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University Blues

Chapter Two


Together

Hugh tried to concentrate in class the following day, but his lecture rambled and he knew it. He doubted anyone noticed though. A certain pall hung over the university today. Rumors of monsters and strange noises flooded the gossip channels usually filled by the scuttlebutt on lovers and idiosyncratic professors. Worse as far as he was concerned was the vacant seat in his classroom. For the first time he could recall, Lore Drakon was absent. He hardly paid her mind before yesterday, but now her disappearance bothered him to the point that her empty seat drew his attention like an inexplicable black hole.

"This is driving me insane!" he said, leaning over the desk in a neighboring TA's office.

The TA glanced up from his computer console and tilted his head as he looked at Hugh. "Not finished grading midterms yet?"

"No! All this talk about monsters. Everyone has something to say, but has anyone actually seen anything? Everyone I talk to has only heard it through a friend or a friend's friend."

The TA, a young man by the name of Kenneth, pursed his lips as though trying to reach a decision. "Why do you want to know so much about it? Isn't this something you should leave up to security?"

"Well, if no one knows anything for certain, then security's not going to take care of it. But I saw something yesterday..."

"What?"

Hugh sighed and shook his head. "Would you believe a giant beetle? And the only other person I know who saw it isn't here today. I hope she's all right."

Kenneth nodded. "I hope so too. But Hugh... A giant beetle you say? I was here late last night, and the hall lights were pretty dim when you left, but I think I saw something that looked like a beetle."

Hugh looked inquiringly at the older student.

"It was just out of the corner of my eye mind you," said Kenneth, shaking his head. "I dismissed it as my nerves playing tricks on me, but until now I hadn't heard anything of what these monsters look like."

"How big do you think it was?" asked Hugh.

Kenneth held his arms apart at their farthest length and gestured with his hands at right angles. "Pretty big. About this I think."

Hugh nodded. "That seems to be about the right size. Thanks."

The older student looked shrewdly at him. "You're planning to do something about this?"

"Maybe." Hugh drew back, expression thoughtful. "I don't know yet, but I want to take a better look at that beetle. Maybe I'll camp out a bit once it gets around sunset. Maybe that's the beetle's foraging period."

"Making a study out of this?"

"I'm sure someone else already knows a good deal about this thing, but what I'm wondering is why isn't that person looking out for this beetle!"

* * *

Hugh chose the shadow of the wall he had crouched behind the day before as his hiding place. He hoped the beetle would chose the same time and place to forage as it had before. The ground felt hard beneath his butt though, and he couldn't help feeling a bit self-conscious as the occasional student or professor walked by. Why sit behind a wall on the hard ground when a comfortable bench was only a short walk away? He took some consolation in the fact that any grass stains he got probably would not show up on his already green pants. In fact, he was fully prepared to spend a miserable night doing nothing all by himself and getting scolded by his mom when he finally limped home in the predawn light. So he was more than surprised when he spotted the mop of Kenneth's dark blue hair heading towards him.

The biochemistry TA was not a close friend of his, though the two occasionally conversed due to the sheer fact that their offices were next door to each other. He had heard that Kenneth really wanted to be an inventor rather than a conventional scientist. The man apparently had a thing for the maruera tree. Hugh supposed it must be tough for him to have to rely on Mother Brain's droids to collect samples for him. As far as he knew the tree only grew on one of the islands off the eastern coast and of course boating had been banned.

Kenneth sucked in a deep breath as he stopped in front of Hugh. "Has the beetle come yet?"

Hugh shook his head. "No."

"Mind if I stay and watch?"

"I don't know if there'll be much to see, but sure. Go ahead."

Kenneth dropped down next to Hugh and leaned back again the wall.

Neither spoke much and gradually the trickle of the people leaving the school stopped entirely. Hugh was about to comment on the possibility of the beetle not showing so Kenneth would have an excuse for leaving if he wanted to, but he heard a crunch of the grass on the other side of the short wall. Apparently Kenneth heard it as well. They glanced at each other and peered over the wall.

"And just what do you guys think you're doing out here at this hour?"

Kenneth let out a strangled cry and both he and Hugh fell over. The smirking face of a young woman stood on the other side of the wall, both hands on his hips as she regarded them.

"Oh come on! I wasn't that scary! Sheesh. You'd think security was after you or something. Besides, it's cold out here!"

Hugh waved his hands and made shushing noises. "Not so loud!"

She frowned, but lowered her voice. "All right, what is it? You two are indoor biologists if what you check out from the library is any clue. So what are you doing outside? Changing graduate programs?"

"Something bigger," said Hugh. "You know the monsters?"

Her frown deepened. "You're kidding. You guys are actually looking for those?"

"We've seen them," said Kenneth with considerably less energy than his companion. "And Hugh saw it here yesterday. It's a big beetle. He thinks it might come back again tonight."

The smirk returned to her face. "Well, then I'll have to sit here with you."

"What?" said Hugh.

She took a seat beside them. "Come on. I'd like to see this 'monster' for myself. Besides, I bet you guys could use another eyes of eyes to look for it, right?"

Hugh and Kenneth glanced at each other. Kenneth shrugged.

"All right," Hugh sighed.

"Great!" She smiled brightly. "I'm Dana Ra Mira.You might remember me from your visits to the medical library. I work there part time. I'm a biology student like you guys."

"Can't say it's nice to meet you, but I'm Hugh Thompson."

Kenneth nodded. "My name's Kenneth Mahlay. I'm a graduate student, biochemistry."

"Great!" she said again. "Now that we're all introduced, can you tell me if that's the beetle you're looking for?"

Dana pointed to a form in the distance and Hugh rose into a half crouch as he peered at it.

"I think that's it," he said.

"Where's it going?" asked Kenneth.

"Let's follow it."

"What are we going to do then?" said Dana.

Hugh shook his head and stalked after it. The two other students followed closely after him. If the beetle noticed them it gave not a care. It wandered in one direction, then another, occasionally waving the stubby antennae on its head before ambling off on a new heading. Hugh speculated that it might be following a chemical trail back to its nest. The sudden thought that odor might be its primary means of sensing its environment brought him up to a quick halt. Kenneth and Dana bumped him from behind, but he ignored their muttered demands for what he was doing. If the beetle had a prime set of scent organs then perhaps they shouldn't follow too closely.

He whispered as much to his companions after he allowed the beetle to gain a little distance between them. Then they resumed creeping after their target. The beetle scuttled over to the eastern side of the science supplies building. Someone had left the door to the main storage room open there. The beetle paused for a moment beside the dark opening, waving its antennae, then wriggled inside.

Dana hissed, "Hurry up! Let's follow it!" and darted for the doorway before Hugh or Kenneth could stop her.

"Damn!" said Kenneth, running after her.

Hugh decided to save his breath as he brought up the rear.

Dana hesitated beside the doorway. They could hear the carapace of the beetle's body as its feet clicked against the metal floor. Kenneth shook his head, a doubtful expression on his face, but Dana grabbed him by the arm and dragged him inside. Hugh crept into the darkness behind them. For the first time he realized how poorly armed they all were. He had his silly little dissection scalpel, but that hadn't been very effective the last time he tried it. Did Dana and Kenneth even have anything?

Perhaps his paranoia about possessing weapons was what allowed him to see what Dana and Kenneth did not; a figure in the shadows lifting a narrow blade that glinted for just a moment in the starlight.

"Guys, look out!" he shouted. "Someone's got a weapon!"

Dana shouted something that sounded like a cross between a snarl and a war cry. She launched herself at the figure and barreled it to the ground. It went down surprisingly easily, but a second voice started shouting back at her; a girl's. Hugh ran over to the struggling voices, scalpel still held ready, but with considerably more reluctance.

"Kenneth? Is there a light?" he asked.

"Already on it," came the reply.

A moment later the overhead fluorescents beamed on, dousing the entire storage room with blinding light. There was no sign of the beetle anymore, but they got a good look at the company they had.

"Lore?" said Hugh.

"Dammit! Get off me!" She glared viciously at Dana through a mess of her onyx bangs.

"Who's this?" asked Dana, getting up and offering Lore a hand.

"One of my students," said Hugh.

Lore, considerably put out, brushed the storage room dust from her red tunic. "Now you made me lose that monster."

"Is that what you skipped class for? To hunt that thing?"

She looked defiantly at him as she sheathed her dagger. "And if I did? Someone's gotta take care of that thing before it hurts someone!" Her expression soured further, but she did not direct her feelings at them. "Security must've lost Mother Brain's orders or something 'cause even after I reported it to them they still didn't do anything about it. I think they even lost my report! They say there aren't any monsters. I already had my arm healed so I didn't have anything to show them."

"Wait..." said Kenneth. "Something's not ringing quite right here."

"What?" asked Dana.

Kenneth looked at the black-haired girl. "Lore, right? You were following the beetle in here a little while ago, correct?"

She nodded empathically.

"But you were already in here when we arrived, and we also were following a beetle... How long were you here?"

"A few minutes, I think. Not much more."

"I see. Not long enough for it to have left and come back here with us in tow."

Dana looked at Kenneth. "You mean there might be more than one of these things?"

"Ouch," said Hugh.

"Unfortunately," said Kenneth.

Hugh shook his head. "After this I doubt we'll get much more done tonight. Maybe we should all head home. I think we need more information before we try this again. That is... if you're interested."

"I'm not sure if I can sleep after all this," said Dana, "but all right. We probably need the rest."

"C'mon, let's go," said Kenneth, gesturing outside. "I have the keys to this place so I'll lock the door. If these beetles haven't left yet, then they should be trapped inside. We can let campus security know, and then you'll have your proof, Lore."

The girl nodded and brushed past him out the door.

"We can't all be imagining this," said Hugh. "Even if we don't have hard proof, if enough of us say something the administration should look into it."

Dana nodded. "Besides, how could Mother Brain not be aware of this?"

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