Tobias lay reclined, reading, when a small group hustled by. “This place on fire?” he called at them without looking up. Disturbing the quite of the library’s atrium was one of his greatest annoyances. Though the designated quite floor was an unspoken rule among all on campus, it was a well-respected rule and he meant to enforce it when necessary.
“Someone brought a screen in. Something big happened. Come look for yourself,” Jessie paused long enough to yell back at him. He looked up in time to see her sunlit hair whip around a corner.
He returned to his book but his thoughts trailed elsewhere. Whoever brought in the screen was an idiot. They would be expelled on the spot if they were found out. Anyone found near it would spend three weeks digging with restricted meals. The cost was great, which was why Tobias found himself tempted to check it out and see what was so important that they’d risk bringing one in. It’d been a few weeks since the last expulsion. He’d at least get some entertainment out of it. If they were stupid enough to break a strict rule like that, they deserved their consequences. Perhaps he could find a spot on the edge where he could slip away if any instructors happened by. He marked his page and left the book in the chair. The open area magnified his footfalls. No one else was nearby when he picked up his pace.
A small crowd had formed and the perpetrator magnified the screen so everyone could see clearly. Tobias stayed back and observed the group. He wasn’t going to risk his neck for a good view. He’d worked too hard and too long to make it here. The entrance exams nearly killed him, and he planned on graduating because a Leather meant access to anything. As a kid, Tobias saw a man access the Chancellor’s private section on the fifth floor of the city library. He’d never seen anyone even look at the door before, but the man simply walked up and opened it like he was the Chancellor himself. The guard almost didn’t know how to react. It was only a moment, but Tobias remembered seeing the man pull out a small, leather-bound book with a University insignia on the cover. The guard let him through without question. That was the moment Tobias decided to attend University. He’d get his own Leather. With it, he’d be able to research Morgellons Disease without restraint. No doctor could brush him off again.
“What’s this?” Professor Anders shouted at the huddle near the screen. Tobias was surprised no one attempted to flee. They all seemed willing accomplices.
Professor Anders approached the screen, ready to confiscate it, then stopped. Whatever was being viewed caused him pause. After a few endless seconds, someone in the group asked, “What does it mean Professor?”
Anders offered no answer. He only stared at the screen. Tobias finally made his way close enough to see what was being shown. The audio was turned on low, but he caught the faint stream of words describing the event.
On the screen was a building similar to the one they were standing in except half of it was rubble. It was a University. A scroll along the bottom of the screen repeated: THE UNIVERSITY AT HENDELRY HAS BEEN STRUCK BY A MISSILE. THE SOURCE OF THE ATTACK IS UNKNOWN AT THIS TIME. Tobias felt fear trickle through him. Starting in his lungs and snaking down to his intestines where it pooled, building as his mind ran every possible scenario. Every possible consequence of this moment.
“Professor,” Jessie said, “All Universities are protected, right?”
Professor Anders finally snapped out of his stupor. “Correct,” he said, “All sixty-three Universities and their surrounding cities were proclaimed demilitarized and to remain untouched by any result of battle in relation to the war. This was first enforced in full with the Gilandria Accords over two-hundred years ago. You should all know this.”
“Then how could this happen?”
“The nations have been perpetually at war in some form for nearly two millennia. Whoever has broken the Accords has tipped the scales. Despite any allied stance, the nation responsible will have the attention of the other eight. Once they discover who built that missile, whoever it belonged to will be a pile of ash soon.”
“A Plasmic Distortion Bomb?” someone from the crowd whispered.
“They’re forbidden. They wouldn’t…”
“Universities were off limits. Is anything forbidden now?”
The crowd’s murmurs began to grow.
“That’s enough,” Professor Anders demanded. “Universities will remain protected. Everyone return to their quarters and await word from the headmasters. I’m sure they will have all information in hand shortly and will put your minds at ease. No truth comes from speculation. Put away any thoughts you have on this event until the facts are found. Now go.”
The crowd slowly dispersed. Tobias found himself drifting with a small group headed in the general direction of his rooms. Solitude dominated him. Three years had passed since he had felt like this. He knew its embrace all too well. For the first time in his life, a thought flickered across his mind that a Leather may not provide all the answers he sought.