Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Chapter 6.6

Sir Henry Montague Ponsenby-Brown stood in the centre of the animal house, looking round at cage after cage, stacked up to head height. There were several different types of animals present. A large cage in the corner housed a couple of chimps. A second held a troupe of monkeys, one of which was masturbating quite openly, much to Sir Henry’s disgust. (Sir Henry most certainly did not approve of masturbating monkeys.)
  “Somebody really should spank that monkey!” he said.
  There were also several guinea pigs and a dozen rabbits. Mostly, however, there was just cage upon cage of white mice.
  “What are all the mice used for?” he asked.
  “A lot of it is a historical throw-back,” Johnson explained. “Mice were used in early biological weapons testing, looking at the spread of viruses associated with wound caused by different calibre weapons.”
  “Really?” asked Sir Henry. “And what did they find.”
  “Sadly, mice do not respond well to high impact damage. The spread of just about everything was roughly proportional to the calibre of the weapon. Those early experiments were terribly crude, though.” (And messy.) “We are much more sophisticated now. The Mouse is a good model organism to represent mammalian physiology. However, we mostly use them to run in little wheels and generate electricity if the power fails.”
  Sir Henry looked around the room. It looked secure. “Who has clearance for this room?”
  Johnson thought for a moment. “All the research staff, the two animal technicians. Oh, and the janitor, of course.”
  Johnson noticed Sir Henry wince at the word ‘janitor’ but he was not going to change his language just for some stuffy English bureaucrat. In fact, he had started emphasising his American accent just to spite the toffee-nosed limey.
  “The caretaker?” questioned Sir Henry. “Does he have access to all the labs?”
  Johnson nodded. “Of course. He doesn't have the security codes for any of the actual experiments, naturally. Not that we are actually doing any experiments at the moment. If NATO would give us a bit more money for the science and impose a little less security then...”
  “Why does he wear that suit?” frowned Sir Henry, cutting him off.
  Johnson gave the nervous laugh of someone thrust into a position of authority who has suddenly realised that he is likely to held responsible for all the idiosyncrasies of their fellow workers. “The suit? Oh, Ricky’s just a bit of an eccentric. Slightly paranoid about us releasing germs into the air. I think some of the cleaning chemicals are also a bit nasty.”
  There was a pregnant silence. "I don't clean," he added weakly, feeling the need to justify his ignorance.
  “Can he be trusted?”
  Johnson was visibly shocked by the question. “Ricky? Why, sure! Like I say, he’s a bit eccentric but he’s harmless enough. Certainly not dangerous. More committed than anyone to keeping the place functional and secure – and the bugs firmly contained inside. In fact, he’s actually designing a new air-filtration system for us at the moment. Quite the all-round handyman is our Ricky.”
  Sir Henry said nothing and Johnson, being a worrier, started to worry. Had he said something bad? Was Sir Henry now worried about bugs? They did not even have any bugs at the moment. Not any good ones, anyway. Nothing that would make you bleed out of every orifice.
  As the gap in conversation grew, Johnson felt more and more compelled to fill it. “I mean, I don’t really know the man. Professor Greenwood hired him. Seems like a nice fella too. Gets on well with everyone as far as I know. Especially well with Greenwood, I believe. They both tend to work nights a lot, you see.” He glanced at his watch.
  "Actually, Ricky's normally knocked off by now. Must have been another fecal incident in the animal house."
  Sir Henry thought for a moment. The masturbating monkey stopped playing with itself and started picking its nose instead. It certainly had the air of an animal that could create a fecal incident.
  “I believe I have seen enough,” said Sir Henry, a decision reached. “I think it’s time for tea.”
  The two men left the lab and Sir Henry approached the caretaker, who stopped mopping and looked up at the approaching grey figure.
  Sir Henry peered through the transparent window in Ricky’s hood and adopted the standard Englishman abroad tone: very slow, very clear, and very loud. “How – well – do – you – know – the – Director?” he asked, nodding slowly in encouragement with each word.
  Professor Johnson winced at such a flagrantly patronising display. “It’s all right, Sir Henry. He can hear quite clearly in that suit.”
  “Really?” Sir Henry sounded rather disappointed. He enjoyed patronising the lower classes. (And ‘Johnny Foreigner’.) He turned back to face the janitor. “You – can – hear – me – OK?”
  Ricky nodded. If he had taken any offence at Sir Henry’s behaviour, he showed no sign in his voice, however.
  “Perfectly, sir,” he replied in a soft West Country accent. “And the Director, sir. I get on very well with the Professor Greenwood. Is he alright?”
  Sir Henry thought for a moment. “I would like you to join us for a cup of tea,” he said, only slightly slower and louder than normal.
  Ricky looked over Sir Henry’s shoulder at the Professor. He generally took his tea breaks in the caretaker’s cupboard. Johnson shrugged and nodded encouragement at him.
  “Certainly, sir. I’m pretty much done here anyway. I’ll just have to stow my bucket.”
  “Quite so.”
  Sir Henry spun about on his heel and marched off back down the corridor, leaving Johnson dithering over whether to explain to the janitor what was going on, or follow the belligerent bureaucrat.
  Deciding discretion was the better part of valour, Johnson opted for hurrying after Sir Henry, catching up with him just as he stopped by the door through which he had entered the lab area. There was no swipe-card receptor or keypad.
  “How do we get out?” he asked Johnson.
  “The codes are only used for access,” the professor explained. “To open the door, just press the green button.”
  Being colour-blind, Sir Henry could not see a green button. However, there was a prominent grey button on the wall next to him. He slammed his palm on it.”
  “Nooo!” cried Professor Johnson, leaping forward. “Not the red button!” But it was too late. Alarms started ringing very loudly above their heads. Sir Henry turned in time to see the interior of the lab opposite engulfed in jets of steam from all directions. Soon the window was completely misted up and he could see nothing.
  “Good heavens.”
  “That’s the emergency decontamination button, Sir Henry!” shouted Johnson over the alarms. “In case there’s an emergency in the lab.”
  Johnson pulled a key out of his pocket and inserted it into the middle of the button Sir Henry had pushed. With a sharp twist, he pulled the button out again.
  The alarm ceased and the sprays in the lab stopped. Condensation ran down the inside of the window. Sir Henry peered inside. It was no longer spotless. Every available surface seemed to be covered in a white powder that must have dropped from the ceiling before the steam-jets kicked in caked it on.
  “Oh dear, what a mess!” he said, glancing down the corridor at the caretaker and his bucket. “I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to clean that up.”

Chapter 6.7 ☛

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