Cassidy pushed down the lump in her throat and promised herself that she’d keep her composure. It was just a B after all. Plenty of students would have been excited to have done as well on one of Professor Cruz’s assignments. It wasn’t even going to stain her grade point average. Still, it was the principle of it. She had done the assignment exactly as instructed, and if he had wanted something else out of his students, he should have said so. The professor opened the door before she had a chance to knock, and smiled knowingly as he stepped aside to allow her into his office. Cassidy was surprised to find another man sitting in one of the professor’s extra chairs, and felt her confidence dwindling rapidly.
“Oh, I didn’t realize… I can come back later,” she stammered, turning to retreat, but Cruz stood in her way.
“Not at all, Cassidy,” he said, gesturing to the remaining free chair. “This is an old colleague of mine. You can call him John.”
John gave her a bright, friendly grin and shifted backward to give her seat more space. “Cruz speaks highly of you, Cassidy,” he said.
Cassidy took the seat, smiling back politely, though inside she felt panic rising. It had taken all of her courage to come here this evening to confront Professor Cruz about her assignment. She hadn’t been sure she’d be able to deliver what she meant to say to the man’s face as it was, let alone in front of his friend.
“I should really come back later,” she said.
“John’s going to be interested in what you have to say,” said Professor Cruz.
“About my grade?” asked Cassidy, her voice not much more than a squeak.
“You’re not really here to talk about your B, though,” said Cruz, settling back into his seat.
Cassidy opened her mouth to disagree, but closed it again. How could he know that? Unless, as she suspected… “I don’t think you were honest about your assignment,” she accused. There. It was out. If he wanted his friend with his big grin listening in, so be it. “I did exactly what you asked. I even interviewed Jackson Markum. Of everybody in the class, I was probably the only one who turned in a verbatim account of the lie.”
“Intriguing,” said the smiling John, leaning forward. “Tell me please, what was the exact assignment?”
Cassidy checked Professor Cruz, who was sitting back enjoying a secret smile of his own. When he didn’t answer, she did.
“We were each given the name of a different student and told that they recently lied to the admissions office. Our assignment was to find out what their lie was. I did that. Jackson told me everything.”
“Did he?” asked Cruz, setting his elbows on his desk and looking truly interested for the first time.
John, she noticed, was chuckling. He was a good looking man, for someone in his thirties, though it was clear he was used to that broad smile smoothing his path. She wasn’t sure she trusted that smile. It seemed to hide much and say little, though it gave the impression of openness. She gave herself permission not to have to like John.
“It’s in my paper,” Cassidy said, her voice a little crisper than she had meant to make it. “Jackson told the admissions office that another student had asked him to help while she dealt with a family emergency, but he was lying,” she explained to John. “Nicole is this artistic type who took off abruptly, and her friends covered for her so she’d get credit for her work on their final project.”
Cruz leaned back again, seemingly disappointed, and Cassidy’s annoyance flared afresh. Again she had the suspicion that the assignment had been a hint rather than a test, but what kind of professor did that? Especially on the tail of… “that’s the thing,” she said. “What did this assignment have to do with the ethics of conducting tests on human subjects? That’s the segment we just finished, and I checked. The next segment in the book doesn’t have anything to do with lying or anything along those lines.”
John laughed outright. “Indeed,” he said, turning his attention to Professor Cruz with mock interest.
Cassidy again nursed the temptation to flee. She felt like she was the punchline to a joke between these two men. Or a pawn on a chess board between them. Professor Cruz walked to his coat tree and slipped into a brown leather jacket that only served to accentuate how thin he was. Resting a hip against a windowsill, he gave Cassidy a look that could only be described as pride.
“You’ve given it thought,” he prompted. “Did you find a connection?”
A chill traveled Cassidy’s nerves. That had been the response she’d hoped not to hear. Her suspicion had some weight to it then. The question was… “were you hoping that we’d compare our results?” she asked. “The assignment wasn’t just to get the answer, it was to compare all of the answers and look for a larger pattern. As if we were conducting tests… on humans.”
“Perhaps,” said Cruz. “Did you?”
Cassidy nodded. “None of the students you sent us to investigate had any idea that we were coming,” she said. “It was suspicious. Plus, every one of them lied to us. Why would they do that?”
Professor Cruz’s eyes glistened with excitement. “How do you know they were lying?”
“They were all hiding something,” said Cassidy, “and most of us just wanted to get through the assignment so we didn’t push. But Angela was so shaken up by what she learned that she said she was turning in a paper making something up rather than telling you about what really happened. Then there’s Greggie. He said that this assignment proved that you don’t hate him like he thought, because Gwen, the girl he had to investigate, is beautiful. He went to her room two days ago and no one’s heard from him since. The others think they fell in love, but I’m worried.”
Cruz’s face fell a bit and Cassidy’s concern increased.
“I’m worried because Jackson really did tell me everything,” continued Cassidy. “It took a while, but he told me he can’t explain how Nichole left, just that it was strange. Strange, Professor Cruz. That’s what all of these people had in common. They were each hiding something unexplainable. Disappearances being reported as drop outs and transfers. Mass hallucinations of shape shifting, if Amber actually turned in her results. I’m thinking she didn’t. Most of your class were too spooked to turn in their actual findings.”
“Including you,” said Professor Cruz, “yet here you are, letting me have it.”
If Professor Cruz thought this was letting him have it, he was in for a big surprise. “What were you really trying to accomplish?” she challenged.
“In between what subjects again?” asked John.
Professor Cruz shot John a dark look. “Let her,” he said, and it sounded like a warning.
Cassidy realized John had just dropped a hint for her, meaning she truly was stepping into some kind of punchline between these men. Or game.
“We just finished the ethics of human testing,” she answered, and as she did, ten different stomach-turning ideas flitted through her mind.
If the point of the assignment was to expose things going on around campus, then the professor hadn’t succeeded. Some stories were exposed, but most were merely suspected. It was apparent that more was going on, but the kids in her class wanted to get through the assignment and finish the class. No one was interested in digging into the nefarious unknowns of the campus. If the point had something to do with human testing, however, the lines started coming together in a far more sinister pattern.
“Who is testing?” she asked, her voice losing its volume.
“Ooh, right to the who,” said John, grinning at Cassidy with approval.
Cruz graced John with another dark warning glance. “What is the question you really want to ask, Cassidy?” he asked, crossing to lean against his desk, directly in front of her.
Cassidy took her time selecting a question that seemed more important than all of the others.
“What game are you playing, professor?” she asked at last.
Cruz turned to John, who nodded.
“Well done Cassidy,” he said, drawing a folded paper from his jacket’s inside pocket and handing it to her.
“What is this?” asked Cassidy, but the men waited for her to open it and read. “What kind of society is this?” she asked, her hands trembling as she dropped the paper to her lap. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“An exclusive one,” said Cruz, “and the kind that comes with many answers.”
“We design games, Cassidy,” said John, rising and grabbing his coat. “Not board games, as I’m sure you’ve guessed. Ours are quite a lot more involved. This is a high honor. A very few receive the invitation. As your witness, I’m glad to say that Cruz has chosen well. And, my dear, you are in for a treat. Cruz is a master.”
“This campus is your playing board,” she realized. “You’re playing games with the students.”
Cruz lifted Cassidy’s coat from her chair and handed it to her. “You might say it’s one square,” he said, “and the scope of players are far more diverse than you might guess.”
“Including me,” she said. She’d already felt like a playing piece in this conversation, might as well get it out in the open. “What if I refuse the invitation?”
Professor Cruz’s eyes went hard and cold. “The choice is yours,” he said, “of course.”
Cassidy checked John, who was watching her carefully. He wasn’t using his smile now, and seemed older than she’d thought him before. If she ran for the door, John would get there before her. She tried to find calm. Why was she considering running? She would only end up coming back. She’d suspected Professor Cruz of having a larger agenda and it turned out he had. She still had a ton of unanswered questions. The top of the heap was how the professor had known which students had been touched by mysterious events around college. It wasn’t as if students went flocking to him to chat. She had to conclude that he knew because he had somehow orchestrated the strange events… surrounding the disappearances. ‘Oh Cassidy,’ she thought, ‘what have you gotten yourself into?‘
“If I refuse, what happens to me?” asked Cassidy.
Cruz’s eyebrows raised in lieu of a shrug, and Cassidy knew that there was only one way forward.
“I’m giving you the chance to step outside of the game,” said Cruz, nodding to her coat.
“Where are we going?” she asked, sliding her arms into its sleeves.
“Outside,” Cruz said meaningfully, pulling a small device from his pocket. Somehow, Cassidy didn’t think he meant outside the building.
John grinned at her like an eager child, and for once his smile felt genuine.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Yes?” said Cassidy, unsure whether she’d meant it as a statement or a question.
Cruz’s thumb flicked over the device, and before Cassidy’s eyes, the entire world changed.
Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome athttp://www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog and buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!