At first, it seems there’s been a mistake.
Far below us, the satiny, placid water is incapable of hiding a dropped quarter, let alone a disaster. I lean over and touch the pilot’s jacket, but this is clearly the precise spot where people ask if he’s lost. He speaks before I do.
“You’ll see it in a second.” It’s so quiet I hear it twice: once in my headset, and once in the world. My stomach lurches as he guides the Eclipse straight up, like the first climb of a rollercoaster. The engine remains eerily silent: just a hum under our feet. You can’t use helicopters out here, I was told again and again, and I still tried to book one, arguing that it was a tenth the cost.
As we ascend, they come into view through the shallow, clear ocean, littering the sand like so many crucifixes. Three, four, five… and then I tear my eyes from the dead helicopters, and I see it.
Now there is sound: my fast breath in the headset. It’s like life, isn’t it? I want to say to the pilot, whose name I never learned, I want to speak to someone, I am half-delirious, fists clenched in my lap for lack of anything to grab in this edgeless vehicle. It’s like life, we had to get higher, we were too close to see the truth.
Still rising, the edge of the thing reveals itself. No chaotic meteor-strike with lacy edges of ejecta but a smooth dinnerplate of a crater, whitely bereft of life, and in the center a darkness so profound that it seems astronomical rather than nautical, a black hole from which no light can escape, nor the grains of sand or stars.
Time is lost as we hang motionless over the impossibility, as I try, camera-less, phone-less, to record this in my mind. When it returns, we’re nearly back at the dock and my face is crusted with tears I don’t remember shedding.
The pilot helps me down, and lets me cling to his arm as my legs shake uncontrollably. “Let’s just get you on this,” he says, and steers me to a bench with the same bored competence of muscle memory with which he flew the hover.
I flop onto the hot wood and, at his suggestion, put my head between my knees. Through the dock’s gappy planks gleams a much more ordinary ocean: barnacles, darting fish, floating tufts of wrack. Life, life. Which has not returned to the Failsafe Zone and never will.
The pilot tells me this will pass in a couple of minutes and I’ll be able to move again, but I’ll probably want some sugar. There’s a vending machine back at the desk where I had to sign over my phone.
“Seen this a lot, huh,” I manage through my chattering teeth.
“Oh, sure,” he says. “Every time. No exceptions so far.”
No one saw it happen.
Scratch that: no witnesses were left. So you end up having to picture it, based on the bone-dry descriptions in what we’ll all just agree to call the Pearce Papers, to avoid any messy litigation and keep me out of trouble with my editor.
Here’s what you picture: something copyrighted. “That’s no moon!” Or Bondian, a rocket, a self-guided bomb, a gun, a sword, a spear. We have so many ways to end life and they all end up looking sort of the same. So that’s what we think of: a pointy end.
Then light. Light upon light upon light, like those early, terrified précis of nuclear tests. Brighter, they said, than a thousand suns. But only for a second. And then erasure.
Of, most importantly, eleven people. And of island, beach, buildings, air, algae, seabirds, fish, and a tremendous swath of the Earth’s crust. But also, if we correctly understand the documentation (and no one’s sure that we do, or even can), other things—the space between particles, a hundred types of force and spin, and an unmeasured and immeasurable amount of actual time destroyed, lost forever, just taken right out of the universe’s accounting books.
After that: a second explosion, as if the weapon upon its first and only discharge achieved sentience and sapience, realized what it had done, and flung itself from the parapet in instant repentance.
But it didn’t, of course.
As with so many other historical disasters, someone had to give an order; and someone had to press a button.
And I am going to go talk to someone who knows about this thing for which we have no words.
Flights misalign, then ferries stand me up, and when I finally reach Alexander Wells’ house, I have rescheduled four times and am a full two days late. The trudge up the white gravel walkway to his front door feels like the last minutes of some awful bootcamp meant to kill new marines.
His house is high and narrow and seems, to my sleep-damaged retinas, a little too high-contrast, like Disneyland. Bricks too red, grass too green. Guarding the door are painfully yellow concrete planters filled with geraniums and petunias.
The security camera on its slender gantry weaves around patiently as it tracks my face. Several minutes pass. A fat orange-and-black bee investigates my boot, still frosted with salt, and finds it unsatisfactory, launching itself back into the air with a little ‘Hmph!’
I wonder whether I’m hallucinating from sleep deprivation, and hope Wells will let me record this interview. I suspect he will. “What can they do to me?” he said on the phone last night. “What do you think they will do?”
Nothing, I think. Nothing has happened to the others; why should he be an exception?
Eleven people. Eleven scientists. Killed in an instant: and no one aware of it till the Pearce Papers were released. Then after the investigation, the appeal, the counter-suit, the counter-appeal, a number of civil suits, and nineteen months in the Hague, six of those people have been declared officially deceased. The other five are still ‘missing.’
No criminal guilt has ever been determined. No jail time has been served.
The Papers have no commentary on that: on culpability, I mean, or perhaps I mean to say evil. They just say: Once upon a time, a research facility was built as far in the middle of nowhere as could be, a little cluster of silver and white buildings connected with pedways on an unnamed island. It belonged to a coalition of governments, was organized and staffed under a covert pact, and funded via means more byzantine than those that funnel cash to cartels, mobs, dictators, and cults.
You think: Why did no one know about it? But of course the answer is: People don’t know about a lot of things. Do they.
Alexander Wells opens the door, and takes my laptop bag and travel mug as I fumble my jacket off. “Miss Bessette. So good to meet you at last. I hope the last leg of your travel was kinder than your previous ones.”
“It was tolerable, thanks,” I tell him. My first impression is that he doesn’t look eighty-five; my second is that he somehow resembles the house, the way some people begin to look like their pets. Tall and thin, high-contrast blue eyes in a face so tanned that it tends towards sunburn near the scalp and ears. White hair—not grey but really white, like a silk scarf. His voice is rough, his accent (“Leeds: no one, not a bloody one, could understand a word out of me when I first moved stateside”) worn to translucency after, he says, five decades on our bland-vowelled coast.
As we chat about his present circumstances—yes, never married, the house is old, the cat is new, his neighbour found her cowering under a dumpster and she’s still not learned any manners—I find myself glancing around for clues, pretending I’m Sherlock Holmes. Filled bookshelves: what titles do they hold? Family on the wall, a couple of amateurish watercolours: his, or purchased, or gifts from the same artist?
This is how you know evil is banal, the history books tell us. This is how you know: There were baby photos on the walls of the sweet little cottages in Auschwitz, and embroidered curtains; there were operas, ballet performances, a school for the children of the Nazis, there were gardens and playgrounds. It all looks very ordinary when you come across it afterwards.
Wells is, or was (do you ever leave it behind?) a scientist as well as an engineer—doctorate in marine hydrogeology, work on designing various labs and containment structures, advisor to a number of generations of politicians here and overseas. His work on high-profile projects was always low-profile though, he tells me. “Not the kind of meetings you’d see photographed.”
In the kitchen, he offers me tea from a big red pot; sugar and oat milk appear with rapid ease. His hands are big, bony, the nails clipped to a businesslike length. I wrap both my own hands around my mug and will them to stop shaking. The house is cold and bright, several windows open and the spring crossbreeze coming through to ruffle my hair. The unnamed cat is a small wild tabby, and sulks when she cannot kill my boot, leaving two vampiric pinpricks in the gray leather.
“Thanks for agreeing to speak with me,” I tell him.
“Thanks for settling for me,” he replies, drily.
I nod; you have to acknowledge it. Wells didn’t push the button, and he didn’t give the orders either, if the leaked dossier is correct. He was never called to court, never testified.
All the same, he was supposedly at the heart of the research consortium—or he was its heart, the force that moved the blood. I flatter myself to think that he’s agreed to this interview because I impressed him by managing to find him, and say so.
He chuckles. “Listen. I read those papers too. First thing I thought: Someone is gonna come knocking now. Even with a name as common as mine. I thought about changing it, you know. But then I thought, well, let them come, let them ask. I won’t seek it out. But I’ll talk.”
“You’re not afraid of the consequences, obviously.”
“No. Jail’s not gonna happen. No job to lose. You think maybe the families are gonna read your piece, come burn my house down when I sleep? Maybe. I’ve thought that too. This island isn’t so hard to get to. Not like that one.”
“But you weren’t directly responsible.”
“This metaphorical button they say had to be pushed. Like the nuclear war buttons. They think Knutsson pushed it, Eady pushed it, Li pushed it, all the big names that were on TV. None of them did. I didn’t either.”
“They would still hate you,” I persist. “Because you let it happen, you didn’t stop it. You’re close enough.”
“People settle,” he says again.
If it’s all true, it’s not merely a disaster, not merely the justification for a million more conspiracy theories that will ruin countless lives; it also means hundreds or even thousands of people worked for decades to hide both the creation of this facility, and of the failsafe that had been constructed next to it.
It means hundreds or even thousands of people knew that research was being performed out there, in the middle of nowhere, research of such hazard or import that to prevent its dissemination in any way, a superweapon of quite literally physically impossible power would obliterate the entire island, and itself.
How can we live in a world where such a thing could be hidden by so many for so long?
“Is that about right?” I ask Wells. “Have I got that right? You knew about all of that. From the beginning.”
“You’re oversimplifying it. But yes.” He pauses, and pushes away his empty mug. “The first thing you think is: Aha! The old man said it. But I didn’t make the decisions.”
“You informed the people who made the decisions.”
“Yes. That was my job. I was an advisor.”
“We’re getting dangerously close to I was just following orders here, Mr. Wells.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
We both pause; he doesn’t want to interview me and I don’t want to be interviewed. And neither of us wanted to hear such a puerile question.
Outside, birds sing with startling nearness. I crane my head to look over his shoulder, spotting the coffee-table sized feeder he’s built on a pole in the garden. Some small, round item is trying to sing and eat at the same time, with middling success.
Wells stares at me while I refuse to stare at him. “Yellow warbler,” he says. “I was following orders. We all were. Now let me ask you, since I know the internet people got a hundred theories of their own. What do you think they were studying out there, Miss Bessette? Those eleven people.”
I’m ready for this one; part of me knew he’d ask. Before I left, in fact, my editor said, “Do you think he’ll ask you?” We didn’t put any money on it. Now, I feel both despair and triumph at being right.
“Bioweapons,” I say. “Smallpox or anthrax or something else at level four. Or something worse. New. Something they were making.”
“There are level four containment facilities all over the world,” he says. “All the protocols are already in place. There hasn’t been an incident involving a released infectious agent in fifty-five years. Try again.”
“A superweapon. Like… like the failsafe.”
“Which already existed. Why would they be researching that?”
“To make a better one?” It comes out weakly; for a moment I’m back in grade six again, I didn’t volunteer, the teacher called on me, and the other kids are snickering.
I think, and I hope he too is thinking: There could not possibly be a better weapon than the one they used if what you happen to want to do is not just kill but obliterate. In what conflict, in what war, could you use such a thing? In what war could you want to destroy the quarks of the enemy soldiers and the zone of conflict for the rest of eternity?
Remember, don’t forget: that lifeless crater, in which nothing living will ever return, and which is only bathed with saltwater that carries helpless floating things into it that die at once and are carried out. Not radiation. Something else. Impossibilities.
“I don’t know,” I finally say. “What was it?”
“That, I won’t tell you,” he says.
“But you do know.”
“Yes. We had to know, in order to do… what was done.”
And for the first time I look into his eyes and see the real face of evil, the pale interested eyes of evil. In a minute, he’s going to tell me it was worth it; he’ll insist that I cannot say it wasn’t, because I don’t know what it was. We are on two sides of a yawning chasm here. He knows there is nothing I would accept as worth purchasing in lives, and he thinks there is, sometimes, and this was one.
“I’m going to say it again,” I warn him. “Eleven people were working there. And died there. Were murdered there. How could it have been worth it?”
“The fact that the failsafe was used proves that it was worth it.”
“Do you think we would have taken such extreme measures if it were not? Do you think we would be so cavalier about the alternatives? We were not monsters. We were left with no choice.”
“Of course you were. Your choice was to not do the research. And now you’re telling me you thought it was not only an option but the only option to sacrifice them for it? Is that how dangerous the research it was? That you would murder to keep it secret?”
The tea shakes in my cup; I keep using the word at him, and he keeps taking it into himself like a medieval saint shot through with arrows that cannot kill him. The birds pause, listening. Tiny feet scrabble seed into the grass.
“Not to keep it ‘secret.’ To keep it isolated until it could be safely used. And if it could not be, then destroyed. Yes. To preserve the lives of not just the many now, but the many in the future.” He pauses, and curls his lip over strong yellow teeth. “You’re very young. I suppose you don’t think of the future much.”
“You decided it was that important. Based on what?”
“The research had to be done, and the time it began was the time it had to begin. If anything, Miss Bessette, it began later than anyone would have liked, if they had known. We were delayed because we had to create an adequate insurance policy for it. No half-measures.”
“Yes, I saw. I went.”
“Did you take any pictures?” he says, sounding interested at last.
“Cameras don’t work out there.”
He sits back, disappointed. “Research requires great leaps. It’s not like evolution, it cannot make gradual changes over millions of years, because the problems it solves are not making gradual changes. They too make great leaps.”
“I’m sorry, but that is frankly delusional. And aside from delusional, the end results of that are evil. I really mean that.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
I wonder how long he’s prepared for this interview. He has just told me he’s never witnessed the aftermath, flown over the warm wide empty Pacific to the dead place, the Failsafe Zone. But he must have imagined it.
He does not give the impression of a man who has spent two years thinking about the last moments of those scientists on that island. Only the damage, I think. Only that it worked.
He says, in a gentle, measured tone, “Science is war. Science has always been war. There are factions, partisans, arms races, trenches, collateral damage, friendly fire, all those things. Not science is like war. Science is war. We fight, and we fight for the same reasons you fight in a war. For the future. Not for the present.”
“No, scientists aren’t soldiers. They didn’t sign up to die.”
“Did they not?”
I stare at him; for the first time since I arrived, I find myself speechless.
And I had a speech for this. I managed to write it during the second leg of the ferry trip. Four hours of careful copying and pasting on heaving seas, with two acupressure wristbands and a great drooling mouthful of ginger candy that hadn’t helped at all. I studied the photos, the wise faces, the hopeful faces, the two very young faces, I looked at curriculum vitae, I read interviews, I read lists of awards.
These were the finest of the finest, the best that humanity could produce, in an infuriating array of unrelated fields from which you could not extrapolate the topic of their collective research. Particle physicists, geologists, geneticists both human and plant focused, biochemists, a mathematician working in topology. No techs, no support staff. They were their own little ecosystem.
“I spoke to some of the families,” I begin; his face shows polite interest, no concern. “I tracked them down the same way I tracked you down.”
“Not everyone wanted to talk to me.”
But some could do nothing else. The father of the young mathematician Anna Wilczek, a great bear of a man, seven feet in all directions, collapsed on top of me in tears. You look like her, he sobbed, you remind me of her. The photos on his phone: yes, like me, a slender woman with a long thin nose and a smiling thin mouth, dark curly hair, posing in cap and gown.
“None of them knew that their loved ones were even working at that facility, that they were anywhere near where they were. They just knew that people suddenly went silent.”
“No, of course bloody not. The team all had covers. False emails, tumbled numbers. They knew they could never say a word about the work. And do you know what? No one ever did. Not once. They never had an info breach.”
I’m shocked; his tired laughter is at my face, not the reaction. “Mr. Wells, in the, uh, history of what I guess you’d call high-stakes science, I don’t know that that’s ever occurred before. There’s always something.”
“Not for them,” he says proudly.
Which tells you something else: that it wasn’t a leak that doomed that island. It was something else. Something happened, some incident.
But there was one thing that no one has ever determined, that the lawyers never proved, that the courts never condemned; not that, I think, bitterly, the answer matters. These murderers are protected by something that is not above the law but aside from it, and turns the law aside like a stone meeting a shovel. No one’s in jail. I repeat: at the time of this writing, no one has spent so much as an hour in jail, or felt a handcuff touch their wrists.
I ask anyway, knowing nothing will be done: “Did they know? The eleven. About the failsafe. Did they know what would happen if they fucked up?”
He meets my eyes. I can almost hear him thinking: No one’s ever gotten a straight answer to that. Why should I tell you? And what difference does it make? To the dead, to their survivors, to the killers. But it does to me, and I stare at him until he says, “Yes, they knew.”
I inhale, exhale. Wait. A mental self-inspection, patting myself down: Is this the worst thing he’s said today? Is this the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life? I feel as if something has broken inside of me. A rib, a vertebra.
He says, “Because of the valley, they couldn’t see it from the buildings, but they knew it was out there. They knew where it was, what it could do, what would trigger it.”
“And they must have known who would give the orders, and who would do it.”
“Yes, they knew that. They were told. It was part of the conditions in the contract they signed. They were scientists. They needed all the data.”
I wait for him to go on; in interviews like this, you are trained to hold silence for the speaker, because they have more to say than you do. But I am also reeling, and bright spots of colour appear on the ceiling and the nice white stucco walls, and the sink and the clock and the tabby now watching us from the third chair. I don’t know if it’s anger. It feels like it might be something else.
When he does not speak, I sip from my cold tea to steady my voice. “That’s not in the Pearce Papers.”
“No. But they did know.”
Despite his invitation to dinner, I cannot bring myself to eat with Wells. He does not seem to mind; if you eat with a killer, his grace seems to say, you become one, which is what happened to me.
It’s roast beef, he says, and I say Thank you but I will not, and I hope I never see you again, and he says It was very nice to meet you.
Outside, I climb back into my coldly dewed rental car, and set the route for town. Straight west: into the setting sun, not much to look at, just a pink perfectly clear and cloudless spring sky.
If he will not imagine the last moments of the eleven dead, I will. Did they see a sunset or a sunrise like this one? No one knows exactly when it happened, because of the slice of time that was gone. Seismometers and buoys recorded impacts later, disparate numbers which did not agree with an epicenter; but satellites that could have recorded the precise moment had all gone inexplicably dead. We know the day only.
In terms of bracing for impact, holding hands, praying maybe…not many people, but I, certainly, believed (or hoped) that they had been caught entirely by surprise; that one moment they had been blithely working away with clear minds, open hearts, even if it was on something evil, and the next moment they were gone, without pain. That their agreements had said only ‘Reveal nothing’ and not ‘Or else.’
That they did not wake up every single morning heavy with dread and despair, knowing that they were working not in the warm tropical sunshine but under the cold hem of Death’s very robe.
But they did. Didn’t they. And carried on nonetheless.
On the highway, soothed by motion, I think: Maybe they thought they were heroes.
They were, at any rate, braver than I could have guessed. Braver than anyone knew, and perhaps it was precisely that courage that is the most wrenching sacrifice of this disaster.
Not merely that they vanished in silence, that their families could not mourn, that no one could supply answers, but this: that eleven scientists went out there believing they were doing the right thing, knowing from the first moments how it might end.
We pitied them. Now I feel both pity and anger. And nothing is to be done. The research they were doing will never be salvaged, and Wells claims it will never be recreated.
Worse yet, merely from looking at him I know that the discovery of their failure will not prevent that covert consortium from trying again. This time they will not be so arrogant as to let it be witnessed. It will be underground or on one of the Luna Pods. Maybe the world will know again. Maybe it won’t.
I don’t believe Wells, or any of the others, will read this article. They are not the ones I hope do. The rest of this issue is devoted to the scientists who were killed.
And so to Alexander Wells I would like my final words to be: It was not worth it. Whatever it was.
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and spec fic author based in Canada. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues including Analog, Automata Review, Nightmare Magazine, and Podcastle. Her debut novel, ‘Beneath the Rising,’ is slated for 2020 with Solaris Books..
Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash
Author of “The Redoubtables”
What inspired you to write this story/poem?
I’m not sure of the original inspiration, but I had a note in my ‘Ideas’ folder about the premise, and I initially intended to write from the POV of one of the scientists on the island, but it just never sat right until I saw the submissions call and thought I should write it about the ‘other’ experimentation that was happening. In retrospect I’m sure I was thinking of the fire at the Russian facility that happened earlier this year (it had a smallpox sample, if I recall correctly).
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
If people are interested in more stories about scientists, I would love to shout-out my debut novel, coming out in March! The main character is a child prodigy and inventor who creates a world-changing technology… but when she flips the switch, it turns out she hasn’t predicted *all* the ways it’ll change the world. (Solaris Books, several pre order links at http://www.premeemohamed.com/buy-my-books/)