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Rat Stew

"What does it taste like?" I asked Fred, pointing to the pile of empty dog food cans on the bench.

"Not bad," he said. "But there's too much cereal in it. Means it's like Chinese food: you're hungly again ten minutes later." He gestured towards the gunge-caked pot on the burner. "Rat stew's streets ahead."

I frowned. "You don't eat the experimental animals, do you?"

Fred became defensive. "They were Joseph Ngogo's. He left last week."

I didn't want to get off-side with Fred, since his corner seemed to be the only hospitable oasis in the Institute for Human Research, so I backed off. "I'll see about arranging some experiments on cattle," I told him.

Fred licked his lips.

As a mere Ph.D. student, Fred didn't rate a lockable, barrable and boltable lab of his own. Apparently our beloved Director's compulsion to keep the student in his place exceeded even his paranoid desire for secrecy, which surprised me. Instead, Fred had a corner behind the animal cages on the ground floor, which he had fitted up with a couple of threadbare armchairs and a sleeping bag.

My first reaction to the scene had been to ask him if the boss really worked him that hard.

Fred shook his head. "He would if I let him. It's just the lousy pay he gives me."

"I thought Ph.D. scholarships weren't too bad."

"Not with dope the price it is."

I rather envied Fred. My lab was a white plastic prison, leading off a long, narrow corridor lined with closed doors. This was my first day and I was already claustrophobic.

Fred swept the dog food cans into the waste-paper basket. "I'm going to have to give the dog food up," he said, frowning. "The stuff gives me hallucinations."

"That's the dope."

He shook his head.

"Dreaming of beautiful bitches?" I asked, trying another tack.

He shook his head again, this time so sombrely that I was worried. "People," he said. "People who've been here."

I had already decided that I didn't like the Institute of Human Research.

It is in about the last place that you would expect to find a prestigious research institution: on a busy main road in the industrial western suburbs of Melbourne, jammed in between a tannery and a pet-food factory, with a panel-beater, a knitting mill and the toughest school in the western suburbs just across the road. From the outside, it looks like an ordinary factory: so ordinary that it took me three tries to find it. Inside, it is divided into two levels by a concrete floor carried on heavy steel trusses. On the ground floor there is life: animals barking, miaowing, squeaking and smelling. But as one ascends the stairs, an eerie silence descends.

I had never heard of the place until I saw an ad for the job here, but I was pretty desperate, so I applied. Like most "up and coming" research scientists, I had firmly kept my sights far too high until it was too late. In the days when there were university lectureships going, I had applied only for professorships; when there were only college lectureships available, I insisted on a university job; and then, as the last of my long string of temporary research jobs was almost finished, I was on my knees pleading for a mere research assistantship, only to be rejected out of hand because I was overqualified. Even taking that last research job had been an act of desperation; it had been in Belfast.

My Belfast boss had looked suprised when I showed him the ad, which contained the name of the Director in large print. "Grimm, eh?" he said. "So that's what happened to him."

I couldn't place him. "Grimm?" I asked.

"Sliced bread," my boss said. "Very distinguished man."

I remembered now. Grimm's group at Wigan had made the decisive breakthrough in the manufacture of sliced bread, isolating and then synthesising the chemicals which give it that distinctive rubbery texture for weeks on end. He had been expected to get a Nobel Prize, but apparently there were objections from the Russian Academy, which hadn't heard of sliced bread, and from the environmental lobby, which had.

Grimm had always maintained that the discovery was an accident, but the stigma of having done "applied" research had stuck.

"Something fishy about him," my boss added, as if following my line of thought. "I'm told his group was dabbling in ESP and race memory, and rubbish like that." His voice was distinctly disapproving. "Add to that the business over his wife, and it's not suprising he's made for the antipodes."

"His wife?" I asked.

"She got off with one of his research assistants, but he couldn't find which one." My boss chuckled evilly. "There was quite a row, what with him hiring detectives, snooping on people and barging in on innocent lovemaking. Typical case of a jealous old man and a young wife."

"But why Australia?"

"He was born there," my boss said. "And the Australian government has a policy of repatriating big-name Australian scientists, so that they can spend the remainder of their working life in retirement on a large salary."

I frowned. "It doesn't look too hopeful," I said.

"It's a job. The pay's all right. It might even lead to something. Grimm probably still has contacts."

"It's strange that I've never met anyone who's been there," I said doubtfully.

My boss grinned. "I suspect that it's fairly new," he said. "Give it time."

I don't normally take an instant dislike to a new boss (it usually takes a week or two), but in the case of Sir Augustus Grimm, it was inevitable. A balding, affable man, he was just that bit too affable to be genuine. He asked all the right questions — about my trip out, about my boss in Belfast (whom he claimed to have met at a conference in Samarkand) and about whether I had a comfortable place to stay — but didn't listen to the answers.

Except for the answer to the last question, which seemed to throw him a bit. I had told him that I was staying with friends.

"I thought you were Irish," he said in a puzzled voice.

"There are more of us here than there," I replied flippantly. If he'd failed to notice the (admittedly meagre) scraps of evidence on my curriculum vitae which showed that I'd lived most of my life in Melbourne, not many miles from where I was now, I wasn't going to point them out. But it was strange that it upset him.

"I hope that they won't distract you from your work," he said finally, in a slimy way.

1 thought it unwise to point out that I was more worried about the inverse problem.

Those formalities over, we got down to business. "I want you to do some research on renaturing of proteins," Grimm said.

I wasn't sure if I'd heard him correctly, but I racked my brains for a moment before giving in. "Renaturing?" I queried. "I've heard of denaturing."

"It's the reverse process," Grimm said, taking my ignorance in his stride. "When you denature a protein, for example by heating or by chemical means, as in the digestive tracts of animals, you break the large protein molecule into a number of smaller molecules." The speech was obviously well rehearsed, and Grimm delivered it as if I were a lecture-theatre full of first year students. "Now we know the mechanisms by which such a break up occurs: which chemicals, for example, attack which part of the protein molecule, and hence which fragments result. What I would like to know is: if we know how the protein was broken up, can we put it back together again?"

"Sounds pretty tricky to me," I said. Grimm had grossly oversimplified the denaturing problem. He had to, to make renaturing even sound possible. When it is denatured, a protein breaks up in lots of ways, not just one.

"That is why we get the best of people and give them the best possible facilities," Grimm said, oozing spurious confidence in my ability.

I stalled. "Why do you want to do this?" I asked.

Grimm hooded his eyes just slightly, and then said: "Proteins contain information, through their structure. Just like DNA's structure contains the genetic code. When a person or an animal dies, that information is lost, because the proteins break down. If we can learn to reconstruct it, much good might result." He paused. "Think, for example, if we could reconstruct the memories of a murdered man, and could bring the killer to justice using his victim's own description. Or if. . . "

Since Grimm looked about to wax eloquent for hours, I cut in. "It seems pretty far fetched to me," I said undiplomatically. I remembered some well known and unsuccessful experiments on the transmission of memories in flatworms.

Grimm chuckled. "Let us hope that you can prove yourself wrong," he said patronisingly.

Grimm's final remark, as he was showing me out, surprised me so much that I tripped over a pile of dog food cans. "You'll find this a rather competitive place," he said. "We've had some trouble with people stealing other peoples' ideas. So if you want to discuss anything, it might be wisest to see me."

The Institute of Human Research was obviously not the happy family of researchers so beloved of scientific mythology.

How little of a happy family, I soon found out. Grimm had made no attempt to extend our initial interview into the usual guided tour, in which I would have been paraded to the technicians, animals and machines (as well as to my colleagues) as the latest acquisition. I was grateful for this at first, since people tend to expect you to have remembered everybody and everything (particularly themselves) after such a tour. I have always felt that a quiet snoop around on one's own, plus a week of morning and afternoon tea, usually achieved the same results much less painfully.

I spent about half an hour exploring the contents of the drawers and cupboards in my lab, before deciding that it was morning tea time. I hadn't heard any concerted banging of doors, or the thunder of eager feet down the corridor, which had been my cue in all the other places that I'd worked, but my instinct for morning tea is bettered only by my nose for parties.

I prowled up and down the deserted first floor corridor, listening for noises, but I found none. I went downstairs and had a quick look around, but still found nothing.

Finally I plucked up courage to knock on Grimm's secretary's door. I'd met her when I arrived earlier that morning: a formidable woman in her late thirties. Fred told me later that she was Grimm's wife. Apparently she felt it necessary to keep an eye on him, though Fred wouldn't say why.

In response to a muttered "Groffle!" I entered to find her sipping a cup of tea.

"Where's the tea room?" I asked.

"Tea room?" she echoed in a surprised voice.

"Where do people have morning tea?" I asked, hoping that rewording the question might help.

"In their laboratories, of course," she said sharply. "Haven't you been supplied with an electric jug and a jar of coffee?"

I remembered seeing them now. "I assumed that that was for out of hours work," I said.

"Sir Augustus disapproves of excessive hobnobbing among his staff," she told me curtly. She picked up her cup in a gesture of dismissal.

I had some trouble finding my lab again. There were no names on the doors, and somebody had thoughtfully closed mine for me, but after a couple of black looks from secret coffee sippers in other labs, I found my own and brewed a mixture of artificial coffee, artificial milk, artificial sweetener and chlori­nated water.

The black looks had rather scotched my intended plan of action for the rest of the morning, which had been to wander around, bang on doors, and introduce myself. Instead, I read some of the references that Grimm had given me, and then, getting bored, went down to have a look at the animals.

That was when I met Fred Stillman.
I'd passed hundreds of cages labelled with numbers and dates, a set of mice named after amino acids, and a pair of cats (one tailless) called ATP and ADP in a bad biochemical joke, when I ran into a set of rats with names like Smack, Hash, Coke, Grass and Shrooms. I'd said hello to them, and was about to move on when a shaggy head appeared from behind the cages.

"Like a cup of coffee?" it asked.

I accepted eagerly.

The introductions and the what-made-you-come-heres were quickly over. My musings about prospects for the future were soon silenced with the information that Grimm was the only person here with a tenured job, and was keeping it that way.

"Makes him feel safe," Fred told me bitchily. "You'll get your two years, and not a minute longer."

"Where do people go?"

Fred shrugged. "Nowhere important. Grimm'll write you a glowing reference for the University of Khazakstan, and rubbish you to London. That way you're never heard of again."

I wasn't sure whether to believe him, so I changed the subject. "What do the rest of the people here work on?" I asked.

"Same as you," he said. "Renaturing of proteins."

I hadn't said a word about my research project.

Fred grinned at my surprise. "Grimm's got an obsession about it." :

"What's he after?"

"Memories," Fred said. "Memories held by proteins in brain cells."

I was surprised that it tallied with what Grimm had told me. I had automatically assumed that he was lying,

"Any particular type of memories," I asked. "Visual images, data, anything like that?"

"Dunno," Fred said. "I only do the rats." He seemed to be hedging a bit, as if he knew more than he was willing to say.

I decided not to push him, so I followed up his red herring. "What sort of experiments?" I asked.

"Teach them to run a maze, then cook them up and feed them to another lot."

"Does it work?"

He shook his head, but then laughed suddenly. "I thought it did the night I had the hash dumplings in the stew," he said. "The rats lapped it up."

I soon settled into a rigid nine to five working day, with an hour for lunch at the pub down the road. I think it was a defence mechanism, since I hate a nine to five routine. It certainly brought down the wrath of the gods.

Grimm, of course, said nothing, but his wife kept dropping little hints.

"Sir Augustus has been remarking on how hard you are to find," she said one day.

"I'm usually around somewhere," I said,

"He wanted to see you urgently about something last Saturday," she told me.

I showed my teeth. "I'll put my office hours up on my door," I said.

The only effect was to confirm my impression that the rest of Grimm's staff were either gutless, or totally dedicated twenty four hour a day, seven day a week men. On the odd occasions that I passed the place at night or weekends, all the lights were on (except mine) and the car park was full.

Grimm certainly had them fooled.

Another time, Mrs Grimm (I know it should be Lady Grimm, but the description doesn't fit) said: "Sir Augustus doesn't really approve of drinking during working hours, you know."

"It doesn't affect my work," I said.

"Even so, it sets a bad example to others."

I asked for the reference to the temperance clause in my contract.

I griped about the disapproval sessions to Fred, but he shrugged. "She's okay — she's just having a bit of a hard time of it," was all he would say as he ladled out two bowls of dog food hash.

The turning point came when I'd been at the Institute for about a fortnight. In the morning, the place had been turned upside down by two officials, looking for Joseph Ngogo (the guy whose rats Fred had been stewing the day I arrived). Grimm, shepherding them around like an indulgent grandmother, kept announcing, "Gentlemen, I drove him to the airport myself," at five minute intervals, followed by variations upon, "He was looking forward to going home. I cannot understand why he should want to defect. If, of course, that's what he's done." In the afternoon, a three week dope drought broke with the appearance of Fred's friendly neighbourhood pusher, loaded down with the stuff. We got stoned, and had dog food stew again for dinner.

Please don't get the wrong idea about the dog food. Okay, it was free (Fred pinched the cans from the factory next door), but I'm not that badly paid. I suffered it (and it's bland, tasteless stuff) purely for the sake of science. I wanted to reproduce Fred's hallucinations.

Until that night, I'd had no success. We sat around, smoking and playing Go, to the accompaniment of animal noises. It was Fred's move, and he was taking his time. I glanced idly around.

The scene changed.

It was broad daylight, and I was standing outside in the street, looking at the sign on the pet-food factory. "uncle tom's" I read. 1 turned to Fred Stillman, who was standing beside me. "In my country, that is just what we do to them," I told him.

The scene crumbled in a flash of intense pain and fear, and I was back inside, playing Go.

Fred looked at me oddly. "What happened?" he asked.

I fumbled for words to tell him, but before I'd said more than "mumble", his eyes glazed and he twitched in pain. His face went as white as a sheet.

"That was Ngogo!" he stammered. "How the hell did we get ... his memories?"

I began to think very hard.

After a sleepless night, I was back at work at nine in the morning.

"Any dope left?" was my first query to Fred.

He pulled out his tobacco pouch and began to look for papers.

"It's not for us," I said. "We're making rat stew — with dumplings."

We watched as our novice rats, stuffed with rat and hash stew, ran the mazes like champions. And we watched as Grimm escorted Pangloss Singh, his two years expired, from the building on his way to his new job in Abu Dhabi.

That night we broke into the pet-food factory.

There were three of us. Fred had insisted on inviting Mrs Grimm along. "She's got as much right to know as us," was the only explanation he would give.

As we sneaked down the dark corridors and passed the looming shapes of the silent machinery, a chill ran down my spine, and I expected werewolves and vampires to jump out of the shadows. It didn't help when Fred flashed his torch onto a nameplate on an office door. It said: S.Todd, Manager.

We found nothing in the coolroom (except some dead cats), but in the blood and bone machine, there were fragments of human bones. Fred found part of a turban in the incinerator.

"What now?" I asked. "Police?"

"Leave it to me," Grimm's wife said. "I want to know exactly what he's up to."

I looked puzzled.

"You know what this renaturing rubbish is about?" she asked sharply.

I shook my head.

"He wants to pump my brain — find out about my love life." She almost spat. "I didn't know he was killing other people, or I'd have stopped him long ago."

"But he hasn't discovered renaturing," Fred objected.

"Nor will he, if I can manage it," she said. "I want to stay alive."

I must have looked uncomfortable, because she turned to face me. "Don't tell me you've discovered it?" she asked, fear in her voice.

I nodded.

She just looked at me, for a very long time. I could guess what she was thinking. And I didn't need to tell her that it would need something pretty good to buy me off. One only makes one significant discovery in a lifetime.

"I'll make him give you a tenured job," she said. "Professor's salary. You can go to the races every day, for all we would care." She looked at Fred. "Same for you," she said.

Fred and I looked at each other, and then nodded. In these difficult times, tenure beats a Nobel Prize any time.

"One condition," I said. "I'd like to keep up with the field. Would you mind if I had the occasional researcher?"


Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1976

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