Chapter 108

                What they had was thin, thankfully. A few after-reports from students scared halfway out of their minds. Some grainy pictures taken on cell-phone cameras. Rumors, speculation, and hearsay, all the way through. But all the same, Will couldn’t afford to take this lightly. Or, more precisely, the HCP students couldn’t afford for him to take it lightly.

                He sat in his room, headphones on; as he reviewed the audio from Kennedy’s meeting for at least the sixth time. There were sections he knew by heart after so many listens, yet he still felt the need to sift through the discussion once more. There wouldn’t be anything from Kennedy, she was too aware of her words, but he hoped one of the others might show a vulnerability that Will had somehow missed.

                No matter how much he wished for it, no sudden piece of incriminating audio revealed itself on the sixth playback. That would be the easiest way to handle Kennedy and her crew, if he could only get them planning to do something that skirted the law, or even campus rules, then he’d be able to take them down without exposing himself. Framing one of the others as a Super sympathizer who blew the whistle would be no trouble at all, but he needed that criminal starting point to work from. A starting point that didn’t exist.

                Kennedy’s plan, much as Will might loathe to admit it, was a careful one. There was nothing inherently illegal about trying to figure out who the HCP students were. Sometimes groups would form to try and suss it out as an activity. But they were always trying to sift through tens of thousands of students with nothing to go on, which made it a fruitless endeavor. Kennedy had leads. Small ones, yes, but leads all the same. Will didn’t like that, wasn’t comfortable with that, and he certainly didn’t want her getting anymore footing than she already had.

                Time, at least, was on his side. As much as the Take Back Lander group might want to hunt down the people who’d been saved by HCP students to press them for more details, it was an almost impossible task with the semester’s end looming on the horizon. Even Kennedy knew that, as Will listened to her recorded voice say that they should use the rest of December to choose who they would try and talk to first. She wanted them to create a game plan for January, which gave Will time to lay groundwork for stopping them.

                It was a good thing he had some breathing room, because dealing with that group would require a delicate touch. He couldn’t do anything to scare them off, that would only lend credence to their cause. And simply letting them run out of steam had proven to be a bust, as they’d merely changed tactics rather than accept defeat. The apathy of the student body to their cause wasn’t lost on Kennedy and her flunkies, but it was taken in stride. She seemed to truly believe she was working for the betterment of Lander, which made it all the more difficult to knock her from her path.

                Public opinion seemed like the best weapon to wield against her, it was the sort of thing that could be manipulated from a distance and prove hard to trace back to its source. Kennedy might be able to shrug off apathy, but if Will played his hand carefully, he might be able to get her group actively hated, and that would prove a far more difficult sentiment to ignore. The route was obvious; after all, she was already planning to pester survivors of a horrible tragedy for details about the people that saved them, only to use that information to publicly out the would-be-Heroes. A few audio files, some good pictures, and the whole thing could blow up spectacularly in their face as Take Back Lander became painted as heartless monsters with a pointless grudge.

                The trouble was, Kennedy had proven herself aware and intelligent; there was no way she didn’t see the potential backlash in her plan. Will had to assume she had a counter-strategy in place. The whole plan might even be a trap, dangling the groups’ apparent downfall as a morsel to make any traitors to the cause show themselves. It was assuming a lot on her part, but Will refused to be caught off-guard by under-estimating his opponent.

                Even if it was a trap, it wasn’t one Will could afford to ignore. The chance to end this whole movement in a single fell swoop wouldn’t come along every day. And should Kennedy turn out to have a counter-strategy, that could be countered as well. Will just needed to see enough steps ahead on the game board. From an analytical side, that was no issue. The trouble was that he’d never been as gifted at the social aspects of Subtlety as some of the others. This territory relied heavily on manipulation and anticipating people’s reactions, and while Will had learned a lot from Professor Pendleton, he wasn’t quite so confident that he was willing to bet everything on those skills.

                Fortunately, he’d learned more in the HCP than merely how to fight. Will had been forced to absorb a lesson that he would have never accepted in his younger days: that there was no shame in a Hero asking for help. No one could do it all. Every Super, every person, had their own strengths and weaknesses. What mattered was getting the job done, keeping people safe, above all else. Nothing, especially not pride or ego, came before that.

                As the recording came to an end, Will pulled off his headphones and set them to the side. He needed help, more than Camille could offer. It would have to be someone he trusted, of course, and one who could fill in the gaps where his own skills fell short. Mary was the obvious choice; a telepath could get him all the answers he’d need with little risk of exposure. The problem was that her power cut both ways; Mary wouldn’t do recon and sit on the sidelines, she’d insist on being involved. That would give her lots of time to listen to Will’s thoughts, and if he ultimately had to use a solution that was morally questionable, Mary might very well object. Worse, with her level of power those objections would be impossible to ignore, as she could put a stop to any plan she didn’t agree with.

                Alex had telepathy as well, but he couldn’t get thoughts in the same level of detail as Mary, and details might be very important for this task. Nick had demonstrated an exceptional knack for this sort of work, however bringing in someone outside the HCP had risks of its own. Alice, who consistently did well on the social aspects of Subtlety, seemed like an easy choice until one factored in her close relationship with Mary. Bringing her on board was akin to taking Mary too, and then he was right back where he started if she disagreed.

                Will turned off the machine, knowing that before the week’s end he’d listen to the recording at least once more. It was a problem, one that required attention, but it wasn’t his only issue to deal with. There was the trivial matter of finishing up his Lander classes with scores that were solid without being attention-grabbing. After that, he needed to continue tinkering with his staff, along with a few other toys, for December’s trial. It hadn’t escaped Will’s notice that the tests at the end of each semester were almost always extra difficult, and he didn’t expect this year to be an exception.