Sunday, 25 March 2018

Poisoned and Abandoned: Andrei Zheleznyakov (NBA)

This week's post is inspired by the story of Russian bioweapons expert Andrei Zheleznyakov, poisoned on the job and left to die.

Novichok, aka 'newcomer,' is allegedly the most deadly nerve agent ever created. The novichok variants were created over a period from 1971 to 1993. Its design intent was to be capable of avoiding detection by the 1970s and 80s equipment available at the time, to circumvent NATO biohazard defensive equipment, to be safer to handle, and to avoid classification under the Chemical Weapons Convention. If it made the CWC list, novichok would be a controlled weapon, its stockpiles liable for destruction. It's said that the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skirpal in London is a novichok poisoning.

In 1987 Zheleznyakov was poisoned by novichok, while carrying out laboratory experiments. A vent malfunctioned, spewing a small amount of the bioagent. Zheleznyakov immediately knew he'd been poisoned. "It's got me," he told his workmates. A timely dose of atropine saved his life, but his body was ravaged. When he eventually died in 1993, he'd suffered cirrhosis, toxic hepatitis, nerve damage and epilepsy.

Before dying he broke silence and gave extensive interviews, describing what had happened to him and what was likely to happen next. The material was published in 1992, a year before his death.

It's likely he wasn't the only victim of novichok, but he's the only one known to have died of this bioagent. Other potential victims include a Soviet officer who was convinced that he'd been exposed to the agent deliberately, to see what would happen. There have been assassinations tentatively linked to novichok as well, but nothing conclusive.

Assuming the Soviet officer's account is correct, the Russians aren't the only ones to test dangerous substances on their own people. MKULTRA famously dosed US Army biochemist Frank Olson with LSD, and Olson either committed suicide as a result or was murdered so he wouldn't talk - take your pick. In the 1940s and 50s the UK carried out radiation tests that were extremely hazardous for the military personnel involved, from flying through the bomb cloud to being ordered to sit and wait for the bomb to go off. In both cases the intent seems to have been to find out what close proximity to the blast would do to a human subject. The French did much the same. Ironically, we probably know more about Russian bioweapons research than we do about similar research in other countries, because there have been so many leaks and books over the years

Taking a trip down memory lane, and assuming an Ultraviolet game world, what does this mean for vampires and the spies who hunt them?

To begin with, it suggests a very nasty bane. Supernatural and Damned vampires might be immune to science, but it's a good bet nobody else is. Something that rots your organs and shreds your brain is going to do a number on anything reliant on human biology. To take the Perfecti from the main book as an example, the statues could care less, but their human proxies might die like flies.

Of course, it's a bane with significant drawbacks. You can't really target a bioweapon; you just set it off and hope it does the job. If not handled carefully it could be as lethal to the assassin as the target, and any bystanders may get a fatal dose too. Collateral damage makes it a visible kill; Heat will go through the roof. It's not an instant kill, and the effects linger. In the aftermath of the Skirpal attack, for example, three policemen who responded to the report were sent to hospital. One, DS Nick Bailey, was seriously ill for several days, and may be permanently affected. Moreover it requires access to state of the art facilities and considerable technical expertise to manufacture, and in novichok's case has a short shelf life. Edom might be able to pull it off, and so might other government-sponsored agencies. Freelancers haven't a hope.

On top of all that, it might not kill. Going back to the Perfecti, according to the main book their blood has been transformed to alien matter and a Perfecti's being is tuned to extradimensional frequencies. That suggests something like novichok might not kill them. The Perfecti could be sufficiently inhuman to survive an attack, but given they're at least partially reliant on human biology they will suffer damage. Perhaps permanent damage. A vampire whose brain has been destroyed or severely injured is still alive, but it's not much of a life. Even if the damage is temporary, the vampire will take time to recover - perhaps long enough for a hunter to do more permanent damage.

Returning to Ultraviolet for a moment, one of the recurring themes of that series was blood contamination. The vampires were concerned about ways in which the blood supply could be poisoned, specifically through radiation. Given that, vampires might also be concerned about poisoning through other means - like a bioweapon.

Suppose the Conspiracy wished to utilize a bioweapon in one of its schemes. The Persephone Extraction posits such a plot. For it to work as planned it would have to be an agent that did what it was supposed to do, but left the survivors with drinkable blood. If instead it killed off billions and left the survivors with undrinkable blood, that's a huge problem - the same problem that obsessed the undead in Ultraviolet. An issue like that can only be solved by rigorous testing. However tests sometimes go wrong, with catastrophic results. An event like that could easily trigger the agents' involvement, or be the inciting incident for a campaign.

This post started with Andrei Zheleznyakov, so to conclude I'm going to develop a story seed based on him.

Old Ghosts: According to your Network a supposedly dead Russian bioweapons expert has reappeared in Ukraine. Reports indicated he'd been exposed to a bioweapon in 1989, perhaps deliberately in a macabre test. He fell out with the authorities and published a tell-all interview before dying in 1993. Yet here he is in Mykolaiv, a seaport. Perfect for transporting a cargo - a bioweapon, say? Or perhaps his target is one of Mykolaiv's many food manufacture and processing plants. Whatever his goal, it would be very interesting to find out how he's survived all these years. Perhaps the Conspiracy is involved.

Variant: The expert was vampirized in 1993, but it didn't take. The devastating effect of the bioweapon made his unlife a hell, and the Conspiracy recently decided to stop footing the bill for the medicine and special facilities he needs. This might be due to Node infighting, or lack of interest in the dusty recollections of a man who hasn't done any real work since Mikhail Gorbachev was in power. Now the expert's ready to spill his guts to anyone who'll help him, including the agents, but you can't defect from the Conspiracy.

Potential adversaries/interested parties: former highly placed Russians now living in the West, who want to know if the bioweapons expert knows anything about a spate of assassinations that might have involved the weapon he worked on. Russia's Foreign Intelligence (SVR RF), which wants to know who this impostor is - after all, he's definitely dead. It has a certificate that says so. Ukraine's Foreign Intelligence Service, which wants to know what fresh hell this expert's been brewing on Ukrainian soil.  If serious evidence of WMD production is made public, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, United Nations, or Biological Weapons Convention signatories may get involved.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

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