Chapter 92

                The spy was moving to the veranda where golden sunshine streamed in, heralding his path to freedom. All wouldn’t be lost if he made it, but her cover would undoubtedly get blown if Alice tore into the sky and used her power to bind him. She repositioned herself, still artfully engaged in conversation with a diplomat who was far more interested in her cleavage than her words. As the spy moved, she kept careful track of him. Her window for this would be incredibly tight.

                The spy took a straightforward route, not wanting to dilly-dally with freedom so close at hand. It was an understandable choice, but a poor one. If he’d picked a circuitous path, Alice’s plan would have been scrapped for something new. Thankfully, he kept on course, which took him directly by an expensive vase positioned on a podium.

                Handling her powers inside The Blonk had taken some getting used to, since she had to use small gestures rather than actually activating her abilities. With one quick motion she created a sudden flux of gravity at the spy’s hip, sending him tumbling over and crashing right into the vase, which shattered so loudly on the marble floor that all eyes turned to him. In moments, security was surrounding her quarry. There was no doubt going to be a long talk about the priceless art he’d just destroyed, and well before they were done someone would notice the ambassador’s safe had been opened. They spy’s plan had revolved around stealth and speed, getting in and out before anyone could notice his work, and Alice had shot that all to hell with one tug of gravity.

                She smiled to herself as she detached from the conversation and headed back to the champagne table. Alice wasn’t entirely sure if she would get more or less points for not being the one to actually catch her prey; all the simulation had demanded was that she stop the spy without exposing her own cover. Well the spy was stopped, and no one had any reason to believe the silly blonde American had been even slightly involved.

                Halfway to the champagne table, and the room flickered. Her time was nearly up, it seemed. Letting out a frustrated sigh, Alice began the powering down process, waiting until the helmet signaled her it was ready to be removed.

                Tugging it free, she was surprised to find she wasn’t alone in the Blonk’s chamber. Professor Pendleton was sitting there, reading one of his trashy romance novels, as the simulation came to an end.

                “Checking up on me?” She began the process of disentangling herself from the sensors and wires that helped make the virtual training so realistic.

                “Twenty-nine hours.” He didn’t look up from his book as he spoke; merely turning the page to what was surely another swarthy and frustrating scene. “That’s how much time you’ve logged so far this week. Twelve on Sunday, nine on Monday, and eight today. I’m betting if Will hadn’t signed up for the next session, you’d have kept going.”

                “What? Suddenly there’s a thing as too much training in the HCP?” Alice asked. “I’ll bet Chad spent more time than that working out.”

                “But Chad’s always been working out like that. You just up and suddenly started logging out of our world and into another. And given when it started, you can see how I might be concerned that you were running away from something. Don’t worry, you’re not the first. In fact, The Blonk has a system to detect when activity suddenly spikes, and it lets the overseer know. That’s how many times it’s happened.”

                Alice said nothing as she finished unhooking herself from within The Blonk’s suit. Slowly, she stepped out of the system, letting her bare feet rest against the cold concrete. He wasn’t wrong, she had been trying to get away from things, but she’d been perfectly aware of what she was doing. After everything Abridail had shown her, after seeing her mother like that, Alice had needed to feel in control. She’d needed to train, to taste success and growth, to remind herself that she was powerful. Because Alice would have to be, if she intended to save Shelby.

                “Can we talk safely?”

                “Seeing as we have a changing booth in here, I had Dean Blaine classify it like a bathroom, meaning there are no cameras or listening devices. The DVA didn’t object, on a blueprint this place is little more than a storage area. It’s not perfect, we’d need Dean Blaine to guard against stronger abilities and even that’s not a perfect guarantee.” Professor Pendleton pulled a bookmark from his pocket and wedged it between the pages. “But for something on campus, it’s about as secure a place as we’re going to get.”

                Even a sophomore in their first year of Subtlety could have read between those lines: speak if she had to, just choose her words carefully. Alice weighed her options for how to start before deciding it was best to see how much she could skip entirely.

                “I assume you’re brought up to speed on our negotiation attempt?”

                “As of Sunday. Your co-asset was debriefed and the information got passed along. Apparently he wants a meeting with me this week, seems he enjoys keeping others in the dark but isn’t quite so keen on the practice when it’s done to him.” Professor Pendleton smiled, despite the heavy atmosphere of the room. She didn’t think he’d have kept the connection between Charles Adair and Globe secret just to mess with Nick, although she wasn’t entirely willing to rule it out.

                “I sort of get shielding him; you wanted his investigation to move without any bias, leading wherever it led. But why not tell me? After how furious I was about not knowing you and Professor Hill were my uncles, you still kept me in the dark. Do I have any others I need to know about? Dean Blaine? Chapman?” Alice demanded.

                “Shelby Adair had one half-brother, me, and one fraternal twin, Blake,” Professor Pendleton told her. “And though he has spent more money than you’d believe covering it up, Charles Adair had one older brother, Phillip Adair. If there are any more secret family members, then they’re unknown to me as well.”

                “Well, I suppose that’s a relief, at least,” Alice said. “But why not tell me? Shelby’s ordeal… while I won’t say I completely understand, I can at least see the thought process there. No one wanted me to blame myself, and for the younger me that was probably the right call. The Globe thing though, I just don’t get.”

                “For one thing, I wasn’t kidding about how much effort Charles put in to erasing any connection between Phil and himself. Ostensibly it’s for public image and business purposes; I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there. Telling his daughter was a very quick path to making an extremely powerful enemy, and with how tenuous the game we’re already playing is, it wasn’t a smart risk.”

                Professor Pendleton leaned back in his chair, staring at Alice. Only now, for the first time, she truly understood what he was looking at. He saw his little sister, the one he’d failed to save. Teaching her must be akin to getting haunted by a ghost of one’s deepest failure. It was a marvel he could bear it, and perhaps explained a bit more why her father’s distance had only increased as she grew more and more like her mother.

                “Beyond that though, your father is a bastard, you’ve got one uncle who’s a convicted thief and another who’s no better than Charles’s lackey. Tossing a famously reviled criminal onto the pile just seemed cruel.”

                “You all need to stop trying so hard to protect me,” Alice said. “I can handle the truth. And while I might have been spending a little more time than needed in virtual reality over the past few days, I’m in control. I just needed some space to work things out, to be someone other than the poor little girl with the tragic family. Give me a week, and I’ll be fine. That’s what you’ve taught us to do, work through and press on.”

                “I’ll keep that in mind.” Professor Pendleton rose from the chair, tucking his paperback into a pocket on his jacket. “You’ve only got ten minutes before Will is set to show up, I’ll leave so you can change in peace. Funny though, I’d assumed this would be the harder talk, but now I think your co-asset will be much worse to deal with.”

                “He does loathe feeling like someone tricked him.” Alice started to head to the changing booth, where she would slip from the black form-fitting Blonk suit back into her own clothes. A thought struck her before she could make it, so she turned and called to Professor Pendleton.

                “What does this make Vince and me, anyway? Step-cousins once removed?”

                “At this point, I think you just say you’re family and leave it at that,” Professor Pendleton replied. “Have you told him, yet?”

                “No, but we will. Just waiting for the right moment,” Alice said.

                Professor Pendleton laughed, a small dark chuckle to himself. “Be careful with that. I started out saying the same thing, and two years later you learned the truth from a dreamwalker. Those right moments can take a lot longer to come around than you think.”