Chapter 48

                Alice’s head was still swimming from dealing with theoretical interacting Super abilities in Dean Blaine’s class as she made her way to the Subtlety room. Truth be told, it didn’t feel much like a class anymore, with only three students left. It was more like a clubhouse, one with a lanky leader who taught them about trickery and subterfuge in between free-study. Will had beaten her there, a laptop open on his desk as he no doubt combed through mock-confidential information streams he wasn’t supposed to have access to. Professor Pendleton had hooked Will into a dummy system designed to replicate the safeguards of real corporations and agencies without actually hacking into them. Breaking that much law for a national emergency was one thing, but it wouldn’t fly if he got caught doing it for training. Not that Will was getting caught much, at least from the discussions she overheard he and Professor Pendleton having.

                Britney was also in class, which was something of a rarity. Her training had been getting handed a shifting room that randomized the layout and security features. She was working on her stealth and retrieval skills, being given targets to locate on each round without getting detected. It was a pass/fail system, one detection and she was out. Alice had learned about the room’s workings when Britney requested a multiple life system and Professor Pendleton replied that she only got one in the field, so she only got one in practice. Without a good rebuttal, Britney had merely doubled down on her training.

                Alice’s days had been spent chiefly reviewing books on combat tactics and cypher decryption. It wasn’t the most fun way to spend her time, but she knew it was necessary information. Still, she was looking forward to seeing what sort of training was in store for her social manipulation skills, which was why she felt her stomach drop in disappointment when Professor Pendleton walked into the classroom empty-handed.

                “Another delay?”

                “Not even a proper greeting, I see,” Professor Pendleton replied. “No, in fact I was just overseeing the last of the test runs to make sure everything is functional. Class, put the books away, today we’re taking a trip further into Lander’s depths. We’ve got a new toy to play with, and I don’t trust you to read the instructions so I’m giving you a tour.”

                Will and Britney dutifully rose from their seats, while Alice hadn’t even bothered to take one. They followed Professor Pendleton down the hall, to the entry area where the lifts were waiting. As they all climbed on board, Professor Pendleton gestured to a small panel below the buttons for Lander’s main campus and the HCP.

                “Alice, if you would do the honors, just press your thumb anywhere inside that slightly raised rectangle.”

                Alice complied, not sure what to expect. They’d all seen the odd shape on the lifts in their first year, but it never responded to touch or words, so it was written off as little more than an odd design feature. Such was not the case this time, as a bright green light flashed the moment her skin made contact, sending them down beneath the HCP’s main floor.

                “Britney has already experienced this, but Will and Alice, you’ve both been given access to a special training area in the lower levels,” Professor Pendleton explained. “It’s only accessible to Subtlety students and professors, because this equipment is dedicated to your use. Will and Britney, I invite you both to take some time with the machine I’m about to show you, however please keep in mind that Alice has priority on using it. Just as you two both have your main fields of focus, this is hers. But the skills it trains are something any good Subtlety major should polish as much as they can.”

                The lift came to a stop at the end of a short hallway with a single door at the end. Professor Pendleton led them forward, having Will press his thumb to the door to open it, and then stepping inside. What awaited them was a touch underwhelming, as it seemed to be little more than a black suit draped over an oddly shaped treadmill. Rather than going in one direction, this treadmill was round, and seemed to have a ball in the center. The idea for 360 degree movement was interesting, though Alice wasn’t sure exactly how it would help them train. In the corner was a gray changing screen and a computer terminal.

                “Presenting the absolute latest in virtual reality: The Blonk.” Professor Pendleton made a ta-da motion with his hands as he gestured to the machine, eyes all but pleading for them not to ask about the name.

                “The Blonk?” Alice said, willfully ignoring his desperate sentiment.

                “Look, if you invent something, you get to name it, and the tech Super who made this has an… odd sense of humor.” Professor Pendleton walked over and pulled the rubber suit off the treadmill’s railing. As he did, Alice could see glimpses of circuits woven through it, as well as a black helmet that had been hidden beneath the fabric. “Try and be a little excited here, there aren’t many of these and they’re expensive as all hell to rent. Dumb as the name might be, it really is top of the line in simulated experiences. The suit tricks your sense of touch, the tread system allows you to move around freely, and the helmet handles the heavy lifting with sight, sound, smell, and supposedly there’s even a tongue add on for taste, but we didn’t spring for that.”

                “What if I need to learn the taste of poison?” Alice joked.

                “Oh, we’re already going to cover that later in the year.” Professor Pendleton was either not kidding, or had decided to pay her back by staying uncharacteristically stoic on the subject. “But for now let’s stick to the training tool at hand. Use is easy, you just load a scenario, put on the suit, get inside the treadmill railing and then pop on the helmet. We’ve got hundreds of situations programmed in, trying to talk your way into an embassy, or trick a client into giving up information, or even peacefully disarming a dangerous situation. Best training tool there is for a Subtlety major’s social skills, and a damn sight better than what we had to work with when I went to Lander.”

                “Forgive me for saying so, but I see an issue here,” Will pointed out. “While the VR tech might be top notch, no programming will be able to accurately encapsulate the chaotic nature of a real encounter. Won’t it just be us trying to find the right solution that the program accepts, rather than any that work? It seems like this will discourage thinking outside the box, a trait you’ve frequently re-affirmed was a Subtlety Hero’s greatest asset.”

                “That’s an interesting theory, Will.” Professor Pendleton bunched the suit into a tight ball and threw it forward, directly into Will’s chest. The smaller Super caught it with ease, but looked unsure what to do with it.

                “You’ll notice I say interesting, and not good, because it omits the possibility that the people who designed this also foresaw such a flaw. Being smart is good, just don’t ever assume you’re the smartest one around. I was going to let Alice have the first test drive since she’s why we requisitioned this bad boy, but I feel like Will just made himself a volunteer. Any objections, Alice?”

                “None at all,” Alice replied. “I think Britney and I would both benefit from seeing the machine in action, and no one here knows tech better than Will.” There was also the unspoken truth that whatever test run Professor Pendleton had rigged up was bound to be nearly impossible and potentially highly embarrassing, just because he’d find it funny. She liked Will, but if he was going to throw himself under a bus then he needed to learn to brace for the wheels.

                “Then it’s settled,” Professor Pendleton said. “Suit up, Will. You’ve got a virtual mission waiting.”