Salt Wounds - Hans Oberleithner - E-Book

Salt Wounds E-Book

Hans Oberleithner

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First Chapter (around 2000) In Professor Odd's fictional world, Sodium - metapher for "small-minded guy" - is a creature of dubious character. On the hunt for it, the deluded researcher himself becomes the hunted, while the treacherous Sodium turns into a monster. Second Chapter (around 2033) In a think-tank of the American East Coast, Odd's son Jan is bored while doing research on newts. By chance, he discovers Empathol, material empathy, and its antidote, ordinary salt - metapher for "egoism". The world' s potentates misuse Empathol as a drug to dominate the people. Jan fights, flees and finally falls. Third Chapter (around 2084) Only women bear children, period. This dogma suddenly seems to have gone off the rails. Equality between men and women is within reach. Jana, foundling with Odd's genes, takes advantage of the hedonistic zeitgeist and gives birth to one obscure idea after another. She discovers salt as a fountain of youth of male potency. In the end even the men give birth. But the initial enthusiasm of the fun society has its limits.

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Hans Oberleithner

Salt Wounds

Science Thriller about Passion, Paranoia and Greed

 

 

 

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- gekürzte Vorschau -

Inhaltsverzeichnis

Titel

Part One

Odd

Penelope

Pedro

Victoria

Susan

Nick

Guesswork

Creaking

Killer element

Doubts

Decision

Wake-up call

Consternation

Paranoia

Getaway

Turbulences

Reflections

Nightmare

Monolog

Hypothesis

Experiment

Brainstorming

Analysis

Rio de Janeiro

Kyoto

Moscow

Cambridge

Dream world

Fulfillment

Emptiness

High tide

Clash

Grief

Self-discovery

Crickets

Part Two

Newts

Salt Mountain

No Salt

Yellow Submarines

Self-test

Physical Empathy

Hunting & Gathering

Night of Empathy

The Day after

Why Cockroaches?

In the Cockroach Bunk

Why Worms?

In the Worm Bunk

Reconstruction

Roger's Ego Trip

Yuma's Flashback

Why Flies?

Yuma's Exit

In the Rainforest

Termites

Weeks later

Brain Storming

Flake News

Fake News

Hunting for Yellow Subs

Jan's Discovery

Trudi’s Cockroaches

Metamorphosis

Salt, Salt, Salt ...

Trudi’s Sofa

Trudi's Footsteps

Kakerlos' Rise

Trudi's Dawn

Jan's Exile

Empathol's World

Trudi's Finale

Liberation

Epilog

Part Three

Jana

Capoff

BP kits

All inclusive

Jan & Jana

Paradigm shift

Distortions

Emancipation

Tailored genes

Woodies

Turbo growth

The Press

Rebellion

Change of strategy

BP Extinction

Male Birth

Upswing

Belly zipper

Adaptations

Zippering

Jack the Zipper

Thunder clouds

Ping is coming

Christmas

Crib play

Baby Boom

Pinch of salt

Salty rubber

Marketing and sales

Reflections

Years later

Nobel Prize

By the way

Part One

Salt Wounds

Hans Oberleithner

Science Thriller

about Passion, Paranoia and Greed

Trilogy

I. Odd’s World

II. Fake News

III. Male Birth

All occurring persons, events, places and actions are fictitious. Any resemblance to living persons is unintentional.

Odd’s World

Around the year 2000

Humans, animals and plants would not survive in this world if sodium didn’t exist. And because people want to know why, they track them down. There it can be that this apparently dead sodium begins to live in the researcher's brain, gradually controlling his thinking and final gaining the upper hand.

The hunter becomes the hunted, the explorer the victim and sodium the assassin.

Odd

It is shortly before nine o'clock in the morning when Odd, Professor of Life Sciences and notorious salt hater, opens the front door of his institute. Stuffy laboratory air hits him as he opens the glass door. A few voices thinly emerge from the catacombs, as he calls the laboratories located in the basement and quickly fade away as soon as he enters the grey felt floor of his office, ennobled with coffee stains. He gets rid of his winter jacket, throws his backpack into the corner and goes to the toilet opposite his room to free the glasses of his horn-rimmed spectacles from steam with a strip of paper. He looks into the mirror above the sink. He likes those short moments when he looks at his face without glasses. It then becomes blurred and soft, the coarse folds of his forehead and the moles on his cheeks turn into gentle waves and subtle shadows which makes him cheerful in a way so that he usually begins his morning tour of the institute in a good mood.

His first stop is right next door, in the headquarters, as the small business office is often called by insiders. Mrs. Evergreen, soul of the institute looks at him somewhat worried through her green-rimmed glasses past the screen, while he lets himself sink onto a turquoise Philippe Starck couch. It is the only piece of designer furniture that the university allowed him to buy in the course of his appointment more than 20 years ago. However, the green light only came after his written explanation that the color turquoise, according to the latest scientific findings would considerably reduce the stress of students who were expecting their exams on this couch. Odd remembers with a smile every time he sits down on this couch, how he had finally made the administrator submissive by adding to his letter of motivation an article published in the Journal of Color Psychology. He had the inner certainty that the recipient would be as much impressed as overwhelmed by this article written in technical jargon. And so it was.

There is thick air in the cell culture laboratory Mrs. Evergreen says with a magical swing in her voice, probably to give this message more depth of penetration into Odd's cerebral cortex. Something weird is going on down there right now. She would rather tell him so that he could adjust to it inwardly. Odd has become accustomed to this kind of morning message and it no longer creates in him the certain narrowness in his throat that he used to feel when he was young and inexperienced. In the meantime, he has acquired a rich repertoire of strategies for dealing with such situations. For example, attentive listening accompanied by thoughtful nodding of the head to silently and quietly drying out the problem raised. Or penetrating questioning to emotionally stamp the problem down until it, gutted and shrunk has lost its original meaning. Or also with a few loose remarks smile away the problem so that it loses the nimbus of seriousness. So he goes well armed down into the catacombs.

Dipped in pale neon light he meets his team-mates. They have grouped around the incubator, the comfortable home of millions of living cells from organisms that have long since died, but whose individual elements if well cared for will live on in this artificial environment until the crack of dawn. The sight reminds him of a picture by Rembrandt in which a dead robber can be seen lying naked on the dissection table of the anatomist Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and surrounded by bent over figures which look at the master questioningly with a serious expression.

There stands Penelope, the talkative docent, her cheeks slightly reddened and her piercing gaze directed at Odd. Next to her, in a crouched posture and an extra-long white laboratory coat little Pedro, a young researcher from Montevideo peers over the shoulder of Victoria, a PhD student from Kiev who herself has found a safe place in Penelope's slipstream. Nick, the technical assistant crouches like Rodin's thinker on one of the black laboratory stools, his eyes fixed to the floor while Susan, the cells' foster mother stares through the glass pane into the incubator.

Odd takes a glimpse at the faces and briefly considers which of his problem-solving strategies should best be used here. The air around him is somehow electrically charged, it seems to crackle.

… Panic on the Titanic, with this statement he tries the joke strategy but this hardly seems to brighten the faces. Penelope points towards the incubator.

… Death goes around, she says somewhat mannered and energetically throws her dark hair down her neck. At the word death, a short shiver passes through Pedro's slumped body and Victoria's gaze becomes increasingly glassy. While Nick's head reluctantly leaves the Thinker pose and his eyes aimlessly look at the white blanket above him, Susan adds … cause unknown.

Meanwhile, Odd's thoughts wander back into the past. How many times has he experienced such situations! He knows this dull feeling of helplessness which can nestle in the brain like a highly infectious virus and nip any creative thought in the bud in advance. Again and again he has picked himself up and set out with his colleagues on the hunt for the causes, forging hypotheses, testing and discarding again. Until one day out of the blue the problem has disappeared by itself, for no apparent reason. Back leaves such a temporary prison riot, as Odd once called the mass dying of cells in the incubator, two camps. Camp one is happy that everything is over while camp two is unhappy that the mystery is still unsolved. Long-serving researchers like him rather backed camp one as they tried to laugh off burgeoning conspiracy theories from camp two.

With such thoughts in his head, Odd and his people go to the upper floor of the institute. He makes the taillight of this small procession that makes a short stop in the cramped kitchen of the institute. This is where the Swiss coffee machine is dammed up stomping and steaming to top form. Penelope artfully makes herself a macchiato, Pedro modestly holds his tiny cuppa ready for an espresso and the others have thrown on the water boiler for their tea. Odd's fingers glide over the warm chrome of the machine. He wished cell life in the incubator as reliably as this machine does its work, a hopeless wish. Sometimes he envies the researchers of dead matter, physicists for example. No problem with reproducibility, once it works it always works. Rather, they have the problem of the false hypotheses they're testing. We also test hypotheses, often false ones, ponders Odd. But our matter lives and that creates space for grayscales, desired and undesired ones. As the coffee streams into his cup, he recalls that it is the multitude of greyscales ultimately keeping the huge army of biologists alive. This thought has something calming about it and so he strolls relaxed into the small conference room, right next to the kitchen.

His people are already sitting there stirring in their cups. The bright spring sun makes its way through one of the skylights and throws its harsh morning rays onto the blackboard at the top of the room.

… If this continues, we can pack up, Penelope starting the discussion visibly irritated.

… Then we just open a coffee house, Odd jokingly tries to counteract. Pedro's face brightens up gratefully for a moment, while Victoria stirs much more noisily in her cup. … The cells just die and we have to watch it happen, Susan says discouraged and strokes the writing pad in front of her with her fingertips. While his colleagues give free rein to their displeasure, Odd's thoughts go back a long way to 1958 when these cells were transferred from the kidney of a Beagle into the research laboratories. And now, more than 40 years later they get crazy, just die. Patients disappoint doctors when they die, cells disappoint researchers when they weaken, Odd thinks, actually the same phenomenon.

The morning sun has meanwhile retreated and left the room in indifferent grey tones.

… Who fed the cells last, Odd asks and suspects that the answer won't help him much.

… That was my job lately, and they get everything they need, Nick says yawning.

… Nutritional errors excluded, Penelope can be heard while she nervously removes a coffee blob from her cup with her fingernail, the cell medium is like the Big Mac at McDonald's always the same, day after day, week after week, year after year. There is simply nothing you can do wrong, she adds.

Odd asks thoughtful and barely audible, so salt is the only ingredient added?

… Sure, and then we carefully stir to dissolve the salt, Susan eagerly adds.

Odd sees in his mind's eye how the salt crystals in the amber medium dissolve into meandering streaks and slowly twilight. He sees sodium and chloride surrounding themselves with water shells and drifting away from each other. Actually, Odd thinks, the two elements belong to the inanimate nature and lack any life force. They are passive placeholders for higher life processes, modest gap fillers. But perhaps, Odd suddenly remembers, is salt only stonedead on a fleeting glance, yet only seemingly dead on closer inspection? In his mind he sees the impulsive Nick as he dumps the salt like an avalanche in the medium with a sweeping gesture while Susan lets the salt crystals slowly trickle into the glass flask using a tiny spoon. Odd thinks that the way researchers work is never reported in scientific publications. He recalls the sober analysis of a well-known scientific journal that out of ten scientific experiments only one can be reproduced by another laboratory. This suggests that there are things going on in experimentation that escape the attention of a researcher. A weird idea begins to take hold of Odd's brain.

So what if salt in a broader sense isn't dead at all?

What if it is not only equipped with the classic properties that are found in any chemistry textbook? If it lives its own way and speaks to us in a language we do not yet understand? Actually he is ashamed of these thoughts - they are heretical and scientifically downright indecent! He sees the faces of his people in front of him as he tries to convey to them this distortion of a previously speechless molecule, Penelope's disbelieving gaze, Victoria's bewildered expression, Nick's mocking grin. But suddenly he doesn't seem to care.

… Land in sight, we don't die quite, Odd says meaningful and feels great about it. With this motto he ends the discussion. His people are leaving the room a little alienated. Odd is the last to leave, buoyant and relieved.

Living salt - this idea inspires him!

Penelope

Penelope makes a stopover in the toilet before returning to your workplace one floor down. Scattered, she looks into the mirror as she works the towel dispenser with clammy fingers. The dark neon light makes her face appearing pale. She dries her hands and drives her fingers through her dark half-long hair. Where did I end up, she thinks, is this still my world? I am now thirty-five, have studied, completed my PhD, habilitated, and now spend my time watching cells dying. A kind of necro-voyeurism, she thinks sarcastically and smiles bitterly in the mirror.

Back in her room, she boots up her computer. Patiently she waits until the hourglass disappears. She was supposed to do a literature search on cell death in vitro. She gets stuck on a pop-up window – kiss no frog, flirt, chat and fall in love! She looks at the men whose friendly faces arranged as mosaics look down on her from the upper left corner of her screen. Nobody looks like Max, her ex-boyfriend. As a precaution she turns the screen away from the half-open door. She traded Max for the cells. Either me or the cells, Max yelled at that time in a violent last argument whereupon Penelope left his apartment wordlessly. Now I'm alone with my cells, she's encouraging herself. The lustful fantasies of wanting to have a child at the time sneaked away almost silently. In the meantime she reflexively closes her door when bright children's voices become audible in the corridor of the institute, children who from time to time visit the dads and mommies in their place of work. She glances at the salt shaker she received from the institute people for her birthday, in the course of the usual little celebration in the narrow stuffy kitchen, intended as a gag. The holes in the red plastic cap have been glued from the inside, an allusion to her anti-salt attitude.

Yes, she explored how salt harms people, she answers every time, aunt Karin asks her about her job. How often has she talked to her about the bad salt, told her about low-salt foods, and warned her about heart attacks and strokes if she continued stuffing so much salt into herself. It hasn't done much good so far, she thinks with resignation.

She pushes the salt shaker behind the foot of her screen and opens the internet with a few mouse clicks. When the familiar lettering of the research program appears, warmth flows back into her body. She hammers, suddenly in a better mood, cell death in vitro into the computer and starts her literature research.

Pedro

On his way to the catacombs Pedro makes a stop in the kitchen. Whenever something goes wrong in the lab, he wistfully thinks of Montevideo. Two years ago, he left his homeland. He often finds himself strolling in his mind through the narrow alleys, past the crumbling facades, sitting at a tiny table and drinking mocha in the shade of a plane-tree. He feels the tip of his ring finger scanning the the shape of his mocha cup, hears the parrots croak and smells the coffee grounds on the bottom of his cup. He thinks of Eva who is probably waiting at a bus stop on her way to work. She will wear the white dress, with the dark blue dots and perhaps think of him. He, who has set off for Europe, speaks another language, eats dishes she does not know, sleeps in a bed the creaking of which is alien to her. Pedro returns from his daydream, dumps three heaped spoons of sugar into his tiny mocha cup and rethinks his future. If the cells flop now, his project threatens to collapse. He imagines the situation almost funny, he would land in Montevideo after three years of exile, press his Eva to him and whisper in her ear, nada, absolutamente nada. Why did he actually get involved in this salt project? Was it Penelope who seduced him with her magic eyes? Or Odd, who told him in a hoarse voice how many people would die from the consequences of this evil crystal? He doesn't remember. Perhaps the White Gold attracted him because it was already familiar to him in his homeland. The salt flew with him and captured him here. Pedro spoons the remaining sugar from the bottom of his mocha cup. The sun has now made its way to the kitchen table. Lost in thought, he leaves the kitchen and descends into the catacombs.

Victoria

Where's this going, Victoria ponders while she puts on the lab coat?

Land in sight, we don't die quite - Odd's illusory optimism is a real pain in the ass. When she joined his laboratory some time ago, she was still full of confidence. She had prevailed against more than thirty competitors for this PhD position. As Odd later told her in the relaxed atmosphere of a birthday party, her energetic handshake at that time after the interview was the decisive factor, a confession that both delighted and confused her.

She had turned her back on the university in Kiev, had heard the heavy entrance door on the dark red monumental façade fall into the lock with relief and had made her way light-footed over the stairs towards the west. Now she was there, member of a flat-sharing community with her own room and guinea pig, a shelf in the fridge and bike storage space. Today she feels lonely for the first time and thinks back to Kiev. In her head she sees the widely ramified river Dnepr, in the bluish haze of the city the golden domes of the monasteries and churches. Maybe she has fallen in love too hastily with Eckhard, a roommate of her flat share. His stories about the village in Lower Franconia where he came from had impressed her. They had given her a sense of stability for the first few weeks, a sense of homeland. Now it seems as if it's breaking away. Eckhard wants to become a teacher and then return to his village. But she feels an irresistible urge to venture out into the wide world. A few monosyllabic villagers around her are not enough, she thinks, she wants to have more intellectual people around her and pursue her thing. She ties her coat with pointy fingers. I will teach the cells to behave properly it hammers in her head and silently disappears behind the glass door leading to the cell lab.

Susan

Susan's cheeks are still reddened as she takes her place in front of the sterile workbench. Land in sight, we are not dying quite - that is the motto Odd has issued and she will stick to it. When she had to stay at home for weeks because of kidney infection, she was worried that in her absence Nick would not be paying enough attention to the cells. … Anyone can make a mistake, the mass death in the incubator after Nick's intermezzo speaks for it, comes to her mind.

Actually, it is only one trivial action, namely the addition of salt to the already prefabricated nutrient medium. She loves the brown glass bottle with the red screw cap, the white crystals that are maneuvered with the black plastic spoon onto the neatly laid out paper on the precision scale. She enjoys the spectacle when the salt load enters the amber medium and the crystals dragging streaks behind them slowly say goodbye to her and dissolve into nothing. How many times has she watched this drama full of devotion! It's almost something of an intimate relationship to these crystals she thinks almost ashamed, something magical happening between her and the crystals.

She switches on the circulating air, pulls a glass pipette out of the sterile aluminum container and begins her routine.

Nick

Reluctantly, Nick strolls back to his workplace and starts his computer.

It can't be because of the medium, all nonsense! It is purchased ready-made and only the stupid salt has to be added. Any kid can do that! He glances at the clock on the lower edge of his screen and calls up the daily menu of the canteen. Pork escalope in pastry with tomato sauce and banana vanilla quark for dessert, that's fine. He wants to dump the silly salt into the medium first and then quickly get out of this madhouse.

The salt theater has been bugging him already for a long time. It's a permanent topic is this lab, a nerve-racking topic. Actually, it crosses his mind, he hates those white crystals. They're always sticking to him, in the kitchen, at dinner, in the lab. It makes him almost angry when he has to split the lumps of salt with the tiny weighing spoon when they fly around and then squeak cruelly when stepping on them. They don't like me, Nick thinks every time he hears their screams and I don't like them either. He almost enjoys it when the salt clots at the bottom of the bottle are smashed by the magnetic stir-fish until they dissolve reluctantly in the nutrient medium. He wants to finish this quickly and then hurry into the cafeteria.

Guesswork

Odd sits down at his desk and thinks. As he lost in thought eats his daily ration of carrots, which are lined up in front of him, his gaze glides over the objects that have accumulated there over the years. Pipettes, injection needles, tea bags and lots of writing material cavort on the pale yellow surface. The corners and edges of this huge table, the heirloom of a deceased architect, have already given him many a bruise in the past when he, infested by a sudden idea left his room as directly as possible, disregarding physical obstacles in order to infect a victim with this 'inspiration' in the lab next door.

Here I sit, ponders Odd, in my biotope and brood over what is actually impossible. Does salt have a personality, not just a pure chemistry? This thought accelerates his heartbeat. Is it conceivable that salt, which is based on an undeniable and crystal-clear molecular structure, that this millions years old molecule could feel in some way? That it absorbs information from its surroundings and undergoes transformation? Not as far as the molecular structure is concerned, but as far as it lies outside it?

… A kind of acquired aura that is transferred to cells controling their lives?

Odd was never a follower of esoteric doctrines, but at some point perhaps his inner resistance is used up. Over the years, the censor in his head crumbles ponders Odd half sad, half happy. For many years he have been forcing himself to bring every even the smallest discovery into harmony with existing knowledge, to name every observation, to classify it, to establish correlations, to identify causality. Now he wants to do things differently, let his stomach speak, not his head. This thought enlivens him. He will lie in wait when Susan and Nick mix the salt into their media and watch them do so. If salt feels, then already this step, the confrontation of the salt with the medium is a possibly decisive one. First of all, he wants to know whether the two of them, Susan and Nick, unknowingly torment or court salt and draw further conclusions.

He smoothes out the folds of his white lab coat, chooses the straightest possible way to the door as is usually the case after such intellectual flights of fancy, and, following the usual collision with the table edge, limps his way down towards the catacombs.

Through the small glass pane in the door of the cell culture lab he can see Susan at work. She sits on a small black stool and carries out the various manipulations quietly and relaxed. She has already prepared the last step, the addition of table salt to the medium. The white crystals lie in a tiny little dish which she will immediately tilt into the amber-colored bottle provided. But then it suddenly happens. Susan gently tilts the salt crystals into her hollow left hand and then gently strokes over the salt. She's mumbling something. Odd presses his ear to the door and holds his breath. He can perceive a few syllables, fragments of words dominated by a, o and u, nothing more. A few seconds later, as he peers again through the glass window, he sees the salt crystals from her hollow hand trickling in a thin white stream into the amber medium, slowly dissolving. Odd silently leaves his post and goes up to his room in order to think. It's not an orthodox method, he mumbles into himself. Looks almost like a kind of initiation rite as if Susan wanted to put her personal stamp on the salt. He's impressed.

The next day Odd observes how Nick chases, squeezes and crushes the salt lumps with his weighing spoon before he dumps them into the amber medium with a slightly disgusted expression on his face, impatiently flicking his fingernails against the outer glass wall to dissolve the salt as quickly as possible. And there, suddenly and abruptly the idea is fixed in his brain that this salt, traumatized by unworthy treatment and unloving sent on its journey, will live out its slumbering aggression potential in the living world. Table salt, a passive crystal with the most boring chemistry on earth, feels and reacts, not in a chemical sense but in a spiritual one. Odd's scientifically shaped nerve costume rebels. He tries to calm down by switching on his computer, hiding behind the screen and searching for possible clues in the world's scientific literature.

Creaking

Odd's right hand rests on the mouse pad, his gaze on the screen. Only sometimes you hear the click of the mouse button. Mrs. Evergreen has placed a bowl of nuts next to his screen, for the nerves as she says. They are unsalted according to the ideology of the institute.

Odd searches for the hidden properties of table salt. Although he never liked chemistry at school and at that time strictly refused any chemical formula, the salt molecule stubbornly followed him. When in the first year of his medical studies he was confronted again with the Nazl, as the lower caste of the laboratory folks disrespectfully called the table salt, he gave up his inner resistance. Thus he incorporated sodium chloride or better NaCl, the king's term of the upper caste, into his repertoire of unavoidable medical terms. That this salt has been haunting him for more than thirty years has neither been his wish nor his choice. NaCl always seemed to him like the most boring molecule in the world, a pale couple that silently spends its monotonous life in the body fluids. As he then digged deeper and deeper into medicine over the years, some color occasionally flickered. He recognized that the two, sodium and chloride, in close embrace made the lives of humans, animals and plants possible in the first place. Sodium gradually became the male partner in this lonely marriage, chloride the female counterpart. More and more, sodium turned out to be an aggressive doer while chloride remained at his side although leading only a shadowy existence. Odd remembers almost wistfully how chloride made a few attempts at emancipation in the world of medicine in the seventies, but was then quickly pushed into a corner by the dominant sodium and finally disappeared into insignificance.

Even the outer appearance of sodium makes it look aggressive, Odd finds. Positively charged it stands there wrapped in a thick water jacket. Wherever it goes, into the labyrinth of the renal tubules, into the deep crevices of the liver, into the light-flooded lenses of the eyes or into the narrow corridors of the brain, it always takes up space. It gets really bad when some cells unsuspectingly open the door to his inner being. Without stripping off his water coat sodium storms into such a dwelling, sits down at the well-laid table, takes over the conversation and ruthlessly pushes the other residents aside. Yes, sodium is a wolf in sheep's clothing, judges Odd, it leads an apparently rather inconspicuous life only to attack then with particular perfidy.

Odd thinks back to the key experience several years ago. At the time he was sitting in front of the apparatus, the technical heart of his experimental laboratory. It was already late in the evening and it was raining outside. He was afraid to get on his bike in this weather and decided to let the rain shower just coming down pass by. He still had a few living cells in the apparatus and didn't really know how to spend the time until the next rain break. Thoughtlessly he picked up a salt crumb from his pretzel with his moistened fingertip and flicked it into the medium surrounding his cells.

Odd remembers the following again and again with a slight creep. Seconds later - it was absolutely still in the room - he heard a quiet creaking from the depths of the apparatus. When he bent over the apparatus in surprise and fear, the creaking stopped. Only years later did the significance of this sound gradually seem to dawn on him. Sodium, this dark guy with the chloride in tow, had been dissolved from the salt crumb, had penetrated the cell and destroyed its delicate inner life. The creaking appeared to him, as Odd now dreams in rapture, like the opening of a door that sodium pushed open when it penetrated the cell. The wonderful thing about it was that the huge apparatus reproduced this tiny step and miraculously he had finally been able to attribute the creaking to sodium.

Actually, it wasn't him who recognized the significance of this creaking. It was the next day in the kitchen when he tells this little story while the coffee machine was steaming and stomping. It was probably the sound of this Swiss Brand Product that reminded him of the creaking of the previous day. Like in a film he sees the scene of that time in front of him, the past is present for him in this moment ... Funny, says Nick, who is waiting behind him at the coffee machine to fill his cup, funnily enough he heard a similar sound recently when he was preparing the medium for the cells. When he dumped the salt into the amber liquid surrounding his cells he heard a soft creaking, more like a groaning. Pedro, who stands unobtrusively in the corner and quietly sips his mocha, announces with an audible breath that he also wants to say something.

He reports hesitantly that last week, shortly before leaving the institute, he freshened up the medium of the cells and dumped salt into them. Just as he was about to close the incubator, he heard a soft creak as if someone wrapped in a tight leather jacket had taken a deep breath. He remembers it because this creaking was somehow different from the usual technical noise around him. It was more of a whimpering. He even stopped for a moment with his breath held, Pedro says, because he thought there might still be a person near him although it was around midnight and he actually assumed that he was alone in the institute.

Penelope and Victoria, who are busy with their breakfast breads at the moment, both shake their heads in disbelief and twist their eyes in silent agreement. Victoria says she'd never had such an experience before, with the word experience stretched to its limits, and Penelope adds somewhat smugly that men may be inclined to hallucinate when working alone in the lab at night.

Whether real or imaginary, this creaking, groaning and whimpering has directed his thoughts in a new direction back then and he, Odd had left his well-trodden path and invaded unknown territory. And the people followed me at first doubtfully but later unconditionally.

Killer element

Penelope scrolls through the wide field of life sciences.

A South African from Witwatersrand-University in Johannesburg reports how salt destroys the gastric mucosa and causes cancer in immune-deficient mice. A New Zealander from Victoria University in Wellington reports how salt maltreats nerve cells in the brain and triggers Alzheimer's in gophers. A Japanese man from Tokyo University shows that salt thickens blood in stressful situations and leads to deadly blood clots in macaques. Then Penelope comes across her own literature more by chance. She almost bashfully skims over the summary of her first publication on the subject of salt. About five years ago, the day she was infected by the salt virus. By chance she got into a pre-Christmas dinner, which is traditionally organized for Odd's work team in a Greek restaurant around the corner. She was like a stray cat strolling hungrily through the streets. Her hunger was a spiritual one she remembers. Her head was empty waiting for ideas that wouldn't come. A shiver seizes her body when she thinks of the time she had spent uselessly until then. How many hours had she spent surrounded by high-end instruments which lurked for an order and which she couldn't give because she simply had no ideas. I couldn't think of anything because everything around me and inside me was frozen she thinks now. The people who surrounded them at that time, often dear people were in some way dead, on a mental level. Her tongue begins sticking to her palate when she remembers that time. Research machines remain silent when mentally dead people operate them. Discussing the small, ignoring the large, she followed this code of honor at that time full of quiet despair.

Then she came across Odd who saw her passing by through the large windows of the Greek tavern and asked her with a friendly gesture to join them. They knew each other briefly from seminars even though their institutes had nothing to do with each other. Retsina loosened her tongue, she described her life among the mentally dead, initially hesitantly then increasingly empathically, and her unsatisfied curiosity which was threatening to die. She remembers how Odd seemed to look through her, but suddenly when she was about to stuff her offered interior back into herself again he asked her if she loved salt. Without waiting for her answer, Odd set off on a long excursion into the world of science that was foreign to her, ending up asking her, visibly exhausted if she wanted to join his team. The Greek salad on her plate was now withered and the wine glass empty.

That was her entry into the salty world she remembers wistfully letting the mouse pointer circle on the screen lost in thought. Five years have passed in the meantime, her friend Max had appeared on the horizon during this time, like the morning star lit up briefly until the bright ray of the White Gold hit him and he then sunk. She traded Max for salt, yes she did. She remembers so many a warm summer evening sitting at her desk in front of the screen when her window was open and cheerful voices out of the darkness reached her ears, of people dining and drinking together. On such an evening she recognized the aggressiveness of sodium and discovered the tunnel through which this killer element - the later buzzword in the lab - enters the cells and causes them to stiffen. She remembers as if it had been yesterday how in the following months and years she gathered an armada of eager PhD students behind her to transform her gut feeling into data. In her mind's eye, her measuring slaves - as some her students have titled themselves - appear shadowy, thick and thin, pale and brown, shy and loud. She remembers how she indoctrinated every single one of them how she presented sodium as THE villain to hunt whose hiding places to find, whom to prosecute in public. She thinks she did quite well. One crime after the other she found out about sodium and mercilessly made those infamous deeds public. So far, sodium's partner chloride got away with no wounds she ponders. She scribbles NaCl with a pencil on a sheet of paper. She's always been suspicious of sodium, she states. The Na has something hard, virile and militant about it. Just the up and down of the letter N irritates her. Quite in contrast to Cl that follows Na. The feminine C with the elegant l, really refreshing!

Penelope's thoughts come back to the present. With the cursor she now starts her sodium hunt. She knows where this killer element lives in the outside world. She knows how it gets into the body, opens the door to the cell and lets everything stiffen. She sets out in search of traces, traces left behind by sodium on its way through the world's research labs neatly documented in countless journals and accessible at the click of a button. To separate the wheat from the chaff she restricts the literature search to virile sodium. Several dozen citations appear on her screen. She calls up the corresponding abstracts of these articles and after a quick look realizes that she has been misunderstood by the system. I search for the masculine in salt she mumbles into herself, and not for the salt affecting virility.

While she scrolls down disillusioned, the title of a paper emerges that drives the tiredness out of her eyes: Merciless sodium, a psycho-analytical approach to clarifying its aggressiveness. The article was published in a Russian journal in 1960 and is already translated into English thanks to the automatic translation of her computer program. She sends the article to her printer and then puts the printed document in her backpack. After that she turns off the computer and leaves the institute heading for the botanical garden. There she goes to the tropical greenhouse empty of people, sits down under a banana palm and begins reading.

Doubts

Suddenly the creaking was back in his head. If nothing works out anymore then you hold on to a straw, it overcomes Pedro. The creaking back then when he added the salt to the cells, back then just before midnight, the rucksack was already hanging around and the lights of the institute were already extinguished except for the dull blue light in the cell culture, it was so unexpectedly animal-like that he now still feels a shiver when he thinks about it. He knows he tends to be frightened perhaps as a result of his uprooting. His Montevideo, his Eva who was sleeping in some bed in that city, the notorious chirping of the cicadas which used to penetrate through his open room window, everything far away and at the same time very close! Salt trickles, he thinks, but it doesn't creak. The creaking, he now remembers with scientific meticulousness, did not occur during the trickling but a few seconds later. As if it came from the bottom of the culture dish he thinks confused where the cells closely nestled together like the knots of a carpet spend their monotonous lives in total darkness.

Penelope has already put a flea in his ear some time ago that the killer element violently enters cells and paralyses them. Yes, she used the term violent at the time and stared at him with a meaningful face. In fact, he then probably because of her hypnotic gaze took up this topic and discovered that cells contract in a shock-like manner as soon as sodium targets them. He has documented this phenomenon through months of lying in wait, crouched in front of the apparatus, and subjected it to a complex statistical analysis. He even went so far as to allow mathematicians to access these data whose methods he could not follow but who suggested to him that he had discovered something unusually important. It was then difficult enough to find an editor who was willing to include an article about salt rigidity in living cells in his scientific journal. For nights he sat with Odd in his office and worked on terms. He remembers how the pale light of the computer screen put him into an almost trance-like state. Was it Odd's constant attention to the repetitive attempts of wording to describe the penetration of the killer element into the gelatinous interior of the cell in scientific terms or was it the green tea he drank by the liter? He grins when he thinks of these nights, when Odd suddenly jumped up for the umpteenth time in the midst of mental outpourings and ran to the nearby toilet to get rid of the tea, and how he came back again still handling his belt and mumbling to himself only not to lose the red thread of their shared thoughts. As the hour progressed, sodium, a sober component of table salt, became an insidious killer element that maliciously destroys cells. This image was then stuck in his head, fueled by Odd's drastic comments. How dry did the wording feel that they finally agreed on for their joint publication, ... sodium migrates into cells and stiffens them ... or ... sodium triggers complex changes in cell mechanics ... just to avoid provoking the potential readers of this article, all of them honorable colleagues with value-conservative ideas. He would have liked to have sentences like ... sodium kills out of ambush ... or ... sodium slaughters in silence.

In the natural sciences, the terminology of everyday life has no place, Pedro sums up almost wistfully, involuntarily thinking of the creaking he heard at the time. A cell has no mind, so it cannot emotionally deal with the penetration of sodium. Rather, it was a creaking in the purely physical sense, Pedro considers, thus returning to the safe terrain of natural science. Millions of cells, closely interlocked, sit at the bottom of a plastic dish and are suddenly attacked by sodium. If they all stiffened at the same time, could that explain the creaking? If you step on a snowflake, you won't hear anything either, but if there are many, then it crunches. Pedro suddenly feels relieved. He will test this, and pulls down the glass pane of the sterile workbench with an energetic jerk.

Decision

While Victoria lets the amber medium from the pipette run noiselessly into the culture dish she remembers Pedro's remark when he thought he heard a strange creaking noise while feeding the cells with salt. A creaking that came from the depths of the incubator, and she remembers that his voice vibrated at these words. Pedro is a sensitive person, this was clear to her from the beginning when she met him for the first time, on the way to the catacombs. His white lab coat flapped over her knees and his hand-squeeze was barely noticeable as she welcomed him. He won her respect when she recognized his intellectual potential at one of her first laboratory meetings, when he expressed his opinion against Odd's from the far corner of the room, with restless eyes but a firm voice. Yes, she is convinced he is a smart guy with ingenious ideas, but the creaking that comes from his imagination. She herself does not want to waste any time with such thoughts she wants to hold on to her goal firmly and keep her feet on the ground. Of course she also feels threatened by the current standstill in the lab. Any day is wasted if the cells die before the experiment. After that they can happily go ex and die in the laboratory waste. Angrily she throws the empty pipette into the plastic bucket next to her like a dart. At present, their ideas are piling up in her head, waiting for liberation. Victoria fears that if they are not used, they will irretrievably disintegrate. She involuntarily thinks of the traffic jam on the motorway last weekend when she was sitting next to Eckhard in the car on her way to Berlin. It was a total stand-still, even the motor was switched off. Only hours later were they able to leave the highway at walking pace and had to take up quarters in a village somewhere in the east. She remembers the urgent feeling of simply getting out and running away in the direction of Berlin. How little she enjoyed sitting with Eckhard in the village pub late at night at a heavy wooden table with a glass of beer in front of her, surrounded by the mumbling of some villagers at the regulars' table nearby while the idea of Berlin crumbled into dust. Her German was by far not good enough to understand any of it but at that time she didn't care. With reluctance she remembers Eckhard's initially good mood he obviously enjoyed this country idyll. In her, however, resentment grew more and more, she saw herself in the role of the farmer's wife at Eckhard's side, he as the school teacher of the village how he merrily mixes with the people while she silently disappears into emptiness.

With a short gesture Victoria wipes a strand of hair from her face as if to shake off these dark thoughts. She tries in vain to emerge from the past. She sees Odd sketching her research topic with sodium, the killer element in the center. She should search for those structures in the cell that would be attacked by sodium. It should concentrate on molecule chains that traverse the cell like ropes. Apparently sodium adheres to these ropes which Penelope recently mentioned in a lab meeting. She remembers that remark now. Perhaps these ropes will then rigidify similar to ship ropes lying in seawater. She remembers Pedro's creakings. She hasn't noticed anything like this so far but Pedro is the more sensitive one and notices vibrations that might be hidden from her. If she would find out that the creaking came from the ropes that groan under the yoke of the killer elements, if she could prove this phenomenon and convince the scientific community of it, then all doors would be open to her and the sad idea of living in a village among dull people would burst like a soap bubble.

Inspired by this idea Victoria quickly finished her work in the catacombs. She gratefully thinks of Pedro whose seventh sense has brought her to this track. She hangs her lab coat on the hook and hurries to the upper floor with a light heart.

Voice from Off

We find ourselves in an everyday situation. A situation found in any university, in any academic research institution. The common denominator of our six figures is the search for the killer element sodium. Nevertheless each of these figures has different reasons to participate in this pursuit.

Odd hunts of pure curiosity. He has been member of a hunters' club for many years. He usually hunts hares, rarely deer. Hares are easy prey. His hunting colleagues sometimes smile when he pulls a shot hare out of the thicket by the spoons, not a masterstroke indeed. Odd suspects how his colleagues think about him, namely that his rifle will always be aimed at small targets. This reassures them secretly because most of them have lost their great goal over time. Now Odd is at a turning point. Long enough he has patiently endured mediocrity. He senses his chance.

Penelope hunts out of fear. Sometimes she's invited to take part in a chase. She then shoots at anything that comes before her shotgun, from squirrels to pheasants. With larger game, her courage leaves her. Penelope wants to wipe off the fear but is always caught up by it.

Pedro is the Indian among the hunters. He combines astuteness with intuition. His character is shy and bold at the same time. Hesitantly he puts fantasy before reason. This links him with Odd, his mentor.

Victoria's target is big game. Bunnies don't interest her, even though she grew up among them. So far she has not played a leading role in the hunting society. But she doesn't care. She shall find a way and try with a shot at the heart setting the course for her future.

Susan takes part in the hunt out of a sense of duty. She plays a servant role. She has a compassionate heart and believes in the good.

Nick is the party's huntsmen. Driven by restlessness, he is reluctant to stick to his hunting grounds and regards hunting simply as a game that bores him at times. Hedonism dictates his actions.

Wake-up call

The Russian article about the aggressiveness of sodium opens Penelope's eyes. Patiently she tries to decipher the message of the Muscovite researchers. She thinks she understands something about salt, at least about its chemistry. That psychologists deal with it, this irritates her. She herself has not much knowledge of psychoanalytic methods and fights bravely line by line through the unfamiliar vocabulary. Slowly an image appears in her mind's eye flickering and blurred.

She sees sodium, her killer element, lying on a couch and falteringly talking to herself. She herself sits behind him and listens with an attitude of equal attention. Now and then she interprets his statements. Carefree sodium speaks about everything that moves it.

... It had always been difficult to live with its massive electric charge. Especially the life in the human bodies had caused it great difficulties from the beginning. As soon as it arrived in the blood, it was forcibly drawn into the dense mesh on the inner surface of the blood vessels and only hours later was it reluctantly released from this protective custody. That would have unfolded his aggressiveness slumbering in him. It would have begun fiercely battering around at the slightest touch in order to damage as badly as possible the mesh it hated so much which lay like a protective fence around the cells. This aggressive behavior would have finally cleared the way for it to reach the smooth surface of the cells, where a tiny gate existed through which it could slip. Frightened, it had held on to the ropes hanging from the ceiling inside the cell. It noted that the ropes, which had previously been dangling down, increasingly stiffened as soon as it touched them. It had then let go of the ropes in fright and hurriedly had left the room on the other side. A mighty paddle wheel helped it which picked it up and set it down in a narrow gap outside the cells. There too it undergoes a similar fate as inside the cell. It would be taken into protective custody and released only reluctantly. Here too it had chosen the method of wildly battering around to free itself and pave its way back into the blood. This process is repeated constantly until it ends up exhausted in a more or less yellow pond. There it had to wait patiently for its dismissal. Escaped again from the human body, it would often only come back to daylight after weeks of wandering under the earth, only to be seized again by any people. This eternal nomadism, this homelessness to be a constant visitor without belonging to anywhere, had made it increasingly aggressive over time and ignited its destructive rage in people's bodies.

Penelope looks up in amazement. She completely forgot where she was. She feels her blouse sticking to her spine and notices that the paper of the Russian article has become wavy. Obviously, her killer element has some kind of consciousness - it frightens her. And it reacts to external influences. Psychologists have revealed the inner life of sodium, now it's her turn. Penelope shapes the Russian article into a role and hastily leaves the greenhouse.

Consternation

Summer night falls and it's quiet in the institute.

Only now and then one can perceive a chirping from somewhere. The cell culture lab down in the catacombs is immersed in blue UV light for prophylactic disinfection. Pedro crouches on a swivel chair, his white coat touching the ground. He waited until everyone had left the institute. He wants to be all alone this time when he's experimenting. He's embarrassed about what he's doing. After all, Pedro hopes to find out whether cells produce something like a creaking noise when confronted with a salt load. He is aware that this concept is quite weird. It is probably even more bizarre to test this hypothesis with an experiment based on conventional methods. After some struggling with himself, however he has found a way that is viable for him. Creaking can simply be a perception, Pedro has discovered after long pondering which is purely physical in nature. Salt penetrates into a cell, tightens the ropes inside, and the cell creaks. A creak, similar to the one he last heard when he sailed with Eva in the estuary delta of the Rio de la Plata, the silhouette of Montevideo in the background. The creaking was like a sigh, he remembers, and it came from the tense ropes holding the mast. He himself was filled with deep sadness at that time, the departure was imminent. Eva crouching at the bow of the boat looked past him into the distance. Purely physical, Pedro mumbles and chases away the bitter thoughts with a wiping gesture.

Pedro rises from his chair, opens the incubator and takes out the plastic dish with the cells. He carefully places it behind the glass pane of the sterile workbench and lifts the cover. The cells sit at the bottom of the dish, a living finely woven carpet surrounded by an amber medium. Pedro knows that the cells can survive outside the incubator for only a few minutes which is why rapid robot-like individual steps follow, minimalist in movement and precise in sequence. He skillfully crushes the salt lumps into a dust-like white heap which he then dumps into the amber-colored culture medium with a jerky movement. While the salt streaks slowly sink down onto the cell carpet he closes the dish and transports it to the incubator. Then he presses his left ear like a funnel directly against the incubator and remains motionless in this position. Nothing disturbs the silence. He closes his eyes, breathes quietly and concentrates. There he thinks he perceives a whimpering from the depth of the incubator, hesitant and chopped up into short episodes. Seconds later, one of the refrigerators comes to life and takes over the acoustic atmosphere of the room. The whimpering ebbs. Pedro pulls the plug of the refrigerator out of the socket with a jerk and listens into the sudden silence. Everything's quiet. He opens the incubator and looks inside. The little dish with the cells stands alone on one of the metal plates. The amber medium is gently reflected in the chrome of the incubator door. It wasn't creaking but whimpering Pedro thinks. His physical explanation varies. Creaking is physically explainable, he thinks, but whimpering? A person whimpers when suffering, a cell whimpers … when? Pedro can't think any further. He is a cell physiologist, so he makes sure himself, not a cell psychologist.

That's enough for him. He hangs the laboratory coat on the hook, turns off all lights and hastily leaves the institute. As if he wanted to escape from this absurd spectacle of which he has just become a lonely witness.

Paranoia

It's Wednesday again.

The small conference room of the institute is slowly filling up for the lab meeting, just like every other week. The Inner Circle meets for the obligatory exchange of ideas. The sun throws its morning rays cheerfully onto the blackboard at the front of the long conference table. Susan eagerly wipes away the last traces of chalk from the board as Penelope and Victoria, juggling their coffee cups, taking their seats. Nick settles down on one of the chairs with a deep sigh, his gaze directed into the distance.

Odd has long since taken his place and silently observes the scene. First words fall, short hardly finished sentences about the few news of this still young day. Nobody really wants to start until Odd announces by clearing his throat that it's time. Hesitantly the central topic is approached, the well-being and woe of the cells in the incubator, down in the catacombs. Susan says there were already far fewer cells dying. Soon one could think of experimenting again. Nick can't take any pleasure in that claim. He had cells in his custody that just seemed sick. Deadly sick, he stresses, dropping his lower jaw.

Nick's words hit Penelope's nerve. She sees the killer element in front of her on its unfortunate journey through the cells.

Whether he had dumped sodium into the medium, she asks without remorse. Yes, what else, Nick counters gruffly and indicates with a brachial gesture how he does it. I also supply cells with sodium, of course, Susan reports. But I do it in many small steps. I let the salt clots collapse into the medium as if in a goose march, one after the other, and make it clear with two fingers, which she lets march up and down at the table in front of her. Nick straightens up and hisses contemptuously into himself ... chick stuff.

Victoria observes the scene from behind. Her heart is pounding. Pedro's creaking pops up in her head. She sees sodium clinging to the ropes inside the cells, sees how the ropes get stiff and the cells cramp. She wants to preserve these thoughts for herself. No one should know about this until she has done the decisive experiment. Where is Pedro, she hears herself asking. All eyes go to the lower end of the table. There he normally sits, in his much too large lab coat, in front of the mocha cup. The chair's empty. If anybody has seen him today, Odd asks the audience and notices that his voice sounds a bit hollow. Despite many years in science he has not managed to accept unpunctuality calmly. Actually he is more annoyed about himself, about his own small-mindedness. Punctuality and creative thinking are each other’s enemies.