The Satan Bug, p.24Alistair MacLean
I didn’t doubt him. None of us doubted him.
The farm buildings were deserted—of human life, that was. From the byre I could hear the moving and slow champing of the cows, but the evening milking was over. Gregori passed up the byre. He passed up the dairy, a stable now converted to a tractor shed, a large concreted pig-sty and a turnip shed. He hesitated over the barn and then found exactly what he wanted. I had to admit that it certainly suited his purpose.
A long narrow stone building with head-high embrasured windows that made one instinctively look for the crenellated battlements above, it looked more like an old-time private chapel than anything else: its true function couldn’t have been more different. It was a cider house, with a heavy old-fashioned oaken press at the far end, one long wall lined with duckboard shelving for apples, the other with bunged casks and covered vats of freshly made cider. The door, like the press, was made of solid oak and once the drop-bar on the outside was in position it would have taken a battering-ram to break it down.
We’d no battering ram, but we’d even better, we had desperation, resource and, between us all, a fair amount of intelligence. Surely Gregori wasn’t so crazy as to think that that cider house could hold us indefinitely? Surely he wasn’t so crazy as to think that our shouts wouldn’t be heard eventually either by passers-by on the road or the occupants of the farm itself, not much more than a hundred yards away? With a sudden dread conviction and heart-chilling finality that momentarily paralysed all reasoning I knew that Gergori was indeed not that crazy. He knew we would be making no assaults on the door, he knew we wouldn’t be shouting out for help because he knew beyond all question that none of us would ever be leaving the cider-house again except on a bier and covered by a blanket. Somebody with super-chilled icicles in lieu of fingers started playing Rachmaninoff up and down my spinal column.
“Get to the far end and stay there while I lock the door from the outside,” Gregori ordered. “Time does not permit of elaborate farewell speeches. Twelve hours from now when I’ve shaken the dust of this accursed country from my feet for the last time, I shall think of you all. Good-bye.”
I said steadily, “No magnanimous gestures towards a defeated enemy?”
“You beg, Cavell. I have time for one little thing more, time for the man who cost me so much, so nearly ruined all my plans.” He stepped forward, jammed the automatic he held in his left hand into my stomach and with the sights of the pistol he held in his right deliberately and viciously raked both sides of my face. I felt the skin tearing in thin lines of white-hot pain and the warm blood trickling down cold cheeks. Mary said something unintelligible in a high voice and tried to run to me, but Hardanger caught her in powerful arms and held her till her futile struggles ceased. Gregori stepped back and said, “That is for beggars Cavell”
I nodded. I didn’t even raise my hands to my face, anyway he couldn’t have disfigured it much more than it had been before. I said, “You might take Mrs. Cavell with you.”
“Pierre!” Mary’s voice was a sob, anguish in it, a cruelly hurt and stricken despair. “What are you saying!” Hardanger swore, softly and viciously, and the General looked at me in dumb incomprehension.
Gregori stood very still, dark expressionless eyes looking emptily into mine. Then he gave a queer little duck of the head and said, “It is my turn to beg. Forgive me. I did not know that you knew. I hope when my turn comes——” He broke off and turned to Mary. “It would be wrong. A beautiful child. I am not, Cavell, devoid of all human sentiment, at least not where women and children are concerned. For instance, the two children I was forced to abduct from Alfringham Farm have already been released and will be with their parents within the hour. Yes, yes, it would be wrong. Come, Mrs. Cavell.”
She came instead to me and touched my face lightly. “What is it, Pierre?” she whispered. No reproach in her voice, only love and wonder and compassion. “What is so wrong?”
“Good-bye, Mary,” I said. “Dr. Gregori doesn’t like to be kept waiting. I’ll see you soon.” She made to speak again, but Gregori had her by the arm, already leading her towards the door while the deaf mute, Henriques, watched us with mad eyes and a pistol in either hand, and then the door closed, the heavy bar dropped solidly into place and we were left there staring at each other by the light of the spot-lamp which still burned whitely on the floor.
“You lousy filthy swine,” Hardanger ground out savagely. “Why——”
“Shut up, Hardanger!” My voice was low, urgent, desperate. “Spread out. Watch those embrasures, the windows. Quickly! For God’s sake, hurry!”
I think there was something in my voice that would have moved an Egyptian mummy. Quickly, silently, the seven of us started to space out. I whispered, “He’s going to throw in something through a window. He’s going to throw in an ampoule of the botulinus toxin. Any second.” I knew it would take moments only for him to unscrew the top of the steel flask that held the ampoule. “Catch it. You must catch it. If that ampoule hits the floor or the wall we’re all dead men.”
Even as I finished, we heard a sudden movement outside, the shadow of an arm fell across the side of an embrasure and something came spinning into the room. Something that glittered and flashed in the light from the lamp on the floor. Something made of glass, with a red seal on top. A botulinus ampoule.
It came so swiftly, so unexpectedly and thrown at such a deliberately downward angle that no one had a chance. It spun across the room, struck at the precise junction of stone wall and stone floor and shattered into a thousand tinkling fragments.
I’ll never know what made me do it. I’ll never know why I reacted with what I can only regard now, looking back on it, as incredible swiftness. The split second that elapses between the downward sweep of the enemy club and the reflex up-flinging of your arm in defence—that was all the time it took me to react. It was automatic, instinctive, without any thought in the world—but there must have been thought behind it, an instantaneous form of reasoning below the level of awareness that didn’t have time to be transmitted to the surface mind in the form of conscious thought, for I did the one thing in the world that offered the only, the slenderest, the most desperate hope of survival.
Even as the ampoule came spinning through the air and I could see there was no chance on earth of its being intercepted, my hands were reaching out for the barrel of cider on the trestle by my side, and the tinkling of the shattered ampoule was still echoing in shocked silence in that tiny little room when I smashed down the barrel with all the strength of my arms and body exactly on the spot where the glass had made contact. The staves split and shattered as if they had been made of the thinnest ply and ten gallons of cider gurgled and flooded out over the wall and floor.
“More cider,” I shouted. “More cider. Pour it on the floor, down the side of the wall, spray it through the air above where that damned ampoule landed. For God’s sake don’t splash any cider on yourselves. Hurry! Hurry!”
“What the hell is all this in aid of?” Hardanger demanded. His normally ruddy face was pale and set and uncomprehending, but for all that he was already carefully tipping a small vat of cider on the floor. “What will this do?”
“It’s hygroscopic,” I said quickly. “The botu-linus, I mean. Seeks out water in preference to air every time, it has a hundred times the affinity for hydrogen that it has for nitrogen. You heard the General speak of it this evening.”
“This isn’t water.” Hardanger objected almost wildly. “This is cider.”
“God help us!” I said savagely. “Of course it’s cider. We haven’t got anything else here. I don’t know what the effect, the affinity will be. For the first time in your life, Hardanger, you’d better start praying that an alcohol has a high water content.” I tried to lift another, smaller cask but gasped and dropped it as a sharp spear of agony struck at the right side of my chest. For one terrible second I thought the virus had struck, the next I realised I must have dis
How long to live? If some of the botulinus virus had escaped into the atmosphere, how long before the first convulsions? What had Gregori said about the hamster when we’d been talking outside number one lab yesterday? Fifteen seconds, yes, that was it, fifteen seconds for the Satan Bug and about the same for botulinus. For a hamster, fifteen seconds. For a human being? Heaven alone knew, probably thirty seconds at the most. At the very most. I stooped and lifted the portable lamp from the floor.
“Stop pouring,” I said urgently. “Stop it. That’s enough. Stand high: if you want to live, stand high. Don’t let any of that cider touch your shoes, touch any part of you, or you’re dead men.” I swung the lamp round as they scrambled high to avoid the amber tide of cider already flooding rapidly across the stone floor, and as I did I could hear the police engine of the Jaguar starting up. Gregori taking off with Henriques and Mary towards the realisation of his megalomaniac’s dream, secure in the knowledge that he was leaving a charnel house behind.
Thirty seconds were up. At least thirty seconds were up. No one twitching yet, far less in convulsions. More slowly this time, I played the lamp beam over each and every one of us, starting at strained staring faces and moving slowly down the feet. The beam steadied on one of the two constables whose clothes had been taken.
“Take off your right shoe,” I said sharply. “It’s been splashed. Not with your hand, you bloody idiot! Ease it off with the toe of the other shoe. Superintendent, the left arm of your jacket is wet.” Hardanger stood very still, not even looking at me, as I eased the jacket at the collar and slid it down carefully over arms and hands before dropping it to the floor.
“Are we—are we safe now, sir?” the sergeant asked nervously.
“Safe? I’d rather this damned place was alive with cobras and black widow spiders. No, we’re not safe. Some of this hellish toxin will escape to the atmosphere as soon as the first of those splashes on the wall or floor has dried up—there’s water vapour in the air, too, you know. My guess is that as soon as any of these splashes dry up we’ll all have had it inside a minute.”
“So we get out,” the General said calmly. “Fast. Is that the idea, my boy?”
“Yes, sir.” I glanced quickly round. “Two barrels on either side of the door. Two more in line with them and a bit back. Four men standing on those and swinging the cider-press between them. I can’t do it, something’s wrong with my ribs. That press must weigh three hundred pounds if it weighs an ounce. Think four of you could do it, Superintendent?”
“Think we can do it?” Hardanger growled. “I could do it myself, with one hand, if it meant getting out of this place. Come on, for God’s sake, let’s hurry.”
And hurry they did. Manoeuvring casks into position while having to stand on others was no easy trick, more especially as all the casks were full, but desperation and the fear that borders on overmastering panic gives men ability to perform feats of strength that they can never afterwards understand. In less than twenty seconds all four barrels were in position and, in another twenty, Hardanger, the sergeant and two constables, a pair on each side of the heavy ponderous cider-press, were starting on their back swing.
The door was made of solid oak, with heavy hinges to match and a draw-bar on the outside, but against that solid battering ram propelled by four powerful men with their lives at stake it might as well have been made of plywood: the shattered door was smashed completely off its hinges and the wine-press, released at the last moment, went cartwheeling through the doorway into the darkness beyond. Five seconds later the last of us had followed the cider-press.
“That farmhouse,” Hardanger said urgently. “Come on. They’ve probably got a telephone.”
“Wait!” There was twice the urgency in my voice. “We can’t do that. We don’t know that we’re not carrying the virus on us. We may be bringing death to all that family. Let’s give the rain time to wash off any virus that may be sticking to the outside.”
“Damn it, we can’t afford to wait,” Hardanger said fiercely. “Besides, if the virus didn’t get us in there it’s a certainty it won’t get us now. General?”
“I’m not sure,” the General said hesitantly. “I rather think you’re right. We’ve no time——”
He broke off in horror as one of the unclothed constables, the one whose shoe had been splashed by the cider, screamed aloud in agony, the scream deepening to a tearing rasping coughing moan: clutching hands clawed in a maniac frenzy at a suddenly stiffened straightened neck where the tendons stood out whitely like quivering wires: then he toppled and fell heavily to the muddy ground, silent now, the nails of his fingers tried to tear his throat open. His crew-mate, the other uniform-less constable, made some sort of unintelligible sound, moved forward and down to help his friend, then grunted in pain as my arm hooked around his neck.
“Don’t touch him!” I shouted hoarsely. “Touch him and you’ll die too. He must have picked up the toxin when he brushed his shoe with his hand then touched his mouth. Nothing on earth can save him now. Stand back. Keep well clear of him.”
He took twenty seconds to die, the kind of twenty seconds that will stay with a man in his nightmares till he draws his last breath on earth. I had seen many men die, but even those who had died in bullet and shrapnel-torn agony had done so peacefully and quietly compared to this man whose body, in the incredibly convulsive violence of its death throes, twisted and flung itself into the most fantastic and impossible contortions. Twice in the last shocking seconds before death he threw his racked and tortured body clear off the ground and so high in the air that I could have passed a table beneath him. And then, as abruptly and unexpectedly as it had begun, it was all over and he was no more than a strangely small and shapeless bundle of clothes lying face downwards in the muddy earth. My mouth was kiln-dry and full of the taste of salt, the ugly taste of fear.
I can’t say how long we stood there in the heavy cold rain, staring at the dead man. A long time, I think. And then we looked at each other, and each one of us knew that the others were capable of thinking only one thing. Who was next? In the pale wash of light from the lamp I still held in one hand, we all stared at each other, one half of our senses and minds outgoing and screwed up to the highest pitch of intensity and perception to detect the first signs of death in another, the other half turned inwards to detect the first signs in themselves. Then, all at once, I cursed savagely, perhaps at myself, or my cowardice, or at Gregori or at the botulinus virus, I don’t know, turned abruptly and headed for the byre, taking the lamp with me, leaving the others standing there round the dead man in the rain-filled pitchy darkness like darkly-petrified mourners at some age-old heathen midnight rites.
I was looking for a hose and I found one almost immediately. I carried it outside, screwed it on to a standing plug and turned the tap on full: the results in the way of volume and pressure would have done justice to any city hydrant. I clambered awkwardly on to a hay wagon that was standing nearby and said to the General, “Come on, sir, you first.”
He came directly under the earthward-pointed nozzle and the jet of water on head and shoulders from a distance of only a few inches made him stumble and all but fall. But he stuck it gamely for all of the half-minute that I insisted he remain under the hose, and by the time I was finished he was as sodden as if he’d spent the night in the river and shivering so violently that I could hear his teeth chatter above the hiss of the water: but by the time he was finished I knew that any toxin that might have been clinging to face or body would have been completely washed away. The other four all submitted to it in turn and then Hardanger did the same for me. The force of the water was such that it was like being belaboured by a non-stop series of far from lightweight clubs and the water itself was ice-cold: but when I thought of the man wh
“It was my fault,” I said. I didn’t mean my voice to sound dull and lifeless but that was the way it came out, to my ears anyway. “I should have warned him. I should have told him not to touch his mouth or nose with his hand.”
“He should have thought of that himself,” Hardanger said, his voice abnormally matter-of-fact. “He knew the dangers as well as you—they’ve been published in every paper in the land today.
Let’s go and see if the farmer has a phone. Not that it’ll make much difference now. Gregori knows that the police Jaguar is too hot to hang on to for a second longer than is necessary. He’s won all along the line, damn his black soul, and nothing is going to stop him now. Twelve hours he said. Twelve hours and then he would be done.”
“Twelve hours from now Gregori will be dead,” I said.
“What?” I could sense him staring at me. “What did you say?”
“He’ll be dead,” I repeated. “Before dawn.”
“It’s all right,” Hardanger said. Cavell’s mind had cracked at last, but let’s play it casual, let’s not any of us make a song and dance about it. He took my arm and started out for the lamp-lit rectangles which showed where the house stood. “The sooner this is over the sooner we’ll all get the rest and food and sleep we need.”
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes