Authors: Guy N Smith
To Bernard Rickman,
in appreciation of a lot of
help and encouragement
in the early years.
It was humid inside the small laboratory in spite of the window which was open contrary to all regulations. Outside the sun shone and, but for the absence of foliage on the trees surrounding the squat grey stone buildings which comprised the Midlands Biological Research Center, one would have been forgiven for assuming that summer had already begun. Small birds twittered incessantly as they busied themselves searching for twigs and dry grass with which to complete the building of their nests. Rooks circled and cawed noisily above a line of tall elms. Another cycle of life had begun.
The tall, fair-haired man in the long white coat moved away from the window and, ignoring the "no smoking" sign above the long table which supported several oblong glass cases, he lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and slowly blew twin streams of smoke out through his nostrils. His handsome, tanned features wore a worried expression, his lips were a tight, bloodless line, his pale blue eyes focused on the end container. He drew even more fiercely on his cigarette, seemingly unaware of the attractive blonde girl who watched his every move intently.
The rats, mice and guinea pigs in the other cages were unnaturally still, almost as though they sensed that something untoward was happening in that very room, something totally in contrast to the laws of Nature, something which they could not understand but feared all the more because it was beyond their comprehension.
Even the reinforced glass could not muffle the shrill, almost insane shrieking of the bats within the cage. Usually they were motionless and silent by day, only becoming active when the laboratory was in darkness and the bacteriologists had left. Not so today. For the last three days they had been abnormally active, with the exception of those that lay dead on the floor of their prison. Even in death they had an unnatural look about them, the corpses stiff and twisted beyond the limits of
, the tiny faces masks of pain and rage, proof that the creatures had died in extreme agony.
The living flung themselves blindly at the walls, some dropping stunned with the impact, lying inert for several moments and then recovering surprisingly quickly, piping their rage and hurling themselves back at the glass again. Some eight or nine lay dead below the maddened twenty or so that continued their crazed aerobatics in the cramped enclosure.
One small, reddish-brown silky body attempted to secure a hold on the smooth sides of the case with its minute claws, slipped, and fell to the floor. It rolled onto its back, kicking frantically at first, then slowly the twitching limbs stiffened as though /irigor mortis/i were preceding death. Yet the two watching humans knew by the way the bat's eyes dilated that it still lived. They realized also that it was in indescribable pain—and there was nothing whatsoever that they could do about it.
It was a quarter of an hour before the bat's eyes dulled and it died. The last victim, an hour ago, had suffered for forty-five minutes before it was granted a merciful release from its suffering.
"Hell," the tall man muttered to himself, "I've never seen anything like it before!"
The girl moved closer to him, and asked in a low, husky whisper, "What is it, Brian? What's happening to them?"
He seemed to notice her presence for the first time, and his expression softened momentarily. "I don't know," he murmured, averting his eyes from her gaze.
"But . . ." her fingers closed over his as she spoke, and he made no attempt to remove them. "The tests. The tests we did yesterday. They're bound to show something . . . the reason for this paralysis in the bats, the mad rages, the pain . . ."
Professor Brian Newman looked silently out of the window. Out there, across the soft, springy heather which was just beginning its new growth, were something in the region of twenty-five thousand acres of woodland and heath—Cannock Chase, a well-known beauty spot to which crowds of tourists thronged at weekends and on bank holidays. A natural environment, except for this place, the Midlands Biological Research Center, an ugly scar on the landscape.
Newman remembered the beginning of it all, the protests, the petitions by the locals. It hadn't got them anywhere. They hadn't achieved anything, simply because they had been conned by the authorities. Local councils had been persuaded that the center was for the good of the people. Well, the Professor thought, smiling wryly to himself, it was certainly supposed to be for the good of all mankind. Except for. . . for
His gaze was drawn irresistibly back to the glass cage, the dead and dying bats, the small bodies of the doomed thudding continuously against the sides as they swooped and fluttered insanely, often colliding with each other. Soon these creatures would all be dead. It might take until the day after tomorrow. There was no way of helping them or alleviating their suffering. All he could do was to watch them die and hope that it would end there. Then cremate the corpses and say nothing, not even to Haynes. Haynes wouldn't understand. He was an administration man, and the less he knew, the better. Likewise the other scientists. There must be no more meddling. Once these bats were dead, that had to be the end of it.
"The tests,"—Susan Wylie squeezed his hand and whispered huskily—"What did they show, Brian?"
Newman turned to her, and sighed loudly. "They showed that the inexplicable has happened. Something which we cannot explain, only accept. The virus is a mutated one caused by experimenting. I've tried to determine the difference between bacterial and viral meningitis. In humans it's difficult to tell in the early stage, which is the very time when either the virus or the bacteria might be destroyed. Take meningococcus, for example. There are ten types of viruses. The symptoms are all the same: severe headache, high fever, vomiting, stiffness of back and neck muscles, but not . . .
. I've never known the disease lead to madness or such awful agony. And
have created a new horror. A mutated virus! God knows how it happened, it was a million-to-one accident. Those tests we did . . . my God, how far it could spread, and to which species: rats, mice, other rodents . . . even
It doesn't bear thinking about!"
"But Brian," Susan slipped an arm about him. "There's no harm done. Whatever you've created is confined in that single glass cage. The whole disease is trapped in there. It can't get out. Admittedly there's nothing we can do to ease these creatures' suffering, but once they're all dead, that's that. As you say, cremate the bodies and nobody will be any the wiser."
"I guess you're right," he tossed the butt of his cigarette out of the window. "A couple of days and I reckon it will all be over. But it's frightening to think what freak mutations can be brought about by experiments like this one. All over the world scientists are conducting such. experiments daily. Students, too. It could happen anywhere, anytime, and something far more terrible than nuclear war could be unleashed upon the world
don't know how this came about. I'd feel one helluva lot easier if I did. Nevertheless, we must end it here and now. This laboratory must be kept locked. Nobody must come in here, not even Haynes. At the end of the week, when there's no trace of this mess left, I shall report that my experiments were a failure. Negative results."
"I suppose that's the best thing," her pert features puckered into a smile. "Let's forget all about it tonight and enjoy ourselves."
He stiffened slightly, and looked away.
"What's the matter?" there was concern in her voice.
"I . . . I'm afraid we'll have to postpone tonight, Susan. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is."
"Why?" her smile vanished, replaced by an expression of disappointment and indignation. "Why, Brian? A whole week now and you've done nothing but work round the clock. Okay, that was fair enough in the interests of science, but now . . . well, there's nothing more you can do."
"You don't understand."
"I understand you better than any woman," she retorted. "Better than Emma ever did."
"There's no need to bring my wife into this."
"Your ex-wife, Brian. You're divorced. Free. Or had you forgotten it?"
"No," he drew deeply on the remains of his second cigarette. "I hadn't forgotten it. But I still have work to do in spite of this . . . this disaster."
"But you're going to write it off. Forget it."
"As far as the world is concerned," he spoke sharply, irritably. "But I'm not forgetting it. Not ever. I've got to go into it deeper, for my own satisfaction if for no other reason."
"But what about tonight?"
"I'm sorry. There's no way."
She released his hand and turned away so that he could not see the tears welling up in her eyes. For the past two months they had been living together, something of which Haynes disapproved. Damn Haynes. Bacteriologists were entitled to lead their own private lives just as much as anybody else. She told herself that it was in the interests of science. Two people dedicated to a common cause, bound by love. Love? Did Brian Newman really love her? Lately she had been sleeping in his bungalow in Cannock whilst he had remained here in the laboratory. That was no kind of life. Exceptional circumstances, certainly, but it didn't make her feel any better.
"I'm sorry, Sue," He stood behind her, his hands travelling up her body until they came to rest on her breasts beneath her nylon overall.
"How much longer before we're together again, Brian?"
"As soon as this business is over. A day or two at the most, the way these bats are dying."
"I'll stop here with you. It's my rightful place by your side, sharing success and failure."
"No," he caught his breath audibly. "I must see this through alone. Get your sleep. You need it"
"So do you."
"I'll catch up on it afterwards. I'll take a few days off, and we'll spend 'em in bed together."
This time they both laughed.
"All right," she sighed. "So long as you're telling me the truth."
"Don't be silly," he snapped.
"You have a reputation, Professor Newman." She turned and wagged a finger at him in mock severity. "And it is
solely concerned with viruses and bacteria, nor bats. Birds, other than the feathered variety, have retarded a promising career for you, and you know it. That's why you're working out here in this hell's half acre. Without all your affairs you'd probably be in the States now. Or Russia."
"And I wouldn't have you." he stooped and kissed her, his lips and probing tongue smothering further accusations.
Finally they disengaged. "Now go back and get some rest." he said. "I'll maybe snatch an hour or two on the couch. But I've got to see this thing through to the end."
"All right." she agreed and began unbuttoning her overall. "See you in the morning, Brian. Enjoy the company of your bats."
He watched her walk from the laboratory, his discerning gaze appreciating her posture, the straight back, the natural swing of her hips, the long, blonde hair. He locked the door behind her, and turned his attention back to the cage of death.
The bats were going crazy, fluttering, squeaking, buffeting one another, tumbling, battering themselves against the sides of the glass as though determined to smash it. Another one was dying, but this time it was almost instantaneous. One second it had been hurling itself frantically at the toughened glass, the next it was lying quivering on the floor amidst the corpses of its fellows, limbs shuddering, stiffening. Its eyes seemed to meet his and they glittered accusingly, with sheer malevolence. Blaming Man, as though in its last seconds it understood.
Brian Newman shuddered and turned away. The symptoms followed an identical pattern, yet in every case the incubation period varied. Possibly some were more resistant to the mutated virus than others. It was the way with most diseases. He walked to the window and looked out. A red Mini was disappearing down the rough track which led to the road beyond the belt of tall trees. He could tell by the way Susan drove that she was angry. She didn't trust him, and he couldn't blame her.
He took off his white coat and hung it on a peg by the door. Hell, life was getting too complicated all round. A grey telephone stood on the desk in the far corner, and he knew that he could settle everything so easily. One quick call could remove Fiona from his life before they became further involved. Then he could go back to Susan, forget Fiona, the bats, the killer virus, everything.
He walked slowly across the room, and his hand rested on the telephone. Then he changed his mind. Logic and a physical urge battled inside him. The latter won, and he flicked up the night-switch on the small panel. He couldn't chance Susan ringing him here tonight and discovering that he had left the lab.