Chapter 97

               “Today we’re going to talk about the end of semester exam.” Professor Pendleton took a strange glee in watching the confusion ripple across his student’s faces. It was only the first Monday in November; the test wouldn’t be for nearly two months, so they were understandably uncertain about what his announcement could signify.

                “Let’s get a few things out of the way first. No, I’m not telling you what it is; not exactly. Yes, your coursework for it begins today. No, there will not be an abundance to go on. That should take care of the immediate thoughts bouncing about in your little heads. Now, on to what I actually need you to know.”

                Professor Pendleton slid around his desk with a thick manila envelope in hand. He could sense their darting glances resting on it, wondering what tidbits of information were contained inside.

                “To start with, everyone will be taking the same exam. Each and every junior-year student will get the same task. Ah, but how can that be when you each have two disciplines to be tested in, I can hear you wondering. That is because this exam will look at not only if you can complete the objective set before you, but how you do so. There isn’t technically a wrong way to succeed; the tactics you use will reflect what skills you trust the most when shit hits the fan.”

                He wondered how many would actually get points in Subtlety for this exam. He had high hopes for Will and Britney, though some, like Rich Weaver, could be surprising, and of course Alice was annoyingly persistent about keeping above water in this subject. It would be quite entertaining, that much was certain.

                “So, how can Subtlety be of help to you in the coming test? We know it’s going to be martial; the other disciplines would be lost without some fighting to do. That means Subtlety is right out the window, doesn’t it? Not entirely. In this exam, as in the field, sometimes victory goes not to he who has the most muscles, but to he who has the most knowledge.”

                Professor Pendleton popped open the envelope in his hand and pulled out a sheet of paper that looked as though it had been thrown up on by a calculator. Numbers were scattered all over the page, appearing in random spots and sometimes right on top of one another.

                “Congratulations. As Subtlety Heroes, you were able to intercept a coded transfer from a criminal syndicate. You know it relates to something they’ve got planned in about a month and a half, and you’ve got this.” Professor Pendleton set the page on Will’s desk, then produced another to give to Britney.

                “This is your Subtlety exam, the first clue down a trail that will lead you to useful information. Crack it however you can, save for using the skills of someone other than yourself. You’d think that would be implied, but evidently I have to spell it out for a few of you.”

                If Alice felt any shame at his not-so-hidden barb, she kept it to herself as she accepted her piece of paper. At first glance, it was clear that she had no damn idea what this thing was. Oddly, this didn’t rattle her. Alice had long ago learned that the tasks in Subtlety didn’t come as easily to her as they did to Nick and Will, but she was still able to pass most of them through sheer concentrated effort. Even if it took all of November, she would crack this son of a bitch.

                “And if anyone thinks it’s unfair of me to base your whole exam on a single cipher when we cover so much else in this class, trust that I meant it when I said this is the first step toward knowledge. There will be far more tasks ahead before you can claim your prize.”

                Alice’s stomach sank a bit as she realized she might not have quite as much time as she’d hoped for.

                “That takes care of the preamble,” Professor Pendleton said, laying the last sheet down. “Now then, lets move on to the part where you ask me questions and I have to decline to answer most of them.”

                Will Murray’s hand went up, the only one in the room to do so.

                “Mr. Murray, what question do you have?”

                “I wanted to know the bounds, sir.”

                “The bounds?” Professor Pendleton’s voice was neutral, but the beginnings of a smile tugged at his lips.

                “What we can, and can’t, do to accomplish our tasks. For example, I could build a machine that tapped into the FBI’s computers and used their resources to crack this message, but I feel like that might be frowned upon.”

                “Are you asking for a professor of the HCP, a group overseen by the Department of Variant Humans Affairs, to give you the blessing to hack secured government computers?”

                “No, sir. I’m asking if, theoretically, I did something like that, if it’s the kind of thing I should just keep to myself, or I had to report it.” Will’s face was placid and unreadable, a stark contrast to the shocked looks most of the class was giving him. “You’ve emphasized countless times that Subtlety Heroes often have to use whatever resources they can to accomplish their goals, putting the importance of the mission first. I suppose I’m asking if we’re addressing this task as we would a real one in the Subtlety Hero world.”

                “That is, surprisingly, a very fair question to ask,” Professor Pendleton replied. “Mr. Murray is correct; we frequently do things like hacking or breaking and entering. As often as possible, we try to go through proper channels and respect the law, but sometimes there isn’t time to do so. In those cases, we have to file pain in the ass after-action reports justifying what we did. So there’s your answer, Mr. Murray. If you break a law, I expect you to report it and fill out the proper documentation just like any other Subtlety Hero would.”

                “Yes, sir.”

                “That goes for the rest of you too. Don’t hurt anyone, obviously, but if it comes down to it and you think you can make a case for why law-breaking was necessary, it’s your call.”

                Several of the students shifted in their seats, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of deviating from the safety of the law. That was good; most Heroes shouldn’t be so willing to break the rules. They needed to be paragons, symbols of respect and virtue. It was heartening to see so many of his students ill-at-ease with the idea of ignoring laws for their own tasks.

                It was somewhat less heartening when Professor Pendleton realized Alice Adair showed no discomfort toward the idea at all.