lounge door opening as Nick entered, backpack slung low over his shoulder.

“Damn it, Vince. I thought we talked about last-minute cramming.”

Vince jumped in surprise, knocking his knee against the wooden table. He let out a mumbled curse and turned toward Nick, who was glaring at him like a father who had just caught his son looking through brochures for ballet schools.

“I know. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t resist trying to figure out a few things I missed.”

“A brain is just like any other muscle.” Nick crossed the room in a few long-legged strides and snatched away Vince’s papers. “You can’t burn it out right before you need it to perform at peak capacity. Train and heal. How is it you can understand that when it comes to exercise but not studying?”

Vince grinned sheepishly. “In all honesty I’m not that good at resting when it comes to exercise either.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” Nick folded the papers and stuffed them in his back pocket. “Okay look, it’s noon right now. Your test is at two, right?”


“Then you are going to do some mindless bullshit until half past one. Television, porn, even comic books. I don’t care, just go and strain your brain no more.” Nick’s tone and body language made it clear that this was an order, not a request. Normally Vince might have balked a bit more, but Nick had put in countless hours over the last few weeks helping him study. After all that work, if Nick thought he needed to rest, then Vince would trust him.

“Okay. I’ll go watch a movie.” Vince got up from his chair and started toward the boys’ side lounge.

“If I knock on your door and see you with a book open, you and I are going to have it out,” Nick called after him. It was purely for show: Vince was one of the few people who did what he said he would do, situation regardless. Besides, Nick still had his own work to complete; he didn’t have time to check in on Vince. He’d wrapped up his own final exam in exceptional time, even by his standards. He needed the hour before Vince left to finish the last of the arrangements. Most of the prep work had gone smoothly enough, but Nick knew far too well that things could fall apart at the last minute if one let details slide.

He walked back to the common room’s front door and hefted it open. Two figures walked in immediately, neither looking particularly cheerful at having been left in the entrance hall. Some of the sentiment might have been bitterness: this was their first time seeing Melbrook and its impressive accommodations. Both of them were in the HCP as well, yet they were confined to standard dorm rooms like all the other students.

“Vince should be effectively distracted,” Nick informed them. “Are there any questions before we start our operation?”

Neither Adam nor Rich spoke, which made Nick quite happy. Last-minute questions were a symptom of poor communication, and Nick did not engage in such a sloppy practice as poor communication.

“Excellent. If everyone is ready then let’s go to work.”

*    *    *

Vince walked nervously into the classroom and grabbed a seat near the middle of the desks. He glanced around and saw the rest of the class seemed to look more certain than him. No one else was fidgeting with their pencil and looking to the heavens for hope, anyway. He’d barely gotten settled when the professor breezed in the door with a stack of papers in hand. He dropped half of them on the desk of his TA and within a few moments all the tests were disseminated through the class.

“You have one hour to complete the exam. Those who are unable to finish will turn in what they have completed when time is out. Good luck. You may begin.”

Vince swallowed a fresh wave of fear and turned over the first page. A small sense of relief tickled his brain as he realized he knew how to work the beginning set of problems. It made sense: this was what they’d first covered so it was the building block to the rest of the class. He might not understand everything, but he’d drilled himself hard enough on the basics to be capable of working through them.

The next page revealed more questions he was able to handle, and the one after that, and the one after that. As the minutes ticked by, Vince found a sense of optimism blooming in his chest. He wasn’t getting every single problem; however, he was by far knocking out the majority of them. When he finished the last page, he glanced up at the clock and realized he still had half an hour left. Vince turned the book over and began to recheck his answers with the remaining minutes, though for the most part it was a futile gesture. For the first time in weeks he was feeling genuinely confident.

He turned in his test and exited with a smile. He’d done it. Vince had no doubt he had passed that monster of a class. A joyful whistle escaped his lips as he exited the math building and never looked back.

*    *    *

A silver-haired boy slunk into the classroom quietly, dropping his backpack at a desk near the back of the room. A quick glance around showed nervous faces anxiously studying notecards and practice tests as the final seconds ticked away. There was a rapid shuffle of papers as the professor walked in and nodded to his TA, who immediately rose from her desk and began handing out the tests.

“You will have one hour to complete the exam. If there are any questions, you may come speak to me at my desk. Any unfinished problems at the end of the time limit will be counted as incorrect answers. I wish you all the best of luck. Please begin.”

The room was filled with the scratching of pencil lead as students made furious calculations and deductions, slowly working their way through each page. The first student, a bright girl with dark hair, was done within twenty minutes. After her departure, a paced parade of students made their way to the desk, dropping their exams off along with a hopeful glance and a softly mumbled prayer. The silver-haired boy was among the last to finish, walking to the desk only five minutes before time ran out.

“Feel confident, Vince?” The professor had taken a bit of a liking to this student; his poor grasp of concept was redeemed by the focus and dedication he showed day after day in class.

“I feel like I did everything I could. That’s the best any one of us can offer.”

The two exchanged a friendly smile and the professor turned his attention back to the remaining students. Soon time would be up and then the results would come out.