James Watson crossed his legs, collecting his things into a neat pile beside the library table.
The university library was a conglomerate of too many years spent tacking buildings onto one another without the slightest nod to style. This haphazard maze was divided into two main sections known to the students colourfully as, ‘old’ and ‘new’. Anything vulgar built within the last fifty years fell into the latter category.
The old section was where James preferred to spend his precious time. He liked the sandstone walls, tinted green from centuries of rain and moss – it wasn’t attractive but they brimmed with character. Gothic chandeliers were strung between the towering bookshelves where a single librarian sorted through a trolley of books, painstakingly ordering them onto the shelves. Its aisles were cave like, dwarfed by thousands of books recording a history of human thought.
Today, however, he had been dragged to the new section of the library. It was bustling with near-sighted students snerching books from the shelves and piling them into towers on their friends’ arms. James raised his nose. The smell of varnish and ink permeated the air and tested his patience as he waited for Ms Magnus to return from the cabinet housing recently published papers.
“Still alive,” he made the observation of himself, when she finally returned.
Helen Magnus held several folders tied together with green and gold ribbon.
“They don’t like us borrowing these,” she began, sliding them onto the dark wood table before taking her seat opposite. “New publications except for this one,” her finger tapped the folder on top, “unpublished work by one of the university patrons. We’re especially not allowed to borrow this.”
His eyes tracked over the name on the cover, ‘Karl Landsteiner – On Red Blood Cells’ James had never borrowed anything from the library before, so this restriction did not concern him.
Helen undid the ribbon and gently spread the folder’s contents into a fan as you would a pack of cards. They were roughly printed on fine tissue-like paper with sketchy diagrams and hand-written annotations scattered throughout the text. Hesitantly, she folded her arms onto the table and leant toward James, searching him for something.
He stared curiously back with mellowed-brown eyes. A casual passer would not guess their sharpness but Helen was no casual bystander.
“I’ve been working on something for a while,” she said softly, “but I am wise enough to recognise my limits. The subject which intrigues me is young to the world and so the information I have been able to acquire is either scattered, incomplete or contradictory. Truth is, I need someone who has spent time on their own investigation of the subject matter.”
He wondered how she had known.
“Like me?” he replied, his voice softening to silk.
“Exactly like you.”
Helen Magnus had surprised James Watson already. His private obsession into the workings of the human body was not public knowledge.
“You intrigue me, Ms Magnus.”
“Helen, please,” she corrected him.
“Helen, then. You have my attention but not my trust. Frontiers of science are often a viper pit and my good sense is telling me that you are a very cunning participant in the workings of the world.” James paused. “However,” he added with a smile when he saw that she did not flinch at the accusation, “there are worse partners to be had. I’d like to know one thing before I agree to help you. How did you find out about me?”
Her eyes shone.
“That was easy my dear Watson. Someone had been borrowing the campus’s supply of glasswear – that, and I cornered your dorm mate in the corridor.”
“Secrets do not become him,” said Watson of poor Nigel. The universe had entrusted him with the awful burden of honesty and no way to hide it.
Nikola found himself hovering over a small stream trickling its way around the rocks at the front of the university. He followed it through hedges and encroaching lawns all the way around the side of the building and out into the rear gardens where it ended in a freezing pond.
The back of the university looked like a long, blonde-stone rectangle lounging on the iridescent green slope. Several floors high, the university was dominated by a library at its centre with sweeping iron windows and Juliet balconies.
The garden was hemmed in by the city on all sides whose noise and dirt was kept at bay by a cast iron fence too tall to scale and capped in fleur-de-lis. A planting of Plane Trees hid most of the city in the warm seasons with their dense branches of soft foliage. It was nothing like home, but Tesla preferred it to the building.
He glanced back at the rock prison with a grin when he saw the shattered windows and singed stone from the lightening strike. It would take them some time to dismantle the lightning rod adhered to the roof above his room.
Nikola Tesla knelt down to the eerie pond. The creek fed into it in a gentle, metre wide channel with a steady current at its centre and slow water lulling by the banks. Croaking in the long grass Tesla could hear his prey – namely smallish green frogs. He would need at least four for his next experiment and he had just the thing to acquire them.
James shook his head to quiet Helen’s constant stream of hushed questions.
“It is not safe, in my experience, to mix the blood of species,” James flipped through Landsteiner’s notes. “This explains why it is even dangerous to attempt transfusions between humans. The success rate is a little under half – not a mortality rate that appeals to me.”
“Damn,” Helen whispered, defeated. She had read the same thing a thousand times but she had been really hoping that the papers had been mistaken. She was about to pack up everything and vanish when James withdrew one of the folders and spun it around to face her.
“With an exception,” he said, enjoying the way her bright hair slid over her shoulders as her head snapped up. “I have found a measure of success in swine. It is an undocumented phenomenon drawn from principles in this report.”
“Could you show me?” her elbows took the brunt of her mass as she bridged the distance between them.
“Of course. I highly doubt that your motivations are sheer curiosity and I guarantee that you’ll find nothing further but mysteries until you start asking honest questions.”
Helen frowned. James Watson would not be as easily manipulated as she had hoped.
“Show me this experiment and I’ll let you in.”
Two great minds sized each other up and settled upon a joint disquiet.
“Tonight then,” he said. “My lab is prepped. If you can stand the disorder, you are welcome to join me.”
Tesla’s frogs croaked to themselves, hopping around the woven basket that he had borrowed/stolen from Helen.
He lay on the grass, staring into the black water with an absent set of eyes. He thought about the rocks of the building grinding into dust, melting and being remade into mountains only to be pulverised at the end of the world. Then they would be a swirling cloud of particles, wandering into energy until even that dissipated – stretched to infinity. As far as he could determine, nothing was permanent in this existence. A life, memory and even the very soul is gone in the whisper of a breath.
Except for this.
Nikola sat by the edge of the stream, watching the eddy currents swirl along the bank like tiny galaxies following the tide. He imagined the speckles of dust on the waters’ surface as the endless bank of stars sliding by and the ripples of the insects touching its tension as the endless propagation of gravity waves. Suddenly, what no man could ever hope to see was before him. Nikola looked at it and smiled casually, blowing a leaf across the water.
The scene was spoilt by a splash.
A muddy ball bobbed in the pond, destroying the subtle patterns of the water with a series of concentric waves. Tesla fished it out, taking hold of a nearby tree and stretching over the water until his cuff dipped into it.
“Urgh...” he muttered, dragging the ball back to the bank where he found a short, untidy student rubbing their nose in expectation. Tesla held the ball up to the snivelling creature who moved to take it, but Tesla withdrew, holding it well out of reach. “And who are you?” he asked.
The boy was visibly out of breath. Behind him, a line of others were assembling at the top of the hill, clearly waiting for the ball.
“Ni-gel,” he puffed, reaching again for the ball. “Com’on, give us the ball back.”
Tesla, who was both slender and tall, had no imminent desire to oblige him.
“I know you,” he said. “Aren’t you the one that snores through late class?”
“Hey man,” Nigel Griffin replied, “at least I bother to attend.”
Tesla considered this, but was sure that there was little difference between absence and snoozing. Bored of this creature, Tesla threw the ball over his head, back up to where the others were waiting.
“Run along now,” Tesla shooed the student away from his presence. When he was gone, Nikola sat back on the bank only to notice a trio of frogs hopping happily to freedom. His basket had been knocked open by the ball. “Wonderful...” he growled.
“What is?” A flurry of black lace and blonde hair settled on the grass next to him. Helen lifted her hand out of the path of an escaping frog and soon found her basket upturned and suspiciously empty. “Did you steal my basket?” she raised her accusing eyes at Nikola, but he was engrossed in the stream bubbling along at their feet. “I’m going to pretend that you gave me an eloquent apology and really good excuse,” she picked up her possession, dusting the grass of its lid.
As usual, Nikola had not said a word to her. She liked that. His silence was approval. Had he wanted her gone, Nikola would have made her keenly aware of it.
“You’ll have to find your own way to class tonight,” she continued. “In my opinion, you should make an effort to be there. It’s the least you can do after causing damage to campus property.”
Nikola lost interest in the water and instead, lay back onto the grass, staring at the grey bank of clouds rolling over them. He felt a fleck of rain on his cheek as Helen joined him, stretching onto the lawn.
“Good,” Helen sighed.
The night was thick. Instead of raining, the clouds had fallen to the ground in a cold mist that hid everything but the uppermost level of the university.
Helen rested against the window, seeing nothing but a grey blur from the ground floor. The clock behind her ticked loudly and then chimed. Evening class was starting but Helen had no intention of attending. Instead, she waited by the window for James Watson.