Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Rocket’s Red Glare

Dr Norbert Martensen looked up at the faded copy of the periodic table pinned to the corkboard in his study. It had once adorned his bedroom wall when, as a struggling young chemist, he worked his way through college in the early sixties. The world had seemed simpler then, perhaps because the Cold War had stiffened the sinews of the nation into it’s preferred attitude of striving against a powerful adversary and toiling assiduously to create a better world.

He had been in the vanguard of the post war scientific and technological revolution, despising the sideshow of sex, drugs and rock and roll. His indulgence hadn’t extended beyond some furtive gropings with his wife to be, albeit to the civilised beat of the Modern Jazz Quartet. He had been a clean cut, reliable young man, dressed in polo necked sweater, crepe soled shoes and the kind of dark rimmed glasses worn by Nixon’s German advisor. A Nobel Prize had not been beyond all hope then.   
Measured by the conservative yardsticks of business and government, Norbert’s life had been a success. Materially he was quite well off, even in early retirement, though his health was none too good. Alone now, childless, his wife dead three years in the fall, he went over in his mind what he had to do.

Uneasy with unemployment, following his forced redundancy from the secret laboratories of the Department of Defence, he had sought work with the State Government. Despite his impressive credentials, he could only get a part-time job as a chemical safety inspector. He didn’t care about the low pay and was happy enough to get out of the house for a few hours each week, ensuring that his fellow citizens were not being poisoned or blown up by the industrial hazards that threaten the inhabitants of any big city.

The redundancy had interrupted his research, which was abandoned as unfruitful after he left, his two assistants being redeployed to more relevant work elsewhere. Over the years, his interests had gradually moved from inorganic chemistry to the chemistry of the brain.
The secrets of controlling human beings (whether criminals, foreign armies or the unemployed) lay there.

 During the Vietnam War, he had worked at Monsanto, but was soon assigned permanently to the DoD. He had become deeply involved with herbicidal and ant-personnel agents, particularly Agent Orange. His interest in biochemistry arose from his work trying to prove that dioxin was not harmful to humans. This question assumed increasing importance when claims were made that it was responsible for deformities in the children of US war veterans as well as countless children in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Everyone knew by now that the effects were catastrophic, but official lies had to be maintained to minimise the cost to the taxpayer and preserve the image of a humane Government.
Norbert knew, from his own research with veterans and field trips to Cambodia and Vietnam, the deadly rains of Agent Orange had permanently damaged the genes of the victims. Succeeding generations without end would suffer horrible deformities with no hope of medical aid or compensation. A third of Vietnam and huge areas of Cambodia had been sprayed and dumps of Agent Orange were still seeping into village water supplies, carrying on the deadly war long after the Americans invaders had been hurled ignominiously into the South China Sea.

He could not simply absolve himself from all this, even though he had been completely innocent of any deadly intent at the time. He had just been one man in a vast network of organisations, dedicated to protecting American interests and keeping the Communist menace at bay. It was impossible to wage wars without victims and wars were often unavoidable if enemies were intent on doing America harm.

His career had provided a prosperous life and a good pension but he was willing to testify
on behalf of US Veterans or the Vietnamese victims if it would redress the awful harm that had been done. The chemical companies had made some small restitution but the Government was largely immune from prosecution. He suspected it was his willingness to testify against the authorities that had hastened his redundancy.

Something more effective than admission of guilt and compensation was required. Something that would not only inflict retribution on the agencies concerned but would prevent a future recurrence of such tragedies. His own penance would take the form of altruistic revenge, even at the risk of imprisonment for life.
After his wife’s death, he had converted the back of the house into a makeshift laboratory. There were experiments he dare not conduct at the Department’s labs. He had worked on human subjects there, lifers from military and civilian jails. The effects of chemical and biological agents on combatants required such sacrifices of otherwise useless lives. He had become fascinated with the simpler behaviour of chimpanzees, which had also been used for military experiments.

 He could not afford to acquire such rare animals for his own lab but had to be content with their brains, after they had died in the Government Lab. He had been fortunate enough to get hold of the brains of a couple of bonobo, a rare protected species only recently discovered. He had become fascinated why the behaviour of the bonobo differed so markedly from its human cousins and that of Pan Satyrus, the common chimpanzee.

The bonobo were cooperative and highly socialised but Pan Satyrus was highly aggressive, the males often murdering the offspring of their rivals. This behaviour might be a learned cultural pattern but was more likely to be the result of different brain chemistry. After years of work and considerable expense, Norbert found there was a difference in the chemical balance of the brains and, surprisingly, had been able to demonstrate his theory.

He had managed to synthesise a pink bromine-like liquid, which vapourised around fifteen degrees Celsius. When exposed to the gas his rats had behaved like the bonobo, but to an extreme degree. They copulated in a frenzy without regard to gender until they became too exhausted to continue. After a short rest, they resumed until death ensued. The remarkable thing was, that a single exposure seemed to cause a permanent change to the rats’ brains a fact confirmed by post mortem examination.
Like any good investigator, Norbert sought an antidote to the poison he had created. This turned out to be a similar, greenish yellow liquid, produced by swapping a phosphorus atom for nitrogen.  It switched off the effects of the love drug all right, but induced a deadly aggression instead. The cage was soon strewn with dead and dying bodies as internecine war between the rats broke out. The behaviour of the bonobo and the common chimpanzee had been explained.
The plan had occurred to him by accident. He had been assigned to check the safety of the municipal firework display on New Year’s Eve. It had been a simple matter for him to read up on the regulations and apply the safety rules in the field. The display had gone off without a hitch and he had been confirmed as a reliable member of the Safety Directorate.
Most of his time on the job was taken up with routine testing of effluent and chasing up illegal dumping of chemical wastes. June turned into July and he was assigned the task of policing the massive firework display that was to be installed along Constitutional Avenue and other venues in the Capital. It was the President’s second term and no expense had been spared to mark the occasion with a spectacular display.  
After the first display, he had taken an interest in the construction of fireworks and the chemicals used to produce the variety of effects, particularly the shells and their many kinds of payloads. There were palms, which curved downwards like the tree, rings of stars, roundels of maroons, chrysanthemums and many more. It was a lot of fun making prototypes and testing them along the quieter reaches of the Potomac. He got caught once, but his official inspector’s pass got him out of trouble.

Two big shells sat on the bench in the garage, ready to load into the blue panel van. He had bought professional fireworks, replacing the payloads with glass vials containing the pink and yellow liquids. He’d made some careful calculations to insure the vials would fracture at the right height. The prevailing wind would be blowing from the basin, with any luck and would carry the gas to its target.

When darkness fell, he suffered a mixture of excitement and terror. He was a man of science, not a man of action. He procrastinated over a cup of coffee before going down to the garage and loading the shells into the back of the van. He drove to his chosen site, south of the Ellipse, and parked the van. When he got out, he saw the operators were already busy checking their racks and testing the wires that communicated with fire control. They waved their acknowledgment that he was on the job and let him get on with his cursory inspection. It was a simple matter to unwire the big cylinders he had identified on the display plan provided by the Directorate and substitute his own modified shells. After he had finished inspecting the rest of the network of racks and fixed displays
He found the supervisor and issued a safety certificate. The rest was in the hands of the gods so he went home to watch the display on TV. He settled down with a beer and activated the remote. Most channels were showing parades from all round the nation. After a few more beers the enormity of his action Dawned on him, he felt depressed and on tenterhooks. He wondered, perhaps hoped, that it would fail and that the shells would explode harmlessly. Even if it did work, the presidential party might not come outside to watch the display. He wasn’t too worried about this. The cameras were waiting on the White House lawn and the lure of publicity was more than political blood could stand.    
He sat through endless parades, beamed to his lounge from all over the nation; marching bands, miles of flags, twirling batons and the shapely thighs from Americas finest young womanhood. At last, the studio cut to Washington and dwelt lovingly on the national icons of the capital. The commentator filled in while the telephoto lenses tried to pick up the slightest movement behind the elegant windows of the White House.

The firework display began and the French doors opened to reveal a couple of sharply dressed goons. When they thought the coast was clear, they stood aside for the presidential party to emerge. The President came out first, followed by his wife and family. The dog was not with them presumably it was being kept away from the noise of the fireworks. The Secretary of State followed, then the Secretary of Defence, The Chiefs of Staff, The Security adviser and many more. The expensive dresses of the women folk made a fine display against the dark suits of the men. They chatted gracefully to each other, sipped champagne and looked dutifully into the sky. After a few massive bursts of light, their reserve soon turned into childish delight.

For what seemed like hours, the sky was torn asunder by an accelerating holocaust of sound and light, a truly grand finale to the glorious Fourth and tribute to the pyrotechnician’s art. 
The display drew to its climax with the big maroons going off with a terrifying noise, causing some of the guests to duck involuntarily for cover. The penultimate shell was Quiet by comparison and was a bit of a damp squib, but the cloud of pink gas descended on the company as planned. Nothing much happened and some of the party turned to leave, coughing discretely as the gas tickled their throats. Some official seemed to be apologising to the President but he broke off suddenly to remove his trousers.

Before the G-Men could find anything to shoot at, they lost interest in killing and made straight for the nearest animal in skirts. Some guests seemed unaffected at first but it wasn’t long before the lawn was crawling with half naked bodies, grappling with each other in the quest for instant relief. Some fell back momentarily satisfied but were impelled to hurl themselves back into the fray. The cameramen abandoned their posts to join in but the studio soon cut the feed and struggled to explain what their viewers had just witnessed.  No-one watching TV saw the final shell explode. There were only a few pathetic survivors still alive when the security forces arrived to clean up the mess, who either flung their arms round their rescuers or tried to murder them with tooth and nail. 

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