Chapter 211

               “Have you decided what you want to start with?” Chad asked. He seemed genuinely curious rather than prying, which made sense given that he didn’t particularly need inside information to help him in the coming bout.

                “Thought about it all week, and to be honest I never found a compelling reason to go in any order,” Roy admitted. They two young men were walking down the hallway, making certain to be at the appointed cell before Professor Cole’s specified time. She was not a fan of tardiness, and both knew her reputation well enough to honor such a preference. “In the end I just decided I’d start with fists, ‘cause that’s the class I took first.”

                “Interesting,” Chad said, using a tone that told an entirely opposite tale from his word choice. Roy didn’t take it personally; he’d long since realized that dead-pan was just his blond friend’s default.

                “What do you mean ‘interesting’? Think I should do it the other way?”

                “No, I think you made the right call. If you did the bat first, then I might see techniques you’ve never brought to Close Combat, and that would cause me to expand the planned counters I have to your attacks. Starting with what I know you do gives it an honest baseline, and closing with Weapons allows you to still ‘come from left field’ as the saying goes.”

                “Damn. Sort of wish I’d said all that instead of the real reason I picked the order,” Roy admitted.

                “The order is ultimately of minimal importance, given our abilities. What you take from this battle will come from how much you put in to each round. No other element matters more than that.”

                “Nothing to worry about there,” Roy said. “Against you, I know I sure as shit can’t hold back.”

                “After having seen you go through those Sims before winter break, I can say this with complete honesty: Ditto.”’

*             *             *

                “I told you all this the first time you were informed about today’s training, but the point is of such importance that is bears repeating: this is a very rare opportunity, and you should make the most out of it.” Dean Blaine had given this short speech several times already, and as the five students stared at him on that Saturday afternoon he kept the same tempo and rhythm that had been used each in each of its previous incarnations. This show was for Rich and Selena, who were still clueless as to the real motives behind their sudden training regimen. Of those in the room, only Professor Stone and Professor Pendleton knew that this week was special. Today’s effort was about more far more than just training.

                “Mr. Weaver and Ms. Wilkins have made progress even in the small amount of time we’ve had to practice on their fellow students, which is good for you, the later groups, because it means you’ll be presented with an even greater challenge. Do all that you can to surpass the cages they can create, for one day the stakes may be far higher than simple bragging rights.”

                Dean Blaine nodded to Rich and Selena, who stared at this week’s subjects. Rich maintained a cold, stoic demeanor, but Selena gave a small wave and smile to Alice and Mary. Even if she had split from Alex over a year ago, they’d still spent too much time around each other not to at least show some cordialness. Allen, the third subject in today’s trials, wore an impassive face much like Rich’s.

                “We’ve been varying it up to keep everyone on their toes, sometimes giving Ms. Wilkins the group at their freshest, other times it goes to Mr. Weaver. Today, Mr. Weaver will be going first. He is going to put you all under for an hour. Anyone who manages to break free of his illusion will be interviewed afterward so we can gain a better understanding of how, and Mr. Weaver has the chance to deal with any holes that you may uncover in his ability. Afterward we will spend an hour with you fighting off Ms. Wilkins’s various melodies; following similar procedures should you find a way to buck her enchantments. Are there any questions?”

                He half-expected Mary Smith to ask a few, as she stared between the three educators with an uncertain gaze. No doubt she could tell something was off, the young woman was too skilled to miss the subtle signs, but she wouldn’t find any details lurking in their surface thoughts. Dean Blaine couldn’t very well suppress abilities within the room while testing was occurring, which was why he’d chosen his most mentally skilled associates to be in it with him. They were all too experienced to let the wrong thoughts slip by; leaving the telepath in the dark, at least for the moment.

                “What sort of scenario is Rich putting us in?” Alice asked. “I’d rather not spend an hour getting chased by monsters or something.”

                “Don’t worry, to start off Mr. Weaver is merely going to dump you into your own subconscious. It is the weakest version of his power, meaning if you’re going to break out that gives you the best chance. Should any of you free yourselves, Mr. Weaver will create more complex and powerful scenarios, but he is not permitted to subject any of you to unnecessary pain,” Dean Blaine informed her.

                “I… I guess I’m okay with that.” Alice bit her lip, ever so gently, and glanced at the ground. She was, no doubt, recalling the last time he’d put in that space. Perhaps she was even hoping for the same results as Dean Blaine. The woman was tenacious, he had little doubt she’d be willing to endure much if it meant getting a lead on her mother.

                “Have no fear, Professor Stone will be checking on each of you periodically, making certain that everything is within the expected parameters,” Dean Blaine said. “But we are on a clock, so unless you all have any other questions, I’d suggest we move things along.”

                Alice, Mary, and Allen each gave some version of a nod, which was all the permission Rich needed to start making his rounds. It only took an instant for each student, the moment they glanced into his eyes their consciousness slipped away as it tumbled into the labyrinth that Rich had constructed. In less than a minute, each of the subjects had been incapacitated and laid down onto the cots where they were resting. Dean Blaine pushed them together, but took great care not to let Mary or Alice so much as brush fingers. Not yet, anyway.

                He stared at them, wearing a mask of the same professional concern he’d had almost every other time they did this trial. Only once before had Dean Blaine needed to conceal anxiety, when Vince was one of the subjects. That had been a bust, as he went under and came up without so much as a single subconscious visitor. If nothing happened with Alice, then Dean Blaine would have to face the fact that they were running dangerously short of leads.

                Dean Blaine watched over his students, hoping that something would come from this day’s test, but most of all praying that he’d be able to keep them, even those not in this room, safe from whatever darkness was gathering on the horizon.