“That’s all for today’s class,” Professor Pendleton said, dismissing his charges. “If I could have Alice, Nick, Will, Britney, and Tiffani stay after for a few minutes; the rest of you are free to leave.”
His announcement was followed by the weary shuffle of papers and feet that accompanied the end of every particularly draining class. Much as the year before, the nearer the end drew, the harder the instructors seemed to be driving their students. It was crunch time, though whether the thing being crunched was their days or their brains no student could have readily told you.
The five Professor Pendleton had named stayed behind, clustering around his desk while the remaining students exited. He waited until the last one was gone, and then a few minutes further, before revealing the purpose in their after-class meeting.
“You five are the ones who qualified for the extra credit tailing assignment,” Professor Pendleton informed them. “Given your marks in my class, I’m sure most of you already figured that out.” His eyes might have flicked to Alice at the word “most.” If so, no one was crass enough to make note of it. “I apologize for the delay in organizing this; it has taken me a bit longer than anticipated to get my plan approved.”
He reached into his desk and produced a series of five white envelopes, laying them in a row in front of him. They bore no names or any other distinctive marks, nothing at all to distinguish one from the other.
“These will be your starting locations. Pick one, and be there Friday at seven in the evening. If you are late, you forfeit. You’ll all have different spots, and they will each have a vantage point that allows you to see me. I am the target of the assignment. You’ll have to tail me for one hour. Once I reach my endpoint I’ll sit down. Anyone who comes up to me while I’m sitting is considered to have passed. I’ll give you all until eight fifteen to reach me, in case some of you employ more long-ranged techniques. Questions so far?”
“Yeah, why start us at a distance? We could just run up to you and stay close for the entire hour,” Alice pointed out.
“Ah yes, thank you for leading me to my next rule. Since the essence of tailing lies in not being seen, we’re going to impose a catching disqualification. Now, I obviously know you’re all following me, so the rule is a little more simplified. If I lay a hand on you, you are out. I’m starting you at a distance for the sake of fairness. Me getting close enough to touch one of you means you’ve not only lost me, but been circled back on by me. If that isn’t the essence of failure while tailing someone then I would struggle to think of a better definition.”
“So you’re going to chase us?” Britney asked.
“Not overtly. This is a public area and I have no intention of making a scene. Consider this: if you are able to stay well enough concealed while tracking me then I will never have the opportunity to catch you.”
“You make it sound easy, but you’re a specialist at this stuff,” Alice said.
“Of course it’s not easy,” Professor Pendleton said, stifling an exasperated sigh. “This is a trial that takes the place of your final exam, should you pass. It should be goddamned near impossible given your levels of skill. Admittedly, so should achieving the point totals that got you here. Maybe one or two of you will pull it off; however, please don’t be under the impression that I’m expecting any of you to succeed.”
“There’s one thing you haven’t covered yet,” Nick said, shifting slightly toward the front of the group.
“Abilities. You haven’t said whether we can use our powers in the course of your trial.”
Professor Pendleton greeted his protégé’s questions with a curiously over-sized smile. “This is the Hero Certification Program, is it not? Of course you can use your abilities; learning to apply them to various tasks is the entire point of you all being here.”
A small wave of optimism seemed to wash across the group; several of them had been wondering how they would have a hope of success. Adding back in the option of their powers made it seem like they had a shot. Nick was, strangely, the only one who seemed unhappy with this news.
“So, we’re learning to tail people, incorporating our abilities as Supers?”
“I believe I just said that, yes.”
“And if it so happens that our target is a Super as well?”
“Then of course you could expect him to utilize his powers too,” Professor Pendleton tossed back.
The cautious optimism that had permeated the students came crashing down. In all his lessons, in all their classes, Professor Pendleton had still not shown them what his ability was. Very few of the instructors had, actually. Aside from Professor Fletcher, Professor Stone, and Professor Hill, the rest of the Lander educating staff had not used a single ability as far as the students could tell. In most cases it led a sense of curiosity. In this situation it meant they had likely already failed his test before even taking it.
“It seems like you could at least tell us what your power is,” Alice said. “You know all of ours, and you can take steps to defend against them. Shouldn’t we get equal ground?”
“Miss Adair, is it your understanding that Heroes are generally low-profile individuals?” Professor Pendleton asked.
“So you see how my being forearmed with knowledge is quite appropriate. Were I to spot you, I would have a full suite of information about your skills thanks to media’s love affair with our occupation.”
“But obviously we’d have at least some advanced information on a target we were tailing.”
This time it was Will, not the instructor, who corrected her.
“From who? This is the Subtlety major. We’re the ones who do the scouting and information gathering. We’re the ones who find out what a person can do so we can warn the other Heroes. Professor Pendleton is right: if we graduate with our major in Subtlety then this is a real world situation we can expect to see a lot of.”
“Well said, Mr. Murray. Very well said, in fact. With that, we have covered all the ground rules and I am done with questions. Be at your starting points promptly at seven.”
The students gathered their things and began to leave. As they reached the exit, Professor Pendleton called after them with one last snippet.
“Oh, and I nearly forgot. Good luck to you all. You’ll need it.”