Frederick adjusted his spectacles to blot out sunlight as he emerged from the operating theater. The walkways leading to the various halls were lined with blooming trees, white petals strewn about the cobbled sidewalks. Students rested on the green during the mid-afternoon respite while casually comparing notes or making idle talk.
Frederick checked his pocket watch, looking around to judge his path of action before stuffing it back into his vest pocket. He kept his thoughts at bay as he made his way to the Research Hall, holding the specimen close to his chest.
He entered in through the glass revolving door of Hans Durenberg’s Memorial Hall of Research, taking a right and following up the ornately carved mahogany stairs.
“Ah, Frederick, m’boy!” came a hearty voice a staircase above him.
He rounded the corner to see Professor Patrick Wilkinson standing at the top of the staircase, a massive ginger walrus moustache and accompanying sideburns hiding portions of his rose pink cheeks. It was a fitting facial addition, given that the man’s demeanor could easily pass for a walrus disguised as a lab professor. Despite this abundance of hair, Wilkinson was very keen on its presentation, his hair sculpted to have his moustache meld into his sideburns and his hair slicked back and glowing in the various gas lamps.
“Good tidings, Professor Wilkinson.” Frederick bowed his head as he made his way up the staircase cautiously.
The portly gentleman threw up a hand as if to swat the greeting away.
“Please, there’s no need for formalities, dear chap!” He extended a plump hand to Frederick, gripping it firmly and shaking it energetically, “How did the operation go?”
“Wonderfully, I plan on sending his family the good news after I take care of something. You wouldn’t possibly happen to know what that errand may be, given that you are conveniently here and conveniently the leading professor in Cellular Anomaly Research?”
Wilkinson gathered the ends of his beard between his thumb and pointer, as if thinking hard.
“I don’t know, old boy, ‘tis a puzzler alright.” His mouth was difficult to find, but the crease in his spring sky blue eyes gave him away, “What did you find inside of the boy?”
“A rather large specimen for a lad his size.” Frederick revealed the jar and handed it to Wilkinson, Wilkinson in turn cradling it like a precious egg.
“Good Lord, man! This was inside a twelve year old boy?”
“Soon to be thirteen, but yes, I feel his illness was at least six to eight months in incubation.”
“Six to eight months?!” Wilkinson turned the jar over in his hands, looking at the growth, “I’ve never seen such a color before, this hideous purple hue.”
“I had wondered about that, Professor. But it’s not my expertise, however, I did want-”
“I’ll get some photographic plates immediately. Come, come, m’boy! This is quite the discovery!” He motioned or Frederick to follow before grabbing the lanky professor by his wrist, dragging him along as they exited the stairwell and went down a polished hallway.
Within a few minutes, Wilkinson had set up a camera, the specimen sitting on a wide Petri dish and surrounded with many gas lamps while the shades were closed. Frederick stood near the door, arms folding and shoulders resting against the frame. Wilkinson hunched over a little, hiding under the black cloak of the plate camera as the bellows lens pulled back and forth a little.
“Smile!” Wilkinson commanded jokingly, holding up the flash bar.
Frederick’s eyes narrowed as the flash went off, bubbles of color flickering in the corners of his vision.
“Well, now I’m officially blind.”
Wilkinson laughed, slipping in a new photographic plate and moving the camera closer.
“Oh pish, dear chap! Nothing like putting a little light on the subject!”
Frederick groaned, rolling his eyes with a smirk as he lifted his spectacles to rub his eyes. Wilkinson took another picture without warning. Instantly, Frederick became rigid, sucking his breath in sharp as his fingers tensed. In the darkened room, the rims of his eyes could be seen. Wilkinson heard Frederick’s gasp and pulled the cloak off his head.
“I say, are you alright?”
Wilkinson gently touched Frederick’s arm, snapping him out of his trance.
“I’m sorry, what?” Frederick replied, slipping back his spectacles, “I apologize. I was just caught off guard.” Wilkinson scanned his features for a moment, his brow raised skeptically, “Honestly, I’m fine.”
Frederick smiled gently, holding up his hands as if to ward off his colleague’s worries. After half an hour of shuffling the camera around the table, Wilkinson wrapped up the plates and doused the lamps.
“Well, then, do you think you could be a good chap and drop these off when you go to the Post Room? I need them sent out to be developed.”
“Not at all.” Frederick replied, smiling as he took the stack under his arm, “In the meantime, I am curious of your findings when you begin to examine this specimen more closely.”
”I shall keep you intimate with the details.” Wilkinson said matter-of-factly, thrusting his chin out.
Both laughed and shook hands, Frederick leaving Wilkinson behind to study the growth as he made his way to the Post Room on the other side of the campus. Once again in the sunlight, the grounds were now fewer of students as their afternoon classes had begun and once again Frederick was left to his thoughts.
That unannounced flash had triggered something that sent his mind down a spiraling thread of memories and questions, making his eyes hurt. Fellow doctors had concluded that it was most likely Shell Shock acquired through his years serving the EAF. They had offered various sorts of treatment but Frederick had refused, much to their confusion.
A sudden squabble broke from Frederick’s stream of consciousness as he saw a group emerge from the front gates. Some held banners with phrases such as “Mystics Deserve Equal Treatment!” and “Mystics Are Human Too!!” While most of the protest group was Caucasian, some of the dark skinned Mystics were mixed into the group, looking thoroughly bewildered more than adamant.
They reached the fountain and one student climbed onto the war mount, shouting to his colleagues.
“Fellow Elbanians!” he shouted, wearing a mock up of a general’s outfit and brandishing a fake sword, “We stand here demanding that the farce that we call society recompense for making our fellow man suffer based on the difference of beliefs and skin color!”
A fiery cheer rang from the crowd, students now poking their heads out of classrooms while others bled out from the halls. Frederick stood a ways away, hanging onto the plates as he watched the spectacle play out.
“Our soldiers went to The Uncharted Lands under the pretense of “protecting our borders”!” He laughed, the crowd joining in, “What kind of bollocks is that? “Protecting our borders”? We are the leading nation in terms of technology and industry and we’re scared of our borders being threatened by simple folk?”
By now the crowd had swelled pass five hundred people, the few Mystics mixed into the crowd now pushed towards the fountain.
“It is their right to practice their beliefs as they wish, to wear the clothes of their heritage without our contempt! So what if their “carnal desires” exceed our standards of so-called “decency”? If we are a state of tolerance, we must be tolerant!”
Some of the professors had now left their classrooms, storming across the green towards the protesters. Frederick had stayed to the outskirts of the crowd, his anger subsiding and curiosity taking its place as Wilkinson came alongside him.
“Bit of an oddity, ey?”
Frederick twitched from surprise before nodding.
“Third one this week. The Mystic Front has been rather adamant this month.” Came a nasal voice, both turning to see Professor Hopkins striding towards them.
For an elderly man, he was a towering figure, his nose large enough to blow away the countryside if he sneezed. A small pair of rectangular spectacles rested on his behemoth snout, his salt and pepper hair combed back in a wavy succession. His suit was tailored, his bony hand grasping the lapel as he stood on the left of Frederick,
“Honestly, these insipid protests are demeaning to the morality and image of the youth in Silestra. If we reflect poorly in the capital, how does the rest of the country see us, let alone the empire? What is your stance, Professor Lionhart?”
“As I am an instructor of knowledge, I take an impartial stance on the matter.”
Professor Hopkins gave an amused smile, his ancient green eyes glimmering.
“Good answer, dear chap.” Wilkinson beamed.
“It doesn’t hurt to maintain a sense of dignity and modesty in these tedious times. Students are only a step away from adults-”
The tirade broke as soon as one of the female students stripped her blouse, let down her hair and proceeded to engage one of the male Mystics. Hopkins darted into the crowd with surprising dexterity, Wilkinson using his bulk to push them aside as the rest of the staff broke up the protest.
Frederick saw a face in the crowd and his stomach instantly turned to stone. The Mystic the unruly female student was ravenously engaged with seemed strangely familiar, his bright golden and verdant eyes catching a glimpse at Frederick. Just as quick as this horrible moment washed over Frederick, it was gone, the crowd dispersed and chaperoned back to their lectures. The leaders of the group were forcefully escorted to the front gates by the university authorities, the Mystics not too far behind as the police waited on the other side of the gate.
Frederick stood stiff, his body quivering as a bead of sweat trickled down his temple.
“Frederick? Are you alright, chap?”
His breath was faint and rapid, his face pale as his knees wobbled. Wilkinson put his hand on the professor’s shoulder, trying to gently sway him out of his spell. Frederick fell to his knees and proceeded to vomit into the grass lining the walkway.
“Good Lord, what’s wrong, Frederick?!” Wilkinson kept his hand on Frederick’s back, leaning over to see his condition.
Frederick continued to make guttural sounds, catching his breath before he wiped his lip of bile and lost breakfast.
“I’m alright.” He wheezed, struggling to stand.
Wilkinson helped him up, supporting his elbow as if to guide him.
“Do you need any help, dear boy?”
“No, I’m fine.” Frederick cleared his throat, adjusting his tie while shifting the plates under his arm, “I’ll still take care of this.”
“You sure?” Wilkinson’s walrus moustache twitched.
“Perfectly.” Frederick pushed his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose, giving a weak reassuring smile.
Wilkinson patted him on the shoulder and watched him walk towards the Post Room on the other side of the academy, slowly smoothing back some of his loose ginger hairs.