by Martin Westlake
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Blond-haired and blue-eyed, freckled and ruddy-cheeked, Philippe radiated good health and well-being, qualities Peter himself took very seriously. Philippe arrived every morning on a push bike. He spoke reasonable English — much better than the schoolboy French Peter had used to communicate with Jean. And the young man was far more intelligent than old Jean, whose discourse had been, or so it seemed to Peter, limited to discussions about the next day’s weather.
A month after Philippe started, Peter took a morning off and stayed to talk to him about the factory, the Spencer-Lord process, and the future. He began, as he always did, by recalling the problem of the world’s ever-growing population: 9.2 billion people by 2050! And the challenge this growth would represent, even if people’s habits didn’t change.
But, of course, their habits were changing! As people in developing countries left the countryside for the cities, and as their relative prosperity grew, they were developing a taste for meat and other high-protein foods. Using the land to grow feed for animals for meat or milk was far less efficient than growing grain to feed human beings themselves.
At the same time, it was difficult to deny people in the rapidly-developing new economies the pleasures that Europeans and Americans had for so long reserved for themselves. What was needed was a new source of protein.
‘Could you eat a maggot?’
Philippe pulled a face.
‘Not even if your life depended upon it?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Philippe.
‘Our ancestors certainly ate them. Even today, Australian and African aborigines eat grubs.’
‘But those are different, aren’t they?’
‘Not really, Philippe. Come with me.’
He led the lanky young man over to the freezer and took out some shrink-wrapped packs of meat: there were a couple of steaks, six lamb chops, some sausages, two burgers. Peter held up the steaks and the chops.
‘Could you eat these?’ he asked.
‘Of course,’ said Philippe.
‘Now, supposing I told you the animals from which they were taken had been fed only on maggot protein, using the Spencer-Lord process; could you still eat them?’
‘I suppose I could, yes. But I think I’d prefer not to.’
‘Okay. Now, what about these?’ Peter held up the sausages and the burgers.
‘Are they the same?’ asked Philippe.
‘What’s the difference?’
‘They are made directly out of maggot protein.’
‘Then, no, I’m sorry; I couldn’t.’
‘Not even if your life depended on it?’
‘I guess I would if I really had no alternative, but otherwise, no.’
‘Why not, Philippe?’
‘I don’t know. I just... I find the whole idea sickening. Don’t they eat shit and stuff?’
‘Indeed they do. Maggots are minor marvels, hoovering up all sorts of rottenness and transforming it efficiently into protein. But don’t worry, the Spencer-Lord process is perfectly hygienic from beginning to end.’
‘What do they feed on, then?’
‘A special compound made from animal waste. It is cooked and cleansed so that there are no infectious agents and no odour. Everything is disinfected.’
‘You mean shit, don’t you? Cleansed, odourless shit? I’m sorry, Peter, but it still sounds pretty disgusting to me.’
‘Okay, but I am not asking people to eat maggots, Philippe. In the first phase of my project people could continue to eat as much meat as they liked, but the meat would come from animals that had eaten a protein product derived, via the Spencer-Lord process, from these giant maggots.’
‘I understand,’ said Philippe. ‘It still sounds pretty gruesome, though.’
‘But no!’ said Peter, his eyes glowing with the devout enthusiasm of the convert. ‘When you think about it, eating meat is pretty gruesome. I mean; growing animals, sentient beings, just in order to kill them and eat their flesh — that’s gruesome. But, okay, we like our meat and those animals have to be fed somehow, and that’s where the Spencer-Lord process comes in.
‘You see, Philippe, maggots have no feelings. They have no consciousness, no intelligence. They can’t suffer pain like we do. The maggots live, grow fat, and then they die — and if they weren’t killed, what would happen? They would become flies, that’s all. A little bit bigger and furrier than your average fly, as you’d expect; but, still, common or garden flies. They’re just protein, that’s all.’
Philippe was becoming discomforted by Peter’s red-faced passion, but he needed the job and pretended to be more interested than he really was.
‘Alors, Peter, so exactly how does it work, this Spencer-Lord process?’
Gratified, Peter began excitedly to explain. ‘Well, the first step is to breed the maggots so that you get the balance right between size and speed of growth and concentration of protein. I had the help of a friend, Professor Coygan at Bury Holmes University. It took us over five years to find the right combination — and I am not telling anyone exactly how we did it. Let’s just say it was a sort of enhanced selective breeding.’
‘Five years! That’s a lot of maggots and a lot of flies.’
‘Indeed it is, Philippe. While the breeding was going on, I was designing the procedure and the plant. Everything had to be totally hygienic from beginning to end... Why don’t I give you a proper tour of the factory?’
‘I’d appreciate that,’ said Philippe.
Peter unlocked the access door in the control room and led Philippe past the main tank to a small, windowless room. He pointed at what looked like a series of fish tanks.
‘So,’ he said, pointing at the tanks, ‘to begin right at the beginning, the flies lay their eggs in these special breeding tanks on layers of a nutritious compound that, through a special mix of chemical triggers, mimics rotting meat for them. For you and me, they are just odourless, colourless strips of material. By the way, as you, sort of, guessed, all of the foodstuffs I have developed are derived primarily from low-grade disinfected animal waste.’
Peter walked along beside the tanks.
‘Once the maggots hatch out,’ he continued, ‘they are left to eat the birthing compound, and then the chemical markers encourage them to crawl into this larger tank, where they are fed a more nutritious compound that encourages rapid growth. This is monitored by a programme that senses exactly when they are ready to wriggle on into the next tank, though it never takes more than two days.’
He pointed to two thin wires protruding from the roof of the tank. ‘Those are the sensors,’ he said. ‘They are very sensitive. When the right time comes, the maggots are enticed onto that conveyor belt, which takes them into the main tank. The door behind them closes and the same cycle starts again.’
‘It’s impressive,’ said Philippe.
‘And it’s entirely sustainable,’ Peter insisted. ‘The machine keeps a carefully calculated sample of the maggots to one side. Those are allowed to mature and turn into flies that are, in turn, allowed to mate and lay eggs. In other words, dear Philippe, once it has started, the Spencer-Lord process is a perpetual conveyor belt of protein!’
He led Philippe out and into the main tank room. ‘Once they reach the main tank they will no longer be fed,’ he explained. ‘The absence of food triggers a reaction in their bodies that encourages them to pupate.
‘I have found — this is a key part of the process, Philippe — that there is a twelve-hour period during which the maggots’ bodies somehow concentrate a maximum of protein in a most easily accessible form. That’s what’s happening to these fellows now.’
Philippe gazed into the tank. The maggots were just so gross. He squinted out of the corner of his eye. Peter’s face was flushed and he was rubbing his hands together.
‘The process,’ he continued, ‘is enhanced by spraying them with another hormonal compound that delays the start of pupation and it is then’ — he punched his left palm with his right fist — ‘at the end of that period that the machine strikes.’ He led Peter to the long, low block housing the oven. Philippe shivered involuntarily.
‘As you have seen, one wall of the tank slowly pushes the maggots towards a conveyor belt that transports them into the oven, where each maggot is grilled thoroughly on all sides.’ He chuckled. ‘Not even these giants can wriggle very far before the heat gets to them.’
He led Philippe to the far end of the oven block.
‘Once they are thoroughly roasted, they are dried and their bodies ground down. The resulting protein powder is packed into the vacuum-packed plastic sacks that the lorry picks up every week. You see? The whole thing is automatic! I am so proud. I am convinced that the Spencer-Lord process is the answer to our growing food supply problems, aren’t you?’
‘I’m sure you’re right,’ said Philippe.
‘Oh, I know it sounds over-idealistic,’ said Peter. ‘You don’t have to flatter me, you know.’
‘I meant it, honestly,’ said Philippe. ‘It’s just, well, those maggots; I think we are somehow programmed to be disgusted by maggots, non?’
‘It would make good evolutionary sense, wouldn’t it? After all, maggots usually feast on rotting flesh which means infection, which means “steer clear”, doesn’t it?’
‘Peter, you know what you said about them having no intelligence?’
‘Well, I’m sure you’re right. Even your giant maggots are so small that there’s surely no room for a proper brain. I just wondered, though, whether they could have some sort of a herd instinct.’
‘Why do you think that?’
‘It’s just that sometimes your maggots do strange things.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They seem to be acting together.’
‘Yes, sometimes they seem to move in a synchronised way and sometimes they seem to build structures.’
‘Structures? Impossible! What sort of structures?’
‘Oh, hills, columns, mountains. They sort of climb on top of one another somehow.’
‘I have never seen that.’
Peter could see that the young man was being truthful. It was intriguing. ‘Listen, Philippe,’ he said, ‘The next time they start behaving like that, could you please give me a call? I would be interested in seeing the phenomenon for myself.’
‘Of course, Peter.’
* * *
Two weeks later, Philippe called. Peter had barely arrived at his Strasbourg office and was still feeling frustrated about the time he had lost in that morning’s particularly heavy traffic.
‘You remember our conversation about herd instinct?’
‘I do, Philippe, yes. What is it?’
‘Well, they’re starting to do it right now.’
‘Are you sure? I have only just got to the office, you know.’
‘I’m absolutely sure. The maggots are building a sort of tower against one of the walls. It’s almost as though they are trying to get to the top.’
‘All right, then, Philippe. I’ll be on my way shortly.’
‘Okay. I am just outside the tank. It sounds silly but there’s something almost hypnotic about their movements.’
‘What do you mean, “outside the tank”? You shouldn’t be near the tank at all! Get out of there! You can always check on things through the TV cameras, so get out! Now!’
‘Okay, Peter. I’m on my way out.’
‘I’ll be back just as soon as I can.’
* * *
Peter checked his e-mails. It took him over half an hour to deal with the most urgent, and then, because of the still heavy traffic on the motorway back out of Strasbourg, it took another hour to get home. Evangeline was out, so he went directly to the factory, calling out Philippe’s name as he approached. There was no reply.
He went through the control room to the main tank. There was no sign of Philippe. The maggots seemed to be behaving normally, carpeting the tank floor uniformly. Peter’s heart leapt. In the middle of the floor was an ominous mound. He looked around the outside of the factory first but then, when it was clear Philippe could be nowhere else, he took the keys and the air hose and, with a heavy heart, started to work his way towards the mound.
* * *
It took the police just two days to confirm that, extraordinary though it seemed, young Philippe had, just like old Jean, died of a heart attack. It was a terrible coincidence and it inevitably caught the eye of the local media. A television camera crew turned up at the factory and started to film the plant and the house. A helicopter hovered overhead for a while. Evangeline got very upset and the children played up at the dinner table. Later that evening, Yves Menton called.
‘Alors! What is going on, Peter?’
‘Nothing, Yves. Really, it’s just a terrible coincidence.’
‘Are you quite sure?’
‘The police reassured me fully.’
‘Your Monsieur Oscar Wilde had a saying about coincidences, Peter...’
Once he had rung off, Peter called his friend, Coygan, at Bury Holmes University and explained what had happened.
‘Could it have been more than a coincidence?’ he asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know. It’s just that... Could it be an odour or a hormone they might be giving off? One that we can’t smell, I mean.’
‘That’s impossible. We checked for all of that, remember? But it might, just might, be something to do with the hormones or the chemicals that you use. It could even be a cleaning fluid. But it’s definitely not the maggots themselves.’
‘What should I do? What would you do?’
‘What would I do? Mmmm... Maybe you should use masks until you are certain that some sort of inhaled agent is not the cause?’
‘Right. And what else?’
‘I don’t know. It’s difficult to imagine what else it could be.’
‘By the way, the young man who died, Philippe, he told me that the maggots had been behaving strangely.’
‘He said that they seemed to be developing a sort of herd instinct.’
‘Impossible!’ Coygan scoffed. ‘They don’t have the physical capacity even to have instincts.’
* * *
The police once again ordered that the plant be closed down for a few days, but this time they didn’t insist that Peter’s current generation of maggots be destroyed. Consequently, by the end of the week the factory was already breeding a new generation of maggots and productivity was barely affected.
Every day, Peter locked the factory doors and took the key with him to work and every day before he left he gave Evangeline a lecture about not going anywhere near the plant. Since she hated the maggots anyway, this was a little superfluous, but he just wanted to be as careful as he possibly could.
He had ordered a gas mask from a specialist dealer and decided that, until it arrived, he would himself spend as little time as possible in the factory. Still, though, he wanted to keep production going.
Part of him even welcomed the fact that there was no helper anymore, since it proved that, once the initial investment costs had been recouped, the Spencer-Lord process was not only a promising and viable resolution for the world’s food shortage problems but a labour-cheap one.
Philippe’s death had affected him badly — much more so than old Jean’s, which, given his advanced age, had seemed a more imminent reality in any case. Philippe, on the other hand, had been young, apparently healthy and full of idealism.
Also, Peter couldn’t get Philippe’s claim out of his mind, that the maggots had been displaying some sort of herd instinct. And he couldn’t help wondering whether there was some sort of connection, something they hadn’t thought of or hadn’t spotted despite all the rigour of their scientific approach.
That lunchtime, Peter went to an old-fashioned pet shop near the railway station and bought a mouse.
‘Dead or alive?’ the shopkeeper asked.
‘Alive,’ said Peter, taken aback. ‘Who’d buy a dead mouse?’
‘It’s for snakes, you see. Their owners buy the mice dead and keep them in the freezer.’
The mouse came in a small transparent plastic container, with air holes at the top. The animal was white, with a pink nose and red eyes and tiny whiskers. Afraid he’d go soft on it, Peter put the mouse and its container in a brown paper bag. When he got back home, he searched out an old aquarium from the garage.
He felt a wave of nostalgia. It was through experiments in that very tank that he’d first got really passionate about his idea. He undid the container and let the mouse scurry down. He put the lid back on the tank, then left the garage by the back door and walked across to the factory.
It was always very quiet. He could just make out the hum of the oven at the back, but the loudest noise was the buzz of the electricity mains — yet another advantage of his process, he thought. He fished out the key to the main tank and opened the door.
He was shocked by the sight that greeted him. The maggots had somehow climbed up the door, piling on top of one another’s bodies. They were still some way short of the top of the glass wall, but, still. Philippe had been right!
Peter took down the air hose and, as gently and slowly as he could, opened the door. It opened inwards, and after a few seconds the tower of maggots collapsed backwards under its own weight.
Peter pushed them back with the air jet. He closed the door again and fetched a plastic bucket from the store room. By the time he got back the maggots had already started to spread back towards the door. He gathered up half a bucket’s worth, then closed and locked the doors.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Martin Westlake