A ruffle of wings settled on the window. Their blur of white faded from the air as the creature turned its elegant head and nestled its beak between the layers of feathers, knocking droplets of water free.
The storm over Oxford hadn’t decided what to do, so instead it loomed, slowly grazing over the twinkling gas-lit streets. The glow of the city was just enough to light the underside of the storm in the absence of starlight. One day the city would be brighter than the moon itself, even if it was only a faint smudge at the present.
A pair of bright eyes watched the sky, scanning the clouds as they rolled through each other. He could feel their friction and smell the droplets of water tumbling over each other – ripping electrons free. It was a scene alive with expectancy, like two lovers drawn apart desperate to rejoin in what could only be beautiful disaster.
He breathed in the energy, waiting for -
A river of light cut through the heavens and dove into the earth with perfect silence.
The air around it burnt.
And began reverberating through the sky towards his window.
He felt the world shudder.
The shutters rattled and the pigeon hopped onto his outstretched arm in a frightened flutter.
“Sh...” he cooed, tracing a finger down the back of its neck. It nipped him affectionately. “This is the best part.”
“You’ll catch something from that thing,” Helen climbed into the university’s attic, sitting on the floorboards before swinging her legs up through the hole.
“I thought I told you not to come up here?” he replied, still patting the bird.
“You say that every day, but you never mean it,” she closed the hatch and strolled over to the window, keeping her distance from the stray bird scaling Nikola’s shoulder. There was a storm raging over the city but it had not reached them yet. She could feel its cool wind kicking through the open window onto their faces. “We’ve got evening class.”
Tesla lifted an eyebrow. “You’re here because?”
Helen shook her head, turning her back on the window. Nikola had turned the attic into a dorm. He had a bed pushed against the far side – meticulously made, and had filled the rest of the room with whatever he could scavenge from the engineering rooms. Mostly it was wire – bundles and bundles of it.
“I’m here because I was the only one the professor could convince to come and get you.”
She frowned. “Not if you-” but she realised her mistake, Nikola was talking to the pigeon. He cupped the creature in his hands and knelt down onto the floor, as if hiding from something.
A moment later Helen screamed but no-one heard it above the roar that shattered the windows. She fell to the ground, holding her ears and slamming her eyes shut as the small room became a beacon of light. The thunder pounded through her very soul until she thought it would break.
Suddenly, there was nothing.
She opened her eyes to see a glowing ball of light, spinning slowly in the centre of the room. It shimmered with what looked like shards of lightning branching off in quiet rumbles. Helen thought that she heard it hum. It didn’t stay suspended for long, and Helen had to leap out of the way as it rolled through the air straight into the solid wall where it dissipated and vanished.
The room returned to darkness and Helen turned her head to Nikola’s quiet laugh. He opened his palms and the pigeon flew out into the storm just as the first sheet of rain hit the walls.
“Can we go now?” Helen hissed, clearly frightened by his little show.
Nikola nodded. “I’m done...”
“You’ll be well and truly done when the professor finds out you put a lightning rod on the roof!”
Night class was easily the most poorly attended of all the physical science classes. A quick turn about the room made its avoidance plain.
The professor, stunted and balanced on a high stool at the front of the room, slanted over the black board scratching illegible diagrams in-between a series of annotations that lacked internal consistency.
By default, the front bench was left empty.
It wasn’t that the few students that bothered to show disliked being close to the board, or feared looking too keen – indeed, in different circumstances the front would be an ideal seat if only to have a fair chance at deciphering the board... In this case though, the stench leaching out of the professor’s jacket was almost visible on the air. Like a noxious gas, it kept students at a safe distance.
A rumble of thunder woke Nigel Griffin. Snorting, he rubbed a hooked nose on his sleeve and nestled head back in the warm ditch of his arm. Several of his books were considering a leap of faith from the desk but there was one book the world would never take from him; his diary. Not because he kept secrets in it – he was not a particularly secretive person – no, this book contained a detailed list of all his appointments and lesson times. In his first year, he’d misplaced this book, spent the day wandering around in a lost state and finally ended up locked in a cupboard. Not something he was keen to repeat.
At the back stage-right corner was the rigid figure of James. Unlike the others who were either asleep or scribbling madly, James Watson narrowed his eyes and observed his peers. Every so often he tilted his head, changing subjects. The lecture board continued to fill but he didn’t feel the need to lift his feathered pen for there were far more interesting things afoot than the eternal motion of the planets.
The twin doors of the lecture room flew open with a gush of wind, startling those that had been napping. A young woman with a dishevelled mop of golden hair dragged a wiry gentleman behind her, depositing him in the nearest seat. She nodded at the professor and then collapsed next to Tesla, opening her book where she quickly set to work copying the board.
Nikola rolled his eyes, spun around so that he was lying lengthways across the bench, and promptly went to sleep with his head irritatingly in her lap. Helen ignored him, brushing her hair out of the way.
“Mr Tesla?” the professor had stopped writing and stared expectantly at the empty section of bench hiding Tesla.
“Yes, sir?” came the half muffled, mostly bored response.
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about a bolt of lightning hitting the south end of the building, would you?” his very large, white eyebrows furrowed. The professor knew that the young boy was fascinated by the sheer intrigue of raw current – with good reason. He had what could only be described as affection for it. A relationship that was proving dangerous for the integrity of the building.
There was a long silence in response. The professor shook his head slowly and returned to the board.
“Let me know if you remember...” he muttered, picking a new piece of chalk.
Nikola, blissfully looking forward to his sleep, shut his eyes and started planning frictionless power systems. He’d just managed a smile when all the air was forced out of his lungs by the sudden impact of a heavy book on his chest. Coughing, he sat up with a start.
“What the...” there was a sizable text book in his lap.
“Niiice of you to join us,” a deep voice rolled over the air. It belonged to a tall, strong-cut face with a square chin and deep brown eyes. The eyes trailed to Helen, hovered there for a moment, and then returned to the shocked Nikola.
“And who are you?” Nikola dusted off the book and laid it on the bench. He coughed again and then groaned, feeling his skin burn from the impact.
“I’m new,” replied John. “Well, not that new. This is my fourth class but the first one that you’ve attended since I started. Helen said that I should return your textbook and thank you for its use.”
Nikola opened the cover and saw that it was, indeed, his. Not that he’d opened it. His name was written in Helen’s careful handwriting.
“Thank you John,” whispered Helen, risking a glance.
“You leant him my book?” Nikola frowned, lowering his voice so that the ominous student couldn’t hear.
“Don’t worry, I relocated the spiders nesting on it,” she smirked. “It’s not like you missed it, Nikola. Now quiet, I have to get all this down.”
“It’s rubbish anyway,” Tesla shifted the book to the side as he scanned the board. “There’s a new theory about to be published that shows the earth is much older than that.”
“Maybe, but right now I need you to stop speaking.” She prodded him with the tip of her quill, which hurt quite a bit more than she meant it to.
It worked though. For at least two minutes Nikola didn’t say a word.
“Can I plagiarise your assignment on Inheritance and Mendal?” he inched in a bit, rocking ever so slightly until Helen flicked her damp hair over her shoulder and glared. “That’d be a no then,” he sighed, making the bench back into a bed.
Helen’s essay on Inheritance and Mendal mysteriously made its way into Tesla’s attic accommodation several days later where it was promptly skimmed, re-worded and presented in class where it received a B-.
According to the professor, Nikola had been marked on his ability to acquire answers.
James Watson, a creature who Nikola rarely spoke to except to taunt, held his own paper up so that it’s A was glaringly obvious.
“Your motor still bursting into flames?” inquired Tesla, ripping his own assignment into a thousand pieces.
James seldom bothered with more than one word, “Presently.”
“Excellent news. Let me know when your life goes up in smoke.” He tipped his hat and headed out the main doors to the garden.
Watson watched the strange man vanish into the morning. “Indeed...” He was about to waltz off down to the dining hall when something beautiful caught his eye. Ms Magnus, daughter of the currently discredited but once well-thought-of physician, was making her way toward him. At first he thought he must have been inadvertently standing in the way of her target but every time he took a subtle step she realigned her trajectory.
“’scuse me,” she started, quite out of breath.
He’d never spoken to her before now, except when handing out things in class and that one time they’d said an awkward, ‘hello’ in the corridor. James tried to look as pleasant as he could, shaking off his usual icy disposition and general dislike of conversation.
“Yes?” he managed, slipping his brass glasses into a more stable position, higher up the bridge of his nose.
Helen’s hands settled on her hips as she caught her breath. “I’m not wanting to disturb you,” she began, albeit a little suspiciously, “but – I was – wondering. You’re good at anatomy, if I remember?”
Not the first question he thought he’d be asked by the daughter of a doctor. “Presumably.”
“Would I be able to borrow you, for a little while? No more than an hour or so. If you’ve got time, of course.”
James clasped his gloved hands behind his back and nodded, curiosity getting the better of him.