This Halloween, I thought I would start a new semi-regular feature: Weird Fiction Monday! I’ve been a long-time author of weird fiction, and thought I would start posting some of my old and new writing as a motivation to write more. Stories are not meticulously edited, so don’t yell at me for not-quite-right grammar and odd phrasings.
This particular story was written in 2001, not too long after I defended my Ph.D. In fact, it is almost exactly the ten-year anniversary of its writing. It is also the closest I’ve been to being published in Weird Tales! I was actually asked to provide a rewrite of the story, but I didn’t have the will back then to make the story as concise as it needed to be.
They Always Preregister, and They Never Miss a Class
They are all around him, watching him. Thousands of them, maybe more. Their eyes stare at him unblinkingly, hungrily, intently.
They are silent. Waiting for him to move, eagerly. He can hear his own rapid breathing. The light in his eyes nearly blinds him.
An object is being dragged to him, solemnly, carefully. He knows he must act, but he cannot. His mind returns, again and again, to the events of five days before, which led him directly to the place he stands now.
His students were morons, was the problem. Professor Beilmann had given them a test that afternoon, and late that evening, he sat alone in his office in the physics building, grading the first problem of the test. It was, or should have been, an easy problem for the class, requiring them to calculate the electric field of a cylindrical object.
It wasn’t a hard problem. It wasn’t! Beilmann had driven the principles and methods into the brains of his students again and again – or he thought he had done so. However, the tests said otherwise. The answers were all over the place, with the exception of the place with the correct answer. One student wrote, simply, “I don’t know”, and left it at that. No student, not one, got full credit for the problem. Beilmann wondered if there was a good scientist among any of that class of supposed physics majors.
Thunder rumbled outside, nearby. The first few drops of rain fell, striking the air conditioner outside with harsh metallic sounds. Beilmann decided it was time to go home for the evening. He picked up one of the exams stacked haphazardly upon his desk, flipped to the second problem within, then closed the book before he could read anything. He would continue grading the exam tomorrow.
The halls were deserted, which was somewhat a relief. Beilmann glanced at his watch; it was nearly 3:30 AM. He shut his office door behind him and went downstairs to the steam tunnels.
He had parked his car by the humanities library, a long walk in a heavy rainstorm, even with an umbrella. Moving through the tunnels would allow him to keep dry up to the library, where he could run for it. The tunnels were narrow, twisting, and dimly lit, but at least they were dry, and that was all he was concerned with at the moment. He had pushed the deplorable skills of his students from his mind, along with everything else. If he thought at all about the recent disappearances at the university of two late workers like himself, the thought did not stay with him for long.
At the bottom of the stairs, in the basement of the physics building, the only illumination shined faintly through the glass-paneled door of one of the large lecture halls to his right. He passed this door without a glance and pushed his way through the doors directly before him that led to the steam tunnels.
The tunnels were slightly better lit, and deserted. Beilmann turned to the right, towards the humanities library, and stalked in that direction, towards his car, sleep, and oblivion.
Something large crunched under Beilmann’s shoe, with roughly the size and consistency of a large egg. Beilmann recoiled, hopping backwards, and lifted his shoe to see what he had trod upon.
A large, dark brown insect lay crushed on the floor where Beilmann had stepped. Its innards had squirted out through the cracks in its carapace, leaving a dark halo about its body and coating the bottom of Beilmann’s shoe. Beilmann muttered a curse under his breath; the facilities workers really needed to deal more effectively with the roach problem at the university…
A casual, light rustling reached his ears. It came from above him. Slowly, moving with all the speed of a nightmare, Beilmann turned his head upwards. On the ceiling, not more than two feet above his head, countless dark brown insects swarmed, forming a writhing, crawling tapestry.
“Jesus,” Beilman gasped, rushing forward. The undulating mass extended only a few feet along the length of the ceiling, and Beilmann stopped no less than ten feet further down the hall, brushing at his head and shoulders. He could find no insects upon him, but his skin felt alive with little legs. The mass heaved and rippled behind him, but moved no closer to him.
He hated bugs. Absolutely hated them. When he was certain – almost – that none of the creatures had landed upon him, Beilmann hastened along the corridor towards his car. He left the university itching and slapping his neck and legs, at one point nearly driving into a security patrol car parked crookedly along the side of the road.
He would have to call the maintenance people in the morning and have them look at that mess in the tunnel. At home, in bed at last, Beilmann found himself continually rubbing his legs and arms, and looking under the covers. When he finally did fall asleep, he dreamed of his students, watching him blankly and emotionlessly.
* * *
Still tired, Beilmann struggled to get into the office the next morning. The rain had stopped overnight, but the weather outside remained unpleasantly cold, so he took the tunnels back to the physics building. Arriving, with some apprehension, at the corridor where his encounter had taken place, he was relieved to note that of the infestation there was no trace. Even the one he had crushed underfoot was gone, and no hint of its presence remained; apparently the maintenance people were more on the ball than he imagined.
The morning was spent returning calls and e-mail messages; the test grading he would leave for later in the day. At noon he joined colleagues in the faculty club for lunch.
“How did your students do on your midterm, David?” Professor Anderson asked almost immediately. Beilmann flinched, his sandwich an inch from his mouth. Then, methodically, he took a bite and chewed it.
“I haven’t finished grading it yet,” he said truthfully, then added, “So far it’s going much as I expected,” which was a lie, but in science it was always better to act omniscient. He smiled, but none of the others smiled back, so to change the subject he asked, “Has anyone heard any more about Corvallis and Keinert?”
Corvallis and Keinert were two professors, like Beilmann, who had gone missing at the university – Corvallis six days before, Keinert five days before. The local news had not yet picked up the story, but it was the source of a lot of speculation on campus.
“No,” Professor Campbell said darkly. “Our damned security people seem more interested in keeping it quiet than getting answers.”
Professor Campbell was a friend of Corvallis’, and subscribed to the more sinister – and less sympathetic to Keinert – of the two theories currently circulating about the disappearances.
“How ironic,” said Professor Beech. “Failed would-be police officers obstructing a police investigation.”
“They won’t be able to keep it out of the papers much longer, to be sure,” said Professor Anderson. “The university can’t keep down a good scandal.”
Anderson was referring to the other rumor, that the two professors had run off together. Of those that had known the two, few had missed how close they had become over the past year.
“I would expect that we’ll see something about it in no more than two days,” Professor Beech added, heading off an angry comment from Campbell. “I’ve heard that Keinert’s wife is pushing very hard to have the story released.”
Beilmann himself didn’t care much one way or another – he knew neither professor personally – but he was glad that the conversation was not about the midterm he needed to grade.
He couldn’t escape it forever, of course. At the end of the regular work day, when he could put it off no longer, he undertook the rest of the grading. There were four other questions he needed to go over, and it took some time to finish; it was somewhat after 3 AM again when he was at last done with the task.
Beilmann sat very still at his desk. The only sound he could hear was the heavy, aching pounding of his pulse in his head. His students had not done better on the remaining problems of the test – they had in fact done worse. It was clear that none of them had learned anything he had tried to teach them. He might as well have been lecturing in Swahili.
He shoved the pile of exam booklets away from him. Several of them slid off the edge of the desk onto the floor, landing with a sickly plop. Beilmann got up and collected the fallen booklets, making sure he did not lose any. He didn’t need to give the students anything else to complain about! When the cleanup was completed to his satisfaction, he gathered together his belongings and left his office.
The weather was still cold, so he went downstairs to the steam tunnels. As he walked, he thought about what to tell the students in class the next day, and how to tell it. He needed to be stern, not apologetic, certainly. He had contemplated several possible opening statements to deliver when he came to the spot where he had seen the insects the night before. He glanced up, not expecting to see anything, but there they were again, flowing across the ceiling.
Beilmann practically flew backwards.
“Goddamn son of a bitch,” he swore, stumbling further away from the roiling mass. Near the ceiling, at the point where the bugs were moving, was a large gap on either side of the corridor where the wall had sunk below the ceiling level, and it was from these gaps that the bugs were flowing. They moved from the right to the left; as Beilmann watched, one of the creatures fell to the floor with a light, dry sound, but it scrabbled to the wall and climbed back up to the others.
Beilmann shuddered, and then turned and rushed back to the door leading to the physics building. He pushed it open and was looking back in the direction of the insects when he stumbled directly into Professor Anderson.
“Shit,” Beilmann swore, stepping back, waving his arms once. Anderson gave him a curious look.
“What is the matter?” he asked, and then Beilmann was pulling his arm, leading him into the tunnels.
“You have to see this,” was Beilmann’s only answer.
He let go of Anderson’s arm once they were both in the tunnel, and Beilmann led the way down the corridor the short distance to where he had seen…
The ceiling was clear again. Not a single one of the offending vermin was visible. Beilmann stood there, just off to the side of the ceiling section, looking up blankly until Anderson finally spoke up behind him.
“I don’t understand,” Beilmann said. He turned, made eye contact with Anderson, and looked back suspiciously at the ceiling.
“There was a mass of insects here just a moment ago. I’ve seen them here two days in a row.”
“Insects?” Anderson said incredulously. “What kind of insects? Roaches?”
“Yes, roaches,” Beilmann answered, though as he said it he suddenly felt that his answer was not quite accurate. He had gotten a closer look at the creatures this time.
“What were they doing?” Anderson asked, stepping up beside Beilmann and staring at the ceiling with him.
“Just… moving,” Beilmann answered, though that did not seem right either. What were they doing? He looked up towards the dark gaps near the ceiling, but couldn’t see anything within them.
“Strange,” Anderson dismissed. “I’m just here to get a soda from the machine in the economics building; ours is out again. See you tomorrow, then?”
“Tomorrow,” Beilmann answered. After cautiously passing the region of his two entomological encounters, he headed to his car. He caught one last glance of Anderson heading towards economics.
Anderson would much later be listed as the third missing professor at the university. Beilmann did not itch and twitch as much on the car ride home as he had the night before, but once in bed he squirmed uncomfortably and brushed at things that were not, in fact, crawling upon him. He slept poorly.
* * *
The next morning the papers were carrying the story of Corvallis and Keinert. Beilmann looked it over cursorily, but he was tired and the article seemed to contain no information that he had not already heard. An affair was suspected. Foul play a possibility. The police had no solid leads.
Beilmann’s students were whispering amongst themselves and rustling papers when he entered the classroom; many eyes were directed at him while the whispering continued. Beilmann wondered how much of the conversation was about him.
He tried to sound disappointed in their test performance, but the words came out flat and unconvincing. None of the students came to him later to complain, though, which was a blessing.
After class, Beilmann went to look for Professor Anderson. The events of the previous night, on reflection, needed some further explanation. Anderson was not in his office, however. His secretary claimed that he had not been in at all that day, and seemed quite pleased about it.
After working late, maybe he had decided to sleep in? Beilmann was irritated that he would not be able to clear up last night’s activities, but he managed to push the thought from his mind until Anderson’s wife called him in the early afternoon. Had Beilmann seen him, she wanted to know? Beilmann told her about their encounter in the tunnels the night before, though he left out the part about the vanishing insects. He promised to call her if he heard from him, and made her promise to reciprocate. When Beilmann hung up the phone, he felt somewhat ill.
The rest of the day Beilmann spent, for the most part, dealing with various bits of departmental paperwork. Around 5:00, though, he walked – outside, avoiding the steam tunnels – to the university bookstore to purchase a newspaper. He wanted to read the article about the disappearances again. He reviewed the facts of the case, most of which he knew, until he found some information that connected with him. Corvallis worked in the social sciences, Keinert in economics – both buildings were directly connected to the system of steam tunnels. Why this was important to him, Beilmann had no idea. The article also mentioned a new alarm system that Corvallis had installed on her office. Was she trying to keep something out? Security officers had responded to several false alarms of the new system. Or were they false alarms after all?
“This is a hell of a way of procrastinating,” Beilmann said aloud to himself, stuffing the newspaper in the waste bin. Other work needed to be done. He focused his attention on polishing the notes for next Monday’s lecture, putting both his notes and the heavy course textbook on the desk in front of him. Was there some way to make the topics more understandable? He gave it a valiant effort, but hours later he had made no changes and had developed a severe headache.
Beilmann leaned back in his chair, let his head sink back over the top of it, and closed his eyes. He needed rest; if he just rested for a while, maybe things would become clearer…
When he finally opened his eyes again, the building was quiet. He had, of course, fallen asleep. Beilmann looked at the clock on his desk; it was only 9:00 PM. He could be home by 10:00, if he hurried. He looked to the closed door of his office. Light from the hallway shined brightly in the wide gap between the door and the floor. As Beilmann watched, a thin shadow moved along the length of that gap, from left to right.
He sat up. Had he imagined the shadow? No; it returned from the right edge of the door, moving quickly to a position near the door’s center. The shadow was too small to be that of a footprint, but it seemed too large, as it was.
Beilmann sucked in a breath as something darted from underneath the door to the bookshelf to his right. He hadn’t time to see what exactly it had been, but the dry rustling it had made in motion was dismayingly familiar.
A glint of something shiny reflected back at him from the shadows of the bottommost shelf of books. It was watching him, Beilmann realized with a surreal certainty. He felt immobilized by the entity’s gaze. Without warning, the creature shot out from the concealment of the bookshelf and vanished in the blind spot at the front of Beilmann’s desk. Still he did not move, though he realized it could easily climb upon him if he stayed where he was.
Then he heard the light, faint scratching at the front of his desk. If the building were not so deserted and quiet, he would never have noticed it. The thing was climbing up the desk. Towards him. Beilmann reached his left hand out, slowly, and grasped the heavy physics textbook before him, pulling it closer. He had it in his hands, propped partially against the edge of the desktop, when the feelers of the creature appeared at the far edge of the desk.
Two long, thin legs reached up and hooked upon the desk, levering the creature’s head up to where its eyes met Beilmann’s. There the thing stayed, watching, and Beilmann didn’t move.
Only when the dark brown carapace came fully onto the desk and moved quickly towards Beilmann did he react, raising the physics text and slamming it down upon the approaching insect. It was crushed beneath the book, though not completely flattened. Beilmann stood up and stumbled backwards away from his desk, pushing his chair behind him. He was breathing erratically. It was dead, that much was certain; there was no need to panic. It was only an insect after all, and a single insect couldn’t do anything to a man. Beilmann pushed away a mental image of the steam tunnels, and the ceiling crawling with bugs. He reached down and carefully lifted the physics text from the desk.
“God,” he said, half gagging. The shell of the creature had ruptured from the blow, and its ichorous guts coated the bottom of the book and the top of the desk. Beilmann turned the book over and placed it further along the desk, mating the clean sides of the two surfaces.
He turned back to the carcass of the creature, pressed against the desktop. In spite of his revulsion, he looked more carefully at the insect; he had not as yet seen one of them up close. Was it a roach? He couldn’t quite tell; his blow had deformed it beyond his ability to identify. Something about it looked wrong, though; it bothered him that he couldn’t decide what that something was. Perhaps someone else could, though.
Beilmann moved to the side of his desk and stooped down towards his wastebasket, never taking his eyes off the crushed bug. He fished out the plastic bag that had contained his lunch, and pried it open. After a moment’s hesitation, he took a pencil and, wincing and coughing, used it to slide the mangled insect into the bag. Gagging, he tossed the pencil into the trash and, holding the plastic bag at arm’s length, sealed it.
He used some tissues to clean as much of his desk as he could. He shut his briefcase, looking at the plastic bag he had planned to leave in his office. Something made him want to take it with him; perhaps the memory of how quickly the bugs had vanished the night he had taken Anderson to see them. The night that Anderson had vanished.
Beilmann went through the drawers of his desk and found several leftover plastic bags of various types. When the sealable bag with the insect within it was safely enclosed in five other bags, Beilmann felt he could carry it to his car.
Though it was deathly cold outside, he did not walk through the steam tunnels. He left the insect, wrapped in its bags, in the trunk of his car.
That night, he slept soundly, though he dreamed that many eyes were watching him.
* * *
“It’s a roach, David,” Professor Vaughn said flatly, holding the bag up to the light. He was the only professor in the biology department who had any knowledge of entomology, and Beilmann knew him casually. Beilmann had stopped by Vaughn’s lab early in the morning with the carcass, on the pretense of having found an “unusual specimen”.
“A cockroach? Are you sure?”
“What did you expect to find in the physics building. It’s just a roach – a big one, I’ll give you that – but a roach, nevertheless.”
As Vaughn moved to dispose of the bag, Beilmann grabbed his wrist.
“How can you be so sure, at a glance? It’s badly smashed. I brought it to you to look for those things the eye can’t catch.”
“David…” Vaughn began.
“How can you be so sure? There are millions of species of insects in the world – you know that. Millions. That means that new ones must be evolving all the time. All the time. Do you think all new species would evolve and thrive in some godforsaken jungle waste? What else would I find in the physics building, you say? Why not the physics building, I say. All I’m asking is for you to take a closer look.”
Vaughn shook his head, and shrugged.
“Sure. Whatever. I’ll put it under a scope when I have some free time.”
He tossed the bag onto a counter, and the wet sound on impact made Beilmann wince. The tests would be done, though; that was good. The conversation turned to lighter topics briefly, and then Beilmann returned to his own office.
The day crawled ponderously by, and Beilmann got little done. Every sound he heard made him look to the door, and he imagined things moving in the dark recesses of the bookshelves. The trees outside, blowing in the wind, threw shadows that skittered across the floor.
Vaughn had not called by 5:00. Beilmann picked up the phone to call him, hesitated, put it down. At last, he went home, where he was restless and uncomfortable. He had forgotten to take his briefcase home – he could not remember the last time he had left it – so he had no work to occupy himself with. After failing to distract himself with the evening news – with the latest coverage of the Corvallis and Keinert disappearances – he put himself in bed.
The ringing of the phone awakened him. He fumbled for the receiver, blurrily noting that it was well past 2:00 in the morning. He managed a slurred greeting.
“David! David! Is that you?”
Vaughn sounded nearly hysterical. Beilmann sat up, rubbing his eyes, and asked what was happening.
“Where did you find this thing? I can’t believe it! I didn’t get to look at it until late evening, but…”
“Is it a roach?” Beilmann asked, his chest tightening.
“Roach, my ass! Where the hell did you find this thing? I’ve never seen anything like it! The mandibles are unique, and damned scary! And the eyes…”
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t even know if I can call this an insect, is what I’m saying! You’ve got to show me where this came from! Can you meet me at your office as soon as possible? We’ve got to talk!”
Beilmann agreed to do so, and quickly hung up. He got out of bed and shivered. The call had seemed so odd; now, standing alone by his bed late at night, he wondered if he had imagined it. He shook his head and hurried to get dressed.
The ride to the office was cold. The car’s heater had barely started to push in warm air by the time Beilmann pulled into the narrow back lot of the physics building. He quickly moved up the stairs of the loading dock to the rear door. It was locked; for once, security had done their job and secured the building. Beilmann fumbled with his own keys and let himself in.
The building was deserted and silent. Vaughn was not waiting outside Beilmann’s office. Much later, he would be listed as the fourth missing professor from the university. With an apprehensive glance up and down the length of the hall, Beilmann let himself inside. The office appeared just as he had left it that afternoon; even the trash had not been picked up. Beilmann shut the door and backed away from it to his desk, and then he waited.
Vaughn didn’t show up. Beilmann tried calling his office, and then his lab, but no one answered. Surely he was on his way! Beilmann paced around the office. Ten minutes passed; walking from the biology department took only five minutes. Of course, the only way Vaughn could get into the physics building at night, without a department key, would be through the steam tunnels. Beilmann returned to the phone and dialed Vaughn again. No answer.
It was at that moment that he noticed a small scrap of paper resting on the edge of his desk. He had not seen that piece of paper when he had first come into the office. It looked as if had been torn roughly from a discarded, crumpled sheet, and spattered with some dirty fluid. Beilmann picked up the scrap, and he sucked in a ragged breath when he read the simple message upon it.
Scrawled crudely in a slow and painful hand, the message was only two words.
Beilmann put it back upon the desk. A soft rustling, coming from all directions, touched his ears.
The insects were all around him. On every bookshelf, beside the bookshelf, on the windowsill, behind the heating vent, they were there. Beilmann moved immediately, stumbling around his desk and to the door. He threw it open and rushed into the hallway. Distantly to his right, the light in the hall shined upon a large brown mass that roiled and rolled towards him. Beilmann ran left, towards the back stairs, and he stumbled down them, nearly falling, and rushed outside into the cold and into his car. It started right away – mercifully – and he sped out of the physics lot.
They had been waiting for him – of that fact Beilmann was now absolutely certain. He was pretty certain of what had happened to Vaughn, as well, and Anderson, and probably Corvallis and Keinert, too, though he didn’t know the details. He knew, though, that he had to do something.
He had never been to the security office at the university, but he knew where it was, and to it he drove, quickly and erratically. It was late, and the parking lot there was nearly empty. Beilmann went directly inside. The foyer looked oddly like a dentist’s waiting room, with chairs, magazines, and a frosted sliding glass window for the receptionist.
The window was open. Beyond it, a young woman sat at a desk, talking amiably with a uniformed officer. As Beilmann slammed up against the windowsill, the pair turned to him.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked.
“I know what happened to Corvallis and Keinert,” Beilmann burst out. They were eaten by giant bugs.
“Oh,” The woman said, her eyebrows raising. She was wearing a light pink sweater that made her seem ludicrously cheerful.
The uniformed officer was regarding Beilman with curious intensity. Beilmann wondered how that expression would change when he told his story. Yep, big bugs did them in; I narrowly escaped their clutches myself. The officer was holding a cup of coffee in his hand, and looked as if he had come in off a long shift.
“What did you want to tell us, Mr. …?” the woman asked.
Beilmann hesitated, still staring at the officer.
The faculty is being killed off by big, intelligent brown bugs that have also eaten a physics professor and a biology professor that you don’t know about yet.
“I’m sorry,” Beilmann found himself saying. “I had just come up with a thought of what might happened to them, but it just occurred to me that it couldn’t possibly be right. It’s late; I’m tired. I’m sorry.”
He took his hands slowly off the windowsill and stood before the window. Both the woman and the security officer were watching him, blankly.
“Are you sure, Mr. …?” the officer said evenly, and Beilmann blurted out, “Professor. Beilmann,” before he could stop himself.
“Are you sure, Professor Beilmann?” the cheerful pink woman asked.
Okay, here goes: a new species of super cockroach is taking over the university.
“No, it was nothing. Sorry. I’m sorry.”
Beilmann went to leave. At the outer door, he looked back once towards the receptionist’s window, certain that one of the two beyond would follow him, but neither had moved from their posts.
Later, the receptionist and the security officer would be listed as the fifth and sixth missing employees at the university.
Beilmann went back outside into the chill air and climbed into his car. He drove home slowly, as if in a dream, feeling very distant from everything. He did not sleep at all that night. Every creak of his house, every hiss of the wind outdoors set his heart racing.
* * *
Beilmann did not go to work at all the next day. He cancelled his meetings on the pretense of feeling sick, which was not much of an untruth. He called Anderson’s wife again, to see if Anderson had turned up. No, he still had not come home, and his wife was quite frantic; she had involved the police the day before, and was awaiting some word from them. Her panic was infectious, and Beilmann got off the phone with her as soon as he could.
Around ten in the morning, fatigue finally caught up with him, rolling in like a thick, heavy storm, and he collapsed on the bed.
When he awoke later, at nearly six in the evening, his mind felt a little clearer, and he felt calmer. The evidence was still available to him, at Vaughn’s office. The insect’s carcass would be proof enough of his story.
Or not. When Beilmann called Vaughn’s lab, all of Vaughn’s students were there, working, but none of them had any idea what “specimen” Beilmann was referring to. They said it looked as if Professor Vaughn had spent the entire night meticulously cleaning every part of the lab that could be cleaned.
“By the way, have you seen him?” one of the students asked. “Nobody seems to know where he is.”
I know, Beilmann wanted to say. I know. But he had no evidence. He had nothing.
He watched some television, he ate some food. He slept some more. When he awoke, after midnight, he racked his brain for some other piece of information that he might have missed that could help him, could save him. He was a scientist, smarter than those idiot students he taught! Surely he could find that missing clue, that last bit of information, that would make everything right again! He thought and thought and thought again, and again he fell asleep.
Later, he awakened again. He looked at the clock; it was almost 3:00.
Beilmann quickly sat up. What time had he left the office, that first night he had seen the insects in the tunnels? At almost 3:30 AM. And the second day he had seen them, after grading the tests, it had almost been 3:30 AM.
Beilman leapt out of bed. He quickly climbed into the shower, to clear his head, and then he dressed and hurried out of his house and to his car. The insects would be there again, at 3:30, he was sure of it. But they would not be expecting him to be there as well.
* * *
Beilmann parked in the back lot of the physics building. He hesitated only once before going inside, as the walls of the U-shaped alcove seemed to posture menacingly above him. What he hoped to accomplish, he had no idea. But he had to do something, and this was his last chance.
He unlocked the back door of the building, and stood within the threshold for a moment, clenching and unclenching his fists.
“Let’s do it,” he whispered, and walked inside.
Immediately past the foyer was the landing of the north corridor staircase. Upstairs lay his office, the library, the main office. Down a short flight of stairs lay one of the large classrooms – and the steam tunnels. Beilmann took the descending route, passing the classroom with the glass paneled door and pushing his way into the tunnels. He turned right and walked, methodically, to the point he had seen the bugs on those distant mornings.
The ceiling was clear. There were no bugs in sight. Beilmann exhaled sharply. They weren’t there. He checked his watch. It was still only 3:15; he was early. He suddenly felt very exposed in the long, narrow hallway, and he turned around and pushed through the doors back into the physics building.
Flickering light in the lecture hall caught his eye. Beilmann stopped just beside the door, and looked inside. Unconsciously, he drew closer.
The lecture hall was filled with the large brown insects. They covered the floor, the walls, the ceiling, every chair in the room. They were all unmoving and silent. They all faced the front of the lecture hall.
Beilmann shifted to the side of the door, to where he could see the front of the room. The overhead projector was on, and that was providing the faint illumination that had been shining through the door. Upon the projector was a transparency, with crude symbols upon it that looked painstakingly written.
It took Beilmann some time to recognize that the symbols were, in fact, the components of mathematical formulas, and it took him a while longer to recognize the formulas themselves. The current transparency covered an analysis of the Dirac equation, which describes the motion of an electron moving at relativistic speeds.
Beilmann coughed once, not quite believing.
The insects were learning relativistic quantum field theory. They were taking a class, being taught a subject that most of Beilmann’s own students would never even be aware of. As Beilmann watched, a small group of insects pulled the transparency from the projector, and another team carefully pulled another one up to replace it.
Behind Beilmann, someone cleared his throat. Beilmann turned suddenly, and found himself facing the security officer he had spoken with the night before. The man stood at the base of the stairs leading upward. Beilmann started to move towards him, and then he noticed the knife in his hand.
“Shh…” the guard said, putting the finger of his free hand to his lips. Even in the relative darkness of the hall, the knife blade shined. Seeing Beilmann hesitate, the guard motioned with his free hand towards him.
Come to me, the gesture commanded.
Beilmann did as he was told, and as he moved forward, the security officer stepped back, until he was standing a few steps above the narrow landing at the rear door of the building. He stopped there, staring blankly at Beilmann for a long, silent stretch. Suddenly he broke into a bright grin, and shrugged his shoulders awkwardly.
“Well, here we are,” he said, smiling.
“What is this about?” Beilmann asked, though he had already begun to understand. The guard raised his eyebrows.
“Playing dumb, Beilmann? There’s no use in that. You played out your hand yesterday. I saw the way you looked at me.”
Beilmann didn’t answer.
“At the office. You came marching up to the desk. ‘I know who killed Corvallis and Keinert,’ you said. And then you looked at me and changed your story.”
“Oh, my God,” Beilmann said.
“But you didn’t expect to see me there, did you? Poor planning on your part. It was a simple matter to find you once you gave me your name. Admittedly, I didn’t expect to find you here, this late. That’s just luck on my part, I suppose.”
“You killed them,” Beilmann said.
“Yes, I did. I killed them. And some others that nobody knows about yet.”
“Yes, that was one,” the guard said thoughtfully. “And a biologist named Vaughn. And that bitch of a receptionist in the pink sweater. I didn’t plan to kill her, but I couldn’t let her walk around after you showed up.”
He waved his knife in the direction of the outside door.
“Let’s get going.”
Beilmann led the way out into the sharp cold, the officer close behind him. He tried to think of something to do, something to say, but the officer continued to talk behind him, distracting him.
“It all started with the Corvallis bitch. I kept having to answer false alarms on her new security system because she was too stupid to set it properly. I suggested that she learn how to use the damned thing or get rid of it, and she gave me hell for it. Threatened to get me fired.
“I’ve put up with people like her – professors like you – for too many years. We’re supposed to protect you, and you can’t even treat us with a minute amount of respect. That night, I waited outside her office, and when she put her bags in the trunk, I put her in the trunk. I left her car someplace I know it won’t be found, and that was to be the end of it.
“But her purse had fallen in the parking lot. When I came back later that morning, there wasn’t time to dispose of it properly. So I buried it deep in the nearest dumpster, where it shouldn’t have been found.”
The guard sighed.
“But either Keinert is a really inquisitive fellow or someone had stirred up the trash, because the next night Keinert came running up to my patrol car with the purse, claiming he had spotted it on the top of the trash and insisting it was Corvallis’.
“He wouldn’t calm down, so I asked him to show me where he found it. When he did, I shot him through the head and put him in the trunk of my patrol car. At the end of my shift I moved his body to my car and took it to join his lover’s. Is this your car, Beilmann?”
They had stopped outside, in the isolated physics parking lot, next to Beilmann’s car. He nodded feebly.
“Open the trunk for me, please.”
Beilmann took out his keys and slowly, slowly unlocked the trunk.
“And Anderson? And Vaughn?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, them,” the guard said absent-mindedly. “Once Keinert was gone, I realized that I needed to reinterpret my role at this university. My job is to protect the university, and the educational system. You know what the biggest threat is? Professors like you.”
“You’ll never get away with this,” Beilmann said, though the words were ludicrously trite.
“But I am getting away with this,” the officer corrected. “Oh, sure, one day I’ll be caught. I know that. But that won’t help you one bit.”
Looking down into the darkness of his own trunk, Beilmann realized what a fool he had been. He had acted no better than his students, jumping to conclusions and not thinking things through. He had blamed the disappearances on the bugs with no more evidence than their very existence. But murder was a human crime, and anger and jealousy were very human emotions. Insects didn’t hate. Maybe they had even been trying to warn him.
“Into the trunk now; be good.”
The guard had pulled his pistol from its holster, and was holding a weapon in each hand.
“You can go out easy, if you’re good,” he said, waving the pistol, “Or, if you resist, hard,” waving the knife. “For your own sake, take the easy way.”
Beilmann was certainly too far from the guard to disarm him. He had to try, though. He attempted to will himself to motion, but might as well have been made of lead. The officer, sensing this, smiled.
A shadow fell across the walls of the cul-de-sac. But there couldn’t be any shadow, for there was no sun to cast it. The wave of darkness swarmed and spilled from the top of the physics building downwards, towards the two men. It was the bugs, moving silently and swiftly. The horde grew, sliding from every crack in the street, every poorly mortared joint in the building. The guard, seeing Beilmann’s distraction, glanced quickly over his shoulder and then spun to stare at the approaching swarm.
“Class is out,” Beilmann said.
He doesn’t know about the bugs, Beilmann noted, and then they were upon the guard. The first ranks ran right up his legs, some underneath his pants, some above. The security officer made a surprised grunt as the first insects touched him, and then he had dropped the gun and was gasping and swatting at his attackers. Beilmann could hear the wet crack of the carapaces that the officer shattered. There were lots more bugs, though, covering the street and the walls and the windows and the cars, and then the startled officer, who began to scream and slash at himself with his knife. The bugs crossed the officer’s belt line and swarmed up his chest, despite his increasingly frantic efforts. The insides of his pants were bulging with the bodies of the living and the dead.
They don’t care how many are killed, Beilmann realized. They are willing to sacrifice as many as it takes.
He became aware of a sound like a thousand tiny hedge trimmers chattering away. The bugs had now reached the head of the security officer, and despite his struggles, they maintained a cover over his face. When he managed to brush away a large grouping, Beilmann could see blood and bone underneath. Suddenly there was blood all over the guard’s body, and his thrashings became more violent and uncontrolled. Still more bugs came to the attack.
The guard fell. His scream became more wet and open before being silenced completely, and then there was only the sound of the many, many trimmers, trimming away.
Beilmann simply watched. The body of the guard slowly deflated, consumed from the inside and out, and at times another section would collapse. Very soon, all that seemed to remain under the writhing mass was a pile of discolored sticks, and as a new wave of insects descended upon it that pile quickly disappeared.
At last, the creatures fell back, and nothing at all remained to indicate that someone had ever stood there, not even blood. Beilmann was astonished at their marvelous thoroughness.
They were all around him. Beilmann’s legs were pressed against the rear bumper of his car. He pushed himself to a stand, unsure of what to do.
The insects were watching him, and suddenly a column of them were moving, clearing a path for him, leading back into the physics building. He followed that path, walking up to the rear door and letting himself inside. Many eyes followed his progress.
More insects awaited him indoors, though they maintained a polite distance from him. The path led back down the steps to the lecture hall. He walked down to the room, amazed as the door was somehow opened by the collaborative efforts of the creatures.
The trail ended at the front of the lecture hall, by the projector, and Beilmann moved to it. He turned to the classroom. The room was being filled by more bugs than he had ever seen, covering every available surface.
They want to hear me lecture, he realized, and a dizziness that felt oddly like pride washed over him. These students were actually eager to hear him speak. Beilmann looked down at the stacks of transparency film lying beside the projector. They must have stolen it, over a long period of time. How clever and resourceful they were!
Beilmann surveyed the room. They were all around him, watching him. There were thousands of them here to hear him talk, maybe more. They stared at him unblinkingly, hungry for knowledge, and intent on learning.
They were silent. They would not whisper amongst themselves during a lecture. Beilmann looked down at the topmost transparency on the stack, trying to collect himself. His thoughts keep returning to the events of five days before, which had put him where he was now. What a fortunate encounter that had been! This class would never be tardy, never be rude, always be interested.
He wanted to savor the moment a while longer, but the class was waiting for him.
Picking up the pointer that was carefully and solemnly being dragged to him, Beilmann began to teach.
I have always felt that every horror author needs to write at least one “bug story”, and this is mine. I feel compelled to remind people that this isn’t based on my own experiences as a professor — it was written years before I became one!
The steam tunnels, and the layout of the physics building, are based on the actual steam tunnels at the University of Rochester where I got my Ph.D. I have seen frighteningly big roaches there, and one day when I was passing the classroom right off the tunnels I imagined the roaches filling the classroom. From that image, the rest of the story followed.