Adjunct Professor Zhang’s final exam began as any would, except that one of her students was from thirty-two years in the future.
“What—” she said to him, not sure how to continue. “Who are you?”
He smiled, a rich-man’s smile. “I am Lovepreet Sandhu,” said the man who had been almost twenty last week and was over fifty today.
She looked past his flesh and bone to the spirit inside. “Yes,” she finally said, “you are.” He was himself. But.
“So I shall take my seat?” Again, the smile. Her authority was limited, even in her own class. She was new to the Academy, a foreigner, a woman, and worst of all, an Adjunct Professor.
“Yes,” she said, again waiting quite some time before answering. “Take your seat.”
He walked past her to the sea of stools and tables that filled the examination hall. Huge, pointed-arch windows on three stone walls let grey light into the room, and even the slightest noise echoed out of proportion. On each table, were four objects: a comb, a button, a bowl, and a small, round hat. Students who had been paying attention would know what to do with them. Those who had not would quickly reveal themselves. The test began.
Adjunct Professor Zhang reached with her thoughts for the Chief Invigilator, a man called Migwi whom she had never met. A minute later, he appeared to her and no one else.
“I have a cheater,” she said.
“Then eject the student…?” he replied.
“I cannot,” she finally said. “But he is a cheater!” She nodded her head at Mr. Sandhu.
The Chief Invigilator looked at him through her eyes. “Oh!” he said, and turned back to her. “I understand your predicament, and I assure you I will send one of my most clever Invigilators to help you. We are, unfortunately, spread thin at the moment. Can you wait?”
“It is a six-hour exam,” she said. “I can wait five and half hours.”
“Splendid. She will be there sooner than that.”
Zhang could’t help but stare at him as, over the next five hours, he breezed through every element of the test. She had been hired because she was a specialist in a very obscure Art from the Central Empire. The test was not designed to be finished in the allotted time, and he was going to complete it with a half-hour to spare.
The sound of the Invigilator’s boots preceded her. She was a stern-looking woman in what, to Zhang’s foreign eyes, still looked like man’s clothes: pants, a jacket, and a cloak. She was about Zhang’s age as well, past marrying but not old. Unlike almost everyone she’d met at the Academy so far, she was actually from there, a local. She nodded at Adjunct Professor Zhang on her way in and then stopped, facing the room. Then she waited.
Finally, Mr. Sandhu stood up and walked towards them. He gestured at his table, and said “I am done. I have passed your test.”
Professor Zhang’s jaw clenched. “Perhaps.”
“No, I have passed. It is the top score,” he said, and again, the smile.
“Perhaps,” she repeated. “Nevertheless, you will submit to this Invigilator. You have cheated.”
He turned to her, the smile unchanged. “Invigilator,” he said, “what rule have I broken?”
Zhang spoke up. “You are not the man who took this course. You are cheating.”
He kept his gaze on the Invigilator and repeated, “What rule have I broken?”
The Invigilator squinted at him, then looked to Zhang, but did nothing.
He smiled again at both of them, and said, “You see? I am Lovepreet Sandhu, I am registered in this class, and now I have taken and passed its final exam.” He gave a perfunctory nod and left.
Zhang contained her rage for another thirty minutes as the other students were unable to finish in time and were forced to give up. This was fine. Standard, even. She would evaluate their relative failures and assign grades appropriately—it would not even take very long—but the students never believed her when she had told them there was no shame in not finishing. Instead, they filed out in various states of spiritual brokenness. Zhang followed them and gave a solemn nod. Yes, the nod said, wasn’t that hard? I feel for you. Then she locked the door and stomped back into the room.
“Sandhu,” she finally growled. She approached his table and looked at his precise arrangement of the four objects. “Dammit. This is perfect!” The Invigilator said nothing. “Do you understand? This is far beyond a first-year student.”
The Invigilator joined Zhang at the table and surveyed Sandhu’s work. “He’s not a first-year student,” she finally said. “He’s at least a Master. Perhaps a Doctor of Arts.”
“So you understand now? He has cheated!” Zhang said.
“I understand that he is not from this moment in history, but that man was the same man as the one who is registered in your course,” she said.
“But…!” Zhang gestured at the table, the perfect test.
“High achievement is not evidence of cheating, Adjunct Professor Zhang. The policies are clear on this.”
“This,” she was still pointing at his test, “is beyond him. The boy who took my course could never do this,” she said.
“If that’s true,” the Invigilator said, “then where is that boy? The one who would have failed?”
Zhang blinked several times. “I don’t know that he would failed.”
“Yes you do. Otherwise you would not be so offended by his success.”
“I’m not…” She cut herself off. “He has already failed this course twice,” she explained.
“I see, so this was last chance to pass,” the Invigilator said, “and without this course, he cannot get his degree.”
“Yes!” Zhang said, “that’s why this test is so important.”
The Invigilator squinted at her, “And it’s why he would come here, to this day, from all the way in the future.”
Zhang nodded. “If he fails, he has to go home.”
“And this is what you want.”
“No! I do no want it!” Zhang fidgeted for a moment before going on. “Anything less than a perfect score on this exam, and he would be expelled. I needed to stop him here.”
“Why?” she asked.
“He is without talent. No feel for the Arts. He ignores assignments, skips lectures. In the Central Empire, he would never have been accepted to begin with! He should not even be here.” She sighed. Zhang projected a certain bigness of character most of the time—as a small woman in academia who was a thousand miles from home, she had to—but for a moment, she relented and suddenly looked very small. “I needed to stop him,” she said, “but now he will go on, and the Faculty, they will know he passed my course.”
“So this is about your reputation,” the Invigilator said.
Zhang didn’t answer; the Invigilator didn’t press.
“Regardless, we should investigate further.”
Zhang furrowed her brow at the word ‘we,’ but the Invigilator continued.
”And the younger Mr. Sandhu…” she inclined her head as if she were listening to a very faint sound, “is still in the city. In the Freshmen’s Quarter.”
“Come with me,” she said, and placed a hand between Zhang’s shoulders. She felt a sudden gust of air as the Invigilator pushed her out the doors, out of the building, and through the city moving faster than a bird of prey on the attack. Zhang watched the buildings turn into streaks of colours and shapes, and she screamed the entire time. It was over before she had a chance to get used to it.
The Invigilator came to clean stop, but Zhang tripped over her own feet and landed on her hands and knees on a cobblestone street. “You could have warned me!” she yelled. She kept her eyes closed another moment while her soul rejoined her body. Then she looked up. They were in the Freshmen’s Quarter.
She had not yet been to this neighbourhood. It was unnerving: exactly five streets wide and five streets long, an arbitrary square. The streets were dead straight. The buildings were spare, dilapidated, and uniform. The rest of the city, no matter how abused it was by upper-year students, was an actual city full of piazzas and roundabouts. This neighbourhood was the one place that the Academy maintained—the lion’s share of the rest having long ago passed into the hands of undergraduate gangs—and the administration made a minimal effort at best. More than anything else, the Freshmen’s Quarter was boring.
Invigilator Nanda was knocking loudly on a dormitory building door while Zhang collected herself.
No one answered the knock, so she waved a hand, and the lock opened with a thunk. Two stairwells later, and they were at another door at which the Invigilator knocked, to which no one answered, and at which she once again waved her hand. It, too, unlocked.
The rooms were as threadbare as the buildings were boring. In the sparse bedroom—a tiny bed, a tiny desk built into a tiny bookcase—they found Lovepreet Sandhu, the younger, quite paralyzed.
“I didn’t do it!” he protested a few minutes later, “He did! He just showed up! Please, Professor Zhang!”
“Adjunct Professor,” the Invigilator broke in.
“—you have to believe me! I did not cheat! It wasn’t me!”
The Invigilator had freed young Mr. Sandhu from the
older Mr. Sandhu’s Arts, and she was now searching the room for traces of him. Sandhu the younger was spilling his guts, and Zhang stood in the doorway, not quite in the room and not quite outside of it.
“Your older self left nothing here,” the Invigilator finally said. She turned to the young man and stared into his eyes. “So now you must show me what you know…”
He opened his mouth to speak and never closed it. The Invigilator remembered his memories, took them into herself. It was as he had said. The older Sandhu had appeared, enchanted the younger Sandhu, and then left without an explanation. That had been this morning.
The Invigilator turned to leave. “He knows nothing and he’s done nothing wrong.” She swept out the door and Zhang scurried after, through the halls and down the stairs.
“But he, the younger one, he’ll receive the grade! And the course credit! Surely he must be punished?”
The Invigilator stepped back out onto the bare street. “He has broken no rule.”
“You said that about the man who passed my test! They cannot have both cheated and both broken no rule!”
The Invigilator sighed. “Would you have me violate the rules that you want me to enforce?”
Zhang said nothing. She decided didn’t like the Invigilator’s questions. Or her answers.
“The elder Sandhu will still be in the city,” the Invigilator said. “This walking through history, it must be extremely difficult and expensive, so he wouldn’t have come just for your exam.”
“Oh,” Zhang said, her shoulders drooping.
They walked while they talked, Zhang pensively following the Invigilator’s confident stride. They were leaving the Freshmen’s Quarter and entering one of many isolated streets occupied by townies. Shutters were smashed, stairs were broken, one whole building was missing. It was as if a giant had knocked a tooth out of the neighbourhood, which was true in its way.
The Invigilator allowed herself a thing smile and said, “It is expressly forbidden to assault a freshman, using Arts or otherwise.”
Zhang’s eyes went wide. “We can punish the older one!”
“Yes… if we knew where he was. He’s hiding.”
“From you?” Zhang asked.
“It is difficult but not impossible.” She pricked up her ears. “He is still in the city somewhere,” she tilted her head, “but I would need to be closer to locate him.”
Zhang thought for a moment. “He is a rich man’s son. His family is in mining…” she suggested.
The Invigilator nodded, then once again placed a hand between Zhang’s shoulders. She was a little more ready for it this time but only enough to keep herself from shrieking with fear. The ground fell away from her feet, and the buildings streaked by. A few seconds later, they were in an alley, packed dirt under their feet and flat walls rising up on both sides.
Zhang took a breath and grimaced at the various stenches in the air, but then smiled and said, “The Alchemists.” They nodded at each other.
“He is here,” the Invigilator said. She raised a hand in the air as if plucking a piece of fruit, and Sandhu the elder came crashing through a shutter two stories above them, trailed by bits of broken wood. Well before he hit the ground, a gust of warm wind held him aloft.
“Sandhu!” the Invigilator shouted above the gale, “submit or be destroyed.”
He hung in the air, brow furrowed in concentration, ready to let loose every hellish Art he knew, but then he said, “I suppose it would be foolish.” He floated to the ground. “No one has ever defeated one of you, not this near campus. But tell me, what rule have I broken?”
“You have assaulted a freshman,” she said. “Upper-year students can wage war if they like, but freshmen are under the protection of the Faculty.”
“Oh, the boy,” said Sandhu. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. The punishment?
“Banishment,” she said. “You must leave immediately, and if you ever attempt to enter the city walls again, you will be killed immediately.”
Sandhu’s rich-man’s grin was back. “I can leave? Fine! I will submit to the will of the Faculty.” He chuckled. “Thank you, Invigilator!” He turned, took five steps down the alley, and disappeared in a ripple of air.
Adjunct Professor Zhang shook with rage as she hoisted herself to her feet. “That is all?” she screamed, “He gets to leave?”
“That is the prescribed punishment,” the Invigilator said. “What would you have me do?”
“I will have to pass him! Don’t you understand? He will get the top mark! He will continue to second year!”
The Invigilator put a hand on Zhang’s shoulder. “His elder self can no longer help him, so either he will learn from this experience and become skilled enough to eventually walk through history and help his younger self, or he will fail the next course and the next until he is expelled.”
“But he will have passed my course.”
“Are you upset that he has cheated or that he has cheated you, Adjunct Professor Zhang?”
Zhang felt her body drooping, as if she was being pushed into the ground under feet. Finally, she said “Both.”
(C) Copyright Orion Ussner Kidder, 2018