“And you with small pets at home!” Dr. Jenner exclaimed. He slid his keycard through a slot in the wall and the elevator doors sprang open. Dr. Jenner sprang inside. Dr. Timothy, who was more than a few steps behind, picked up his pace. “It’s true we draw almost exclusively from the neuroscience fields,” Dr. Jenner continued, “but in your case we made an exception.” He smiled without turning around. “You’ll soon understand why.”
Dr. Jenner was a short man with little hands and little feet and tiny recessed eyes. He wore thick glasses, a collared shirt and tie, and the top of his head was bald. Despite his age, however, Dr. Jenner talked nearly as fast as he walked and his personality was matched by the elevator doors, which abruptly shut just as Dr. Timothy, who had almost caught up, was leaping forward.
“Thanks,” came the out-of-breath-reply as Dr. Jenner re-opened the doors. Dr. Timothy scurried in. He was much taller than Dr. Jenner and much younger. He did not wear glasses and his black hair showed no signs of thinning yet. He was also wearing a blue denim shirt tucked into his jeans. No tie. “Those doors sure shut fas–”
“Anyway,” Dr. Jenner exclaimed, his face animated and his voice full of energy, “to get back to the study. So what we accomplished in the beginning was astonishing! Truly, truly astonishing! We aren’t talking about intelligence that multiplied at some linear rate, but intelligence that multiplied geometrically! We started with mice and had plans to move on to other, larger species, but such a massive increase in intelligence left us with several problems.”
The elevator jolted. “Problems?” Dr. Timothy asked as he looked about. Dr. Jenner shrugged, then brought a hand to his neck and began to loosen his tie.
“The increase in intelligence left us with in a dilemma–a dilemma both ethical and practical.” Dr. Jenner explained. And then, as he popped his collar’s top button, in an even swifter tempo: “So what do you do with a mouse that’s doubled in intelligence? You know, wha-da-ya-do with it when you’re done using it in tests? Now, I’d say you simply get rid of it. Kill it. Or, ‘sacrifice’ it, to use today’s PC mumbo jumbo! Who cares if it’s twice as smart as before–was it ever that smart to begin with?”
“No, not really,” Dr. Timothy replied, nodding his head.
“So, wha-da-bout a mouse that’s tripled in intelligence? Well, you can kill it too, ’cause it’s still just a mouse, right? But a mouse that’s quadrupled in intelligence? Quintupled? Sextupled? Septupled? Is it still a mouse at that point, or some new… thing?” Dr. Jenner shrugged. “You see, phase one–mice–was only supposed to be the beginning. As it turned out, however….” The elevator began to slow.
“So phase one was also the end?”
“Yes, yes it was.” Dr. Jenner shifted his weight from one leg to the other, then leaned in close and began tapping the elevator’s floor display. “Like I said, the mice’s intelligence increased at a geometric rate, and for some time. Truthfully, we’re not actually sure where they are now.”
“Really?” The elevator came to a stop.
“Yes, really, though they stopped learning–of that we’re sure!” Dr. Jenner scoffed. “Eventually progression terminated, and that’s when we got the upper hand!” At the word “progression” the elevator doors flew open and Dr. Jenner flew out into a long hallway. He surged forward.
“Upper hand?” Dr. Timothy called out, left behind again. “And why the hurry?”
“No hurry!” Dr. Jenner called back. “Anyway, the mice plateaued, and then they actually regressed a bit! And that’s when we showed those little things who was in charge!” To himself, though loudly: “Fast, clever, conniving little… things.”
Dr. Timothy jogged after Dr. Jenner. “So the mice, er, things… they don’t look like–huff–mice anymore? What–huff–do they look like–?”
“Oh no!” Dr. Jenner shouted over his shoulder. “They still look like mice! Always have! They eat like mice, and they drink from their little sucky things like mice, and they run around in tubes like mice! But their brains, oh!”
At the end of the hallway was a thick desk which an armed guard sat behind. Dr. Jenner fished out his ID as he slowed, and by the time Dr. Timothy caught he had already scanned a palm. Then, as he rushed past the guard, he jerked a finger back and yelled: “He’s with me! Botanist! First day! Slow.”
The guard chuckled and turned to Dr. Timothy. “Hello sir, and welcome to our special division of the National Institute of Mental Health. If you could just show me your badge and then sign here…” he motioned to a clipboard.
Dr. Timothy presented his ID and signed.
“Thank you,” the guard said after a moment. He pushed a button and the doors in the back of the room slid open. Dr. Jenner ran inside. Dr. Timothy ran after him. The guard watched Dr. Timothy disappear, chuckled again, and then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Good luck keeping up!”
“So you do-ya-know what we did with the things?” Dr. Jenner asked talking as the doors slid closed far behind them. “You know, in the end, do-ya-know what we did with the highly intelligent things we’d created? No? Well, in the end, we decided to just let it all play out naturally.”
Dr. Jenner took longer and longer strides, flying past meeting rooms and offices and storage closets. The steady increase in speed was accompanied by a steady reddening of the older man’s face, and before long Dr. Jenner’s entire head looked sun-burnt. The change exposed a white scar that ran the length of his neck, thin and relatively smooth until it met the collarbone, where it became thick and jagged.
“You see,” Dr. Jenner continued, “in just a few years the things will… well, I guess it’s easier to just refer to them as mice. After all, they still have four feet and a tail, and their brains aren’t quite like ours! Close, yes, but still more Mus musculus than Homo sapien!”
“I see.” A nod. “So they won’t be alive much longer.”
“That is correct,” Dr. Jenner affirmed as he began to rub his neck. Although his scar remained white, the skin around it went from sun-burn to ripe tomato. “The mice could become a problem, particularly if any animal right’s people hear about them, but for the time being everything is fine. We made ‘em comfortable, they’re content, and very soon they’ll all die of natural causes. And that’ll be the end of that. No more mice. Or things. Or whatever.” He walked up to a door, opened it, and motioned for Dr. Timothy to walk through.
“Thank you.” Dr. Timothy entered a long, empty hallway.
Dr. Jenner closed the door behind them, though with great difficulty; his hand, twitching rapidly, was barely able to twist the knob. “So, fortunately for us, mice don’t have long lives. Also, fortunately, mice have small cerebrums. And since the whole procedure really hinges on total cerebrum mass… hey!” He spun around, continually to walk backwards but looking straight at Dr. Timothy with wide eyes. On his lips, a conspiratorial smile. In his mouth, a dark, flicking tongue. And about his temples, pulsing veins.
“Uhhh…” stammered Dr. Timothy, though he kept walking.
“Do you know how we found that out?”
Dr. Timothy moved his gaze about Dr. Jenner’s face, from Dr. Jenner’s eyes to mouth to temples. From Dr. Jenner’s hands to the floor. “How did you find that out?” he finally asked.
Dr. Jenner smile turned hideously wide and he turned back around. “So we might be running tests on, say, a thousand mice,” he continued as he rushed forward. “Out of those thousand we might notice two or three just don’t cut it–they can’t figure out how to get water out of their little sucky things or they get all tangled up in their little exercise wheels. These are the exceptionally dumb mice and using them in experiments would throw everything off, so when no one’s looking we just take off our shoes and BAM!” Dr. Jenner mimicked bringing an imaginary shoe down on an imaginary mouse and as he mimicked, giggles.
“Wow,” Dr. Timothy muttered. “That doesn’t seem very scientific. You use shoes?”
Dr. continued on as he turned a corner. “For this study we got as many of those mice as we could–we specifically asked supply labs for their dumbest of the dumb, for their Lennie Smalls, for their John Coffeys! And you know what we found? Treat those mice with the procedure, and treat regular mice with the procedure, and the only differences in end intelligence corresponded directly to individual cerebrum mass!”
“OK, but who is John Coffey? I know who Lennie Small is–?”
“So-da-ya get it now?” Dr. Jenner almost yelled. He was standing in front of a metal hatch set into a wall of dull, black rubber. A red hand glistening with sweat slid a keycard through a nearby slot and the hatch immediately swung open. The men passed into a white, octagonal chamber which quickly sealed as air moved and a compressor whined. “Our work–the procedure—could’ve great potential on people with developmental delays or mental disabilities.” Dr. Jenner reached the end of the chamber, another hatch surrounded by rubber. The moving air stilled, the compressor shut off, the chamber unsealed, and Dr. Jenner bounced into a dressing-room. He pointed Dr. Timothy toward a locker that read DR. TIMOTHY. “But since the whole thing’s linked to cerebrum mass, we don’t dare experiment on larger animals.” Dr. Jenner threw his tie into the locker, took a lab coat out, and then feverishly began attacking its buttons.
“Mice we can control! Sure, at first we’d a number of difficulties, but in the end we got over ‘em. But what would happen if we tried using rats, or dogs, or… chimpanzees?” Dr. Jenner wobbled over to the only other door in the room. “And they have thumbs! Oh no, no! We-don’t-want-another-incident!”
“So this incident–what happened?”
Dr. Jenner stopped, brought a hand back up to his scar, then dropped it. His face was as red as a fire hydrant and his gaping, bloodshot eyes were darting everywhere. His teeth hammered against one another and sweat poured from his face. We sat like that for several of seconds before moving in close.
“Wouldn’t you know,” he half-whispered, “but there was a small… downsizing in staff. Life with the mice at peak intelligence was rough. Very, very rough. We were just about to start taking off the shoes–” he made the smashing-the-shoe-into-the-mouse motion again “–but then the regression occurred and things got worked out.”
Dr. Timothy finished the last button on his own white coat. “Then that’s excellent,” he said.
“Yes, excellent.” Dr. Jenner replied. “Most excellent. Eventually we were able to communicate with the mice. They made some requests, we acquiesced, and now they’re all set to live out the rest of their natural lives in comfort. Dilemma averted. No more incidents.”
Dr. Jenner put a hand on the door. “So-ready-to-go-in?” he asked, jumping, twitching, throbbing, quivering, chattering, and sweating almost uncontrollably. “Read-to-see-this-for-yourself?”
Dr. Timothy gave Dr. Jenner the “thumbs up” gesture.
Dr. Jenner opened the door.
The lab was large and very cluttered. In the front, on top of a vast series of tables, were intricate doll houses complete with balconies, decks, lawns, flower beds, various types of hedges, and small backyard swimming pools. Connecting one house to the next were colorful plastic tubes that rose up and formed a high network of navigable pathways which the occasional mouse ran through. Sipper water bottles were strapped to the sides of the homes and wood shavings spilled out of lower-level doorways. Grow lamps were also stationed along the tables and in the back of the lab researchers walked around various pieces of equipment, adjusting dials and moving things and taking notes.
“Ah, it’s good to be back,” Dr. Jenner said as he reached into a nearby cooler balanced atop two lab stools. The cooler was half-full of red, oval capsules, and as Dr. Timothy watched Dr. Jenner shoved handful after handful of capsules into his mouth. His hands pedaled between container and orifice with great fervor, fervor so intense that more than a little of the cooler’s contents fell down to the floor.
Dr. Timothy did a double take. Dr. Jenner kept shoving. After a second: “Dr. Jenner, what are you–?”
“Oh these!” Dr. Jenner said through a mouth oozing crimson saliva and capsule fragments. “Yeah, these things! Well the mice actually–smack–make them! I don’t like to go more than an hour without getting–smack–some into–smack–my system–smack! They taste–smack–so delicious!”
“You eat them every hour?” asked Dr. Timothy as he sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose and glancing about.
Dr. Jenner took a large swallow, then licked his lips and returned to stuffing his face. “Yeah, or every half-hour, or every fifteen minutes if I–smack–can help it! Really, I don’t even like–smack–to leave the lab since we can’t take these things out of here–going upstairs–smack–to get you–smack–sure was–smack–a drag! But those plants needed some help, and the mice need to be happy….”
After an especially large scoop the bottom of the cooler showed and Dr. Jenner paused. Followed by a shake of the head and a scoff. “Why am I stopping? They’ll make some more soon–they always do!” And he proceeded to continue gorging himself. And, as he gorged himself, and as Dr. Timothy watched, Dr. Jenner slowly stopped shaking. His faced cycled back to its regular color. The scar on his neck faded away. His perspiration slowed. His veins calmed. His lips stilled. His teeth stilled. His previously bloodshot eyes whitened and shrunk down to a normal size. A minute, to minutes, and then Dr. Jenner let out a big sigh of relief.
Finally, the older doctor was calm.
Dr. Timothy took his eyes off Dr. Jenner and looked down at the cooler. He stuck his arm out, picked up a single capsule, brought it to his nose, and sniffed. He shook his head. “What are they made of?”
“Oh, who knows,” Dr. Jenner said sedately. “The mice make them and, well, I’m sure the mice–oh those great, wonderful mice!–have our best interests in mind.” Dr. Jenner leaned against Dr. Timothy and began to breathe deeply. His head fell and his shoulders drooped. His eyes glazed over. Slowly, he began to drool; serenity at last.
“And there’s such a strange odor in here,” Dr. Timothy said as he steadied Dr. Jenner. “I know I should know what it is, but I just can’t place it. And if it isn’t these pills…?”
Dr. Jenner mumbled: “I don’t know what… you’re talking about. The buildings above us are… old and as airtight as… sieves. This laboratory, however, is… sealed behind over two meters of concrete.” Dr. Jenner shut his eyes. “You saw… the airlock. No strange… smells around h–”
“Hello, Dr. Jenner,” interrupted a man carrying a large metal bowl. The man was almost exactly the same height as Dr. Timothy and like Dr. Timothy he wore a lab coat. Unlike Dr. Timothy, however, the man wore a badge that read LAB ASSISTANT, talked in a drawl, and his eyes were slow to move and focus.
The man sauntered up to the cooler, tilted the bowl in his arms, and a column of red ovals cascaded out. He quit pouring when the cooler was full and set the bowl on a nearby bench. “Fresh batch,” he explained.
“How often do they make new batches?” Dr. Timothy asked.
“Oh, just whenever we… get low.” The man popped a handful of capsules into his mouth and his eyes became even more obscure. Chewing, swallowing, another scoop, and then it occurred to him that the man on which Dr. Jenner was leaning against was new.
“Oh, hello,” he said to Dr. Timothy. “I bet you’re the plant expert. My name… is Justin.”
“Hi Justin.” Dr. Timothy backed up, placed Dr. Jenner against the wall, and then walked over to one of the table-top houses. He peered inside and looked at the plants growing around the various lawns. “Do you know what these plants are?” he asked Dr. Jenner, turning back. As he asked his question a single mouse ran through a tube to the side and into the house, a white blur and nothing more.
“Ummmph,” Dr. Jenner replied.
“Oooh, too much at once,” Justin explained.
Dr. Timothy tried again. “Justin, can you identify these plants?” He poked about the bottom of one, a spindly collection of waxy leaves with a woody stem and small, red berries. He flicked another, an almost bare, light-colored stalk topped by an olive-colored sphere with a little pointed crown. Both plants were stripped in multiple places, leaves missing and woody branches cut. Both were also wilted, tops bowing towards the ground.
“Not really,” Justin mumbled as he walked over to the join Dr. Timothy. “But lately the plants… haven’t been doing too well, so I’m glad Dr. Jenner finally hired a botanist. The mice really… love their plants, and we don’t want them to get angry if… the plants die. Honestly, we should have hired you directly after the… incident provided an opening. Glad you’re here now though.”
“This,” Dr. Timothy said, pointing to the first plant, “is Erythroxylum coca, an Andean coca plant. And this,” he pointed to the second plant, “is Papaver somniferum, an opium poppy.” He paused for a second, sniffed both plants, and then turned back to Justin. “Do the mice harvest these?”
“Oh,” said Justin as he leaned against the table, “they’re always doing something with them. Pruning and shearing and… mixing them up and stuff. I don’t really understand why, but for whatever reason,” Justin repeated, “the mice really love… their plants.”
Dr. Timothy began walking towards the middle of the lab, past more doll houses and pools and plants. Justin followed. As they walked small doors and windows and shutters opened, moving small piles of wood shavings and sending creaks through the air. No mouse in any house, however, made an appearance.
“They seem a little… shy today,” Justin observed, looking at the houses and then at the empty tubes about his head. “I guess they aren’t used… to visitors. The mice must only… be used to us.”
Dr. Jenner and Justin reached two men pouring clear, fuming liquids from two vats into an ice bath. On a nearby table a group of mice supervised. When the mice saw Dr. Timothy and Justin they crouched down and backed under a nearby triple-beam scale until only their white heads showed. They looked across at Dr. Timothy with their pink, pupil-less eyes and stared. Their eyes never closed. Their noses never twitched. They hardly seemed to breathe. Several moments of silence.
Finally, Dr. Timothy took a single step forward. “Well I guess I should introduce myself–”
Justin perked up and put a hand across Dr. Timothy’s chest. “Better watch out Doctor–those liquids are sulfuric and nitric acid. Very dangerous.”
“Sulfuric and nitric acid?” Dr. Timothy asked.
“Hey Dr. O’Brien. Hey Dr. Keyes.” Justin waved. The two doctors turned around slowly. Once they saw Dr. Timothy and Justin they smiled and began to set their vats down. And the mice jumped to action. They ran out from under the scale, snapping their tails and squeaking furiously. Dr. O’Brien was closer to the table, and as Dr. Timothy and Justin watched a single mouse jumped onto Dr. O’Brien’s shoulder and bit into his earlobe hard enough to draw blood. The mouse then jumped over to Dr. Keyes and did the same thing.
Dr. O’Brien and Dr. Keyes quickly turned around and picked their vats back up, blood dripping down onto their shoulders. With heads hung low the pouring resumed. The mice returned to the scale, vacant eyes again fixed on Dr. Timothy. The rebellion had lasted all of fifteen seconds, the only evidence of it spreading red spots on the top of lab coats.
“Is the incident how Dr. Jenner got his scar?” Dr. Timothy asked quietly. He glanced back and across the lab but Dr. Jenner was too far away to see clearly.
“Yeah… sulfuric and nitric acid.” Justin answered as he touched a finger to his own scabbed ear and grimaced. “Later, they’ll add… sodium bicarbonate and… diatomaceous earth. The end result will be those.” He pointed across the room to very high, very wide stack of brown, hand-length cylinders with diameters the size of large coins.
“Those four things you named–you know they’re the four main components of dynamite, right?” As Dr. Timothy spoke a mouse ran through an overhead tube and into a nearby house. Dr. Timothy looked up and around the laboratory but the other tubes were empty. He resumed talking. “And if that is dynamite, there appears to be enough here to break through the laboratory’s concrete seal.”
“Ha, ha, ha!” Justin’s laugh was high and nasal. “Dynamite, oh no, the mice can’t make dynamite–they aren’t that smart. You heard, right? Their cerebellums are too small and they’ve regressed far past peak intelligence. Really, there isn’t any trouble here. We’re fine and fully safe and we’re all… cooperating… fully.
Dr. Timothy kept pointing at the stack of cylinders. “Then what are those for?” While he pointed a second mouse ran through and down a tube less than an arm’s length away.
“I don’t know, but the mice use the nitric acid as… a fertilizer for their lawns, the sodium bicarbonate to… balance the pH in their pools, and the diatomaceous earth keeps their pool water… nice and clean.” A glib smile. “And ‘to get through the seal!’ Really doctor, you’re sounding crazy! We just had these extra chemicals lying… around and the mice devised a safe way… to store of them.” And as Justin said the word “store” a third mouse passed by.
“What about the sulfuric–?” Dr. Timothy stopped as Justin took some capsules out of a pocket. “Justin, let me see those new ones.”
“Doctor, you know there’s a bunch in the front of the–”
Dr. Timothy snapped the capsules out of Justin’s hand before Justin could get them into his mouth. Dr. Jenner brought them to his nose. He sniffed again. “Nope, not these either.” He dropped the capsules to the floor and a fourth mouse went into a nearby house.
“What do you smell, Doctor?” Justin asked as his hand thrust up from a different pocket and up to his face.
“Oh, that smell,” Justin said through chews, “I can tell you–smack–what that is. It’s–smack–hydrogen cyanide. Those guys over there–” he pointed to people at the very end the lab who were quickly shuffling away “–are helping the mice turn it into–”
And another mouse disappeared into a house.
“Hydrogen cyanide?” Dr. Timothy interrupted. Concern.
Disinterest. “Yeah–smack–hydrogen cyanide. Like I was saying, they’re going to combine it with….” He trailed off as Dr. Timothy suddenly bent over, arms reaching down and fingers beginning to undue the laces of his shoes.
And another mouse.
“Dr. Timothy, what are you doing?” Justin asked, cocking his head for a better view.
And another, and another, and another, and another.
“Getting ready,” Dr. Timothy replied in quiet but firm tone. “And I suggest you do the same.”
“Exceptionally dumb mice…” Dr. Timothy muttered as he slowly backed up against a wall. He held a shoe in each hand and he swung his head swung back and forth, scanning the laboratory for danger. Next to him, Justin swung his arms happily and smiled. The people in the back on the lab were gone. The overhead tubes were empty. Slowly, dollhouse doors around Dr. Timothy and Justin began to open. “Exceptionally dumb mice…”
“What?” Justin asked, oblivious.
“Justin,” Dr. Timothy said as his back hit the wall, “how would you feel if one day you realized you didn’t call the shots in your own life? If you found out other people got to choose when you ate, when you exercised, when you slept?” Noses emerged from the dollhouse doors. Whiskers, white ears, and pink, pupil-less eyes. “And at this time, you also came to the realization that people were taking advantage of the fact that you were stupid and ignorant by running tests on you and stuff?” The mice advanced, creeping to the edges of tables and across the floor, slowly forming a thick half-circle about the two men. “And not only were you being taken advantage of, but so were millions and millions of other individuals similar to yourself, and this had been happening over the course of decades? Except in the case of the individuals most like yourself, of course, because they weren’t even being taken advantage of–they were just being disposed of in an exceptionally cruel and painful way. Now, how would you feel if you found all of this out one day?”
“I bet I’d feel pretty mad,” Justin chuckled as he shoved another handful of pills into his mouth, “I’d be pretty p.o.’d.”
“Pretty p.o.’d,” Dr. Timothy repeated as he caught a bold mouse almost to his heels. He kicked at it and jumped back. “Pretty p.o.’d indeed.” Another mouse darted forward and again Dr. Timothy kicked. “So what we need to do now–”
But there no more time. The rest of the mice followed suit, running across and up and jumping over and flying through the air. The surged forward, a great white flood, and as they attacked Dr. Timothy began to spin his shoes about in mad, rapid arcs while stomping his bare feet furiously.
Teeth sunk into lab coats and shirts.
Teeth sunk into skin and muscle.
Small bodies hit the floor: Thud! Thud! Thud-thud! Thud! And then much louder: THUD!
And against the wall, cylinders of sulfuric and nitric acid kept stable by sodium bicarbonate and diatomaceous earth rolled across the floor. Farther back in the lab, aerosol canisters tinged with the scent of burnt almonds were primed and readied for the explosive unsealing of the buildings above. Fuses lit.
The second, and much larger incident, had begun.
# # # # #
BIO: Jeffrey Hunt has a degree in English literature. He currently teaches in Seoul, Korea, likes to travel, and is deathly allergic to peanuts.