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Contemporary Friendship Science Fiction

153 was spiteful – at least, that was what everyone else told her. Marcy didn’t believe any of them: Henry had only bitten one person to her knowledge and that was a research student with a sadistic streak who’d tried to lace the rats’ food with chilli sauce. She herself would have bitten anyone who’d tried something like that with her. No, Henry was far and away the cutest rat she’d ever worked with – and the smartest too.

She was observing him now, watching his whiskers twitch as he stared back at her. In her notebook, she jotted down, ‘153 navigated the maze with ease, almost ten seconds faster than yesterday.’ She would type up her notes later, but for the time being, she wanted to spend every minute she could watching this fascinating creature.

“You’re my favorite, Henry – you know that?” she whispered to him. “If the rats had a president, it would have to be you. You’re streets ahead of the rest of them.”

Did she imagine it, or was he listening intently to every word she said?

*

The following day saw the introduction of a new test for the lab rats.

“It’s a whole row of different doors!” Dr Newman said excitedly. “We’ve put peanut butter behind door seven and the rest of the doors are wired to give the rat a tiny electric shock when he pushes it open.”

Marcy stared at her supervisor in horror. “But won’t that hurt them?”

“Of course it will hurt them!” Newman said dismissively. “The whole point of the test is to see whether they remember which door caused them pain so they can ignore it in future.”

Crossing over to the whiteboard, he began scribbling. “We’ve been through all this before,” he muttered. “You know how it works in humans: the nociceptors or nerve endings respond to pain and send a message to the amygdala – it’s what we might call a fear response. If a rat’s brain functions in the same way as a human one, then it should realise that touching the wrong door caused the pain and so that door should be avoided.”

“But don’t most animals respond like that to pain?” Marcy asked. “Why do we need to prove something we already know?”

Dr Newman removed his glasses and polished them on his sleeve. “Because, my dear Ms Green,” he said patronisingly as he replaced them, “what we are studying is the relationship between the right hemisphere amygdala and the left hemisphere one. The right hemisphere not only triggers the fear response but plays a significant role in the retention of episodic memory; and the left amygdala can induce either pleasant or unpleasant emotions – in basic terms, either pleasure or fear. Recent evidence suggests the left amygdala plays a role in the brain’s reward system, so essentially, we’re trying to ascertain which is the stronger response: fear of another electric shock, or the anticipation of more peanut butter.”

For a moment, Marcy thought how satisfying it would be to put Dr Newman in a man-sized maze and watch him receive shock after shock as he tried to figure out where his cigarettes were.

“I still think it’s an unnecessary...” she began, but Dr Newman silenced her with a hand gesture.

“I will expect a full report on the new maze by this time next week,” he warned her, “and I want you to test it on every rat we have left. This research is too valuable to be invalidated by sloppy sampling.”

*

“I hope you realise my hands are tied, Henry,” Marcy told her favorite rat as she reached him out of his cage and placed him in the new maze. “If I had my way, we wouldn’t do any experiments that involve hurting animals.” She sighed. “I just hope it doesn’t take you too long to work out that you need door number seven for the peanut butter treat.”

Henry sat up on his haunches, his head cocked as if he were thinking carefully about her words.

“Come on, then. Off you go.” Marcy clicked the button on the stopwatch, then froze in shock. Henry had run straight to door seven, opened it and was now happily licking the peanut butter. The whole enterprise had happened in only a few seconds.

She checked her notebook. The fastest rat prior to Henry had taken seventeen minutes and eight incorrect attempts to find the reward – and much of that had been time spent running up and down the corridor, sniffing at various doors for several moments before making a decision. Henry, on the other hand, had run straight to door number seven – almost as if he knew where he was supposed to go.

Of course I knew where to go. The voice sounded amused. You told me which door it was before you started the stopwatch.

Marcy whirled round, certain that someone must be standing behind her. Apart from herself and Henry, the room was empty.

“Great!” she muttered under her breath. “I’m hearing voices in my head now.”

Au contraire. The use of the French phrase threw her slightly. Not voices, plural, Marcy, but voice, singular. One voice. Mine.

“Where are you?” she stuttered, wildly looking under tables and inside desk drawers to find the source of the words.

Marcy... The voice now sounded affectionate. Did you really think after talking to me for so long and treating me as if I were important to you that I wouldn’t at some point start talking back?

“Henry?” she gasped in shock. Then, “It can’t be! You’re a rat!”

A rat who is, to quote your own words, ‘streets ahead of the rest of them’, her rodent friend replied.

“But rats can’t talk,” she said automatically.

The observable data would suggest otherwise.

A brief silence followed during which Marcy frantically thumbed through all her notes on subject 153 aka Henry, desperately trying to find anything at all that might suggest why a lab rat was talking to her. She’d always known he was intelligent, but this...

A sudden thought struck her. “You’re not talking out loud, are you?” she said slowly.

A mere precaution. I thought if I spoke directly to your temporal lobe then we could communicate without being overheard by some of your less enlightened colleagues. Besides, I lack the requisite biology to be able to form the sounds needed for human speech.

“I...”

Feel flummoxed, Henry continued. I understand. After all, it’s not every day that a rat places his thoughts in your mind.

“You finished my sentence then,” she accused. “Does that mean you’re reading my mind as well as putting your own words into it?”

Don’t be angry, Marcy. I’ve never consciously tried to eavesdrop on what you’re thinking: it’s just that having worked so closely with you for most of my life, I find we’ve developed a sort of telepathy.

“So why have I never heard you before?” she demanded.

I never tried to talk to you before. I’m wondering now whether my abilities have been enhanced by that delicious peanut butter you so thoughtfully put behind door number seven.

At that precise moment, Dr Newman entered the room. “Just checking on the results so far,” he announced, striding over to the maze and observing Henry. “How long did it take this one to find his treat?”

“I...” Marcy knew what would happen if she exposed Henry’s ability: Dr Newman would ‘borrow’ him for an in-depth investigation and she would never see her beloved rat again. “He couldn’t really get the hang of it.” The lie dropped from her lips as easily as batter running off a spoon. “After he’d had nine or ten shocks, I felt sorry for him and opened the door myself. He might still remember the right door when we try again tomorrow,” she said hastily.

“Hmmm.” Dr Newman’s tone was slightly worrying. “If you think he’s not up to the task, perhaps we should terminate him now.”

“No!” Marcy burst out in horror.

“I’ll be checking your data tomorrow,” he warned as he turned to leave. “If that rat – what is he? Number 153? – doesn’t improve on his next turn in the maze, he’ll be replaced with another subject.”

*

After her supervisor had gone, Marcy dissolved into tears. “I can’t let him terminate you,” she sobbed.

Henry was silent for a moment, considering. I’m assuming there’s no point in telling Dr Newman the truth, he said at last.

Marcy shook her head miserably. “It doesn’t matter whether he thinks your intelligence is above normal or below normal – either way, you’ll end up being dissected so he can analyse your brain cells.”

So we need to convince him that I’m normal, then.

“I guess.” Marcy began to dry her eyes. “But you’re not normal, are you?” she said despondently as a fresh wave of despair swept over her.

But all these other rats are... He paused to let the implications of his words sink in.

After several minutes, his meaning suddenly dawned on her. “You mean I should swap you with another rat?”

Why not? All you have to do is to put me back in a different numbered cage and let that cage’s rat take my place. You just need to swap the ankle tags over so my substitute can be mistaken for me. You humans never look at our faces: all you see is colour and size. If we put another large, brown rat in my cage, Newman will be none the wiser.

“Do you really think it will work?”

There’s only one way to find out, Henry said practically.

*

The following morning, Marcy was ready and waiting when Dr Newman entered the laboratory. “I hope your notes are in order, Ms Green,” he said as he peered into the maze.

“I was just about to put number 153 through his paces,” she replied. “Why don’t you watch and then you can see if he’s improved?”

Dr Newman watched carefully as ‘number 153’ made several wrong attempts before finally stumbling upon the peanut butter more by luck than anything else.

“See,” Marcy said to her supervisor. “He’s much better than he was yesterday.”

“So it appears,” said Newman vaguely. “There’s something slightly off, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Can I check your notes?”

Marcy scribbled in the recent data – “five attempts” – and then handed over her notebook.

“Well,” Newman said, scrutinising Marcy’s neat script, “this all seems to be in order... Except... What’s this discrepancy from yesterday?” He stared at Marcy accusingly. “I thought you told me number 153 couldn’t find the treat yesterday – you’ve written here that he found it in three seconds.”

Marcy’s hand flew to her mouth in shock. How could she have forgotten to alter Henry’s data?

“But the surprising thing,” said Newman slowly, “is that after finding the peanut butter straight away yesterday, it took the same rat more than ten minutes to do it today. It’s almost,” he looked at her meaningfully, “as if it were a different rat.”

Whipping a small electronic device out of his pocket, he pointed it at the fake Henry. “This,” he said sternly, “is not number 153. I embedded all the rats with an electronic chip – in case their ankle tags fell off – and this is number 67. I’m assuming that the rat in number 67’s cage is the one you lied about yesterday?”

Marcy went white.

“So the question is,” Newman’s voice was now dangerously quiet, “how on earth did two rats swap ankle tags and cages, hmm?”

“I can explain...” Marcy began, but Newman cut her off.

“The time for explanations is over, Ms Green. As is your employment. I’m calling Security now. Leave your badge and keys at Reception on your way out.”

“Can’t I even say goodbye?” By now, tears were streaming down Marcy’s face.

“To whom?” Newman was genuinely puzzled. Following the direction of her eyes to the cage, he suddenly understood. “To a rat?” he exclaimed in disbelief.

“I’m sorry, Henry,” Marcy wept as uniformed guards led her away.

His silence broke her heart.

*

Marcy spent a miserable day in her apartment, fretting about Henry until she was nearly sick with worry. Then there was the small matter of her job – how would she tell her parents that she’d been sacked for what her supervisor had described as “an inappropriate relationship with a test subject”? True, it wasn’t as serious as a doctor breaking the Hippocratic oath or a teacher seducing a student, but it had still got her fired. She went to bed that evening feeling utterly deflated.

It must have been some time after midnight when she woke up. Someone was calling her name – but it wasn’t an audible voice.

Marcy! Can you hear me?

“Henry?” She sat bolt upright, wondering how she could hear him across so many miles.

I’m here, Marcy.

The furry shape in front of her was damp and bedraggled, but it was him.

“How did you get here?” she cried, scooping him up in her hands and planting a kiss on his whiskered nose.

I escaped. It was shortly after you left. Newman took me to a different room – one with some very nasty-looking medical instruments – Marcy shivered – so I jumped from the table and made a run for the door. I managed to stay hidden until everyone had gone home, and then I hacked into the computer system to find your address – you’re still on their database even though technically you don’t work there anymore.

“You hacked into their computer system?” Marcy repeated.

Henry looked slightly shamefaced. I used your log in and password – I’ve seen you type them in dozens of times.

“Oh Henry!” She didn’t know what else to say.

Actually, he sounded apologetic now, I could do with a sleep if that’s okay? It was quite a journey getting here and the weather out there’s horrendous.

“Of course. Where would you like me to put you? I’ve got a cardboard box that had a delivery in, or...” Her voice tailed off as he looked pathetically at her bed.

Could I sleep on your pillow? Or is that too much of an intrusion?

“Be my guest,” she told him, placing him far enough away from her head so that she wouldn’t inadvertently roll on top of him in the night. Just as she was drifting back to sleep, a thought struck her. “Henry?”

Mmm?

“This isn’t going to be like the fairy story, is it? You know, the one where a princess lets a frog sleep on her pillow and he turns into a handsome prince overnight.”

But he was already asleep.

*

It was only 8.30 when the police burst into her apartment the following morning with a warrant for her arrest on the grounds of kidnapping.

Run! Henry told her, bravely flinging himself at one of the officers.

A shot rang out and Henry slumped to the floor. It was all over very quickly.

Marcy watched silently as the lifeless body was placed in a Ziploc bag and labelled ‘153’. To Dr Newman, Henry might be only a number; but for a brief time, this brave little rat had been her best friend.

April 22, 2022 14:43

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6 comments

15:41 May 03, 2022

Oh, no! Not that ending! I would have preferred Henry turned into a handsome prince overnight. I always love happy endings, but your ending makes a lot of a sense, in a malefic scientific way. That Dr. Newman is one nasty guy. I would have had him killed in a revolt of the rats. But it's your story. VERY well written. I don't usually read science-fiction, but your story was engaging and charming, I had to finish it. And comment on it. Fabulous job. I am going to read more of your stories.

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Michał Przywara
20:51 May 02, 2022

A fun read! It had some Flowers for Algernon vibes, and I liked Henry's dialogue. The ending was a little sudden and very dramatic, though fitting with Dr. Newman. And the idea of psychic lab animals is really cool, a good twist on who is studying whom.

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Brandon Ac
04:21 Jun 14, 2022

Wow! this story is awesome! I like the relation between Marcy and Henry. It is so creative and the dialogue feels so real. The end is a little sad though, but for good reason. I would like to make an audio adaptation of your story. If you send me an email to hello @inxson.com I would gladly share more detail about the project with you. I loved your story, I hope to hear from you soon!

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Priyanka Chaya
11:31 May 06, 2022

I really enjoyed this read! Henry was such a great, loveable character. I was sad to see him go.

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19:13 May 05, 2022

I hate happy endings just for the sake of them - it is not realistic. Animals and humans are always complicated. For those of us that like real stories, this was a fun, if grim, read. Stay writing!

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Deidra Lovegren
11:44 Apr 30, 2022

Nooooo Henry!! I was so hoping for a sequel.

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