THIS WAS a delicate procedure requiring precision and the utmost concentration. His hand almost imperceptibly shaking and his brow furrowed into a intense expression of complete focus, a balding, professorial-looking middle-aged man in a lab coat held a pipette precariously over a bulbous flask. The flask, filled with a bubbling lime-green liquid, was poised above a flaming Bunsen burner and connected via rubber tubing to a maze of similar paraphernalia, a symphony of Erlenmeyer flasks, and test tubes. He was sat alone and by necessity in silence save for the gentle bubbling of the viscous liquid in the flask. The slightest error and the entire endeavour, representing weeks of work, would be ruined.
At this very moment there came an abrupt and urgent knock at the door. The scientist slipped from his stool and dropped the pipette straight into the flask in surprise, cursing loudly and coarsely in a broad American accent. Perhaps taking this outburst as an invitation, the door swung wide open and a distinctive figure stepped into the doorway.
“Can you not read, you damned idiot?” shouted the scientist as he rushed to switch off the burner before whirling towards the doorway. “‘No interruptions under any circumstances’ means precisely that.” His expression had shifted from concentration to fury in a moment, but then turned quickly to bewilderment at the sight of the stranger.
Framed in the entrance to the lab was a sorry excuse for a man that the scientist at first took for a hobo that had wandered in off the street. His cream linen suit was soiled and torn, his white shirt crumpled, and a black necktie hung loosely around his collar as though he’d got halfway through putting it on and forgotten all about it. A wilted Panama hat sat crookedly above a greasy mop of black hair, and beneath it his angular face was all but buried beneath an unkempt beard. And yet, in spite of his bedraggled appearance, this intruder had an undeniable glint in his eye and sported a broad smile.
“I can indeed, and in a few hundred different languages, give or take,” proclaimed the stranger in an energetic English accent, before doffing his pathetic hat. “Professor Maurice Hilleman, it is an absolute pleasure to see you again, my dear fellow.”
“How the hell do you know who I am?” demanded Hilleman as he composed himself. “I’ve never laid eyes on you before in my entire life. And just what is the meaning of this intrusion?” He gestured to his abandoned apparatus. “You’ve just ruined a damned important experiment.”
“The meaning? The meaning of this,” said the dishevelled stranger with gusto and a weighty import to his turn of phrase, “is terrible danger and a matter of great urgency. A certain kind of danger that demanded that I seek out my old friend Maurice without a moment’s delay! Well, I say without a moment’s delay, but what I really mean is a three-day train journey, several days’ walking, and a spot of hitchhiking. Somewhat embarrassingly, my usual mode of transport is a little indisposed. Nevertheless, we must return immediately! Well,” he went on as he took in his apparel, “immediately after a long bath, a shave, and a change of clothes. One has certain standards that the universe expects one to upkeep.”
“Okay, that’s it,” erupted Hilleman, shaking his head. “I have no idea who you are, you certainly don’t know me either, and I’m calling security to get you the hell off my campus.” And with that he strode up to a broad desk, picked up a phone receiver, and began to dial.
“We don’t have time for any of that,” cautioned the stranger. He pointed a bony finger directly at Hilleman, accusatorily so were it not for the broad smile that he retained, then declared, “Maurice Ralph Hilleman, with your brilliant mind you have saved millions from a painful death, and done so all but anonymously. You might say you’re a man after my own heart. Although,” he added in a lower voice, “it wouldn’t have been quite so easy to come up with your first measles vaccine had I not placated those Sea Devils and persuaded them to part with some precious yolk from their nurseries off the Cape Cod coast that one time.”
At this, Hilleman stopped in his tracks, replacing the receiver. He gulped, turned back to face the stranger, then approached him tentatively. “But… it can’t be. You don’t look anything like him.”
“Well, I decided I needed a change of face,” beamed the stranger as Hilleman walked up to within a few feet of him, peering at him more closely and with a new degree of inquisition.
“Doctor?” quizzed Hilleman. “Is that really you?”
“Who else could it be?” asked the Doctor as he opened his arms in greeting.
But then, his concentration broken once again, Hilleman suddenly recoiled and blurted, “What on earth is that smell?”
The Doctor looked momentarily offended before seeming to remember something. “Ah, that would be Marilyn!” As if on cue, a beautiful chestnut brown horse stuck its head through the doorway and affectionately nuzzled the Doctor’s shoulder. “I do apologize, I’m quite forgetting myself. Did I not mention I’ve also been travelling by horseback? Professor, I’m delighted to introduce you to Marilyn. She’s been delightful company, and as an added bonus, she’s a much better conversationalist than your average cab driver here. Aren’t you, my dear?” he addressed the mare directly. “And you ignore the professor—you have the sweetest aroma, my girl.”
By way of a response, as if she understood every word, Marilyn gently whinnied and nodded her head, her resplendent golden mane rippling. She nibbled the Doctor’s wilted Panama playfully.
Hilleman was, however, dumbfounded. “You brought a horse into my department? What sort of a madman are you?!” There was a moment’s silence as the Doctor merely shrugged by way of a reply but then, as if realizing what he’d just said, Maurice began to laugh. “Doctor,” he said once again, with a resigned shake of his head. “I suppose it really is you. Who else could it be, showing up out of the blue, unannounced and uninvited, and with such secret knowledge of our time together?” Finally, the two men embraced as the old friends that they were. “Terrible danger, and a matter of great urgency, I believe you were saying?” asked Hilleman.
“I’m rather afraid so,” said the Doctor. “I’ll explain in full along the way. The three of us have… something of a long trip ahead of us.”