Chapter 123

                It was a split second of distraction. The boom that echoed through the labyrinth was unexpected, however everyone in the cell was well-trained at keeping their focus. Their minds were drawn away for a span best measured in heartbeats. Still, that was somehow long enough.

                No longer was a contained ball of cloud still floating in the corner of the room, in its place was Professor Pendleton, once more corporeal and ducking nimbly out of the way from one of Shane’s shadows as he rolled across the floor. He was bare-chested, his shirt fluttering to the ground in two pieces as his bare feet slid along the concrete. If Chad was working under the assumption that the clothes couldn’t shift as well, that meant Professor Pendleton had been carrying them around within the fog. It must have taken considerable effort, given all the shadows slicing around him, and the fact struck Chad as somewhat curious. Before he could dwell on it further, however, their opponent began to speak.

                “Careful Shane, that’s a lot of sharp shades to be swinging about. Some might even consider them to be a deadly amount of force against a flesh and blood opponent.” Professor Pendleton was smiling, in spite of how close they’d managed to get to victory. Even with emotions kept in check, Chad still managed to feel a bit irked by that.

                “Alex, same plan, smaller target. Keep him solid and lifted up. Shane and I will stay close by in case he tries anything.”

                “Not the worst idea I’ve come up against,” Professor Pendleton said. “Unfortunately, Chad, your usual failing has struck yet again.” He reached into his pocket and produced a small silver device, pressing his thumb onto a blue button near the top before anyone could react.

                Chad could hear the crackle, even before Shane and Alex dropped to their knees. Before the HCP he wouldn’t have recognized it quite so easily, but years of having classes with Vince and learning from Professor Fletcher had ingrained the sound of electrical discharge deep in Chad’s mind. Both of his teammates were breathing heavily as they struggled to stay upright, still conscious but incapable of doing much more than gritting their teeth in pain.

                “You assumed I was fighting in a straightforward manner like you would, trying to knock you out with physical blows. But students aren’t the only ones allowed to bring in tools. I snuck a few remote stunning devices onto your friends when I first spread out. Nifty little gizmo, the harder I press, the stronger the current. Don’t worry though; it can’t do any serious damage to them. At the most, it will knock them out.”

                The words hung in the air between them, interrupted only by the occasional fresh wave of electrical current surging into Shane or Alex. Chad knew he wasn’t as adept at dealing with people as, well, pretty much everyone else in class, but not even he was able to miss the threat that had just been leveled. If Professor Pendleton knocked them both out, they’d be eliminated from the trial. Plus, one on one, it was highly unlikely Chad would be able to defeat someone with Professor Pendleton’s ability. It was an easy victory… so why hadn’t the professor taken it yet?

                “You didn’t put one on me.” The realization hit Chad immediately, and as it came so too did the logical extension of what that meant. “You wanted to face me alone?”

                “Things can be done for more than one reason,” Professor Pendleton said. “In this case, I didn’t put any on you because as tough as you are, there was a good chance it wouldn’t be enough to stop you anyway. And with your awareness, you’d almost certainly have noticed me try to put it on, which would have tipped my hand. No, Chad, I left you untouched mostly due to pragmatism. However, once I realized the team I’d be facing, an idea did form in my head. That’s why your friends are distracted, but not unconscious. I am after all, an educator, and this was a chance I couldn’t let slip by.”

                From the corner of his eye, Chad could see Shane lifting his hand, slowly trying to reach around to his back. There was no telling where Professor Pendleton had placed the devices, in his fog form he’d been all around them. The spine or neck did seem like prime areas, however. If Shane could peel his off, and Chad could reach Alex, they might still be able to turn things around.

                Unfortunately, Chad wasn’t the only one who noticed the movement. Professor Pendleton tightened his grip slightly, causing Shane and Alex to both spasm and flail their limbs.

                “Stop it! Torturing them is not acceptable for a simple test.” Chad could feel his annoyance and anger rising, despite efforts to keep them both carefully contained.

                “You’d be surprised how important it is to endure pain as a Hero.” Professor Pendleton’s face darkened for a moment, some part of his past reaching out, making itself visible in a pinched and tired expression. It was gone as fast as it came, but Chad knew what he’d seen. “However, that’s not what’s happening. While this is messing with their nervous system, it doesn’t hurt any more than our usual sparring sessions. I should know, I had each one of the devices used on myself before I ever brought them into combat.”

                This time, it was Alex who moved, and there was no delay before the spasms began anew. “Listen up you two, if either of you tries to pull off the electrodes through any means then I’ll drop you both. Chad, if you try to take the devices off, I’ll knock your friends out before even you can make it over. If you try to attack, I’ll go into fog only a few seconds after taking them both down.”

                “So what am I supposed to do then?” Chad asked.

                “Easy. Knock yourself out.” Professor Pendleton reached up with his free hand, blood from the missing fingertip dripping down his wrist, and tapped lightly on his own temple. “You’ve got the ability and we both know it. Send your brain into sleep mode, and I’ll drop the controller. I won’t pick it up again, either. Your friends will be free to continue the fight, but you’ll be eliminated.”

                “I… I don’t understand. Two against one is a greater threat. Why not take them both down and fight me? None of this makes sense.” As much as Chad turned the situation around his mind, it didn’t add up. Why would Professor Pendleton be willing to make that trade? Chad wasn’t even the most pertinent threat in this fight; Alex was by far more essential.

                “And see, that is exactly the lesson you’re going to be learning today: not every enemy takes actions that make sense. Some people are illogical, or so emotional they can’t think straight, or just flat out dumb.” The remote never wavered in Professor Pendleton’s hand, his thumb kept a constant pressure even as he spoke. “As for me, I just want to see the way you think, Chad. You’re a strong Super, no one can deny that. But you lack the ability to think outside the box well. So I want to see what you’ll do when really pushed to the edge. Sacrifice yourself, and your score, for people you’d have to fight anyway, try and take me on alone in a fight we both know is pretty much unwinnable, or find a way out of the situation. Sometimes being a Hero means making hard choices in the heat of the moment, decisions you can’t take back. If you can’t find a solution, then you have to make do with the shitty options in front of you.”

                Slowly, Professor Pendleton extended his arm, holding the remote a precious few inches closer. “You’ve got until the count of ten to make your choice, or your friends finish their exam here and now. Let’s see if you can surprise me.”