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The satan bug, p.5
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       The Satan Bug, p.5

           Alistair MacLean

  “There will be,” Hardanger nodded. “If your assumption that this is strictly an inside job is correct, there will be. To bring in the possibility of outsiders.”

  “There’s still Clandon,” I said.

  Hardanger nodded again, turned away to watch his two men working on the door. Just then a soldier came up with a large fibre case and a small covered cage, placed it on the floor, saluted nobody in particular and left. I caught the inquiring lift of Cliveden’s eyebrow.

  “When I go into the lab,” I said, “I go in alone. In that case is a gas-tight suit and closed circuit breathing apparatus. I’ll be wearing that. I lock the steel door behind me, open the inner door and take the hamster in this cage in with me. If he’s still alive after a few minutes—well, it’s clear inside.”

  “A hamster?” Hardanger turned his attention from the door, moved across to the cage and lifted the cover. “Poor little beggar. Where did you acquire a hamster so conveniently?”

  “Mordon is the easiest place in Britain to acquire a hamster conveniently. There must be a couple of hundred of them within a stone’s throw from here. Not to mention a few thousand guinea-pigs, rabbits, monkeys, parrots, mice and fowls. They’re bred and reared on Alfringham Farm— where Dr. Baxter has his cottage. Poor little beggar, as you say. They’ve a pretty short life and far from sweet one. The R.S.P.C.A. and the National Anti-Vivisection Society would sell their souls to get in here. The Official Secrets Act sees to it that they don’t. Mordon is their waking nightmare and I don’t blame them. Do you know that over a hundred thousand animals died inside these walls last year—many of them in agony. They’re a sweet bunch in Mordon.”

  “Everyone is entitled to his opinions,” General Cliveden said coldly. “I don’t say I entirely disagree with you.” He smiled without humour. “The right place for airing such sentiments, Cavell, but the wrong time.”

  I nodded, acknowledgement or apology, he could take it how he liked, and opened the fibre case. I straightened, gas-suit in hand, and felt my arm gripped. Dr. Gregori. The dark eyes were intense behind the thick glasses, the swarthy face tight with worry.

  “Don’t go in there, Mr. Cavell.” His voice was low, urgent, almost desperate. “I beg of you, don’t go in there.”

  I said nothing, just looked at him. I liked Gregori, as did all his colleagues without exception. But Gregori wasn’t in Mordon because he was a likeable man. He was there because he was reputed to be one of the most brilliant micro-biologists in Europe. An Italian professor of medicine, he’d been in Mordon just over eight months. The biggest catch Mordon had ever made, and it had been touch and go at that: it had taken cabinet conferences at the highest levels before the Italian government agreed to release him for an unspecified period. And if a man like Dr. Gregori was worried, maybe it was time that I was getting worried too.

  “Why shouldn’t he go in there?” Hardanger demanded. “I take it you must have very powerful reasons, Dr. Gregori?”

  “He has indeed,” Cliveden said. His face was as grave as his voice. “No man knows more about number one lab than Dr. Gregori. We were speaking of this a short time ago. Dr. Gregori admits candidly that he’s terrified and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that he’s got me pretty badly frightened, too. If Dr. Gregori had his way he’d cut through the block on either side of number one lab, built a five foot thick concrete wall and roof round it and seal it off for ever. That’s how frightened Dr. Gregori is. At the very least he wants this lab kept closed for a month.”

  Hardanger gave Cliveden his usual dead-pan look, transferred it to Gregori, then turned to his two assistants. “Down the corridor till you’re out of earshot, please. For your own sakes, the less you know of this the better. You, too, Lieutenant. Sorry.” He waited until Wilkinson and the two men had gone, looked quizzically at Gregori and said, “So you don’t want number one lab opened, Dr. Gregori? Makes you number one on our suspect list, you know.”

  “Please. I do not feel like smiling. And I do not feel like talking here.” He glanced quickly at Clandon, looked as quickly away. “I’m not a policeman— or a soldier. If you would——”

  “Of course.” Hardanger pointed to a door a few yards down the passage. “What’s in there?”

  “Just a store-room. I am so sorry to be so squeamish——”

  “Come on.” Hardanger led the way and we went inside. Oblivious of the “No smoking” signs, Gregori had lit a cigarette and was smoking it in rapid, nervous puffs.

  “I must not waste your time,” he said. “I will be as brief as I can. But I must convince you.” He paused, then went on slowly. “This is the nuclear age. This is the age when tens of millions go about their homes and their work in daily fear and dread of the thermo-nuclear holocaust which, they are all sure, may come any day, and must come soon. Millions cannot sleep at night for they dream too much—of our green and lovely world and their children lying dead in it.”

  He drew deeply on his cigarette, stubbed it out, at once lit another. He said through the drifting smoke, “I have no such fears of a nuclear Armageddon and I sleep well at nights. Such war will never come. I listen to the Russians rattling their rockets, and I smile. I listen to the Americans rattling theirs, and I smile again. For I know that all the time the two giant powers are shaking their sabres in the scabbards, while they’re threatening each other with so many hundreds of megaton-carrying missiles, they are not really thinking of their missiles at all. They are thinking, gentlemen, of Mordon, for we—the British, I should say—have made it our business to ensure that the great nations understand exactly what is going on behind the fences of Mordon.” He tapped the brickwork beside him. “Behind this very wall here. The ultimate weapon. The world’s one certain guarantee of peace. The term ‘ultimate weapon’ has been used too freely, has come almost to lose its meaning. But the term, in this case, is precise and exact. If by ‘ultimate’ one means total annihilation.”

  He smiled, a little self-consciously.

  “I’m being melodramatic, a little? Perhaps. My Latin blood shall we say? But listen carefully, gentlemen, and try to understand the full significance of what I’m going to say. Not the General and Colonel, of course, they already know: but you, Superintendent, and you, Mr. Cavell.

  “We have developed in Mordon here over forty different types of plague germs. I will confine myself to two. One of them is a derivative of the botulinus toxin—which we had developed in World War II. As a point of interest, a quarter of a million troops in England were inoculated against this toxin just before D-Day and I doubt whether any of them know to this day what they were inoculated against.

  “We have refined this toxin into a fantastic and shocking weapon compared to which even the mightiest hydrogen bomb is a child’s toy. Six ounces of this toxin, gentlemen, distributed fairly evenly throughout the world, would destroy every man, woman and child alive on this planet today. No flight of fancy.” His voice was weighted with heavy emphasis, his face still and sombre. “This is simple fact. Give me an airplane and let me fly over London on a windless summer afternoon with no more than a gramme of botulinus toxin to scatter and by evening seven million Londoners would be dead. A thimbleful in its water reservoirs and London would become one vast charnel house. If God does not strike me down for using the term ‘ideal’ in this connection, then this is the ideal form of germ warfare. The botulinus toxin oxidises after twelve hours exposure to the atmosphere and becomes harmless. Twelve hours after country A releases a few grammes of botulinus over country B it can send its soldiers in without any fear of attack by either the toxin or the defending soldiers. For the defending soldiers would be dead. And the civilians, the men, the women, the children. They would all be dead. All dead.”

  Gregori fumbled in his pocket for another cigarette. His hands were shaking and he made no attempt to conceal the fact. He was probably unaware of it.

  I said, “But you used the term ‘ultimate weapon’, as if we alone possessed it. Surely the Russians and Ameri

  “They have it too. We know where Russia’s laboratories in the Urals are. We know where the Canadians manufacture it—the Canadians were leaders in the field until recently—and it’s no secret that there are four thousand scientists working on a crash programme in Fort Detrick in America to produce even more deadlier poisons, so hurried a crash programme that we know that scientists have died and eight hundred of them fallen ill over the past few years. They have all failed to produce this deadlier poison. Britain has succeeded which is why the eyes of the world are on Mordon.”

  “Is it possible?” Hardanger’s tone was dry but his face was set. “A deadlier poison than this damn’ botulinus? Seems kind of superfluous to me.”

  “Botulinus has its drawback,” Gregori said quietly. “From a military viewpoint that is. Botulinus you must breathe or swallow to become infected. It is not contagious. Also, we suspect that a few countries may have produced a form of vaccine against even the refined type of drug we have developed here. But there is no vaccine on earth to counteract the newest virus we have produced—and it’s as contagious as a bush-fire.

  “This other virus is a derivative of the polio virus—infantile paralysis, if you will—but a virus the potency of which has been increased a million times by—well, the methods don’t matter and you wouldn’t understand. What does matter is this: unlike botulinus, this new polio virus is indestructible—extremes of heat and cold, oxidisation and poison have no effect upon it and its life span appears to be indefinite, although we believe it impossible—we hope it impossible—that any virus could live for more than a month in an environment completely hostile to growth and development; unlike botulinus it is highly contagious, as well as being fatal if swallowed or breathed; and, most terrible of all, we have been unable to discover a vaccine for it. I myself am convinced that we can never discover a vaccine against it.” He smiled without humour. “To this virus we have given a highly unscientific name, but one that describes it perfectly—the Satan Bug. It is the most terrible and terrifying weapon mankind has ever known or ever will know.”

  “No vaccine?” Hardanger said. His tone wasn’t dry this time but his lips were. “No vaccine at all?”

  “We have given up hope. Only a few days ago, as you will recall, Colonel Weybridge, Dr. Baxter thought he had found it—but we were completely wrong. There is no hope, none in the world. Now all our efforts are concentrated on evolving an attenuated strain with a limited life-span. In its present form, we obviously cannot use it. But when we do get a form with a limited life-span— and its death must be caused by oxidisation—then we have the ultimate weapon. When that day comes all the nations of the world may as well destroy their nuclear weapons. From a nuclear attack, no matter how intense, there will always be survivors. The Americans have calculated that even a full-scale Soviet nuclear attack on their country, with all the resources at Russia’s disposal, would cause no more than seventy million deaths—no more, I say!—with possibly several million others as a result of radiation. But half the nation would survive, and in a generation or two that nation would rise again. But a nation attacked by the Satan Bug would never rise again: for there would be no survivors.”

  I hadn’t been wrong about Hardanger’s lips being dry, he was licking them to make speaking easier. Someone should see this, I thought. Hardanger scared. Hardanger truly and genuinely frightened. The penitentiaries of Britain were full of people who would never have believed it.

  “And until then,” Hardanger said quietly. “Until you have evolved this limited life-strain?”

  “Until then?” Gregori stared down at the concrete floor. “Until then? Let me put it this way. In its final form the Satan Bug is an extremely refined powder. I take a salt-spoon of this powder, go outside in the grounds of Mordon and turn the salt-spoon upside down. What happens? Every person in Mordon would be dead within an hour, the whole of Wiltshire would be an open tomb by dawn. In a week, ten days, all life would have ceased to exist in Britain. I mean all life. The Plague, the Black Death—was nothing compared with this. Long before the last man died in agony ships or planes or birds or just the waters of the North Sea would have carried the Satan Bug to Europe. We can conceive of no obstacle that can stop its eventual world-wide spread. Two months I would say, two months at the very most.

  “Think of it, Superintendent, think of it. If you can, that is, for it is something really beyond our conception, beyond human imagination. The Lapp trapping in the far north of Sweden. The Chinese peasant tilling his rice-fields in the Yangtse valley. The cattle rancher on his station in the Australian outback, the shopper in Fifth Avenue, the primitive in Tierra del Fuego. Dead. All dead. Because I turned a salt-spoon upside down. Nothing, nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug. Eventually all forms of life will perish. Who, what will be the last to go? I cannot say. Perhaps the great albatross for ever winging its way round the bottom of the world. Perhaps a handful of Eskimos deep in the Arctic basin. But the seas travel the world over, and so also do the winds: one day, one day soon, they too would die.”

  By this time I felt like lighting a cigarette myself and I did. If any enterprising company had got around to running a passenger rocket service to the moon by the time the Satan Bug got loose, they wouldn’t have to spend all that much on advertising.

  “What I’m afraid of you see,” Gregori went on quietly, “is what we may find behind that door. I have not the mind of a detective, but I can see things when they lie plainly before me. Whoever broke his way into Mordon was a desperate man playing for desperate stakes. The end justified by any means—and the only ends to justify such terrible means would be some of the stocks in the virus cupboard.”

  “Cupboard?” Hardanger drew down his bushy brows “Don’t you lock those damn’ germs away somewhere safe?”

  “They are safe,” I said. “The lab walls are of reinforced concrete and panelled with heavy-gauge mild steel. No windows, of course. This door is the only way in. Why shouldn’t it be safe in a cupboard?”

  “I didn’t know.” Hardanger turned back to Gregori. “Please go on.”

  “That’s all.” Gregori shrugged. “A desperate man. A man in a great hurry. The key to the locker—just wood and glass—I have in my hands here. See? He would have to break in. In his haste and with the use of force who knows what damage he may not have done, what virus containers he might not have knocked over or broken? If one of those had been a Satan Bug container, and there are but three in existence … Maybe it’s only a very remote chance. But I say to you, in all sincerity and earnestness, if there was only one chance in a hundred million of a Satan Bug container having been broken, there is still more than ample justifcation for never opening that door again. For if one is broken and one cubic centimetre of tainted air escapes—” He broke off and lifted his hands helplessly. “Have we the right to take upon ourselves the responsibility of being the executioners of mankind?”

  “General Cliveden?” Hardanger said.

  “I’m afraid I agree. Seal it up.”

  “Colonel Weybridge?”

  “I don’t know, I don’t know.” Weybridge took off his cap, ran his hand through the short dark hair. “Yes, I do now. Seal the damn’ place up.”

  “Well. You’re the three men who should really know what they are talking about.” Hardanger pursed his lips for a moment, then glanced at me. “In the face of expert unanimity, it should be interesting to hear what Cavell thinks.”

  “Cavell thinks they’re a pack of old women,” I said. “I think your minds are so gummed up with the idea of the Satan Bug on the loose that you’re incapable of thinking at all, far less thinking straight. Let’s look at the central fact—central supposition, rather. Dr. Gregori bases all his fears on the assumption that someone has broken in and stolen the viruses. He thinks there’s one chance in a thousand that one of the containers may have been broken, so if that door is opened there’s one chance in a thousand of menace to mankind. But if he has actually stolen th
e Satan Bug, then the menace to mankind becomes not one in a thousand— but a thousand to one. For heaven’s sake take the blinkers off for a moment and try to see that a man on the loose with the viruses presents an infinitely greater danger than the remote chance of his having broken one inside those doors. Simple logic says that we must guard against the greater danger. So we must get inside the room—how else can we begin to get any trace of the thief and killer, to try to guard against the infinitely greater danger? We must, I say.

  “Or I must. I’m dressing up and taking that hamster in there. If the hamster survives, good and well. If he doesn’t I don’t come out. Fair enough?”

  “Of all the damned arrogance,” Cliveden said coldly. “For a private detective, Cavell, you have an awful lot of gall. You might bear in mind that I’m the commandant in Mordon and I take all the decisions.”

  “You did, General. But not any more. The Special Branch has taken over—completely. You know that.”

  Hardanger ignored us both. Grasping at straws, he said to Gregori, “You mentioned that a special air filtration unit was working inside there. Won’t that have cleared the air?”

  “With any other virus, yes. Not with the Satan Bug. It’s virtually indestructable, I tell you. And it’s a closed circuit filtration unit. The same air, washed and cleaned, is fed back in again. But you can’t wash away the Satan Bug.”

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