Chapter 159

               “Let’s talk about your final,” Professor Pendleton announced, barely having shut the classroom door. He strolled over to his desk and took stock of the bright-eyed students staring up at him. They looked so well-rested and refreshed after their vacation; it was clear he’d have to wear them back down quickly. Real life in the Hero world didn’t come with scheduled breaks when the mind and body could recuperate. Getting them accustomed to running on a half-tank was the best training he could possibly impart, and he aimed to train them well.

                “Aren’t we supposed to go see you during office hours?” Britney asked.

                “Well certainly you are, but that’s only regarding your last final. And really, who cares about what’s already gone? I want to focus on the new, on the next, on what’s over the horizon.” Professor Pendleton hopped up and sat on his desk, his long legs still nearly skimming the ground.

                “You’re going to tell us about our year’s end exam,” Will surmised.

                “Close, very close, but just slightly off,” Professor Pendleton said. “I’m going to tell you exactly what your exam is, how it will be graded, and what you can do to prepare. That’s right, first class of the semester and I’m dealing out the goods. Who’s your favorite teacher now?”

                The class remained silent, merely watching him with careful eyes. They’d been under his tutelage for too long to believe anything that easy would be assigned to them. The ones who couldn’t figure that out were no longer in the curriculum, after all.

                “That last exam tested the analytical side of your minds, putting you through the ringer as far as code-cracking, hint-following, and the general madness that comes from sniffing out a digital trail. But, Subtlety had another side to it, one equally as important but far less defined. Would anyone care to guess what that side is? Maybe Miss Adair would like to take a crack at it.”

                “Social engineering,” Alice shot back, not an ounce of hesitation in her voice. She was getting bolder, which was both good and bad, depending on if she was aware of it or not.

                “Correct. Social engineering, things like, oh I don’t know, telling mall security that an innocent and beloved teacher was taking upskirt photographs of young women just so they would track him down.” Professor Pendleton gave Alice a short glare, which she greeted with a warm smile. Definitely bolder, no doubt about it. “Crass as it was, that was still a valid use of Subtlety. Turning assets, misdirection, using people as tools, it’s all part of what a Subtlety Hero does. Information is our bread and butter, and sometimes there’s no easier way to get it than with a charming smile and an open bar tab.”

                “Please tell me we get to do this in a bar,” Rich said.

                “No such luck, young Mr. Weaver. No, this is a simple game of trust.” Professor Pendleton hopped off his desk and walked around to the blackboard. Picking up a piece of chalk, he quickly scrawled the number “210” across the board. “In your Subtlety final this year, you’re all going to fight one another. The winner will receive this many points. The losers get nothing.”

                “Wait, all this talk about being smarter and craftier than everyone else, and our test is just another fight?” Selena said. Though she felt she could do well in open combat, it didn’t change the fact that it wasn’t why she’d stayed in the class.

                “Yes, and also no. Fighting is a good testing ground, because it’s something you’re all familiar with, but that’s not what I’m really looking at.” Professor Pendleton turned back around to the class. “You see, for this test, you’ll be allowed to work in teams. When I say the winner gets the points, I mean exactly that. The winning team will have their points split between them. So a team of one gets all of it, a significant bump for those of you who are falling behind. A team of two gets a little over a hundred points each; a perfect grade with bonus, and a team of three gets seventy apiece. That’s just barely passing, for those keeping score. No point in going lower, since you’d just be splitting failure four ways.”

                “A team fight instead of knock-down brawl? How does this change things?” Sasha asked.

                “Because you’re forming the teams, you’re all working together, but you’ll be telling me your teams individually,” Professor Pendleton explained. “Let’s say that Selena and Rich form a team. They train together, plan together, and have a great strategy. Just before the test, Selena turns in a paper that says she and Rich are a team. If Rich turns in the same, then great; win or lose they’re in it together. However, if Rich turns in a paper saying he’s working alone, then they’re not on a team at all. Of course, only one of them will know that going into the fight.”

                Comprehension shot through the class like an attack from Professor Fletcher. They didn’t just have to worry about working together; they had to wonder how much they could trust their teammates, and how much they should keep to themselves. It would mean working without a sense of unity, never knowing if talking strategy would help your team or just get you stabbed in the back.

                “Some of you are, undoubtedly, thinking that the best course of action is just to askew the teams and go it alone,” Professor Pendleton said. “After all, there are those in this class whose martial capabilities far outstrip others. If that’s the way you decide to go, I won’t stop you. Just remember that the stronger you think yourself, the bigger a target you’re wearing the minute the action hits, and there’s no one in here that couldn’t be brought down by a well-coordinated team. Then again, maybe you can win through sheer force. It’s possible, but it’s the kind of victory that will ensure you’re not invited to make this major your Hero specialty. I want to see how you deal with this side of Subtlety, because it’s one you’re going to have to use frequently.”

                Professor Pendleton walked back over to his desk and resumed his perch. “One more thing: no using other students to help you figure out what others are thinking. You might have teammates with telepathy or something close to it in the future, but if you can’t complete this sort of task on your own then you have no right calling yourself a Subtlety Hero. This is you, and maybe your team, against everyone else. You have an entire semester to court your assets and plan your betrayals. Good luck.”