Compound 38

They’d recruited me in April of 1945. Well, I said recruited, they said recruited; it was just a byword to make both parties feel better about the arrangement. I had a choice, my mind –and all of the secrets buried in that maze of neurochemical pathways- could be weaponised by the Soviets, or it could be dashed to pieces by the firing squad.

Some say that just before you drown, your body convulses in mortal ecstasy. Some say that freezing to death is preceded by the deepest and most tranquil sleep. Others say that the final stages of mortal torture are pure bliss.

I find it spurious that the final moments of the mortal coil could be so idyllic, what possible evolutionary advantage could that have? Still, the point is redundant, for theorising about something for which there are no facts is pure folly. How can anybody know for certain if these stories are true, when the only witnesses to such phenomena have passed?

So perhaps it was just an urban legend, or maybe the rumours are true, but they said that Compound 38 -the gaseous chemical weapon, to which I alone knew the secret of origination- smelled like rusted iron.

I locked the doors to the laboratory, pacing from wall to wall, running my fist across the concrete and tapping, listening intently to the reverberations. After checking every wall, I upended everything in the laboratory, searching thoroughly for any obscured spot where a listening device or camera might be hidden.

Our agreement had been meticulously wrought out. I was the only scientist in the world that could create Compound 38. Should I hand that information over entirely to the Soviets, they would have no use for me. Should I refuse to work with them, they would have no use for me. And so, with the great difficulty of prisoner trying to negotiate a contract with his wardens, we managed to come to an arrangement: I would produce Compound 38 for the Soviet Union, on the condition that I would work unassisted, unobserved, and in total secrecy.

I simply could not afford to have my formula revealed, and so, I repeated the same routine every morning to ensure the accords of our arrangement had not been infringed upon. When asked what materials I needed, I would deliberately ask for chemicals and equipment which I did not need, so as to obscure and mislead anybody looking to deduce the details of my methods. I took the extra effort to break apart a complex compound into its base elements, rather than simply ask for the elements in their pure form; this served as another effort to mislead any would-be usurpers of my creation.

After ten hours of meticulous work, I had created nine vials of Compound 38; enough to attack a small town. Within a month, I could have produced enough to depopulate an entire city. But therein lay the beauty of Compound 38; it left the cities themselves relatively unscathed.

Vials of the gas could be airdropped onto a civilian or military target; quickly, the highly potent gas would diffuse into the air, penetrating gas masks, dissolving into waterways, and hanging in the air immovably for days to come. But the gas itself was non-lethal, insofar as its inhalation did not kill its victims. It was the secondary effects of Compound 38 which made it such an effective weapon; it was the secondary effects which inspired such fear- for Compound 38 was the essence of fear itself.

However it was consumed, whether inhaled, ingested or injected, Compound 38 would cause an almost immediate and irreversible response from the nervous system, inducing upon its victims a feeling of abject panic. The victim would sweat profusely, as their heart rate rose dramatically. Their pupils would dilate, their jaws would clench, and quite quickly, their mind would fall into what was referred to as ‘Psychotic totaphobia.’

Under the influence of Compound 38, victims would fall into one of two states, which were derived primarily from the fight-or-flight response. Some, under the feeling of intense peril, would flee in panic, screeching and hollering as their minds filled with monstrous terrors that lurked on the periphery of their psyche. Others would take up arms against their perceived attackers, the enemies innumerable which seemed to surround them, and attack them in a vicious and sadistic manner.

Field tests upon remote Siberian villages had yielded such results; within an hour, the vast majority of the villagers had fled into the wilderness, chased away by imaginary predators. Others stayed behind, crude bludgeons and bladed weapons in their hands, brutally attacking anyone or anything they encountered.

By the second day, the victims would begin to see themselves as the enemy, believing their limbs to be possessed by parasites or demonic entities. Some would tear at their own throats, gouge their eyes out, or perform horrific acts of self-mutilation and amputation.

By the third day, the distressing effects of Compound 38 would wear off. The fortunate few who remained behind, those who had survived the massacre, would drop their weapons, and fall into whimpering heaps on the floor, clutching their knees and rocking back-and-forth, muttering unintelligible sentences about the smell of rusting iron.

Compound 38 left no trace in the blood, and no memory within the victim. Though their fear would subside after 72 hours, they never recovered their mental faculties, living in perpetuity within the nightmarish hellscape that had overwhelmed their mind.

Compound 38 was a weapon which could empty entire cities, leaving them relatively unscathed, with no witnesses to explain it or insurgents to retake it. If dropped on a military base, chaos and carnage would sweep through the base. By the time the cracking of guns and the flashing boom of grenades died away, nobody would be left to oppose a full-scale incursion, and the confiscation of all remaining munitions.

I looked down at the ten vials before me, nine of which were filled with Compound 38, and one which contained an inert, transparent gas. Today was the day that I would make my escape.

As my captors entered the laboratory to collect the vials, I allowed the vial of inert gas to slip through my fingers, falling to the ground and shattering.

An involuntary gasp sealed their fate. The alarm was raised, and in moments, the entire compound was consumed with dread. Panicked, barking voices, trampling boots, the crackling of suppressive gunfire, to the backdrop of the wailing drone of the alarm signal, as they tried to contain what they all knew was a hopeless situation.

Their panic fed the illusion that Compound 38 hung in the air, and psychotic totaphobia would consume them. In the sound and the fury, I slipped through the maelstrom, escaping the compound via an open gate, and disappearing into the surrounding forests.

It would be at least an hour’s journey to the nearest village of Karachai; from there I could use the false documents I’d created to secure safe passage out of the country. But first, I had to head eastwards, through the dense trees, navigating the freezing rivers and streams.

In the thickness of the forest, darkness hung like a shroud; not a sliver of evening light could get through. I pressed onwards through the thick brush, listening to the cacophony of screams and warning shots fade into the distance.

The ruse would not last indefinitely; an hour at most before people began to realise that there had been no gas leak, perhaps another hour or two before the higher-ups gave the all-clear to abandon the  quarantine. After that point, they’d hunt me down like an escaped beast.

Time was of the essence, a slip, a fall, or an injury would impede my progress. I’d studied a topographical map of the area, and estimated that it would take an hour to make it to Karachai, at which point I could board a train and escape.

Twenty minutes had passed, and the sounds of panic from the compound faded away at a rate that was alarming. Had they discovered my deceit already? I pressed onwards, taking laboured steps through the thick undergrowth, desperate to get to Karachai before it was too late.

In the distance, the crackling of gunfire and sparks of muzzle-flash approached. The soldiers had entered the forest, and were approaching rapidly. They’d see me dead before they saw me in the hands of the enemy. My mind, and the secrets contained within, were of incomparable value to the nation’s industry of war, but the essence of success is largely held in the consideration of every possible eventuality, and the soldiers which were in hot pursuit were something that I had prepared for.

At the entrance to the forest, I’d left a vial of Compound 38 within a wax-coated jar of hydrofluoric acid solution, which would eat away at the rubber seal of the vial. After fifteen minutes, the seal would break and the gas would be released, contaminating the entrance to the forest.

The gunfire was sporadic, and seemed to be coming from different directions, as the soldiers opened fire upon one another. I pushed onwards, crossing a stream and continuing eastward.

The crackling of gunfire came from four different directions. Soon, only three guns could be heard, and then two, which finally became one.

Only one soldier remained, and I could have hoped that he had sustained injuries from the firefight and expended his ammunition, but intermittent shots rang out, each one getting closer and closer. He was approaching quicker than I could flee, and it was only a matter of time before caught up to me.

The sound of bullets whizzing through the air and thumping into the trunks of nearby trees suggested that, by now, he had located me, and was firing at me directly.

To try to outrun him was folly. To engage him was even more foolish. And so, I took a sharp turn towards a bend in the river, and in a shot, submerged myself entirely under the icy waters.

The rush of bitter cold almost forced the breath from my lungs, but beneath the rushing water, I found that I was sufficiently camouflaged. After about forty seconds, I lifted my head up, exhaling through pursed lips and sucking in a lungful of air. Over the banks of the river, I could see the soldier, he had wandered eastward, and held his gun before him, looking around the forest desperately.

I clutched a small rock and hurled it into the north. The rock collided with the branch of a tree, and quickly the soldier turned to the north, firing until his weapon was empty.

I picked up a larger, sharp rock, and charged eastward. Approaching the soldier from behind, I leapt forwards, striking the back of his head with the jagged rock. He stumbled forwards, and I struck him again and again. The soldier fell forwards, and at once, I leapt upon him, turning him onto his back and removing his helmet. I looked down at his eyes, which darted about and twitched, ensnared in the synthetic terror of Compound 38.

I raised the jagged rock above my head, clutching it tightly with both hands, and drove the rock down into his face, puncturing the socket of his eye. I raised the rock above my head once more and brought it down again, shattering the bridge of his nose and cracking the upper ridge of his eye socket. One final strike shattered his jaw, dislodging some of his teeth.

I looked down at the gory, mutilated face of the soldier, as I knelt over him, panting heavily. Steam rose from the thick blood, invading my nostrils with the thick smell of rusted iron.

I stood up, removing the soldier’s survival knife from its sheath on his belt and tucking it into my own. I gripped his ankles and began to drag his body northwards. This would throw others off my eastbound trail.

After dragging the body a sufficient distance and turning him over, so as to appear to be facing north, I began to head into the east.

After walking for no more than three minutes, a cracking sound came from behind, like that of a twig snapping under the weight of a boot.

I turned sharply to see the soldier, his face a hunk of mutilated flesh and viscous blood, charging towards me, a gurgling howl rising up from his gory visage.

I drew the hunting knife, stumbling backwards as the cadaveric soldier leapt towards me. Flicking my hand out reflexively, I felt the blade connect with sinewy flesh and grating bone. I stabbed and tore at the soldier, over and over again, until dark blood cascaded down my hands and face; the cloying, metallic smell of rust and iron.

Finally, the soldier’s torn body fell limp once more. Levering his weight off me, I rose to heavy feet. I looked down at him, planting heavily, gripping the knife tightly in my right hand. I would have to return to the river to wash the blood off me, and I’d have to be quick about it. Forty minutes had already passed, and the train from Karachai would be leaving soon.

My left hand began to twitch, an involuntary spasm of the fingers, which grew into painful muscle convulsions of my wrist and lower arm. My left arm seemed to take on a life of its own, striking, clawing and grabbing at my skin and flesh, gouging at my eyes and scratching at my face.

I threw myself to the ground, pinning my twitching left arm down under my knee and placing the survival knife against the joint of my elbow.

I took a deep breath, desperate to steady my nerves…


The men looked through the cage of tempered glass. The wild eyes, the clenched jaw, the bloodied stump at the elbow where he’d cut off his own arm. He sat on the floor, clutching his knees and rocking back and forth in the puddle of congealed blood on the floor, his mouth spewing unintelligible whispers about rusted iron and the train to Karachai. He’d infected himself with Compound 38. Had it been a simple mistake, or a deliberate attempt to take revenge upon his captors? Within his mind lay the answers, and the secrets of Compound 38. Either way, he’d remain locked in his laboratory until they could find a way to divulge those secrets, or until he died; the final victim of his own creation.


(c) JC Axe 2018.

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