Copyright © Angus Whitmore 2018
Sven McDuff’s phone pleeped as he stepped out of his laboratory into the corridor. The SMS was from her, “In building, ground floor, waiting for lift – be up soon.” Sven put his phone in his pocket and strolled down the long corridor. He walked past the stairwell and then stood and watched as the red numbers on the wall above the elevator brightened and darkened in succession. The glowing numbers climbed into double digits; 10, 11, 12, 13, ding! The elevator doors slid open to reveal the name tag “Penelope” pinned to a single occupant.
The person under the name tag emerged from the elevator dexterously thumbing a phone. It was all quick and furtive eye movements, to and from the phone, as if no one would notice. “Penelope, I’m Sven?” he said, extending a hand.
“Penny please,” said the person under the name tag. With a quick last glance at her phone, she placed it in her bag to free up a hand required for shaking.
Sven led the way with a slow almost aimless pace. He seemed in no hurry, giving the impression he wasn’t even sure where he was going. Penny followed along and noticed Sven had begun to speak. “Before we venture to my lab let’s take in the view from the balcony. We can get some fresh air while my electron microscope warms up.”
“I didn’t know they did warm up,” said Penelope, now showing a smidgen of interest in the world outside of her phone.
“Mine warms up,” said Sven. “It’s a vintage valve microscope. For as long as it can hum away and make things look big I’ll hang on to it.”
“And it hums too,” smiled Penny.
“Yes, it hums” nodded Sven. “Ever heard musicians wax lyrical about their valve amplifiers? How the glowing tubes make them sound warmer than transistor amplifiers? It seems I’m the only microbiologist with enough of a musical sense to appreciate the warmth of the old valve models.”
“But you don’t listen to the microscope,” Penelope said with an amused tone. “It’s a visual thing.”
Sven warmed to the thought she might actually be interested in what he said. “You ever looked at the grooves of a record under a microscope?” he asked.
“A vinyl record?” asked Penny. “I like those rainbow colours you see on CDs.”
“Yep, vinyl records, LPs, 7 inch singles and the like,” responded Sven. “Look at them under a microscope and you can see the music. If you study those grooves long and hard enough you can hear the music by looking.”
“Groovy” said Penny, wishing she hadn’t used that word.
“Yes, I like to get into the groove” smiled Sven as they stepped out to the balcony. It was a communal space with lots of chairs and round white tables but they were the only people present.
“I like standing up here in my quiet moments looking over the world out there,” he said. “You see that place with the red roof? Over there on that stretch of green between those pines?”
“That place there?” Penny pointed. “What do you do there? Use it for storage?”
Sven looked into the distance and said “No, well, actually I’ve never been in the building. I really can’t tell you much about it. I just like to look at how peaceful it seems standing there. Alone in that secluded patch of nature surrounded by concrete and bitumen grids. An oasis in a city.
“It’s how I feel alone up here. Away from supermarkets, washing machines, traffic lights, everything. My mind might be a hive of activity and restless as ever but up here I leave my thoughts on simmer and those thoughts sit and wait for me to do my stillness thing.”
He paused and quietly asked ‘When it comes down to it we are merely bundles of thoughts don’t you think?’
After slowly nodding Penny responded “Well, there’s my thoughts but the world out there makes me who I am too.”
“Ah yes, the world. I suppose there’s that too. Well, it will have warmed up by now. It’s this way.”
As they left the balcony Penny’s phone blipped. “You mind if I check this?” Penny asked.
“Of course, no, go ahead.”
She swiped the screen. “Cool. Emma’s new washing machine arrived. She shares the apartment with me. She sent a pic.” Penny angled the phone at Sven so he could see.
“Very nice. Four out of five stars efficiency rating too,” Sven said as he glanced at the phone and nodded. After a few seconds of thumb tapping Penny put the phone back in her bag. She quickly took the phone out again to check something and said “oh”. She put it back with eyes still fixed on the screen.
They began walking down a long, silent corridor punctuated only by a man high up a ladder in overalls.
“It’s OK, don’t climb down, we’ll squeeze passed,” said Sven looking up. “Nearly finished with the bulbs for the day?” Sven asked to bury the silence.
“Nup, cupla hundred more LEDs to put in down on level seven, eight and nine,” he said from up near the ceiling as he twisted in a bulb.
“Enjoy your time up there,” Penny said with a wave as they walked on.
Sven looked back as the light came on and said “And then there was light, and behold, it was cheaper and cleaner.”
“So I guess you liked the warm light from the old round bulbs with the glowing wires?” Penny asked.
“You mean filaments, incandescent bulbs? Do I like the light from those more?” asked Sven.
“Yep those ones,” said Penny.
Sven thought for a moment until eventually an idea flickered across his face. “There’s musicians and amplifiers and then there’s me and the electron microscope. But then there’s just light bulbs. Light bulbs aren’t my special thing. Maybe that guy, back there, up the ladder. Maybe he has a light bulb preference. But for all we know ladders might be his thing.”
Penny wasn’t sure whether his words contained a small degree of wisdom or were just plucked out of the air in the hope they might provide an answer to something he’d never before thought about.
They arrived at a door at the end of the corridor. Penny recognised it as a security door that required a swipe card to unlock. Sven opened the door and gestured to her to step in.
“Hang on, shouldn’t you keep your laboratory door locked?” she asked. “I didn’t see your swipe card.”
“It’s in my wrist, they micro-chipped me,” said Sven. “I didn’t exactly want it but it’s mandatory. After a while you forget it’s there and you do the arm swipe thing without a thought. Nothing to lose, nothing to get stolen. No more fumbling with cards. Easy!”
She stepped into his laboratory and noticed strips of old-fashioned fluorescent tubes across the ceiling. Her father came to mind. He once showed her how fluoro tubes light up when rubbed with plastic cling wrap. This man wasn’t like her father at all. For one thing, this man was not a defector from the former Eastern Bloc. For another, unlike her father, he had probably never been an Elvis impersonator. Her private musings scattered as Sven began to speak.
“I’m about done checking the calibration. Nearly ready,” said Sven as he clicked a button on the microscope several times.
“I skimmed the Librepedia page on you while waiting for the lift to come down,” Penny said. “I worked out when you were my age you were studying in Norway.”
“Late 70s in fact,” said Sven.
“You don’t sound like you are from Norway.”
“No, I’m English by birth. Of Scottish heritage. I first studied in Sweden and people back home started calling me ‘Sven from Sveden’. The nick-name stuck. I got used to Sven and eventually took it as my legal name to avoid confusion. I happen to quite like the name.
I didn’t have the opportunity of digging up some background info on you Penelope. For a start I don’t know even your last name.”
“This room is definitely clean? There’s no way anyone can listen in?” she asked.
Sven looked at her with a self-assured grin. “Snooping devices are of as much use in this room as coal will be as an energy source in the year 2050. All phone and wireless communications are blocked. There’s a radio frequency detection system in place. If this room were bugged I’d know about it. The only contact with the outside world is through my computer. It’s connected via cable and behind the most secure firewall imaginable. The computer is running a hardened, locked down operating system with an encrypted file system. Security auditing takes place daily. My own phone doesn’t work in here. All calls and messages to my phone are routed to my computer.”
Penny was both bored and impressed. “Pretty secure then?” she asked.
“Rest assured,” said Sven, “you are standing within a communications Fort Knox!”
“In that case, I’ll drop the act and speak freely.” Penny extended a hand and said “So, my name is Sokolowski, Penelope Sokolowski. Pleased to meet you.”
“I know the name,” said Sven, clicking his fingers and at the same time pointing at Penny. “The self-navigating micro drones!”
“Yes, that’d be me,” said Penny.
Sven looked at Penny as if observing her and said “I’m trying to put two and two together. It surprises me to find out you are who you are. Doesn’t add up.”
“There’s more to me than my micro navigation systems. One thing you won’t read on Librepedia is I’m keen on amateur dramatics. I’ve got the leading role this time. The first time I’ve played a major part. Keen to rehearse as much as I can. I like to slip into character at every opportunity.
“I am sworn to secrecy. No one must know I visited your laboratory. So here I am rehearsing, getting into character and going undercover at the same time!”
“Pretty convincing,” said Sven. “It’s like you are two different people. Any flies on walls around here would not have suspected you were Doctor Penelope Sokolowski. Those flies also would have not a clue that you’d replicated their nervous systems in digital processing units enabling self-navigation in micro-drones. And yes, I’ve read the Librepedia Penelope Sokolowski article. But maybe you should have chosen a first name other than your own for your name tag.”
“I know,” said Penelope Sokolowski, “I thought that as I stepped out of the lift.”
“Let’s see this specimen they’ve sent along with you,” he said. “All very cloak and dagger. They couldn’t tell me anything about it.”
“I’m none the wiser,” said Penny. “It seems very hush, hush.”
Sven smiled, “It’s not my birthday so it won’t be ‘surprise!’ in tiny letters.
“But why the secrecy? My guess is they want me to remain objective. To see this with fresh, unbiased eyes. Free from outside opinion, conjecture, prejudices and theories.”
He continued in earnest as if speaking to an audience, “My independent and objective opinion is sought because there is not certainty about what it is I am to encounter. Where there is not certainty there might lurk doubt and fear. And, whatever this is, it is either valuable or dangerous, or, what is worse, in the wrong hands, both valuable and dangerous.”
Hmmm thought Penny, quite a performance, this guy should be on the stage too.
Sven positioned the sealed glass block under the microscope and twisted a dial. The microscope’s humming became louder. The hum climbed a few semitones and seconds later became a high-pitched whistling sound.
“Must admit,” said Penny, “I’m really starting to get curious about what on Earth is in that glass block.”
“You and me too,” said Sven. “Let’s end the suspense and take a look.”
As Sven’s eyes approached the microscope a small tinny voice came from his computer.
“Professor McDuff, we’ve got you back. The interview can go ahead in a minute or two if you are ready.”
Sven looked disconcerted. He whispered frantically to Penny, “That’s right! The radio interview! It got put on hold 30 minutes ago. The audio was breaking up.”
“Radio interview? I’ll leave you in privacy to get on with it,” said Penny.
“No please stay Penny. Moral support and all that. Reports of collapsed lungs are appearing in the media. It’s a disaster! I’m in damage control!”
“We’ll start the interview if you are ready,” came the small voice from the computer.
“Here goes” whispered Sven as he scurried over to the desk and looked at his laptop screen.
“Thank you professor for waiting for us to sort things out,” the little voice continued. “We apologise to our listeners for the delay. Thanks to our superb technical crew, the system is now free of gremlins. We’ll be hearing you crackle-free from now on Professor.”
The interviewer went on, “This is The Science Report and I’m William Robbins. Here with me talking live over Spyke is Professor Sven McDuff.”
“Hello William,” began Sven. “I’m pleased to join you and your listeners.”
“I expect you’ll want to talk about the inverse sneezing issue that has arisen? The unintended consequence of lung damage due to sneezing by inhalation is regretful. A random mutation occurred with my common cold cure. I sympathise with all those affected. But, I have good news on that front for you and your listeners.”
Sven’s polished performance impressed Penny.
Sven pushed up the volume a tad on the laptop so Penny could hear the interviewer’s tiny voice. The laptop began to squeal. He pulled the volume back down to stop the squealing but it was then too quiet.
A little voice said “Professor McDuff. We had some audio feedback interference. Can you hear me?”
Sven turned the volume back up a notch and the squealing returned.
“Hold on,” he said, “getting the levels right my end.”
He turned the volume back down. The barely audible voice asked “Do you have a headset there Professor?”
Sven took a headset out of a drawer and plugged it in. He motioned to Penny to come over.
“OK,” he said, “sorry about the technical issues, my end this time. All sorted. I’ve got the headset in action.”
Sven pointed to a speaker in the headset and Penny moved in close enough to listen in. With a deep sigh Sven readied himself for the rest of the interview.
“Professor McDuff, let’s hope everything is finally in place and it’s plain sailing from here-on-in. We are getting lots of text messages from listeners. What do you think you will discover when you examine the sealed glass block under the microscope?”
Sven looked at Penny and back to the computer. “I’m not sure I follow you,” said Sven.
Penny pressed her ear hard against the headset speaker.
“When we got the audio back you were heard to say it might be something dangerous in the wrong hands. Is this related to the inverse sneeze virus?”
Sven looked at Penny again and she looked back in startled confusion.
The radio announcer continued, “Listener feedback is flooding in. Johnno from Ipswich says he hopes this time you are not meddling with a flatulence virus.
“We understand you have Doctor Penelope Sokolowski there with you Professor McDuff?”
“Yes, Doctor Sokolowski is here.”
The voice in the headset continued, “Jesse from Penrith’s SMS reads, and I quote, ‘Stop throwing government research money at Sokolowski’s mini flying machines. 3 years of funding for what? That first one got swatted when it landed on that bloke’s arm. The government needs to help out the power stations that are closing down. We need to get the coal industry back on track.’
“Thanks to listeners Johnno and Jesse for their thoughts. Now, Professor McDuff, most listener responses arriving this minute are demanding more information on what danger lurks inside the glass block. What is in the block Professor? Why is it in the block and who put it there?”
Penny did a throat slashing gesture. She mouthed the words, “Finish the interview,” nodding with each syllable for emphasis.
“Something has come up in the lab. I’ll have to say goodbye. My apologies to you and your listeners. We’ll talk again soon, I’m sure.” Sven clicked off Spyke and looked at Penny.
With a slow shake of the head Professor Sven McDuff said “Looks like the cat is out of the bag.”
Penny asked “Am I right in thinking everything we said in this room since I arrived went out live on the radio?”
“I don’t know how much of it was broadcast but they know about the sealed glass block.” said Sven.
“Wish I didn’t ham it up so much. They think it’s valuable and dangerous.”
“This really is not good.” said Penny.
“No one was supposed to know I got the lead role until next week. That narcissist Carol will make my life a misery when she finds out she didn’t get it.”
Pointing at her name tag she said, “And from now on McDuff, it’s ‘Penelope’.”