Fantasy Horror academia vampire Caren Gussoff Nikola Tesla undead scientists

Emeritas

By Caren Gussoff Sumption
Feb 26, 2020 · 3,550 words · 13 minutes

Orb of power

Photo by Ramón Salinero via Unsplash.

From the author: "Not only am I known as the emperor of invention, he says, the genius who lit the world, the patron saint of modern physics, but I am a very talented dancer. Not many people know that. " And even fewer know that Nikola Tesla became a vampire. Originally published in Mad Scientist Journal (2013) .


Niko doesn't believe I can't dance. Get up, he demands, and show me what you can do. He pulls my arm. Not only am I known as the emperor of invention, he says, the genius who lit the world, the patron saint of modern physics, but I am a very talented dancer. Not many people know that. 

Well, I tell him, you're really better known as the father of alternating current. Or, maybe, resonant air-core transformers. Or fighting Superman. David Bowie played you in a movie, I say, and straighten my shoulders. One stupid TV show even had you commanding a cabal of evil vampires.

I watched that one, he says, with great interest. But they had it all wrong. He shakes his head. Terribly wrong. Niko poses me formally into his arms. He slides me around and around, first in a father and daughter dance, then into a ferocious whirling.

In the old country, he says, we called this Csárdás. 

I push him away and lean on the wall, panting. I think I threw up a little in my mouth, I say. 

In his day, women knew how to dance properly, he says. Then he tells me that I will have to learn to dance. You can spare the time now to learn to dance like a lady, he tells me. You have all the time in the world.

That's part of the deal? I ask.

Yes, child, he says. 

I think of all the time I've spent thinking about all the time in the world. I've dedicated my life to studying all the time in the world. I think of Zeno of Elea dividing everything by two and never being able to cross the river. I think of Sir Newton shooting an arrow towards eternity, straight and true; and Boltzmann laying all his chips on the long shot, that a million monkeys typing on a million typewrites would eventually unscramble an egg. I think of dear Dr. Einstein costuming space in a saggy dress of misshapen time, complete with matching hat; Richard Feynman rolling aggies down the path of least resistance straight into the street; I imagine Feinberg's tachyons leaving their own party weeks before they even arrive; and Gott, unknitting a scarf of phase-changing cosmic strings.

Stop calling me child, I add. I am thirty seven years old.

Niko laughs at that and places a palm on the wall on either side of me like a lover moving in for a kiss or like a maniac trapping a victim, or a little of both. His black eyes shine as he tells me, I will be back for you after midnight.

A thousand physicists wandering its halls obliterated any trace grandeur, majesty, or regalness of the Grand Majestic Regal Hotel. 

It's a rare scientist that can look well-turned out. They're all elbows and knees, t-shirts with pleated slack, haircuts like folk art dolls.

Dean Price paced in front of the conference room where I was scheduled to speak, a folder tucked beneath his arm. There was no way to avoid him. "A pleasure to see you, Dean," I said.

Price had a habit of raking his eyebrows against the growth when he was disconcerted, frustrated, or had to act as an administrator. No matter how many times I'd been on the receiving end, it always set my teeth on edge. "You were supposed to cancel this presentation," he said. 

"Oh," I feigned. "This one?" 

"We need to discuss this," he said. "Now."

"Now?" I asked.

"Now," he answered and looked at his watch. "You have ten minutes."

I held up my hands. I was caught.

Price vigorously rubbed his brows, and began. "What am I going to do with you?" he asked. One especially long hair obtruded over his eye and trembled. "The department is not sanctioning this presentation. You knew that. Yet, here you are."

"It was already paid for," I muttered. "And besides—"

"You didn't think you'd get caught." Price sighed. "Look, your grants aren't being renewed, your student evaluations are in the toilet, you've skipped every committee meeting for the past five semesters, and you haven't published in a peer journal since--" he looked into a folder he held in his hands. The hair bobbled. 

"Since grad school," I said to the hair.

Price smoothed his eyebrows back down, then back across them. The long hair pulled loose and drifted through the air. "Indeed," he said. 

"You brought my file?" I asked as the hair caught on a silent puff of air, then landed on the beige carpet.

"You've been avoiding me," he said. 

I stared at the hair, coiled on the carpet, and Price took my bowed head as ignominy. "I'm sorry," he said, lowering his voice. "This is difficult for everyone. The facts remain, you haven't published; you're unfunded, ranking well below department average, and...your work is, well, unconventional." He drags his fingers across his eyebrows and pinches the bridge of his nose. "I just don't know how else to say it. Unconventional. Fringe. Groundless."

The conference room doors opened and people filtered back into the hallway, knees and elbows and rolling carts, refilling coffee cups from catering trays, chatting, blowing Price's hair out of sight. 

"Weird. Inconsistent. Weak. Unparalleled," he continued.

I forced myself to look back up at him. "The work of many excellent scientists were considered strange by their colleagues and students and proven to be momentous steps forward." I said. I held up my hand and counted. "Joseph Lister, Alan Turing, John Nash..."

Price grabbed my hand. "I like you, Megan. I always have. You are a brilliant physicist. But you are not Joseph Lister, Turing, or god help us, John Nash." He looked at his hand over my hand, dropped it, and stepped backward. "I'm going to have to take some disciplinary measures. What do you think I should do?"

I thought about what he should do. I thought he should stop messing his eyebrows. I thought the committee needed to be told to fuck themselves and given a remedial lecture on the rules of parsimony. "I don't fucking know," I said. I watched as the dean prepared to slice me open; destroy my work with sober detachment. "I have to go in now," I said.

"And this is not even supposed to be happening." He peeked into the conference room where the gofers were setting up the placard with my name, with New Theories Of Electromagnetic Radiation and Quantum Tunneling. "Well," he said. "After you."

Before you leave, I tell Niko, I need to hear all of this again. Tell me once more, I say. Please.

OK, child, Niko says. We call Dalton the old man, but Maxwell calls himself the older man. I work quite closely with them. There's also Niels Bohr; he takes awhile to get to know. Niko thinks for a moment, then continues, Euler, Lise--Lise Meitner--and Wiener. Oh, Erdős is quite charming. And Julia, Julia Robinson, oh, you two will get along quite well. And Julia's a wonderful dancer.

I always thought Robinson went from leukemia, I say.

We all had to go from something, Niko answers. Have you given any thought to how you are going to go? 

I don't know, I say. 

You could hang yourself, Niko says. That's classic. Or slit your wrists in the bathtub.

I guess, I say. I was hoping for something dignified.

Dignity in death? Poppycock, Niko replies.

I don't want to talk about it, I say. Really, I don't want to think about dying. Tell me again about the rules. Garlic? I ask.

Food in general is difficult to process. 

But alcohol is fine, I say.

Very fine, he nods. Tonic.

Stakes? I ask.

I would never recommend in good faith any simultaneous massive tissue trauma. Beheading, either, he says. He makes a face. I'd avoid if at all possible.

Crucifixes? I ask.

Niko closes his eyes and crosses himself; then looks at me with his shiny eyes. All truth is divine. 

So, I respond. We don't fry if someone tosses holy water on us?

Niko moves his lips silently, so I press on. And blood? I ask. We drink blood?

Only occasionally. The mechanical corpuscles' replication eventually depreciates, requiring a calibration against organic corpuscles. But you don't have to hunt, he says. Unless you are into that sort of thing. 

The nanobots need blood to adjust genome accuracy, I murmur.

He waves his hand impatiently. That's what I said.

I shake my head. And no sunlight, I add.

Indeed.

Why me? I ask.

Niko sighs.

Just tell me again.

Child, Niko says. Your work on radiation is where you fit into all this. He smiles at me. Are you ready now?

I don't know, I say. Then he is upon me, biting my neck. It hurts, like any first time. It's not like you imagine it, if you imagined such a thing. It's not elegant, sensual; I think stories and films have gotten it wrong. It's imprecise and dull, a blunt, human attack. My eyes fill with tears, but that I am not crying. I lean my head back against the wall, close my eyes and the tears fall onto my dress.

Then Niko begins to laugh. He pushes me away, and says, Really, I shall be back for you after midnight. He looks at me. It is time for you to die.

That wasn't it? I ask.

No, he says, laughing his laugh. That was showmanship.

I'm afraid, I say.

We are all afraid sometime, he answers.

Price insisted on introducing me, "...here to present a warm welcome to the newly-independent scholar, formerly of my Theoretical Physics department of the University of Tarkington, Dr. Megan Ross."

I stared at a shadow cast by the projector of my disheveled hair in order to make it through the presentation. The audience was full of eyebrows, muttered words that sounded like ridiculous, unfeasible, unworkable, absurd.

Price stood again when I was done and spoke a few words about my former department, other research projects, and upcoming symposia. I shifted my weight from foot to foot until he turned the floor back to me. I called for questions, but the crowd already rushed for the door. Elbows, knees, eyebrows, unconventional, fringe, groundless. 

I shuffled my papers and took my time shutting down my laptop. When I looked up again, one person remained in the empty room. Niko, wearing a Prince Albert coat and a derby hat, waved a white silk handkerchief at me. "My name is Niko, Doctor Ross. I have some questions," he said. "Perhaps we could get something to eat and talk?"

Niko scrunched his nose at the platter of cold cuts and pickles on the catering tray. "Every year," he said, "it gets worse. Come." He took my arm. "Let's find something that tempts neither germs nor gout."

Niko guided me to the hotel restaurant and told me to order us brandy and champagne cocktails with 3 twists of lemon apiece. "They used to call this drink Ambrosia," he said. "It's a bit old-fashioned, but quite delicious." 

When the drinks arrived, he fingered the 2 lemon slices in his drink, and told me to call out to the maître d. "Tell him," he said, "we ordered three lemon twists apiece. And we'd like napkins. Eighteen to be exact. And order yourself whatever you'd like to eat." 

"I don't want to bother the maître d," I said. "I'll wait for the server. She'll be right back."

"You really should assert yourself," Niko said. "Insist on the service you deserve."

"Why don't you?" I demanded. "Why must I..."

Niko raised his palms to me. "I have some," he said, pausing to consider his words. "I have some deeply-seated eccentricities that make some situations particularly difficult for me." He looked at his hands. "In cases such as this, I simply must place myself at the mercy of my companion's expertise and skill."

"All right," I agreed. I motioned to the maître d and explained. Niko watched the maître d walk away, unable to relax until the additional lemons were presented, eighteen napkins counted, and I had carnation pink rib eye before me.

"Meat is a vicious and base foodstuff," Niko muttered, eyeing my steak. "Barbaric."

"You told me to order whatever I wanted," I said. "And I wanted a steak." But it was difficult to concentrate on eating; Niko's black eyes watched me chew each bite. I swallowed, and said, "You said you had questions about my work."

"A pretense," he answered. "I wanted to meet you. I am familiar with your work. It interests me. It interests the company I represent."

"I see," I said. "You're in private enterprise, then?" Chemical and bio-med companies were always wooing scientists whose work could be monetized. In my case, I didn't see at all how my work would be of interest. The steak was delicious, however.

"Not exactly," Niko said. "I am a scientist myself." He tugged down the hem of his coat. "Now my work is privately funded." He motioned to my drink. "You should try it. It really is quite good."

I took a sip. It was a nice flavor combination--I'd give him that. "I could never do that," I said. "Every scientist I know that's jumped ship to the private sector talk about how their research gets limited by product line, marketing. And the companies suck them dry like vampires, then reorg them out of a job once their work is no longer profitable."

"And academia is so different?" Niko asked, pointedly. He leaned in towards me as if we shared a secret.

I shifted in my chair. "I don't know what you've heard…"

"It doesn't matter what I've heard," he said. "What matters is what's true. The academic machina depends on bloodless drones performing ceremonial mathematics on tenterhooks to barter their souls for tenure. And forbid you should question, ask, imagine, or dream, or risk being torn asunder the hydra that poses as the trustees." Niko shakes his empty glass. "Order us another round," he said, "and I will tell you more. I have been authorized to offer you the deal of a lifetime. Of a million lifetimes."

My mother always told me I was the only child she'd ever seen, hers' or otherwise, that braved scraped knees, cut elbows, the slings and arrows of their tiny child misfortunes with such sober detachment. I would just watch her clean and bandage my wounds. Weird child, she'd say, and smooth down my hair, which refused to behave no matter the direction she smoothed it.

I scrolled through my cell phone, trying to find someone who would talk some reason into me, someone to say goodbye to. I cancelled my cable service, a dentist appointment, and my gym membership. "We're sorry you'll be leaving us," the chirpy operator said, then disconnected. 

"Me too," I whispered, then caught my reflection in the mirror over the desk, my hair in disarray, the pale skin marking with age, and I threw my cell phone against the wall. I picked up the hotel line and dialed down to the front desk. I ordered room service, the first thing I could think of--an entire cheesecake--and then I asked for Price's room. They put me through and it rang back to the desk.

"He's not answering, ma'am," the clerk said. "Would you like to leave him a message?"

"No," I said. "Yes. Tell him Dr. Megan Ross called. Tell him to fuck his disciplinary measures. In fact, tell him just to go fuck himself."

"All right, ma'am. Anything else, Dr. Ross?" the clerk asked.

"No," I said. "Thank you. That'll be fine." I hung up, rubbed my temples, and then left out a fifty dollar tip for the bellhop that would find me.

I sat down in the shower, held my knees to my chest, and let the water beat on my head. After awhile, I plugged the drain and lay back. The tub filled slowly. I tried to imagine death. 

This hurts a little, like any first time. It's not like you imagine it, if you imagined such a thing. Books and movies, they lie. My eyes fill with tears, but I will not cry.  

I stared at the ceiling until it went blurry and my eyes stung.  Then I just floated until the water went cold.

Now I see my mother tending to my knee. I see my life and all its props, my wild hair, my hand clutching a doll, a candy bar, my house keys, or some guy's dick, like they had absolutely nothing to do with me. I try to hold these visions, but soon, there is nothing else. There's not a thing in the world but Niko's shining black eyes, my slowing breath, Niko in his frock coat, the final beats of my heart. Weird child, weird child.

By the end of the meal, I commanded of the restaurant staff--with a crooked finger, the maître d would bring us fresh Ambrosias, 3 lemon slices apiece, and a high stack of clean napkins. Niko would only pause from his proposal to count the lemons and the napkins, then continue exactly where he left off. "Your situation is unfortunate," he said. "But fate seems to govern that innovation is only fondly remunerated by posterity."

The drinks were strong and I was a bit lost. "Look," I said. "I may be having some issues right now with securing funding, but I like my position. I have access to excellent facilities. And I enjoy teaching. My students' minds are—"

He laughed at that. "Of course," he said. "You simply adore teaching. You love your students. I'm sure your student assessments imitate your unfaltering dedication to your—"

"Fuck you," I said. 

"I said I was familiar with your work." His smile widened. "We both know that your tenure is in jeopardy. And that's being gracious." He leaned back in his chair. "What if I told you the reason I'm here is I believe, my company believes, unconditionally in your work. We believe in your potential and can guarantee you funding, time, and access to the greatest minds in history." He looked at me expectantly. 

I didn't know what to say. It sounded like a dream, of course, but then again, after a few Ambrosias, after Price, after the presentation, anything could sound like a dream. I stood up to go to the restroom, clear my head. When I stood, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror across the restaurant. It took me a full second to realize all I saw was my own reflection, a table stacked with drink glasses, and an empty plate. "What the fuck is going on?" I asked. "Who are you?"

"I did not offer it. I still forget that colleagues no longer know my face. Only my reputation." He bowed a little. "I am Nikola Tesla, great inventor."

I started to laugh. That's it; I was drunk and he was insane. "The drinks have gone to my head," I said. "And know what? I've heard enough." I stood up to leave. "Thank you for the meal."

"Sit down," he hissed. "Why couldn't I be Nikola Tesla?"

He surprised me and I wobbled a little. "Because Tesla died in 1942," I said. "Firstly."

"1943," Niko corrected. "Were you present?"

"Of course not," I answered. "But this is…"

"What?" Niko asked. He wagged his finger over his shoulder at the maître d, never breaking eye contact with me.  "Ridiculous, unfeasible, absurd, impossible? Like your work?"

"You don't have a reflection," I offered weakly. I stood up again as two Ambrosias were set down from somewhere to my side.

Niko grabbed one of the glasses and took a long sip. "Sit down, child," he said. "Have another drink and hear me out. What do you have to lose?"

When I opened my eyes, I was lying down on the king-sized bed in Niko's suite. He sat down at the baseboard, one hand on a book, one hand on my calf. You're feeling warmer, he says. We'll stay here for a day or two, then go. Arrangements have already been made.

Was I--? I asked, rolling over on my side. Am I--?

Yes, you were. You are, he answered. Take it slow.

I dig my head deeper into the soft pillow. What was it like? I ask him. 

You took longer than most. Once your heart stopped, you immediately leaked lactic acid into your muscles. Moving you up to the bed was like moving a piano. He patted my leg. It took the corpuscles a few hours to fight asepsis and clear out all that calcium. You should exercise more.

It was always hard to find the time to exercise, I say. I guess that won't be a problem now.

He absently pats my leg. Do you want to sit up? he asks.

I do, and after a moment of dizziness, I feel flooded with energy, with possibility, with potential.  I feel great, I say to Niko. I reach towards him. I feel like learning to dance. Teach me to dance.

He bows a little, takes my hand, and says, Let's begin.


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Caren Gussoff Sumption

Caren writes emotionally messy sci fi that hits you in the feels.