Basil looked carefully in both directions before going through an old-fashioned glass double door. There were no sensors in this part of Epsilon University, and the building he entered was old. It was simply called “The Lab,” and it served as a sort of study center. The building indeed had laboratory space available for students taking Chemistry, although all the “chemicals” were present as augmented reality holograms. If someone created an explosive mixture by accident (or, more often, on purpose), the resulting explosion would be purely holographic.
Other labs were reserved for dissecting various holograms of animals, human anatomy, computer programming, and the visual arts. Personal study cubicles were available as well as rooms that could be reserved for group work.
Campus security kept an eye on things here, as elsewhere, but monitoring was lax. Basil knew a record of his entry and exit would be recorded, but it was not uncommon for students to visit The Lab at all hours of the day and night. Entry records would likely be checked only in the instance of something egregious happening.
He glanced at his reflection in the old style doorway. He was 16 and had mostly Asian and Hispanic ancestry, although his last name was Fleur thanks to French blood on his father’s side. Despite the conclusion some might draw from his surname, his complexion, hair, and eyes were all dark brown.
He quickly made his way to a stairwell, where the monitor was conveniently busted. From there he headed down to the basement.
The doors down here were old-fashioned, too, with simple locks rather than palm panels. He headed down to a room at the end of the hall and tried the handle. As expected, it opened for him. At the back of the room, another doorway led to more steps leading further down, where another broken sensor stood as a mute and useless sentry along the wall.
Now he was in the steam tunnels, a legendary place in university lore. All campuses had steam tunnels in ages past, and tales of students exploring them, playing in them, and getting in trouble in them resonated through the centuries.
It was common knowledge that StarCen had trouble eavesdropping on conversations underground. Concrete, steel, and dirt interfered with electronics. So, in this day and age as in centuries past, students wishing to discuss things in secret headed for the steam tunnels.
Basil made his way down a damp concrete passageway, following water and electric lines along with various and sundry other cables. A thin streak of water collected at the center of the path, which he avoided, making his way by the light of old-style LED lights spaced at intervals every few meters.
At last he came to his destination, an unmarked wooden door. He tried the handle and found it locked.
The code to get in was silly, he thought. He knocked to the rhythm of the ancient melody, “Shave and a Haircut . . . Two Bits!”
Basil had no idea what “two bits” meant. He resolved to look it up someday, if he could be assured doing so would not result in SSI investigating him. For now, he would remain willfully ignorant.
The door opened and a girl about his age, maybe 16 or 17, met him. She had short bleach-blonde hair and looked very pretty. She also appeared smart, maybe because of the light blue glasses she wore. Glasses were a fad for young people on Epsilon at the moment. No one had actually needed them in centuries.
She glanced outside nervously to see if he was followed, then opened the door wider so he could get in.
He squeezed past her, being careful not to touch her despite their shared proximity. They were not going out, at least not yet. Basil still held out hope, and he did not want to offend her by rubbing up against her.
Inside, he was surprised to see another guy, an older student, staring back at him. Before either male could say anything, Caroline shut the door and moved between them.
She said, “I wanted to bring both of you in for a discussion because . . . because, as you know, Dr. Milford passed away suddenly.”
“He was a good professor,” Basil said, with a touch of earnestness coloring his tone. “Probably the best one at Epsilon U. Everybody liked him. His classes always filled up every semester.”
“They killed him.”
Both boys looked at Caroline.
“Can you . . . prove that?” the other boy said.
She shook her head. “No. But I know. The day he died in the park, he talked about democracy and freedom, and how a representative democracy is the best form of government. He pushed it too far.”
“He died of an aneurism,” Basil said.
Caroline said, “SSI has tools. They have heart attack guns and invisible rays that can make blood vessels burst at a distance. They have untraceable poisons, exploding nanobots and a dozen other ways to kill people and make it look like an accident. It was them. Dr. Milford was too important, too popular. They couldn’t make him disappear. They had to make sure he had an accident or a natural death.”
“How do you know all this?” the other boy said. Basil glanced at him again. He seemed a little older, and of Hispanic descent. He also seemed more sure of himself than Basil.
He thought, perhaps this was why Caroline invited him here tonight? Because he’s self confident in a way I’m not? Is she interested in this guy?
Caroline said, “People talk. Late at night when no one’s listening. Sometimes in chat rooms or while doing quests on an isolated node in Off World. You pick up things. And if you pay attention you can follow what SSI does in the shadows. Is there a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser stirring things up against the Tetrarchy? Something always happens to them. They disappear, or die in a mysterious accident, or suffer a strange heart attack.
“After a while, nobody is willing to speak up anymore. Nobody who wants to stay alive, that is.”
Basil’s eyes widened in the sudden realization that Caroline was right. There had been a lot of sudden deaths or disappearances involving outspoken people.
“I never thought of it that way before, but you’re right,” he said. “There’s so little dissent because anyone who says anything is . . . eliminated.”
She nodded and said, “I was there, in the lecture before Dr. Milford died. He pushed the ideas of democracy further than I’d ever heard him. It was too much. They were listening. They decided they’d had enough and took him out.”
Silence. All three students looked at each other.
Basil cleared his throat, nervously. He said, “So . . . what are we going to do? What can we do?”
Caroline said, “I’ve reached out to somebody I happen to know who is in the Resistance. They have a very weak presence on Epsilon, but they do exist. They’re much stronger on Juventas and other places, but not here.
“I think we can help them. I think we can maybe strengthen the Resistance here on Epsilon by encouraging other students to join and . . . well, resist. We need to stand up for freedom and democracy. It’s what Dr. Milford would have wanted. I think the three of us should reach out to others we know who might feel the same way. You don’t have to ask anyone directly, but you can lead the conversation around by talking about Dr. Milford’s suspicious death. See what they think. If they agree that his death was fishy, and if you sense they might want to do something about it, let’s bring them in.”
Basil nodded. “Yeah. We need to do something. I’m tired of sitting around and just . . . studying for class and stuff. I mean, is this all there is? I want to do something with my life. If I can help bring about change, if we can reform the system, get the Tetrarchs to listen to us . . . maybe bring in some democratic reforms to the League . . . I’m all in.”
Basil and Caroline both turned to the older boy.
He looked at them both and said, “I’m in. Anything I can do to help. I’m glad to be on the ground floor. I want to know everything.”
Caroline nodded. She said, “Okay. This then is the official first meeting of the Epsilon University Resistance. Let’s meet again and bring at least one trusted friend each. Maybe more if you can find them.”
She smiled at both boys and said, “This is going to be big. I know it. We’re going to make a difference! Dr. Milford will not have died in vain.”
They moved toward the door. Basil held it open and Caroline walked out. The other boy nodded his thanks and followed her.
Basil said, “Hey, I didn’t catch your name.”
The older student stuck out his hand to shake Basil’s and said, “I’m Ben Fernando. Pleased to meet you.”