Authors: Sophie Davis
“How long have you been teaching here?” I asked as I took a bite of my ranch-drenched salad and latched on to his hazel eyes.
“Just a year,” he answered.
“Where were you stationed before that?” I continued.
Ernest looked young, but I didn’t think that he was young enough to have only graduated the previous year.
“A computer development facility in Scranton, Pennsylvania,” he answered.
“How long were you there?” I pressed, swallowing the lettuce and picking up my knife to cut the chicken.
“Two years,” he replied, playing with the gravy on his own plate.
With every answer he gave, I got a better feel for his brain patterns. Like Electrical Manipulators, Higher Reasoning Talents had unique patterns. Ernest’s synapses fired so rapidly that it made me dizzy, and the overactive brain functioning was exactly what I’d expect from a strong Higher Reasoning.
“Why did you leave?” I asked.
If he thought that I was being nosey, he didn’t let on; he actually seemed pleased that a girl was taking an interest in him. I gathered that Ernest didn’t have a lot of friends.
“The pressure was too much,” he admitted, his face going scarlet as he averted his eyes.
I smiled sympathetically at him. He was an easy read, not much of a mental guard, and was telling the truth, at least about the pressure being too intense.
“What did you do before you came here?” he asked, visibly sagging with relief when he no longer had the added weight of my mind on his shoulders.
“I was ...well, I was a Hunter Pledge,” I answered after a long pause.
“Man, you must know all about pressure, then, huh?”
It wasn’t really a question as much as a statement, but I felt the need to answer anyway.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that’s why I left my previous post, too.
I basically broke down on my solo mission.” I tried to look like the admission made me uneasy, which wasn’t hard because it was basically the truth; I had broken down on my solo mission, at least physically.
After lunch ended, Ernest walked with me to the academic building before saying our goodbyes.
He might be a suspect, but at least Ernest seemed to like me. That was more than I could say for some of the others whom I’d encountered thus far.
My first class of the afternoon was Talent History taught by Thad
Wietz. My interrogation of Ernest had left me little time to search Thad’s file for his red flag. I walked into the classroom and made my way to the front of the room to introduce myself, blind to Mac’s reasons for including him on my short list of suspects.
The first thing that I noticed about Thad was his size.
He was huge. Next to Thad, even Donavon would’ve looked like a child. He had a mess of reddish-brown hair, pulled back in a short ponytail, and his piercing green eyes bore down on me as I went to shake his enormous hand. When he spoke, he had an odd accent that I thought might be Scottish. I was willing to bet that his lineage was what had landed him on my suspect list.
Thad seemed friendly enough.
He asked me to sit in the back of the class and just observe for the day. Happy to oblige, I tuned out his lecture on the Great Contamination, and observed the students in the class instead. Nobody stood out as being particularly devious, but I imagined that listening to history lectures probably dulled even the sharpest of criminal masterminds into a near comatose state.
When my own mind had been sufficiently numbed, my eyes nearly burning from the effort of trying not to blink for fear my eyes might not be able to force themselves back open, Thad dismissed class.
I nearly knocked over my desk in my eagerness to leave the room. History had been my least favorite subject while in school, and I truly believed that Mac chose this class for me more as punishment for my attitude since the incident, and less because he actually suspected Thad.
Thankfully, my last two classes of the day were both physical.
The first was a small caliber weapons class, which happened to be my specialty. Guns were never my favorite, less so since being on the receiving end of a bullet. Despite that, I could hit a moving target from further away than most thanks to Henri’s master tutelage. I was proficient with a bow and arrow, but rarely had the patience to put such weapons into practice. But hand knives, throwing stars, and daggers- that was where I excelled.
The Small Weapons Instructor was Griffin Knight, and no introductions were necessary; Griffin had been my Small Weapons Instructor when I was a student.
I had been looking forward to this class all day. Griffin had been a teacher at the School for decades, and I’d begun started training with him when I was just eleven.
When I first saw Griffin’s name on my schedule, I’d been shocked that Mac assigned me to assist in his class.
I desperately hoped that I wasn’t here because Mac really thought that Griffin was the leak, but instead because he thought that I deserved a treat after all the crap Instructors I’d endured. I’d always liked Griffin.
My fears were put to rest the moment I opened his file.
Instead of personnel information, Mac’s secretary had included a note, indicating that I was actually to be an aid for Griffin. It also said that Mac wanted me to assist Griffin because I would be an asset to his students, most of whom were extremely strong Talents, likely to be placed with the Hunters or the Military Police.
Griffin’s face lit up when he saw me.
“Class, we have a real treat,” he exclaimed, clapping his big hands together in a gleeful gesture. “The Director and Headmistress have found an assistant Instructor whose experience will be invaluable to us.” Griffin’s white head bobbed up and down enthusiastically as he spoke.
“Don’t make promises that I can’t deliver on,” I teased Griffin.
“Everyone, I would like to introduce you to my star pupil, Natalia.” I waved at the class, feeling more than a little embarrassed. I surveyed the doubtful faces of the seven seated Talents. No surprise there, they were skeptical. Apparently, Griffin saw the same thing that I did.
“I think a little demonstration might be in order.”
He winked at me.
“I’m a little rusty,” I warned, fearing that my weapons skills had gone the way of my running abilities.
At least throwing knives was unlikely to make me vomit, I hoped.
“Duly noted, my dear,” he replied, with a knowing smile.
He thought that I was being modest; little did he know. “Pick your poison.”
Griffin had laid out a number of small weapons on tables set up behind him.
I walked slowly from table to table, drinking in the varying choices. After making a complete circuit, I opted for a belt that I secured around my hips, with two six-inch blades. The knives had hand-holds and weren’t ideal for throwing but great for lashing out at an opponent. The hand-holds both had a thumb release button that snapped open, allowing you to either throw the blade or just drop it if necessary. Next, I selected an ankle holster with four throwing blades and a thigh holster with an additional four. A Hunter was only so heavily armed in practice; all of that weaponry weighed you down in the field.
Behind the tables of weapons was an obstacle course.
The course hadn’t changed since the first time I attempted it years ago. It was rigged with scarily lifelike dummies that popped out at every other turn. The dummies didn’t actually attack, but you had to deliver an incapacitating blow to get past them. The obstacle course had just that - obstacles: rope swings over water, rock walls, rope bridges, and mud pits. It had always been one of my favorite activities.
I crouched at the beginning of the course, waiting for Griffin to signal me to start.
As soon as he blew his whistle, I sprinted for the first rock wall. Clearing it with relative ease, I took off across the rope bridge at the top. The first assailant stood halfway across the bridge; I stabbed him in the neck with my blade and continued on.
After taking part in actual missions with the Hunters, facing real enemies with real weapons, the course was a breeze.
Even though I was out of shape and sucking wind, I finished in record time, even for me.
“Amazing as usual!”
Griffin exclaimed, clapping me on the back as I stood doubled over, my hands resting on my thighs, trying to catch my breath.
“Thanks,” I panted, twisting my neck to smile up at him through sweat-soaked curls.
Behind Griffin, I could see the astonished faces of the students. Their skeptical stares had turned respectful, and I couldn’t help but feel immense satisfaction. Donavon might have bruised my thigh – and my ego – and Cadence might have humiliated me in front of her class, but at least I knew that I hadn’t completely lost my touch.
The final class of the day was Telekinesis Training with Ursula Bane.
As with Griffin’s class, Mac actually wanted me to aid Ursula’s students since they all possessed telekinetic powers. Unlike Griffin, Ursula did have some suspicious incidents in her past.
Her parents hadn’t submitted her mandatory testing when she was five, which wasn’t a huge deal in and of
itself. However, both of her parents were outspoken members of a rebel group that opposed the testing laws. The Agency hadn’t actually discovered a connection between them and the Coalition, but openly disagreeing with the law was only one step removed from being branded a Crane supporter, and a traitor.
Toxic first became aware of Ursula when she was arrested with her parents at an anti-testing rally when she was thirteen.
When the members of the Interrogation Division had questioned her, they’d realized that she was a very strong Telekinetic. Afterwards, they offered her a place at the McDonough School, which she readily accepted. Until she’d met members of the Agency, Ursula had never realized her ability to move objects with her mind was actually a Talent.
Since attending the School and then becoming a member of the Agency, Ursula had proven herself to be a loyal Operative. But while she was establishing her allegiance, her parents became increasingly more outspoken.
As a result, they were both currently serving time at Affelwood Correctional Facility, a low security prison in D.C. The red flag in her file was because Ursula had been to visit her parents in prison numerous times in the months prior to my mission to Nevada. Those visits were undoubtedly monitored. I just needed to get copies of the recordings – another job for Penny.
Unlike Cadence, Ursula was thrilled at my presence.
At least until she realized that my Talent was stronger than hers. From her file, I’d learned Toxic considered her to be an Extremely-High level Telekinetic. I immediately registered the smugness she felt in her abilities. Her arrogance irritated me to no end, even though I also had a certain amount of pride in my own powers, which may have been the reason our personalities conflicted. I had to keep reminding myself during her class that my primary objective was learning whether she was a spy, not showcasing my clearly-superior skills.
After my classes wound down for the day, I jogged back to the Instructor’s dorm. My stomach grumbled with hunger.
I couldn’t wait to get to dinner, but I was fairly certain that Penny wouldn’t appreciate it if I showed up without showering first.
Hurrying through the front of the dorm, I took the stairs two at a time to the third floor.
I mentally switched the door lock to open as I rounded the corner to my room. I quickly shucked my clothes and made for the shower, wishing that I was back at my room in Elite Headquarters, where I could just program my wall sensor for maid service. No such luck. Here, I was my own maid.
The warm water felt great on my already-beginning-to-ache muscles.
I desperately craved more time for the warm water to ease the lingering tension from earlier in the day, but I knew that I needed to hurry if I was actually going to eat before meeting Penny. Full of regret, I turned off the water with a sigh and reached blindly for the fluffy white towel hanging on the bar attached to the back of the door. I quickly dried off and dressed in a pair of lightweight navy blue drawstring pants, a soft white shirt, and well-worn leather sandals. I glanced at the clock on my desk. “Crap,” I said out loud. I was as per usual, late. Grabbing a lightweight zip-up jacket, I headed for the door.
I made it halfway to the cafeteria when I ran into Mac.
“You forgot to go to Medical today,” he said as soon as he spotted me.
“Evening to you, too,” I replied.
“You know how important it for Medical to sample your blood levels every day, Natalia. Not to mention, you need your injection.” Mac ignored my glib comment. His cold eyes surveyed me disapprovingly.
“My day was great, thanks for asking.”
I smiled as though he’d actually inquired.
“Medical. Now,” he barked.
Mac had no sense of humor.
“I was just on my way to dinner. Care to join me?” I asked.
“Natalia ...,” he warned.
“Mac, I am
staaaarrrving,” I whined.
“I will have dinner sent to you and Operatives
Latimore and Samuels at the Crypto Lab.” Without another word, Mac turned and walked away. I grumbled to myself as I altered my course towards Medical, my stomach protesting loudly.
After my routine blood taking, chased down with my daily injection of experimental medicine, I finally made my way to the Crypto Building.
As soon as the glass doors slid open, granting me entry to Penny’s inner sanctuary, my olfactory senses lit up. I inhaled deeply, drinking in the wonderful scent of Gretchen’s cooking.
“Roasted hen,” I called.
I breathed in again. “Mashed sweet potatoes with honey butter.” Sniff, sniff, sniff. “Greens with roasted pine nuts?”
“You got it!” Penny exclaimed, smiling at me.
“Mrs. McDonough had it delivered a couple minutes ago. It’s delicious,” she added, glancing guiltily to her plate, already piled high with large helpings. Gemma also looked shamefaced for starting to eat without me. I sat down and helped myself to equally-large portions of the feast, and the three of us sat in companionable silence as we gorged ourselves with Gretchen’s cooking.
“Food coma,” I muttered, licking the last remnants of potato off my plastic fork.
I looked sideways at Penny, who was staring glassy-eyed at the bank of computers. She nodded her agreement. A wave of exhaustion hit me as I began to digest the enormous meal.
“The Director gave me the list of Instructors that he paired you with as a starting point,” Penny began just as my eyelids were becoming too heavy to keep open.
Shaking my head, I tried to jostle myself awake. “I did a more thorough background search of each,” she continued. “I printed you the in depth reports.” Penny handed me a stack of thick folders.
“Thanks,” I answered.
“You learn anything useful today?” Penny asked hopefully.
“Not really,” I said, absently flipping through the first folder.
It was Annalise’s, reminding me to ask Penny about her Talent ranking. “Actually, there was one thing I was curious about. This first Instructor, Annalise Cleary, is listed as an Elite-Level Electrical Manipulator.”
Penny looked confused.
“Will you double check that?” I asked. Penny narrowed her eyes at me, but wheeled her chair several computers down.
Her fingers flew adeptly across the keys.
Annalise Bernice Cleary,” she read from her screen. “Elite levels of Talent consistent with Electrical Manipulation,” Penny confirmed. That was what my print-out said, too. I stared down at the file, twisting my face in concentration.