“Bloody hell, he’s here!
Amogh and Yi were quick to pick up Casey from his dive out of the window and into the snow. Groans of frustration could be heard from back inside, but the mass was too wide to fit through the window in direct pursuit.
Casey affirmed as he was helped to his feet, “I lit up the bastard and stuck him good… but he’s still after us.”
“You probably only made it angrier,” shuttered Amogh.
“Hopefully, we’ll catch him in the blast. We best be far away from the building by then. Let’s go!”
The smell of gas was detected long before the explosion ignited and burst the windows out of three separate building rooms. The detonation only quickened the students’ hasty retreat.
“What should we do now?”
Through chattering teeth, Casey answered as he limped on, “We have to get out of the cold and hunker down somewhere until help arrives.”
“The Student Center,” yelled Amogh over the blustering flurry. “Maybe there’s somebody there who can help, or maybe we can find medical supplies for my hand and Casey’s leg.”
“Now that I think about it,” Casey suggested, “Lucia might have been on to something after all. Maybe we should try the Science Department. Yi, aren’t the science labs self-sufficient, powered off solar and wind?”
“I should have thought of that!” bellowed Yi. “We also have backup generators to keep our cryogenic labs and chemical compounds at temperature. That’s probably our best bet. I’ve been running some experiments, so I was given continued access to many of the building facilities.”
As the snow pelted their faces, it was nearly impossible to keep their eyes open. But even semi-blinded, Yi was more than able to navigate to the Science Department, the building that was his second home.
After swiping his student ID, Yi ushered his friends inside. The building welcomed the students with an embrace of warmth and light.
The quartet huddled around the first window that happened to frame their recent escape route. Lid-less stares held their gaze, but after several minutes of anxious watch, there was no indication that they had been followed.
After a collective sigh of relief was had, Casey and Amogh melted to the ground. Yi and Lucia flung themselves, in turn, down into classroom desk chairs closest at hand.
“Do you think we did it?” asked Amogh
“I suspect so,” Casey replied. “If he survived the blast, he at least knows that we’re a bunch not to be messed with.”
“You probably got the closest look at the thing back there in the kitchen, Casey. Is it actually a he or is it… something else?” Amogh questioned.
“It wasn’t like I was waiting for a good look before letting him have it, but I guess it was some kind of man.”
Drawn inwardly into tranced reflection, Lucia narrated a recalled memory, suddenly deemed gravely relevant, “It was a couple of weeks ago. I was on an evening jog, after soccer practice. Usually, I run the indoor track around the wellness center, but—I don’t know—I guess I wanted a change of scenery. I decide to take the trail by the lake and enjoy the sights of the first snowfall of the year. Anyways, not more than a couple of miles into my run and away from campus… I saw something. At first, all I saw was this tall being standing in the middle of the woods. It was not all that far off the trail. It was tall, I remember, and all white. I think it would’ve easily blended into the environment, never to be seen, if more time had passed and more snow had fallen. But the white still stood out a bit.”
“What was it doing, the white being?” Lucia heard someone ask.
“I stopped for a second and watched it fiddle with something on the ground. It was either preoccupied or it didn’t care that I was watching. But then, out of nowhere, the being stood back up and flung a whole dead deer—in one fell swoop—over its shoulders. Then it simply walked off into the tangle of the woods. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time… now I wonder if I discovered the killer before its attack on the campus.”
“A hunter,” concluded Casey. “We do have a lot of nature habitats near the campus that no doubt attract outdoor enthusiasts.”
“You’re allowed to hunt so close to a school?” doubted Yi.
“Actually,” Amogh spoke up, “I know that we had an environmentalist student group on campus that petitioned to make the lands surrounding the campus sanctioned as a wildlife refuge. They were battling against campus expansion efforts at the time, but I know that they had a couple of run-ins with local militia groups who used to frequent the woods for sport.”
“What is a militia group?” asked Yi in confusion.
“A loose organization of guys who play guns and horde survival gear. It is another one of those phenomena distinct to the U.S., I think. I know that the particular militia groups around these parts weren’t very happy at all about the new restrictions they were forced to abide by.”
An abrupt cracking force whipped through the sky. The students winced before realizing that the source of the din was just the weather turning for the worse. Thunder began to grumble. Then lightning strobed the night with zigged and zagged bolts of electrification.
“It sounds like it’s getting really nasty out there,” said Amogh.
Lucia nervously laughed, “I can’t wait for the return of spring.”
“I’m with you,” agreed Casey. “We’ll have to make up for all of this with a killer spring break, that’s for sure.”
Humoring the fantasy that warmed her bones and soul, Lucia inquired, “Where do you plan on going for spring break?”
“Definitely Lake Havasu!” After a moment of continued thought, Casey amended, “Or maybe, Cancun. Maybe you could show me around your home country.”
“That sounds so good to me right now,” Lucia replied.
“You two aren’t going to leave me behind, are you?” jested Amogh.
“Well, Amogh—” Casey was preparing to wittily counter before falling entirely speechless.
“That didn’t sound like the storm, did it?” murmured Yi.
Rising back to their feet with some strain, the four students plastered themselves back against the classroom window. They soon spotted the source of the stir.
“There’s somebody out there… is that him… it?”
“I don’t think so, Lucia. That looks like a student to me. He’s running… running away from something.”
Wading in the thickening snow, the observed runaway was a slow-moving target. The yelps of fright were not similarly encumbered.
“What’s he running from? Is it the beast?” asked Amogh.
“We have to let him in!”
Before anyone could peel themselves from the window, the predator in chase made its ambushing appearance. The slayer’s strides rapidly closed the gap. The bystanders at the window held their breath instinctively. Before their lungs drew a next gasp, the creature had managed to pounce upon the young man, burying him into the snow. There were no weapons in hand, but three pummeling strikes were sufficient to stain the adorned white fur and the surrounding snow in streaks of blood.
“Kill the light, he’ll see us.”
“No don’t. It’s too late. It’ll notice the light going out.”
“What do we do?”
“It’s too late.”
The corpse of the former student was drug slowly in the snow until victim and perpetrator were lost from view. Each of the students safely indoors were made despondent by the horror they were forced to witness, a nightmarish occurrence that relentlessly looped over and over again in their heads.
“Evidently, we weren’t able to get him in the blast.”
“It’ll come looking for us next. It’s just a matter of time.”
Breaking through the gloom, Yi exclaimed, “I think I got something!”
“What are you talking about?”
“A way to neutralize the creature. The thing is a hunter, right? Well, we’ll lay a trap of our own.”
“Explain it, Yi!”
“The most dangerous place on the campus—even, in normal times—would probably be the cryo-electronics lab and storage room attached to the science building. In those facilities, we store the liquid nitrogen used in our advanced research.”
At that moment, Casey realized that he had never extended himself to ask about Yi’s program of study. The leftovers were simply bonded by the prerequisite courses they shared by happenstance.
“Cryo-electronics?” Amogh questioned coming to the same conception.
“Yes,” said Yi. “This college is actually conducting some innovative research in the field of superconductivity that we hope will contribute to commercial spaceflight technologies. Anyway, there are backup generators in the building that maintain appropriate cryogenic temperatures in the gas storage facility in the event of a power outage. Without this contingency, temperature rise would cause the pressure within each of the cylinders to also rise, producing a slow leak of toxic vapors as a result. I suspect that the backup generators are probably maintaining the needed temperatures and pressure levels, but there are other ways we could manufacture a toxic local atmosphere.”
“What do you mean by a toxic local atmosphere, exactly?”
“If done right, we could create an oxygen-deficient space. Exposure to this space would cause gradual asphyxia. If the release of the liquid nitrogen is large enough, we could even induce sudden asphyxia.”
“We would be able to incapacitate the beast without having to even touch it,” Amogh gathered.
“Precisely,” Yi affirmed.
“Bloody diabolical! I like!” commended Casey.
“Now, the plan is not without its own risks. But we just might be able to trap the creature in the storage facility or something and make sure it doesn’t hurt anybody else ever again.”
Lucia agreed, “We saw what will happen if we just let the monster rampage on campus. There are other students out there. If we don’t do something, he’ll kill again. We can stop him.”
Yi led the way through the winding corridors. To the three inter-majored students, the science building might as well have been a maze. The growling gales and the striking bolts of light revealed out each window how fierce the Nor’easter was bent on becoming.
The reinforced doors to the cryo-electronics lab were finally reached. But before entrance was allowed, Yi demanded, “First, we must put on some PPE.”
“Personal protection equipment,” spelled out Yi. “There is a lot of dangerous materials and equipment in there. I don’t want anybody getting hurt.”
After a moment of rummaging through an appearing coat closet of sorts, Yi handed each of his accomplices an exterior wardrobe. Dawning cryogenic gloves, face shields, and smocks, the students were approved for admission. Before entry to the laboratory and then the gas storage facility beyond that, the gang first had to pass through the cleanroom antechamber that was designed to eradicate static, dust particles, and other airborne microbes that could potentially contaminate the circuitry laid open upon the lab tables.
The clicking of the airlocks was startling to the uninitiated, but it was the sudden showering of pressurized air from the internal conditioning system that was most jolting.
The storage spaces closest at hand to the lab were jam-packed with mysterious, idle lab equipment. Plastered all about were various symbols and words of hazard of red and yellow, cautioning against injury and warning about potential volatility. A little way further into the clutter, they were confronted with what seemed like a standing army of vats, tanks, and cylinders ranging in all heights and widths. Each cylinder contained a belly of liquefied or compressed gases of various compound chains.
“What exactly are we looking for, chap?”
Yi replied, “We’re looking for a particular set of cylinders, the ones that read liquid nitrogen.”
“And once we find them, then what?” inquired Amogh.
Walking himself through the plan as he simultaneously answered the question, Yi replied, “The cylinders were designed with fail-safes to withstand accidental drops and tip-overs, but they weren’t built for blunt force strikes to the head fittings. If we can lure the thing into this storage space, we can subdue him with exposure to the leaked gas.”
“Liquid nitrogen, isn’t that stuff pretty cold to the touch?”
“Direct contact to the skin can be quite injurious, yes. If a stream of this particular gas is allowed to linger on the skin, even for just a few seconds, that part of the skin will be affected to an extent you might similarly see with frostbite. But the effect of this gas on the lungs can also be dangerous, and that is what we’re banking on tonight.”
Stricken by epiphany, Casey proffered with a furrowed brow, “What if…What if we could manufacture your toxic atmosphere within the confines of that cleanroom we just went through. Would it be possible to pump your nitrogen gas through the air filters, seal the room up quite tight until…?”
Yi stopped to consider.
“If we could then coax the madman close enough to the cleanroom, we could all at once open the doors and release the accumulated vapors right in his face and knock him out, or freeze him stiff, or whatever.”
Yi replied, “That might be able to work, but I can’t guarantee that it will be as simple to execute as you think. I’ll have to check the filtration system to see if we could manipulate the air circulation and ventilation as needed.”
As Yi and Amogh inspected the stockpile of liquid nitrogen cylinders and assessed the feasibility of leaking gas into the cleanroom, Casey turned to Lucia. In an attempt to offer some distraction from their dire situation, Casey reverted back to the conversation they were sharing earlier in the night at the library, before the turning for the worse.
“I wouldn’t have thought it before, but I’m missing home as well. You should see London this time of year. Even though wintertime is so dark and cold, Christmas always finds a way to brighten up spirits and warm hearts. I remember my last Christmas in London like it was just yesterday.
“My mates got together to throw me a little soiree in honor of my official acceptance into an American international studies program. They pulled out all the stops, going as traditional as roasting chestnuts over the fire and brewing up Flaming Bishop. We sang old Christmas carols, reminisced over the Christmas lark we boys used to get into, and we dreamt up what our idealistic Christmases to come would look like. It was a good old time, though you know I’m not a particular fan of the holiday.
“After everyone had their chance to give me their last round of congratulations and well-wishes, I drove back to my mum’s place to spend Christmas Eve with her. I told my mum the news that night too, that I would be traveling the United States the very next month. She cried, I think tears of pride as well as sorrow. To make her feel a little better in the moment, I agreed to accompany my mum to midnight mass at her long-time neighborhood church.
“You know, I go through these phases where I question. I suppose that’s healthy, right? Maybe, maybe not. Well, anyway, sometimes I can’t help doubting the existence of a grand being of a high order who watches over us all. To be honest, I felt alone most of my life. But more than that, I can’t wrap my mind around how a benevolent God would allow—on His watch—so much pain and suffering in this world… and such torment, like we are baring here tonight.”
Lucia took a moment to consciously reflect before responding, “I completely understand that perspective. Sure, there is a lot of suffering in this world, but there is also great joy and fulfillment to be found. Personally, I have to believe that there is more good in this world than there is bad—even if it just by a smidge.”
Casey slowly bobbed his head, convinced—if nothing else—that he needed more time to weigh the point made.
“I know that things have been bad, and we are not out of anything just yet, but I feel that it helps to focus on the good,” suggested Lucia.
“Everybody has to have a little good in their life at least. Close your eyes. Find your happy place. Think back again to your happier Christmas memories in London. Think about your friends, who I’m sure would love to see you again and hear about this crazy story you now have.”
Casey whispered what was initially meant for himself, “My friends have been my saving grace. My mates back home got me through some tough times, familywise. And now, of course, I have my friends here who are looking out after me. But…” without direct eye contact directed at Lucia, Casey hinted, “I think that I have found something even more special, something more than a good friend. Whatever time I have left in this world, I want to live it right. After all this, how could I possibly be scared anymore to express myself and to take chances in trusting others again? All of this is to say… I’ve put this off for too long already. I… I…”
Sparing Casey from the heavy silence, Lucia finished for him, “You like me. I know.”
“Wha…You do? Since when? How?”
“It’s not all that hard to put together. It’s sweet. I figured that when you were able to talk yourself up to it, eventually, you’d make a move. The moment you did, I planned to tell you that I like you too.”
Casey nearly buckled with the sudden awareness of his transparency, and by the realization of all of the time wasted. Yet he was quickly built back up by the discernment that his sentiments were being accepted, even reciprocated.
“Mira,” Lucia once again stepped in, “There’ll be time. But we must focus on the task at hand.”
“Absolutely,” nodded Casey.
“Guys,” Amogh voiced, “I hope I’m not interrupting anything, but we have something to talk about.”
“Well, now that Yi and I have gathered together all the liquid nitrogen cylinders and we have come to the conclusion that Casey’s cleanroom plan just might work, we have to discuss how we are going to actually entice the beast inside to our trap. Are we all absolutely sure that everybody wants to unlock the Science Building and bring the beast inside? Once it’s in, there will be nowhere else for us to hide that will be safe. And we also have to consider how we’re actually going to bait the thing in and lead it exactly to the spot we want it. Are we going to draw straws on who is going to be the baited carrot?”
“I’ll do it!” resolutely declared Lucia.
“What? Why you?” questioned Casey instantly.
“You don’t think I can do the job?”
“It’s not that,” refuted Casey.
“I’m the one in the best shape here, and—especially with the wound to your leg—I’m the fastest. You guys will open up the entrance to the science building. I’ll head back outside. The thing will jump out and come for me, but I won’t let him catch me. I’ll lead him right inside and directly to the cleanroom.”
“You can’t be close to the cleanroom when we actually do open the doors,” Yi clarified. “You’ll be exposed to a cloud of oxygen-less air.”
“I’ll get the creature close enough… but I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t like this!” objected Casey.
“Do you got a better idea?”
Silence was the only answer to the challenge.
Casey shook his head in disapproval for the whole walk down the hallway and to the locked front entrance of the science building. Yi stayed beyond to jumpstart the process of pumping the noxious fumes into the enclosed cleanroom, but Amogh accompanied Casey and Lucia.
“We have to do what we have to do,” exhaled Lucia.
“But why you?”
“We already went through this, Casey.”
Just as Lucia was drawing her deep breath before the plunge, the anxious trio of students suddenly were turned completely around by an unexpected chime transmitted from the hallway elevator. The ding that was sounded was accompanied by notification from the digital dial that the transporting capsule behind the elevator walls had just touched down to ground level. The elevator doors were exceedingly slow to retract, but even still, the huddled students could not find the time they needed to mount an effective reaction. Each was completely sure that the winter hunter was about to stroll out of the elevator and seize his game at will.
The elevator doors slid apart. Yet, nothing emerged. From their flat-angled vantage point, the three anxious onlookers could not confirm that the elevator was really empty or not. Casey slowly squeaked his way toward the direction of the hallway lift. The doors should have rejoined together in the time it took Casey to make his wary approach, but the maw of the elevator remained gaping.
Peeping just his eyes beyond cover and into the void of the unknown, Casey was instantly taken by surprise.
“Guys, it’s another student! She’s bleeding!”
Amogh was quick to rush inside the elevator, while Casey held the elevator doors back. The aspiring medical practitioner discovered the latest victim slouched in the corner of the elevator. Dazed by trauma—and, as Amogh suspected, a blow to the cranium—the young student, still in her late teens, sat unresponsive in a pool of her own drained blood.”
“Girly!” Casey tried calling out.
“Miss!” Amogh announced as he crouched down to examine the case subject.
Her head and stare remained fixed straight downward.
Amogh gently put his hands on the downed student’s shoulder. He then used his hand to gently lift the victim’s chin.
Before Amogh knew what had happened, he was toppled to his backside. A spontaneous spring lifted the felled student back upright into a fight-or-flight reactive response. In the shrill outburst of a banshee, the young woman vocally erupted.
The screams were incomprehensible at first, but then the string of sound coalesced into fearful words.
“There is something in here! It came from the roof and now hides in the shadows! It got me! Run! Get out while you still can! Get out of my way!”
The injured student slipped through Amogh’s gasp and entirely evaded Casey. Lucia chased after the young woman, but she was abruptly blind-sided up the swinging door to the adjacent stairway. The unforeseen hallway newcomer and Lucia panicked in an unsynchronized dance of bodily flailing. The run-in was not with the monster of white, but rather another distressed student driven from his hiding place and forced to make his break.
“There’s a killer up there! He was right behind me! He’s coming down! Get out! Get out!”
Evidently, the study group had been followed. They had led their dogged pursuer right through what would have otherwise been a student sanctuary.
“What did we do!” lamented Casey.
“We didn’t know that there was anybody in here with us,” Lucia attested. “We didn’t know that the creature would break in through the roof.”
“We have to initiate the plan!” ordered Amogh. “If he is already inside, we have to get moving.”
Casey and Amogh searched the grounds for the additional runaways, but the two arrivals were already long gone.
By the volume and rhythmic clomping heard next coming from deep inside the stairwell, it was guessed without visual confirmation that whole flights of stairs were being bypassed in downward leaps and crash landings.
Casey prodded his friends to evacuate the area. Just as he was about to dash away himself, Casey spotted an appendage pushing the door to the stairwell open and out of the way. The limb appeared to, inexplicably, have both hand and claw attached to it simultaneously.
“Run, Casey!” Amogh and Lucia demanded in tandem.