Warning: This article is likely to contain traces of satire.
In the aftermath of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury on 4th March, scientists are currently re-evaluating their understanding of A-234 - or Novichok as it is more commonly known. Prior to the poisoning, it had been thought that the substance was around 5-8 times more toxic than VX nerve agent, and therefore that just a tiny drop would be likely to kill a person within minutes or possibly even seconds of them coming into contact with it. In the unlikely event of a person surviving, it was believed that their central nervous system would be completely destroyed, and that they would suffer numerous chronic health issues, including cirrhosis, toxic hepatitis, and epilepsy before dying a premature and miserable death, probably within a year or so.
However, according to an anonymous source at the Porton Down laboratory, which is located just a few miles down the road from Salisbury, scientists now believe they may have completely misunderstood the properties and effects of the chemical:
“All the available information we had about Novichok before March this year suggested that it was by far the most lethal nerve agent ever produced, and we had assumed that even the tiniest drop would kill a person within minutes. However, after studying the movements of the Skripals after being poisoned, we have now revised our understanding, and we now believe that one of its primary effects is to generate in its victims a strong desire to go out for a beer followed by a pizza.”
Yet it’s not only the effects of the substance that have led to this reappraisal, but also its mysterious ability to move about from location to location, seemingly at will. According to the source:
“At first, differing reports of the location of the poisoning baffled us. First it was the restaurant, then it was the pub, followed by the bench, the car, the cemetery, the flowers, the luggage, the porridge, and then finally the door handle three weeks after the incident. However, we now believe we have an explanation for this phenomena. When Novichok was developed, we think it may have been given the ability to appear in one place, only to then disappear and turn up in an entirely different place.
This is what we saw in the Skripal case, where the media would assure the public that investigators had found the source of the poisoning, only to report a day or two later that it wasn’t in fact there at all, but somewhere else entirely. It’s all remarkably clever, and it seems to have been specifically designed to generate the impression to the uninitiated that investigators are simply making it up as they go along.”
Another quality of the substance, which at first puzzled the scientists, is its apparent ability to multiply:
“We now know that the substance was poured on a door handle,” said the source.
“Yet according to all our experiments where we’ve replicated this scenario, no matter how carefully we’ve poured liquid on a door handle, what we’ve found is that it has an uncanny tendency to run off, leaving a fairly insignificant amount. Yet we know that from this tiny amount, the substance has been turning up in multiple hotspots around Salisbury. The most probable explanation for this, we think, is that the along with it being developed to appear, disappear and reappear in various places, it was also developed with the alarming ability to replicate itself.”
Asked why this hasn’t led to the deaths of hundreds or thousands of residents in the City, the source pointed back to their revised conclusion of the effects of Novichok as being more likely to lead to a craving for beer and pizza than to death.
They also mentioned another surprising revision that they have had to make, which is the seemingly mundane way in which objects that have come into contact with Novichok can be decontaminated:
“Given our prior understanding about the toxicity of Novichok, we had of course assumed that cleaning it up could only be done by specialists wearing protective clothing,” said the source.
“And so when Public Health England advised people who thought they might have come into contact with it to wash their clothes and wipe their phones with baby wipes, I must admit we were a bit surprised. None of the research papers out there mentions baby wipes as being an effective method of treating exposure to Novichok, and we did wonder whether they were perhaps talking about another chemical altogether. But of course they can’t have been, can they? Still,” he added with a wry smile, “I guess it all goes to prove the old saying: you learn something new every day.”
Yet, although the new discoveries of the properties of Novichok mentioned above have taken the scientific community by surprise, the one that is causing the most excitement is the revelation that it can apparently render its victims invisible:
“To be frank, this has created a huge buzz,” said the source.
“I mean, the Skripals apparently came into contact with Novichok over two months ago, as did Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey. And yet since then nothing has been seen of any of them. It’s almost as if they’ve vanished into thin air, a bit like Bilbo Baggins at his 111th birthday party when he slips the Ring of Power on.”
And it’s not just the scientific community that is excited about the potential this might have. The Magic Circle has also a expressed an interest in knowing more about the substance, since its ability to make those who come into contact with it disappear without trace could potentially be a huge addition to the illusionist’s toolkit.
However, any excitement that this might bring comes with considerable caution. According to a spokeswoman for the Magic Circle:
“Of course we’re bound to be interested in the existence of a substance that can make a person disappear. However, whilst making someone disappear is great, what we’d really like to see is their reappearance at some point. Otherwise, I think it unlikely that it will ever catch on amongst our members.”