The Beast of USC
Photo by Keith Ayuman
Every university worth its salt has ghost stories. Haunted retreat houses, campuses built on old battlefields, that sort of thing. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our dear old alma mater has more than a few skeletons in the closet herself — the scariest part of this one, though, isn’t the long-dead monster lurking just out of sight.
It’s the fact that it’s still alive.
The only hints of its existence are exactly the same as what it’s made of: blurry bits and pieces that shouldn’t make sense until put together — then they really don’t make sense. The first shred of evidence that this thing ever existed was an old piece of paper I pulled out of a dusty folder in the biology lab while looking for something to scribble some measurements on, entire bars of text redacted with swathes of thick black ink.
█████ ██, 19██
This study aims to produce a viable genetic hybrid from the DNA of █████████████ █████████, █████████████████ ███████████ and ██████████ █████████████████████. Initial fertilization will be carried out in vitro after using the technique detailed in __________________ to graft the DNA of the unrelated species onto each other. Incubation will be carried out in the __________________ of the department, with daily checks on the development of the ______. Due to the lack of existing literature and high cost of the technique, only one specimen will be produced. Any abnormalities during and after development will be noted. Should the specimen survive past infancy, it will be housed in captivity in ____________________________________.
The rest of the passage was so thickly censored as to be illegible. I folded the tattered paper in half and stuck it between the pages of my notebook. I don’t know why I didn’t dismiss it out of hand as a hoax or a creative writing assignment, but believe me: it’s neither. The truth is out there. It’s as plain as day — no more difficult than spotting loose threads or connecting dots. This thing, this… beast has been living in our school since before any of us set foot on campus, maybe before we were even born. It’s impossible to tell for certain how long it’s been here or where it came from, but I do know where it is now.
Have you ever wondered why no one has ever bothered cleaning the pond in the Bunzel building, or why it always goes unnoticed? That’s for the best. There are dozens of subliminal cues in and around the pond to draw our attention just far enough away from it not to ask the right questions. That’s where it is. Wherever it was before, it’s chained up now at the bottom of the pond, feeding on whatever goldfish or cichlids happen to wander in its path. It’s not that nobody wants to clean the water. We simply can’t afford to break this masquerade. What’s a few dengue cases compared to jeopardizing the entire student body?
However, there are… certain cases where the school checks on its well-being. I still don’t know what went into that thing, but I do know that it’s strong. Those fire and earthquake drills we hold every semester? Let’s just say there’s a far worse disaster those are preventing. They may take longer than they have any reason to, but performing a thorough evaluation on such a dangerous creature, especially in water murkier than a politician’s loyalties, isn’t something one can rush. Complain about spending your valuable class time under the hot sun if you want, but I can guarantee you this: it’s better than being face-to-face with that thing.
In fact, a little digging will reveal that its reach goes beyond the Bunzel pond. Whatever it’s made of, whatever twisted abominations make up its genetic code, it can still do more from its concrete prison than any of us can predict. Why is the drainage system on the campus so inefficient, causing regular flooding of the campus? Surely they must have tried to renovate it, right? Certainly… but the beast didn’t like it. It thrives on that influx of fresh water, and if the water level in its prison ever rose high enough, or if the floods grew powerful enough to knock loose its chains… The frog calls accompanying the rainy season? Those aren’t frog calls at all. The frogs aren’t real. They’re speakers specifically planted around the campus to best drown out its cries as it struggles to escape. Whether they’re cries of pain, rage or loneliness, I couldn’t tell you. If you ever heard them for yourself, though, I can tell you now that you would feel nothing but terror.
None of that matters to me, though. Not compared to the personal slight this thing has taken against my department. Most of our microscopes are practically steampunk, operating with brass chassis and cracked lenses instead of lightbulbs. I always felt we were the black sheep of the arts and sciences. Now I know why. Physics or chemistry could have screwed up just as badly. They could have destroyed the campus with a nuclear explosive or choked the entire building with poisonous gas. But they didn’t. We did.
It may have been our fault in the first place, but now the entire school is shouldering the weight of our mistake. Perhaps, as both a biologist and a Carolinian, it’s remiss of me to refer to any life as a “mistake,” but the beast simply shouldn’t exist — and yet, I cannot help but believe that it is as close to immortal or indestructible as possible. Perhaps that was the end goal, hidden under those thick bars of ink. Either way, if they knew how to kill it, certainly it would have been done by now. All we can do now is hope that it doesn’t get angry. The best way to do that? Why, it’s only the single most obvious chink in this ironclad charade, as well as one of the most hotly-debated points of the last few years: TOFI. What other reason would the school have to choke us, year after year, out of every red cent: With all this in mind, the answer is easy: It’s getting hungrier.
If you ask me for more proof, I can’t give it. All I can give you are leads: evidence of evidence, tucked away in forgotten bookshelves or at the end of a breadcrumb trail of shady links on ISMIS. That’s the way it should be. Don’t try to prove any of this for yourself. Believe me if you want. Just heed my words: no matter how bad the university gets, things could be so, so much worse.
There’s a monster lurking just under all our noses, and we’re paying the price — literally. Who knows if it’ll be worth it in the end?
I doubt any of us are willing to find out.