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Expect the Unexpected

Four years ago, a meeting of high-level representatives of the government, military, and the intelligence services sat down to address matters of growing concern. After 9/11, 7/7, avian flu, swine flu, foot and mouth, cyberattacks, superbugs, and tsunamis, they were worried at repeated failures to anticipate and plan for unforeseen dangers to the state and to the public. Their response was to a create a super-secret organization, codename Dionysos. The motto of Dionysos is ‘specto subitus’ or ‘expect the unexpected’. Dionysos is dedicated to forecasting and preparing for contingencies that nobody – and they really mean nobody – has ever worried about before. Believing that Dionysos was planning for an alien invasion, ufologists infiltrated the organization. The truth was even more shocking than they had dared imagine. What follows is a transcript of a secretly recorded meeting held by the Dionysos governance committee.

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: Shall we begin? There’s some coffee at the back if people want to help themselves.

Colonel Spindle: No biscuits this time? Are we making cutbacks? I’m famished. I need a bourbon, or a custard cream or two.

Lady Mantlebrat: No, no, the absence of biscuits has nothing to do with budgets. We’ve had to suspend biscuit buying pending further investigation.

Prof. Palindrome: If I may, Virginia. Colonel, it occurred to us that the cream filling of certain kinds of biscuit – like the bourbons and custard creams you mention – could be deliberately tainted with genetically-modified psychotropic substances that are keyed to the DNA of a specific individual. In most cases the biscuit would be perfectly harmless. But if the individual with the matching DNA ate the modified biscuit, they would suffer powerful and disturbing hallucinations. The hallucinations would be so vivid and emotionally compelling that they make an LSD trip seem like an animated movie by The Beatles. Onlookers would assume the victim had gone completely mad and would have no way of telling it was down to the biscuit, as they would have eaten from the same biscuit plate but be completely unaffected.

Colonel Spindle: Didn’t the CIA try the same thing on Castro? Something about spiking his cigar in the hope he’d smoke it, go on telly and seem totally off his rocker.

Prof. Palindrome: Yes, but the cigars were crude and it was easy to detect the drugs. The beauty of the DNA-encoded biscuits is that the drug would be very hard to detect and there would be no effect on others eating the biscuit. So if one of us went complete bonkers, nobody would suspect that the real culprit was the chemical cocktail hidden in the custard cream.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: But I thought those Beatles films were supposed to be rather like an LSD trip… not that I’ve ever had one myself… with all those stories about blue meanies and yellow submarines and Lilly flying her kite.

Prof. Palindrome: By the standards of their day, The Beatles’ flirtations with drug culture were very radical, but modern teenagers are not so easily impressed. If it’s not a 3-D epic by James Cameron about giant blue people piloted by virtual reality, then the kids simply don’t treat it as realistic.

Dame Marjorie Marjarom: What about ginger nuts?

Prof. Palindrome: Excuse me?

Dame Marjorie Marjarom: Ginger nuts, or digestive biscuits – surely they’re safe as they have no cream filling?

Prof. Palindrome: Until we’ve devised a foolproof test, we think it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid biscuits of any description. We can’t be sure if the drugs are limited to cream fillings as we’ve never had an actual case of this happening and there’s no proof that the technology exists. But we’re still urgently working towards the method to detect it. Better safe than sorry.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Weren’t we supposed to be investigating something to do with that three-dimensional thingy… what was it? Something about the potential to send even more powerful and undetectable subliminal messages to viewers because each eye got a different blip-coded instruction that only makes sense when combined with the blip-code instruction received by the other eye?

Prof. Palindrome: Ah, yes. You see… (interrupted)

Lady Mantlebrat: Gentlemen, please, let’s get back to the agenda, shall we? I’ve asked Dr. Delia Dingle to join us today, so she can talk to us about the risks of collisions with objects from outer space.

Colonel Spindle: So where is she then?

Lady Mantlebrat: I don’t know, and that’s what I’m worried about.

Dame Marjorie Marjarom: Do you think she could have been kidnapped?

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: What about jaffa cakes then?

Lady Mantlebrat: Willie?

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Jaffa cakes. Strictly speaking, they’re not biscuits. Are they safe from the super-LSD-DNA stuff?

Colonel Spindle: Good idea, Willie. Let’s get some jaffa cakes in, shall we? They’re not biscuits and I really am famished.

Prof. Palindrome: Whilst the jaffa cake is, indeed, a cake, I think it still poses a risk.

Dame Marjorie Marjarom: We need to ask ourselves if any cake can be considered 100% safe. I’m inclined to think not.

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: The question is moot, as we do not have departmental budget to serve cake.

Prof. Palindrome: Marjorie makes a good point. We should extend our research, and our internal ban, to cover the possibility of DNA-encoded hallucinatory cakes in addition to DNA-encoded hallucinatory biscuits.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Jaffa cakes could be bought under the biscuit budget, surely?

Colonel Spindle: This doesn’t sound like an especially new threat to me. In my youth I visited Amsterdam and purchased some baked goods – brownies I think they were called at the shop – that were made with marijuana in them. I think they called them hash brownies.

Prof. Palindrome: These new DNA-encoded psychotropic… (interrupted)

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: Please, please gentlemen. If you wanted to talk about biscuits you should have put them on the agenda. This will have to wait to Any Other Business.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: I thought biscuits were a standing item for this meeting (chortles to himself).

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: Willie, please let’s return to the agenda, shall we? We need to consider what might have happened to Dr. Dingle.

Colonel Spindle: Maybe she went to the movies and got a subliminal message telling her to fly to Moscow or some such.

Dame Marjorie Marjarom: Maybe there never was a Dr. Dingle. She could have been a robot imposter.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: What about birthday cakes? Surely we’ve got budget for that? Does the ministry expect us to chip in and buy the staff birthday cakes out of our own pockets?

Prof. Palindrome: I think we also need to consider another, even more chilling possibility. Perhaps Dr. Dingle is in the room with us, right now.

Colonel Spindle: How so? Are you saying she might be invisible?

Prof. Palindrome: Not just invisible, but completely out of phase with ordinary matter, so that she wasn’t interacting with any devices that could be used to detect her presence. If she had been converted to dark matter, then Dr. Dingle would have no interaction with the universe as we perceive it. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility – she was working in the field of dangers from outer space. Perhaps she was the target of aliens who wanted to stop her work?

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: Really, Professor. I think you’re getting a bit carried away. She was investigating what to do about comets and meteors hitting our planet, not alien invasions! And you know full well that contingency planning for alien invasions is outside of our scope. Responsibility for that lies with those nice people who work in New Mexico and who we otherwise don’t mention.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Might I possibly be a robot imposter?

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: No, Willie. You’re all too unique.

Colonel Spindle: We should still take a look into this dark matter conversion theory of Professor Palindrome. If somebody made of dark matter would not register on any scientific device, they would travel through our world completely undetected. They’d be the perfect spy.

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: If I understand correctly, the thing about dark matter is that it doesn’t interact with anything else, like ordinary matter or even light. So if light passes right through a dark matter person, that would surely mean they must be blind – because the light wouldn’t hit the back of their retina?

Prof. Palindrome: Ah, yes. Good point. Perhaps we can afford to discount the conversion of people into dark matter for the moment.

[Dr. Delia Dingle enters the room.]

Dr. Dingle: Sorry I’m late. My train was delayed.

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: Oh, there you are. You didn’t call to warn us you wouldn’t be on time.

Dr. Dingle: (Pulls out her mobile phone and waves it) Didn’t you get my message?

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: No. No I didn’t. (She reaches into her handbag for her own mobile phone. After searching around she pulls it out). That’s funny – there’s no signal in here.

Prof. Palindrome: I’m afraid I hadn’t had chance to warn you about that. As you’ll see, it’s item number eight on the agenda: mobile telephony safety risks.

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: Professor, our purpose is to deal with the unexpected, not the expected. Surely there are plenty of mainstream researchers looking into the health and safety aspects of mobile telephones – and what exactly have you done to block my reception? It was fine yesterday.

Prof. Palindrome: Very true, Lady Virginia, but I was more concerned that the signals might be intercepted and decoded.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Might they be used to hold this dark matter stuff?

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: Please Willie, I don’t think The Beatles did a reliable geographic survey for the sake of writing ‘A Day in the Life’.

Colonel Spindle: (Angry) Of course mobile radio signals can be decoded. The thing is, only a blithering idiot would do such a thing. Have you ever listened to what the average person jabbers on about whilst on the telephone? What happened last night on Eastenders and who’s next for the bushtucker trials on Celebrity Come Ice Dancing. Who’d want to listen to all that guff? In the secret services we’ve got thousands of people employed to listen in to ordinary people’s conversations, and speaking as someone who’s listened in to them listening in, I can tell you, it’s a complete waste of time. So you can bloody well switch my phone back on, right now.

Lady Virginia Mantlebrat: Colonel, Professor, please, please.

Prof. Palindrome: Does the rest of the committee agree with Colonel Spindle…?

[Mutters of approval.]

Prof. Palindrome: Very well, I’ll stop jamming the signal as soon as the meeting is over.

Colonel Spindle: Can’t you do it now, and fetch some sandwiches whilst you’re out? I’m surprised you can’t all hear my stomach rumbling.

Lady Mantlebrat: Now, please, let’s get back to the agenda, shall we? Dr. Dingle has kindly joined us today to tell us about the probability of an object from space colliding with earth and causing a disaster. Dr. Dingle, if you please…

Dr. Dingle: Though it’s the stuff of movie blockbusters, the possibility of a comet or meteor striking earth…

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: (aside) Yes, that ‘Abattoir’ movie by David Cameron. 3D. Very good. Went with the grandkids. Slept right through it but the littl’uns said they loved it.

Dr. Dingle: … is so small we can effectively ignore it…

Lady Mantlebrat: Excuse me, but I don’t think we can. Everyone else can ignore it, but we at the Dionysos Institute can’t. We’re here to consider all those outlandish possibilities which, when they do happen once in a blue moon, cause people to say: “somebody should have planned for this” even though nobody else would. And that’s what we do. “Specto subitus”!

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Virginia’s absolutely right. Roads freezing over and needing grit, bankers getting big bonuses after we bail them out, making a pigs ear out of the Olympics and finding someone in the private sector to take the blame – we need to think the unthinkable and do the undoable.

Lady Mantlebrat: No, no, no, Willie! None of that has anything to do with us. All of those are perfectly foreseeable which is why we allow others to take responsibility for those foul-ups. We only take responsibility for foul-ups that were so hard to predict that only an insane person would worry about them. That’s why we have to plan for collisions with comets and the like, even if the possibility is so small we should ignore it.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: You’re right, Virginia. I spoke out of turn. We’re here to consider the inconsiderable but not to ignore the ignorable.

Lady Mantlebrat: Quite.

Dr. Dingle: Well you don’t really need to worry about space collisions, because the Russians have a plan that involves using space probes to change the trajectory of any large object heading towards earth. They intend to slowly and steadily divert its course so it will miss. It’ll cost them billions of rubles to implement, so it’s better to leave it to them.

Lady Mantlebrat: We can’t afford to allow the safety of taxpayers to be left to a foreign power. That’s why we’ve already agreed on funding to create our own solution. Isn’t that right Professor?

Prof. Palindrome: It is. In fact, we’ve recently doubled the amount we’re spending on it.

Colonel Spindle: Doubled, you say?

Prof. Palindrome: Yes, we redirected the money saved on biscuits for meetings.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Am I wrong, but I thought the New Mexicans dealt with dangers from space, not us.

Lady Mantlebrat: They only deal with aliens, Willie. We deal with non-living threats from outer space.

Dame Marjorie Marjarom: What about spores?

Lady Mantlebrat: What about them?

Dame Marjorie Marjarom: Spores from outer space – do they count as a living or non-living threat? Spores are inert but they have the potential to create new life.

Lady Mantlebrat: Well, Marjorie, I’d have to consider them as living threats rather than lifeless threats, but you raise a good point. I’ll take an action to speak with our friends in New Mexico who we otherwise don’t mention and ask if we or they should be dealing with spores from space.

Colonel Spindle: I’m very sorry, but I’m terribly hungry and it’s almost lunchtime. I motion that we adjourn to the Old Bull and Bush and reconvene after we’ve had a spot to eat.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Seconded.

Lady Mantlebrat: Gentlemen! It’s only ten to twelve. I’ll tell you what, let’s quickly run through the items to add to the new threats list and then we can go down the pub with Dr. Dingle; she can explain to us more about averting meteor strikes whilst we’re eating.

Colonel Spindle: Very well. I’ll get the ball rolling by offering some new threats to consider: virulent new strains of rabies infecting sheep and causing them to go on a killing spree; Twitter being taken over by foreign governments and used to disseminate 140-character messages of propaganda; terrorists using tunneling machines to plant bombs underneath important buildings; red ants mating with killer bees to create an unstoppable army of killer red bees.

Lady Mantlebrat: Thanks Colonel. As always, some good suggestions for the threat list. Marjorie?

Dame Marjorie Marjarom: I was reading on the internet about how a blogger cloned himself and sent his clone to upset proceedings at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Also, I wonder if global warming will cause snow to become sticky, causing skiers to flip over headfirst and break their neck.

Lady Mantlebrat: Really, Marjorie. You shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet. But I’ve just been back from a ski break and now you mention it, the snow did seem a bit stickier than usual – it’s something we should look into.

Prof. Palindrome: My turn? I’m worried about the potential for Benny Hill repeats to be shown on television. This might encourage an increase of bald men being slapped on the top of the head, causing brain hemorrhages. Also, it will encourage the chasing of scantily-clad women wearing high heels – we don’t want anyone falling over and twisting their ankle. We should destroy all copies of The Benny Hill Show just in case. (Pauses for a long time, then bursts into laughter).

Lady Mantlebrat: (Chuckles) Very droll, Professor, but seriously, what are your suggestions?

Prof. Palindrome: Brainwashing from secret messages hidden in the sound of car alarms that go off ‘accidentally’; perfumes impregnated with hormones that encourage crocodile attacks; odour eaters soaked in drugs that your feet find addictive; the training of chimpanzees in sign language and to be household servants, leading them to form a competitive society and eventually to enslave all humans; exploding cigarettes; exploding nicotine gum; exploding ordinary chewing gum; and the retirement of the soothing Terry Wogan leading to an increase in stress levels and much higher numbers of heart disease and gang fights. Oh, and I nearly forgot… we should start the central monitoring of the number of cases of spontaneous combustion, just in case it’s on the rise.

Lady Mantlebrat: Willie?

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: What about machines turning us all into living batteries – using our body heat as energy source they can live off – whilst our minds are locked into a computer-generated fantasy world without our realizing it. My grandkids were telling me about it from a movie they’d seen. I think it was one of the ones in the Harry Potter series.

Prof. Palindrome: Your grandchildren were talking about The Matrix, and it’s not scientifically possible. Whatever energy humans give off as heat, there would be more efficient ways to get the energy directly from the food fed to the humans, or from the energy sources used to make the food.

The Right Hon. William Whiteslosh: Is that so? Well, then my only new worry for this month is that we’ll get a mutant strain of flu that combines the worst of bird flu with the worst of swine flu. We could call it ‘pigs will fly’ flu. (Laughs).

Lady Mantlebrat: You are a card, Willie. For myself, I’m very worried about the possibility of someone inventing an impervious cloth and hence devastating the fashion industry. Just imagine how many much-needed jobs would be lost in sweat shops around the world. And pigeons that contain miniature bombs. Imagine the panic that might cause…

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