|THE PROFESSOR by Paul Alex Grey|
The wind shrieked as I stumbled across the empty quadrangle. The rain came in hard, freezing instantly when it hit the bare trees. It was a terrible night and I shivered and cursed the cold.
Tomorrow this would all look beautiful. Maybe I should come out and take some photos. That is if I didn’t crack my head open on the ice tonight.
I pushed open the doors to Building S, stamping ice from my boots and hurrying downstairs to Professor Kessel’s lab.
He’d messaged me in the midst of a Netflix binge.
URGENT! CONTINUED SUCCESS! YOUR PRESENCE IS KINDLY REQUESTED!!!
Then, moments later -
AND BRING A TIPPLE!
I hoped the half-finished bottle of rum I carried would meet his expectations. It wasn’t possible to get anything else at one in the morning during winter break. Spending a cold night drinking with an octogenarian wasn’t something I’d ever imagined I’d do but lining the insides of my dissertation director couldn’t be a bad thing.
“Ah, Jason, come in!” croaked Kessel.
“Evening, Professor!” I replied, placing the bottle on the table.
“Not out with friends this fine night?”
His voice was thin and wiry.
“No, you know me, professor. Not really the social type.”
“Yes, yes. I don’t have many friends these days either. In my case it’s because they’re all dead!”
He raised his glasses to inspect the bottle, muttering something before turning around and barking, “Well, come on then!”
I followed him through the lab, past whiteboards filled with scribbles, post-it notes, pieces of paper with graphs and tables. Strange contraptions lay on benchtops surrounded by test tubes and beakers. It wouldn’t surprise me if I came in once to see strange substances bubbling away while lightning crashed outside.
Professor Kessel is quite the character. I was sure he’s well aware that most of the student body calls him The Nutty Professor. Clinically insane might be a more apt description.
“So, you’re a rum man, eh?”
“Indeed I am.”
“Well, let me tell you Jason, I think you and I might just finish that bottle tonight. It’s a celebration! A night I won’t forget!”
I chuckled, loudly, so that he could hear.
He struggled as he walked, clutching his cane and moving slowly. He’s been here for decades, almost sixty years. I think the faculty regards him as something of an heirloom. He was quite prominent for a while... early seventies maybe? Did lots of studies of the brain. Got his professorship along with Doctor Brennan. Of course, she went on to found Psyentech, create all sorts of fancy brain-related medical equipment and become a billionaire.
Professor Kessel on the other hand... I think he preferred pottering around on new ideas to be honest. I can’t say I agree he’s made the right decision. Surely sipping martinis on a yacht in the Caribbean would be better than these cold and rainy nights, cooped up in this musty basement.
“Now, Jason, please see exhibits C and D.”
He gestured to where two of his white rabbits sat peacefully, their noses wriggling soundlessly. Each had a splash of paint on their fur. C was blue. D was green.
“Jason, what was unique about Exhibit C?”
I found myself wishing I’d poured us some rum... or slept through his message.
“Um... that was the rabbit that liked to sit in its litter box, right?”
“Exactly!” said the professor before bursting into a fit of heavy coughing.
When he recovered he wiped at his mouth with a handkerchief. I couldn’t help but notice a smear of red before he stuffed it in his sleeve.
“Exactly! C was rather fond of its own crap! Well. Please take the exhibits to their enclosure for me.”
I picked up the rabbits, docile as ever and put them back in their hutch. Straight away greenie moved over to the litter box and bluey went to join the others.
“Voila!” shouted the professor.
I definitely should have had that rum.
“Don’t you see? Exhibit C is now Exhibit D!”
“I don’t know, Professor. That could be just chance.”
His experiments were wacky. That was for sure. Mind-shifting. Transmuting the consciousness of one creature into another. I’m not even sure how he’d gotten funded. But, perhaps half a century’s tenure gave him free reign to pursue whatever hypothesis he wanted.
“Jason. You have followed my research, my experiments. I assure you that I have successfully transmuted the two subjects. Now, the process is not without risk and needs more work but-”
Why did I reply to his text? I should have ignored it.
“Fancy a rum professor?”
He stared at me, his usual absent-minded joyfulness gone. The look he gave me was as cold as the night outside. I felt a shiver run through me.
“You don’t believe me.”
This was getting awkward.
“Professor. It’s not that. It’s just. Well, it’s hard to tell with rabbits. I can’t really tell two rabbits apart most of the time, let alone to know if you’ve actually switched their brains.”
“This is not about switching brains, Jason.” He sighed, his expression softening.
He moved over and sat on a stool by his machine. He hadn’t given it a name yet. I was sure he’d give it something fantastic like the Transmogrifier. As I approached it I noticed it was humming, and I instinctively drew my arms back. It was plugged into the mains and I wasn’t too confident in the Professor’s commitment to workplace safety.
I picked up the bottle from the bench and returned to join him, sitting on the stool opposite. The machine buzzed beside me, two odd antennae humming above our heads.
I poured two drinks, savouring the aroma.
We clinked glasses. I took a sip and shut my eyes. What was I doing here? I should’ve gone somewhere for the break. Mexico. Dominican. Anywhere. Then again, it would have been alone. Might as well be alone here at school rather than spend a load of money to be somewhere exotic by myself.
The rum warmed my chest. I opened my eyes.
The professor was staring at the window. Had I taken a sketch of him there and then it would have been perfect for an illustrated dictionary’s entry for despondent.
I stifled a sigh and then spoke.
“Listen, professor. Maybe we can find some other test subjects. Something else to experiment on?”
“We could get some undergrads when term starts,” I said, sipping at the rum. “Then again, I’m not sure they’re much more cerebral than your rabbits!”
That made him chuckle. He swirled the rum and then downed the whole thing. Not bad for one foot in the grave. He smiled at me, then wiggled his glass.
I quaffed my rum, felt the fire slide and settle in me. He poured again.
“You know Jason, I appreciate your friendship. It’s an honour to have such an accomplished young scientist as a friend.”
He set the bottle down and shifted a little in his seat. I sat still, expecting some sort of long monologue was about to begin.
“I think we’re kindred spirits. Loners. I know about how you lost your family, and how much research means to you. Most people have abandoned me as some old crank. Not you. Now, I know I’m a little avant-garde in my research. But I have spent the best part of my life in this field. A great deal of modern technology is due to my work.... If I were a young man again, I would have time to continue. To show them all, make them see just what I have achieved... and what I could still achieve.”
He was staring at me. Then he raised the glass and downed his rum again.
I swirled the rum in my glass as I listened to the wind outside. It rattled the windows and shrieked at the night. I might need to camp out in the lab rather than braving the night to get back to my apartment.
The lights in the quadrangle cast a flickering glow, cut into pieces by the rain. I watched as a tree leaned and swayed in the wind, its branches clutching at the night.
Then there was a tilting shift in volume and it seemed like my ears popped. Could a window have burst? Everything had gone a bit dull and I blinked. Even my vision was blurred. I raised a hand and rubbed at my eyes, feeling a sudden headache.
I raised my glass for a sip... and found it empty.
I looked at my companion and the glass fell from my hands, shattering with a muted crash.
My own face stared back at me. It wore a smug smile.
I looked down at my hands. Old, withered hands. Sallow skin with liver spots. I felt at my legs, thin and bony. I stood and just about fell, shocked at the weakness in my body. I hobbled to the window where the freezing rain swirled in ghostlike waves. In the glass I saw my reflection. The face of Professor Kessel.
A strangely familiar voice carried through the room.
“Some say the greatest joy of invention is what comes from it.”
My heart beat a heavy march in my chest and my mouth was dry.
I heard a chair scrape on the floor.
“The greatest joy is the fame. The respect. The adulation.”
I turned back, my breath coming in shallow gulps. I saw my own form rise. It began to move towards me menacingly, fists clenched tightly.
“You can’t do this! You’ll be found out!”
“Oh no,” he laughed. “An old man, overworked and unwell. A sudden death late at night would be anything but unexpected.”
I backed up, raising my arms to defend myself. Weak arms. I’d surely lose this fight.
“Thank you, Jason,” he said, raising one arm to strike me. “For giving me the opportunity to continue my work. Oh, and thanks for the rum too.”