A Short Story: SOS

“B… B… But P..P..Professor Schultz! This is the most incredible finding I.. don’t know how you will convince everyone at the conference.”

“Ja, Ben. Not incredible, credible, totally credible. We have the proof right here. Concrete, undeniable proof. However, as you say, I now need to convince the rest of the scientific community. That will be difficult even with the obvious evidence. Not all so-called scientists believe what is put in front of their eyes. Ben, I need you to bring my notes and my Powerpoint slides. Of course you will need to set that up. I have no idea how to use these ridiculous pieces of equipment. Give me a trusty microscope and a petri dish any day. Let’s see. Yes. I need my pen and my briefcase and oh yes, the bacteria samples! We must put them away somewhere safe, Ben. In the excitement I almost forget. Terrible. Give me a hand here, please.”

“Of course. P…Professor.”

“If these bacteria samples get into the wrong hands. Well, you know that I do not believe science should be used purely for creating profit and for fame. We must make sure they are locked away. Guten nacht my tiny friends. Ha! Do you remember when we first made contact, Ben? You thought it was a co-incidence, didn’t you? And quite rightly too! We must always be skeptical. But then we saw it. Ha ha ha! Not only had these friendly little creatures organised themselves into the shape H and the shape I but then we saw it! Ha ha ha. They moved into an exclamation mark! I remember the look on your face Ben and I remember what you happened to remark. What did you say?”

“I said they look like friendly b…b…bacteria, P..Professor.”

“Friendly bacteria! Ha ha! And now we will tell the whole scientific community that we have discovered sentient bacteria. Not only sentient but intelligent. How they learned to speak English, not only speak or copy but hear and understand it, in such a short space of time, I do not know. It is a pity that they did not choose German. Mein Opa would have been proud if they did. Still, English is not a bad substitute, I guess, and we are in the land of the free. Home of the brave, Ben! Ha ha. Was?”

“P…Pardon?”

“America! We should be in Germany. But nevermind. I shall effect an extra strong accent and move my verbs around. it will be just like we are back in Berlin. Ha ha. Do you have the electron microscope print outs? I want to see them again before tomorrow. I can never see them enough times. Where did you put them, Ben? Ah, danke. Always so organised. Danke. Right, the first with the ‘hi’ and then the exclamation mark. Wonderbar! Now, here is the second. I asked them how they were. What a ridiculous question. Ha! They said ‘good’. Then you sensibly told me to ask them what they were. That took a few photographs. And here, my favourite. This one I love most of all. It is a heart shape Ben. Is it not? Very friendly bacteria. Also Ben, die Zeit! Es tut mir leid. I’m sorry. You must want to go home to your wife and child. How many weeks old now? I lose track.”

“He’s actually eighteen months now. Little Andrew, as you call him, is growing fast. He’ll b..be a footb..baller I think.”

“Eighteen months! Mein Gott. Nein, not football. He will be a scientist like his Vater. Well, go home, go home and I will see you on Monday for the conference. Thank you, Ben. Have a good weekend. I will double check that we are all locked away and go home myself. I do believe that mein Liebling Maria will have forgotten what I look like. Ha! Send my best to Emma and little Andrew! Shut the door won’t you. There is a draft on my old bones.”

“Good night P…Professor! I will.”

“Also. Meine kleine Schönheiten. Guten nacht. Ach, für mich. Können Sie night ein wenig Deutsch sprechen? Sagen Sie Hallo! Mit a? Nein? OK, sagen Sie Apfel! Nein. Mögen Sie nicht Äpfel?  Nien. Ach, weiß ich nicht. Fahrkartenautomat? Ha ha. Of course not.”

“Talking to yourself again Professor.” The man who was standing at the door said. he held something in his hand.

“Tom, I did not hear you enter. And, yes, I am talking to myself. I find that it is the only way to be truly heard. How are you? On your way home, my friend?” 

“Yeh, I’m going home. But I was just wondering about the conference on Monday.”

“Oh, yes! It will reveal so much!”

“So, I hear. What are you presenting again Professor?”

“Tom, my name is Wolfgang, I have told you that before numerous times. Almost as many times as I have told you what I am working on is top secret until the conference. You know that! I do not know what you are working on Professor Kirk and I do not need to know. I am sure it will be fascinating.”

“Yeh, I understand the need for secrecy. But, Professor, I prefer to call you that it is less… German. Professor, I really must know what you are presenting.” 

“Tom, is that a gun?”

“Yes, Professor. You see. There is very little room for competition in this prize giving ceremony and I need the money to continue my career. I fear that … with the recession and lack of grants. Well, I fear for my job and my family. And I believe that you will win the money offered and I really can’t have that. You have a good job. A safe job. You’ve been here for years. But I haven’t been here long and I need this job. I need this money. Otherwise I will lose everything. My wife will leave me and take my children. You have no idea how difficult it has been for me lately.”

“But a gun, Tom. That is. That is a little, as you say, over the top, ja.”

“You are in America now Professor. We do things differently here. It is necessary.”

“And you won the war.”

“What?”

“Nothing. But if you insist you want to know what I am presenting, at the point of a gun. And you call me crazy. I will show you. Here… look at these photographs and see what you think.”

“I don’t understand what these are.”

“They are bacteria, sentient and intelligent bacteria. They are spelling out words. Look that says Hi with an exclamation mark.”

“And you discovered this! You have samples?”

“Of course. But they are locked away safe, Tom. You won’t be able to remove them. I alone know the code to that door. I guess if you shoot me then no one else will ever know the code to that door.” 

“Then i must destroy the samples!”

“Was?! What are you thinking? You are mad.”

“Is that it? It just looks like petri dishes of gloop to me. Radiation must work. Stay there Professor! Don’t move. Remember the gun.”

“Can you see them, Tom? Look at the computer screen that is attached to the electron microscope in there. They are forming the word ‘nope’ for the American.” 

“No? What? Alright, heat then… What is that?”

“Looks like a pair of sun glasses, sorry shades, to me. Ha ha. Masters at Pictionary.”

“Right, where do they live? Where did you discover them? It’s loaded!”

“Mein Gott, OK. We discovered them at the bottom of the ocean… Scheiße.” 

“Fresh water. How dense are you Professor?”

“With a gun at my face, I think I am quite clever to tell you the truth. Es tut mir leid meine kleine Schönheiten.”

The bacteria, as a whole, formed just one word “Nein”.

Professor Schultz leapt toward his desk where the security button was hidden and pressed it. He then ran to the controls that Professor Kirk was handling.  Kirk turned to the Professor and all Schultz could do was knock the gun out of Kirk’s hand. But it was already too late. The petri dishes were being flooded with fresh water. The salt which the bacteria needed to survive was being washed away.

The scuffle between the Professor and Kirk didn’t last long. Two security men arrived quickly and intervened. They restrained Kirk and called the police to take him away. At least they discovered that the gun wasn’t actually loaded so the Professor wasn’t ever in any real danger.

“Once a scientist, always a scientist, if completely mad.” said Professor Schultz. He refused an escort home. 

Luckily, the Professor did stop the fresh water flooding just in time to save a few petri dishes of bacteria. All was quiet again in the laboratory.

“I am so sorry. Es tut mir leid.”

This time the bacteria formed the letters “SOS”.

“SOS, morse code? How do you know morse code? How can I help? You are safe now.”

Then the words started to alternate. “Nein. SOS. Nein. SOS.”

Everytime the Professor said he didn’t know how to help the bacteria the same thing happened.

“Nein. SOS.”

“I really don’t know what you mean. I’m sorry. I’m tired now. I really feel old now. I must get back to Maria soon. I am sick of talking to myself. What did Tom say? He was only thinking about his family. Ha! What will they do now with a Vater in prison? Who is the dense one?!”

Then it dawned on the Professor. Dense. The densest metal on earth is Osmium, solid state Osmium. He said it out loud “Solid state Osmium?”

“JA. SOS. JA!”

“Also!” The Professor ran to the store cupboard. He could only find a small amount of powdered Osmium which he took. 

He opened the locked door and poured some into each petri dish. “Hier. Hier.”

The Professor watched through the microscope and was completely amazed. The powdered Osmium was clumped into tiny lumps by the bacteria then, almost instantaneously with no flash of light and no audible noise, the bacteria  and the Osmium that was on the petri dishes disappeared. The Professor was startled and confused. He looked at the open door, then at the open window across the room and back at the electron microscope screen. Ben arrived at the door to the laboratory.

“P…P…Professor are you alright? I was buying Emma a present at the all night supermarket and saw the p…police car. Just her favourite chocolate. What happened?”

Professor Schultz was speechless.

“P…Professor?”

“Mein… our friendly bacteria has gone.” 

“How?”

“Powdered Osmium, my friend. sOs. Although it is really Os. s. But never mind. Ha!”

“Oh, you didn’t sneeze did you, P…Professor? I..I mean it wouldn’t matter if you did b..but…”

“Nein, nein my dear friend. Of course not. I just… I don’t know. They say that we know more about outer space than the bottom of the ocean. What if something came from outer space to live at the bottom of the ocean? Ha. Perhaps for some peace and quiet. Or maybe a holiday.”

“P…Pardon?”

“Nevermind Ben. I am a silly old fool. It has all gone. Professor Kirk will not be coming back to work either so I think there may be a shifting of job roles. I think you are ready for your own laboratory.”

“Really? Thank you.” 

“Also, I’m the one who needs a holiday. Back to Germany for the summer, Ben. You and your family are very welcome to come. I will show you lakes and mountains like you have never seen. Ah, Bavaria. You remember the work I was completing on Perovskites in solid oxide fuel cells, I think we need to dig that out before Monday. I’ll call you at the weekend, if you don’t mind? It might be good enough. I mean it’ll be a nice joke anyway. Ha ha!”

“Of course P…Professor. I don’t mind. But we still have the photos. Can we not still use those?”

“What were you saying earlier, Ben? You remember that scientists are skeptical. They will not believe photographs until they have seen living proof and we no longer have the living proof. Sadly.”

“Oh, solid oxide fuel cells it is then, P…Professor. Then a well deserved holiday for us b…both. From what you have said, Germany does sounds nice.”

“Bavaria, yes. Time to go home and remember, my name is Wolfgang. Call me Wolfgang. Maria calls me Wolfy and I love her but it is way too kitsch. Ha! I think will go home now too. Could you give me a lift please, Ben? ”

“Of course, Wolfgang.”

Professor Schultz went over to the window and looked up. He shook his head and pulled the window to.

“You have an excellent German accent, Ben. You must use it more often.”   

Ben laughed and switched off the lights as they left the laboratory.

Friendly Bacteria

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