Alice put the folded slip of paper into Professor Pendleton’s lean hands, and he tugged it carefully away. She’d written her slip months before, though that morning, she’d made sure to publicly scrawl some gibberish on a different one before discreetly tucking it into her sleeve. The less people knew, the better. In a situation like this, trust was almost impossible. Maybe if Mary or Vince had been in the class, it would have been different. But she supposed the very reasons she knew she would have been able to trust them was why they hadn’t been chosen for Subtlety in the first place. No, her best bet was to trust in logic, and that told her that she would be the main target the moment the fighting began. But they knew that she was easily aware of that fact, and it meant she’d have been a fool not to make some sort of alliance. So long as no one was sure who she had partnered up with, however, they would have a grain of distrust for all the others. Taking her down would be futile if her secret teammates proceeded to beat the others.
Professor Pendleton had lied to them when he told them the point of the exercise; it was never about trust. It was all about confusion and misdirection. Doubt was the greatest weapon in their arsenals—if they could make people doubt their allegiances, and those owed to them, it would be more effective than a punch to the face could ever be.
The sound of a shutting door sealed the students inside their large combat cell. Moments later, Professor Pendleton’s voice crackled out over the speaker system as he gazed down at them from the viewing room. “As you all know, today’s battle is a team match, but only you know what teams you are on,” Professor Pendleton announced. “The fight goes on until only one actual team is standing. Until you hear me call the fight over, I’d recommend not lowering your guard, no matter what you may be expecting.”
He looked out over his students proudly; not all six of them would continue under his instruction, but there was no doubt that all who made it to the rank of Hero would be a little more tricky and cunning than their peers. That alone could make a difference, as he knew oh so well.
The word was no sooner spoken than Britney disappeared, taking her rapier with her. Will was almost as quick in lifting his staff and taking a defensive position, waiting to see who would make a run at him. Alice was a second behind, leaping straight up and out of range for melee encounters, a move that demonstrated its intelligence seconds later, when Sasha arrived at the spot where Alice had been standing. Rich glared up at her, but Alice avoided catching his gaze. Her first priority was the young woman whose melodic notes were already beginning to drift through the room, slowing the movements of her opponents. Selena had a wicked glint in her eye, enjoying the fact that only she could strike at so many of her opponents simultaneously.
The glint turned into shock as she felt herself rising rapidly off the ground, though, true to her training, she kept right on singing. Still, she turned to Alice, who met her withering stare with a cheerful thumbs up.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got you! Keep on singing, and no one can touch us.”
It would have been simple enough for any of the students to read the shock and panic in Selena’s eyes, but Alice had tilted the siren so that only she could see the expression. Selena could certainly deny their status as teammates . . . if she was willing to stop her song. Alice could almost watch the thoughts cascading through Selena’s mind as she worked her way toward the inevitable conclusion.
A sharp cry of pain rang out as Rich was knocked to the floor from behind. He struggled to get up, but a wound suddenly appeared on his back, then one on each of his legs, and finally, one on his shoulder before he stopped fighting and allowed his hands to be zip-tied behind him by the unseen attacker.
Britney was just finishing handling Rich when a beam of light struck her from Will’s staff. Her head swam, and she struggled to stay upright, hoping dearly that whatever tech wonder he’d shot her with wouldn’t render her visible. That hope was crushed as she felt a sharp pain in her neck, and suddenly, it felt like someone was rattling her whole body down to the bones.
“My newest sonic neutralizer,” Will said. “Now in personal-size incapacitation models.” He was able to gloat for a solid half second before a fast-moving Sasha slammed into him from behind, sending him sprawling across the floor.
“Hands off my partner,” she declared as she watched him fall, ready for his counter. To her surprise, he kept on rolling, popping right up and meeting her gaze with steely resolve.
“Think this through, Sasha; do you really want to knock me out? I am the only one left with a ranged attack, after all.” He pointed the tip of his staff through the air, motioning to where Alice and Selena were suspended. “How about we deal with them next, and take on each other last. Gives both of us better odds.”
Sasha hesitated as her mind tumbled the offer around. Will was right; she’d have a lot more trouble taking out the flying duo on her own. Logically, it was the right move to make, but something still felt off about it to her. Unlike Alice, Sasha had not yet learned the power of trusting her intuition, so she gave a hesitant, but definite, nod of acceptance.
“Get ready to take care of Alice; this won’t stun her for long.” Will whipped his staff to the ready, took careful aim, and fired another beam of light. No sooner had it made contact with Alice than she began to drop like a stone—as did Selena. The siren’s song turned to a panicked scream as the concrete came rushing up at her. She hadn’t been that high, though from the snapping sounds her legs made on impact, Will estimated that she’d broken a leg or two.
Sasha zoomed across the cell, prepared to deliver the knockout blow as soon as Alice hit the ground. She was struggling with all her might, twitching and flopping and trying to hold on to her height even as she kept steadily falling. Alice was only a hair’s breadth away when Sasha reached out for her. To her shock, Sasha felt the ground slip under her feet as she was tugged upward. At the same time, Alice drifted away, spinning around to reveal a Cheshire grin on her face.
“I was worried about catching you most of all. You’re so fast, I’d have needed to cut off power to the entire room, and Professor Pendleton would have probably docked me points for not finding a more class-appropriate way to catch you. Like this one, for example.”
“Will!” Sasha yelled, trying to twist in the air and finding it fruitless. “Little help! Your gizmo wore off.”
“Oh, no, Will only had one real shot loaded,” Alice replied. “He zapped me with the laser equivalent of a blank. Done with Selena yet?”
“I put a sonic Taser on her; hopefully, it will knock her out quickly. She seemed to be in a fair bit of pain.” Will walked calmly over from the now incapacitated songstress.
“But, you grabbed Selena and tried to help . . . aw dicks.” Sasha shook her head and grunted. “First fucking rule of this class is not to trust what you think you see. Guess I shouldn’t be that shocked that you two outfoxed me, though I am a little pissed.”
“It was a gamble. Sometimes, they work; sometimes, they don’t.” Alice pulled one of Will’s small Tasers from her pocket and released it from her hand, watching it float through the air for a peaceful moment. “This one did.” The Taser zipped through the air like a dart, slamming into Sasha’s shoulder. A moment later, the girl with pink-streaked hair was set gently on the ground as Alice landed next to her. She turned to face Will, who looked right back at her.
“So,” Alice said.
“So,” Will echoed.
* * *
“I think we should form a team. You know, for the final.” Alice didn’t seem particularly nervous as she talked to Will outside the gym, though she was being careful to make sure no other students came within range to overhear them.
“Why? You’re certainly a skilled combatant, but my own capabilities in that realm are a bit lacking. Wouldn’t it make more sense for you to pair with someone who also a considerable physical force?” Will didn’t actually see this as a better strategy; he was more curious as to why Alice hadn’t gone that route.
“That would be silly. I’m already a powerhouse. I don’t need another me. I need someone slippery and smart, who can be precise while I’m being blunt,” Alice replied. “Besides, you’re the only one in there I could actually trust enough to make plans with.”
“I suppose we have been through a lot,” Will agreed.
“No, that goes out the window in a fight,” Alice said. “It’s because you understand numbers. If a team of two wins, then we each get a hundred points, more than enough to pass us, since we did well on the mid-term. Yes, you could screw me over and get double that, but there’s no need for it. Half, even a third, will get you over the next hurdle. The others might get greedy, or really need the extra boost. You’re cold and calculating, in a good way. You understand that the best path forward is making a deal that gets you into the winner’s circle.”
“I’ll admit that your math adds up,” Will said.
“Thanks. And even if you do betray me, you’ll at least wait until all the others are taken out. No sense in making it harder on ourselves. If it’s down to just us two, and you turn coat, I can still work with that.”
“Alice Adair, you make a compelling case,” Will admitted. “I think that you and I can be partners. Until we’re the last ones standing, if nothing else.”
* * *
An uneasy tension hung in the air as they watched each other, waiting for the slightest sign of aggression. One twitch, one quick move, and violence would dominate the cell once more. At last, their standoff was broken by the electric crackle of the speaker.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, you both put each other down as teammates,” Professor Pendleton said. “The match is officially over. You could have at least put on a little bit of an after-show, though.”
“Maybe next time,” Alice said, slowly relaxing.
“Next time, for sure,” Will agreed.