The Masks We Wear
Chapter 15: Biographies and Ultimatums
Sean Pendleton escorted Ray Rios to his office down the hall from the gym. Sean never expected to be teaching in the HCP and this was the second year he was doing it much to his surprise. Still, it was better than the alternative, wearing a white jumpsuit in a highly regulated prison cell where he had spent fourteen years already. Now he had to make a decision whether or not to trust Blaine Jefferies, his old friend, the man who both put him in prison and freed him from it, and the dean of Lander HCP.
They didn’t speak as they walked, Ray simply followed his professor down the hallway of offices outside the gym. Shortly, they arrived at a door labeled with a small plastic sign simply saying ‘Professor Pendleton’. Sean opened the door to admit them.
The office itself was simple. It contained a desk with a chair for Sean to sit in, a computer sat on the desk with a flat screen which was currently displaying the dancing lines of the screen saver, two chairs for students who he might need to meet with, and not much else. He walked around his desk and sat down while pointing to one of the two chairs for students and saying “Take off that insulation and then sit,” in a tone that left no doubt that he was in no mood to be trifled with.
Ray undid the fastenings on the heavy suit that had let him take a direct blast from Professor Fletcher, while also looking carefully around the room. Sean noted the barely perceptible way Ray’s eyes glanced from side to side, taking in everything in the office at once. To Sean, Ray was displaying all the traits of an HCP trained subtlety hero engaging in the observational techniques drilled into them to use when they are placed in a new area. Ray finished opening the suit, stripped it off and folded the rigid jumpsuit as best he could, piling it in a corner of Professor Pendleton’s office. He had obviously sweated in there, as he said, it was hot under all that insulation.
As Ray sat down, Sean considered his next words carefully. He wasn’t sure the best way to play this one, but as a master of getting information out of people without them realizing it, he decided to start with trying to be the good guy.
Sean let out a deep sigh and started to speak with his student, “Ray, you and I haven’t had much time to interact, normally I wouldn’t be instructing you much until the second half of this year…”
“When you start teaching the alternative course?” Ray interrupted.
“Yes,” Professor Pendleton answered curtly and probably displaying a bit too much annoyance, “then. But, before that time I have to assess you for your abilities, demeanor, attitudes, and your potential to complete this training program and graduate a Hero.”
Professor Pendleton let a tight smile show on his face as he continued. “I have to say, even at this early point in your education you are showing quite a bit a talent for certain aspects of Hero work.”
“Mmm hmm,” Ray agreed without any concern showing on his face. “So I’m going to guess this meeting isn’t about my abilities?”
“No,” Professor Pendleton agreed curtly, “it’s not, or more precisely it’s not about your powers, but your abilities are definitely what brings us here, and those other parts, demeanor and attitude.”
“I didn’t think I had a bad attitude,” Ray said, allowing some surprise show on his face, “in fact I thought I was jumping in to training whole hog. I mean I could hang back, never display anything to anyone and just push forward on assignments and exams but instead I’m actively trying to get ahead and help others too.”
“I didn’t say you have a bad attitude,” Sean cocked his head slightly as he looked at Ray, “only that your attitude warrants some concern on my part.”
“I don’t see why,” Ray retorted, “I thought I was being a model student.”
“I would say a disruptive influence might be a better description.” Sean leaned in toward Ray inviting response but when it didn’t come, he continued. “It’s more along the lines of someone so far ahead in a class they are killing the curve. As a shape shifter you are one of the best raw talents I’ve seen. Some of the more unique aspects of your power make me wonder if you have more in common with a power mimic than a shape shifter, taking everything from your target not just your vision of what your target is.”
“That’s been suggested before,” Ray replied, “but no amount of testing has been able to find any hint that I can copy powers or abilities, just physical form and traits. And thanks for the compliment, I like to think I’m good at what I do.”
Ignoring the comment, Professor Pendleton continued, “Yes that much is in your records,” he replied as he tapped the space bar on his keyboard, banishing the screen saver and bringing the screen to life.
“All the standard testing you went through when your powers manifested at the age of nine indicate that you are a shape shifter only, though a highly flexible one. Your high school transcript shows, despite your flippant manner and your penchant for trouble, you were a straight A student and took every advanced placement class available. It also shows that you concentrated on computers above all else and even took external coursework on cyber security.”
Professor Pendleton turned away from the keyboard and faced Ray again. “I was a bit surprised you went to public school, though your school district did rank highly. Clearly you received a decent education.”
“Well yeah,” Ray responded, putting his elbows on the edge of the desk, leaning in to try and see the screen. “Mom and Dad didn’t like the idea of private school. Besides it’s not like they were loaded or anything. They really couldn’t afford it.”
“Hmm…” Professor Pendleton considered what Ray said briefly and looked back at the screen, angling it a bit farther away from Ray’s line of sight. “Your Mother, Gloria Rios, a tenured professor of mathematics at Georgetown, is certainly not wealthy, though her job is enough to guarantee your family is comfortable. Your father, Bill Rios, is a low level analyst in the DVA, a safe government job but not high paying and he’s been at the same level and in the same job for the last fifteen years.”
“Dad isn’t much of a risk taker,” Ray explained, leaning back in the chair and giving up his attempt at seeing the screen. “He’s comfortable doing what he’s doing.”
“I see,” Professor Pendleton responded flatly. “Neither of your parents are supers or powered, in fact, you are the first in your family to manifest any power.”
“That’s right, I‘m just lucky I guess,” Ray practically beamed. Professor Pendleton noted Ray’s obvious pride in his powers. His keen mind started to analyze it to determine how he use that pride to get to Ray’s true intentions.
“So Ray,” Professor Pendleton started casually, “If not from your parents, where then did you learn so much about the Hero world and the HCP?”
“I don’t know,” Ray shrugged nonchalantly, obviously lying, “here and there.”
“Here and there?”
“Who trained you in the beginnings of Subtlety?”
“No one trained me,” Ray answered, crossing his arms and leaning back in the chair, “it’s just what I’m good at. It’s true that I heard about Subtlety before I got here, but I don’t remember where specifically. It was probably someone at the gym. But most of what I’ve learned about the subject and the structure of the school I learned when I got here and started asking questions.”
“First,” said Professor Pendleton, allowing his voice to rise in volume somewhat, calling Ray out on the lies. “I don’t believe you for a second when you claim you don’t remember who taught you about Subtlety. I would wager you have close to an eidetic memory.”
Professor Pendleton looked accusingly at Ray who stood his ground and kept his gaze unwavering. “Second, you have knowledge of the HCP and Lander that go well beyond what you could have picked up simply speaking with the upper classmen in disguise.”
“Like I said,” Ray repeated while shifting a bit uncomfortably under the professor’s gaze, “I’m good at what I do. That’s all, it’s just talent coupled with a power incredibly well suited for information gathering.”
“Well let’s put it another way. You know more about the way this place works than most students who have made it through their first two years.” Before Ray could respond, Professor Pendleton raised his hand and motioned for him to stay silent. “In addition you clearly have, at a minimum, the basic knowledge of a Subtlety student entering the third year of HCP training.”
“While I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Ray said again, “I am not that knowledgeable.”
“Don’t get me wrong Ray, you aren’t perfect. When I say basic knowledge, I mean it. There are clear deficiencies that you would not have if you went through the actual training.”
“Stop and listen,” Professor Pendleton cut Ray off in a tone which brooked no interruption while standing to face Ray, his hands balled into fists and resting on the top of his desk. “I know you have been using your power to get everything you can from the upper classmen. I know about you hacking into the computer system you’ve been doing. I know all about the training sessions off campus and your little hideaway for your ‘team’, I even know about your bank accounts that let you pay for it all and belittle your comments about your parent’s income.”
“Hey all that money is legit,” Ray shot back vehemently standing to face his Professor. “And none of it has anything to do with my parents.”
“I don’t really care how you make your money Ray,” Professor Pendleton answered this time with icy calm, already knowing where most of it came from. “You haven’t robbed any banks, so why should I stop you?”
“Robbing banks is something you know a thing or two about, huh?” Ray asked with a knowing lilt to his voice.
Professor Pendleton looked at Ray only mildly surprised. He relaxed, his fists unclenched and he sat back down. “Hmm, I see,” he said leaning back. “I’ve told you a few things about you; does that last comment mean you want to tell me a few things about me?”
“Is this an assignment?” Ray asked eagerly, “One of those assessments you mentioned?”
“Sure, why not?” he added flippantly, “show me what you’ve got.” With that, he put his feet up on the desk and waited expectantly for Ray’s insights into the truth behind the mask he now wore as Professor Pendleton.
Ray didn’t sit down. Instead he arched over Professor Pendleton’s desk bringing his face in closer and lowering his voice conspiratorially. “OK then… Let’s see…” he paused for dramatic effect. “Sean Pendleton, formerly the Hero Wisp, a graduate of the famous Class of Legends which includes such notable figures as the hero turned villain Globe, the healer Hallow, and of course our own illustrious dean, Blaine Jefferies, the Hero Zero.”
Professor Pendleton cocked an eyebrow and continued to listen with interest.
“Your power is the ability to turn into mist, maybe some degree of control over mist as well, but to be honest that level of information was harder to find, it’s mostly rumors. It’s actually impressive that, with what most people would consider a low level power, you not only graduated among the Class of Legends but were considered one of the greatest Subtlety Heroes of all time. That alone speaks for your abilities in the field of Subtlety. You had an illustrious, if understated, career as a Hero, until…” Ray paused again as if unsure whether he should continue.
“Go on,” Professor Pendleton prompted, curious to see how much Ray had learned and how much he would share.
Ray nodded at the professor’s instruction to continue. “Well…” he said drawing it out, “more recently you were known as Prisoner 48935, captured by Zero and sent to jail for some very impressive thefts. Currently, you are better known as Professor Pendleton of Lander HCP. You are holding the roles of Alternative and Subtlety instructor. I find that part particularly fascinating, given your betrayal called the whole field of Subtlety even further into question. There were several large scale HCP-DVA meetings following your capture and even a couple of Congressional Panels to review the whole subject. In the end very little changed. The value of the Subtlety Hero is too clear cut as is the good they have done and the utter disasters they have prevented.”
“Very good,” applauded Professor Pendleton with a slow clap, but Ray wasn’t done yet.
“Oh,” Ray added almost as an afterthought, “Let’s not forget that the only reason you had early release was to replace the former Subtlety instructor who along with the prior close combat instructor went rogue and tried to kidnap two students who are both currently third years and, as I understand it, former powereds.”
“Hmm excellent,” Professor Pendleton noted giving a brief nod of approval to Ray, “much of that could have been found in the news archives once you identified me as Wisp, but still very impressive. That last bit I will assume for now you picked up speaking to upper classmen while in disguise. However, the source doesn’t really matter all that much.”
“I suppose not, the information is the most important thing.”
“Yes, information is power, something you have quoted to your roommate and your team many times in the last few days. It’s quite important, and a notable lack of information can be a weakness, or at least a bother. Sometimes the bother though isn’t on the one lacking the information. It’s on the one whom they are trying to find the information about.”
As he spoke, Professor Pendleton opened a drawer in his desk. No one looking at the drawer would know that only he could make the drawer open, and anyone who tried forcing it would trigger an incendiary charge which would utterly destroy the contents. He pulled out a thick folder messily stuffed with print outs and photocopies. The tab on the edge of the folder was labeled ‘Ray Rios’.
Upon seeing the folder, Ray followed the lead of Professor Pendleton, he sat down and leaned back in his chair; though he didn’t quite have the nerve to put his feet up on Professor Pendleton’s desk.
“Let’s see,” Professor Pendleton began as he opened the file to the first page. “As I said, your powers manifested at the age of nine, not an easy time to have powers. Fortunately… and unfortunately… your powers are not destructive but more suited to playing a good practical joke. If your powers had a destructive potential it would have allowed you to be placed in a special school used to dealing with supers. Shapeshifting, unfortunately, doesn’t meet those requirements and with budgets the way they are you had to be dealt with in public school since your parents didn’t choose to send you to an expensive private school.”
Ray looked at Professor Pendleton stoically.
Professor Pendleton continued, “From the age of nine until the age of fourteen there are numerous examples where you got in trouble using your powers. Nothing too over the top, typical stuff really; impersonating your classmates to get them in trouble, impersonating teachers, once even impersonating the superintendent of schools. As I said these were all pranks but you did get caught in a couple of petty misdemeanors trying to get classmates in trouble instead of you.”
Professor Pendleton looked up again holding out a picture of a young boy running through a supermarket with cans of whipped cream in each hand spraying random people. “Luckily you were never actually charged, it probably wouldn’t have been enough to remove you from consideration for the HCP but it could have been a sticking point.”
Ray still simply looked at Professor Pendleton, saying nothing.
“Going on,” Professor Pendleton said when Ray didn’t add anything. “Your parents made you participate in a civil duty for supers class. The class was filled with young supers who made mistakes and abused their powers getting them into trouble of all sorts of levels talked to you and half a dozen other young supers using the ‘Scared Straight’ method.”
“Yeah I remember,” Ray said in response, finally acknowledging something Professor Pendleton was saying.
“Hmm, let’s see, after that class you were never in serious trouble again. You used your powers more to amuse people, still made fun of others through imitation but no actual actions to get them in trouble.”
“Yeah, well the class did its job then. Just like it was supposed to.”
“Perhaps…” Professor Pendleton said doubtfully, “or maybe it just forced you to be smarter. There were,” he noted, “several large scale pranks in your high school which no one over claimed credit for and no one figured out who was responsible. None of the pranks ever created too much chaos or caused damage to school or personal property, so no serious investigation or involvement of legal officials was undertaken.”
Professor Pendleton looked up at Ray again but he had gone back into a non-responsive mode, his face completely slack and showing no emotion. “In fact,” Professor Pendleton continued after a few moments, “your school district actually became sort of a haven within the public school system. Where other schools were dealing with drug and gang problems, installing metal detectors, and having random locker searches, all of the schools in yours became almost ideal.”
“Yeah, I remember the newspapers called it a ‘return to idealism’ and ‘the image sitcoms from the fifties through the seventies tried to portray for schools’,” Ray made a disgusted face and pretended to gag. “What nonsense.”
“But you wouldn’t have any idea why this happened, right?” Professor Pendleton asked accusingly.
“Of course not, how could I know that?” Ray asked innocently.
“Mmm… well moving on then,” Professor Pendleton continued not really expecting Ray to have added any details at this point. “Several of the kids who always seemed to get away with everything stopped getting away with things. A number of them got caught and punished, though frequently they swore they never did whatever they were caught at despite strong evidence. And of course, once they started getting suspended or expelled, and in one case arrested, well then other kids, feeling safe started coming forward to tell the teachers all the other things the bad crowd had been doing.”
Professor Pendleton looked directly at Ray again adding. “It was good of course that yours was just one school of many it occurred at or it might really have put you in the forefront of suspicion for being the cause.”
“Would I do that? Those sorts of things could seriously jeopardize my future. Using powers to do that sort of thing is illegal,” he added with a look of innocence plastered over his face.
“Of course, you did become a serious suspect when in one occasion video evidence of the accused kid was brought forward at the same time the kid had an air tight alibi.” Looking up from the folder at Ray, he noted no guilt appearing on the shapeshifter’s face. “That time, of course an accusation was made against you Ray. You are a shapeshifter and it seemed obvious that you had to be behind it, and possibly behind all the rest as well. While the teachers and parents might have been happy with the situation, the accused boy’s family was not, and their lawyer definitely was not.”
“I was innocent;” Ray said with all sincerity, “clearly someone was trying to frame me too.”
“So you claimed, and a telepath was brought in to confirm your involvement.” Professor Pendleton looked up sharply and his eyes bored directly into Ray. “You even allowed it without the usual court order that tends to be needed for such things.” Ray returned the professor’s gaze simply waiting for what he would say next.
“To everyone’s surprise,” Professor Pendleton continued, “you passed the telepathic scans without problem. Interestingly enough, so did the student who accused you and the whole matter was eventually dropped due to inability to sort out the conflicting evidence.”
“I told you I was innocent.”
“So you did,” Professor Pendleton replied dryly before looking back down at the file and continuing. “You were in eighth grade at the time, about fourteen years old. After that event, there were no further incidents. The bad element did stay away from the schools, though I hear it’s starting to come back now. Pity whatever was keeping it at bay must have left.” Professor Pendleton again looked knowingly at Ray who again returned the look with one of innocence.
“The rest of your high school career was unblemished and unremarkable. You didn’t play sports, join in any clubs, or have any after school jobs. In fact, despite being a relatively popular kid, you seemed to have a limited social life. A few girlfriends but no relationship was serious, one pregnancy scare which turned out to be a false alarm.”
“Thank goodness,” Ray said with a look of relief on his face. “I mean, could you imagine me with a kid right now?” then he chuckled slightly, “I am a kid right now.”
“Of course you are Ray.” Professor Pendleton replied with a genuine smile. “So tell me, what changed in your life with that episode when you were nearly caught? Who helped you get out of it and trained you to avoid further suspicion? How did you fool the telepath? It wasn’t a Hero who did the scan but the telepaths employed by the D.C. police squad are top notch and good at what they do.” Professor Pendleton bombarded Ray with one question after another, scrutinizing him for anything to be given away in his reactions.
“I told you, I didn’t do anything. No one specific trained me in the kind of things you are talking about. It’s a combination of the right reading, natural talent, and my own practice,” he gave a cheesy grin to Professor Pendleton, who promptly ignored it, unfortunately finding nothing telling in Ray’s reactions.
“And as for the telepath,” Ray continued, “I didn’t fool them. They found no evidence of guilt because there was none to find. I’m happy you think I could do all that stuff and get away with it, but the truth is I didn’t do it. You just have to accept that.”
“Why didn’t you have a more normal social life?” Professor Pendleton asked without responding to Ray’s statements. “You certainly seem to be trying to make up for it now. Class is not even a week old and you’ve already been with several different women and have socialized more than you ever did before, both inside and outside your HCP class.”
“Yeah well,” Ray answered somewhat sullenly, “I had no time for much of a social life. I had decided I wanted to go HCP and I was training. But not the kind of training you are talking about… I didn’t have any of that other than self-directed learning. I kept some casual girlfriends cause… let’s face it; I was a horny teenaged super in a school with almost no supers, and the others all had very minor powers. I didn’t have to be the quarterback or Student Body President; I was popular, at least among the girls. Hell, I had girls throwing themselves at me. It was like I was a movie star or a pop star most of the time. I grabbed as much as I could whenever I could. No high school student is smart about sex.”
“Yes, well we already covered the pregnancy scare and there is some documentation of your training, but nowhere near enough to explain your level of sophistication.”
“You really don’t believe in natural talent, huh?” Ray retorted snidely.
“No I don’t,” Professor Pendleton answered ignoring Ray’s cheekiness. “Or at least I don’t believe it can account for all we are seeing with you. At some point training far surpasses natural talent.”
“So,” Ray said gesturing at the file in the professor’s hands. “What did our protagonist do next?”
Professor Pendleton shook his head grimly and turned to the next page in the file. “As you said, at this point you were actively seeking to join the HCP when you graduated high school and you still had three and a half years before the applications went in. You threw yourself into physical training. You joined and had frequent participation at the renowned Beyond Gym, in D.C.”
“Yeah, there were good coaches there who helped me get on track for the applications.”
“It is a fairly impressive gym,” Professor Pendleton agreed, “which caters exclusively to supers and has a well-respected training program. It’s based in part on HCP training methods and in part on Force Ops training methods; being run by a couple of former Heroes and a couple of retired Force Ops Drill Sergeants. They coach in both physical fitness and use of one’s powers.”
“Yeah Sergeant Ballard was a real hard ass, but man could he get people to use their powers better.”
“I know Ballard,” Professor Pendleton chuckled, “hard ass doesn’t even begin to describe him. What you got from Beyond explains some of the tricks you have picked up with your shape changing, your obvious physical fitness despite the appearance of less than optimum fitness, and even your martial arts training,” he agreed. “But it still doesn’t explain your other talents and knowledge.”
Ray crossed his arms again shutting off his expressions, holding everything in.
Professor Pendleton decided to take another tack. “When you joined Beyond, it was also the first time you started displaying a spending pattern inconsistent with your prior habits. Beyond is not cheap, supers on staff don’t come cheap and the equipment to train them and the repair bills when things go wrong are ridiculously expensive. The budget for Lander alone gives Senators chest pain, we have the government footing the bill. Beyond does it by charging ridiculous fees to participate.” Professor Pendleton smiled a tight grin at Ray, “But you paid the bills with no concerns, from a checking account that suddenly you had, and was flush with money. Large amounts of money.”
“I told you it’s my money,” Ray said vehemently, “and it’s all legit.”
“I’ll grant that it was essentially all acquired legally,” the professor nodded at first and then shook his head slightly. “Other than the technicality of being a minor when you were procuring it and legally needing the direct involvement of someone of age.”
“Yeah…” Ray wavered a bit before matter of factly stating, “Well, no one proofed me.”
“I’m sure,” Professor Pendleton paused and skimmed through the next several pages. “Moving on… There is absolutely no record of you training in anything related to Subtlety or covert operations. No suggestion of contact with anyone who could give you the inside track on the HCP except possibly at Beyond. They didn’t train you for it and no record of any interaction there that could explain it was found. That place is inspected like you would not believe… well I take that back I’m sure you would believe it and probably could detail the protocols to me.”
“You give me too much credit.”
“No,” Professor Pendleton disagreed, “I give you the credit you deserve. Now give me the credit I deserve,” he added insistently. “So far you refuse to tell me anything. But the fact of the matter is I can’t work with a student where I can’t trust anything about them. Subtlety may be about deception but, if you want to learn from me, you can’t deceive me about what you know and what your talents are. Doing that only prevents me from teaching you effectively and leads to your rapid expulsion from this program.”
“I can certainly see that. So in the interest of you not expelling me and my continued education… let me fill in some information.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Yes, I know a fair amount about the HCP program, its methods, its majors, what is done when and how. I know the first year is about developing as an individual, the second about being part of a team, the third about facing multiple foes, and the fourth about continuing to improve throughout your career as a Hero. And I know we are messing with that having already formed what is essentially a team. Couldn’t really be helped,” Ray paused and looked directly at Professor Pendleton again.
“Alright,” Ray shifted in his seat uncomfortably, he looked like he wanted to pace. “I have a fair amount of knowledge about Subtlety, you knew that, I’ve demonstrated it, you’ve witnessed it, and there is no longer much point in denying it.”
“Glad to see you’ve come to that conclusion. Now what is it you are looking for?”
“I need to learn more,” Ray said with a passion he hadn’t shown till this point. “Specifically I need to learn what you are here to teach me, and like you said I have a certain amount of skill already. I don’t think waiting until the second year is in my best interest.”
“Well for one thing I will stagnate, which isn’t good. For another if I wait till the normal Subtlety course I would be starting with training wheels alongside people thrown into Subtlety just because their powers fit or even that they had no better fit in another subject. I don’t think that’s a good place for me to be.”
“Yes,” Professor Pendleton agreed. His unexpected agreement caused Ray to let some surprise show on his face. While it was only a slight rise to his eyebrows, Professor Pendleton could read body language as if it was large print… at least he could with most people. “These sorts of situations have been seen before, but usually it’s in students who leave part way through a year and manage to get back in. They end up repeating part of the year and tend to start out far ahead of their colleagues.” Professor Pendleton was silent for a moment then added, “I won’t deny it can cause issues both with the student and the rest of the class.”
“I’m thinking about my personal issues right now. I can avoid being disruptive to the class next year if needed but right now, I need to keep moving ahead and learning more. Gym is not going to add much for me, my particular form of shapeshifting keeps me in shape better than your average Olympian.”
“I think what you can learn, or how much you can improve in gym will surprise you.
Ray ignored the professor’s comment and continued. “Once we get to close combat and alternative training next semester there are things for me to learn, but right now it’s Ethics and Gym. My Ethics will need to be a bit more fluid than I suspect Dean Blaine is going to push us toward if I am going to succeed in Subtlety.”
Professor Pendleton simply smiled at that but didn’t interrupt Ray.
“Plus, I need to practice with the skills I already have, left unused such skills atrophy.” Ray paused and looked at Professor Pendleton again, visibly debating internally what to say next. “Actually,” he began, “I’m amazed after fourteen years in prison they figured you were still good enough and current enough to teach in the HCP.”
Professor Pendleton stared back at Ray with a look of surprise and cocked an eyebrow. “That’s a very interesting observation Ray,” he said dryly.
“I mean…” Ray started to respond nervously. “No offense, but just the change in computers and other assorted technologies employed by villains and other criminals over the last fourteen years is huge. You couldn’t have kept up in prison… So how did you keep up?”
Professor Pendleton chuckled, “I still have some secrets you haven’t ferreted out yet. Good, if we decide you are continuing in the program then maybe I’ll make it an honors assignment for you to figure it out.”
“Heh,” Ray laughed back, “figuring that out would be worth honors I bet.”
Professor Pendleton simply nodded before continuing to question Ray. “OK, next question. Why are you giving away secrets to your classmates?”
“What do you mean?” Ray asked back, sounding genuinely confused.
“Most subtlety students keep their secrets close. They don’t reveal much of what they know to anyone else, even their friends. Knowledge is power, particularly to Subtlety students. Every other student here is still ultimately their competition for one of ten prizes coming down the line in four years. I’m sure you already know that.”
Ray simply nodded silently in agreement.
“Going into second year knowing more of the curriculum than others would make you soar ahead in the rankings. Maybe not the combat rankings, but definitely for Subtlety and perhaps for some of the other courses as well. It won’t do you much good in Close Combat where it’s a bit more in your face and brutal. Of course somehow I doubt you are planning on being in close combat…” Professor Pendleton looked speculatively at Ray.
Ray sighed and shook his head. “No, I’m not planning on that, Subtlety, Focus, and Weapons. Though, I could potentially see taking either Close Combat or Ranged Combat in place of Weapons. About the only class I’m absolutely ruling out is Control.”
“But,” Professor Pendleton continued with a curt nod of agreement at Ray’s choices. “You are sharing the secrets you hold, bringing your ‘study group’ ahead with you, and that concept has diffused out to at least one other group being organized by Ms. Ramos who if I am correct is sleeping with your roommate, Sam.”
“Well, Sam came up with the idea of the study group,” replied Ray, “and he didn’t discuss it with me before he asked a random group of students to join it.”
Ray considered for a few seconds before going on. “It’s a good idea. If I were organizing it from scratch, I might have chosen the group with a bit more care, more balanced and not based it around roommates. However by sheer luck we did end up with a good group. We could use some more range, some more control, and I wish he had snagged the healer, but it’s a workable group. Since the group was formed, I’m damn sure going to make it work and the only way to do that is to use my skills, not just my powers. You said they are my competition?” Ray threw back at the professor.
Professor Pendleton nodded, “Well that’s only true if I don’t bring the whole group of them with me to the white cape ceremony.”
“That’s a lofty goal.”
“Best kind to have,” smiled Ray.
“I would have,” Professor Pendleton said leaning forward to look Ray right in the eye, “for lack of a better word, expected a more subtle touch in how you went about it.”
“No, it’s too early for that. Employing subtle manipulation takes too much familiarity. While I am close to that with Sam, I’m nowhere near that close with the others. No,” Ray disagreed with Professor Pendleton shaking his head vehemently, “at this point what they respect is power. That’s why Professor Fletcher just wiped the floor with everyone at once, instant respect. I showed them a different kind of power and it got me the respect and the attention I needed to take charge of the group. There’s time for a more subtle touch later.”
“Now they will be expecting it. You will become known as a manipulator.”
“Then I just have to be even better at it. Isn’t that the point of me being here?”
“Yes it is. Now since you brought it up, let’s discuss you being here.”
“Here in the HCP, I already…”
“No Ray, let’s discuss why you are here with me in my office.”
“OK, why am I here?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“At a guess, I figure you are trying to decide what to do about me. I don’t fit the standard mold of a starting HCP student and that bothers you. I have skills I shouldn’t have, I have knowledge I shouldn’t have, and I’m going to guess you think it’s enough that it’s disruptive to the class as a whole.”
“Well you are organizing a team which is something we normally don’t do until second year.”
“To be fair,” Ray said with a grin, “Sam organized it. I am just making it function well.”
“Still, you have far exceeded the limitations we normally expect even of the best students who have spent most of their lives training under Hero parents. To be fair almost every one of those cases is a student in a more combat oriented field.”
“Interesting,” responded Ray taking up the new piece of information Professor Pendleton put out as bait.
“We don’t tend to have parents training their kids to outwit them. Subtlety Heroes for the most part would probably prefer their kids don’t follow in their footsteps.”
“Why?” Ray asked, though Professor Pendleton was confident he already knew the answer. “Subtlety Heroes do great things and save a lot of lives. They should be proud of their children following in their footsteps.”
“In a world full of unpleasantness,” Professor Pendleton answered doing his best to keep his face absolutely neutral. “Subtlety often is even packed with grief, disappointment, and loss.”
Sean thought somberly about his words as he spoke them. While he didn’t have kids himself, his niece, Alice Adair, was currently enrolled in Subtlety despite all his efforts to prevent it. He knew better than most the taxing nature of the job, the slow erosion of principles and the difficulties that could occur along the way.
“Yeah,” Ray closed his eyes and then nodded. “I can see where that would be the case.”
“Now then,” Professor Pendleton interrupted their maudlin thoughts. “We’ve been sitting here having what is very nearly a conversation of equals. I’m not saying you have my experience or that there weren’t things I think could have been done better. But for every question or concern I brought up, you had a respectable answer. I may have only been a Professor in the HCP for the last year, but that isn’t the typical brand new student.”
“No, I can agree with that,” responded Ray. “I’m anything but typical,” he grinned again.
“In fact, I would say it’s impossible but I had one other fairly similar student already,” Professor Pendleton added giving Ray just a bit more information to see what he would do with it.
“What happened to him?”
“He was expelled.”
“Bummer,” Ray replied, letting just a hint of concern touch his eyes.
“Yes,” Professor Pendleton agreed, “but not before he pulled off one of the most impressive come from behind wins for his team’s second year final in the history of the HCP.”
“If he could impress you, I’m sure he had skills.”
“Yes, he did have skills,” he smiled as he said it and shook his head just ever so slightly. “But, I know how and where he got his training, and more importantly,” he stressed, “why he got it. In addition, he had a much gentler touch with what he did than you do… well he did until right at the end.”
Professor Pendleton looked from the file to Ray and back again before locking eyes with Ray. He drummed his fingers on the surface of his desk for half a minute or so considering what to say next before he spoke again.
“So, Ray,” he began, “what I need from you is more information. I need to know who trained you and why. I need to know and understand where you are coming from as a Hero candidate. Normally we are not so open about this with students but in your case you, or more likely whoever trained you, has thoroughly blocked any access to that information.”
“And, assuming such information even exists, what happens if I can’t give you that information?”
Professor Pendleton pulled out a cell phone and turned it on. He scrolled through until he reached a number he was hoping he didn’t have to call.
“If you can’t give me that information, then I call this number. Sam finds himself in a single and you find yourself with several blurred out weeks in your memory.”
Ray looked seriously worried for the first time. His normal calm, even slightly manic nature, was shaken. He knew it might come to this, he was hoping it wouldn’t.
“During your career, have you ever been told that you needed to reveal an information source and you couldn’t?”
“Yes, but this is not the same, you aren’t functioning as a Hero.”
“No but the principle is the same. I have a source I need to protect. I can’t reveal it; sorry that’s just the way it is. I might wish I could but, the fact is I can’t. That doesn’t mean there is something wrong, it doesn’t mean I was trained by a villain, it doesn’t mean anything other than I can’t reveal the source.”
“I could ask you to submit to a telepathic scan.”
“You could, but I would refuse.”
“I assumed so. Besides I’m not sure I would trust a telepathic scan given the results of the scan you underwent during the Billy Sander investigation. I don’t know how you fooled it, but you clearly did. And the school assumed you did as well but they couldn’t prove it, so you made it through.”
“Innocent until proven guilty. Something that apparently doesn’t apply in the HCP.”
“This isn’t about guilt or innocence. It’s about the level of risk you present, and whether we should take a chance on you. You probably have no idea how many potential students are turned down just because there is a question about their character. Not their ability, not that they have a criminal record, just a question about their character and if they truly have the spark of the heroic in them.”
“I can’t give you what you are asking for,” Ray stated with finality, his whole body was rigid as if expecting Professor Pendleton to remove him right then and there.
“That is your choice,” Professor Pendleton sighed regretfully, “but you aren’t giving me much of a choice.”
“Sure I am.” Ray shot back, suddenly jumping to his feet and causing Professor Pendleton to take on a defensive pose and prepare to use his power if he needed to. “You said it yourself, I am here functioning way ahead of my level in the field of Subtlety, a field I clearly show talent for and a field my power is imminently suited for.”
“Granted,” Professor Pendleton replied curtly.
“So rather than assume something sinister that despite all your efforts you couldn’t find. Why not assume that everything is on the level and I am here to become a Hero?”
“Because, if you are a plant… some villain’s trick… you will potentially do a great deal of damage to Lander and the HCP as a whole. You could potentially harm a lot of Heroes and Heroes in training by what you learn here if I continue to let you have access.”
“If I were a plant, why the hell would I show off? Why wouldn’t I keep a low profile? I’m better trained than that.”
“That is spurious logic, if A then B, not B does not imply not A. You could still be a plant and assume no one would believe it if you were so open about your abilities.”
“So teach me damn it!” Ray nearly yelled, “Supervise me! Watch me like a hawk! Put all that amazing talent you have in Subtlety and information gathering to use, but don’t just assume the worst and throw me out!”
“I can’t do that, I can’t place others in jeopardy based solely on my judgement call.”
“Of course you can. Isn’t that what you did every day as a Hero? Isn’t that what you do every time you decide who is going to graduate this program?”
“It’s not the same as letting someone you have serious concerns is a possible plant into the HCP.”
“Have plants made it into the HCP before?”
“Yes, a few.”
“Have any made it through the first year? Have any actually graduated?”
“Well, assuming we know about all of them, several were caught in later years and there have been at least two or three who actually graduated.”
“And how much harm did it actually do?”
“Well… nobody caused the HCP to come tumbling down obviously, if that’s what you mean. A number of Heroes were revealed publically, information control, relocation, and some other interventions I won’t talk about were employed to deal with the consequences. But in one case it cost three Heroes and one Hero’s family their lives,” a look of deep sadness came across Sean Pendleton’s face as he thought back to the tragedy that surrounded Bemuse’s betrayal. No one could have imagined she was a plant, the sheer damage she did, not just in lives lost but the ripple effect from her actions… it was a dark chapter in Lander’s history. And what happened afterwards to Professor Bartholomew… Well he hoped never to be involved in that big a clusterfuck again. He would never allow such damage to occur on his watch.
“So, what ended up happening was about the same amount of damage as when a Hero decides to go rogue after they graduated.” Ray looked at Professor Pendleton with a knowing look.
“First of all when most Heroes go bad,” Professor Pendleton said from experience, “they usually don’t try to take down those they graduated with. When you go through this program, you develop bonds with your classmates that transcend everything else. Second, most rogue Heroes aren’t trying to become villains, they just take a wrong turn or go too far down a dark path. They aren’t the same kind of villain that Heroes face on the streets every day.”
“Yeah the tale of Globe certainly illustrates that,” Ray said sarcastically, even though it argued against him to do so.
“And what do you know about Globe?” Professor Pendleton asked suddenly with more interest, perhaps too much interest.
“Huh? Nothing much, just that he flipped out and killed his teammate and friend Intra. His team had to kill him. Oh… and he just came back from the dead. It was all over the news a few months ago, remember?”
It was in the news, but of course it was more than that to Sean, more than that to Lander as a whole. ‘Just what does this boy know?’ wondered Sean, ‘Was that comment really just innocent and based on the news coverage the Globe situation was getting? Or was it calculated? A vague implication that maybe Ray knew more, or was even involved? If there is even a chance that he has something to do with Globe I can’t just shove him away.’
Sean’s thoughts were going in all directions now. ‘If he has something to do with Globe, how does it tie into Blaine knowing something about him? Why would Blaine tell me to trust him on this and teach the kid?’ There were many more questions than answers swirling around in his head.
Ray interrupted the chaos that enveloped Professor Pendleton’s thoughts. “I can tell you one thing…” he added digging deeply and hoping beyond hope that it would bring the professor around. “Maybe the most important thing I learned in all the training I did before coming to this place. I hope that will be enough…”
Ray paused, taking a deep breath, letting some of what was underneath the facades he always wore show through. Professor Pendleton wasn’t fooled for a minute, emotional control and expression are a huge part of the human side of Subtlety.
“I’ve studied strategy and tactics, I’ve gotten my body into shape, and I’ve practiced with my powers and learned so many different things I can do with them already. I’ve studied computers and hacking, code breaking, the art of observation, and the art of manipulation. I’ve learned a tremendous amount and I’ve learned I’ve only scratched the surface.”
He paused again, as if dredging the words up from a place locked deep inside him. “And the most important thing I learned is that even if on my own I managed to learn even more. Even if I learned everything you and this place could possibly teach me; and that’s something I doubt is possible. But even if I learned all that, it still wouldn’t matter.”
Ray was almost shaking at this point, holding back his emotions… frustration… grief… fear… Professor Pendleton honestly wasn’t sure which.
“Because,” Ray continued, trying to get through what he was saying without breaking down. “No matter what I could do with all that training, it wouldn’t matter unless I trained here and proved myself. It doesn’t matter unless I earn that damn white cape and proved that I was a Hero.”
Ray’s hands were balled into fists and he was white knuckled from holding them so tight. Each word came out as if it were pulled out against his will. “Everything I am… and everything I’ve worked for… is…” he paused and took a deep breath, “useless… it’s useless unless I have that title and that certification. I need it, the license… the permission to use what I know… to do what I can do… to help those I can help… and to save those I can save.” He paused and took a few shuddering breaths regaining control.
“I may not be the typical student who comes through this place,” Ray continued with a new icy calm to his words. “But believe me when I say there is no one here more motivated to become a Hero… and actually be a Hero than I am…” There was dampness is his eyes, no tears, but Professor Pendleton could see an obvious effort by Ray to hold them back. He blustered, he joked, he manipulated, and finally he laid himself bare to Sean Pendleton; or at least he seemed to. “The costs,” he continued, “are too high if I don’t.”
Sean believed him.
He couldn’t say exactly why he believed him. Maybe it was his trust in Blaine; maybe he actually saw something of truth in what this supreme obscurer of the truth said. Maybe a memory dredged up by all this demanded to be laid to rest by what could foolishly be called an act of contrition. Whatever the reason, Professor Pendleton surprised even himself by his next words.
“It so happens I currently have an opening in my schedule on Wednesdays at 5 PM. I am willing to give that time to you. Call it a special tutorial if you will.”
“I like the sound of that.”
“There is only so much I will be able to teach you that way. There are many other things that only practical exercises can teach or evaluate. I’m afraid there won’t be many of those, perhaps none of those until you are actually enrolled in Subtlety next year.”
“I can live with that… and for what it’s worth Professor Pendleton, I won’t let you down.”
“I’m sure you won’t Ray…” he replied honestly, “I’m sure you won’t.”
Sean watched Ray walk down the hall toward the gym. Just because he had pulled him out of class for a meeting didn’t mean he was excused from the whole thing. By now all the unconscious students had been healed and were running in circles or doing calisthenics. Sean had no doubt that Ray would come up with a clever story to explain his absence.
He returned to his desk and put Ray’s file away in his drawer. When he did so his eyes fixed on a card sitting in the same drawer. It was a birthday card but it wasn’t given to him for his birthday, it was closed and showed only a cartoon duck who wished him a ‘flocking good birthday’. As he saw it, he shook his head. ‘Well Ray’, he thought, ‘We’ll see just how much you can turn my life upside down. You have quite a challenge ahead of you if you want to take the prize in that particular competition’.
Still later, once gym was dismissed and no immediate work was left for the day, Sean found himself sitting in Professor Fletcher’s office, the two of them sharing a drink.
“Thanks for the warning about what the freshmen had planned,” Fletcher was saying.
“Of course my friend,” Sean replied and laughed. “With Ray spouting off so much about the use of information and Subtlety, I’m surprised he didn’t think we use it too. Moving their practice sessions off campus, using telepathy to communicate, and all the tech tricks he had Doug Holt making for them… I don’t know if he expected any of it to work or he just wanted his team to think it would help.”
Sean took a drink and smiled, adding “At least that idea he had of absorbing your electrical form into an infinite circuit didn’t get used.”
“It’s almost too bad he didn’t try to absorb me into an infinite circuit.”
Fletcher smiled a knowing sort of smile, and reached over and pulled a twisted hunk of metal out of the drawer and put it on his desk in front of Sean.
“I don’t keep many souvenirs, but I kept this one.”
“What is it?”
“The device that was used the first time someone tried to contain me by absorbing my electrical form completely in an infinite circuit.”
Sean simply laughed and then was joined by Carl Fletcher.
“So,” Sean started when the fits of laughter were a bit more controlled. “What are we going to do with these students? We already have two fully formed teams and now more are forming among the rest of the class. It’s going to completely disrupt our normal second year activities.”
“Oh… I don’t know about that,” Carl replied. “I have a few ideas already. If nothing else, it will keep things interesting.”
“After last year’s sophomore final, I can use a bit less interesting. Thanks all the same.”