SHORT STORY – Science v Media

This one came to mind a while ago (back in 2012 to be precise). It was just for fun, not for competitions or writing challenges or anything like that. 

 

“And the reporters are on their way. They should be here any minute now,” Julia continued, hands on hips and as unflustered as ever.

“Oh, why today? You know how I’m camera-shy,” Natasha groaned, hands quivering and as flustered as ever.  “Can’t I just stay out of sight?”

Julia raised her brow. “You can try but it’ll be pointless. They won’t stay in one place, they’ll want to look round the whole lab. There’s no need for shyness, they’re only here an hour every 3 months at most.” Seeing Natasha’s cold sweat dripping through the skin of her bistre forehead, she continued. “Listen, if you feel that bad I’ll keep them out of your way. I’ll do all the talking for you, when I can get away with it. Alright?”

“OK thanks,” Natasha panted. “That makes me feel much better.”

Julia just had enough time to crack a pitying smile when her pager bleeped. “They’re at the main entrance. Listen, they’ll be an hour at most, not long at all, then they’ll leave. Trust me, they like to get it done asap too.” As she adjusted her ponytailed dreadlocks, briskly brushed her cheeks with her fingertips and cricked her neck, she made her way to the large glass doors of the lab to greet the oncoming stampede of reporters and cameramen.

“Hello, nice to meet you. I’m…” she began.

“Julius Branning, A2Z News here for story on mutagens, let us in,” the man leading the stampede said, not noticing Julia’s outstretched hand. He was a lean man with silky glossy ebony hair and flushed pinkish-peach skin. From the speed and shrillness of his voice, Julia surmised he was a man who’d rarely if ever been said no to. Before she could even scowl he and his whole crew swarmed around her through the doors, lined up in front of the gel soap dispenser like a line of soldiers on parade, snatched some lab coats & safety goggles that had been strategically placed next to the dispenser, and thereafter grabbed their equipment and stood in a semi-circle still as statues, all within 1 minute. They were ready to film!

Unnoticed at the back of the lab amongst colleagues curious to see what the commotion was about, Natasha’s eyes grew in fear and she promptly turned her face away.

One of the cameramen was just about to toss a microphone to Julius when Julia grabbed the cameraman’s hand. “Careful you fool! That might hit something, or someone!”

 “Not likely baby,” Julius snapped. “I have superb reflexes.”

Her green-brown eyes flung open in indignation at the callous disregard of basic health & safety procedures, which was especially ironic considering they’d been so quick to wash their hands, so she took the microphone and shoved it roughly into Julius’s hand. Evidently not taking the hint, he saw her face – for the first time, flashed a smile then leaned in close and whispered, “You have pretty eyes. You & me should go out some time. I’ve never dated a black girl with natural hair before but I’m sure I can do you the honours. First time for everything after all.”

In response she hissed, “Not if my life depended on it, and NEVER call me baby again.”

“Meh, I tried,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “Move aside, you’re blocking the cameras’ view.”

As she disdainfully returned to her work surface the crew were ready to film and Julius’ already shrill voice blasted through the last remnants of tranquillity. “This is Julius Branning reporting live at Novotoky Laboratory where the renowned mutagens were first developed. They’ve been touted as everything from a universal cure-all to the newest bio-weapon – but how much promise do they really hold? We’re now going to the original developers for further elucidation.” He turned around just in time to notice Julia’s annoyed headshake so he and his crew promptly weaved around her to find another expert to speak to.

Coming across such a person, Julius restarted. “Hello Sir. You are?”

“Xavier Cheng,” the respondent responded. His narrow eyes glinted slightly in well-hidden excitement at having a camera pointing at him.

“Xavier can you tell us more about the mutagens?”

“Well for starters, because they don’t induce mutations they’re not called mutagens. They’re called optimised human biochemical accruements, or OHBAs. We theorise they’ll be especially useful in the medical arena. Though we still lack conclusive evidence, we theorise they’ll be able to regrow whole organs & tissues from scratch, holding great promise for… sorry am I boring you?”

Snapping back to wakefulness, Julius waved his hand below his waist toward the camera – his ‘cut’ signal. “yeah sort of. I didn’t ask for a dissertation.”

“Excuse you?” Xavier asked, lips clenching in offence and the glint in his eyes put out.

“Your answer. It was too long. I couldn’t stay awake,” Julius stated unabashedly.

“Sorry, I’ll keep it short, sweet and stupid next time,” Xavier spat sarcastically.

“Yeah you do that. We’re not here for long,” Julius barked. “We have a time limit.”

 Xavier then waved his hand dismissively and walked away, which Julius promptly ignored and headed to the other end of the lab… right where Natasha was! “Hey you there! We’ll interview you yeah!”

Natasha’s bistre face changed to crimson as if she were a chameleon. Her eyes shot toward Julia for help, who immediately made her way toward the troublesome reporter.

“Yes or no? Very simple question,” Julius continued as he now stood face to face with Natasha.

“No thanks,” Natasha squeaked, but too quietly even for herself to hear.

“Baby you’re too quiet. I can’t hear you. Yes or no?”

 Stampeding her way through the camera crew, Julia stated sternly, “Her name’s not Baby either, and she doesn’t want to. Can’t you see she’s shy?”

“Shy? What for?” Julius wondered aloud. “I only want a few words and camera shots. You lab boffs are too reclusive,” Julius said.

“I’ll show you reclusive,” Julia threatened as she stepped toward him, her foot slamming against the grey quartz-looking floor. Luckily another technician was nearby to pull her aside to remind her to breathe. She took a deep breath and twitched her eyebrows as this man’s hefty chocolate presence soothed her.

“So you won’t do it eh?” Julius vented at Natasha, then without stopping for an answer he continued with, “Who among you agrees to be interviewed? I need coverage of this mutagen story!”

“OHBAs, not mutagens, and I’ll do it,” Julia’s personal yogi sighed.

“Finally! Thank you… who are you?” Julius inquired.

“Matewus Garvey,” the yogi replied in a fairly guttural pitch.

“Thanks Mate…” Julius started.

“No, YOU call me Mr Garvey,” Matewus said as he signalled to Natasha and Julia to return to their work surfaces in the middle of the lab. The women silently obeyed.

Looking at Julia as she went past one of the cameramen secretly whispered to another, “This just in: mad cow is back.” These two, as well as another one who’d managed to overhear, began to giggle silently.

“Alright crew, let’s get this show on the road!” Julius ordered with a thumbs-up to signal them to restart filming, and they all shot back into position. “We’re now speaking live to one of the developers, Mr Matewus Garvey. What can you tell us about these alleged mutagens?” He swung the microphone to Matewus’ mouth.

 “THEY’RE NOT MUTA… WHAT THE?”  Matewus began before being temporarily deafened by the deep roar of his voice. Even the other lab workers and cameramen winced in sudden discomfort. He pushed the microphone away a few centimetres then tried again. “OBHAs, not mutagens… that’s better… yes, so far we’ve tested them in vitro on human cell cultures.”

“Not animal models, like monkeys or mice?” Julius interrupted.

“No. We at Novotoky recognise and work around the genetic & physiological barriers between different animal species,” Matewus explained. “Our findings suggest whole tissues, even whole organs, could be grown therefrom. We haven’t conducted any in vivo tests so it’s too early to extrapolate those findings to… hello? Are you listening?”

Once again Mr Branning had nodded off to sleep. One of his crew, a freckly-faced young man with golden whorls for hair, signalled for the camera to cut with a below-the-waist wave and prodded Julius in the arm to revive him.

“Finished? Good. OK let’s see the mutagens!” Julius ordered.

“Not yet,” the blond boy said. “Mr Garvey’s not done.”

“Oh what? We have to hear another dissertation?” Julius groaned then tutted. “OK continue Mr Garvey.”

“Wait a minute. If you’re not interested then I can just stop right here and now,” Matewus said.

“No not yet! I want to hear you out!” Julius declared.

“Want to or need to?”

After a brief pause Julius responded, “Want.”

“Well then. Be grateful I agreed at all,” Matewus demanded.

“Don’t worry. We can handle the editing back at the office,” the blond boy half-whispered to Julius, whose spirits were visibly lifted by those words. As the blond boy blended back into the crew, Julius gave the thumbs-up again and placed his microphone a sensible distance from Matewus’ mouth.

“We tested them on human cell cultures and the results showed whole tissues and organs can be grown in just a few weeks. Though we still have health & safety procedures to carry out we’re optimistic that a medical procedure can be developed out of the OHBAs,” Matewus said, squinting at Julius who was beginning to look drowsy but managed to keep his eyes open to the end of the sentence.

Pulling his eyelids fully open, Julius asked, “So is there a risk they could be harmful?”

“Considering they’re a blend of specially treated endocrine tissues, intracellular enzymes, hormones, GMO retroviruses and a host of other stuff to potentise the human genome, we’re looking at any number of potential dange… hello? Julius?”

Once again Mr Branning’s attention withdrew into a sleeping state, promptly broken by Matewus’ calling of his name. “Huh, wha? OK crew, let’s check out the mutagens.”

“I hadn’t finished my sentence. Again. You fell asleep,” the gruff-voiced man stated, catching glimpses of Natasha, Xavier and Julia looking disgustedly at the reporter from their desks.

“Meh, we got enough from you I’m sure. Let’s move,” Julius said, until his path was blocked by Matewus.

He stared into the reporter’s soul and bellowed, “Listen, I know you’re on a schedule but we want to clear up common misconceptions the public have about our work. We’re trying to give you accurate info.”

“Don’t worry we can do that,” Julius answered. “Now let us see the mutagens.”

“Misconceptions like that,” Matewus huffed, not budging an inch. “They’re not mutagens because they don’t cause mutations, which would definitely be harmful. They optimise gene expression, and they’re called OHBAs.”

“Yet another pointlessly long comment,” Julius sighed. “Just give us the bare basics and let us do our job.”

“Excuse me? By ignoring our words you’re not doing your job,” Matewus replied. “If you’d just wait for us to finish talking we all can get this done quicker without all this stopping and starting. It’s very offputting when you fall asleep in the middle of my sentences.”

“But my short attention span is why you need to hurry up!” Julius half-laughed. “Most people, including me, don’t know or care about technical sciencey jargon.”

“Fine. We’ll cut down the jargon if you cut out sleeping halfway through my words. Deal?” Matewus said.

After a brief pause and a total overlook of Matewus’ outstretched hand, Julius said, “OK,” then turned back to his crew and said, “Guys we’re back to Garvey!” Yet again the camera was switched on and the microphone was dangled before Matewus’ face.

“The optimised human biochemical accruements, wrongly known as mutagens, still need to be tested for safety and effectiveness. We can’t say exactly when they’ll be ready for commercial use so for now we’re playing better safe than sorry,” Matewus finally said. The below-the-waist wave was given to end filming, and Julius nodded his head in approval.

“Thank God that’s done,” he blurted. “Now show us the mutagens.”

“I already explained – more than once – they’re not called mutagens,” Matewus growled. “Do you not listen to anything?”

Back at Natasha, Julia and Xavier’s desks they heard Matewus’ annoyed tone (not so much the actual words, though), and guessed Julius was being a pain.

“That’s it,” Natasha spat. “I’m sick of waiting in fear like this. I’m calling the boss.” She rose from her seat to head for the front doors, reached for the phone on the wall and dialled 1 for the boss’ office.

“Yes?” the boss said, with a voice even gruffer than Matewus’.

“The reporters are in the lab Sir and they’re… trouble,” Natasha remarked, combing her fingers through her twin Afro puffs.

“Don’t worry. I know this is your first day with cameramen. It’s always a bit hectic but Matewus and Julia will take good care of you.”

“Trust me Sir, even Matewus and Julia are losing their cool,” Natasha explained further. “The reporters are getting on all our nerves. They’re rude and don’t listen to us when we’re talking.”

“Hm. Let me come down,” the boss said then dropped the phone back onto the receiver.

 “I’m telling you your phraseology is wrong.” Matewus was still attempting to drill his words of reason into Julius’ brain. “We’re trying to make your life easier by giving you accurate and succinct material.”

“Yeah but what the hell optimised bio-whatever? No-one will understand! We have to simplify the lingo for us and the public because we’re not as up-to-scratch with lab jargon as you!” Julius pressed on.

“I know that, which is why I gave you the acronym OHBAs. Not just me, so did Xavier. Seriously how do your crew tolerate you? If I were one of them I’d make a complaint against you,” Matewus said.

“If you were one of my crew I’d have sacked you because you’d be explaining the origin of the universe rather than just rolling the bloody camera!” Julius laughed. “I just want you to answer yes or no; it’s not hard.”

“How can I if you’re not asking any yes/no questions?”

“Meh, that’s beside the point,” Julius shrugged off. “You know, I should time you guys, make you keep your answers no more than 15 seconds. That would speed things…” He was cut short by a glimpse of sudden movement at the glass doors. In walked the boss who immediately made his way to Natasha who unashamedly pointed at Julius. This boss was a Titan of a man, a solo stampede, and his beard hung thick as a carpet down to his bulging pectorals.

The cameramen began to back away, or at least those who could. Some froze in terrified awe. However Julius, out of fearlessness or sheer foolhardiness, looked up to see him, his face scrunched up in bewilderment. “Who the hell are you?”

“I am Aladdeen Saifuddeen, chief technician of Novotoky Laboratory. And you are?”

Rather than answer, Julius squinted and replied, “Aladdeen Saifuddeen? That sounds like a Muslim name. You a Muslim?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Never heard of a scientist with faith before.”

 “Considering you’re a news reporter that’s quite shocking,” Aladdeen retorted. “Avicenna or Ibn Sina, Pascal, Francis Bacon, Averroës or Ibn Rushd, Isaac Newton, Galileo, even Einstein all believed in God. Even Stephen Hawking accepted the possibility of God’s existence. This divide between religion and science is a Western invention from the Enlightenment era…”

“Blah blah blah, another dissertation. This must be where your staff get it from.”

“What is your name?”

“Julius Branning of…”

“A2Z News. I know.”

“How do you know?”

“I was the one who arranged for you to come today, and I see your logo on your cameras,” Aladdeen remarked. For some reason the camera crew began to feel somewhat self-conscious. “I hear you’ve been giving my staff grief.”

“No no no, they’ve been giving us grief. They make their responses too long. It’s messing with our schedule.”

“Well I train them to make your task easier by giving you brief but accurate answers. I’ve never heard of such a complaint before. Besides, if their answers are too long wouldn’t you just edit out extraneous parts at your office or something?”

“Told you,” the curly blond boy pointed out to Julius.

“I can speak for myself,” Julius snapped.

“I explicitly told him that too, and he should just listen fully to let us all get back to work,” Matewus said to the boss. “It’s like he’s trying to make us do the editing down for him or something!”

Aladdeen rubbed his beard thoughtfully until his eyes flickered in recognition. “Ah yes, A2Z News. Now I remember you! You’re the TV channel my grandchildren keep telling me about.”

Puffing his chest out in pride, Julius confirmed. “Yep, we’re quite world renowned.”

Aladdeen shook his head. “Not world renowned. Only American & English youth know of you, like my grandchildren. I once watched some of your news reports with them, thinking their excitement would be worthwhile, and I was severely underwhelmed at your obtuseness & lack of professionalism.” Once again, he caught a glimpse of the camera crew’s ashamed faces. “You are The Sun and The Daily Star televised therefore your presence is no longer welcome. Get out of my lab.”

“What?!?” Julius coughed in shock. Somehow he found it in his comparatively small scrawny self to defy the Goliath’s express demand. “But we need coverage of the mutagens!”

“OHBAs. Out.”

“Today’s our deadline!”

“Out.”

“What am I supposed to tell my chief editor?”

“Out or I’ll call security.”

The cameramen knew when to back down. One of them, a well-built men whose hair seemed to have migrated from his head to his arms, grabbed Julius by the shoulder and whispered, “It’s getting bad. He’s being serious. You ain’t gonna win this ‘un.”

At last Julius sighed and gave up. “Fine, we’ll leave. I can take a hint.”

Aladdeen and Matewus looked at each other, their amusement tugging their thick lips back.

“But you missed your chance to be on TV!” Julius cried defiantly. He clicked his fingers and his whole crew gathered up their equipment, raced to the doors, lobbed their lab coats back onto the coat racks beside them and fled as swiftly as they’d arrived. Julius was the last to leave, and just as he put his lab coat back he turned to see if Aladdeen might have changed his mind. Of course he didn’t, and he pointed his finger toward out to tell him to continue on his way.

Further down the hall, Julius huffed, “The nerve of that guy, comparing us to The Sun and The Daily Star! How rude can people be?”

After a quick skyward eye roll, the freckly blond boy said, “Don’t worry. We got more than enough shots of the lab. We can use that and tell the chief we weren’t granted access to the OHBAs.”

“You mean the mutagens right?” Julius asked.

“Yes,” he grunted, seeing that the combined corrections from Xavier, Matewus and Aladdeen had done nothing.

“Sweet,” Julius smiled smugly as he and his team stormed their way out of the building.

Back in the lab Aladdeen stared at his staff, who in turn stared back at him.

“Is that how TV reporters normally are?” Natasha asked no-one in particular.

“Not exactly,” responded Xavier. “Not quite that bad but still pretty obnoxious.”

“Oh dear Lord,” Natasha said. “Remind me not to come in next time we’re due to have TV reporters. I was terrified witless and they didn’t even film me!”

“I’m still annoyed,” Julia fumed through gritted teeth. “Telling me he wanted to take me out right after he barged past me and one of his crew tried to lob a microphone across the lab!”

“About he doesn’t want a dissertation, and having the cheek to be sleeping in the middle of me talking!” Xavier vented. “Matewus I have no idea how you stayed so level-headed!”

“I just thought this has to get done so I just tried it and refused to take his foolishness,” Matewus replied.

“At least now we can relax and get back to work,” Julia said.

Then Aladdeen’s pager bleeped. “Not quite yet. Time to put on your camera faces again; we have another group of reporters on their way right now.”

 

All at the same time, Xavier, Julia, Natasha and Matewus glared at their Muslim boss in pure fury and shouted, “WHAT?!?”

 

© ONE TAWNY STRANGER 2013

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