Chapter 111

                Alice knew there were more layers to the cipher than she was seeing. While her code-cracking skills weren’t top-of-class grade, she had absorbed enough knowledge to recognize patterns when they cropped up. That same ability told her that everything beyond the first code was too complex for her to crack. Yes, given infinite time and a thousand monkeys with typewriters she might be able to make sense of it all, but Alice didn’t have infinite time. The junior’s final exam was only two weeks away.

                She was sitting on her bed, notepad open in front of her. One word. That had been what was at the end of the rabbit hole that the first code led her down. A single word scrawled in the locker of a gym changing-room. Presumably there had been one on the men’s side too, she didn’t think even Professor Pendleton was such a jerk that he’d make them break into rooms for the opposite sex. Alice had pictures of it, and had even gone back once to double-check that the word was all there was. No matter what angle she looked at it from, the conclusion was clear: This was the prize she’d been working for.

                Alice started to set the notepad on the bed, then thought better of it. Instead, she created a very small, very specific gravitational anomaly that pulled it from her hand and sent it careening toward the desk. Just before it hit, she reversed the pull, killing its momentum, and let it drift down gently under gravity that was only at a quarter of its regular strength. While she didn’t have the finesse or speed of a telekinetic, Alice’s ability had grown by leaps and bound in terms of functionality. Whatever the test was, she could almost certainly ace it from a Control aspect. So why was she trying so hard to win through Subtlety?

                The answer was, unfortunately, tied up in the subjects she’d been trying not to think about for the last month. Alice was surrounded by mysteries. Her mother’s fake death, her father’s lies, the dream-walker who seemed to hold answers yet never surfaced; except for her Melbrook friends Alice didn’t have anything in her life that was solid and real.

                A small snicker escaped her throat at a rogue thought: she’d mentally included Nick in her cast of Melbrook friends. Of all things in her life, the one she counted on least was thinking of Nick Campbell as a person she could count on. It was odd, looking back, realizing how often Nick had told the truth while burying it in sarcasm and teasing. If he were here, he’d tell in no uncertain terms why she was so stuck on Subtlety. He’d say she wanted to prove she had the skills, because it meant she could start unraveling all the mysteries around her. She wanted control of her life, instead of Control certification for her power.

                With a minor grunt, more from exasperation than effort, Alice got off her bed and walked over to her desk. She picked up the cipher, page nearly worn through from all the man-handling as she carried it about, and grabbed a pen. True, the odds her cracking one of the harder codes was damned near impossible, especially given how long the first one had taken her, but Alice didn’t mind daunting odds. She’d come into the HCP as a flier, with no combat experience, and a life spent being a rich and sheltered Powered. In two and half years she’d clawed her way to the top ten students, and in two weeks she was going to kick ass in every direction. Daunting odds be damned, Alice Adair was a woman who would at least go down swinging.

                Even if, tonight, she was only swinging a pen and some brain cells.

*             *             *

                Walter set down the last of the trashcans and stood up to survey his work. The carpet was covered under plastic sheeting, the kegs positioned in a triangular shape near the kitchen, and various liquors were stacked in the make-shift bar they’d set-up on the dining room table. As he scanned the room, he caught Cameron heading toward one of the kegs with a tap in hand.

                “Don’t even think about it. The party is still two days away.”

                “Oh come on, just a few cups,” Cameron whined.

                “We’re using pump taps, that means the beer will go flat within a day or so of being opened,” Walter reminded him. “I’m already running behind on this thing, throwing it weeks after it should have happened. The last thing I want to do is serve flat beer.”

                “Can I at least hit the liquor?”

                “Fine, but you’re in charge of replacing whatever you drink before the party,” Walter relented. From anyone else, Cameron’s behavior would be a serious concern and probably signal the need for intervention. For a Super whose body converted alcohol into strength, energy, and health, however, it made sense for him to keep a semi-constant stream going into his bloodstream.

                “Look at you, Mr. Serious suddenly caring so much about a party.” Candi walked down the stairs as she taunted, dressed in something that was halfway between workout clothes and pajamas. The further they got into the HCP, the more they viewed everything as workout clothes.

                “It’s an important milestone for the freshmen. Remember how excited and nervous we were last year?”

                “I mostly remember Cameron having a sparring match with Roy Daniels, and idiotically going in without so much as a sip of hard liquor,” Candi replied.

                “Hey, I’ve gotten better about that,” Cameron defended. He walked over with a tumbler full of assorted liquors and some red-colored fruit juice. “Speaking of, ice-maker is on the fritz again. Walter, can you help me out?”

                “Fine, but we need to get it fixed by the party.” Walter focused on the drink, isolating the water mixed throughout the alcohol. It, like all water, obeyed Walter’s wishes. He lowered the temperature while swirling it about to make sure the cold reached the entire drink. After a few seconds, he nodded to Cameron, who took a test-sip and nodded with approval.

                “Think ours will be as much fun as last years?” Candi asked.

                “Well, Cameron might start a fight with someone, so it’s possible,” Walter said. “Though last year’s had The Five from Melbrook. I don’t think we can match that.”

                “We might be able to get Roy, since we have free beer,” Cameron suggested. Ever since their match last year, he’d spoken of his upper-classman in reverent tones that only heavy drinkers and fighters who’ve lost to a superior opponent could understand.

                “I’m not sure the freshmen are even aware of them,” Candi replied. “It’s not like when we came in and there was the kidnapping scandal. They’ve got their own stuff to worry about; they don’t care as much for rumors.”

                “Candi is right,” Walter said. “Besides, this is about the freshman, not the juniors. We need to make them our focus.”

                “Too bad, I bet they’re up to all kinds of exciting shit,” Cameron said.

                “Keep things in perspective, they're just juniors like the rest of their class,” Walter told him. “Whatever they’re doing right now, I’m sure we’ll be doing next year at this time.”