I wrote this one way back in 2003, so it’s a little amateurish. It’s fiction, and any resemblance to any sort of thing whatsoever that might be going on anywhere, at any time, past, present or future, is totally coincidental.
The desert is a hot place, Alex thought. It seemed like such an obvious thing to think but until you’ve been there, until you’ve felt your sweat evaporate as it forms, your body seething with the intensity of it, the statement doesn’t really mean anything.
It was hot now, even the wind through the open-top car felt like the draught from a blast-furnace. Alex gasped aloud with relief when he saw the building in the distance ahead. Almost there. Almost inside that air-conditioned building. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the cool ventilation, but the heat made it impossible. He opened them to the unchanging sands, the white building growing as they approached like a solid block of order in the midst of sandy chaos. As soon as he had completed his inspection he’d have to endure the journey back. He’d spin it out, he decided, so that he could travel back in the cooler evening.
The driver shouted something unintelligible, pointing ahead at the building. Alex nodded, smiling. The car picked up speed, racing towards its destination. The blast-furnace wind seemed to get hotter as their speed increased. In Alex’ heat-warped mind he fancied he could see small red men with pitchforks dancing along the side of the road, urging them onwards, faster and faster across the burning desert. He gripped the sides of the vehicle as the driver bounced it along the barely visible track.
At last they pulled up in front of the building, the braking tyres whirling dust-devils around them. Despite Alex’ eagerness to arrive, the building itself was a remarkably uninteresting thing to look at, close up. A low concrete block, painted white, with few windows and doors. There were no windows in the laboratories, of course. Since the occupants would have been unable to open the windows, for fear of contamination (coming in or going out, either was bad news) the baking heat would have made the interiors intolerable. Air was drawn into the building, cooled and filtered, then filtered again on the way out. Nothing came in or went out unchecked, nothing. Not even a virus. This was the best microbiological research facility in the country, placed far out in the desert so that even if one of its deadly residents were to escape, it would have posed little danger. There could, of course, have been another reason for its remoteness and secrecy. That’s what Alex was here to find out.
It was a shock to enter the building after the searing heat outside. It was at least fifteen degrees cooler inside. The head of the installation was waiting for him, all smiles. Weren’t they always?
“Ah, Professor Alex Weinberg, yes? So you have come. We are ready for your inspection. All of the laboratories are open to you, but you will have to put on the, ah, protective suits in some areas, as you know.” The man was shaking Alex’ hand as if trying to remove it.
“I know,” Alex said. “I am familiar with the precautions required for handling dangerous microorganisms.” He smiled at the man. It was a game, a challenge. If there was a biological weapon here, they would have hidden it. Could he find a needle in a haystack? A book hidden in a library? Except a virus was so much smaller than a needle, so much easier to hide.
“Of course, of course.” The head man led Alex into a maze of corridors with doors on all sides. He opened a few and stepped back so that Alex could look inside. These were offices – some occupied, some not. “Nothing is hidden from you. We are a research establishment, nothing more. We have no weapons here.”
“I hope not,” Alex said. “It makes my report so much easier to write.” They both laughed. That broke the ice, relieved the tension a little.
Alex saw laboratories manned by white-coated scientists and technicians preparing media and growing cultures of bacteria and viruses. He inspected notebooks and watched experiments. The staff obstructed nothing, they were perfectly open with their responses to his questions. He was allowed to go everywhere and see everything. Perhaps the facility was just what it seemed to be, after all. Finally they visited the Category 4 laboratory, with it’s very high level containment. Alex was fitted with a protective suit, respiration equipment and close-fitting hood. This laboratory was built to contain the deadliest of infection. Ebola. Rabies. Infections which plagued this country. Alex saw a whole range of experiments to devise cures and vaccinations. All legitimate. Was there something more? Alex couldn’t find it.
“Well, that’s it,” Alex said, speaking through the headset in his suit. “There’s nothing here but legitimate research. That’s what my report will say.”
The head man smiled through his plastic hood. “That is good. I told you, no weapons here.”
Alex turned to the decontamination chamber, ready to leave. A technician was standing behind him. They collided, the rack of test-tubes tearing a hole in the arm of Alex’ suit. Alex stood still, gaping at the technician who stared in horror at the holed suit.
Everyone was silent, staring at Alex as he tried to cover the hole with his gloved hand. Somebody pressed an alarm. Alex could feel his heart pounding. Had he been infected? Had some vile, incurable horror flashed through the hole in his suit? The technicians backed away, as if he was a leper, as if he could somehow infect them even through their suits. One senior scientist approached, his hands held up in a calming gesture.
“Don’t panic please. We have procedures. We have isolation facilities. You will be OK.” The scientist was smiling, reptilian and false. Alex knew he was in trouble, possibly big trouble, but there was nothing he could do. He had to trust these people now, he had to hope that no infection had entered his body. Resigned to his fate, he let the scientist lead him away, through the decontamination room, through a hastily-assembled plastic tunnel into a suite of rooms.
“Please remove the protective suit and place it in this bag,” the scientist said. “It will be destroyed as a precaution.” Alex nodded dumbly. He knew the precautions. He had just never expected to be on this side of them. The scientist left with the damaged suit and Alex was left alone. He sat on the small bed, head in his hands, and did not notice the three medical staff enter. They were fully clad in protective suits, of course. A cough made him jump. He looked into a smiling face, vague behind the reflections in the mask.
“Professor Weinberg. I am to be your doctor and these two will assist.” The man’s English was vague and uncertain. Alex sighed. He couldn’t expect much conversation.
“Can you get a message to my people?” Alex said. “To the other inspectors? Just to let them know what’s happened.”
The doctor smiled and shook his head. Alex repeated the question.
“Ah, yes, the others. Yes, they are being told now. Please, open your sleeve. I must give you inoculations.”
Alex raised his eyebrows. “You have inoculations against the diseases in there?” he said, amazed.
“Ah, no. These are for tetanus and hepatitis. Those things we can protect against. The others…” The doctor pursed his lips. “We will have to see.”
Alex remained imprisoned in his small suite of rooms for three days. Oh, they were comfortable enough rooms, he was fed and treated well, but he had no contact with the outside world. The doctor or one of his assistants took blood samples every twelve hours. Alex paced, hardly sleeping, his arms aching from the frequent needles. Finally he was declared clear of infection and was allowed to leave. A plane had been arranged to take him out of the country, back to his home. The head of the institution was nowhere to be seen as he was bundled, dazed, into the waiting car. The driver didn’t speak, didn’t turn his head all through the long hot drive to the airport. It wasn’t until he had boarded the plane, headed home, that Alex’s relief exploded in tears of pure joy.
The head of the institute sipped his tea, his face, his every movement cautious. The man seated opposite was a high official of the secret service. One move, even one word out of place could get him arrested, even executed.
“So it went well?” the uniformed official said.
“Yes. The blade in the test-tube rack ripped his suit. We gave him the injection. We told him it was for tetanus.” Both men laughed briefly, the head taking his cue from the official.
“The virus worked, of course?” The official removed his glasses and wiped a speck of dust from them before replacing them on his nose.
“Of course. Exactly as planned. In two days he will be contagious, but it will be at least another week before the symptoms appear. By then he will have passed the virus to many others.”
“Their authorities will try to contain those he has met.”
“Everyone? Everyone he brushed past in the street, everyone he sat next to on the bus? Everyone those people met afterwards? Impossible.” The head was confident. The blood samples had fulfilled all his expectations.
“You are sure he did not suspect anything,” the official said, glaring through his glasses.
“Nothing. He was looking for a weapon, not an inoculation.”
“Ah, they look and look, but they cannot see,” the official said, leaning back in his chair and sipping at his tea. “They look for biological weapons in missile silos, when they, the experts should know.” He grinned at the head, who grinned back, feeling beads of sweat form even here, in his air-conditioned office. “A virus fits easily into a test tube. So much more easily into a syringe. Professor Weinberg came looking for a weapon – but now he is the weapon. So, we will inoculate travellers to target countries and fire our blind weapons into the hearts of our enemies.”
The head of the institute smiled a real smile for once. His funding would increase for his part in this.
I’m sure there is a later version of this in which I fixed points such as a) he wouldn’t have been the only inspector and b) he would already have been inoculated against most things anyway. I just can’t remember which backup disk it’s on. So I’ll have to do it again.