Beyond the Shore
Helen and Nikola happened, by chance, to enter the living room at exactly the same time. She had left Miss Marino to get some more rest; he had come in bearing a large box wrapped in brown paper. Magnus looked across at him interestedly, amused not only by his timing, but the irritation on his face.
"There's never a bell boy when you actually need one," he groused, abandoning the large box where they'd laid out the maps before, and taking off his gloves.
Noticing that Magnus had already approached his little present to inspect it, he eyed her with a sardonic quirk of his lips, excited by the prospect of showing her his work.
"What is it?" She asked, even though she had some idea, resting her hand on the side of the cuboid that stood as high as her knees.
The quirk became an outright grin, "The very definition of small to mid-sized abnormal containment." He started taking off his coat, "Go ahead, open it up."
Helen hesitated only a moment, "Did you spend the whole night in your lab?" she asked, starting to peel back the easily punctured wrapping.
Tesla didn't answer, merely watched with pleasure, as her agile fingers tore the packaging apart and revealed the contraption beneath. She was obviously impressed, her eyes widening with disbelief, then frowning as she inspected the mechanism to ascertain how it worked.
It was essentially a glass box, like a lantern, and particularly simple – each pane of glass fixed within a metal frame, one of which formed a hinged door. The genius of the design, however, was the outer coating around all the metal components. Clearly it was insulation, designed to protect both handlers and the creatures inside from what was meant to conduct an electrical current: a deterrent to anything trying to nibble its way through the box's weaker points. A short sharp shock which would certainly make any creature think twice before trying it again. She looked up to him, about to convey her appreciation, but he beat her to it.
"Reinforced glass," he pointed to it with one long finger, "besides which it's so heavy I'd be surprised if the little devil spawn managed to create enough force and tip it over."
Helen tried picking it up and could feel, instantly, that no human being was going to be carrying this thing alone. It would probably take four of them once the creatures were inside. Presuming of course they weren't actually infested with them – and if they had the breeding rate of rats they could well be, "Good Lord, I take it we'll have to use the temporary measure to get them in here then."
He looked a little sheepish at that, as if he'd already realised that in his flurry of industrious enthusiasm he'd overlooked that point of functionality. "Yeah, well," he shrugged, "I did this in, what," he looked to her airily, "ten hours? And I had enough trouble trying to avoid overheating."
Not for the first time Magnus found herself exceedingly jealous of his ability to go without sleep when he wanted or needed to. He couldn't go without it forever, and even he grew tired eventually, but his vampire physiology managed to hold the usual fatigue at bay for quite some time when circumstances allowed. Of course, he'd never been much of a sleeper anyway, which probably helped.
He was giving her his biggest 'tell me I'm a genius' grin, and she couldn't help but broadly return that smile, "Good work Nikola."
His expression dropped at her standard, almost monarchical statement of approval, eying her dryly; "Good work?"
She chuckled, nearly giggled, for what must have been the first time since the collision with the ice berg. "It'll do very nicely," he looked about to complain so she stepped over, rested a hand gently on his lower arm – which made him freeze instantly – and pecked him on the cheek. "Thank you."
It was almost the best thank you he could have imagined. Almost; let no one say Nikola Tesla lacked imagination. Brimming with pride he could hear the blood in his own ears, the world shrinking down to her pursed smile – the one she gave when she knew she shouldn't be encouraging him. He wanted to kiss her, God only knew how much. Maybe she could tell, because she blushed, ever so slightly, eyes darting to the box and studiously avoiding his gaze.
Hope had distracted him long enough that the silence became noticeable, and slightly awkward. Only slowly did he regain command of his cognitive faculties, remembering the envelope in his inside pocket. Clearing his throat a little, he straightened out, "That reminds me," he plucked it from his jacket, showing it to her with a flourish.
She turned alertly to him the instant he spoke, eyes zeroing in on the communication.
"This just arrived."
Taking it gently from where it was pinioned like a card between his fingers she quickly opened the telegram out.
London GB. APR. 23-12.
DR HELEN MAGNUS.
WALDORF-ASTORIA HOTEL, NEW YORK.
EXTREMELY GLAD TO HEAR YOU ARE SAFE. RECEIVED MESSAGES. SOUNDS LIKE EUROPEAN SPECIES LAPILLUS DIABOLUS. COMMONLY MISTAKEN FOR GARGOYLES. SPIRES AND TOWERS FORM NATURAL NESTING SITES. BELLS SAID TO WAKE THEM FROM ETERNAL SLEEP CAUSING VISCIOUS ATTACKS. REGULAR RINGING KEEPS THEM AT BAY. CONCLUDE CERTAIN FREQUENCIES CAUSE ACUTE PAIN TO INNER EAR AND AUDITORY NERVE. BE CAREFUL. OUR REGARDS TO TESLA. 323 458 1204 WAITING FOR YOU. COME HOME SOON. WATSON.
Having read the note aloud she regarded Nikola pensively.
"European species?" his eyes were narrowed and looking at the message from over her shoulder, "How did they get here?"
Magnus didn't answer, feeding this information to their former theories. The species – whether wilfully or no – immigrates, then they might've hibernated, instinctively, in the vents as high as they could go. A noise or vibration at just the right pitch wakes them… it would certainly explain why there was no history of this happening in the Astoria before.
Even though their captive Lapillus had appeared to react very strongly to her own emotions, the attacks themselves, the bites, didn't necessarily correlate to the patient's moment of distress. That had come afterwards. She frowned at the paper in her hand, "I was just speaking with Miss Marino," she glanced back to him as he stepped back out of her space, "perhaps a chemical reaction is involved but not in the way you suggested. There's no measurable time-frame for the bite to take effect," she explained, "but there is one correlating factor. All of them had experienced intense emotional turmoil moments before their reaction to the toxin: Mr Kent was hearing graphic accounts of what his brother had encountered moments before his death, Miss Marino had just discovered her fiancé was brutally murdered, and Mrs Cabot had just learned of her child's death."
"So the emotion might've produced a chemical in their blood-"
She started to nod, "Or just increase the concentration of one already present, until it reacted negatively with the toxin."
He thought about it for a moment, it made sense with the samples in the lab but… "That still doesn't explain why Snapillus Diabolus over there went after you last night." He cocked an interested eyebrow, with a slow insinuating smile, "Unless you're emitting some kind of high-resonating frequency I don't know about?"
Magnus knew he wasn't being particularly serious, as usual, but even so she was taken a little off guard by the flirty tone – something which was clearly becoming a bit of a theme. She hesitated, exasperated slightly by the fact that he amused her, trying not to encourage him lest things become… peculiar. Quite what had gotten into him since London she didn't know, and wasn't sure it would be wise to ask.
"They could be sensitive to both: auditory and emotional frequencies. A burst of extreme negative emotion could potentially have the same effect as the bells."
"Well, we could test that theory."
"How?" she looked at him, somewhat relieved to see the return of her old familiar lab partner, focused more on the intellectual conundrum than her pink lips.
"A short, concentrated pulse of electricity should give off the same frequency as a set of bells," he eyed her pointedly, hand eloquently accompanying his plan with a simple gesture, "just shove the little terror in the cage and observe."
Magnus could already think of a few reasons this might not be such a brilliant move, top of the list though – "And you just happen to have a contraption that can generate such a pulse, lying around the apartment, or…?"
He grinned instantly and she knew there'd be trouble, "As a matter of fact..." he swung round to the other side of the room, to the table by the window, and pulled off the white sheet over his experiment with a flourish.
Helen's face dropped, like the penny in her head, as she realised what Tesla had been experimenting with.
Misreading Magnus' speechlessness completely, even as her eyes widened, Nikola began explaining the item he'd been so curiously quiet over before. "It's like the click of lightening as it strikes," he explained excitedly, "a change in the electromagnetic field causes a discharge, a vibration. I've been working on a way to replicate it, by creating controlled pulses of electricity that charge and discharge – this is the generator… or it will be." He shrugged, slowly realising that Magnus wasn't beaming with her usual expression of amazement at his genius and slightly put out, "It's not quite finished."
"You haven't been testing it in here, have you?"
He just explained to her that he was replicating the strongest forces of nature and she was getting all domestic on him? "It's not going to bring the hotel down around us Helen," which, after literally shaking the earth with one experiment, was a very likely concern she might legitimately hold, "it can only emit a controlled electric pulse with as much energy as I… oh…" he glanced at the meaningful glare she was levelling at him, realising what she meant – he'd woken them up. He grinned awkwardly, "yeah, kinda."
He flinched, "Okay, before we start throwing around wild accusations-"
"Or accurate ones."
Unamused, he stared pointedly at her, hand still raised in defence, "Let's do the test and make sure that it did actually have an effect on them."
"Or not," she griped, suddenly angry at herself for having pecked him on the cheek earlier, "Nikola, if what Watson's told us is true it will cause it severe pain."
"Severe pain…I'm not going to wilfully subject it to what might potentially amount to torture, unless there's absolutely no other option."
He didn't look convinced, turning under her glare with a harassed and slightly petulant sigh, a hand sweeping back his jacket to rest on his hip.
"If their nest adjoins this room I think we can be fairly confident how it was they've been disturbed – don't you? Blasting its ears will not be at all necessary."
"Spoil sport," he sulked, daring her to snap at him and at the same time, starting to feel the barest pangs of culpability under her wilful, commanding glower.
The transfer of the first inmate to Nikola's containment unit went surprisingly smoothly, a slight tip of the jar and the little gremlin slid in without much complaint. It almost managed to be cute, sniffing meekly at its new surroundings and pouncing on the bait they'd left in for food. The serving staff were no doubt used to Mr Tesla's unusual requests, but Helen had to admit they were probably scratching their heads at this one; wondering what their eccentric guest planned to do with a jar full of beetles and worms.
She watched the creature closely, ascertaining whether it had suffered any damage in its capture, and noting its behaviour. Meanwhile, Nikola hooked up the box to the mains with a temporary measure which he would, undoubtedly, end up paying for in damages whenever he eventually vacated. Friend of the family or no, the Astors weren't going to be pleased about him ripping holes in their walls with those sharp vampire claws.
By eleven they had ascertained that the vents nearest their patient were clear, and had moved onto the one in the sitting area, nearest his invention. Sure enough, they found no fewer than three Lapillus Diaboli, shrinking beneath loose scraps of weeks-old newspaper and attempting to cover themselves in piles of feathers. Promptly moving the light away so as not to alarm them, Magnus immediately directed an irked and emphatic glare down at Nikola. He barely kept eye contact, shifting on the spot to the right of the chair, arms crossed and full of antsy energy. Most of it deriving from the fact he was doing his damnedest not to apologise, despite the clear evidence that she'd been right.
"Huh, what a surprise," she deadpanned, leaning down so he was forced to pay attention, "a whole nest of sonically-sensitive abnormals just camped out on your doorstep!"
"No need to be unpleasant Helen," he levelled, before turning to grab the jar from the table.
She reached down the hole and started to lay down a trail of creepy crawlies, "You really just never think about the consequences of your experiments for anybody else, do you? Not ever. Firing out electric pulses in the middle of one of New York's biggest hotels, honestly! Of all the selfish…"
"Yes, of course, because I knew the little runts were stuck in the ventilation system," he groused, preparing to hold it up and catch whatever landed inside.
"It hardly matters Nikola – you had no idea what your experiment was going to do-" he looked about to argue that one but she carried on, "I'm sure you thought you had it worked out to the last equation but obviously reality had other ideas," she gestured at the vent, "and instead of taking the necessary precautions for everyone else's safety you just…" her mouth scrunched up, frustrated by the fact that she knew this little speech was purely for her own benefit. She had never once known Nikola Tesla to place anyone or anything ahead of his own desires – particularly intellectual ones.
He passed her the jar with a straight arm, staring at her in all seriousness and more than ready to hear the end of her chewing him out, "Finished?"
She let out a breath she didn't realise she'd been holding, and pulled the container out of his hands, "It wouldn't hurt to be a little more considerate to your neighbours is all that I am saying." Honestly, sometimes it felt more like she was dealing with a know-it-all adolescent than a fifty-six year old man.
Gradually one of the creatures started to sniff at the bait, daring to separate itself from the others in order to follow its nose, and its stomach. Another started protesting, like a mother hen warning that the venture was ill-advised, and hardly worth the gain. It was growling a little but nowhere near as rabidly as its friend had been yesterday night.
"Come on," Helen murmured, so quietly that had Nikola's senses been normal he might not have heard her.
She prepared the jar with a few extra maggots, so that it looked more appealing than the trail, her hands steady and waiting. Soon enough it fell – trapped inside as she brought the lid down over its head. Glancing, to make sure its disgruntled compatriots weren't any more distressed by its disappearance, she passed the jar to Nikola and let him move it to the larger cage. The sight of them retreating down the pipe, terrified, their beady eyes trembling in the half-light struck her. She couldn't quite take her eyes off of them.
Worried that they'd lose the Diaboli in the warren of tunnels should they bolt, Magnus flashed the torchlight, hoping it would daze and confuse them. Instead the two remaining abnormals whimpered, like the two children keening for their father, suspecting what the adults around them already knew – that they would never see him again. That he was sacrificing himself by passing them into the arms of the women on the lifeboat. The memory bolted through Helen as though she were still there, hands shaking as she helped to pass the eldest to a woman with a brown velvet hat and penny-coloured eyes that were wide and glassy, pupils shrunk to panicked dots. As the ship slipped under, as she gave up her chance to escape.
Nikola glanced over as all the creatures started making frenzied and sinister noises, noting the oddly vigorous pace of Helen's heartbeat, the tension in her stance, with concern. He locked up the cage, blanching with realisation that the viperous hiss from the vent was a war cry, and their feet were on the move towards her.
Before he'd so much as started speaking the obese-looking creature had barrelled to the opening, launching itself at Magnus' face with a savage snarl – spittle hanging from its jaws like the personification of everything she had felt inside. Almost in slow motion she realised what was happening, barely catching the weighty abnormal before it snapped at her, bearing down and trying to free itself with its bat-like arms.
He was already half-way across the floor, augmenting his speed to prevent the other from catching her unawares, "-stop thinking."
Distracted by such an odd assertion she wanted to glance at him, but couldn't risk the creature using it to its advantage. Instead, staring into its suddenly angry expression the cogs started to turn, and its eyes relaxed, the growl dialled down to a snarl, then a sneer, then a grumble – right there, in her hands. If it hadn't have been trying to bite off her face a second ago she might've considered it downright adorable.
Certain that its pack-mate had no intention of following the fat one out, Nikola took the abnormal out of her hands, staring pointedly at her as he did so and subconsciously rubbing the creature's fur behind its ears. Magnus wondered briefly whether he realised he was doing that… it made her smirk, and the little thing was practically purring as he reluctantly abandoned the point he was about to make for the practicality of getting the podgy one secure.
"Quite the defence mechanism," she managed to keep her voice neutral, devoid of the exhilarating rush she'd felt as danger had approached.
Not that she was fooling Tesla, who spared a momentary glance at her pressed lips and hands, recognising instantly that she was reigning herself in, regaining her cool.
Stepping down from the chair for a moment she attempted to catch her bearings, and ignore the fact that she'd enjoyed the adrenaline kick a little too much. She couldn't really deny it now – her emotional instability was clearly having a negative effect on them. They could sense her pain, and yet reacted against her as their enemy, as though she were the one hurting them, as if the overwhelming flurry of fear and grief and panic, were as loud as a chorus of bells to their collective mind. "They must be able to literally feel the distress of their pack. In the wild it probably enables them to overcome their own survival instincts and preserve the group as a whole," she ruminated, stepping closer to watch the specimen as it settled in with the other two quite sociably, "Sharing in each other's distress and simultaneously gaining the strength to react against the cause of it…" Looking a little closer at the newest inmate she wondered whether the – apparently female – creature was reproducing, "…like herd-mentality but on a deeper level…" it was fascinating, she literally couldn't wait to study them and work out exactly how it worked. Were they naturally sensitive to other species as well as their own or was this the result of an illness? Was it simply something they never encountered in their natural habitat?
Having secured the box, Tesla appropriated his handkerchief, feeling the need to wipe down his hands despite managing to avoid its saliva. He swanned over to Magnus' side, until – very aware of the fact that he was waiting for her attention – she finally registered his slightly off-kilter smirk, and obvious pleasure in having gained the unspoken acknowledgement that perhaps he'd been right.
"And… your nightmares set them off," he teased with smug delight, pointing at her with a jeering finger that made her irrationally irked by what was, in the end, only the most likely explanation.
Sadly it fitted the timescale – the survivors and relatives of Titanic passengers clustered together in one place, surrounding the freshly awoken Lapillus Diaboli. All of them feeling their own harrowing distress in the darkest, quietest moments of the night; driving the abnormals into fits of pain-filled rage that made them lash out and bite the nearest living being. A bite filled with venom which, in any other circumstance might remain benign, turned malicious by the increased fear, grief and panic of its victim.
It didn't make Tesla's culpability any less, of course. There must have been significant emotional trauma in the middle of such a metropolis long before the Carpathia docked, and since this had only arisen in the last week his experiment had clearly still had a direct impact on the whole affair. Only now she had to admit, they were both just a little bit responsible.
The death glare she directed only made Nikola grin triumphantly – for once the moral high ground was no longer exclusively hers.