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The Chemists’ War By Ellen Channing

Brigid Flaerty poured the dirty mop water down the grated drain, carefully lifting her long grey skirt to avoid soaking her hemline. She heard her stomach grumble like a far-off train car, and wondered absentmindedly about what supper she'd be likely to find at home. Although she didn't own a wristwatch, she knew it was quite late. If she didn't get home soon, there might not be any food left at the workhouse. Putting the mop and pail away in the supply cabinet, she peered through the thick glass windows to the lab. The men were still working. As long as they were working, Brigid had to be working too.

It was 1917, and Brigid was lucky to have a job such as this. She worked in a scientific lab, in a position usually reserved for young men as apprentices. But, there was a great war on, involving all of Europe and so all of the eligible young men were fighting at the front. Her parents, back in Ireland, were jailed for protesting mandatory conscription, having lost 2 sons in their first 6 months of service. The money she earned in the lab was to be kept for later efforts to recover their bodies. Brigid felt this job was her way of helping the war effort and possibly to renew her parents' good name, even if she was only mopping floors.

When she got the job, a tall man in a uniform told her she should be proud: she'd be working for important men, performing work vital to the British Empire. Having been at the lab for three months, Brigid had yet to see them do anything remotely important. Both skinny, sickly characters, these scientists were unable to pass the army physical. They were
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practically indistinguishable from one another, with the exception that one was much older, his hair white with age and his back hunched from overwork. Brigid didn't know either of their names and she didn't dream that they knew hers. She simply addressed them both as "Sir", they returned her greeting with a perfunctory nod, and carried on with their chemicals and metals producing loud noises and bitter smells.

Having completed all her cleaning for the night, Brigid waited only for the men to finish their work so she could wash and put away the beakers and test tubes. As they gave no indication of packing up for the night, she went to tend to the lab animals. This was not one of her responsibilities as maid, but she enjoyed doing it. She sorely missed animal companionship now that she lived in the city. As she opened their cages, each animal scurried forward to greet her and accept a treat: three rats of matted gray, a wounded carrier pigeon no longer fit for service, and a scrawny cat undoubtedly pulled off the street. She smiled at each, cooed and murmured to them in Gaelic. They seemed happy, which pleased her. At least she got to leave this cage at night, the animals did not.

Eventually, the men shuffled over to their coat rack, hung their work aprons, donned their hats, and stepped out into the street. It was past 11pm when Brigid followed suit, bracing herself against the chill off the Thames. The city was silent at night, the only noise coming from warmly lit pubs and the never-ending line at the army recruitment office. Once, as a little girl, she'd visited London with her older brother and had loved to hear Big Ben chime out each hour. The bell tower had been silent since the war started, an obvious reminder of her loss. She longed to
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hear it toll again.

The next morning, Brigid returned to her post much more satisfied by a hasty porridge from a soup kitchen down the street from the lab. She swept the area, cleaned a few spills with an oily rag, and whistled cheerily despite stern looks from the scientists. Suddenly, the lab door swung open, disrupting the cordially choreographed movements of maid and chemists. Brigid jumped, and uncharacteristically knocked over a beaker at the sight of this unexpected visitor. The older scientist coughed vigorously, and dismissed her from the room with a shuffle that was very energetic for his age. Although pushed aside into the outer chamber with the animals, Brigid worked slowly and quietly to observe the exchange between her scientists and the stranger.

"Gentleman" boomed the visitor, clapping enormous hands on the bent backs of the frail men who winced under their weight. Everything about this man was enormous, from his black and buckled knee-high riding boots to his closely tailored wool uniform, shining with double rows of gold buttons. Insignia emblazoned on his sleeve told Brigid he was an officer. Her brothers had once had uniforms much like this one, with less than half of the ornamentation.

"Your service is requested" he continued. The younger man paled at this statement, but recovered his color when the uniformed officer began again.

"You see chaps, we're dug in. Our horses are useless, and we can't even see the enemy save the occasional spiked helmets of the bloody Germans. It is you, prime specimens of British
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industrial ingenuity, that will win this war. I need a weapon from you, sirs: something bigger than bullets and better than bombs...."

Brigid heard no more, the scientists' suggestions and estimations were uttered at a volume that no where near reached that of their guest's. She watched as they guided him through the lab, shaking his head or nodding at each station. Finally, both scientists managed a feeble salute, and the solider swept out. Brigid crept back into the lab timidly, and began cleaning up her earlier spill. Neither of the men heard her, they were deep in discussion.

It was not until 3:15am when Brigid headed towards home. On her long walk, the air was pierced with unnatural screams. Startled, she ran into the nearest archway, only narrowly avoiding dust and rubble from a nearby crumbling building. More sirens and human wails filled her ears, soon to be drowned out by a steady humming of a gargantuan German zeppelin. White-faced and trembling, Brigid sunk down deeper into the protection of the doorway, blind to the carnage and flurry of stretcher bearers before her eyes.

Weeks went by, and the scientists worked on with an unnatural fervor. Brigid, still shaken from the bombing, worked longer hours quietly. She frequently sought solace with her lab animals. They seemed to sense the lab's collective uneasiness. Whenever Brigid opened their cages to pet them, they appeared sick: lethargic, lacking appetite, and often aggressive. Still, she whispered and sang to them more often than ever. She was uncomfortable in the lab; the experiments smelled progressively worse and occasionally stung her eyes.
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One day, several months after the bombing, the soldier returned with a collection of other men in various dress: doctors, diplomats, politicians and journalists. This time Brigid knew her place, immediately stepping out into the hall with the animals without being asked. Much to her surprise, the younger scientist followed her. While the older man addressed the guests, the younger man tried to extract a quarrelsome rat from his pen. After much unsuccessful biting and clawing, the scientist turned pleading eyes on Brigid. She took his cue, and singing softly to the creature, caught the rat in her palm. Though wriggling furiously to escape, Brigid held it tight, and followed the young scientist into the room. She kept her head bowed when all eyes turned to look at her. Obligingly, she placed the rat in a sealed glass container as indicated by the older scientist. Then, she stepped back behind the group.

The crowds' attention was fixed on the rat, scuttling helplessly around the confines of its new pen. The scientists donned masks with long snouts and wide, circular eyes that looked like portholes of a ship. They passed out similar masks to the onlookers. There was no mask for Brigid.

Everyone stared as the young scientist cautiously slid back the lid of the glass cage, dropping a large metallic canister in the slot. He pulled a tab and hastily shut the lid. An acrid smell reached Brigid's nose as a thick yellow cloud billowed from the canister, filling the glass container and almost obscuring the rat. Again, Brigid heard unnatural screams much like the air raid sirens, this time emanating from the rat. She closed her eyes and covered her ears with her hands as
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the rest of the group looked on, unflinchingly.

Several minutes passed before the smoke in the chamber cleared. The men stood up, removed their masks, and crowded around the cage. Through their shoulders Brigid could see the rat, silent and unmoving, with blood dripping from its eyes, ears, and nose. She gasped and fled, all the men were silent. Before the door shut behind her, she heard the booming voice of the soldier. "Perfect.”

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Other stories by Ellen Channing:
Carmageddon Checkout The Chemists’ War College Education Computer Crimes Fifteen Minutes For Art's Sake Mugs Portable Offices Wild Mouse Chase

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