Chapter 96

“Most of you did quite well on your emotional recognition assignment,” Professor Pendleton said, handing back stacks of photos that each student had been tasked with assessing. Some of the faces were enthusiastic in their expression, while others were little more than deadpan. Each had to be plumbed for their contents; seeing what existed beneath the surface was a key aspect for anyone in the Subtlety field, especially in regards to reading people.

“Of course, there were some students who showed significantly less competence.” Alice’s paper was dropped dramatically on her desk, just in case anyone had been wondering who the professor was referring to. She bit her lip to hold back the flush of shame that was trying to mar her normally perfect skin. This was a technique Nick had taught her; pain took higher precedence in the brain’s hierarchy than embarrassment so it reacted to the injury instead of humiliation.

Alice hadn’t expected to ace the assignment: while she had practice reading people, her skill depended on things like tone and inflection more than just facial composition. She had at least hoped not to embarrass herself. At this point she just wanted to get through to the end of the year when Subtlety would undoubtedly be dropped from her schedule. Sadly, it looked as though she had a long way to go before she reached that finish line.

“I thought this week we’d do something a little more active than our usual analysis work,” Professor Pendleton announced after dropping the last stack of papers with its owner. “You all are going to be learning the art of tailing.”

The class looked at him with piqued interest. Most students would know the term, but likely wouldn’t be excited by the subject matter. Professor Pendleton’s class didn’t contain “most students.” These were the ones who adored the topics he covered and hungered for practice as they grew bloated with theory. Tailing would provide that; there was no way to master it without a fair bit of actual doing.

“This will be a game called Watching and Spotting, the goal of which is to achieve five points by this time next week. The Watching part of your assignment will be to follow someone from this class for a span of three hours without being noticed. You must document their activities carefully, as this will be the proof that you succeeded. Completing this task will earn you one point.” Professor Pendleton stepped across the room, forcing their eyes to follow. He was keenly proud of this exercise and he wanted to make certain they paid full attention for the explanation of it.

“Conversely, Spotting occurs if you should find yourself being followed. You may document the timeframe during which you see your pursuer and turn it in for one point. This will, of course, negate the Watcher’s point.”

“Wait, so if we watch someone without getting spotted we get a point, but if they see us then they’re the one to actually get a point?” Alice asked.

“Correct,” Professor Pendleton confirmed. “A timeframe and activity log must be presented along with the notice of a Spot. It will be compared to the notes the Watcher submits, and if the Spot does not match at least one hour out of the three of pursuit, then the Spot will not be counted.”

This time it was Julia who interrupted the professor. “You’re saying when we watch someone, we don’t know if they spot us or not. That comes out when everyone turns their stuff in. So if we don’t know if we were caught then how do we know if we have enough points to pass?”

“You don’t.”

“Oh.” Julia looked visibly disturbed.

“If you can’t tell whether the person you are Watching is aware of your existence then you don’t truly deserve the points,” Professor Pendleton explained. “All information gathering is an active process. You can’t just observe, you need to know if the person is aware you are observing. If they are then they could feed you false information. By the same logic, if you know that they know then you can twist the tables on them.”

“I’m confused,” Gilbert moaned from the back.

“He’s saying that a Watcher can screw a Spotter right back. Think about it: a Spot only counts if you successfully identified your Watcher and the time frame you submit consists of at least one of the three hours you were being Watched. If the Watcher realizes they’ve been seen, they can always elect not to turn in their notes on that tail, thereby depriving the Spotter of their point.” Tiffani Hunt drew many curious glances with her outburst, but the nod of approval from Professor Pendleton told her she was on the money.

“Well said. Identifying misinformation is even more important than obtaining information in the first place,” Professor Pendleton continued. “Now that we’ve covered how the game works, or at least as much as I’m willing to explain it, I’ll briefly touch on grading. Five points is the goal so it is an A. Four is a B, three a C, two a D, and anyone with one point or less will receive a failing grade.” A familiar hand shot up from the center of the desks and Professor Pendleton resisted the urge to sigh loudly. “Ms. Adair, I am not going to go back over how-”

“What if we get more than five points?” Alice felt a twinge of shame interrupting a teacher, but she wasn’t going to let a golden opportunity slip by.

“More than five points?”

“Yes. What if we exceed the goal?”

Professor Pendleton stared at her for a long moment, the wheels in his head turning so loudly some of the students near the front could make out a faint ‘click-clack’ noise. “If, and that is a mighty big if, you are able to get over five points, then you will receive bonus credit. Each point over will raise a previous assignment by one letter grade, at a maximum of ten.”

“And what if-”

“If you exceed ten then you have hopelessly too much time on your hands,” Professor Pendleton said, this time cutting her off. “But I’ll concede the possibility. Anyone who exceeds ten points will be invited to a special challenge session. Should someone come away from that session victorious they will have an automatic A on the final exam for this class.”

The class buzzed; HCP course finals were notoriously difficult. Jumping through all those hoops had to be an afternoon on the couch by comparison. Many students set their will to accomplish the impossible, despite the fact that less than a minute before they’d been wondering how they would ever pull a passing grade out of this assignment. Amidst it all, Professor Pendleton wondered about the curiosity of the fact that Alice, one of the class’s worst performers, was sitting at her desk with a smug smile across her face.