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University Blues

Chapter Five


Shattered Faith

"You have to shut the school down!"

The dean, acting head of the university in the wake of the principal's absence, wasn't listening to Kenneth. The dark-haired TA fumed.

"Look, I don't care if I get expelled anymore, but there are a lot of monsters out there and they're becoming more active. If we don't flush them out now someone's gonna get hurt!"

"I'm sorry," said the dean. "But there are no monsters. Really."

"What about Dr. Vanden?" said Hugh. The slight shift in the dean's expression told him he recognized the name. "We know about his experiments with chimeras. He escaped with the majority of those records last night, but not all of them. We know the university kicked him out, and we know that Kueri U funded his project up until then."

"That preposterous!" said the dean. "Yes, Dr. Vanden was relieved of his position, but the university had no involvement whatsoever with his doings. He was found guilty of illegally subverting funds for his personal projects and that is all. The contents of his lab were destroyed once the principal agreed to remove him."

"Destroyed," echoed Hugh. "Even his notes?"

The dean nodded.

Hugh took Kenneth by the arm. "Come on. We've done all we can here."

Kenneth reluctantly followed Hugh out the door. He kept silent until they were well out of earshot of those in the administrative offices. Then he asked, "What's on your mind?"

"They destroyed his notes," said Hugh. "There's no reason to do that. Science by itself isn't good or evil. There could have been valuable information there that could have been put to another use."

"So they destroyed it to cover up their link to him," finished Kenneth. "Then what about the documents Vanden--I assume that was him--stole last night? Were they the university's 'official' records of what happened?"

"Probably, which means they might not be entirely truthful. Something really stinks here, and I'm not sure if it's more the university or the doctor. One thing's for sure though. Whatever the truth or reason for his release from the university, there's someone out there making and controlling these monsters and we have to stop him."

Kenneth chuckled. "You're making us sound like we're a bunch of heroes."

"Heroes?" Maybe that's what Lore wants to be. He grinned. "Maybe just a bit. But someone's got to do it. Isn't that why we're scientists after all? All that knowledge out there--someone's got to discover it."

"Or invent it," said Kenneth. "All right, let's grab Lore and Dana. Dana stored all our equipment in the back of the library, right? Let's meet for lunch and decide our next move from there."

* * *

Dana slapped a large printout of a map across the length of the cafeteria table. Her friends lifted their food trays and placed them back down on top of the edges of the map. There wasn't anymore room.

"All right," she said. "This is Kueri U." She tapped the building with the cafeteria. "Here we are, and here," --she traced a bunch of lines around the campus-- "is where we've been the last few nights. Now we know the monsters' activity stepped up quite a bit last night, but I don't think that was just because of the admin office breakin. I think this guy's running out of food to feed them, so he's letting them forage outside. He also knew that people were going to start noticing what was up, so he stole the records before people could get on to him, but he didn't count on us bumping into him last night."

"Sounds right," said Lore.

Dana nodded and turned to Hugh and Kenneth. "And judging from what you guys told me about the dean this morning, it sounds like things are getting worse. If the administration is still denying the existence of the chimeras then security won't conduct any sort of investigation until it's so obvious that the whole school knows about it. And the guy knows about us too. So if we're going to stop him, we've got to move fast, before he stops us and before the monsters get so far out of control we don't have a prayer of getting close to him.

"That's why I brought this map--working at the library has its privileges! We need to figure out just where this guy is holed up so we can find him."

"When he ran away last night, he went in this direction." Lore pointed to one end of the administrative building.

"The closest exit is to the east," said Kenneth.

"That's in the direction of the storage room we followed the beetle to," added Hugh.

Dana nodded. "And that's where Lore followed a second beetle to, right?"

"Right," said Lore.

"That storage room is too crowded to use as a lab though," said Kenneth. "Even if he was using it, we would have seen something. You can't set up embryonic tanks en masse and then take them down again a few hours later when you hear someone coming."

Hugh tapped the building's location with a finger. "But what about the chemical storage beneath it? No one ever goes down there."

Kenneth made a sour look. "No one wants to. I had to go there once for one of my professors and the stench is enough to haunt you in your sleep. I swear even Mother Brain's forsaken that place."

"Then that makes it just the place to look," said Dana.

"I know." His answer came with a groan.

"Are we going to wait for nightfall?" asked Lore. "We know the monsters are most active at night. It might be better to find him before they're fully awake."

"Good idea. When's the earliest everyone gets out of class?" said Hugh.

Lore looked at him as though that was a ridiculous question. She shook her head. "I'm supposed to go back to secondary school after lunch, but I can stick around if you guys are ready. It's not like anyone's gonna miss me."

"I can cancel my discussion section," said Kenneth. "Our midterms are over so the students shouldn't need my help much right now. As for the rest of my classes... Lore's right, I can ditch too."

"I don't work today and my classes are only in the morning, so I'm already done," said Dana.

Hugh sighed. "I had hoped I wouldn't have to miss class, but if you guys are willing, I guess I should. I'd feel guilty if something happened because I decided to glue my head to a monitor. So I guess right after this we'll head to the library and pick up our stuff?"

Lore nodded. "Yeah."

* * *

When the four were ready they gathered in the university's main storage room. Kenneth showed them the door to the underground chemical facilities and pulled out his keycard. He slid it through the dusty reader nearly hidden behind a mound of crates. The reader issued a beep in approval and the door slid open. It was dark inside. Not even low level power was working.

"This isn't right," whispered Kenneth.

Dana pulled something out of her pocket. "I've got a pocket flash, but if anything's even halfway alert at the end of this tunnel it'll see us coming long before we get there."

"Let's chance it," said Lore. "People could be coming down here anyway to get supplies. It doesn't necessarily have to be us in particular."

That sounded reasonable, or at least as reasonable as they were going to get considering that they were about in enter a monster's nest. How many would be down there? The half dozen or so they had seen, or two or three times that amount? Dana took the lead, holding her flashlight low as they crept into the darkness. Lore followed closely behind, hand resting on the hilt of her sword. Hugh doubted she would have the room to swing that thing around, not until they emerged from the passage at least.

The passage gradually sloped downward, moving into a spiral as it lead them below ground level. Suddenly Dana stopped, stifling a shriek. Lore covered her mouth and turned away. She inched by, back to Dana's flash, and refused to look behind her. Hugh moved to ask what was the matter, but as soon as Lore cleared out of the way he saw what had provoked such a reaction in the girls.

A corpse lay on the floor, gutted and grisly after something had fed on it, but the head was left remarkably intact, eyes and mouth still open in a silent scream. It was the principal, or what was left of him, brilliantly illuminated in the ghastly glow of Dana's flash. Hugh retched and closed his eyes, trying to block the horrific image from his mind. He felt for the wall beneath his hands and opened his eyes just a crack to find a way around Dana without looking at the floor.

Kenneth touched Dana lightly on the arm and pulled her after Hugh and Lore. For now the corpse could wait. The corpse was no longer in danger of death.

When they spotted light around the bend in the passage Dana turned off her flashlight. Someone was talking, perhaps two someones, but sound of the second voice was unlike anything they had ever heard; beautiful, loving, yet cold; inhuman. They crept closer, staying out of sight, but now near enough to make out the words spoken.

"So then what am I supposed to do?" said the first, that of an older man.

The second voice no longer responded.

"That must be Vanden," whispered Lore.

Hugh nodded. "Yeah, I think so. He looks familiar. I've probably seen him around before he was dismissed."

The man let out a gusty sigh even they could hear. "Great. As the Mother wishes," he muttered.

"Mother?" echoed Dana, looking at her companions. "As in Mother Brain?"

"Dunno," said Kenneth, "but if we're gonna get him we might as well do it now. I don't hear any monsters. He might be by himself."

"Right!"

The man was no longer talking when the four ran out of the passageway. They reached for their weapons on the chance he might be armed.

"All right professor..." said Kenneth.

"Oh sh-" said Hugh.

They hadn't heard the monsters because someone had carpeted the floor. The chamber was filled to the brim with embryonic capsules, nearly a hundred of them. And those specimens inside, surely they had been growing for well over the month since he had been suspended. The four students found themselves eye to eye with a dozen beetles, two of the cat creatures, and the sole crustacean they had seen the night before.

"Like the carpet?" asked the scientist, standing from a safe position behind his creations. "It helps keep them warm at night. Mother Brain told me you would be coming, so I had to be ready."

Kenneth drew his daggers. He eyed the monsters warily before focusing his attention on the former professor. "Give up, Dr. Vanden. We're not going to let anyone else get hurt by your monsters!"

The doctor sneered. "So what are you going to do? Kill me? I don't think any of you have the guts."

Hugh gritted his teeth. The doctor was right. They hadn't discussed what they would do once they actually found him. Stop him to be sure, but no one had thought of how to apprehend him. Maybe they could overpower him, if they managed to get through the chimeras.

"Listen, kids." Vanden lifted his hand as though supporting his own lofty goal. "I follow the will of Mother Brain. If she wishes for me to create these beasts, then that is what I shall do! Unlike this stupid university, I realize a true command from her when given one. None of this crap about second thoughts or being mistaken about our orders."

Lore unsheathed her sword and swung it in front of her. She held the hilt so tightly her arms shook. "No," she said. "What we found in the tunnel..." She hiccuped and snapped her right hand aloft. "Mother Brain would never ask for death!"

The light of Lore's tsu technique blinded everyone as she hurled the beam of energy not at the professor but at the tanks full of developing embryos. Several of them exploded, gushing fluid and their fragile occupants on to the floor. Vanden uttered a bloodcurdling scream and bellowed, "Attack them!"

Dana yanked out her silentshot and stunned one of the feline creatures. Kenneth slit its throat with one of his daggers before whirling to parry the jaws of a beetle with the other. Lore screamed as she pierced the shell of the crustacean with her sword. A furry head poked out of it and snapped at her with a reptilian maw. Hugh glanced around him and grabbed a hefty box off a shelf. He threw it at a cluster of beetles. The box hit a beetle's head with a sickening crunch.

"Dana, duck!"

"Lore, are you hurt?"

"Got it!"

"Five beetles down, seven to go."

Lore speared the last of the felines on the tip of her sword. Even so close to death, the chimera fought, pushing its way down the blade until its final swipe caught her in the shoulder, flinging her to the floor. Her sword fell with a clatter and blood welled from the gouges made by the monster's claws.

"Lore's down! She's hurt bad!" shouted Kenneth.

"Someone clear a path so I can get to her!" said Dana, already pulling out a vial of monomate from her pocket.

Lore's vision swam as she propped herself up on her good arm. A shape lunged in front of her then fell to one side as someone barreled on top of it. They struggled a moment, the beetle twitching twice feebly before falling still.

"Thanks, Hugh," she said.

He retrieved the bloody scalpel from the back of the beetle's head. He turned her way and tried to smile. "You're welcome."

Dana knelt beside her and popped open the monomate. She poured the contents liberally over the multiple wounds. She pursed her lips. "I hope this is enough. I'm not sure it will be."

A short distance from them, Kenneth battled the last beetle into a corner. It feinted, trying to find a way around him, but the TA's daggers blocked its way at every pass.

"Dr. Turiff Vanden!" It was the voice from earlier, powerful and demanding. "Place your hand on the black disc of this console!" The voice came from the computer beside the professor.

The man did so.

Kenneth slew the beetle and turned to watch.

"I have monitored the battle," said the voice, honeyed tone sweet with venom. "You have not done my will. You have failed."

Again the room erupted with bright light as several thousand volts of electricity thundered through the disc and into Vanden's body. He burst into flames before he had a chance to scream. The smoldering corpse collapsed in front of the computer.

Though there was no face nor body to watch, the four students could feel the presence on the other side of the computer turn its attention to them. "And now my children..."

A tsu destroyed the computer's speakers.

Hugh turned to Lore to find her in tears. The young girl shambled to her knees and dabbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her carbonsuit. "I don't want to know," she said. "After we fought so hard... I don't want to know if that was Mother Brain."

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