If the speaker had known that he was mere minutes from death, he would still have chosen to spend his last living moments on earth at this podium. His research was his life and his life had become little more than a framework on which to hang his research. Richard Talbot research scientist and humanitarian would have gladly sacrificed everything to share it with the world, even his life.
Professor Talbot was only two minutes into his ground-breaking speech when started to feel ill. He felt as sickly as he had ever felt. A little nervous nausea was only to be expected but this was something more, something beyond mere nerves. A well regarded but humble scientist, he made a living by lecturing in front of hundreds of students at once, but he had never previously been invited to participate in the Annual British Convention for Scientific Research, so to bear the burden of being the keynote concluding speaker was always going to pull at his nerve endings.
Richard tried to rationalise that the weakness of his knees and the limpness of his limbs was symptomatic of stage fright, but the scientific right side of his brain was telling him a different story. Instinctively he knew that the severe discomfort coursing through his body resulted from some sinister intervention. It was anything but natural. A born and bred realist, the scientist understood that there were well connected people, probably within the sound of his voice, who would prefer that his controversial research, his speech, and even his life, should come to an abrupt end.
The Preston Guild Hall Arena was cavernous but aesthetic, the architecture and quaint Victorian decor creating the feel of a large theatre. Listening to him address them form the stage were two thousand knowledgeable scientists. They were rapt with attention as they awaited incontrovertible proof of a concept so radical only he and his research partner had dared to experiment with its potential power. A radical but sound theory had been tested and proven over and over again in double blind tests and independently peer reviewed research. Their supporters genuinely believed that, with financial backing, their research would change the world’s commonly held beliefs about DNA forever. He had hoped, and would have prayed if he was a believer, that his presentation today to this august body would be enough, sufficient to set the world talking about the Talent Scout. He hoped that his findings would become publicly acclaimed before anyone else could steal the glory and make his research their own.
To ensure that a necessary level of security and confidentiality was maintained, and to discourage others from travelling in his slip stream, he had understated the importance of his dramatic findings to everyone, including his co-researcher, Brian, at the University of Central Lancashire, or UCLAN to those in the know. Despite his concerns about scientific espionage, he had remained inwardly anxious for many months. Every meal was an invitation for stomach acid to rise in his throat, and he might just as well have had a standing order for Maalox at the local pharmacy. Now was the time to release the tension, to breathe, let his muscles relax and take a holiday from adrenaline over production; now was the moment when he would let everyone know of the gravity of his discovery.
The Last Hurrah, meant to be a diverting but essentially mundane project, had unexpectedly led to the discovery of some wholly innovative thinking about DNA. Talbot’s work, once shared with the world, would put his name firmly into the history books, particularly those chapters on DNA and genetics that would have to be rewritten. His solution to an age-old problem had potential benefits for every person on the planet. However sick he was now feeling, the time had come to share his news with the world, starting with an address to this relatively small gathering of scientists in front of him.
As old as Richard Talbot looked - and felt - he was still only approaching his sixtieth birthday. Forty hard and long years of studying, researching and teaching, through more than a smattering of health problems, had taken their toll, probably adding ten years in age to his appearance and taking ten years from his life expectancy.
His white wiry hair and weathered thick glasses seemed to provide support to the permanent creases embedded on his forehead. He was not a vain man, but on the odd occasion he had caught sight of his own reflection he had wondered if any other person alive could look more like an absent minded professor than he did. His classic heavy clothing, styled for a generation long gone, and his general eccentric appearance offered a stark contrast to the modern clear Perspex podium behind which he was standing.
“You are all familiar with the process of DNA Fingerprinting,” he said too loudly into the microphone. He paused, feeling dizzier with every word that passed his drying lips. “My research has led me to the discovery of something quite impressive to be found hidden in the human genome. Something that is both unique in research terms and impressive in its application.” A quick squeeze of his eyelids, closing and reopening accompanied a brief shake of his head, but neither did anything to shake the slur from his words, or to abate the onset of dizziness.
His quivering hand reached for a glass of water set to his right. He barely managed to force the drink to the desert that had become his mouth for a sip. It tasted strange. It was flavoured with something. The odour, too, was vaguely familiar. He couldn’t recall water tasting quite like it.
His attempts to replace the glass on the small beechwood table at the side of the podium failed dismally as dizziness overcame him and was destined to destroy his balance. The glass slipped from his hand and fell to the wooden stage, where the thickness of the crystal base caused it to bounce instead of shatter.
Amid the sound of murmurs, growing ever distant from an impatient crowd, his eyes were dimmed and his vision began to falter. He could suddenly see everything in duplicate or triplicate. The large congregation and their exact doubles started to spin around him. He had been dizzy with nerves when he started, but this was far worse. He was dying, and he knew it.
Struggling to keep his balance as every distinguished face whirled in front of him, he felt strangely detached from everything in the room. It was as if he had been flung onto a small carousel at break-neck speed by someone with superhuman strength and childlike enthusiasm.
He was barely standing at the podium now, but clutching it in an attempt to remain upright. He was completely unable to deliver the most important speech of his life. His breakthrough would change the way people perceived DNA everywhere, but he knew no one would hear about it today. The crowning event of his entire career was descending into confusion and anti-climax.
He tried opening his mouth again, but his throat was too dry to speak. The murmurings grew louder. Exerting all of his energy, he mustered a few barely audible words. “I don’t feel right. I think…” Richard couldn’t stand up any longer. His legs gave way, and he fell forward, causing the podium to topple and sending his notes into the air in a cloud of bright white paper.
He was entirely unable to move or speak. His vision was narrowing by the second, and he was blacking out. He couldn’t remember a time in his life when he had felt as sick as he did at that precise moment, and he had suffered more than most people of his age.
Richard had heard the old tales about life flashing before the eyes of people nearing death but regardless of his scientific scepticism, he was in the throes of experiencing that very thing. Over the next few seconds he reviewed the inevitable flashbacks from his life, with an accompanying soundtrack of someone shouting, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ He wondered if that would be the last thing he would ever hear. Seconds later he lost consciousness.