Chapter 31 - Ken
I think I am finally coming to understand what Paul means when he speaks of the brotherhood of all nerds.
I have no sensible reason to help Leon. He is, after all, the competition, and there is no logical reason why I should expend my precious time to help him. By all rights, I should leave him and his friends to their fate. But I simply can not bring myself to ignore his plight. The thought of Aaron destroying them with his sleazy tricks sickens me. It sickens me as much as Aaron’s earlier antics – maybe more so, because this time they are aimed at a bystander who does not understand the nature of this game. This is like a helpless house pet being kicked by a cruel owner, and I can not merely stand by an let it happen.
I did not realize until I took off down the stairs that I had no clue where Leon was. So I ran. I ran faster and farther than I thought I could. The others jumped out of my way, or else I shoved them clear – I had no time to deal with people in my way.
It was serendipity that I caught up with Leon outside of his first class.
“Ken? Are you all right?”
Given my three–minute sprint, I was not feeling all right, but there were other issues to discuss. “Aaron’s gonna cheat.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The match this morning...” I strained to catch my breath. “The guy who’s leading the team...Aaron Bellamy...I think he’s gonna try to pull something.”
Leon seemed oddly collected. “What makes you say that?”
“Because that’s the kind of person he is! Aaron’s crazy. Obsessed. He’s tried it several times this year alone! It’s a long story. I don’t have time right now or...” I paused to catch my breath. “...He’s gonna do something. I can’t go to the administration because I can’t prove it, but he’s definitely planning something.”
A strange little expression crossed Leon’s face. For a fleeting moment, he was lost in thought, as though remembering something he had seen before. “Thanks for telling me, but I think I’ll be all right.”
“You don’t understand just how far this kid will go. I don’t know what he’s planning, but it’s gonna be awful for sure! He’s done a bunch of stuff to us already, you would not believe what this guy is willing to do.”
“Believe me, I’ve known people like that before.” He patted me on the shoulder. “I know how to deal with them. Trust me on this.”
“Look, it’s short notice, but I can put something together. I have some contacts. I don’t think there’s a whole lot I can do, but I can certainly check...” I let out a quick cough. “...I can see what I can do.”
“That’s not necessary.” He turned into the classroom. “If I lose, I lose,” he said over his shoulder, “but I don’t think I’m going to lose.”
I wish I could be like that – confident, placid, at peace with the world and the future. There was nothing more I could do, so I just went on to my class. It was an amazing agony, nothing but time to watch the clock and worry. I could not concentrate on much of anything. When I could gather my thought, all I could do was try to deduce what Aaron had planned. The class rolled on as a decade’s worth of rumor and speculation floated through my head. It made little sense, and yet I knew it was coming.
It was a relief when we were dismissed to watch the match. At the first reasonable opportunity, I slipped away from my class to meet Paul. But before I could find my friend, someone else found me.
“Ken Greevey!” It was Ed, his memo pad and pencil at the ready. “Can I have a moment of your time?”
“I’m busy, Ed.”
“Two minutes. I’m planning to do a little write–up after the tournament for the paper’s blog, and I’d like to schedule everyone for an interview now. I can’t find Paul in here, so if can just take me to him so the three of us can set something up –”
I waved him off. “Not now. Aaron’s going to try and cheat.”
“On stage?” He nearly dropped his memo pad. “Everyone I talked to says that’s impossible.”
“Yeah, just about.”
“Then how’s he going to do it?” Ed seized me by the shoulder. “What is this kid planning that no one else has figured out?”
“Good question,” I said as I ran into the crowd. “I’ll tell you when I figure it out.”
In reality, it is a very good question. To the best of my knowledge, there is no way to cheat during a round that is both reliable and undetectable. Students are not allowed to carry anything to the stage – no electronics, no paper, not even a pencil or a pen. Anyone who reached inside his pocket or glanced downwards repeatedly would surely attract attention. In the past, some people attempted to interfere with the equipment to give themselves an edge – sabotaging the other team’s buzzers, for example. Of course, this would have to be done in full view of a crowd of witnesses, so it is a tremendous risk. The only undetectable means of cheating during the tournament is to obtain and memorize the questions in advance, but even this is only partially effective as the question lists are randomized. One could attempt to plant a confederate in the audience or even on stage, but aside from being ineffective and risky I could not imagine an egotist like Aaron ever stooping to employ an assistant. My mind buzzed with possibilities.
“Yo, Ken.” Paul waved to me from the audience, pointing towards an empty seat next to him.
I squeezed through the row and joined him. “You spotted anything?”
“I showed up early and poked around, but they wouldn’t let me too near the stage,” he said. “I didn’t see anything obvious.”
“He couldn’t rig anything on the stage, they’d catch it.” My thoughts continued to race. “Could he have bribed someone on the staff to help him?”
“Help him do what? It’s not like they can fix the score with everyone watching.” Paul shook his head. “I’m stumped. There’s nothing else he could possibly do.”
“Well, maybe he’s not really planning anything,” I said. “Maybe he’s just playing more mind games. Look at us, we’re both freaking out over this.”
“Yeah, I thought about that, too. Arrogant as he is, he might be thinking this will be a landslide, and he wants us to panic.” He sighed. “You warn that other kid?”
“Yeah. He didn’t seem too worried.”
“Well, maybe he’s confident in his skills. You know him a little bit, what are his chances?”
“His team did okay in the quarters, but it was against a group of losers. I have no idea how they’ll fare against a champion caliber group.”
“All right, we should keep an eye out anyway. You focus on the stage. I’ll watch the crowd, see if anyone’s acting funny.”
The teams took their spots on stage for buzzer checks. It was an extremely tense moment for me, but both Aaron and Leon seemed perfectly at ease.
“Welcome to round two of the Trivia Master semi–finals...”