"Ouch..." Nikola shook off a large spark that snapped over his skin. It left a nasty scorch mark which he attempted to rub off on his jacket to no avail. "There," he declared finally, as the tangle of equipment spluttered into life. The room was brighter now, baking under the glow of the arclight. "All it takes is a little bit of love."
"He's not bad, Helen," James muttered, nudging the young Nikola out of the way. "I'll give you that."
The four of them closed in on the large experiment table which sprawled along the end of the room. It was creaking under the weight of the new equipment Nigel had been busy setting up for their experiment. Despite his manners and clumsily large hands closer in nature to paws, Nigel was a perfectionist when it came to science. His rough approach yielded reliable results, much to the frustration of James.
"Shall we?" James beckoned Helen closer. She came to his side, followed instinctively by Nikola who squeezed himself in next to her.
Soon, all four of them had arranged themselves into a crowded line either side of James, staring intently as Nigel produced a basket. He reached inside and withdrew a startled creature. Nigel passed over the squirming frog, holding it steady as James wrapped his fingers tightly around it like a clamp. Nikola smiled at the frog, peering back into its dark slit eyes. It was a beautiful creature with two oversized yellow orbs for eyes and extremely long legs which it was using to bat at James' hand leaving trails of sticky liquid on him.
James flinched, appalled by the creature.
"The book, Helen..."
Helen knelt to a large pile of books on the side wall, scanning down their spines until she dug her fingers between them and extracted her desired victim. She laid the book open on the experiment table next to James.
Nigel unrolled a leather satchel to reveal a sinister arrangement of implements tucked inside its pockets. Nikola's breath caught as he scanned the faces of James and Nigel nervously.
"What kind of experiment are we doing, exactly..." he asked. Helen was packed in tight beside him, staring on eagerly as Nigel loosened the buckles holding the metal objects in place. The look that laced her eyes frightened Nikola – he had never seen that grin upon her lips before.
James tipped the frog onto its back as Nigel selected four long, tapered needles – holding their slender shafts up to the light.
"Good quality," commented James, as he unfolded one of the frog's legs, holding its squirming appendage to the table.
"Only the best," Nigel replied, threading the sharp metal through the frog's skin, nailing it to the wood beneath. The creature croaked in protest. Panic rippled through its body as Nigel selected another needle.
Helen gasped quietly, finding Nikola's hand. He barely noticed the brush of fingers over his skin as he stood transfixed, watching as each of the frog's legs were secured. Next, James selected a medical scalpel and cut a shallow slit down the centre of its chest. Nigel pulled the skin open, pinning it out of the way to reveal its inner workings.
"Oh my god!" Nikola's throat clenched over. His stomach lurched as the little creature's heart beat steady, pumping the lifeforce through its splayed body. It was still alive.
"Now," said James indifferently, "we inject the sample."
Nikola's body convulsed. He broke away from Helen, stumbling halfway through the room before hurling his lunch over the floor.
Nigel's nose tweaked. "Nice," he muttered over his shoulder. "Do us a favour Helen, don't bring your friends along for the show next time."
"He's not like us," she snapped, before venturing toward Nikola who was coughing and shuddering. "Calm down," she whispered, placing a hand on his back.
"This is wrong," he rasped, pushing her off. "What are you doing here Helen? God..." Nikola fell to his knees, cradling his head. Helen caught him. Her arms slid to his waist and she held Nikola tightly from behind.
"Get him out of here," hissed James, trying to ignore the distraction. According to the book, they didn't have long to complete this experiment before the frog gave up the last of its life.
No one had noticed the door to the dormitory creak open. John, with his hand still clutched around the door's frame, was taken aback by the scene. The stench of the room was unbelievable, toxic and nauseating as he breathed it in. Helen was over by the wall, clutching a very ill Tesla. His pale face was the first to spot John. Nigel and James stood with their backs to the door, leaning over some kind of table immersed in the bright glow of the electric light.
"What..." John opened his mouth, but no more words came out.
Nigel's eyes rolled dramatically as he swivelled around, turning to face the confused figure lingering in their doorway. "Another friend of yours?" he accused Helen, clearly displeased by the constant interruptions.
John stepped forward, dodging the beds cluttered in the walkway. There was something struggling on the table. Something small –
"It's a living creature," he said in horror, when he saw the tortured body of the frog breathe. Half a dozen elegant needles held it in place, quivering. A set of organs were nestled in its open body on display for the room. "This is the work of demons," he growled at them, before striding over to Helen. "Come on," he grabbed her sharply, pulling her away from Nikola. "We're leaving."
"John!" she struggled, trying to free herself as she was dragged unceremoniously through the room.
"Take him too, if it's not too much trouble," James pointed at Nikola, who had managed to stumble to his feet.
"Let – me – go!" Helen wriggled free, flicking her hair back over her shoulder. "What are you doing here John?"
"What am I doing? Our lecturer sent me to find you. I've searched half the university and where do I find the elusive Miss Magnus? In the men's dormitory with these three!" He pointed at them, angrily.
"That's not fair," she replied. "What we're doing is important."
John shook his head. "This is not what science is about. That poor creature – what good will it do you other than a passing curiosity? What does its suffering buy you, Helen?"
"I can show you, John," she said calmly, offering him her hand. "If you'll let me."
The carriage rattled to a halt. Its two passengers alighted, stepping into a torrent of rain which had buried the footpath beneath a sheet of rancid water. There was no thunder or lightening in tow, just clouds choked with moisture, alleviating themselves on the city of Oxford.
Helen hid under a hooded jacket, dodging a stray dog as she opened the ornate door to the townhouse and disappeared inside followed closely by John. Dripping, she turned up the gas lights. The hallway flickered into view. John undid his soggy coat and hung it on the hallstand.
"Come on," she beckoned him down the corridor toward a set of stairs leading up toward the ceiling.
"My father is more than a doctor," she confessed, taking the steps carefully. Helen held a lamp aloft in one hand and gripped the fragile railing with her other. She ducked under a stray beam of wood at the landing. John only ducked lower, already slouching his tall figure. "His passion for the workings of the human body led him to startling discoveries..."
He watched her slide a silver and gold key into the lock. Its beauty put the old door to shame. Helen turned the key until it clicked. "He likes keys," she added, "something about the unlocking of secrets."
"And treasure," added John, as the door creaked open revealing a dark expanse.
After lighting the hanging lamps, Helen rifled through one of the upturned desks until she found a leather diary.
"My father's life work," she said, running her thumb lovingly over the book's spine. "Treatments and cures to all manner of afflictions. The deeper he dug into the intricacies of humanity, the more disturbed he became. John, we're not divine beings – humanity is greater than that, more diverse."
"This is not good for you," John approached, but she stepped away, opening the journal to reveal a detailed sketch of a frightening form. It was a creature, hunched with hardened skin, cracked like scales with spines of bone along its back.
"What he found shocked him," she continued. "A world full of monsters."
"There are more things in this life than we should know," he replied. John's voice was low and steady, as if trying to coax a wild animal out of its den. Helen was not one to be lured. "Just leave this," he said softly, "and come with me."
"You don't understand," Helen replied firmly. "They were not monsters – what my father found. They were people born with anomalous conditions. There is so much to learn – how can I ignore it?"
They made their way back downstairs and seated themselves in Helen's modest lounge room. The room was dim, lit by the hallway behind. The rain outside fell harder, pounding into the glass windows with such force that Helen could feel each drop pounding through the air. John edged forward beside her.
"Listen to me," he eyed her sternly, cupping her tiny hands in his. "There is something higher than science –" she was about to groan, "and that is morality. Before every step ask yourself not, 'is this progress' but 'is this right'. That is the mark of a true scientist, something your friends have yet to grasp. You have talent. Do not waste it on these digressions."
"Hardly a digression," she protested. "This is the work of lifetimes."
"But not yours," John's hand moved to her cheek, tenderly stroking it. Amidst her vehement defence, a tear had slid down her cheek and was going cold when he brushed it away. "Find a better way to study them, these anomalous conditions. You are brilliant," he grinned, and she finally smiled. "So prove it."
Eventually she nodded.
"Will you help me?"
They stood up together. He let go of her and allowed himself to be led to the front door.
"Nothing would please me more," he admitted, collecting his coat and stepping back out into the storm. He descended the first of the three steps from the door, levelling his height off so that he could stare directly at her. He lingered, a breath shy of her lips. Helen blushed and retreated into the house, ducking behind the door.
It was no easy thing to sell benevolence to the others...
"Absolute absurdity – the woman's gone mad – women in general," James had said, snapping his book shut before finally relinquishing it.
"We're returning this one to the library," Helen replied sternly.
Eventually they came around. Helen's talents extended beyond science into the realm of persuasion. As for Nikola, he seemed content as long as they weren't torturing frogs. They set a regular date to meet and explore the world of science beyond their lectures – every Thursday evening. The unnamed pig became a pet, saved from an unpleasant fate.
Helen set about organising the dormitory into a proper laboratory. She pilfered whatever she could from the old man in charge of the university's supplies, stockpiling it along the walls of the dorm. The library suffered heavy losses with all of its lost books ending up safely piled in Nikola's attic except for one casualty, sacrificed in the name of science or as Nikola often insisted, 'a completely accidental accident'.
Their collective name also came about via accident. As they made their daily strut from the lunch rooms to the garden, one student set to calling, 'them five!' as they passed. They travelled in a pack now, and the name stuck. James tweaked it a bit of course, improving on its grammar.
'The Five' made them feel like they were part of something. They weren't really but that didn't matter.
Nikola's opinion of Nigel improved, if only because he found the strange man particularly skilled at acquiring equipment. Honestly, Nikola had never had so much wire to play with which resulted in weekly direct hits to the building by cruising lightening storms. Helen had less luck with Nigel, choosing to keep out of his way. He made no secret of his dislike of her; often neglecting to greet her is she arrived in a group of flat insulting her intelligence at every opportunity. James and John – now there was a curious bond. They were never particularly fond of one another, but their intellects delighted in the challenge. Deconstructing the other was an entertainment that they could sustain happily for hours and whenever they got bored with that, they returned to their other favourite past time, a shared dislike of Nikola.
It was another late night. Helen was tucked into a chair, half asleep as she read through a stolen library journal. A loud 'crash' startled her when the front door flew open and her father hurried in, slamming and locking it behind him. Gregory Magnus went directly to his study where he collapsed into his chair and began furiously writing a letter.
Helen closed the book on her lap and crept to her father's study. She hung in the doorway, watching him tilt a candle over the folded letter, letting its wax drip. He pushed a seal into it and sighed heavily, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.
Her father was filthy. His clothing had been torn and soaked in mud. There were scratches across his forehead, some of them bleeding, and a deep gash over his hand which he'd covered with a piece of fabric torn from his shirt. She could smell the remnants of a peat bog and an overpowering dose of kerosene in the air.
"Father," she whispered, catching Gregory's attention. He looked up at Helen as if he'd forgotten all about her existence.
"Helen – go to your room at once and lock the door," he instructed. Gregory undid the lid on one of the crystal vessels containing scotch. He did not bother with a glass, swigging directly from the bottle. "Quickly!" he hurried her, when she failed to move.
Helen hadn't seen her father in weeks and now he turned up, looking like he'd spent that time crawling through sewers.
"Why?" she asked, stepping into the room. Gregory would have none of this, flaring into a rage uncharacteristic of him.
"This is no time for, 'why'!" he yelled, swiping the letter off the desk and burying it in his coat. "Do as I say and I'll come back for you." Gregory fled toward her, snatching the metal poker from beside the fire on his way. "I am sorry," he said, calming enough to kiss his daughter on the head. "But you must hide. Promise you will do that for me. Take this," he added, withdrawing a small package wrapped in damp brown paper and fastened with string. "Hide it. Keep it safe."
There was a terror in his eyes that halted her questions. Helen simply nodded and let her father vanish back onto the streets, consumed by the night.