Eli had spent the whole break on campus doing research for his thesis. Angie had complained because he was supposed to go away with her; Angie, as Victor predicted, was not a fan of Eli’s thesis, neither the subject matter nor the percent of his time it was occupying. Eli claimed the holiday research stint was a token to placate Professor Lyne, to prove he was taking the thesis seriously, but Victor didn’t like it because it meant that Eli had a head start. Victor didn’t like it because he had, of course, petitioned to stay over break, too, applied for the same exemptions, and had been denied. It had taken all his control to hide the anger, the desire to pen over Eli’s life, and rewrite it into his. Somehow he managed only a shrug and a smile, and Eli promised to keep him in the loop if he made any headway in their—Eli had said their, not his, and that had helped placate him—area of interest. Victor had heard nothing all during break; then a few days before he was scheduled to fly back to campus, Eli called to say he’d found something, but refused to tell his friend what it was until the two were back on campus.
Victor had wanted to book an earlier flight (he couldn’t wait to escape the company of his parents, who had first insisted on a Christmas together, and then on reminding him daily of the sacrifice they were making, since holidays were their most popular tour slots) but he didn’t want to seem too eager, so he waited out the days, working furiously on his own adrenal research, which felt remedial by comparison, a simple issue of cause and effect, with too much documented data to make for much of a challenge. It was regurgitation. Competently organized and elegantly worded, yes, but dotted by hypotheses that felt, to Victor, uninspired, dull. Lyne had called the outline solid, had said that Victor was off to a running start. But Victor didn’t want to run while Eli was busy trying to fly.
And so, by the time he climbed into the passenger seat of Eli’s car, his fingers were rapping on his knees from the excitement. He stretched in an effort to still them, but as soon as they hit his legs again, they resumed their restless motion. He’d spent most of the flight storing up indifference so that when he saw Eli, the first words out of his mouth wouldn’t be tell me, but now that they were together, his composure was failing.
“Well?” he asked, trying unsuccessfully to sound bored. “What did you find?”
Eli tightened his grip on the steering wheel as he drove toward Lockland.
“What about it?”
“It was the only commonality I could find in all the cases of EOs that are even close to well-documented. Anyway, bodies react in strange ways under stress. Adrenaline and all that, as you know. I figured that trauma could cause the body to chemically alter.” He began to speak faster. “But the problem is, trauma is such a vague word, right? It’s a whole blanket, really, and I needed to isolate a thread. Millions of people are traumatized daily. Emotionally, physically, what-have-you. If even a fraction of them became ExtraOrdinary, they would compose a measurable percentage of the human population. And if that were the case EOs would be more than a thing in quotation marks, more than a hypothesis; they’d be an actuality. I knew there had to be something more specific.”
“A genre of trauma? Like car accidents?” asked Victor.
“Yes, exactly, except there weren’t indicators of any common trauma. No obvious formula. No parameters. Not at first.”
Eli let his words hang in the car. Victor turned the radio from low to off. Eli was practically bouncing in his seat.
“But?” prompted Victor, cringing at his own obvious interest.
“But I started digging,” said Eli, “and the few case studies I could dig up—unofficial ones, of course, and this shit was a pain to find—the people in them weren’t just traumatized, Vic. They died. I didn’t see it at first because nine times out of ten when a person doesn’t stay dead, it isn’t even recorded as an NDE. Hell, half the time people don’t realize they’ve had an NDE.”
Eli glanced over at Victor. “Near death experience. What if an EO isn’t a product of just any trauma? What if their bodies are reacting to the greatest physical and psychological trauma possible? Death. Think about it, the kind of transformation we’re talking about wouldn’t be possible with a physiological reaction alone, or a psychological reaction alone. It would require a huge influx of adrenaline, of fear, awareness. We talk about the power of will, we talk about mind over matter, but it’s not one over the other, it’s both at once. The mind and the body both respond to imminent death, and in those cases where both are strong enough—and both would have to be strong, I’m talking about genetic predisposition and will to survive—I think you might have a recipe for an EO.”
Victor’s mind whirred as he listened to Eli’s theory.
He flexed his fingers against his pant legs.
It made sense.
It made sense and it was simple and elegant and Victor hated that, especially because he should have seen it first, should have been able to hypothesize. Adrenaline was his research topic. The only difference was that he’d been studying temporary flux, and Eli had gone so far as to suggest a permanent shift. Anger flared through him, but anger was unproductive so he twisted it into pragmatism while he searched for a flaw.
“Say something, Vic.”
Victor frowned, and kept his voice carefully devoid of Eli’s enthusiasm.
“You’ve got two knowns, Eli, but no idea how many unknowns. Even if you can definitively say that an NDE and a strong will to survive are necessary components, think of how many other factors there could be. Hell, the subject might need a dozen other items on their ExtraOrdinary checklist. And the two components you do have are too vague. The term genetic predisposition alone comprises hundreds of traits, any or all of which could be crucial. Does the subject need naturally elevated chemical levels, or volatile glands? Does their present physical condition matter, or only their body’s innate reactions to change? As for the mental state, Eli, how could you possibly calculate the psychological factors? What constitutes a strong will? It’s a philosophical can of worms. And then there’s the entire element of chance.”
“I’m not discounting any of those,” said Eli, deflating a little as he guided the car into their parking lot. “This is an additive theory, not a deductive one. Can’t we celebrate the fact that I’ve potentially made a key discovery? EOs require NDEs. I’d say that’s pretty fucking cool.”
“But it’s not enough,” said Victor.
“Isn’t it?” snapped Eli. “It’s a start. That’s something. Every theory needs a place to start, Vic. The NDE hypothesis—this cocktail of mental and physical reactions to trauma—it holds water.”
Something small and dangerous was taking shape in Victor as Eli spoke. An idea. A way to twist Eli’s discovery into his, or at least, into theirs.
“And it’s a thesis,” Eli went on. “I’m trying to find a scientific explanation for the EO phenomena. It’s not like I’m actually trying to create one.”
Victor’s mouth twitched, and then it twisted into a smile.
* * *
“Because it’s suicide,” said Eli in between mouthfuls of sandwich.
They were sitting in LIDS, which was still fairly empty before the start of the spring semester. Only the Italian eatery, the comfort food kitchen, and the café were open.
“Well, yes, necessarily,” Victor said, sipping a coffee. “But if it worked...”
“I can’t believe you’re actually suggesting this,” said Eli. But there was something in his voice, woven through the surprise. Curiosity. Energy. That fervor Victor had sensed before.
“Let’s say you’re right,” pressed Victor, “and it’s a simple equation: a near death experience, with an emphasis on the near, plus a certain level of physical stamina, and a strong will—”
“But you’re the one who said it’s not simple, that there have to be more factors.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are,” said Victor. But he had Eli’s attention. He liked having his attention. “Who knows how many factors? But I’m willing to admit that the body is capable of incredible things in life-threatening situations. That’s what my thesis has been about, remember? And maybe you’re right. Maybe the body is even capable of a fundamental chemical shift. Adrenaline has given people seemingly superhuman abilities in times of dire need. Glimpses of power. Perhaps there’s a way to make the change a lasting one.”
“This is mad—”
“You don’t believe that. Not entirely. It’s your thesis after all,” said Victor. His mouth quirked as he stared down into his coffee. “Incidentally, you’d get an A on that.”
Eli’s eyes narrowed. “My thesis was meant to be theoretical—”
“Oh really?” said Victor with a goading smile. “What happened to believing?”
Eli frowned. He opened his mouth to answer, but was cut off by a pair of slender arms around his neck.
“What has my boys looking so stern?” Victor looked up to see Angie’s rust-colored curls, her freckles, her smile. “Sad the holidays are over?”