Only one table left in that tiny restaurant and that awkward moment of deciding ownership when it is claimed at exactly the same time.
Retired-looking white guy. Tourist.
“I’m here waiting for someone so I’m okay to share the table,” I say.
“Why not,” he returns, nodding and smiling briefly. “I’m just here for a quick dinner anyway.”
I order a Tiger Crystal.
“So, you on holiday in Vietnam?”
“No, not exactly,” he says. “I’m a vet. I wasn’t a soldier, though. Medical staff.”
“So you’re a vet and a doctor?” I ask, but he doesn’t get the joke.
I try again.
“So, what- it’s a pilgrimage?”
“I come here every year. It’s one of the places I like to roam. I do a world circuit now I’m retired. Asia. South America. And so on.”
“Sounds cool. So you were a doctor?”
“A medical pathologist. Lab work. Highly detailed.”
“So you were working with pathogens?” I ask. “Bacteria and viruses?”
“Okay, you’re a good person to ask,” I say. “There’s a lot of people on the Internet who reckon that AIDS was created in a laboratory.”
He starts shaking his head, slightly amused.
“That it shows tell-tale signs,” I press on, “Of being like a composite of two other organisms…?”
“No, AIDS wasn’t manmade,” he says. “We’d already made all the lethal viruses and so on we would ever need back then, during the war.”
“I’ve seen CIA documents where they were estimating the cost of a virus to be $1 million, back in the late 60s,” I say.
“Yep, you got it,” he says. “Though we got it down a lot cheaper than that.”
“Yes,” I say, “They were working on all kinds of things. One of the things on the list they mentioned was race-specific diseases and bio-weapons. Did they do that?”
He furrows his brow momentarily. “Not that I know of. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen but it’s not something we were working on.”
“So, can I ask what kinds of things you were working on?” I ask.
“Well, some of it was seeing how deadly we could make a pathogen,” he says. “Something that could pretty much wipe everything out.”
“On Earth. Of course, something like that’s totally useless as a theatre weapon but it was fun to work on.”
As he eats his clay pot curry, he continues. “The laboratories- and there were several of them- were air-pressure sealed so nothing could escape. Concrete bunkers, really.”
“One day, a lab technician dropped a vial of something so incredibly toxic- and he was in a room with seven other people- that all we could do was immediately pour liquid concrete in through the vent in the roof of the bunker. Seal it and everybody in there. They’d started dying pretty much immediately anyway but we had to drown them; drown the whole laboratory- just to make sure. If that had escaped, God knows what it would have done.”
I am speechless. He is warming to his theme.
“One virus we created to mutate four times and then it was programmed to just spontaneously die off,” he says. “This was great for clearing out enemy areas fully. You knew if the enemy survived one variant, the next would get them and so on; then a few days later- threat totally nullified. Area cleared.”
“Christ,” I say.
I have a lot of questions I want to ask him but those related to the morality of what he is telling me don’t even enter my head. Instead, I let him relate, calmly and coolly, a few of the key moments in his working life.
It is a life he seems quietly proud of.
His meal is finished and it is time for him to go.
“You know my favourite disease?” he says as he is standing to leave. “Ebola, without question. My God, it’s admirable.”
He doesn’t have time to explain exactly what he finds admirable about ebola, however, as my friend turns up at that point and the ex-pathologist slips out into the Saigon twilight.