by Arthur Porges

Copyright© 2019 by Arthur Porges

Science Fiction Story: Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned, but the fury of a biochemist scorned is just as great --and much more fiendish.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

If the Syndicate is half as powerful as some people have claimed, they’ll murder me any day now. I object on principle to being killed by evil men for a good deed, so maybe lynching by stupid ones is preferable. I mean you, and you--the suetheads who profited by my work, but refused your help.

You’ve been yammering about narcotics for years--how drug addiction was spreading, reaching down even to your unmannerly, spoiled brats, who despise their parents and our venal society to the same degree. The stuff comes in by the ton across the Mexican border; they grow it for our benefit in Red China; and a few “friendly” Asian countries don’t mind exporting some now and then, either. In spite of heroic work by our small group of poorly financed narcotics agents, the flow of drugs cannot be halted.

Oh, you and your elected representatives made a lot of panicky moves to combat this threat. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was given a new Bureau, set up like the F.B.I., and headed by Myron P. Bishop, a man trained by that distinguished expert on narcotics, Anslinger, himself.

But as to sensible solutions, such as legalizing the sale of heroin to break the world-wide criminal control on the distribution of drugs--that your vapid Puritan morality wouldn’t permit. Millions of dollars for enforcement, and to punish the sick, but not one cent for prevention, and almost nothing to find out why people become addicts in the first place, and how to cure them.

It wasn’t entirely your fault. You listened to the experts, usually career policemen who expect to cure any social evil with clubs and prisons. I am reminded of the simpleton found measuring two horses with a tape in order to be able to distinguish the black one from the white. Until I came along, nobody had ever reached the core of the matter. You don’t kill a flourishing plant--in this case an Upas Tree--by lopping off a handful of leaves. You strike at the roots. That’s what I meant to do--and did--for your benefit. Oh, I admit there were a few dollars in it for me, but so what? The ox that treads the wheat is not muzzled. When a man saves a manufacturer $50,000 a year by some improved process, or even by using three bolts someplace instead of four, they gladly pay him three per cent of the annual savings, or something like that, as a reward. Most big outfits have such a policy, and it’s a good one. Well, if I cut millions off the government budget, is a lousy $100,000 too much to ask? I just wanted to go on with my researches without battling a horde of bill collectors every month. Fat chance--I didn’t get a measly dime. You, your elected and appointed officials, and your kept press just gave me the all-time horse-laugh. Well, he who laughs last--you’ll remember the old saw; I’ll see to that.

I’m writing this so you’ll know how they treated me. You mustn’t think I’m a crank, mad at the world for no reason. My case is better than Dreyfus’ and Sacco-Vanzetti’s combined. Here I was prepared to remove the drug scourge forever, and at a piddling cost. Did I get courteous handling, or at least a fair hearing? Not bloody likely! I was an idiot to expect anything from the world’s most inflated bureaucracy--Dickens’ Circumlocution Office brought up to date.

Let me start at the beginning; then you’ll see who’s right. I’m a biochemist by profession. A damned good one, but too individualistic to please the big research centers. They like docile teams--scientific Percherons to pull the big red wagon. So I taught at one jerkwater college after another. Sooner or later my superiors, all dodderers who stopped thinking with sighs of relief once they had their PhD union cards, objected to my attitude. If I published, they were jealous; it made the other faculty members look bad. If I failed to produce, then why was I wasting lab facilities and neglecting my classes? The students wanted their term papers back within five days; the other teachers could manage it, why not me? The difference between what my colleagues expected from their pupils and what I did was the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Those students! They didn’t want biochemistry; they want a letter on a card; a “C” would do. Damn few of them got it from me, I’m happy to say, and those that did, knew more about the subject than most PhD’s.

Now, I take as my creed the fruitful dictum: Think in other categories. A famous researcher once invented--or discovered--this maxim in a dream. It is the secret of many great advances in science. Get off the main line. Stop fooling with the leaves of the tree, and turn to the roots. Invert the problem, if necessary.

I was thinking about the narcotics scandal. A teacher at my college had a lovely sixteen-year-old daughter, carefully reared, who was badly hooked. I saw that poor man’s hair whiten in a few months. How would you feel, knowing that your daughter had been so degraded by a drug as to sell herself to anybody with enough money to buy her a fix? An innocent, playful sniff at a party, and some punk, probably an addict himself, had trapped her in order to finance his own habit. They talk about cures, but people on the inside know that permanent escape from the trap is as rare as portraits of Trotsky in Russia. Or integrity among politicians in this country.

Well, I put my brains to work on the problem. It seemed obvious that, as in the case of Prohibition, you couldn’t possibly lick the drug traffic by cutting the lines of supply. Not in a country as big as ours, with the Mexican border and Red China on the side of the enemy. Not when a package the size of a watch could be worth a fortune.

Think in other categories, I reminded myself. How can a biochemist, rather than a policeman, stop the Syndicate? Then it came to me, simple and obvious. Hit the source, the weak link, the roots of the poison tree. In short, Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy itself.

Basic, isn’t it? Destroy the plant, and you cut the heart out of the drug traffic. No cops; no hopeless warfare against cunning smugglers; no battle with big-money corruption of officials. And remember: no chemist alive can synthesize opium or its derivatives. Sure, there are a few other bad narcotic drugs from different plants, like marijuana, but they play a relatively small part, and can be controlled. Besides, it was my intention to destroy their sources as well, when the time came. But first the biggest culprit.

I go to work, re-examining all the recent work on tobacco virus and similar plant killers. New studies on the key protein chains of the genes were the foundation stones of my plan. The disease had to be highly specific and deadly. I couldn’t risk even the remotest possibility of harming food plants in a hungry world.

But, as I’ve said, with no false modesty, I’m no slouch in my field of biochemistry. I took a harmless poppy rust from our California flowers here, and treated its genes with certain chemicals. It was a matter of six months, and well over eighty tries, but finally I came up with a virus that killed the opium poppy like smallpox wiped out the Sioux. No; more than that. Some Indians were, or became, immune to the disease, just as insects build up resistance to the most potent poisons. But with my virus that’s simply not possible. I won’t get technical here, but to become immune to this stuff would be like a man’s developing anti-bodies against his own tissues. It couldn’t happen without killing the organism faster than the virus does. Once this epidemic began, not a poppy would survive.

So far everything was fine, except that, as usual, I lost my job. I got fifty term papers behind. It didn’t bother me, because there wasn’t a student in my three classes who knew any more biochemistry than a baboon. In the first paper I’d found this gem: “It is well known that a mammal reproduces by suckling its young.” Faced with more of the same, it was a pleasure to be fired.

Now, in any really civilized society, they’d have my statue on top of the capitol building, and with neon lights to boot. But in our bureaucratic wilderness of Washington, with a thousand government-hired cretins running interference for each big, appointed super-cretin, my troubles had just begun.

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