Chapter 166

                The room was silent as Alice finished recounting what she, Nick, and Mary had borne witness to. Mary sat to her left, filling in the occasional detail, while Nick was on her right. Normally he handled the covert communication himself, but this time… well, there was too much at stake, too many details they had to make sure were recalled precisely correct. Because if one was going to accuse an HCP professor of murder, it was important to have all the evidence prepared perfectly.

                “Somehow, in my truest of hearts, I always suspected that Shelby’s misfortune was at the core of things, even if I didn’t have proof.” Dean Blaine was staring at the table, wavering somewhere between the urge to vomit and unmitigated fury. “And Charles has always been… determined, I suppose is what we called it back then. Just like his brother. Only where Phil’s refusal to budge was born of the desire to protect everyone he cared for, Charles’s came with a more ruthless, pragmatic edge. But to think Blake would be party to such crimes-”

                “That part, I would have guessed.” Professor Pendleton leaned back in his chair, looking for all the world like he hadn’t just heard about his half-brother helping to murder Intra. But Alice knew him better; she could see the small twinges of grief and anger lingering at the edges of his expression. “I loved Shelby, and Blake too for that matter, but they were twins. The bond between them was deeper than anything I could have matched. When Shelby got sick, Blake took it as hard as Charles. He was there all the time, caring for her, doing what he could to make things better. And then when the procedure went wrong… well, to be honest with you I lived on his couch for a few weeks. I told him it was because we needed each other as family during a tough time, though the truth was I thought he might try to kill himself with no one around.”

                “Instead, he conspired to kill Intra.” Of all the teachers, Professor Stone seemed to be taking the news better than anyone else. Then again, as a telepath she was probably more accustomed to finding out dirty secrets than the rest of the staff.

                Those three were the only ones in attendance today. Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport, dedicated though they had proven themselves, were still outsiders of the Hero world. Until Dean Blaine gave permission, it hadn’t seemed right to bring them in on something like this. Especially given Charles’s comments about bribing people in a certain company.

                “This is a lot to take in,” Dean Blaine said. “Sadly, I fear we lack the time for a proper period of mourning and adjustment. If what you’re saying is true, then we have the very proof we need sitting in the HCP right now.”

                “But the minute you make a request to withdraw it, someone out there is going to tip off Charles. We should assume that’s a given at this point,” Professor Pendleton pointed out.

                “Not to mention, we’re working off very old intel.” It was the first time Nick had spoken since they settled in to recount the story, and heads turned toward him automatically as he did. “Assuming everything Abridail showed us was accurate and true, which is a huge leap to make in the first place, that meeting still happened around seventeen years ago. Do we really think in all that time they didn’t add more safeguards, or change things up in the slightest? I’m sure something is on that HCP computer, Globe doesn’t strike me as the type to put in so much effort for no return, but we need to brace for it not being the silver bullet we might want.”

                Dean Blaine considered Nick’s words, tilting his head just a hair to the side as he mulled over the idea. “True as that is, it doesn’t change the fact that getting the data is our obvious next step.”

                “Obvious is the right word there. Obvious, predictable, and exactly what Charles would be on watch for.” Professor Pendleton rose from his chair, the nervous energy he was hiding too great to contain while seated. “He might not know we’re pulling these threads, but he’s been prepared for somebody to at some point. While we can say a lot of things about Charles, everyone who worked with him knows he’s methodical and cautious. He pulled off this trick with Intra and Globe after all, fooling the whole nation. If we move on that data, we need to do so with the assumption that Charles will activate counter-measures of his own. That’s not entirely a bad thing, mind you, it just means we might want to explore other options first.”

                “Such as?” Dean Blaine asked.

                It was Alice who spoke this time. She could see a next step forward, one that might let them progress without tipping off Charles Adair. Maybe the professors couldn’t see it yet because they were too ingrained in their way of thinking, or maybe she was the only one who could say it because she had blood on both sides in the game. Regardless, once she had the thought there was no way to ignore it.

                “We reach out to allies. People we know we can trust. People we know are working against Charles. And people we know have a copy of the data we need.” Alice paused for a heartbeat, watching as the realization hit everyone seconds before her words. “We make contact with Globe and his cohorts.”

                Silence crashed through the room as all of the HCP educators exchanged slow, thoughtful glances. Mary’s eyes widened as well, although Nick merely nodded in agreement with Alice. It was nice to have some backing, and she gave his hand a brief squeeze under the table as thanks.

                “Even if the murder of Intra was orchestrated by Charles, Globe has still committed serious crimes. He kidnapped Mary, broke George out of prison, and has been evading arrest for years now.” Dean Blaine didn’t sound terribly sure of his words, they seemed forced and detached. When he spoke again, a measure of his usual certainty returned to his voice. “But if all of that was done in efforts to covertly bring Charles down, it does explain most of the actions quite well. And we do need some allies in this fight. Learning that the company has been compromised is a heavy blow, I must tell you.”

                “Not for me, I’d always assumed they were dirty,” Professor Pendleton said. “But that comes part and parcel with working in Subtlety. You don’t see that much work in the shadows and assume there aren’t a few things done in true darkness. I agree with Alice though. Now that we know Globe isn’t a bad guy, something I don’t think we ever fully swallowed in the first place, it makes sense to work with him rather than against him. Plus, you know, easy access to the data.”

                “Not that easy,” Dean Blaine replied. “For one thing, the entire Hero world is hunting Globe and coming up empty, so it’s not as though we can easily contact him. As for the data, since what they pulled wasn’t authorized, it’s still encrypted. Breaking through DVA system security is no small feat.”

                “Unless one happens to have access to a shifter who turns into a full-blown robot.” Mary’s voice was gentle, yet it carried through the room regardless.

                “Something tells me if they had what they wanted out of the data, we’d know about it by now. I doubt Globe is going to all this trouble to bring his brother down quietly,” Nick said.

                Dean Blaine let out a heavy sigh and rested his hands heavily on the table in front of him. “You’re all right, in different ways. We know enough to be dangerous now, but that danger extends to ourselves as well. For the moment, none of this information leaves the room. Not even your fellow Melbrook residents, including Vince and especially Chad, are to be brought in until we’ve decided how to proceed. Reaching out to Globe may be our best move, assuming we can find a way to do it that doesn’t alert Charles or the DVA. However, there are still too many unknowns to be sure of anything right now. We have to move carefully from here, prizing every bit of intel we can get. Which means I have good news for you Mary, it looks like you’re getting your wish. Since you’re a piece of the puzzle still unaccounted for, we can’t risk wiping your memories when you quit the HCP.”

                Alice looked at Nick from the side of her eyes, checking for any expression of surprise. She found none there, although that didn’t really tell her if he’d known Mary was quitting or he was just good at hiding such things.

                “So, what’s our next step?” Alice asked.

                “For you kids, the next step is to go home, rest up, and come to Lander prepared. Your last semester is a tough one, and I imagine that’s going to be true even for those of you no longer in the HCP.” Dean Blaine glanced to Nick and Mary briefly as he spoke. “As for you, Alice, come ready to bring your all. After everything that’s happened, I want to see you make it to graduation. If I’ve learned nothing else today, it’s that the world could use more Heroes with integrity.”

                Nick leaned over and let out a stage-whisper for the room to hear. “Bet this is the first time a dean has ever said that to a Subtlety student.”