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University Blues

Chapter Four


Missing

"I'm guessing there isn't a social reason for asking us all here," said Dana. She settled her chin in her palm as she leaned on the small table in the corner of the university cafeteria.

Lore nodded, stirring the straw of her caffeinated drink. "Yeah, but could you have at least chosen someplace further out of the way?"

Hugh shook his head. "Sorry, but this was the easiest place to get everyone together. Besides, this is a public place, and I think it might be safer to be out here than hiding in some obscure location."

"Why?"

"More bad news."

"Of course," said Dana. "So spill it."

Hugh glanced briefly around them and was satisfied that no one was close enough to overhear them. "It's the principal. He's missing."

"So maybe he screwed up," said Lore. "Maybe he's the one who made the beetles."

"No. I don't think so. His background is in engineering, not biology. Besides, I overheard some professors talking about him not showing up for a meeting. He never misses a meeting and no one knows where he is. He scheduled the talk, so if he was going to ditch he'd probably do it afterwards when no one would be looking for him."

"What if he's a casualty?" asked Kenneth.

"Possible," said Hugh. "I haven't heard of anyone else being killed last night, and whatever's out there roaming the halls at night definitely needs to eat. I think the four of us should watch out tonight. Have any of you thought about weapons?"

Dana nodded hesitantly. "I can get a hold of a silentshot. It won't do any lasting damage, but at least it can stun them."

"One of my friends has a pair of daggers," said Kenneth. "I'm sure he'll lend them to me, though I hate to think of what sort of explanation I'll have to give him for wanting them!"

"My family has a good supply of stuff, mostly antiques, but I know some of it's still battle ready," said Lore. "You can count on me to be armed."

Kenneth looked at Hugh. "What about you?"

Lore smiled slyly. "A scalpel I bet."

"Well..." Hugh tried to find a way to end his sentence then thought better of it. "At least I know how to use it. I'll just have to go for something other than the shell."

"That's not much," said Kenneth.

Hugh laughed nervously. "I know." He shook his head, composing himself. "But when I think about it, I really don't like the idea of killing anything, even those beetles. They're just doing what their instincts are telling them to do. A scalpel is better to incapacitate rather than kill them. Maybe I can cut some tendons or something."

"I've got another idea," said Lore. "Does anyone have any armor?"

Dana snapped her fingers. "Armor! Now there's a thought. But who uses them besides the military and the police?"

"I don't know," said Kenneth, "but carbonsuits are pretty popular these days. Sure, they're just thick pieces of clothing, but they ought to provide some sort of protection from pincers and claws."

Hugh agreed. "Everyone go out and get a carbonsuit. Buy one, borrow one, or if you have your own all the better. We'll meet at my office around sundown and then patrol around the campus."

* * *

When the four met that evening they looked more like they were about to embark on a long camping trip than battle a horde of monsters. Each of them wore a standard issue carbonsuit. Kenneth held his pair of daggers uneasily in his hands and looked as though he would be more comfortable putting those back in their sheaths. Dana left her silentshot in a gun holster suspended from her belt. Hugh didn't have anything to put his scalpel in so he just hoped he wouldn't accidentally stick anyone with it. Lore looked more confident than the rest of them. The girl had a full sized sword and sheath hanging off her belt. The weight of it hanging there seemed to bother her, but he had little doubt that once she drew it she'd be able to fight better than the rest of them.

And that was a good thing, because the university was crawling with monsters that night. At first they only found a lone beetle, then a group of three, a strange sort of feline beast, and something resembling a giant crustacean. All of them seemed more hostile than the beetles in the previous evenings. The four students took to running and hiding as much as they could, though the feline proved to be the most difficult to loose. Only once Dana gave it a good spray of her silentshot's paralytic needles in the face did they manage to elude it.

"I think they're guarding something!" said Dana, trying to catch her breath. "Ever notice that we always run into them as we get near the administrative building?"

"Maybe it's their nest?" Lore looked hopeful, an expression that looked incongruous in comparison to the amount of bodily fluid she had yet to wipe from the blade of her sword.

"I dunno," said Hugh. "But something's strange here. Though I won't say the monsters are cooperating with each other, they aren't attacking each other. They've only been going after us."

"Maybe they're not as tasty as us," said Kenneth.

Dana punched him in the shoulder. "Please! I don't want to think about it."

"Well, if there is something special about the admin building, then we'd better find a way to get inside it," said Lore.

"Can we sneak in?"

Kenneth shook his head. "I think that's out of the question. The administrative building has open ground all around it. If the monsters are actually patrolling and not just wandering around then we're going to have a tough time getting through unnoticed. Still, we might be able to watch them and try to run past while they're not looking."

Hugh peered out from around the building they hid behind and looked at the admin offices. "That just might be possible."

"Okay, then we'll go. Single file, so we don't fall over each other trying to get into the doorway."

"You or Hugh will have to go first," said Dana. "Lore and I aren't TAs so we don't have the keys to open the time locks."

"I'll bring up the rear," said Lore, with a tone that brooked no argument. "If it comes down to fighting I'll be able to hold them off the longest."

Hugh almost asked her if she was crazy. What did she have to prove anyway? He held his tongue though. If she had some reason for being so combat prone, now wasn't the time to bring it up. He just hoped she wouldn't get in over her head.

"All right," he said. "I'll go first. Be ready to turn back though if any of the monsters notice us before we get close to the doors. Ready?"

The other three nodded and lined up behind him as he again poked his head out beyond the safety of the building's wall. Hugh watched the space between them and the nearest door to the administrative offices. He saw no sign of that feline from before, which relieved him to no end. All he could see was a pair of the beetles they had grown used to. He waited until they had wandered toward the far side of the building, then motioned for his companions to follow.

Hugh ran as fast as he found possible and hoped that the rustle of the grass beneath his feet was not so loud as to attract attention. His blood pounded in his ears as he reached the door and fumbled with with the keycard to open the lock. He hesitated, trying to find the notch to slide it through when Kenneth gasped, "Proximity lock! They changed it recently. Just wave it!"

"Watch out! They're coming!" said Dana.

Hugh waved his card in front of the black sensor pad, but he couldn't hear the beep clearing him for access. He waved it again.

Kenneth swore something Hugh found incredibly unlike the biochemistry TA and pushed him aside. "Forget waiting for the beeper! Is the door open?" He yanked on it as the sound of steel sinking into chitin greeted Hugh's ears.

"Get inside!" he shouted, following his own instruction.

Hugh and Dana barreled in right after him. Kenneth shouted another time, holding the door open for Lore, who batted away a second beetle with another swipe. She judged the distance between her and her enemies before pivoting and running through the open door. Kenneth slammed it shut behind her. He waited, leaning against the door, as the beetles scratched plaintively on the other side. Finally he pulled away and looked back to his companions.

"The door's locked again. They shouldn't be able to break in this way."

"Thank Mother Brain for small things," said Dana.

They walked through the narrow halls, only dimly lit by emergency lights. Though they had yet to see them, they could hear the sounds of more beetles walking somewhere inside the building with them.

Dana shuddered. "How did they get in?"

"Remember the corpse I found?" said Kenneth. "It was in an air vent, pushed in from the hallway. Someone let them in."

"There!" Lore pointed. They caught a glimpse of a figure exiting on of the offices. It saw them, then fled the other way. "After him!"

Then the beetles appeared. They crawled out from the first four way intersection the man passed and blocked the four from following him. A half dozen pincers snapped them back, but did not pursue. More beetles filled the hall between them.

Dana whipped out her silentshot and lifted it high. She took aim from behind the protective wall Lore and Kenneth formed. The man proved an unsteady target, but she feared she might soon loose him entirely. She fired.

The needle clipped the figure in the shoulder and he stumbled. He dropped a pile of papers. The bunk of the mass of beetles filtered back through the hallway to join him as he bent over, madly sweeping pages into his hands. Dana tried another shot, but heard it ring off the metal floors. He stood up and ran away. Once he turned a corner the rank of beetles closest to them began to back up, still clicking their jaws together in a message of warning.

Lore followed them, though staying well out of range of their jaws. She held her sword in front of her, ready to parry the blow of any that cared to lunge at her. When they backed up far enough she lowered her guard. The beetles still retreated.

"He left something," she said, using her sword to point at a printout the beetles had so casually stepped over.

Hugh picked it up and moved close to one of the hallway's low-powered orange lights. He skimmed it quickly as Lore resumed her guard against the monsters. Kenneth moved to the rear of the group and lifted his daggers into what approximated a wary position.

"What does it say?" said Dana finally.

Hugh grimaced. "It's hard to read in this light, but apparently a Dr. Turiff Vanden was expelled from the university less than a month ago. He was performing experiments with chimeras under the premise that Mother Brain had commanded him to. The university funded the project, but later rescinded the grant. Apparently the authorization he gave was a fake."

"Of course."

"But..."

"But what?" said Kenneth.

"The initial proposal for the project was not Vanden's. It came straight from Mother Brain herself."

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