For fans of the series waiting for Pathfinder to release late spring/early summer, here’s a little appetizer. It’s the first chapter of Pathfinder (plus the prologue).
“Up next, I would like to call forth Dr. Garcia. Please state your full name and occupation.”
I figured it was only a matter of time before he called me up front. Honestly surprised it took this long. I slowly got up and maneuvered my way through the heavy stares and dead silence of the room.
I have watched many before me march this path of shame, yet every step was still just as jarring.
“My name is Dr. Steven Garcia. I am an Applied Science professor at Sun Valley University. Is there anything else you’d like to know, Eric?”
His poker face remained fully intact, but I knew how much it stung him to hear me call him by his first name. I struggled to hold back a smirk.
“Dr. Garcia, in this hearing you shall refer to me as Dr. Johnson. Now, I’m sure I don’t need to stress the importance of this testimony to you. There are several accusations in your name. If one word in your story doesn’t match our fact checks, you can expect to face the rest of your life in prison. Are we clear, professor?”
“Of course,” I retorted. Que baboso.
This was it. My one chance to clear my name. If only I knew where to begin.
“Do you know what integrity is, Dr. Johnson? It is the ability to maintain moral consistency in any situation. Whether you define a person’s morals as bad or good, having integrity means to stick by those morals down to the last breath, even when no one is looking. It is a concept I teach all my students as they enter the world of scientific research, and a concept I cherish dearly.”
I cleared my throat and continued.
“As such, never have I felt the need to question the integrity of others as in my time at Sun Valley University. Deception, betrayal, things you would only see in the movies, are very much alive in this campus. And that is why I’m up here. I am here to reveal the truth behind the lies told at Sun Valley University. The real truth behind the suicides that took the campus by storm. And it all starts with Cheyenne Winters.”
Chapter 1: Steven Garcia
Kneeling down on the blood-stained carpet, I clasped my hands over hers, feeling her warmth fading away.
The fumes were already slipping through the door. In minutes, the room would be engulfed in flames. As much as I wanted to leave, my body would not budge. I was frozen there, staring down at the insurmountable evidence that this was all too real.
My heart started racing, my palms sweating, and nothing I did could overcome the nauseating feeling in my stomach. It was the strangest feeling. She was lying right there, in plain sight, and yet she wasn’t. Her cheeks still glowed a faint tint of red, yet she was nothing more than an empty shell, with no other purpose than to torment me.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, releasing slowly. All of a sudden, I felt someone grab on to my shoulder from behind. I opened my eyes in surprise and turned around to see Stacy Richards looking at me sympathetically. Everything in the room began to fade away. The room was suddenly brighter and louder. The heat and crackling embers were suddenly replaced with wisps of cold air and loud hums of central air conditioning coming from right above me. The hand was still resting on my shoulder.
“Steve, you okay?” Stacy leaned over to ask. “You seemed to have checked out there for a second.”
I looked around the room, disoriented and confused. A faculty meeting. When did I get here?
“Hello? You in there Steve?” she asked as she waved her hand in front of my face.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” I replied. “Just been really tired lately. Pulling double duty on my research before classes start next week. With the course load I’m teaching this semester, I’ll barely have time to do anything else.”
It wasn’t a total lie. I really was trying to put the last touches on my latest research before submitting it for publication. Couldn’t risk losing my job for not reaching my quota this year.
Still, I felt bad having to withhold the truth from Stacy. She’s been so supportive since I started at Sun Valley University. It doesn’t help that the majority of the faculty here are at least 20 years older than me.
Stacy, on the other hand, couldn’t be much older than 5-10 years from me. Not that I’d ever ask. As she sat there smiling at me, I did notice some defined expression lines under her eyes. She could be mid-thirties, but who can really tell with professors?
All that time spent indoors researching and teaching classes tend to give us more youthful appearances due to avoidance of the sun. For all I know she could be in her forties.
Old or not, I appreciated her concerns with my well-being. I hadn’t had one of these spells for a while now. I wonder why now all of a sudden.
Regardless, I smiled back to acknowledge that I was okay. Our brief exchange was suddenly interrupted when her name was called in the front of the room.
“Are you ready, Dr. Richards?”
We both turned to the front of the room. Over 50 pairs of eyes were looking back at us. Dr. Scott was standing in the front waiting for a response.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Scott. I wasn’t following. Ready for what?” Stacy responded, cheeks bright red in embarrassment.
“Your proposal, of course. Didn’t you tell me you had an idea for a way to approach the budget situation?”
“Ah yes, right. My apologies. As we all know, budget is always a sensitive topic at this university. This year especially, with the massive unprecedented cuts that Dr. Scott mentioned earlier. I know the idea of cuts and layoffs have been tossed around, but I really don’t think that’s our only option. I’ve met with the rest of the faculty in the writing department, and we all agree that if our yearly research quotas were lowered, we’d have more time to teach more courses per semester. More courses means more fees, and more fees means more revenue.”
Another professor got up from out of his seat. Might have been a business professor, not entirely sure. I haven’t really made an effort to get to know the faculty outside of my department.
“Stacy, as simple and idealistic as your proposal sounds, what’s wrong with the current proposition on the table? It’s not like the cuts are really going to affect us anyways, outside of a few classroom amenities.”
“The problem is that the current proposition looks to cut about 5 percent of our current staff. At least my proposal would avoid cutting anyone of their jobs.”
“What’s your angle here, Stacy?” the professor said, a bit more annoyed this time. “Dr. Scott said it himself. President Lambrick has already decided he won’t be cutting any faculty positions. You can be rest assured that your job will still be here in the near future. What’s with your fascination with the staff, anyways? You dating someone there we don’t know about?”
“The issue is that staff or not, it’s not fair to cut positions until we’ve exhausted all other possibilities. I have nothing for or against staff, but getting rid of them is not the answer.”
“Why? Why isn’t it the answer? We’ve got too many of them as it is! Buckets of money are being thrown at them every year, and half of them don’t even do anything worthwhile. Just how many people do you need to hire to throw a school dance or pick a student’s schedule? Consolidating our staff force is the best use of our money.”
I looked around and saw many professors nodding in agreement. Others were looking down, probably thinking the same thing but ashamed to admit it. Stacy held her ground.
“Ahh, and so the truth comes out, doesn’t it Seth? You’re not even going to try to hide your superiority complex anymore?”
“It’s not a complex. It’s a fact. There’s a reason we need a doctorate to do what we do. We are the reason the students come here, to be taught the skills they need for the work force. I’m not trying to be mean. Everyone here knows it. I’m just the only one with the balls to say what’s on everyone’s mind.”
Stacy, aggravated, looks over to Dr. Scott in the front of the room.
“What are your thoughts on this, Dr. Scott? I’d like to hear what a non-faculty member has to say on this.”
As the limelight is passed over to Dr. Scott, he slides his hand over the patches of hair still left on his head. I couldn’t tell if he was nervous or intrigued. It’s hard to tell with him. He’s a very charming fellow for an older guy. He’s been Provost of SVU for years now, and is easily the most approachable of all the administrators. He always had a way of keeping the peace, surely a valuable asset to the university administration.
“Dr. Richards, I see your point,” he finally said after what felt like a minute of silence. “At Sun Valley University, we work as a cohesive unit, with each part doing its job to keep the main core going. Like an automobile, every piece has its purpose. Just as the engine keeps the car running, the windshield wipers lets us see where we’re going. Sure, the engine costs much more than the wipers, but in the middle of a storm, we can’t really go anywhere without those wipers, can we?
“With that said, however, your proposal needs a lot more work before it can be given serious consideration. The high research quota for professors is a major asset to the university. In addition to having the most reputable professors in countless journals around the world, our research brings grants and other revenue. Cutting the amount of research cuts some of that revenue. The question is, would the added revenue from a higher course load per faculty circumvent the costs of cutting research?
“If you can get us some concrete numbers, Dr. Richards, or at least some reliable estimates, then perhaps we shall take a closer look at your proposal. In the meantime, however, it seems that our current plan is our only option.”
Stacy said nothing in response. She looked at Dr. Scott dead in the eyes, then turned her gaze to Seth, who had sat down with a half grin on his face. She turned around and walked out of the room. I debated following her, but wasn’t sure if she was in the mood for company at the moment.
“Now everyone,” Dr. Scott continued. “We cannot take this issue lightly. Even if the staff cuts do go through, we must make every measure to cut costs this year. Don’t print documents if you don’t have to. I suggest you have your students turn in their assignments electronically. Unfortunately, we will no longer be able to provide free coffee for employees in the lounges. Every penny counts.
“This is going to be a difficult year for us, and it doesn’t look like things will be getting better soon, so we will have to learn to adjust. I appreciate all that you do for this university. Students will be coming in a few days, and classes will start next week. I expect each and every one of you to head into this year with a smile and an enthusiasm to teach. You’ll find that things won’t be so bad once the students are back to liven the campus.
“And finally, while he couldn’t be here today, President Lambrick wishes you all the best this coming year, and appreciates your attendance at this faculty meeting. That is all.”
Applause is heard from the crowd, mostly halfhearted. They’ve all heard this speech before. It’s the same thing every year, albeit with some added gloom and doom this time. And of course, every year President Lambrick finds another excuse to not attend the faculty meeting, even though he makes it mandatory for the rest of us. I wonder if he ever attends the mandatory staff meeting.
I automatically followed the crowd out of the conference room, only to be immediately blinded by the rays of the scorching, August sun gleaming through the large glass windows in the hallway. It was a little past noon. That meeting lasted about an hour and a half. And yet, there was probably only about 15 minutes worth of actual content to that meeting. The rest was just typical filler and political babble about the “structural changes” taking place at the university.
It was the same story every year. This happened, that happened, this is what they’re going to do about it. And in the end, nothing really ever changed. The top were still on top, the bottom were still on the bottom, and the students were merely pawns to move these “changes” forward.
I had finally made it down the stairs and outside. It was 99 degrees, just as I forecasted. For once, I was hoping to be wrong. I was already getting sweat stains under my armpits from the Florida humidity. At the very least, teaching my meteorology class this semester should be a breeze. My forecasting skills have really improved since last year. Few things are more embarrassing than having your students predict a cold front better than you can.
By the look of those cirrus clouds, it didn’t look like a cold front would be hitting us any time soon. Maldita sea.
I looked back at the massive tower where we had our meeting. With the constant fear of layoffs and budget costs, it’s a wonder we managed to afford that monstrosity. I’ve seen many student unions, but this one just had a certain commanding presence to it. Instead of standing there, elegantly welcoming others to the campus, it seemed to overtake the campus. With big glass windows and its tall, cylindrical shape, every other building paled in comparison.
“Dr. Garcia, is that you?” said a voice behind me. I turned around to see Cheyenne Winters walking towards me. Her right hand was shading her eyes from the sun.
“It is you! I can’t see a dang thing with the sun’s glare on my glasses. I keep telling myself I’m going to get some of those Transitions lenses for the sun, but I never get around to it. Anyways, how are you? What are you looking at up there?”
She walked up right in front of me and held out her hand. It took me a second to process everything. Many questions raced through my head.
“Hey there,” I responded as I reached out and shook her hand. “Cheyenne, is it?”
I could only imagine how stupid I looked caught off-guard staring at clouds.
“Yeah,” she said cheerfully. “And you, still wearing your blazers with jeans, I see. It’s been forever, hasn’t it?”
I wasn’t sure if the blazers with jeans comment was a compliment or an insult. At the very least my blazer covered the pit stains on my shirt from this heat.
“Indeed it has. Don’t think I’ve spoken to you since February. How are you?”
“Oh, pretty good. Been busy with my doctoral studies and all that. Can’t really complain.”
We stood there and just smiled at each other for a bit. I could only fake a smile for so long before curiosity got the best of me.
“So Cheyenne, what exactly are you doing here? Not to sound overly direct, but didn’t you finish your research last semester? And didn’t the administration ask you to leave?”
“Well, yes, sort of. It’s a little more complicated than that. You see, I was ready to leave, and then I got a job here!”
“A job? Doing what?” I asked her, eyes widening.
“Academic Advising. Helping students with enrollment, class schedules, graduation checklists, and all that kind of stuff. Could you believe it? I haven’t even graduated yet and I already got a job in my field!”
Cheyenne’s response to my question raised even more questions. She got a job? With the hour-and-a-half long meeting I just attended regarding budget cuts, how the hell did they hire yet another academic advisor? And Cheyenne, of all people? After the mess she caused here last year?
“That’s wonderful,” I responded while trying to sound supportive. “Where are you headed off to?”
“Well, I have another interview.”
“I thought you said you finished your research last year.”
“Well, I did, but then I didn’t. I decided to tweak my study a bit. What used to be a study on the transition of first year students to college, I decided to expand it to be their continued adjustments through college. Now that I got a job here, I can continue my dissertation by following these students through their years here at Sun Valley.”
“But classes haven’t started yet. The students aren’t here. Who are you going to interview?”
“RA training has been going on this week. I’m interviewing Amy. Remember her? She applied to become an RA last year and got it, and now is finishing up her first week of training. I’m catching her during her lunch break before training continues in the afternoon. I’ll tell her you said hi if you’d like.”
“Sure,” I said nonchalantly. “Good luck.”
Cheyenne smiled, nodded her head, and kept walking. I didn’t understand. I had heard some pretty bad things about her involvement at SVU towards the end of the year. Why would they let her back on campus as a staff member? How did she pull that off? Something didn’t sit right with me about this whole situation. Guess this year wouldn’t be the same old tired story after all.