Three of the petals skimmed off the edge of the table, caught in a swirling current of air and then, after several graceful tumbles, they were laid to rest on the dusty floorboards.
Helen and James's shoulder's brushed. They stood united in feverish curiosity. The source blood had ensnared them with promises. It was a trap carefully laid with delicate snares that shuddered every time their eyes wandered in its direction.
James tilted the vial. He watched as the blood moved in luscious currents. Inside he saw a shimmering universe of stars, hidden places and secrets yet missed the darkness which crept out of sight.
While James's motivations may have run to his physical advancement, Helen sought only knowledge. She wanted to know how far the human blueprint could be pushed – where the boundary between us and the beasts lay – why she was different and if, as her father had hinted, this blood posed a cure for her condition.
"They are going to experiment on themselves," said John, pulling away from Helen. He was deeply disappointed in her lack of self restraint. Maybe he was foolish, but he had believed her to be different from the others.
Nikola's face faded even further to a shade approaching pearl.
"That's right, isn't it?" John directed his accusation at Nigel, who looked away and muttered something that sounded like, 'yes'.
John waited for Nikola to break into objection – dissolve into one of his fits of logic declaring Helen and James to be insane. Instead, Nikola clasped his hands behind him, catching his damp cloak so that its violet silken lining quivered elusively in the candle-light.
"Why?" Nikola asked calmly, as if inquiring on the nature of two chemicals reacting.
"What kind of a question is that?" snapped John fiercely.
"A valid one," replied Nikola in a sudden sharpness, "which was not directed to you."
"If we go around calling ourselves 'The Five', pretending to be a unified group, secret society or whatever it is we're calling ourselves this time, then the question was directed at the room." John raised his finger accusingly in Nikola's direction. "The proposal is preposterous! Inject ourselves with something rumoured to be the most dangerous substance on earth – after watching several of the test subjects die and another turn murderous? No – it should not be done. We make fools out of ourselves, not scientists. The sacrifice," he looked especially at Helen, desperately seeking for the woman he remembered from the park in her cold blue eyes, "is too great."
"Everyone makes sacrifices for their profession," said Nikola simply, sensing that Helen had begun to sway to John's passionate words. When it came down to it, that was all the man was – one of words. John had never had any scientific credit in the group. He was always the organiser, liaison or walking map to the various towns he had travelled through. His contacts had been useful but now he was beginning to see the other side of science and its practitioners – the side that stood on the cusp of white cliffs, pondering the fall.
"Your coat is a beautiful weave," Nikola observed. "Tell me, do you often think of those who cowered in the half-light, spinning its cotton into delicate patterns before giving out their breath?"
"To know..." said Helen simply, in reply to Nikola's question. Her answer was elegant but true – the answer that she should have given him the first time he had asked her about her work.
"And you – Nigel?" Nikola was not surprised when he reluctantly agreed with Helen. Nigel always sided with the majority, like a swing voter trying to not to get swept away by a rip tide. "Then we are in agreement?"
Four of them nodded but the fifth shook his head angrily. "Certainly we are not!" shouted John.
"You want to know about Flash," said James, highly amused by the way Nikola had been courted by the biological sciences. 'Flash' was the name he had decided to give to the electrically charted rat. "Morality is not a question you care to consider, then. You prefer old fashion intrigue."
"Begging your pardon, but my morality is in a better stead than yours at the present."
James frowned. Nikola couldn't possibly know about... James's eyes searched Nikola's but he would have had more luck with a lump of coal. No-one had seen him leave those nights, escaping over the university lawn in the soft moonlight except perhaps for Nikola, whose window faced the gates and – and James had to admit that it was possible.
"And yes," Nikola finished, "naturally the behaviour of the rats intrigues me. I consider it my duty to discover the unknown," smiled Tesla, "and I suspect that Helen would proceed with this experiment whether we were present or not, gentlemen." He was right, she would have. "Which leaves us little choice."
"The rats?" Nigel asked, as he unwrapped his medical bag once again and prepped the equipment.
"No change," replied James, who had isolated the vampire rat and was now watching it tear at the bars. It was a feisty thing. The others were disturbed by its constant, high-pitched squealing and gnashing of its teeth over every surface.
"Not here..." said Helen suddenly, stopping Nigel. "Hidden away like this, it is not a fitting setting for what we are about to undertake."
"She doesn't want to die in a cellar," winked Nigel. "Not classy enough for the lady. Where then?"
They settled on the lounge room. James arranged the chairs, Helen lit the lamps, Nigel prepared the equipment, Nikola drew all the heavy drapes shut against the night and checked the locks on the windows while John made a nuisance of himself, sulking in one of the lounges.
Helen strode through the room. Her ornate dress dragged behind her, shifting the dust while her golden hair trailed down her back in soft ringlets, some of which had been messily pulled out of the way. All of them watched as she took her place on the chair. Her breath quickened, rising and falling with her chest as hear heart thrust her own blood faster.
She heard the scratch of material on the chair's back as John knelt beside her. He had not said a word to her since the decision, instead choosing to bow his head so that his face hid beneath several stray strands of hair.
"What are you doing?" inquired Nigel, as Nikola paced over and relieved him of the needle.
"Forgive me," he said, "but if anyone's going to be injecting this into Helen, it is to be me."
"We can't very well let John do it as he would likely waste the blood to vex us," Nikola was satisfied when John's head snapped up in scorn. "There's a strong possibility that James would splay Helen's arm for entertainment and you, I apologise for saying, have a heavy hand. No – I shall do this and that is the end of it."
By the light, Nikola drew the heavy needle from the vial, twisting it slowly in his fingers. It brimmed with blood. A spare droplet formed on the needle's sharp, metallic tip, fattening until gravity tugged it free. He turned slowly with the needle held aloft. The room had grown silent. As he moved slowly toward Helen, the sound of his shoes over the floor seemed to pound in their ears. Nigel shifted behind her chair, hawking the experiment eagerly.
She was frightened.
"And fury shall become us," said James, "knowledge, burn us and the world scorn us for the truth." He moved respectively out of Nikola's way as if he were carrying a newborn rather than a syringe.
"It's ready," said Nikola, coming to rest beside her. She stopped her breath entirely, desperate to appear calm. The colour in her face betrayed her to the others.
"You don't have to go first," Nigel offered. It was, after all, strange to let the woman place herself in danger ahead of the men, of which there was a considerable number present. "John or I could have a go to start..."
John lifted his eyes disapprovingly as he was yet to decide upon his own fate. Still, he would allow himself to go first if it would save Helen.
"He's right," said James, "no need for unnecessary heroics. The side effects are completely unknown." In humans, at least.
"Thank you gentlemen," she finally took a breath. Her voice remained steady as she spoke, "But this experiment was of my design. I should be the one to prove its worth."
"Helen," John took her hand urgently. "You are certain?"
"We've risked too much to turn back now. We need to know. You may precede, Nikola." She looked down and took another breath as Nikola ran his finger over her arm, nudging her sleeve out of the way. The pit of her arm trembled as the needle poised above her naked skin and his thumb slipped into position, resting on the plunger.
She could feel his heartbeat through their touching skin. It was raging, tumbling blood around his limbs but apparently not into the hand that refused to move. Nikola's eyes flicked up. They were large and clear, giving her this final, silent chance to withdraw. He waited but she held her gaze fiercely.
Nikola slowly lowered his eyes to her arm and, with a hesitation of his own, brought the needle to her skin.
Nikola did not wait. Immediately he pushed it through her skin and began to expel the blood. Helen flinched. It was freezing – like icewater flowing into her – seeping through her veins as Nikola's thumb pushed down determinatively on the plunger. As soon as he was done, her body shook. A sharp pain pulled her arm muscles tight and she heaved in shock, reaching blindly for Nikola and John's hands. They both held onto her as the muscle contractions worsened and she fought to keep the pain at bay.
Nigel shifted, unclasping his hands and circling round the chair and over to his bag where he hunted through it. James did not move, instead he committed every detail of her reaction to memory. Nikola hastened a glance at John, both were lost for action as the pain turned to agony too extreme for Helen to bear.
"We've got to make it stop," said John, as Nikola threw the needle to the ground and placed his other hand behind Helen's back, forcing her forwards. "What are you doing?"
"She cannot breathe," he replied. "Help me..." his elegant fingers had begun unlacing the back of her corset. John tried to protest but Nikola raised his voice angrily, "She's dying, Druitt!"
"Here," James pushed through them and set about undoing the thousands of layers of ribbon with more skill than the others would give him credit for. He muttered halfway through about the absurdity of female attire until the bodice loosened and Helen gasped. "She looks better," he said, when Helen's breathing settled.
"Are you all right?" John lifted a hand to her face. She nodded.
"The pain is stopping," she said. "Ah –" she closed her eyes, trying to concentrate on what she was feeling, "slight tingling in my arm and it was cold, very cold..."
"Metallic," whispered Nigel. "Look at the way it glistens in the light." He pushed the vial of blood aside next to the smelling salts which he had unnecessarily excavated.
"I am fine," she let go of both men by her side. "It was just a shock. Well..." she flicked her hair back over her shoulder. "Who's next?"
Nikola's head fell into his hands as he collapsed to the ground beside the chair in relief. "A moment, please," he begged her, as he leant against the chair.
"I shall go next," James volunteered himself. "If you please, Nikola..." he pestered the man on the ground.
The others followed in quick succession, with John falling last – still muttering his disapproval as the needle sank through his skin. Their reactions were all the same – nothing. Aside from the initial prick, the four men had no supplementary side-effects to the injection. Much like the rats, they stood dumbly, inspecting their arms for irritation but found nothing except a small hole.
"That's it then," said James. "Whatever is done is done."
"Now we must wait," said Helen quietly. She still felt uneasy – ill even.
"We will stay with you tonight," said John, and the others quickly agreed – as much for their own sakes as for her. Nobody wanted to be alone, for fear of what they had done and what they might become.