Chapter 124

                He hadn’t known how, but Dean Blaine had been certain from the moment he agreed to let Sean take part in this year’s exam that he would regret it. Staring at the screen, watching as the professor pressed Chad into a seemingly winless situation; it took all he had to keep the exasperation from showing on his face. Of all the match-ups possible, this was probably among the worst conceivable. Chad knew how to fight at a level virtually none of his peers could match, but his thinking had always been predictably linear. Sean, on the other hand, was as wily as they came. Wisp hadn’t been a legend among Subtlety Heroes without reason.

                The worst of it all was that, annoyed as he was, Dean Blaine couldn’t dispute the merit in what Sean was doing. Although they weren’t daily occurrences, sometimes situations occured in the field where pure victory was impossible. In those moments, a Hero had to determine what the best course forward was, and live with the consequences of whomever they failed. It was a harsh truth, but a truth all the same, and one day Chad might find himself in such a predicament with far more than mere exam points on the line.

                Around him, the crowd was interested; no small feat given how much chatter there had been after Vince’s display. Most of the eyes in the room were focused on Chad’s screen, anxious to see if he would sacrifice his friends or himself. For his part, Dean Blaine was hoping that somehow, no matter how small the chance might be, Chad would find a way to yank a fragment of triumph from the situation.

                It was far from likely, but that was the thing about Heroes: they always had the potential to surprise.

*             *             *

                While a ten count was no doubt meant to hurry him along and impede his decision making, for Chad it was ample time to think in. Speeding up his perception, he was able to calmly analyze the situation from every angle his brain could find, rather than hurtling blindly along based on instinct. Unfortunately, even if he’d been given an entire day Chad wasn’t certain he could have found a good solution to the dilemma facing him.

                At his top speed, Chad could move incredibly fast, but there was still no way he could reach either of his teammates before Professor Pendleton took them out of the fight for good. Without Alex, there would be functionally no way to harm or stop the teacher in cloud form. However, they were only his teammates in the context of this fight. Looking at the trial as a whole, they were opponents who he’d have to strike down eventually. If Chad sacrificed them now, he would at least have a chance to keep fighting. Perhaps he could manage a draw with Professor Pendleton and be freed back out into the labyrinth to battle his fellow students.

                From a purely analytical standpoint, letting Shane and Alex be knocked out held the most potential gain for Chad, and as a freshman there was no question he would have elected to take that route. But now… the idea of sacrificing people who were counting on him, trusting him, even if only for the span of this one match, filled him with an undeniable sense of disgust. If he was the sort of Hero who could only win by climbing over the backs of his friends, then he’d prefer to walk away here and now.

                Besides, when he looked at this situation as a mock-battle with a villain, then the priorities shifted. Alex and Shane were far more valuable. They had a real shot at stopping Professor Pendleton, even if it would be harder with one man down. The right choice, the only choice, was to let himself be eliminated. Yet Chad knew he couldn’t just accept the professor’s terms without failing this test. He needed to do something different, something that showed outside the box thinking. And while the idea he had wasn’t especially spectacular, it was something only he could do.

                “I’ll knock myself out,” Chad declared, only an instant after Professor Pendleton reached the count of six.

                “The self-sacrifice move, huh? Well, you might not be swift, but at least you’re not a heartless bastard. Fair warning though, we’re monitoring everyone’s vitals, brain waves included, so don’t think you can just fall down and I’ll take you at your word. I’m waiting until I receive confirmation that you’re out before I let those two go. And make sure you don’t try to wake up and interfere. If you become conscious, that remote is fair game again.”

                Chad nodded, he hadn’t been sure how Professor Pendleton would check this sort of thing, but he’d never doubted that bluffing was off the table. And he had no intent to do so, either. Reaching deep within his brain, Chad activated the same process that he used every night to put himself into a restful slumber. Well, almost the same process, anyway.

                There was a muffled thud as Chad slipped to the ground, and seconds later a voice in Professor Pendleton’s ear confirmed that Chad Taylor had gone unconscious and was therefore eliminated from the trial. Shaking his head, Professor Pendleton took his hand off the remote and slipped it back into his pocket. It had been a tough choice to make, and while Chad hadn’t shown any unexpected thinking skills, at least he’d proven that he could care more about others than himself. For a kid who started out as a tin man, that was something Professor Pendleton was glad to see.

                Slowly, Alex and Shane both rose to their feet. As they moved, they reached around to their necks and back respectively, ripping off the electrodes that had been used to keep them down.

                “Well boys, it looks like Chad bought you both a second bite at the apple. Try to make the most of it, will you? I’d hate to see such a noble-”

                Professor Pendleton was interrupted by the sudden movement from between Shane and Alex, as Chad leapt back to his feet in a single fluid motion. Was he really trying a double cross? And here Professor Pendleton was beginning to think a little better of his decision-making skills. It wasn’t even like his friends had gotten enough time to find and remove all of the electrodes yet. Professor Pendleton’s hand was plunging into his pocket when Dr. Moran’s voice echoed through his comm.

                “None of that, Sean. I’m still watching Chad’s brainwave activity, and he’s passed out. You touch that remote, and you’re the one who went back on his word.”

                “How the hell is he passed… oh you sneaky little bastard.” Now that he was paying closer attention, Professor Pendleton noticed the way Chad seemed to sway a uncertainly on his feet, and how his eyes were unfocused even with an opponent standing right before him. “You put yourself in a dream and kept your body active. Even if you can’t get any credit for it, you still want to help your buddies take me down, huh?”

                It was with a smile that Professor Pendleton removed his hand from his pocket, absent of the remote control. He’d wanted to see if Chad could manage to think in a direction other than straight ahead, and that was exactly what the kid had managed.

                “Well then, looks like it’s still three on one,” Professor Pendleton said. “That should keep things interesting.”