Friday, January 7, 2022

Empowered: The Grad School Chronicles


[Author's Note: Hello all, below you will find a story written by me. It is about a newly minted grad student who quickly finds themselves amid a supernatural conspiracy corrupting the heart of their university. Something here is rotten, and it's up to them to figure out how to vanquish the threat lurking in the halls of this institution. Currently this is a work in progress, however I plan to make semi-frequent updates.]

You wake up to the sound of your alarm. With some difficulty, you sweep your hand towards your nightstand and switch it off. Slowly, you roll out of bed and trudge over to the mirror standing in the corner of the room. 

You take stock of what you see before you: a slightly disheveled dark complexioned male in his early twenties. Your eyes drift to the reflection of your digital clock displaying "8:30" in reverse. 

Got a little bit of time before class at 10. Time to get ready. 

Luckily you prepared the coffee pot the night before, so in moments you're drinking your favorite hot beverage. A few sips later you feel energized enough to get ready. 

You shower and scarf a granola bar, bounding down the stairs of your apartment to begin your trek to Eliot University. 

You're feeling a bit too tired to ride your bike, so you head to the bus stop in front of your apartment instead. There's a few other grad students already lined up, one of whom is flipping through a book on Foucault and muttering something about "the panopticon." 

"What class are you reading that for," you ask. The man looks up in a start, his bushy red eyebrows aimed at you suspiciously. 

"Intellectualism in the 20th Century." He turns his back to you and returns to his task. 

Alright then. Nobody else around you looks interested in chatting, so you pop in some earphones and switch on some of your favorite music. Soon after, the bus arrives. You pay the bus driver a dollar (grad students don't ride for free) and take one of the last seats near the back of the bus. 

The drive over is uneventful, and within minutes you've arrived on campus. It's only a short walk from the bus stop before you've made it to your destination. 

Looming before you is the steely gray edifice of Eliot University's department of social sciences and humanities. Somewhere inside is the room where your first history graduate seminar will be held. 

Your heart leaps inside your chest at the idea of finally beginning graduate school. You had always loved history. To you it represented the pinnacle of the academic experience, and you relished the opportunity to experience the frenetic exchange of ideas and critical thinking again. 

A few minutes of exploration later, you find the seminar room and enter. You're a little early so there are many available seats.  Because you'd like to get to know your cohort a bit better, you decide to sit beside one of the two people who arrived before you.

You decide to take a seat next to Mac. The table itself is rectangular in shape, with two chairs at each head and four along the sides. Mac sits in the middle of the side opposite the entrance, with his back to a large window overlooking the campus below. 

Mac is tall and of medium build. He's a bit sweaty and his skin is lightly tanned, indicating that he probably biked to campus. He turns to look at you as you take a seat next to him.

"Hey pal, good to see you again. Are you prepared for today's discussion?" 

It takes you a moment to consider his query as you unfurl your laptop and pull up the relevant materials. Well I did all the readings and probably took way too many notes, so I think so? 

"Yeah, I think so," you reply. The side of Mac's mouth tilts upwards before forming a full-fledged smirk as he looks at the length of the notes you took. 

"Wow, you sure take a lot of notes. It's better to just read and be confident about speaking-up during the seminar. I never would have gotten into Georgetown for undergrad if I didn't learn how to speak confidently." Mac gives you a patronizing pat on the back before returning to the nondescript notepad in front of him. He makes a small note in the upper-right corner while grinning, before grabbing an apple and taking a loud chomp. His bite is deep, and you can hear seeds cracking as he chews. 

A few moments later, more members of your cohort trickle in. Besides you, there are seven other members: Mac, Nikki, Raphael, Beth, Michael, Estella, and James. It's a fairly diverse group, you're of mixed racial descent yourself, as is James. Michael is African American while Estella is Filipina, and Raphael is of Native American descent. Several Eliot University faculty members have already commented on the incredible diversity of your cohort, hinting that this is an atypical occurrence.

The professor strolls in right at 10:00. He is pale with graying hair and piercing blue eyes. Standing at well over six feet, he looks quite intimidating. Nevertheless, you are a great fan of his work on twentieth century political movements, and consider him to be one of the major reasons why you applied to Eliot University. 

He takes a seat at the head of the table, pulls out a stack of papers, and leans back in his chair. He silently clasps his hands and stares at you and the other members of your cohort. 

"Let's begin by looking at the syllabus, shall we?" The professor slides a weighty packet of papers to everyone at the table. You look down and begin processing the information. 

"Ok, let's get started. I'm Professor Volker. This is a seminar on U.S. economic policy in the twentieth century, and I'm happy to have you all here. In front of you now is the syllabus, which we will be going through together shortly. First, though, introductions are in order." 

You can't help but feel a bit of excitement at the prospect of being in a history seminar for the first time since undergrad. 

This is going to be great!

"I'll begin with myself. My name is Erwin Volker. I am the Frederick Jackson Turner Chair of U.S. Political History. Two of my books have won the prestigious Bancroft prize, with my newest up for consideration for the Pulitzer. Suffice it to say, you're in good hands." 

Volker shifts lazily in Michael's direction. "And you son, what is your name and specialty? I assume you must be studying African American history?" 

"Um, no sir, I was actually hoping to study FDR's domestic policy with you." 

Volker adjusts his glasses and smiles. "Ah, very good, my mistake. Then you must be Michael. I remember your application, very impressive. But I will say now that, contrary to what you may be hoping to write, FDR was certainly not a racist and in fact, his economic policies did much good for black people." 

Michael looks momentarily stunned, but quickly recovers and responds with a curt nod. "OK, well, we can discuss that topic later." 

"I'm sure we will," Volker chides.  

Volker now turns to you, his eyebrows raised in expectation. A few moments of silence pass.

"Well, you have a voice, don't you?" 

You start by telling Volker your name and a little bit about why you joined the program.

"I'm Neil Amarico, and I'm here to research colonial American history, though I'm not sure exactly which aspects yet. Nice to meet you all!"  

"Very impressive sir, very impressive, it is noble indeed to study early American history. I myself could never be bothered looking that far back, the twentieth century is much more engaging in my book. But I'm sure you will be in good hands with your adviser, Dr. Anderson, I presume?" The left side of Volker's mouth lifts slightly in an upwards motion, indicating a smile. However, his eyes remain steady, uncaring. 

"Yes," you stammer. "Anderson is a great scholar and I hope to learn much from them." 

Volker looks you in the eye for an uncomfortable amount of time before uttering a lazy "hmm." 

Volker continues questioning the remaining members of your cohort, with similarly awkward results. The hours pass by slowly, and by the end of the seminar you've barely covered the first week's readings. Instead, Volker closed by waxing poetically about an unrelated topic--an article written by his friend that was recently published in the New York Times. 

Volker ended class with a few minutes to spare, swiftly putting on a black trench coat and bowler hat before bolting out of the room. Mac, looking like he wanted to ask Volker more questions, speeds out in pursuit. 

You get up from your seat and turn to James, whom you got to know earlier in the year when attending orientation events. 

"Well that was something!" You smile lightheartedly, and James cringes at what just transpired before breaking into a smile of his own and laughing deeply. 

"Yeah, what a great way to start graduate school! I can't believe he kept getting my name wrong. My name is James, not José. Jeez" 

"Yeah, and I think he called me James once or twice. And what the hell was he doing with those comments to Michael? Guy's a complete racist if you ask me." 

"Agreed...well, our other seminar can't be any worse." He pauses to place his laptop in its case. "When is that again?" 

"Tomorrow," you respond, "I think at the same time as this one. Professor Metternich, right?" 

"That's right...should be, uh, interesting." He laughs again, filling the room and lifting your spirits after what was otherwise a tumultuous first seminar. "Where to for you now?"

"I've got a meeting with my adviser, first one of the year. Actually I think I might be a minute late now. I'll catch you later James!" 

He waves and nods at you as you both go separate ways from the seminar room. Whereas he goes down a flight of stairs towards the street, you go up, deeper in the gray social sciences building. It takes a moment, but you finally find the offices where the professors work, consisting of several floors. You remember Anderson told you the number of his office, and finally find it after several minutes of searching the labyrinthian structure. 

His door is open, and he motions you inside. 

"Shut the door," he says. "It's time I told you why you're really here." 

Your adviser, Dr. Anderson, is slight and unkempt with messy hair and thinly-rimmed glasses, short enough that you can see right over his head. His office is relatively neat and tidy besides the dust bunnies native to academic spaces. He's at his desk, positioned adjacent to an abject window permanently sealed shut by Eliot University administrators. He motions you towards him with a pale hand and hurried gestures. 

"First, congratulations again on reaching graduate school. But it's time you learned the truth. All this, everything you see before you, is a lie. Eliot University isn't an institution whose primary purpose is traditional education. No, it's far more than that. Eliot University is, first and foremost, a place to hone supernatural abilities."

You smirk slightly, bemused. You knew Anderson to be somewhat of a "nerd," indicated by the Star War posters and Warhammer figurines decorating his walls and desk. You'd even heard he served as dungeon master for a roleplaying club on campus. Surely this was related to that? 

"I know what you're thinking," Anderson interjects. "But perhaps an example would suffice in proving my point." Anderson reaches to the book nearest to him, and flips open to a random page. 

"Most historians at Eliot University have the power to lift the abilities and physicality of those we write about, limited only by the quality of the text we draw upon. Primary sources hold the most potential, of course. The most powerful of us can imbue ourselves temporarily with the abilities of fictional characters, essentially providing unlimited potential. Not many of those exist anymore though." He holds his hand over the page.

"This here is a book covering the exploits of George Washington. Now, watch." After a moment, his hand begins softly glowing, before a faded stream of energy begins entering his palm. In seconds its over, and for a moment, nothing happens. Then, Anderson staggers back in his chair, and begins to morph. 

First it's subtle, but after a minute or so it's like you're looking at a completely different person. It still looks like Anderson for the most part, but certain features are distorted. Most noticeably, he is now several inches taller and has put on enough weight to strain what had just been an oversized button-up dress shirt. 

"As you can see," Anderson booms, "the effect can be quite significant. The better you master the ability to manipulate the text, the more you can emulate your target. I can master Washington's physicality for instance, but others better than me might absorb his intellect, his way of thinking. In the right combinations, this power is quite effective." 

You're stunned, half believing that you're experiencing some kind of fever dream. But in a moment of pure curiosity, you manage to ask a single question:

"So you're saying that we can use this power with any written text, potentially?" 

Anderson settles back in his chair, which creaks under the added weight. "Technically yes, but like I said, the magic works best when used to emulate real people documented in history books. Trying to use our abilities without a sufficient source of power can be dangerous, even deadly. There are rumors of some historians being able to draw on, as I said, works of fiction, or even their own imaginations, but none in recent generations have accomplished that feat."

"Further," he adds, "some of these transformations can be quite draining, even more-so if you attempt to conjure physical items from the past." Sweat drips down his forehead as his chest makes a sickly crunching noise. Anderson cries out in pain as his body rapidly shifts back to its original size. Within seconds he's gasping for air, hands gripped tightly to his desk. 

"We will have more lessons in the future, for now focus on your coursework. More will be revealed in time." 

Anderson looks like he's about to say more, but footsteps in the hallway interrupt him. His eyes dart towards his door. A voices calls out. 

"Greg, is that you? Can we chat for a moment?" Whoever it is sounds normal enough, but something about their intonation makes your skin crawl. 

Anderson looks quickly back to you. "Remember what I told you. When it's safe, I'll contact you again." He grabs what appears to be a scroll laying on a nearby shelf. You recognize it as a prop or facsimile some use while playing tabletop roleplaying games. You then note that "teleportation" is printed on its exterior. Anderson grabs the scroll, his hand glowing. He points his other hand at you. 

"I'll see you soon." 

You hear a knock on the door, and then you black out. 

Your dream is interrupted by the blare of your alarm. Cracking your eyelids open, you reach over to your phone and turn it off. 

"What a strange dream." You remember having a conversation with Dr. Anderson, and something about supernatural abilities unique to historians, but that's about it. Fantastical, to be sure. 

Swinging yourself off your bed, you head straight to your coffee maker and switch it on. Then you stop, and realize you don't remember how you got home yesterday, or what happened after your seminar. 

"The last thing I remember...I was talking to James...and then..." 

But nothing comes to mind. You know you were supposed to check-in with Dr. Anderson yesterday, so you decide that the first thing you'll do before going to Metternich's seminar would be to see if you can catch him in his office and ask if he remembers meeting. 

The journey to campus is uneventful. You chose to take the bus, not wanting to risk riding your bike while you're feeling so groggy. Once there you head straight to the social sciences building, bounding up the stairs to Anderson's office. 

You enter the hallway and find a mostly desolate space. Professors at Eliot University are not known for their sense of camaraderie towards each other, so you have heard. Most prefer to keep to themselves, rarely opening their doors to peers. Even so, the quiet is unnerving. 

Anderson's door is at the far end of the hallway, to the left. When you get there, the door is cracked open slightly. You knock. 

"Dr. Anderson?"

No reply. You knock again, and are met with silence. 

You reach out and slowly push open the door. You flip on the light switch and look around. Nobody's there. You walk tentatively over to Anderson's desk, and see nothing too unusual. Then you spot a post-it note hastily attached to the edge of a book. It's made out to you, your name clearly inscribed on it. 

The meeting we had yesterday was not a dream. Meet me on the rooftop at 5:00pm if you wish to learn the truth about Eliot University. 

You quickly pocket the note and leave the office, shutting the door with a barely audible click. You rush down the hallway towards the exterior accessway, pausing near a balcony overlooking Eliot University. A few minutes pass as you collect yourself. Just as you are beginning to come to terms with what Anderson wrote, you hear an unpleasant voice behind you, each word dripping with an accusatory venom that sets your teeth on edge. 

"You're one of the new first years, correct? Looking forward to seeing you in my seminar. We'll see if you really deserve to be here." 

You turn to see Professor Metternich staring at you. He is tall and auburn haired, looking to be only a few years older than yourself. His cold blue eyes are unblinking as you respond. 

"Uh, yeah, I was just heading there." 

"See that you do."

As he saunters towards the nearest stairwell, you begin formulating a plan. You'll go to Metternich's seminar, and then after, you'll head straight for the rooftop. Hopefully there your adviser will have some more answers. 

You step into the seminar room to find most of your cohort already there. Mac is in the midst of an animated conversation with James about the nature of his research. 

"Right," he exclaims, "and that is exactly why we need to learn more about the military history of early modern Europe! Hey, James, want to hear a joke?" 

James rolls his eyes and, for a brief moment, flicks them in your direction as if to say help me

"Well," Mac continues, "here we go: how long was the hundred years' war?"

James pauses. "Hmm, I don't know, how long?"

"115 years! Ha!" Mac looks genuinely impressed by the joke, a satisfied expression on his face. 

"Well yes, good one Mac!" James offers a sympathetic laugh then turns back to his laptop, pretending to write down something important. Before Mac can initiate conversation with you, Professor Metternich begins marshalling the attention of the class. 

"Hello everyone, if I may have your attention." His manner of speaking is peculiar, it's not quite an English accent, but it's more affected than a traditional American one, reminiscent almost of a Mid-Atlantic accent. "I am Professor Metternich. This class is on the United States after World War II, with a specific focus on the Cold War. We shall begin with introductions. Mac, if you will?" 

Mac sits proudly in his chair. "As you all already know my name is Kevin Ryan, but I go by 'Mac' for short. I study early modern Europe, and if I may say, Professor Metternich it is an honor to be in this course. I am a huge fan of yours." 

Mac locks eyes with Metternich, holding his gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time before looking away in response to the professor's unblinking expression. 

"Next. Introduce yourself please." 

"My name is Estella. I'm planning on studying colonialism's effect on the Filipino diaspora living within the United States." 

Metternich barely stifles a laugh. "Studying your own people is truly a noble endeavor. I wish you the best of luck." Estella shifts uncomfortably in her seat. 

Michael is next to go, and so on and so forth. With each introduction you come to know a bit more about your compatriots and their fields of study, and come to appreciate less the manner in which Metternich treats them. 

"Thank you for your introductions. I should give you all some backstory on myself. I am Joachim Metternich, the youngest full professor at Eliot University. I finished my undergraduate education at 14 years of age, and I completed my doctorate at 18. Some call me a 'rising star,' but I would not be so bold." Metternich grins, but his smile doesn't reach his eyes. 

The seminar itself is excruciating, with Metternich expecting everyone to have read every page of the readings, grilling each of you individually about your takeaways. By the end he is thoroughly displeased with your cohort, warning everyone that he expects a better effort next week. 

You check the clock sitting above the room's whiteboard. It reads 4:10pm, meaning you have a bit of time before your meeting with Anderson on the rooftop. What do you do? 

It's a longshot, but Metternich might know more about what Anderson told you about yesterday. You wait for the other members of your cohort to trickle out of the room before it's just you and the professor, who is calmly placing his notebook and laptop into an expensive leather messenger bag. 

Metternich glances at you for a moment before turning his attention back to his bag. "Can I help you?" 

"Um, yes actually. I was wondering if you knew anything about Eliot University's, uh, 'true' purpose?" 

This gets his attention. "To what are you referring to sir? Be specific, please." 

"Well, my adviser Dr. Anderson told me that there is a, well, supernatural aspect to our education. He even gave me a demonstration." 

"Did he now?" Metternich moves slowly from the head of the table, stopping a few feet in front of you. "And what was it he showed you?" 

"Well, he put his hand on a history book and, using what looked like some kind of magic, took on the attributes of an historical figure from that book." 

Metternich takes another step forward, his intimidating presence looming over you. "Did he tell you anything else?" 

"No, that was it." You heartrate quickens as Metternich studies your facial expressions. 

"Then I shall add nothing further. Anderson would do well to remember his place, and you would do well to remember yours." Metternich pushes past you towards to door. 

"So it's true then," you manage to blurt out. "Eliot University's true purpose is to train us in these supernatural abilities?" 

Metternich pauses for a moment. "For some of you, yes. Beware of who you divulge this information to in the future. Not all will be as understanding as I." With that, he rushes out into the cold evening air.

You look back at the clock. It now reads 4:25pm. Though you're a bit early, you decide to head up to the rooftop and wait for Anderson.  


[To be continued...]


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I hope you are enjoying this interactive short story. If you can spare it, please consider donating to my Coffee Fund so that I can keep writing stories like these. Thank you again for reading my work! 

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About The Author

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Nicholas Garcia (M.A.) is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis. He is also a Co-Founder of the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies. Previously, he contributed to Lifehack.org and the Davis Humanities Institute.