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University Blues

Chapter One

The Mystery Opens

Hugh yawned and stretched his arms high above his head. Grading midterms was tiring work, even with the computer checking all the answers for him. He still needed to make sure the computer did not record erroneous scores due to a bit of human error on his side of the deal. He also found it good idea to read through several test questions and answers in order to discover what his students were having the most problems with.

Hugh laughed. His students. That made him sound old. As far as he knew he was younger than almost all of them. Though he had been at the university for four, no five , years, Hugh was only sixteen. Sixteen and going for his doctorate degree. If not for the amount of time that research naturally takes he might have had his degree by now. Instead he found his research stalled even longer by the material he needed being placed on hold by Mother Brain. Why now? Now he was stuck being a teaching assistant for an introductory class, one of those classes where no one took anything seriously, not in the least because their desire to learn was limited by curiosity alone. No one really needed to be curious he supposed, but he thought it was a good trait to have.

So that left Hugh as one of the few truly immersed in his studies, his pet project being his case study of the effect of carcinogenic mutagens on the development of the Palman embryo. By anyone's measures it was shaping up to be a worthwhile dissertation. With all the toxins that inevitably came with technological progress, his knew his research could be invaluable. His in depth look at the part of the DNA affected by the mutagens might not only earn him his doctorate, but a research grant as well.

Hugh entered the amount of points a student earned on her test into her personal record spreadsheet. It was a dismal score of eight out of a hundred. His initial thought was to gripe once more about people who wouldn't study. He could not understanding how someone could not find time to finish their reading. They had two weeks for the whole six chapters. It was more than enough time. But then so many of the students always seemed to find time to go do something else; like sleep or party. What made this score stand out among the rest was when he compared it against the rest of the student's grades.

She was one of the best students in the class. A class of largely disinterested people yes, but still she seemed fairly bright. The student records were solely listed by number, supposedly to prevent discrimination, but personal names could be easily obtained by any TA who made the effort. Sensing that something might be amiss with one of the students in his care, he loaded up the name associated with the student number: Lore Drakon.

Hugh paused, scratched thoughtfully at his head. Then he remembered her. Slim, unassuming, with long dark hair, always sat a few rows away from him, but far forward enough that the noisier students in the back of the classroom could not bother her. He wasn't sure he had ever heard her talk except in response to roll call. She was a oddity as far as he could tell. Her record stated she was still in secondary school and attended this one class at Kueri University through a special program for gifted students, which basically meant anyone who had the inclination to take university classes ahead of their time.

Hugh flipped off the computer and gathered his things. It was time for a break, and he could finish his grading tomorrow. He supposed he also should have a talk with this Lore before the next class started to find out what was the matter. True, it was only one bad test--but to fail so badly?

He halted by the doorway from his tiny TA office and lifted his head. He thought he heard something scrabbling above him. Above the ceiling? In the air ducts? Hugh shook his head, deciding it wasn't anything important, and stepped out into the hall.

The red light of sunset shone through the large paneled windows in the hallway. Fewer students were about now, most having gone home for the day. Hugh waved a farewell to the other TAs still working on his stretch of the hall and exited the biology department. He smiled despite himself and tried to whistle a bit, something he had never quite gotten the hang of. Once he got back he would have to be sure to feed Sera. She was always plaintively hungry by the time he got home and if she was too upset she could bite like an army of needles.

The sunset nearly blinded him when he stepped out of the building, causing him to wonder at the source of the grunts and shouts his ears heard. A high voice, frightened yet defiant, shouted, "Help! Argh, get away from me dammit!"

Hugh squinted, running as fast he dared towards the voice. He ducked behind a wall that blocked the sun from his eyes and beheld an unusual sight. A young girl held a guarded stance with a broken tree branch clutched in both hands like a sword. The left sleeve of her tunic had been shredded and blood leaked from a long gash in her arm. Opposite her and temporarily held at bay by the branch was a large beetle, the likes of which Hugh had never seen before. It was huge, larger than a couple of cats and with a pair of jaws that looked stronger than any can opener he had ever seen.

"Hey!" he shouted.

Neither paid attention to him. The girl inched back, not allowing her eyes to leave the insect for a moment. With every foot she gave the beetle scuttled forward, staying just out of reach. Hugh let out a growl and dumped his bookbag on the grass. He tore open a side pocket and took out the only thing resembling a weapon he had; a rather long-bladed scalpel.

The girl let out a fierce cry and swung the branch at the creature. It nimbly jumped back, at which point Hugh ran at its side and attacked it. His scalpel glanced off the beetle's hard shell and the insect pivoted so quickly to face him that its armored shoulder bowled him over. Hugh didn't remember consciously thinking about doing it, but he found himself kicking the beetle under the chin and scrambling away as fast as he could. When he looked back over his shoulder, the girl had cracked her branch against one of the beetle's legs. Both had broken. She shifted her stance again, holding both halves of the branch in each hand like twin knives, but the insect seemed no longer in the mood to fight. It backed away, clicking its pincered mouth together, then scuttled off entirely.

Hugh felt in no mood to pursue it and gradually the girl too lowered her guard.

"What was that thing?" he muttered.

"Dunno," said the girl. She dropped the broken branch and turned to go.

Hugh looked up at her, catching a glimpse of her face for the first time. "Lore?" Then his gaze fell to her arm. "Wait! You're hurt. There should be a monomate in the biology lab we can-"

"No." She moved, shifting her hand over the injury. "It's not as bad as it looks. My home's not far from here. I'll have it taken care of there."

"But you might get infected..."

She laughed, but it might have been a hiccup. "Mother Brain will take care of me. If things get really bad she'll be there." Lore glanced over her shoulder in his direction though she did not meet his eyes. "Look, I just don't want to be here anymore. That thing..." She shook her head. "There's something strange going on."

She might have said more, but if she did he did not hear it. Lore continued in a mumble as she walked away.

"I'll see you in class tomorrow!" he shouted, feeling the need to say something, anything, to the one person who might have a clue about what just happened.

She didn't stop and he wasn't sure she heard him. With a deep sigh Hugh chided himself over his attempted heroics. She was right, Mother Brain would take care of her, but what was Mother Brain doing letting such a dangerous creature run around? It wasn't anything he was familiar with. Or was he? The head resembled something out of a textbook, but the body... For a moment he wondered if the Biosystems Lab had lost a test subject. That rarely happened, but wasn't entirely unheard of. Whatever it was, he hoped someone would catch it soon.

He slung his bag over his shoulder and walked the few blocks from the university to his house. The lights were already on and he imagined his parents were getting ready for dinner. Neither of his parents worked, they hadn't the interest, but they took pride enough in his decision to do so himself. They mostly "had fun". Not that Hugh didn't consider the idea of becoming a biologist fun, but he wasn't so dense as to not realize his desired profession was less than entertaining for most. So his mother cooked--she had a thing for serving half the neighborhood dinner every couple of days--and his father fished. Or at least he had fished until Mother Brain banned the use of vehicles. Bad enough the ocean was off limits. Now the rivers too. Hugh supposed she was right, but he knew how much his dad missed boating.

"Mom! Dad! I'm home!" he shouted as he opened the door.

Their greetings rang out from the kitchen as he took off his shoes. His mother liked a neat floor and never allowed anyone to wear shoes inside. He popped in to the kitchen for a moment to wave hello and grab a bag of cooked meat from the refrigerator. "I'll be back after I feed Sera," he announced. The smell of food was already overpowering to his empty stomach, but Sera needed to be fed first. She was a frail thing, needing four meals a day and lots of mindful care.

Hugh bounced into his room and picked up a box of kibble by his dresser. On the dresser itself was a modest wire cage with a layer of sand on the bottom. A small grey lump had burrowed beside the food and water dishes, the former of which was near empty. He opened the top of the cage and was rewarded by the lump stirring to peer at him with two large dark eyes.

"I'm sorry. Did I wake you?" He smiled. "Dinner's ready. Better than this kibble stuff you've been having all day."

The small creature blinked slowly and yawned, revealing two rows of narrow razor teeth. Hugh pulled out the food dish and filled it to the brim with kibble, more than enough for her next three meals. He set it back inside and this time lifted out the small animal. Sera hunched her shoulders as she stretched her back and wriggled her long segmented tail. Her two taloned feet poked against the skin of Hugh's palm, but were not sharp enough to draw blood. Though covered by a layer of tiny scales, her body was warmer than one might think, her skin soft and silky to the touch. Sera batted her wing membranes as though to fly, but she couldn't. Hugh had found her in the wild three years ago as a discarded hatchling, the weakest in the litter. The budding scientist in him told him to leave it alone, it wasn't his business to interfere with the nature that Mother Brain surely controled, but the part of him that was still very much a young boy decided otherwise. So he had taken her home, and cared for her ever since.

Sera peered down over the edge of his palm and Hugh turned his wrist as she moved so that she climbed on to the back of his hand. He smiled and sat down with folded legs on the floor. He reached with his free hand into the bag of meat and plucked out a thin strip of rabbit. Hugh cooed lightly to Sera and held the tip of the meat just before her broad muzzle. Her jaws parted and a forked tongue lightly brushed against the meat. Satisfied, she leaned forward and greedily pulled half the strip into her mouth. She fidgeted, trying to get the whole of it inside, and settled instead for rending the strip in half with her sharp teeth.

"Yes, you know where your meal's coming from," he said.

Sera tugged the rest of the meat from his fingers.

"So why does one animal attack another?" He reached for more food for Sera. "Obviously it's either diseased or hungry. Carnivores like you attack because they need to eat. It's a simple function of life. Everything is food for something else in one fashion or another."

She snatched the next piece from his hand and tried to crawl into the bag. Hugh held her back and placed a large piece in front of her to keep her occupied.

"So why did that beetle attack Lore? It must have been hungry. That's more likely than being diseased, right? So if it's hungry, and it hasn't attacked Palmans before, that means one of two things. 1) It's new to the area and hasn't had the opportunity to attack before. Or 2) Its source of food has been removed so now it's being forced to prey on Palmans when it avoided them before.

"We haven't seen beetles like that around here before, so I think supposing that it's new to the area is a fair guess. So where did it come from? The Biosystems Lab is still a good distance away from here, and even if it escaped, I don't think Mother Brain would have let it come this far. The police or lab security would have caught it by now. And failing that, surely there would have been a warning issued of its danger to Palmans. So that brings up the probability that this thing's origin is local. But if it's local, where did it come from?"

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