4/2/2011

* * *

In winter, the sun sets early in Wellington, and though the day classes at the university had just ended, the view below the office window was lit only with the multi-coloured pinpoints of a city in darkness. The possessor of the office was looking out, soothed by the sight of the city he loved retiring for the night. The office and the man were a good match; the Cotton building was one of those constructed with a view to practicality, rather than the ostentation of its brother the Hunter building at the other end of the campus. The walls were plasterboard, yet the furnishings spoke of a man of wide interests and great erudition; the desk was deep, rich mahogany, obviously old and, though knocked-about, much loved. Its once-polished surface was covered in books dealing in everything from bioethics to cookery, via quantum mechanics, history, poetry (represented by a complete collection of the works of William Shakespeare and a slim volume of the work of Ogden Nash), and a colour collection of the Far Side comics. In one corner was a pile of papers to grade, and in another an antique inkpot and a quill. On the shelves were more books; one shelf dealt in the same eclectic tastes as those on the desk, and by the gaps in the collection had largely contributed to the clutter. The other held a more narrow, but far more comprehensive, collection on the workings of the cell, proteomics, developmental biology, evolution, methods of introducing foreign genes into organisms – in short, a summary of humanity’s knowledge of its basic construction. A third shelf, at eye level for a student entering the room, held a variety of gruesome specimens, most prominent of which was a deer foetus at around half-way to term.

The man himself was equally dishevelled and distinguished; he wore a shirt which looked to have been ironed with a washboard and a tie thirty years out of date, and what hair was left grew as it would. Yet his face held indications of the handsomeness of his youth, and his eyes were still piercing and bright with a hidden laughter. His was a face that neither commanded nor demanded respect, and got it nevertheless.

“You are prepared for the demonstration?” The speaker struck a marked contrast; he was tall, straight-backed, and his government-issue grey suit might have been ironed ten minutes before. There was a bulge in his suit on the left side, about half-way up his torso, but it was barely noticeable unless one knew to look for it. His face was handsome, but coldly so, with dark hair, blue eyes, and enough wrinkles to set his age at perhaps fifty. None of them were laughter lines.

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