On The Brink Of A New And Crazy Era
The professor leads me into a huge open plan laboratory with brilliant-white walls, full of gleaming equipment, scurrying scientists, and peculiar activities.
“Come, come,” he says, ushering me through a door into another, bigger lab, “you’ll want to see this!”
I go where I’m told, trying to restrain my curiosity. There are things going on around me that I am vaguely concerned might drive a distracted mind quite mad.
He leads me over to an area surrounded by a hip-high wall, but holds both hands up to stop me before I can see into the enclosure. His eyes glisten.
“Before we go on, I have a question for you.” He smiles broadly at me, pleased to be integrating audience participation into his tour. “What is the first thing that springs to mind when you think of a turtle, tortoise or terrapin in distress?”
I think about it, loose panic filling me as I wrestle under his expectant gaze. I wasn’t expecting a test.
“Uh, maybe birds? Picking them up and dropping them from a height?” I suggest. “That happens, right?”
His eyes flick to one side, and back, the smile only faltering for a second.
“Well, yes. Okay. The second thing. What is the second thing that comes to mind when you think of a terrapin, tortoise or turtle in distress?” His head moves forward – he is, if anything, more eager to hear my thoughts. It is as if he is trying to see what I’m going to say in my brain through my eyes.
Goodness knows why my opinion is so important, but he’s quite eager to impress me. Or maybe he’s just this enthusiastic by nature.
I make a big show of trying to think very hard indeed about his question. After a while, he steps back, expression still bright, and holds a hand out in front of himself where I can see it. Slowly turns it over so his palm is open, cups his hand, and waggles his fingers in the air between us.
“Ah, yes!” I say, responding to his hint. “Their backs! If they end up on their backs, they can’t right themselves!”
“Exactly!” He says, congratulating me with such exuberance that I feel myself flushing with pride. “The poor beggars are blighted by that very issue. In childhood, I kept a tortoise for a pet, and I would often find him stuck exactly thus…” He wiggles his fingers once again. “… and I would, of course, always help him out, by popping him back on his feet. But I would worry so about his quality of life if it happened to him when I was not present. He could spend hours rendered pathetic and inert like that.”
I itch with curiosity to see what is behind that tiny wall.
“If only, I thought. If only there were some way to fix that one terrible flaw that evolution had seen fit to burden these poor, and otherwise suprisingly self-sufficient and hardy creatures with. This slightly embarassing affliction with which these otherwise proud and steady souls had to cope.
Over many years, I applied myself to this problem. And then one day, I remembered another joyful folly of my youth. I was, at a very young age, gifted one wonderful Christmas with a clutch of small toys. They were of the most bizarre inspiration – the shape of eggs, but with the faces and costume of tiny people, each with it’s own personality.
Though inanimate, and as such unable to move themselves, and without the benefit of limbs even if they could, these perfect little men and women still, through the combination of their shape and the skillful application of counterweights deep within them, would always default to a standing position – if you will, no matter what attitude they were dropped into, or how much they wobbled, they never faltered and they never fell down.
At the time, those toys seemed miraculous. But when I remembered them, suddenly the solution to one of many lifetime questions came clear!”
He leads me over to the wall, which it now becomes clear shields a large vivarium, with a lush and intricately outfitted pond. Tiny waterfalls and streams are scattered across the space, and someone had taken care to use real plants and rocks to create an authentic living space for the creatures within.
These creatures are terrapins – at least a dozen of them. They swim and doze and feed, and generally seem to have pretty little lives. I have to wonder, though, where this is leading.
Plucking one of the terrapins from a rock, he holds it in the air, legs down, exactly the way that he had held up his hand earlier. He takes the creature and I over to a nearby lab table, legs pedalling frantically at the air. The terrapin’s legs, not mine.
“So we have established the problem – left to nature, this poor animal would only ever be at home while upright, and would quickly discover an unhappy immobility where he to find himself upturned, like so.” He says, and turns the creature over, an indignity which it doesn’t seem the least bit happy with.
“…” I fail to say.
“But due to many months of experimentation, selective breeding, and some fairly substantial surgery, we have created a discreet solution to his problem…” He slowly lowers the terrapin to the table, it’s back-down and it’s demeanour panicked. “Prepare to be amazed!” The professor exclaims, suddenly melodramatic.
He places the terrapin gently on the table, the tallest point of it’s shell touching the hard metal surface, and then – suddenly – lets go of it.
The terrapin flips almost too quickly to see, and lands on it’s feet. It’s tiny claws skitter against the smooth surface.
The professor produces a piece of vegetation from somewhere, and puts it down near the creature, which quickly forgets it’s topsy-turvy ordeal and moves to eat hungrily.
I don’t quite know what to say. I don’t really feel qualified to say anything. I mean, what I’ve seen, though quickly over with, does seem quite fascinating and was certainly very clever, but I haven’t experienced enough Testudinal distress in my urban life to really feel the benefit.
“Well, now. Gosh.” I say, because it seems appropriate. “How on earth did you do that?”
“Why, it was a simple matter of adapting what I had learnt about the humble Weeble, sir.” He explains. “All it took was the thoughtful and biological application of counterweights.”
He takes my blank expression for wonder, which is close enough to what I’m feeling for me to feel comfortable with the assumption. He beams at me again.
“You will tell them all about this, won’t you?” He says. “Make sure that they see the value in the work that we’re doing? It is well and good to make our breakthroughs in anonymity, but the team can always do with some positive reinforcement.”
“Well, yes, of course I will.” I venture, giving him what must approximately look like an enthusiastic smile.
I haven’t the slightest inkling as to who “they” might be, or who the professor thinks I am, but both are clearly very important to him, so I play along. To be honest, when he came down and scooped me up from the reception area of this building, I had only come in to escape from the cold.
It’s one of many tricks I’ve learned to deal with unemployment and financial embarassment. As long as one wears smart enough clothes, times things right, and makes just enough effort with whoever is working the reception desk, they can spend the better part of each day sitting on comfortable seating in plush, heated and air-conditioned places, reading month-old magazines and generally staying out of the house. If you look enough like you should be there, the receptionist and any passing employees will just assume that you’re waiting for someone who already knows that you’re there.
I’ve been found out and chucked out of a couple of places, but I’ve never been mistaken for anyone like this before. It is absolutely fascinating, though I can only assume that it will end at the very least in tears, and perhaps even with a few hours in a police station. Not that I’m doing anything illegal – the professor didn’t really give me a chance to lie to him about who I was. He pretty much just swept me through here in his wake.
After a while of us both watching the terrapin snipping at greenery, he picks it up carefully and gently returns it to it’s peers.
“Thankyou for showing me that.” I say, genuinely grateful.
“No, thank you for coming along!” He says. “But that isn’t the main work that we’re doing.”
Curiosity piqued, I say “It isn’t?”
“Oh, no, no indeed.” He winks, and leans in close to me, conspiratorial. “What is the first thing that you think when I say ‘perpetual motion’?”
I’m no scientist, but even I feel my eyebrows raise quite despite myself.
“I’m not sure. Elusive? Impossible? The Holy Grail of scientific exploration? Potentially the next step in the evolution of civilisation?”
He claps his hands together and strides away, signalling me to follow. As he walks, leading me to another part of the building, he looks back over his shoulder and talks to me, here in his wake.
“Well, as you know, a cat has within itself a metaphysical mechanism that enforces the imperative that the cat shall always land on it’s paws. And as I’m sure you also know, a piece of bread buttered on one side will always land on that side. Of course, you see where I am going with this… we realised that if somehow we could combine both mechanisms in one entity, the possibilities would be endless.”
Everything he says is utterly insane, but I’ve already realised that it doesn’t matter – at another level, if only with the application of deep, intense and very silly scientific invention, it is also totally true.
We walk, and he talks. About things like isolating variables, trying to establish whether it is the bread or the spread or the act of spreading that creates or adjusts certain conditions, the breed of cat, the addition or subtraction of jams or peanut butters. About the successes and failures. The fur that has flown.
We reach a door, and he tells me that we’re there, his hand going out to open it for me.
I actually can’t wait!
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