Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Undercollege, Part 5: Plans

Originally posted on Facebook Notes, 30th December 2007

It had been a bad day for Rudolf. He'd dragged himself out of a river, covered in muddy weeds and with gashes in his one-piece lycra rowing kit, and found himself in the grounds of an underground college. He'd followed the two young people he'd come across because he couldn't think of anything better to do about his situation. When they'd disappeared into a tunnel barely wide enough to accommodate his broad shoulders, he'd had his doubts, but eventually he'd followed them both rather than be left out in the open on his own. Now the shorter man was lunging at him with what appeared to be some sort of knife. Rudolf instinctively drew himself backwards and upwards, and in the process the crown of his head made involuntary contact with the ceiling of the tunnel. He swore in a way that could only be interpreted as human.

The boy with the knife halted momentarily, confusion etched into his features, and Rudolf took the opportunity to press forward. "Bloody hell," he murmured, raising a hand to his injured pate. As he did so, he dislodged a particularly slithery frond of pondweed from his mop of russet brown hair. "Put that thing away before you take someone's eye out."

"I'm sorry," the assailant replied sheepishly, tucking the multitool away. "We... I thought you were some sort of... monster." The girl, whose face was in shadow behind the light from the small torch, nodded.

Rudolf considered this. "Huh," he responded after a few seconds and smiled broadly. "Well, you're not exactly picture perfect yourself, you know." Mike frowned at this, but Rudolf pressed on. "Although since I've just crawled out of a river, I'll forgive you this once. And it's understandable that you were a bit jumpy, given your encounter with Mr. Bones back there. Looks like you smashed him up pretty good, incidentally."

Cat and Mike exchanged glances, but neither spoke, so Rudolf continued as he crawled forward out of the tunnel mouth into the chamber. "Nice place you have here. This your love nest?"

"Sorry, what?" Mike replied, but was cut off by Cat. "No, no. We're not... together."

Rudolf laughed. "Oh. Sorry. In that case we'd better do the Freshers' Week thing." He cleared his throat. "I'm Rudolf, and I'm a second-year historian at Trinity."

It was the girl who responded first. "I'm Cat, and I'm a first year studying maths at Clare." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "Although I'm thinking of switching to Philosophy."

"Mike," Mike replied tersely after a few seconds' silence. "Fourth year engineer at Emma. You say you fell into a river. Was that how you ended up down here?"

Rudolf wagged a finger at him. "I said that I crawled out of a river," he corrected, "not that I fell in. But as a matter of fact I did fall in. I was rowing on the Cam with my crew, and my boat tipped over. Felt myself being dragged down..." He took a deep breath. The memories weren't pleasant ones. "I must have lost consciousness. Anyway, later, I woke up on the bank of a river. But it was a different river. An underground one. That's how I got here." He turned his dark eyes, which had been roving the ceiling of the chamber, on Mike. "What about you?"

"I was trying to fix some electrics at the ADC," Mike replied. "Something short-circuited - I think the sheathing on a cable must have been damaged. Anyway, I blacked out, and when I came round I was down here." He sighed. "Wherever here is."

"Well, I was in the UL, and something hit me on the back of the head," Cat added. "You can guess the rest. I think I've only been conscious for half an hour or so. I was running, and then I came across the skeleton..."

"He knew that much," Mike interrupted. "He saw it, remember?" The engineer turned his gaze, along with a healthy dose of sarcasm, on Rudolf. "Thank you ever so much for intervening and bravely helping us out, by the way."

Rudolf threw up his hands, which he only just had space to do in the low-ceilinged cave. "Hey!" he protested. "I only saw what was left of it, and then you two, scooting guiltily off into the distance. At least I came to the right conclusion. Although I'm sure you'll plead self-defence."

"It was a walking skeleton!" Mike burst out. "It didn't look like it was going to listen to reason."

"Even if it did resemble a College porter," Cat added absently.

Rudolf nodded. Things were starting to come together now. "That makes sense," he mused.

"Sense?" Mike was virtually screeching now, and his knuckles were white. "We're somewhere underground in a mysterious tunnel, we have no idea how we got here, and we've just been attacked by the living dead. How can any of this be making any sense to you?"

Rudolf clenched a fist, too. The engineer's self-righteous manner was starting to irritate him. Inwardly he forced himself to remain calm and continue. "Because I think I've seen some things you haven't," he replied, perhaps a little bluntly. "The river's in a massive cavern, and when I washed up on the shore I saw a building. A massive one, built in some sort of black stone. It looked a bit like Clare's Old Court," he added to Cat, who nodded. "I only caught a brief glimpse through the gates, but I think there was an open quadrant inside, and lawns of some kind. The sign on the gate said... Midwinter College."

"Right," Cat answered slowly. "I see what you mean."

There was another uncomfortable silence, during which Mike sighed frustratedly. "So, now that we have this wonderful new information, what do you propose we do?"

"I know what I'd suggest," Rudolf replied immediately, with enthusiasm. "We want to get out of here, right? Well, I've spent an hour wandering around down here myself without finding a way to the surface, and I guess you've both done the same." Mike nodded reluctantly, and the tall historian continued. "Then you'll have seen that it's like a maze, or another world. We could bugger about until we all die of starvation down here before we even get close to finding an exit. But the best way to find an answer is to look in that building. The College."

Cat's eyes widened, and Mike's face was set into a disbelieving grimace.

"They write in English," Rudolf persisted, "and they use flashlights." He indicated the device at Mike's side. "So they must know a way out of here. If they're friendly - which I doubt - we can ask them. If not, we can sneak or fight our way in, because there must be a map somewhere, or someone we can ask. And I've already told you the alternative."

The looming rower lowered himself to the ground, sitting with his legs crossed, and directed a winning smile at Cat. "So. Who's with me?"

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