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Unlimited Roquefort

by Hayford Peirce

Illustration by Kelly Freas

The room was somberly but richly furnished. The Permanent Secretary studied it with unabashed fascination. A Persian rug lay on the floor and a cheerful fire crackled in the hearth. Several thousand books lined one wall, while an up-to-date computer system occupied the opposite corner. The Permanent Secretary raised his glass of whiskey-soda and sketched a toast to the tall, gray-haired man who stood considering him.

“To being a free man, Colonel Christie.”

“Twenty years to the day.” The Colonel’s voice was thick with emotion. He raised his own glass and drank deeply. “I thought I’d been left here to rot.”

“No, no, my dear chap. That was never the intention. And it was as much for your own safety as for anything else.”

Outside, the muted tones of Big Ben tolled mournfully through the late afternoon fog. “Safety? From angry mobs deprived of their cuppas? I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.” The Colonel gestured at his books and computer and uttered a weary sigh. “At least I had twenty years of uninterrupted calm to educate myself about all sorts of interesting things. Most, most interesting. Someday I’ll have to tell you about them.”

The Permanent Secretary nodded absently. “Yes, amazing what sort of information and courses one can get off the computer these days, isn’t it? Oxford, Cambridge, even Harvard, I believe.”

“But not the Sorbonne,” said Colonel Christie with a hint of asperity to his clipped tones.

“No, not the Sorbonne,” agreed the Permanent Secretary. “Things haven’t changed that much.” He set down his cut-crystal glass. “Well, my dear chap, shall we be on our way?”

“You have another tenant you’re anxious to move in?”

“Into here? The Tower of London?” The Permanent Secretary raised an astonished eyebrow. “My dear chap, you’ve been the only guest the Tower has seen in the last forty years!”

“How on earth did you track me down here?” marvelled the other occupant of the pub’s beer-ringed table.

“Amazing what information one can find on computers these days,” murmured Colonel Christie.

“Particularly if one used to be head of Intelligence.”

“Not head. Just… highly placed.”

“Discreet to the very end,” said Henry Hollilockes with unconcealed bitterness. “Even after what they did to you—and to me. And to me, Colonel Christie, to me! Working on your orders!” His mild brown eyes flashed with long-smoldering passions.

The Colonel nodded sympathetically. “I admit things didn’t work out quite as one had anticipated. And that innocent bystanders inadvertently got hurt.”

“Hurt, ha! How would you like to have spent twenty years of your life testing mayonnaise formulas for a chain of supermarkets out here in deepest Wales? Me, a biochemist with not one but two Chittering Prizes—and the offer of a professorship at Cambridge!” Small and round-shouldered, Henry Hollilockes gulped his beer and slammed the mug to the slimy table. He gestured at the mean surroundings of the squalid Welsh pub as if to encompass the last two decades of his life. “How do you like this, Colonel Christie?”

“Not too much, my dear fellow. And that, in fact, is precisely the reason I’ve gone to some considerable effort to track you down.” The Colonel leaned closer, lowered his voice. “How would you like to help me take a measure of… shall we say, justly merited retribution upon those responsible for our sufferings of the last twenty years?”

“Retribution?” Henry Hollilockes blinked at the Colonel wonderingly.

“Yes. I’ve spent the better part of two decades educating myself about all sorts of things, some of them in your own field of expertise. I am now, I think I may honestly say, the functional equivalent of a Ph.D in microbiology, with a specialty in molds and fungi. Nothing to equal your own learning and experience, of course, but enough to give me the basis for a few most interesting ideas. Most interesting indeed, my dear Hollilockes.” Colonel Christie’s gray eyes suddenly glittered with an intensity that his acquaintances of an earlier life would have found both unfamiliar and deeply disturbing. “The most interesting of these ideas center upon a microorganism with which you yourself might be familiar from your dinner table—the Penicillium roquefortii.

“France,” muttered Colonel Christie, turning a disdainful eye to the rocky wastelands that stretched away in every direction, “La belle bloody France!” Forty-five miles to the northwest of the Mediterranean city of Montpellier, here la belle France was distinctly unFrancelike, an unexpected vista of arid mountains and mesas that the Colonel thought could easily have been imported from the American Far West. A pitiless Sun burned down from a cloudless blue sky. Colonel Christie tugged uncomfortably at the neckline of his ancient tweed jacket and brushed an errant drop of sweat from his bony nose. “Damned Froggies, why can’t they do things like everyone else?”

The Colonel had ample cause for discontent.

Two decades earlier, his Minister had indicated by a discreet series of hints and murmurs over afternoon tea that England’s obstreperous Gallic neighbor was becoming entirely too big for its breeches and might usefully be taken down a peg or two.

Colonel Christie had attacked the project with his usual imagination and elan. What, he had asked himself, was the very soul of the French nation? Sex, food, rudeness?

The answer, of course, was wine.

Two months later a highly mutated variation of the fearsome phylloxera louse had been unleased upon France’s vineyards, thereby destroying that country’s single most important industry. The chaos in France had been immediate and absolute—and wholly predictable.

For a few short months Colonel Christie had basked in the glow of his Minister’s approbation. Then the French had—as usual with them—fought back by totally unfair means.

Even now, twenty years later, the Colonel still shuddered at the monstrousness of the unexpected riposte. Using a mutated fungus of their own, the French intelligence service had overnight destroyed the world’s tea supply. Bereft of its life-sustaining beverage, English society had been rent to its very core. Colonel Christie had been removed to his luxurious accommodations in the Tower—and a startlingly reinvigorated France had battled back to its former glory as the greatest power in the world.

No, reflected Colonel Christie, things didn’t always work out as one planned them to. “But this one will,” he muttered aloud, tugging again at his collar and taking a resolute step forward. The entrance to the rocky fortress of Mount Combalou lay just ahead, an enormous doorway through which the largest of lorries could pass with ease. Heart beating noticeably faster, the Englishman quickened his pace.

In the visitor’s reception room the Colonel was given a thick woolen blanket by an amiable Frenchwoman with an impenetrable southern accent. He wrapped it around his shoulders and, with twelve other assorted tourists, began the descent into the four miles of caves and passageways in which the world’s entire supply of Roquefort cheese was produced.

The air was cold and damp as it rose from the depths of the mountain’s subterranean lake through hundreds of fissures and cracks, bearing with it the unique Penicillium roquefortii microorganisms responsible for creating the unmatched perfection of “the cheese of kings and the king of cheeses.” Colonel Christie shivered as the group made its way slowly down through raw limestone walls and rocky grottos, deeper and deeper into the mountain. Eventually they came to an enormous cavern in which hundreds of thousands of plain white cheeses, produced by the farmers of the neighboring wastelands, had been brought to ripen. Stout oak planks stretched up to a ceiling a hundred feet above; here were cheeses in every stage of development, from the creamiest white to the most elaborately veined. Half a dozen silent workers appraised them with loving eyes, individually testing and turning them by hand.

Colonel Christie permitted himself a wintry smile. He had long since realized that he had been absolutely mistaken about that wine business. It was here, deep in the mountains of southern France, that he had found the very soul of this disagreeable nation; it was here that he would take his justly merited revenge.

The Colonel stepped forward as if to examine a particularly choice round of ripening Roquefort. As he did so, he activated the aerosol dispersal system so cunningly concealed within his trousers and walking boots. With an imperceptible hiss, millions of spores of the mutated Penicillium roquefortii created by Henry Hollilockes began to circulate in the air around him. A faint, abstracted smile on his lips, the Colonel moved slowly down the ranks of ripening cheeses, a tiny hissing noise accompanying him as he went.

“You do yourself well here,” observed Henry Hollilockes with even more of his usual bitterness as his eyes ran over the high-ceilinged salon with its stunning view of Green Park.

Colonel Christie shrugged indifferently. “They never stopped paying my salary, you know. Compounded over twenty years, it came to a surprisingly ti ...