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University Blues

Chapter Three


Bad News

Kenneth grabbed Hugh midmorning the next day before either of their classes started. He pulled his neighbor inside his office and shut the door behind him. The dark-haired biochemist glanced once furtively through the translucent glass window of his office, then turned his attention back to Hugh.

"Listen," he said. "Whatever's out there, it's getting deadly. I got here early this morning--I haven't finished grading you know--and I found a body."

"A body?"

Kenneth nodded grimly. "A corpse. It was stuffed in an air vent. I just saw a pair of legs sticking out. I didn't know the guy was dead until I touched him." He shuddered. "If you can avoid touching a corpse I highly recommend it. Now I know why I'm a biochemist instead of a mortician. But anyway, I pulled the body out and got an eyeful of enough to make even a med student vomit. Hugh, there's no way that guy just happened to get himself stuffed in an air vent and his flesh shredded like that. It looked like something was eating at him, probably storing the rest for later!"

Hugh grimaced. "What'd you do with the body?"

"I dragged it into the formaldehyde locker. No one will look for it there, and the stink alone's enough to prevent anyone from smelling it. Thank Mother Brain no one saw me. I'd hate to think what sort of scene that'd dredge up! Those beetles must have been hungry."

"I'm not sure that would have been the beetles though." Hugh leaned back against the wall, thinking. "You saw the beetle's jaws. They were large pincers. They're made for crushing, not shredding."

"What else could have done it though?"

"I don't know. I don't know if I want to know."

Kenneth looked down at his boots as scuffed their heels against the floor. "Well, I reported the body's location and the circumstances under which I found it to security. Hopefully they'll take care of it."

Hugh nodded.

A series of beeps rang out from a small device on Kenneth's belt. He picked it up and looked at the display. "A summons to the principal's office."

Another series rang out from a similar box on Hugh. He lifted the corner of his jacket to look down at it. "Same here. Maybe he wants to talk?"

"Obviously. But I don't have a very good feeling about this. Why does he need us?"

"Maybe more details on the body you found?"

"Or the beetles from last night. I let security know about the storage room too."

The two exited the office and Kenneth lead the way to the administrative facilities. A receptionist motioned them to a waiting room and said she would let the principal know they had arrived. Hugh picked up a science magazine but only pretended to browse through it. Not that the topics weren't interesting, but the articles were written for the casual science fan, not the full-fledged scientist he wanted to be.

The principal kept them waiting for a few minutes, not so long that they decided they were at the bottom of his priorities, but long enough that they knew they weren't at the top either. His receptionist called them and pointed them the door to his office out of the half dozen others in this part of the building.

"If you were the one reporting, I wonder why I was called," said Hugh as they walked down the short hallway.

"I told security the names of everyone who was involved. They wanted to know."

"Then how come Dana and Lore aren't here?"

"Maybe it's because the two of us are TAs. They're just regular students. Without pagers they aren't as easy to get a hold of."

Part of that turned out to be the case, as they found out shortly after being seated in the principal's office. Rather than being inquisitive or worried as they would have expected, they arrived to find the principal somewhat flushed and apparently with a blood pressure high enough for the veins to stick out on his forehead.

"I hope the both of you understand what you've been called here for!" he said.

Hugh and Kenneth glanced at each other. Hugh felt an uncomfortable pit form in the bottom of his stomach and tried to find the words with which to ask what they had done wrong. At least they had reported the problem. Sometimes people were too lazy to do even that. And being so close to producing his dissertation, he was no position to get into disciplinary trouble.

"Uh, something to do with the monsters?" offered Kenneth. The biochemistry student looked hesitant, but at least in control of himself. Hugh felt that if he spoke now his voice would crack.

"There are no monsters. Do you understand that? I want the both of you to stop scaring people or I'll have you expelled."

"But the body..."

"And the beetles last night..." added Hugh.

The principal shook his grey head. "There were no beetles to be found in that storage room you locked, and as for that body, we've already performed a preliminary autopsy on it. What we've found so far are shreds of metal embedded in the skin and muscle. That damage, my students, was done by a metal instrument, not by any sort of monster ."

"That a load of-" Kenneth half rose from his chair, but bit down the word he had been about to say. He shook his head. "Those could have come from the edges of the air vent!"

"Sit down, Mr. Mahlay. I don't want to repeat this twice. Mother Brain expects all of us to live in harmony. This monster fiasco is... disruptive to say the least. I don't want to hear anymore about it. As far as I'm concerned, these monsters don't exist. Now act as teaching assistants befitting a prestigious university such as this and set an examples for others who follow Mother Brain's path."

"To Mother Brain," said Kenneth and Hugh, though no one missed the lack of energy behind their words. They bowed curtly to the principal and filed out of his office.

The two remained silent for a long time, walking from the administrative building back towards the biology department's TA offices. They didn't speak again until Hugh opened the door to his office. He went inside to pick up his bookbag.

Hugh sighed. "Well, I've gotta go teach a class now."

"Hey, what do you want to do about this?" Kenneth asked, opening his own office. "Are we calling it off?"

"Something's not right. I know Mother Brain's always right, but something about this feels so wrong. What if something happened along the way and her orders were never received or were misinterpreted? It wouldn't be the first time human failure caused something to go wrong."

"True, but we'd better be extra careful. I don't want to get expelled. It'll take forever to get a record like that removed even if it was an accident."

"When are your classes over?"

"Well, I have Recombinant DNA in a little while, then a bit of a break in between before I head to the discussion section I teach. I guess after questions are over I'll be back here around... Wow, it'll be about sunset then."

"Heh. I'll be back by then. Just give me a page when you get back or knock on my door."

* * *

Lore was in class today, and Hugh felt himself bomb another lecture. Some help he was for the students trying to understand the more complicated session they had with Professor Brod earlier in the day. At the end of the class period he managed to stammer out that if anyone had questions he would be available during his office hours. Then on a whim he typed in a new set of hours, one that would not interfere with his new evening activity, into the classroom computer, which would relay it to all the monitors the students were sitting behind.

"Here are my new office hours," he said. "They're just temporary until I take care of some private business." He figured saying that wasn't entirely a lie, but he was not surprised that Lore would see through it. She didn't say so, but she came up to him after class, which she had never done before.

She waited until everyone else had finished speaking with him and left the room, then sidled close. "What's going to happen?" she asked. "I heard there were more monster sightings, and someone said something attacked her last night."

"I don't know," he replied honestly. He glanced around, hoping no one might be spying at this moment. He vividly recalled the principal's warning not to scare people. Hugh leaned close to her, closer than the girl appeared comfortable with, and whispered, "Don't tell anyone, but someone was killed last night."

He shushed her when she seemed about to say something. "The principal either doesn't believe us or won't do anything about it. Kenneth and I think there may have been a bureaucratic foul up over Mother Brain's orders somewhere along the line. That's all there really is to say."

He pulled away from her and she met his eyes with the persistent gaze he had become used to seeing from her. "So are you guys still going to hunt these things?" She kept her voice low, but the edge in them was unmistakable.

"Yes."

"Then I'll help out."

"No! You shouldn't get involved. I know you're only here as a gifted student. You're too-"

"Too young? If I'm too young then you're an infantworm because you can't be much older than me. I don't care if you're going for your doctorate or not, but if you want to look at age alone then I'm just as qualified as you are. Besides, I saw you and your friends last night. Only one of you even had a weapon! At least I know how to fight."

Hugh recalled the stances he had seen her use the day he saw her fight the beetle and he realized she was right. She probably was the only one of them who had any training, though as to how a girl this young had picked up the knowledge to do so was a mystery to him.

"All right," he said. "You can help out. Kenneth, he's the guy with the dark blue hair, is another TA, and he'll be meeting me at my office around sunset. We'll discuss what to do then."

Lore nodded. "I'll be there."

* * *

Their plan for the evening wasn't nearly as exciting as Lore might have hoped. The two TAs discussed what they already knew and decided that staking out a watch would be too obvious. If Dana could find them so easily the night before, someone else might see them, perhaps one of the faculty. Neither of the professors Hugh and Kenneth worked beneath had said anything about their behavior, so they didn't know if the principal's warning had reached them, but they didn't want to test their luck. Hugh called the Biosystems Lab to see if Kueri University had missed some sort of warning about an escaped subject, but turned up nothing. Kenneth checked the city logs for any sort of edict issued to the public, but found nothing relating to anything resembling a dangerous animal.

Then Lore, looking somewhat bored, sitting on Hugh's desk and swinging her legs back and forth, suggested something. "Well, if nothing escaped from the Biosystems and city hall doesn't know about anything coming in, then what if the beetles originated here?"

It was a thought, and one they might be able to investigate without arousing as much suspicion. The three went to the medical library, the university's source for all the hot biological topics, and asked for Dana. She arrived quickly, swishing her loose yellow sweater about her. They explained their need to talk and she asked for a few minutes of break time, much to the chagrin of her supervisor, but a short while later the four huddled in a cluster of study cubicles.

"What's up?" she asked.

"We need to know if anyone had been checking out a lot of unusual articles out of this place," said Hugh.

Dana rolled her eyes. "You've gotta be more specific. Half the stuff here is considered weird by the standards of most people."

"Okay, how about anything related to growth and beetles?" Hugh paused. "They didn't look like any beetle I recognized, though in a way sort of familiar." He tapped a finger on the table thoughtfully. "Get any info you can about who checked out articles related to growth and chimeras of popular beetle species used in laboratory research."

"Hmph. That ought to be specific enough. I'll take a look and see if I can find any common thread between them."

"Oh!" said Kenneth. "And can you look into any sort of predator research that might have been done? Something nasty, with shredding teeth or claws."

"Shredding?" She made a face. "Never mind. I won't ask. This may take a while, but you guys can wait here. As long as you don't talk too loud it should be okay. Hardly anyone comes here this time of the semester. You gotta wait till finals for the crowds."

After Dana left, Lore turned to Hugh. "Chimera?" she asked. "Isn't that a mythical monster?"

He scratched his head. "I supposed so. But it's a biological term as well. A chimera is an organism composed of the cells of two different animals. The most successful chimeras to create are those of two different animals of the same species. Suppose you have the embryo of a blue sandworm. Then you take some cells from the embryo of a brown sandworm and you inject them into the blue embryo. Providing the two embryos are both at a particular stage in development, the blue embryo will grow up with some brown cells in it. And these brown cells will divide and form a fully functional part of the blue sandworm. In fact, if you visually look at such a sandworm you'll see that parts of its skin are blue and parts are brown, and if you look at the DNA from the brown cells and the blue cells they'll both be different, because they originally came from different embryos.

"Got that?"

"I think..." Lore shook her head. "I guess this isn't something you regularly teach in a introductory biology class. But what's that got to do with our beetles?"

Hugh pointed a finger like a gun. "I think our beetles may be chimeras. Generally most chimeric work is done early in the embryo's development, while it still looks like a ball of cells, because biologists like to use it to track development patterns--to see what part of the embryo becomes the head and stuff like that. But it's entirely possibly that if a person knows enough about the species involved to form the chimera in such a way that only certain body parts are brought from one species to another. You could, for instance, create the rock hard body of a sand beetle, but with the powerful jaws of an ant lion."

"Someone could have created the beetles piecemeal?"

"And maybe without Mother Brain's permission, hence all the silence from the admins," said Kenneth.

Hugh nodded. "Cross species chimeras aren't always viable, especially if the species aren't closely related, so most organisms biologists put out are genetically engineered. Besides, chimeras can't reproduce themselves. Their gametes are either from one organism or the other. The brown-blue sandworm will have either brown or blue offspring, but none that are mixed."

Dana returned much later. By then Hugh was hoping he had left enough food in Sera's cage for an extra meal, Lore was sleeping, head pillowed by her arms on the table, and Kenneth was entertaining himself with homework to grade on his portable computer.

"Got the info you wanted," she said, dropping a stack of discs on the table. "These are the articles checked out. Most of these were taken out about a year ago, enough time I think for these beetles to have been home grown. Interestingly enough, whoever borrowed them did so under the name of the Kueri biology department. No personal information was left in the computers."

Kenneth frowned and picked up one of the discs. He glanced at it and plugged it into his computer. "I guess we'd better started reading so we have an idea of what we're up against."

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