As the three old men waited in the room, the dust that had been there for longer than most of the books on the shelves shimmered in the dimming sunlight. The student they were waiting for ran past the door, folders in his arms and a sheen of sweat on his forehead. Then he took a few cautious steps back and absently peeked through the glass panel. After a few seconds, he opened the door, and the things he was holding clattered to the floor. He hurriedly picked them up and placed them on the table in a disorderly manner, then sat down on the last empty chair.
“Hi,” he said sheepishly. “Sorry I’m late.”
The old man to the left gathered the documents on the table and prepared them. “In your time here at Clementia University, you have written the following five major papers: An Examination of the Gravitational Consequences of String Theory; Applied String Theory in the Field of Quantum Mechanics; Ideal Predictions of String Theory; The Anti-String Theory — The Re-Simplification of Physical Debates, and The Incompatibility of General Relativity and String Theory. We also have some of your recent exams here. Your grades have been average, but compared to your papers, there is an extreme disparity.” As he pointed at the different exams laid on the table, his curled hair slightly bobbed to and fro.
“Huh, ok. That’s weird.”
“Indeed,” said the old man in the middle. “We have also discussed this disparity with your teachers and your supervisor. They feel that it is also present when regarding the difference between your behaviour and your written products. It seems that although you have quite sophisticated writing — your thought process manages to find a logical path to somewhat unexpected conclusions — your participation in class is left wanting.”
“Thanks!” The student smiled.
The old men turned away, whispering to each other, before the old man on the right turned towards the student and continued, “We have come to question if you are truly the author of those papers.”
In the moments of silence that followed, the golden light sweeping the room was as frozen as the broken smile on the student’s face. The old man in the middle leaned back and cocked his head to the side, interested in seeing the reaction. His long strands of hair shone brightly in the dim sunlight.
Though the student’s smile was frozen, his eyes cycled through shock, fear, sadness, confusion, and fear again. Then his eyes froze, too. As far as the three old men could see, he was not moving otherwise. Not even as much as a gentle sigh escaped him. As soon as the old man on the right was about to open his mouth again, the student began to speak.
The three old men hunched together again and whispered. They hoped the student could not hear them, but he could. He had not lost any of his hearing to time yet.
“Did we not just explain it to him?” asked the man on the left.
“We most definitely did. I have the feeling he is not all too bright,” answered the man in the middle.
“I am sure he did not write those papers,” continued the man on the right.
“I did! I wrote those papers.”
The old men turned back towards the student in shock, realizing that they were wrong in their assumption that he could not hear them.
The man on the right pushed out his hands with a sharp accuracy, attempting to resolve the situation. “I am sure you did. The only —”
“I just heard you tell Mr Wrinkles and Mr Not-Even-Cool-In-The-70s you were sure that I didn’t write the papers. Can you make up your mind already? I don’t have all day, I gotta get back to my cat!”
The three old men could only blink in surprise. In none of their discussions with the student’s teachers and supervisors had anyone said he could be so aggressive. Although the man in the middle was ready to yell at the student, the man on the left stopped him.
“I am sorry that we have held you up for this long.”
“You better be.”
The man on the left stood up and walked around the table to shake hands with him. The man in the middle had since calmed down and said, “We will contact you again in the next week.”
The student turned around to pick up his materials and found that they were already neatly arranged. The old man on the right had packed them together for him, and he shook hands with the student, too. The student left with the last rays of sunlight shining through the window, and the three old men sat in the dark. The student could not see that they were watching him for a few steps through the window in the door, although he eventually heard the door open as they left and returned to their offices.
The student returned home and found his cat patiently waiting at the door. As soon as he opened it, there was an inquisitive meow, answered with the rattling of a bag of pet food. He filled up the cat’s bowl, then put down his bag and his studying materials.
“Why were you home so late today, John?”
“Some old farts accused us of stealing our papers,” the student replied.
“How dare they?” The cat arched its back, hissing as it spoke.
“Right? They said something about how there was a disposition — no, dispolarity —”
“Yeah, that; they said there was a disparity between what I’m like in class and what we write.”“No one writes academic papers in the same way as they speak in class. Or vice versa, for that matter!”
“I know, right?”
John began unpacking his studying materials, careful to watch where the cat was walking as he did so. He put his bag on the table next to him and carried the rest of his materials into the study. The beige carpet coughed up dust as he walked over to the window, putting down his books on the table next to him. His cat was curled up in his bed with a copy of Ulysses, purring softly as he turned the pages with his paws.
John rushed back out of the study and into the living room, sitting down in his favourite chair, ready to watch another episode of his favourite TV show. At the same time, his cat had been walking into the kitchen and in trying to not kick the cat, John tripped and flew into the door. He landed right next to his bag, which fell to the side with an unusual plastic cluttering noise that John didn’t notice.
His cat did notice, however, and hissed as John picked up his bag. John dropped his bag again, but it fell in the other direction, and so John could see what was agitating his cat. It was a yellow button with two dots and a curve in black. Although John found a smiley face button tacky even for his own tastes, he didn’t think it was something his cat should be hissing at.
“What is it, Oreo?” John pet his cat while it slowly backed away from the button.
“It’s a camera. Someone has been filming us.”
“But why? I’m boring…”
“I’m not. How often do you have proof of a talking cat? You need to destroy it right now.”
“Isn’t it harmless unless they get it back?”
“The newest models have SIM cards.”
“That means they can stream the video being taken. They can hear us at this very moment.”
John stomped down on the button, then turned it around to see if he could take the SIM card out and break that too, but it was tightly lodged into the rest of the broken button. He threw it to the ground and stomped on it again.
“Who did you mean by ‘they’?” John asked, sitting down next to Oreo.
“The people who doubted that you wrote the paper. They wanted to see if you were going to react strongly, tell the person who they no doubt think wrote the paper for you that ‘you’ve been found out!’ or some nonsense like that.”
“Huh. Is that even allowed?”
“I certainly don’t think it would hold up in a court of law.”
“Well, at least the button’s destroyed now.”
“Not to mention, they still don’t have proof of us writing the papers together.”
Oreo snuggled a bit closer to John and purred, then went back to reading Ulysses, moving the bookmark away with his tail.
The next day, then John returned to the college, a booming declaration echoed through the halls. He was to go back to the room 205, where the room where the three old men had been waiting for him yesterday.
Just as the same three men were sitting in the same three chairs, the same dust was sitting in the room, too.
“I am sure you know why we called you here.” The old man on the left’s glasses were reflecting some of the morning light.
“Do I? I don’t think I do. Last thing you told me was that you’d get back to me. So, you made up your mind yet?”
“We have come to a decision. You will no longer be attending Clementia University.” The old man in the middle had glasses hanging around his neck. He put them on while announcing the verdict, carefully watching John’s reaction.
“What? Are you insane? Why the hell should I stop going to school here?”
“We have evidence that you have been collaborating with a third person to write your academic papers. We do not know who they are, as you seemed to call them by a code name — “Oreo” — but that is not needed for proof of academic dishonesty.” The old man on the right motioned towards a computer, where an audio editing program was currently opened. He pressed play, and the conversation John had had with his cat the previous night filled the room.
John panicked as he heard the conversation, but it calmed him to hear the voice of his cat. Although he had long accepted the fact that his cat could talk, he had accepted it under the condition that he was not quite sane anymore. He was too busy trying to pass his exams to be able to disrupt his daily life, no matter how unhealthy, and the fact that his cat could help him was seen as a welcome change. Now that he knew that his cat would actually talk, perhaps he could be more open about it.
He dismissed the thought as quickly as it popped into his head. He might not actually have gone mad, but if he tells anyone, they’ll think he has.
“Before we finalize our verdict, do you have anything left to say for yourself?” The man on the right leaned forward.
“Not really,” said John, calmly. Although he tried his best to fight it, the edges of his mouth inched upwards, moving to a smile, and then a grin.
He quickly turned around, picking up his bag as he rushed to the door. The three old men said various forms of farewells, and as he was at the door, John turned back one last time, flashing a toothy grin in their direction. “See ya!”
“I should hope not,” muttered the old man on the right.
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