Christina M. Simmons
It's not as though I didn't tell you, from the very start, that the entire prospect of interspecies communication was a dangerous one at best. Marv, I told you, the moment you allow the lower creatures some range for free thought, all hell is going to break loose -- you just see if it doesn't.
All the same, I did understand your desire to proceed. Science forges ahead, and we, as scientists, are the last of the great pioneers. What with the preponderance of primates signing happily away to their keepers (though I personally feel that "good soft cat cat" does not necessarily constitute intellectual discussion, even if it does show a gorilla with a modicum of good taste in the pet arena), and with the Navy making strides towards establishing a common Morse code language with dolphins, I'm sure you felt obligated to continue in the face of opposition. We'd come this far already, you and I, and our work did beg to be continued.
But Marvin, I do wish you could have been reasonable about the entire experiment. Pick a dog, I said - man's best friend, wag-tailed slobbery things though they are. Or a bird, or another cat... something that people can respect as intelligent. Don't get me wrong... I'm not prejudiced; I'm simply stating a fact. It's true that rats have been the most amenable of subjects for time out of mind... they are, after all, plentiful and reproduce readily, saving untold numbers of grant dollars, and have proved eminently trainable. But that entire Black Plague fiasco is slow to fade in Western European memory, and just ask any citizen of New York how they feel about rodents in general. They're second only to cockroaches and tourists on the list of things to exterminate. Couldn't you have considered something a bit more... well... PR-friendly? Kara from the front office had me cornered, she did, when your proposal landed on her desk.
"He's going to have my head on a plate before this experiment is halfway through..." she was wailing, though wailing does seem to constitute her modus communicado, if it comes to that. The woman is a walking example of the necessity of Prozac. "Rats... for cancer research, certainly. For psychological work, I'm with you all the way. But for this? Doesn't he realize that his pet rat will be on the front cover of every scientific journal if this succeeds - and then where will that leave us with the animal rights people, I ask you? The man's a Mensa member, and STILL he doesn't think..."
Firstly, I told her, it wasn't your pet rat. It was mine, selected from my own personal breeding stock. Secondly, it certainly wasn't MY fault if you'd launched your scientific career at age ten, immediately after reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. And lastly, I said, the man's a Mensa member. If he doesn't want to think, he certainly doesn't have to... not that you would understand he wasn't even if he didn't, dear. You don't understand when he IS thinking.
Don't bother to thank me. It's the least a good research assistant can do. But Marvin, did you really have to press forward at top speed - and then take the professorship at Oxford? I'm flattered that you thought me capable of running the lab in your absence, and it's true that electronic communications made the entire business much smoother than it otherwise might have been... but in the long run, I believe your presence might have averted certain... pitfalls, if you will. But I'll speak to that later.
You'll remember that I told you how well the subject was proceeding after the initial surgery and injections... but you were there for that, and a lovely bedside manner you had, too. You could be, if we can only replicate this successfully, the best of rodent pediatricians in the coming age. And I do take a certain amount of credit for selecting the best subject from the candidate pool. William certainly was the most promising of the litter, and I'd always found him particularly appealing - plump, healthy appetite, glossy coat. And not one of those wretched white rats, either... again, I thank you for taking my preferences into consideration. With pink eyes and twitching noses, they positively set my every hair on end. Nature never intended her creatures to be albino. But I digress.
As reported, the initial battery of tests went as planned... shape and sound recognition, a kindergarten primer of basic words, read-aloud stories at bedtime. And yes, you had every right to be proud of William's progress. At the end of three months, he was reading at a second grade level, and had learned to use his symbol-button keyboard to tap out simply messages or requests. We hadn't quite reached "soft good cat cat," but "bed now" and "seed more more" were making strides in the right direction.
At six months William had mastered traditional keyboards, was writing halting, if grammatically correct, sentences, and was devouring such texts as The Jungle Books and your old favorite, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. (I do apologize for not being able to break him of gnawing when excited... in that way, "devouring" must be taken quite literally.) He ignored the graduate students entirely once he had determined who they were, however, aside from responses to their surveys and test questions, and occasional requests for a refill of his water bottle, or a tray of fresh food pellets.
He certainly had his quirks, however. Early on he developed a particular taste for a certain brand of pellet aged to three weeks in the open air, and insisted on only that particular variety. He was fastidious in his grooming and sanitary habits, and could, in fact, become quite vulgar when he felt his cage was not sufficiently cleaned. And, most particularly, William himself did not care for his name, and informed me as much when he finally mastered enough words for an intelligible conversation via his modified PC. If he was to have a name, he said, was it not proper that he select the name himself? After all, a name was as necessary to a rat as nail polish was to the custodian's wife's toy poodle (whom we both despised), and almost as ridiculous, and if he was to continue with one at all, he ought to have a say in it.
I rather liked the name myself, however, and had no intention of changing the name of a test subject simply because said subject does not appreciate its sound - particularly when the proposed alternatives were Grayfellow and Twitchwhisker. For all the good it might do, I did try to reason with him. William was a far more amenable name than R-1273, his designation before the tests had begun, and (I contended) a fair sight better than, say, Albert, Harvey, or Eugene, the latter being the name I myself had been cursed with since birth. There is, however, no reasoning with a rodent, and William sulked for well over a week in protest.
That, I think, was the beginning of the end, now that I reflect on it. William excelled in every test we put to him, and his word-processed journal entries were much clucked over, as you well know... I even began looking forward to our little chats just before bedtime, when the day's data had been processed and the sting of the injections had faded from his memory, and he was feeling garrulous and full of amiability. I did not include these conversations in my transcribed reports to you, Marvin, because I felt, sneakingly, that engaging in social communication with one's subjects outside the parameters of testing would be frowned upon, though it certainly allowed me greater insight into the workings of his mind... particularly into the puzzle of why he chose to communicate at length to only myself.
William, you see, ignored the graduate students for the same reason that he ignored the control group of rats, his littermates.
"They're so insidiously vapid..." he complained. He had spent the afternoon collecting words from his electronic thesaurus, as he did whenever free time presented itself, and enjoyed sprinkling his gleanings throughout any handy conversation. "I'm sure they're pleasant enough creatures... they're family, after all, and certainly I still understand them, though most of what they say is garbled and babbling. But they're lower creatures, Gene... so different from you and I, and those graduate students of yours are no better, really. They don't think to try to engage me in conversation at all, most of them... reading from rote from that test booklet... or, if they do, sneaking it when you aren't watching, they feel obliged to make their voices all squeaky and 'cutesy-wootsie.' The females are the worst for that, though one did try what I presume was Latin, once. How did they get to be graduate students, Gene, when most of them haven't the mentality of a flea?"
The depth of his perceptions grew in leaps and bounds. When the third tier of testing came, the act of translating non-advanced rodent "speech" into standard English, William willingly acquiesced... though he made it quite clear that he thought it was hardly worth his time. He was right. Most of what came out of the control cage centered around hunger, food, and sex... and William made it very plain that he refused to translate the rodent equivalent of dirty jokes for our records.
"You wouldn't understand it anyway..." he said. "It's not scientific, or remotely grammatical. You could get as much from a high school locker room."
Soon after that, William insisted on knowing exactly what the purpose of the experiments was. If he was to continue associating with the "lesser things," as he put it, rather than furthering his own education or honing his intelligence, he wanted to know why. He understood his own improvements well enough, he said... and in that, he had willingly acceded to our wishes, as he himself had grown curious about how far he could develop. He did not, however, understand why we wished to transcribe the conversations of inferior mentalities.
And so I told him, though I knew you would not approve, of your research with the African Grey parrots, with the cats and with other rats, and your desire to have each and every living creature on the planet respected as its own individual, as a uniquely sentient being. A laudable goal, if in concept alone. We've had our own conversations about this, Marvin, and I tried to keep my own feelings separate from the bare facts. It startled me, however, when William was most agitated and vociferously adamant that we not proceed further... and when his reasoning seemed to mirror my own.
"It's absurd, Gene!" he railed. "What IS the man thinking? If this was a case of gaining knowledge for its own sake, I could understand... but what you're proposing is impossible, not to mention asinine! Think of it. You get your fur ruffled when I insist on my limited freedoms... outside the cage time, connectivity to the Internet, cable television for when the staff goes home in the evenings. You're a scientist... you don't deal well with individuality. For this madcap plan to work, it would require more than simply one exceptional rat communicating with the world at large, the voice for the voiceless... it would take hundreds, thousands, and then we start on the other species! It's a recipe for disaster!"
I thought as much myself, though I found his arguments a bit egocentric, and told him as much, suggesting that perhaps he was simply a bit intimidated by the prospect of no longer being unique.
"Rubbish." he said. "There's not one rat in this laboratory who is anywhere near my equal... I heard you tell Marvin as much, before he left. What you're pointing out is a moot point. I am unique, and will continue to be so."
He was hardly unique, of course, but from that time onward, he regarded me with scorn. Soon, he refused outright to have any further dealings with the other test rats, and informed the graduate students that their time would be better served in other areas of pursuit. Neither direct orders nor cajoling nor bribery had any effect whatsoever.
"Gene," he told me. "I've taken it upon myself to put a stop to this absurd romp. Surely you, out of all the scientists here, can understand that what I'm doing is for the best. I'll have no part in bringing cows and chickens and house pets into equality with the likes of us. That way lies chaos... you just see if it doesn't. Hundreds of thousands of vegetarians screeching that they've been right all along, that it's no longer ethical to allow any sort of butchery of meat simply because meat THINKS, regardless of the fact that 'thinks' is too strong a word for it. It would throw the entire ecosystem into a downward spiral... the world simply cannot support a planet of herbivores; the planet would self-destruct. And it only webs out from there. Mass starvations, Gene. All societies reduced to neolithic states. Think of it."
I had thought of it -- that was the entire problem. It was, in fact, my entire reason for protesting the William experiment to begin with. But William didn't stop there, however. Oh, no. Once he had given voice to his objections, be became a creature possessed, refusing any tests whatsoever, spending hours a day tapping away at his keyboard, pausing only for food, and drink, isolating himself from even our private conversations.
His obsession was revealed, some weeks later, to be his personal manifesto: On Sentience, a treatise which, when I reviewed it, chilled me to the core. I thanked my personal gods that I'd had the sense to have his Internet connectivity severed as a bargaining tool to resuming the tests... for if the work had found its way to the Web proper, it's a dead-rat certainty that some extremist group would have claimed it as their constitution.
In On Sentience, William's initial objections had wound themselves about into coils of sub-thought, the result of which was something disturbingly similar to Mein Kampf and the writings of Theodore Kazynski. It was not enough, William had decided, that the experiments be halted immediately, that the "lower creatures" be left to their own simplistic lives... it would be in the best interests of the planet as a whole if humankind looked back to its animal roots, to the basic premise of the food chain: survival of the fittest. As humanity had fallen off the wheel of life so entirely, it was necessary, to prevent overpopulation and the eventual decimation of the species, to begin systematically weeding out the inferior.
Being that humanity now grew and thrived based on intellect more than on brute strength or physical prowess, William suggested the to begin with the culling of those human children who did not meet his own rigid definition of sentience by their coming of age... sterilization, at first, and later full-scale euthanasia, but only if that became necessary. The current inferior generation would die off, and in his magnanimity he was willing to allow them to live out the rest of their "pathetic and underdeveloped lives."
He was inordinately proud of himself.
"Can't you see?" he asked me. "Gene, we can be at the heart of an entirely new world civilization... help me publish this, and we'll have saved the global environment and every living thing on it, not to mention human society. Well, I'll have saved it... but don't think I'll forget you, Gene, or Marvin when I'm recognized as the new savior. You've been marvellous catalysts for my genius, both of you... I couldn't have done it without you."
At this point, I pointed out that I would have to add budding psychiatric aberrations into my notes, and follow that train of thought as the experiment continued... megalomania is most unhealthy, even in a single rat, and his manifesto could be considered indicative of delusional behavior. He was, predictably, enraged by my lack of enthusiasm.
"I can see..." he typed slowly. "...that I seriously underestimated you, Eugene. For all your own skills, for all the advances you yourself have made in this very field, you are incapable of grasping the largeness of the situation. You may thank providence that I am a peaceable creature, and do not advocate the murder of creatures of lesser intellect... but there, I've been unkind. You can run along now, like a good fellow, won't you, and I'll determine some other means of sharing my word with the world. You might give me Marvin's e-mail address... I'm sure he would be more appreciative of my work."
His entire manner sparked something entirely unpleasant in me... some baser instinct, or latent prejudice I had honestly thought I had outgrown. My vision contracted to a pinpoint, but I managed to restrain my urge to fly at him, and left him to his private musings, his back to me. After some days had passed and nothing further had transpired, I thought that perhaps he had seen the error of his ways, and resolved to put an end to the experiment as soon as you could be contacted privately. For now, I removed the files of On Sentience from his computer's hard drive and had the students remove William's cage from the lab, to be housed instead within our office.
That was, perhaps, my greatest mistake. I had underestimated his cunning.
Unbeknownst to me, since our ill-fated conversation, William had been cultivating an ally... that same graduate student, Abigail Kennedy, her name was, who had initially spoken to him in poorly-structured Latin. Presenting his case in the most eloquent of words, Abigail later told me, he had won her over - primarily because he had not begged for escape, nor for physical freedom in any sort, but for the simple freedom of expression which so many humans held so dear.
He persuaded her to locate his manifesto on my personal computer, and to transmit it electronically to some acquaintance of his from the days when he was able to roam the Internet at will. It was a simple request, and Abigail, swayed away from scientific detachment to William's way of thinking, was pleased to do it. She was, of course, conscience-stricken immediately after, and came to me in a flood of tears to confess her guilt.
I'll leave it to you to deal with Abigail, Marvin. I have no tact in the handling of women as a whole or as a species of scientist, though I did manage to get her to stop crying. Then I dealt with William.
I had intended simply to remove all access to technology from his very limited grasp, to reduce him to the living situation of any other lab rat... suitable punishment, I thought. But he was waiting for me upon arrival, staring up at me impudently, with his computer screen utterly dead, his keyboard untouched.
"Don't think," he said... SAID, Marvin, in audible speech! "...that this will stop me in any way. You are, as a whole, a miserable lot, too wrapped up in your scientific data and righteousness, or too damned emotional. I will persevere."
The scientist in me should have rejoiced at this, that William had taken this final step towards true sentience, and proven your own theories so magnificently. I am, however, no more nor less than the sum of my genetics... and seeing this conglomeration of fur and flesh presuming to speak to me in such a manner had a most unfortunate effect, I'm afraid.
My hair went up, my ears folded back, and my vision contracted, and I had the momentary pleasure of seeing the wretched William reduced to sheer rodent terror as I ripped the top of the cage wide open and pounced upon him, snapping his puny back with one blow of my paw.
I am honestly sorry to say, Marvin, that I subsequently ate him... but perhaps it will make you feel better to know that I was violently ill afterwards, having strayed far from my feline roots. I've retained hard copy of William's writings for you, which I will have one of the students post to you immediately, and would suggest that we not allow this to stay our progress. Perhaps we were off-target with rats. My sister, I believe, is due to litter soon... and, as a token of my apology, you will not have a word of protest from me if you wish to attempt to duplicate the experiment using one of my soon-to-be nephews. Rodents are, after all, a most inferior species, and hardly suited to such an auspicious goal as ours.