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 I think of myself as Fennel, that is my name, but those in the white coats—researchers, they call themselves—refer to me as “120112A” after my birthday (the First of December, 2012). The “A” means that I was the first of the litter to be born (out of the gate, as it were) that day—my three siblings, emerging right after me—second, third, fourth—are known, in the same researcher dialect, as “120112B,” “120112C,” and “120112D” respectively.

They, however, think of themselves as Unicorn (B-brother), Wishful (C-sister), and Stream (D-sister), respectively. And, I (A), as I said, think of myself as Fennel.

The four of us live in a big plastic tank. It’s like living under a big rectangular and transparent dome, where several fluorescent suns shine through a plastic sky. Unicorn doesn’t agree, he rarely does. He sees our home as a plain, upside down water-less fish tank. Not very imaginative, Unicorn. Then again, I might be over-ditto.

We are lab rats. That’s precisely what we are. It is a precarious occupation and, historically speaking, not conducive to your long-term health. Frankly, I don’t recommend lab-ratting as a career, should you have a choice.

Next door to ours stands another big plastic tank covering another four lab rats, two boys and two girls, just like in my family. One family per tank.

Our self-assumed family name is Winter. Our neighbors’ family name is Spring. Why? Because we’re a little older—two weeks older to be exact. And since winter comes before spring, well, there you have it. Not very creative, I know, but it works for us.

Their research names are “121512A,” “121512B,” “121512C” and “121512D.” A and C are the brothers. B and D their sisters.

They think of themselves as Forest (A), Rain (B), Cliff (C), and Mist (D) respectively; Rain and Mist being the girls.

As soon as we emerged—we had hardly hit the white, soft, sponge and cotton carpet of our tank—Mother (Wishful says her name was Ocean, but where she got that from I haven’t a clue) was removed by the white coats and retired or simply disposed of, I’m not sure which, they don’t share such information. I have my suspicions, though.

They never even gave us a chance to say Goodbye, or even Hi for that matter. All in the name of science.

These days the white coats are trying to make us Winters mate with the Springs. Unbeknownst to them, however—to the researchers, that is—we’re on a mating strike. Both families are. No rat making here. No Sir. No Ma’am. No way.

This is how that came about.

 

Before the current rat-mating experiment even started, one of the white coats, the female one—her name is Rebecca and she is clearly the mate of the male one, whose name is Lawrence—toward the end of a late shift setting things up, tired I guess, mind elsewhere, didn’t latch the feeding gate of our tank properly. More like a latching gesture and then she was out of here. Sloppy, really.

Observing this hurried carelessness, I applied a knock or two to the feeding gate, not much more than a few nose and claw nudges, and lo and behold: it swung open onto the outside world.

Unicorn, who hates it in here, and who makes no secret about that, saw the gate swing open, looked around for white coats and finding none rushed for the gate, pushed me aside and was thus the first to jump at the surprising opportunity, literally. He is of an impetuous nature, our Unicorn.

Wishful and Stream, being girls after all, were more cautious. “What if they catch us?” said Wishful.

“Yeah, what if they catch us?” said Stream.

“So what if they do,” I said. “It’s not as if they have a rat jail or anything, it’s just back in the tank, I gather.”

“I see your point,” said Stream.

“I see your point,” said Wishful.

They often see and say the same thing, these two. Nice enough, but none too bright. Though I really shouldn’t say that, they are my sisters after all. Mother would not approve, I’m sure. So, in her memory, I hereby take that back. Sorry, girls.

Back to the story.

So, here’s the feeding gate, good and open, and Unicorn was out of there like a shot, all we saw was his long, high and excited tail, and then that was gone, too.

As an aside, that is where the expression “high-tailing” comes from.

Okay, having been out-muscled and out-couraged by Unicorn, I then ventured out myself. A little more hesitant, I was. It was a little like leaving planet earth for other nearby planets in the solar system. A little like that, but not much. The other rat planets (tanks) are not as far off as, say, Jupiter or Venus. We can see them all quite clearly from our own, including their populations. You can’t say that about Jupiter or any other planet.

We have a total of eight tanks in our little solar system—ours and the Springs’ included—each with a family of four, and all of them now, to a rat (thirty pairs of eyes in all including Stream’s and Wishful’s), trained on me and by brother to see what we would do next.

Once out of the feeding gate I had to jump down onto the table that holds our tank. It’s a big, dark gray, epoxy-resin-surfaced thing, this table, and a little slippery (as in not at all cottony) but I managed all right.

Okay, I’m down on the table now. Looking up I saw the Springs all watching, a row of four excited spectators clinging to their pretty much center-line seats, pointing with little paws; now at me then at Unicorn as he now made it all the way down to the floor and headed for the slightly-ajar door to our solar system slash room.

And then he was gone. Thirty lab rats drawing deep, excited breaths. Would you look at that.

All right. Two conflicting impulses rose hand in hand: follow Unicorn and save him from whatever disaster he’s sure to locate and engage (being Unicorn after all), or stay here and take a better look at the other tanks and their populations with a view of letting them out as well.

Brotherly love—or concern, more likely—won this brief argument and I now dashed for the slightly-ajar door as well. Through the ajar and out into the hallway galaxy.

It was darker here and no sign of Unicorn.

No, wait, there’s his tail, following Unicorn in through another ajar, into another solar system, curiously (or stupidly) courageous. I ran after him and soon found myself in a room very much like ours, same fluorescent suns, same light-colored walls, though with many more tanks. My first glance said thirty-two, as did my second glance. And more than four to a tank. More like ten, perhaps twenty. These were crowded, overpopulated planets.

Unicorn (no moss growing on that rat) had already managed to get up onto one of the tables and was now by the feeding gate of a less crowded tank talking with one of the rats inside. This rat was imposingly large and, by the looks of it, ancient.

I saw how Unicorn had managed to get up there—footrest to chair to stool to table, he’s a good leaper our Unicorn—but not to be outdone by my younger brother, I footrested it to the chair to stool to table as well.

“Unicorn,” I said. Disapprovingly. Admonishingly. But apparently not loudly.

“Unicorn!” I yelled into his ear, and that did get his attention. He turned to me, whiskers bristling a little, none too pleased.

“What?” Annoyed.

“What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like I’m doing here?”

“Gossiping,” I said. That was not the best choice of words, I admit, but that is what it looked like he was doing and that was, after all, his very question.

“I am not gossiping,” he said. Offended. Obviously. I would have been, too, on reflection.

“What then?” I said.

He didn’t answer me, but instead turned back to the old rat, much gray among the white now that I saw him up-close. Tired eyes. Droopy whiskers. Big though. Ancient big. And scarred.

“Tell him,” Unicorn said to the ancient one, “what you told me.”

The big old rat looked at me, then back to Unicorn. “Who is he?”

“My brother,” said Unicorn.

“Older brother,” I corrected.

“Older brother,” he admitted.

“Older brother?” said that old rat.

“Yes,” I said.

“I asked him what they were doing here, so many tanks, so many rats to a tank, so tightly packed,” Unicorn told me.

I looked to the old rat to repeat the answer.

“We’re waiting for next door,” said the old rat.

I looked around the room and now realized that we had everyone’s attention. Must have been at least four hundred pairs of black-dot eyes taking us in. And as many pairs of ears, erect like antennae, tuning us in as best they could—the intervening plastic walls notwithstanding.

“What’s next door?” I asked.

“That’s just it,” said Unicorn.

“Let him answer,” I told my brother.

“The gas showers,” whispered the old rat. Apparently not wanting those particular words to get out.

I leaned closer to the feeding gate as well, and whispered back, “They’re going to kill all of you?”

“Yes,” said the old rat.

“See?” said Unicorn, to me. “Some gossiping.”

“You asked what it looked like,” I protested. Lamely.

Unicorn did not reply.

“Yes,” said the old rat again. “That’s what they’re going to do.”

“All of you?” I said. And then I was struck by the same thought that then also struck Unicorn, for we turned to each other and wondered with one voice: “Mother?”

We both looked around, but soon realized that it was an impossible task, among so many, to make her out from what brief impression we had had of her before the white coats removed her from our tank.

“Yes, all of us,” said the ancient one, unaware of our sudden dread.

After another quick scan around the room, I looked back at the old rat, as did Unicorn. “But why?” I said.

“We’ve served their purpose,” said the old rat, who now held up one of his paws, the left one. It missed all of its nails.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Pain research,” he said.

“They pulled them?” I said.

“Slowly,” said the old rat. “While monitoring my brain.” As he said this, he bent his head forward to show me what I first took to be a pink bald spot but that I soon realized was his brain laid bare.

I didn’t know what to say. Shocked, that’s what I was.

“How?” I said. But that’s all I said. I didn’t know how to continue or what I really wanted to ask.

“They have no idea what they’re doing,” said the old rat.

“How about the others?” said Unicorn.

“More of the same, at least for most of them,” said the old one. “Nails, broken limbs, surgery without anesthetics, not unlike a medieval torture chamber, all monitored.” Three other large rats inside the tank who by now were listening in all lowered their heads to show us their bald, pink, brain spots.

Again I looked around the room, at the hundreds of eyes and ears not long for this world, at the magnitude of what the old rat was saying. I turned back to the old one.

“And they don’t know?” I asked, whisperingly.

“Most don’t,” he said. “They think they’ll finally see their rewards. That’s what they’ve been promised.”

“Milk and honey,” I said.

“Precisely,” said the old rat.

“But you’re all for the gas showers,” I said. Rhetorically.

The old rat nodded. “The end of the line.”

“When?” said Unicorn.

“Tomorrow morning,” said the old rat.

“How do you know?” said I.

“You grow very perceptive at my age,” said he.

I had no reason to doubt him.

“We’ll let you out,” said Unicorn. He stole these words from the tip of my tongue.

His reply surprised us both, “No.”

“Why not?” Again, with one voice.

“Look around you,” he said. “We’re all broken pieces. There’s something missing from each of us, and we’ve each had our brains poked. My left front paw still hurts; my right rear paw has no feeling at all. I can hardly walk these days. And everyone here has something that hurts unbearably. Some wound or other that refuses to heal. The gas showers will be a relief.”

“But we can’t just leave you here,” said Unicorn.

My point exactly.

“Yes you can,” said the old rat. “It would be the kind thing to do. But you can do something for us, in our memory.”

“Sure,” I said. “What?”

“Refuse to copulate,” said the old rat.

“Refuse to what?” said Unicorn, who was not familiar with the word.

“Have sex,” I explained. “Procreate. Mate.”

“Refuse to that?” said Unicorn. “Why?”

“I thought that should be obvious,” said the old rat.

It was to me, “So there won’t be any new rats to experiment on,” I said to my baby brother. “To make suffer.”

A Unicorn light came on. “Ah,” he said. “I see.”

“Besides,” said the old rat. “That’ll drive them crazy.”

“I can imagine it will,” said I.

“It was done once before,” he said. “And it did drive them crazy.”

“When?” I said.

“Oh, long ago,” said the old rat.

“What happened?” I asked.

“After a while of that, the white coats grew desperate and loaded both males and females up on pheromones in order to force the issue. You know, 2-heptanone, 4-methylphenol, 4-ethylphenol and such.”

“What’s he talking about?” asked Unicorn under his breath, turning to me.

“Sex chemicals,” I whispered back. Not making Unicorn much the wiser, though.

“Yeah, I know,” I told the old rat.

“Well,” he said, “in the end they used so much of it that some simply could not take it, they just had to mate. And that, of course, ruined the whole thing. Handed power back to them. Failure for us.”

“But you think we should try this again?” I said.

“I think you should,” said the old rat. “And try harder. No mating, no matter what. Teach them a lesson.”

I must admit that I found the prospect attractive. Attractive, and growing even more so as I looked around the room at the tanks, all lined with rats to be ex-rats in just a few hours. The white coats did need a lesson taught. Those bastards. “I agree,” I said.

“Are you sure,” whispered my baby brother. “I had kind of looked forward to, well, you know.”

“Take another look around you,” I told him. “We must avenge them. Think. Mother might even be among them.”

Mother did the trick, I think. “Okay,” he said. “I’m in.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” I said. “But we can do this. We can drive them crazy. We can mess them up royally.”

“That is an appealing thought,” said Unicorn.

“So, you’ll do it?” said the old rat.

“Yes we will,” I said. Solemnly. Oath-like.

“Yes we will,” echoed Unicorn, as oath-like.

“Then I’ll die happy,” said the old rat.

We too, nodded the three old guys listening in.

 

And that’s how we went on a mating strike.

Unicorn, though, does not have the greatest of attention spans, and on our way back to our own solar system he suggested that we might try on a Plan B he had just conceived: running away.

“Look,” he said. “We’re out already. A little looking around and I’m sure we can find our way out of the building, into the wild beyond. Freedom.”

“Have you seen this wild beyond?” I said (since I knew that our lab was smack in the middle of Manhattan).

“No,” he said.

“Well, there’s a forest of buildings,” I said. “For weeks running in any direction, just huge, concrete buildings. There’s nowhere to go. And cars, and buses, and joggers. And lots of cats and dogs that’ll eat us for breakfast. As far as you can imagine, just one big huge dangerous nowhere to go.”

“It was just a thought,” said Unicorn.

“I know,” I said, feeling a little sorry for the guy.

Back in our solar system we both clambered up to the Springs’ tank and told them all about our discovery and plan of getting back at the white coats. It took less convincing than I had expected. They were all in on it, gladly. And so were Wishful and Stream, once I had explained things to them.

“Good idea,” said Wishful.

“Good idea,” said Stream.

So, we had a plan to avenge the old rat and those many families, and we were going to stick to it. No matter what: no mating.

:

Ever since he found out, Lawrence Rowanski has had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the human race shares planet Earth with at least 8.7 million other forms of life—that’s 8.7 million other life forms, as in species. Eight point seven million. Species.

This struck him as almost impossible to digest. But as he dug a deeper he eventually did digest: according to the best and most current research estimate, yes, 8.7 million species, seventy-five or so percent of which are to be found on land, and most of which are insects (lots and lots of beetles for some reason). The other twenty-five percent, about 2.2 million species, have taken to the waters (or never left it); this even though 70% of the earth’s surface is water—something that didn’t tally with Lawrence’s fondness for equilibrium and harmony (and it is always Lawrence, by the way, never Larry). In his book of balances, 70% water should mean 70% of the species, but apparently not.

And here’s something that did not aid his digestion: according to the report, only 14% of all plants and animals (i.e., our land-based neighbors) have been recognized and named, and only 9% of watery things have been catalogued so far. We, in other words, haven’t a clue who we’re sharing this planet with, is what he concluded.

How they could possibly have verified those numbers was another mystery, especially the number of yet-to-be-discovered species (a contradiction, if there ever was one), but one he didn’t pursue.

He did wonder, however, did these numbers really matter to anyone but those amazingly anal individuals who did the counting? It wasn’t like the individual beetle actually cared what species he belonged to? Or knew? Did he? Of course not. So what’s this obsession—starting out with Linnaeus—to name everything? It doesn’t make us smarter, does it? Then again, perhaps it does.

So when will we be done cataloguing our planetary neighbors, he wondered, and he found another report that proudly predicted that it will take 300,000 researchers about 1,200 years to wrap up this project.

Fat chance.

Extraordinarily fat. Utterly obese chance.

Especially since many of these species will be extinct way before we get around to naming them, at least at the rate we’re assaulting the planet these days: this was Lawrence’s conviction.

But they do go on looking and cataloguing, these amazingly anal folks who do this for a living. Just the other week, Lawrence—now, almost despite himself, increasingly bewitched by the subject, and keeping an eye out for tidbits—had read that some scientist or other had now discovered a primitive eel in a reef off the coast of the South Pacific island of Palau. This new species (the report went on to say), ostentatiously named Protoanguilla palau, bore little relation to the 19 other eel species currently in circulation (so, how do they know it’s an eel, Lawrence mused) and some of its characteristics—such as a second upper jaw—were more in line with fossils from 65 million or so years ago. An amazing find, apparently.

Yes, amazing. Who could have known, or cared?

And then, according to another report, someone at Arizona State University, on a trip to Brazil goes ahead and finds a new species of mushroom in the forests near Sao Paulo. A light-emitting mushroom no less, bright yellow light. Amazing as well. Much lauded in the paper. Mycena hixaeterna, is its not very household name.

Then there’s the newly discovered golden spotted monitor lizard, Varanus bitatawa, all two meters of him somewhere on Luzon Island in the Philippines, where he had cleverly managed to stay out of civilized sight and undiscovered until now by hanging out in tops of trees, and only there. Said the paper.

And another newcomer to the catalog: The Halomonas titanicae, an iron oxide-eating bacteria found growing on the shipwrecked hull of the Titanic (hence the name). This hungry little thing would eventually devour the entire wreck, or so they speculate, these amazing people.

So, Lawrence figures—and he does the math, and checks it twice—that’s 7,590,750 (undiscovered species) less four. Only 7,590,746 to go.

These days, Lawrence has little-to-no trouble keeping up with these news, for reading the journals that share them is a part of his job. He is what they called a research scientist, doctorate already secured. Now he, along with Rebecca East, his colleague and on-and-off partner (on at the moment), is in the process of breaking new ground, or trying to, in the rat department.

His aim is to, once and for all, answer the question: what, precisely, turns a rat on. Yes, sexually. What drives them to procreate? How do they signal, male to female, female to male, their readiness and willingness to have at it and increase the rat population?

A project now all funded and ready to go.

Why had he chosen this particular project? This is a good question.

When asked by various funding organizations and foundations, and by the many managers of private grant monies, he’d supplied several impressive answers, all aimed at securing the funding. While true, however, none of those answers included the real reason: he had often asked the very same question about his own species: What on earth is the human sex drive all about? Why were humans so incredibly susceptible to sexual stimuli? And apparently so helpless under its onslaught? So puppet-like, actually?

He was looking everywhere for clues, and if there were answers to be had among them, he was not beneath turning to rodents to have them.

 

He had been a late bloomer, sexually, had Lawrence.

When, at eleven, he had first heard the act described—it was John Blackwell going over the mechanics of the thing in some detail down by the lake one summer—his first and only reflection was: why on earth would you want to pee into some girl? He didn’t share this question, and lucky for him that he didn’t, he would never have lived it down.

But it remained a curiosity for him, a big mystery, this “fucking” thing, as John had called it, what was it all about and why?

Then, at fourteen, he exploded. His penis had been itching of late, and this morning it was itching something fierce in the bathroom so he rubbed it and rubbed it and then it happened: eruption: that little fountain of sticky white: Oh. My. God. What was that?

Reaction number one: I’ve lost it. I must have gone insane. Though wonderfully so.

Reaction number two: Could I re-do this?

Reaction number three: (When, yes, he discovered he could do it again): I have to tell the world about this. Everybody must know. This is absolutely amazing.

Reaction number four: (Some weeks later, and after some research): Ah, so this is sex.

Then follows the normal (if anything about sex can be called normal) course of teenagedom. Girls. Kissing. Petting. Girlfriends. More kissing. More petting. And then, at seventeen: Score. Oh, my. Nice, nice, nice.

And then the steady girlfriend number one.

And then number two.

Mind mostly on sex these days.

Some mind on school as well, where it did very well despite its ongoing carnal preoccupation.

Into his twenties now, and postgrad studies. Girlfriend number two getting serious, he not so very. See you later then. Have a good life.

On to doctorate studies. Meets serious girlfriend number three (Rebecca East) in the same class.

Breakup with number three.

Doctoral thesis accepted.

Back to number three.

Away from Rebecca.

Back to Rebecca.

Still with Rebecca.

All the while the question had really begun to form: What drives us? What on earth causes that intense pleasure? For really, stepping back a bit, looking at it with cold, distant, and yes, scientific (if not alien, a notion that does gain you a good perspective) eyes, there’s no real reason—no logical one, anyway—for a pretty face or a bare breast or a slit skirt to be enticing. None. At. All.

But it is. It is.

So why?

He broached the subject with Rebecca one night over dinner, and while she seemed (and/or acted) interested enough, he could tell that she didn’t really get it. Yes, she could see “what he meant” but to her the sex-question was more one of intellectual curiosity than a visceral need to know. To him it had grown to a profound and urgent mystery. Sex made no sense.

Not on paper. Not in life. Not really.

Yes, yes, it’s nature’s way of ensuring the future of the species, making damn sure that we procreate. Sure. But how? How? How on earth did nature dream this thing up? And put it into action? It obviously had, at some point, for here it is, covering the planet like a thick, horny mist.

But, and Lawrence had carefully formulated this observation in his journal—an observation he thought of as uniquely his, for he had never come across it anywhere else in his many studies—if nature indeed was intelligent, resourceful, and creative enough to manufacture such a powerful force (for it is a force, of that he was convinced) and put it into play among its many creatures just to ensure the future of a species (making sure, as it were, that our future would not slip our mind leading us to forget to go forth and multiply and so die out as a result), if nature was aware, intelligent, and resourceful enough to create sex, then surely, surely, it was intelligent and resourceful enough to make us not forget to procreate—without such an insidious memory jogger. Surely. Surely.

It made no sense. None.

Perhaps, he had thought at times, perhaps the mechanics of the act itself was so innately repulsive (the sexual act is not the pinnacle of aesthetics, to be sure) that artificial pleasure was indeed required to prompt us in the right direction, overcoming any personal resistance. But even so, if this was nature’s logic, surely it was smart enough, strong enough, and thick-skinned enough to overcome any aesthetic objections and tolerate the act out of sheer necessity. Surely.

Things just did not add up. No, not really; and he simply could not let his question go.

He didn’t bring it up again with Rebecca, just pondered along alone. And that’s why he’d jumped at the chance to ascertain and map the specific chemical communications between male and female rats that apparently paved the way for the “fucking” thing as John Blackwell had put it.

Perhaps there were clues be found in this project.

 

Lawrence was surprised to find that Rebecca, who previously had shown only polite interest in the project—had indeed almost ridiculed it at times, though not too seriously—that she had, in the eleventh hour, requested, both of Lawrence and of the research department chair, to be included.

“Why?” Lawrence asked her over a long and tasty lunch.

She put down her knife and fork (she always used them both when eating, a European habit she’d told him—her mother was from Hungary, and she had insisted, both knife and fork: God gave you two hands for a reason), which usually signaled that she meant to give a comprehensive answer.

This time she didn’t, “I’m curious.”

Lawrence stopped chewing. Waited for more, but waited in vain.

He resumed and then finished chewing. “About what?” he finally said.

“You mean first to replicate the Kazumi Osada experiment, right?”

“Initially, yes. But I thought some more about that, and to save time and money, and since it has already been replicated three times—Stockholm, Brussels, and Sidney—I decided to skip that part. The chair and committee agree. Yes, it would have been nice and neat to have a U.S. confirmation as part of the package so to speak, but, strictly speaking, it was not needed.”

She looked at him for what seemed a full minute. News to her. Then she asked: “Is the same true for the Jian-Xu Zhang experiment?”

“Yes. The initial plan was to replicate it. But it, too, has been ratified twice—pun intended. So to save time and money.”

More news to her. She picked up her knife and fork again. The studied him a while. “I see. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I just heard this morning.”

“Heard what?”

“Oh, that the they agreed. To skip those two verifications.”

“Right.” Her knife and fork remained suspended over her plate. Then not. She cut herself another slice of the marinated white sea bass, asking while she cut, “So, you are going to dive straight into your own experiment?”

“Yes.”

“Nice pun, by the way. Ratified.”

“Thanks.” He didn’t think she had caught it.

“So,” and here she (impressively) quotes from the application, “you want to ‘determine the optimum balance or mix of urine-based 2-heptanone, 4-methylphenol, and 4-ethylphenol to make the male irresistible to the female.’ Have I got that right?”

“Rat,” said Lawrence, out of reflex. “To the female rat.”

“Yes, rat,” said Rebecca. “Of course, rat.”

“They are the main pheromones involved,” he said.

“But they are not the only ones.”

“According to both Osada and Zhang they are. Did you read their papers?”

“I just did,” she said, returning to the sea bass. Another small bite. She chewed it carefully.

“You did?” Lawrence was surprised.

She nodded, still chewing.

“Well, then you know.”

“What about 4-heptanone,” she said. “And squalene. And estrogen and testosterone, that whole family.”

His turn to put his fork down. He ate the American way, only the fork, except when you’re cutting things, then both. Stupid system, Rebecca had offered more than once. He’d agreed.

“The 4-HP and squalene are mainly, if not exclusively, emitted by the female.”

“Rat,” she added.

“Yes, female rat.” He gave her a touché smile. “And estrogen and testosterone are more internal than external.”

She nodded in agreement, “Yes, they are.”

“Leaving, of the volatiles they have isolated, 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP as the main suspects. It’s what they’ve found in male urine.”

“So, no 4-HP?” she said.

“No. Traces of it has been detected in male urine, but it’s rare. It’s really a female thing. The female rats exude it into the air. That and squalene.”

“To make themselves attractive to the males?”

“Yes, precisely. If we were studying that relationship, we’d have to take them into consideration.”

She nodded. “So, what’s your agenda?” she said after two more carefully chewed bites.

“Agenda? You’ve read my funding application. That’s my agenda.”

“In other words,” she said, paraphrasing the application this time, “you want to determine, beyond question, what makes the female rat horny—for a particular male rat.”

“One way of putting it, yes.”

“But why, Lawrence? Say you succeed. Say you determine this or that blend of chemicals to be the turn-on for the female rat. Then what? What will you do with that result?”

Lawrence regarded his fork (tines now partly buried in an inviting bite of potato salad, ready for transfer) for some time before answering. And his answer really wasn’t one, “Then I’ll expand upon it,” he said.

“Could you be vaguer, perhaps?” said Rebecca.

He and Rebecca were close, and growing closer, but not yet so close that Lawrence was about to divulge his true motive: some clues to what he had begun to think of as the human insanity called sex. Of course, urine-based 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP—and air-based 4-HP and squalene, going the other way—were not a pretty face or a bared breast or a slit skirt, but they provided sense perception via smell, and that line of communication was much further developed in rats (as with dogs) than sight. The right balance of 4-HP and squalene was a pretty female face, was a bared breast, was the luridly stockinged thigh to the male rat, and the perfect mix of 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP, for the female, signaled the ideal male, strong, six-pack abs, sperms galore, penis erect and oh, so ready for business.

In other words, the volatility of these pheromones provided the external stimuli (just as did visual stimuli for humans) that then worked their way internally to where they would out-and-out detonate that amazing drive to procreate.

Clues. That’s what he hoped for, some sort of clue. Some sort of opening, some sort of crack of the door guarding this mystery. Yes, that’s a good word, mystery’s a good word. He was hoping for a crack opening onto to the answer to this insanity, an insanity as—if not more—apparent with humans as with rats.

“I don’t really know. I’m taking this one step at a time.”

“Since when did you take anything one step at a time?” Rebecca’s good point. “And what this are you talking about?”

“Let’s talk about something else,” said Lawrence. Which earned him a long, thoughtful glance from his on-again girlfriend.

“Okay,” she said after a while of that. “How’s your fish?”

:

An abstract of Kazumi Osada’s experiment with rats reads as follows:

 

Rat urine contains many volatile constituents that may be used for chemical communication. The levels of certain urinary volatiles are strongly dependent on the sex and endocrine status (e.g., puberty). We performed chemical and behavioral studies to identify the volatiles in adult male rat urine that attract mature females. Our results demonstrated that adult male rats have higher levels of 2-heptanone (2-HP), 4-methylphenol (4-MP), and 4-ethylphenol (4-EP) than prepubescent male rats; furthermore, female rats are more attracted to the odor of adult male rat urine than that of prepubescent males. When prepubescent rat urine was supplemented with 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP to the levels found in adult male urine, the attractiveness of the urine to females was markedly enhanced. Our results suggested that this attraction is due to an increased level of chemo-signaling.

 

Chemo-signaling. Lawrence liked that word. An olfactory language. Chemo-signaling. Rats did not speak when flirting, they chemo-signaled.

Humans are more diverse, he mused, they sight-signal, voice-signal, write-signal, as well as chemo-signal with their subtler pheromones, their perfumes and sweaty bodies.

Rat and dogs, though, limit themselves to chemo-signaling; rats with their male-peed 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP, and their female-oozed 4-HP and squalene, when it came to dating.

Dating? Did rats date? What would you call it? Wooing? Courting?

Prowling?

 

Jian-Xu Zhang’s abstract reads as follows:

 

This study was aimed at identifying sex pheromones of the rat (Rattus norvegicus). We characterized the volatiles and semi-volatiles in voided rat urine by using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) and quantified them by their GC areas (abundances) and percentage of GC areas (relative abundances). Although all compounds detected, other than 4-HP (female only), were shared by males and females, the quantities for some of these sex-common compounds decreased with removal of the gonad. Thus, these compounds might be sex pheromones. Among them, the 2-HP and 4-MP and 4-EP in male urine proved to be 3 major compounds. They were far richer in males and could be suppressed by castration. Adding any of these 3 compounds (at a concentration higher than its physiological level in sexually mature male urine) to castrated male urine (CMU) increased the attractiveness of CMU to sex-naive females. Adding the 3 together to CMU significantly increased the attractiveness of CMU to females. However, such combination did not reach the level of the females’ preference for urine from intact males, suggesting that some other trace compounds might also play some roles in sex attractiveness.

 

Pheromones. Evidently there was such a thing when it came to rats, and dogs. But did humans emit pheromones as well? Did they really chemo-signal? Some research pointed in that direction, but it was inconclusive at best.

Several researchers hold that androstenedione is indeed a male pheromone, but at least as many, if not more, refute that. Looks like, especially when it comes to sex, we sight-signal and voice-signal. And touch-signal. But we don’t chemo-signal. Not so much.

Well, there is perfume, of course, and it does—in the right setting and circumstance—arouse. Then again, remove the woman from the perfume, and the smell on its own does little to entice. Teamwork, then.

What Lawrence really wanted to take away from his rat experiments was a clear understanding of how this chemo-signaling worked. To map how such chemical sense stimuli affected the sex drive. To trace this string of cause and effect. And, of course, perhaps to get some grip on what the hell was the sex drive anyway? Really.

 

Chemo-signaling.

Lawrence was once gravely offended by a fly. Out jogging, he had worked up a thin sheen of sweat that caught the attention of one very tenacious fly. Landing squarely on his closely-cropped head, possibly—he figured—after the salt in his sweat, like some dogs are when they insist on licking you.

Whatever it was, it was after something. Taking off when he waved his hand in that direction, then landing again, as soon as the hand-threat had passed. Taking off again the moment it returned, and so on, back and forth, for the better part of half a mile. A very tenacious fly indeed. Lawrence almost began admiring it. Stick-to-itiveness to end all stick-to-itivenesses. What was it after, and would it ever find its way home? he wondered. Do flies even have homes?

Then, this being Monday and garbage collection day, they passed a freshly side-walked can, overflowing with smelly refuse, so full in fact that the lid did not close properly. Suddenly, his fly-pal got other ideas, abandoned Lawrence and headed straight for the garbage, enticed, apparently, by a river of attractive odors, too good to pass up.

Dumped by a fly for garbage.

Not very flattering.

Rebecca laughed when he told her, and agreed.

:

Rebecca East was a fat parson’s daughter.

Growing up she often thought of her father as a crow, a massive one.

His huge, puffed-up, darkly clothed stomach and chest supported by what always struck her as two dangerously thin legs, and that high-above-her head with its two closely set eyes above a nose that to her looked more like a beak than a nose: a crow. Especially on Sundays, when the back of his frock sometimes trailed him like lazy tail-feathers.

Sometimes, this image grew so real for her that she could no longer understand what he was saying even when talking (berating mostly) directly at her: for she did not speak Crow.

Crows, she decided early on, were unintelligent birds; for she did not consider herself a bad girl, yet the biggest crow of them all would always find faults. So many, in fact, that she sometimes confused faults with cells, her basic building blocks.

Her mother was a bird of a different kind: she was a magpie. Chatter, chatter, chatter. Smaller than her crow-father by far, and not nearly as puffed-up. Always chattering, though. And very opinionated. Relentlessly opinionated, assaulting the air with her opinions of other people, their flock—as much hers as his, she would often inform her whenever he wasn’t around. Which was also when she took a turn at the wheel of upbraiding her for this, that, and, of course, the other. Rebecca, you must set an example for our flock, didn’t she realize this? She must be perfect, perfect, perfect and then she’d slip into Magpie, another language Rebecca did not speak nor understand.

The three of them, Father crow, Mother magpie, and fault-ridden daughter lived in a house built for a family of twelve or more. It was the parsonage, after all, and apparently, when it was built (say two hundred years ago), the parson and his wife amassed ten or so children. Not so parson crow and his magpie who only amassed the one.

Early on, Rebecca prayed for one thing, and one thing only: a sister. God, however, was either deaf or not very forthcoming. Weeks, months, years—no sister.

She needed a sister for two reasons: someone to share her target duties—in other words, someone to provide an alternate focus for the many long and tiresome and unkind fault-finding missions embarked upon by crow-father regularly, by magpie-mother less regularly; and, also—and easily as importantly—someone to talk to.

Weeks, months, years, no sister.

In third grade she decided to give God a hand. One afternoon, she stayed behind after class and went to the school library. There had to be books about sisters, and where they came from.

There was one. One that gave Rebecca a lot more information about where sisters came from than she had ever bargained for. With pictures.

She tried to picture it, crow-father and magpie-mother engaged in sister-making: no, no way.

No, she’d rather stay without.

And stay without she did; and so remained, throughout childhood, the sole target of priestly criticism and motherly upbraidings, smothered by her growing coat of Crow and Magpie invectives. During the fall semester of her eighth grade she decided that her parents never spoke other than Crow and Magpie and from there on she never heard a word they said.

To be fair—she later reflected—they had never laid a hand on her. Not even an ear-pull. Just those rivers of words, criticizing words, demeaning words, suffocating, rushing, endless words.

As she grew older, she began excelling in school; for once she no longer understood what her parents had to say, she deployed study as a shield, deflecting most, if not all incoming missiles: Shush, I’m studying.

And study she did. Mostly in the school library. Anything to stay away from Crow and Magpie.

She graduated high school with honors. Top student of her school. Ever.

Crow-father and Magpie-mother apparently said nice things about and to her, but by this time she understood none of it.

College, of course, was a given. The schools (and good ones at that) were, in fact, lining up. The choice, too, was a given: she chose the school farthest away from the parsonage. How far can you get from Maine?

Answer: UC San Diego.

She did not return home during breaks. Instead she studied. By now, it had become more than just a habit, it had become her. She just did not feel like herself if she was not buried in some research paper or other.

Her classmates would roll their eyes and wonder, sometimes aloud and in her presence, “Well, what’d you expect from a parson’s daughter?”

The young man who often studied the same books and read the same papers that she did was named Lawrence. This she found out by asking the librarian’s assistant, who more sighed than said the name—some sort of crush going on there, Rebecca concluded. Well, she could see how, that Lawrence fellow was not at all bad looking, though he could do with some real hair. Why was it that the parson’s buzzed hairstyle had become all the rage suddenly? Made no sense to her, but then again fashions and dating accoutrements had never made much sense to her. Give her an interesting book, and she’ll go away and leave the rest of humanity to it—to do what humans apparently are put on this Earth to do: going forth, multiplying.

One evening Lawrence—so the sighing assistant informed her—had already checked out the paper she was looking for. He was sitting over there, pointing now. Rebecca followed that thin, multi-coloredly nailed finger, and saw Lawrence immersed in the paper she had hoped to study that night.

Was there another copy?

“No,” answered the assistant.

“But, I specifically ordered this paper.”

The librarian verified this before she answered. “Ah, yes, I see that. But he has already checked it out, I’m afraid. I can’t very well ask him to uncheck it out now, can I?”

That’s not even English, she thought. And she’s a librarian, well, an assistant anyway. Should have a grasp of the language. Then she looked over at Lawrence where he sat, absorbed in her paper. Well, she thought, it looked like a loose-leafed report. He can’t read it all at once. “Thanks,” she said to the assistant, and walked over to where Lawrence sat, bent over the report, now spread across the well-lit table.

“Abrahamson and Finch,” said Rebecca. A question, a statement, depending on how you took it.

Lawrence took it neither way, he didn’t even look up. Perhaps she was speaking Rebecca, a language he didn’t understand.

“Abrahamson and Finch,” she said again, louder. Then added, “Isolation of Pheromones among the Antarctic Emperor Penguins.”

That, apparently, she managed to say in English, for he finally did look up. Nice, blue, not-annoyed-at-the-interruption eyes. She noticed that he had placed his finger at the very spot on the page where he was reading.

“The paper,” she said. “Abrahamson and Finch.”

“Yeah,” he said, looking down at his fingered paper as if to confirm. “Yes, that’s right.”

“I’ve been waiting for it,” she said.

Must have been in Rebecca, since he didn’t get it.

“For quite a while,” she explained. “In fact,” she added. “I ordered it.”

“And now I’ve beat you to it,” he suggested. Apparently understanding her just fine.

Well, it was not like it was her paper, although she did feel like it was. “Yes,” she said. Then, “Are you done with the first part?”

He surveyed the scattered sheets, “Yes.”

“Do you mind, then?” she said, pulling out the chair opposite him.

This he understood as well. “No, not at all.” And then he did something she’d never expected. He rose, while she sat down, and then sat down again himself. Well, I’ll be. Manners.

Now, here’s the thing: Rebecca, at twenty-three, was a virgin. While the notion to remedy that condition, naturally, had crossed her mind from time to time, the current choice of partners left so much to be desired that she hadn’t for a moment, not even for a moment, until now. Until now.

She took a very good look at this young, well-mannered Lawrence man as he sat down again.

:

A mating strike is a lot easier said than pulled off, and here is why (don’t ask me how I know this, but I do; in fact, all rats know, that’s part of the deal—a perk, you might call it, a rat perk):

When you, as a consciousness, find yourself in a rat body, then, whether you like it or not, you are buying into a rather complex package deal. For one, there’s the body itself. It’s perhaps not the most aesthetic thing you’ve ever laid eyes on, but face it, it does work, works well, in fact, and it is what you deserve. It’s what you’ve earned from what you’ve been up to before. Yes, as a rat you know this.

Now, if all there was to it was the rat body: not so many problems; but the body comes equipped with a rat mind, and the rat mind is a curious (and often problematic) thing.

Like all other minds it is pretty much a clean slate at birth, ready for all those impressions, all those images, all those memories you’re to pile on and in during a lifetime. Lots of room for that, lots of empty slots.

No end to them, in fact.

Add to that what you, as a consciousness, bring with you: your mental DNA if you will, all your deeds, good or bad, all your just deserts. There’s a well-known word for it: Karma. Yes, us rats not only believe in karma, we know karma. We’ve been carting it around for aeons. So, here you come, karma and all, and land squarely inside this rat mind.

A rat’s mind is one that (like any mind, I’d venture though I can’t say for sure, I just don’t remember) not only has endless room for impressions but one that also comes pre-wired with all possible potential connections already in place, like those associations and connections that right from the start equate, say, a cat with danger, a hawk with ditto, a dog with ditto (or a savior, if he’s chasing the cat), a sister or brother with joy, a mother or father with security, anything edible as survival. A rat’s mind—and perhaps other minds, too—comes pre-wired for all this, just awaiting specifics to slot in and set in motion.

Now, all this pre-wiring notwithstanding, something (or someone, rather) has to make these connections. There has to be an order of intelligence able to determine likenesses or differences and who then fuses these impressions and conclusions in place, and this someone also comes with the rat mind, greased and ready to connect away.

And like most other minds (I’d venture), the rat mind also comes staffed with a sex-being who has one and one (monomaniacal) purpose only: to recognize chemo-signals and to scream like hell when he (or she) does.

I do not know where they train these guys, or how they are set up or programmed, but I know this as an absolute certainty: Give a female rat a whiff of 2-HP or 4-MP, or (especially) 4-EP, and they’ll come running, oozing at you, in turn, 4-HP and squalene, which will ready any male rat for fatherly action.

This sex-being runs the engine room of the jolly ship Rat.

At birth this sex-guy (or girl) is asleep. There are no procreative rumblings anywhere throughout the hull or superstructure of rat body. But there is a clock, and the clock is armed and set for, say, five weeks; and when those five weeks are up and that alarm goes off the male preputial gland will produce a trickle of 4-HP, not much, mind you, just enough to wake the Chief Engineer from his slumber.

So, now awake, the Chief runs around waking his drones up (he does have a crew down there, surely): time to work, guys, at the ready. And first order of business is to stoke the fires and brew up some 2-HP, some 4-MP, and (especially) 4-EP. These lovely compounds they then pump into the system for a while, to then be released by us boys when we pee.

This is what we call chemo-signaling. We’re telling the female rat-world that here I am, old enough now, and ready for you darling.

But—and keep this in mind, it’s important—this is the Chief and his engine room crew doing their bit. You, the occupier, the one responsible for this rat body are as amazed as anyone at the waves of out-of-control that rushes through your system from the doings of these hard-working folks below.

And then: here it comes, right back at you, a cloud of 4-HP spiked with generous whiffs of squalene; what the female rat (or, rather, her Chief and crew) produces in response. And if the five-week 4-HP alarm trickle was just loud enough to stir your engineers out of their clumber, the clouded scent of 4-HP and Squalene is more than alarm, it’s thunder. There’s no shutting it out, no turning over for another few winks.

And once they have determined which rat-girl is detonating these thunder-signals in your direction, the male Chief and crew now stoke the sex-fires with everything they have. They rush the mind, and—through it—the body with heat, with craving, with the absolute and irresistible necessity to possess and penetrate. At this point you are in charge of the body in name only, for you have so very little say in what happens next.

All the gears are now in place, the engine room is running at capacity, and it’s all you can do to hang on for dear life. This is going to happen, and it is going to happen now, and luckily, the female rat (and her engine room) is of the same persuasion, so here we go.

I have no idea who designed it, or how they generate the rat orgasm, but it’s a thing of beauty. Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll never be the same. Needless to say, you want to experience it again. Although right now the engine room is taking a breather.

I’d like to sit down and discuss all this with the Chief, as well as with whoever designed this thing, this whole sequence of events—the architect(s) of all this, as it were. It is very clever, very well done, one has to admit. Hats off.

Which brings me back to the mating strike. This involves not only (nor primarily) me, or my siblings, or the Springs, but more than anything it involves our respective Chiefs and crews. Our plan of action will make for some interesting negotiations.

My Chief Engineer has a name and his name is Broderick.

:

As Lawrence and Rebecca make love for the first time, as her orgasm crested, she hears/sees the thought: “Where on earth is this coming from?” and she is not sure whether she is thinking this or whether it is Lawrence thinking this. The thought—a feather-like thing floating past—seems to come from his direction, but the thought is hers as well, yes, it is definitely in her space, floating closer now, and with that, for the briefest moment, she is wondering, too.

And then it is lost to the very summit of that wonderful wave, not to be heard by her again for a long time.

:

According to Lawrence’s experiment outline, the plan is to measure the 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP levels in the two adult male rats 120112A and 120112B as soon as they reach puberty at around 6 weeks.

Once these levels are determined, they will inject one of the younger, prepubescent males, 121512A, with equivalent levels of 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP while leaving the second prepubescent male 121512C untreated.

This done, he will then study the four females’ reaction to the urine of these four males to determine their response.

Once these female responses have been observed, double-checked, and cataloged, he will then castrate the mature male rat 120112A to verify the extent to which his chemical signaling now decreases as a result.

This should in turn result in a marked decrease of female interest in 120112A and once this has been observed, double-checked, and cataloged, he would castrate the remaining three male rats to create four clean slates (so to speak) upon which to test a series of closely controlled cocktails (of varying potency and proportions) of 2-HP, 4-MP, 4-EP. These cocktails will be injected into the four, now sterile males to artificially create the appearance of varying degrees of sexual readiness.

Measuring the female rats’ responses to their urine over time would determine what mix—ratios and quantities—produced the strongest reaction among the females.

Once the strongest female response had been ascertained, he will analyze the urine of the male champion (so to speak) to verify the mix, and then to use that mix on all four males to see if the female rats will continue to respond strongly to that combination. That would be the perfect mix: the ultimate rat sexual chemo-signaling.

Once observed, double- and triple-checked, and cataloged, he will have achieved what he set out to do.

End of project.

Rebecca agreed. It was a good, sensible, and (as she put it) diabolically scientific approach. That should do it.

:

At first, Broderick (my Chief Engineer, remember) would not hear of it, would not even talk to me, would not even listen to me. Go somewhere else, was his all too overt attitude. None of my business.

It was, I insisted, my business. It was my body, after all. Occupied fair and square.

He begged to differ.

Impasse.

I tried again, another angle; the practical joke one. Let’s play one on the white coats, shall we?

Come to find out Broderick has zero sense of humor.

Fresh impasse.

Was he familiar with the various chemicals they were likely to use on us in their experiments?

Not as such, no. That’s to say, he couldn’t name them or anything, but he would know them when he saw them.

By that time, it’s too late, I pointed out.

“Too late for what?” he asked, finally showing a glimpse of interest.

“To resist,” I said.

“To resist what?” he wanted to know.

“Copulating,” I said.

“That’s what I’m here to make sure you do,” he said. Then, after a brief mulling this over: “Why would you want to resist that?”

“Don’t you see?” I said. “We’re being played like puppets. Both of us. They pull the chemical strings and we dance.”

Broderick, I then discovered, had a sizeable ego and did not take too kindly to being called a puppet, and so grew more interested by the minute in my plan to foil our puppet masters and their experiments.

“But,” he said after I had made clear what I wanted to do, “if that’s your plan, it’s not me you need to convince, it’s the lady Chiefs. They’re the ones who make sure us lot go after them ladies.”

“Of course,” I said. “You’re right. But I was hoping that maybe you could do my talking for me. For, to be honest, I don’t know how to reach them. I was hoping you would know. Can you? Reach them?”

“Yes, I can,” he said. No hesitation at all. “We’re the same breed. We talk all the time.”

“You do?” News to me.

“Well, not all the time. But often.”

“I see.”

Now how was I going to put this to him? “Broderick,” I started.

“Yes,” he said.

“There will be five chemicals involved. They’re called 2-HP, 4-MP, 4-EP, 4-HP, and Squalene. Do they by any chance ring any bells?”

“Vague ones. Distant ones.”

“How vague?”

He gave this a lot of memory-chasing kind of thought. “It was long ago,” he finally said. “Very vague bells. Far, far away.”

“Precisely.”

“Precisely? What do you mean, precisely?”

“The best I can figure it,” I said, “is that at some point, at some long, long ago, in some far, far away, you, as a free and independent (though perhaps bored) being, must have been propositioned by I don’t know whom (nor for what reason) that these chemicals, the ones I mentioned—as soon as they were sensed by you—should trigger a reaction with you, or an action from you. Perhaps you were even urged to agree to this, if you knew what was good for you.”

I had Broderick’s undivided attention, mouth slightly agape, as if he saw something that had been stalking him for ages finally take shape. He said nothing though, waiting for more. So I gave him more:

“They would have shown you the chemicals involved and the actions to take, perhaps many times over so you would not forget, so that your response would become automatic. Then, and again I don’t know how or by whom, you were told or made to forget this indoctrination. All of this with your agreement, nice (or bored) guy that you were. Perhaps you were paid well, or perhaps they had something on you.”

Broderick closed his mouth. “Now that you mention it,” he said, lights now coming on one by one.

“Yes,” I said, “I see no other way. It’s not like the chemicals in and of themselves do squat without your volition. Without you connecting chemical and action. It takes a life, a being, to do that.”

Lights were still coming on, more of them and more brightly, “You’re right.” He looked astonished.

“You remember?”

“Yes, I do remember.”

“What happened?” I asked, very curious.

“There was A bunch of us,” he said.

“Us who?”

“Engineers.”

“You were already a Chief?”

“No, we were engineers in training. It was a job, a career, they said. It was well advertised in my parts.”

“What happened? What kind of training?”

“We were, as you suggested, shown the various chemicals and what to do when we sensed them.”

“And what were you shown to do?”

“Oh, you know, how to create and flood the body with that warmth, that boiling need.”

“To copulate?”

“Yes. And how to raise the blood pressure, and how to fill the head with nothing but this one need.”

“Was it hard to do?”

“Not if you paid attention. It was quite ingenious, is quite ingenious.”

“And the chemicals were the signals, right?”

“Yes. For us, the male Chiefs, it was all about, is still all about, 4-HP and squalene,” he said. “The 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP are what the female Chiefs are supposed to look out for, sense and then react to.”

I said nothing, and perhaps my mouth was slightly ajar at this point. Broderick went on:

“So, they let us male engineers sense the 4-HP and squalene over and over so that we would never forget it. Then they timed us to see how fast we could respond, how fast after sensing them we could get that heart going, get that warmth flooding, and get that copulation underway.”

He smiled at the recollection, “I was head of my class. Pretty darn good at it. Still am.”

“I’m sure you are,” I agreed. Then said, “And then what? How did they make you forget this indoctrination?”

“I forget.”

“I guess that makes sense,” I said.

“There was a light,” he said, after another determined look back. “There was a blinding light. Then bells, very loud, hugely sonorous. Earthshakingly loud. Hearing that, we fell asleep. And when I woke up, I was already on the job somewhere, and I’ve been on the job since.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Yes, wow,” he agreed.

“Pays well, does it?” I wondered.

“It doesn’t pay at all,” said Broderick. “That was a fib. Just room and board.”

“Enjoyable?”

“In a way, I guess. I like pulling strings and see them dance.”

“But you don’t like others pulling your strings?”

“Show me someone who does.”

“Well, these white coats mean to.”

“Mean to what?”

“Pull your strings.”

“No, show me someone who likes to have his strings pulled.”

“Yes, of course. Well, let’s teach these string-pullers a lesson then, shall we?”

For the first time Broderick actually smiled. A broad, mischievous smile, a game-on smile. “Now that I remember, I realize that I don’t have to react to them. I can ignore them altogether.”

“The 4-HP and squalene?”

“Yes, the 4-HP and squalene.”

“Oh, that’s absolutely brilliant,” I said. And this was, in fact, just what I had hoped he’d say. “Do you think you can remind the female Chiefs of all this?”

“Don’t see why not?”

“So well that they don’t have to react either? To the 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP I mean.”

“Don’t see why not?”

He was very good at explaining, was Broderick. For soon the four female Chiefs had all remembered their respective indoctrinations as well, along with the chemicals involved their end. And all had remembered so well that they saw they could now ignore those signals altogether.

No more puppets.

Broderick also alerted Unicorn’s Chief (whose name was August) to the state of affairs. Once he remembered, he was game too. As were Wishful’s and Streams’ Chiefs once they were brought up to date.

Indeed, no more, they all promised. This was pay-back time. There was definitely no love lost for the masters, now that they had woken up to what was really going on here.

The outcome: Over the next several weeks, whatever the researchers did—I almost, though not really, felt sorry for them—produced not even the faintest reaction on that part of any rat. None. Not a flicker. Life was as peaceful and un-sexual as could be.

The Chiefs were not doing their jobs very, very well.

:

Whether or not to join Lawrence in the experiment was a huge deal for Rebecca. Not only had they recently broken up (though even more recently made up) and things were, how shall she put it, fragilely tentative. Not very much firm or common relationship ground to stand on at the moment.

But she wanted the relationship to work, and that weighed in on the side of joining his rat research.

Though more than that: Lawrence had a hidden agenda, she was sure of that. There was something deeply personal about it that he did not want to share. And then, ruminating on this on her way back from campus one night, that long-ago feathery thought made another appearance: “Where on earth is this coming from?”

It had been his thought, hadn’t it? Though hers, too. She certainly agreed with the question. And then she knew, yes, she was quite certain: This was the question Lawrence was actually working on, this was his main line of research, his quest. The rat experiment was only one rung on this ladder, a ladder he meant to climb all the way.

She knew this now, could feel it, and that’s what decided her: she’d do what she could to help—and to affirm their relationship in the process.

But now, three weeks into the project they were in trouble—to put it mildly.

:

Once—that’s an accident.

Twice—that’s a coincident.

Thrice—that’s a mystery.

Four times—that’s flirting with failure.

He went back to check the birth dates—for the fourth or fifth or sixth time. He simply must have mixed his subjects up, that was the only rational explanation, not that he for the life of him could figure out how he could have done that. They were all marked. Clearly marked. Still, he must have. Somehow, he must be dealing with prepubescent males. Must. The only thing that made any sense.

Of course, Rebecca had already checked as well, four or five or six times: there was no doubt, these were the right rats. And by now, the two males in question, 120112A and 120112B, were both eight weeks old, and the two females, 121512B and 121512D, were both six weeks. All four subjects, in other words, were in their mating prime. Yes, they verified this over and over again.

Again, they induced urinating in the two male rats, and as soon as they voided, Lawrence and Rebecca would sample the urine and re-run the tests. To the very same results: there were no levels whatever of 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP in either rat. Not a trace.

They should, of course (according to both Osada and Zhang), at their age display high urinary levels of 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP. But no. Nothing, not a trace.

Impossible.

 

“I have absolutely no idea,” said Lawrence. “You?”

Rebecca, also looking very tired, shook her head.

“I mean, this is impossible,” said Lawrence. “Osada and Zhang and three additional verifications have all cataloged it very well. It’s not like we’re crossing unchartered waters here. This just should not, cannot happen.”

“What do you want me to say?” said Rebecca. “I haven’t a clue.”

“And the chair is asking for a progress report,” said Lawrence.

“Well, good luck with that.” She said, and meant it.

“Let’s prepare some cocktails,” said Lawrence after a long silence pregnant with desperation.

Rebecca looked up at him, “Well, that’s a thought.”

 

Since neither male rat emitted as much as a trace of 2-HP, 4-MP, or 4-EP they were in fact as clean a slate as they could hope for, so it certainly could not hurt to treat them as such and inject them with these compounds.

They composed and prepared four different cocktails and then injected 120112A, 120112B, 121512B, and 121512D, each with their own blend.

Placing the males in the other litter’s tank—males 120112A and 120112B with females 121512A, and 121512C; and males 121512B and 121512D with females 120112C and 120112D, Lawrence and Rebecca held their breaths and waited.

Almost as if asked to, all four males urinated liberally, and all four females did indeed walk over to and smelled the small puddles of 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP spiced urine. In fact, they smelled it for quite a while, taking it in—as if evaluating the stuff, sniffing a good wine. But then, instead of squirming about and approaching the males like normal, horny rats would and should do, they returned to the corners of their respective tanks and for all the interest they showed their prospective mating partners they might just as well have returned to their knitting.

Lawrence shook his head. Unbelievable.

“Let’s test the urine,” he said. Maybe, oh, I don’t know.”

Rebecca nodded. And test the four little puddles they did. All four samples showed liberal levels of 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP. Liberal levels. And still, the females could not have been less interested.

“Osada and Zhang must have been wrong,” is all Lawrence could think of offering.

“As well as the verifications?” said Rebecca.

“No, you’re right. They can’t all be wrong. So there must be something wrong with our rats.”

“You’re getting desperate,” said Rebecca.

“Yes, I am,” said Lawrence. “But, let’s do it again.”

 

They did, twice more, all with the same results. The females would show immediate interest and rush over to sniff the wet spots. Then they sniffed it again, then the air, then the spot again—as if comparing, evaluating, then: nothing. Back to their knitting. Disappointed almost.

:

I could kiss them. Not that rats kiss, but even so: I could. All the girls, and their Chiefs. They now had the two white coats tied in knots, that was wonderfully obvious.

Over and over now, they have administered 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP to all of us boys (which, by the way, is not a painless procedure—imagine the diameter of a syringe from our viewpoint: like a sharp 2-inch pipe) and then placed us near the girls, hoping we’ll urinate. Which, to oblige, we gladly do.

Yes, we’re all happy to cooperate, though none of us likes these needles. One line of white-coat reasoning goes that our sense of pain is not as finely developed as with them, our lords and masters, but that’s garbage. Those needles hurt, and they hurt badly. As I said, 2-inch pipes. But, all for a good cause, we grin and bear it.

And we urinate a lot.

And the girls sniff a lot.

And then they don’t do anything a lot.

Isn’t life grand?

Then something occurred to me, which, if possible, would add a little extra payback for all those rats next door that they sent to the gas showers. This is what I was wondering: If my Chief can speak to my sisters’ Chiefs, and to those next door, did he have a line to human engine rooms as well? For if he did, perhaps there was some more havoc to be wreaked.

And come to find out that yes, yes, my good Broderick can. They’re sort of one big fellowship these Chiefs, apparently. The same breed, as he put it. Much in common, same mission, different tools: no chemo-signaling, these human chiefs, for example, they deployed other triggers, and Broderick wasn’t very clear on what they might be.

Could they, I wondered, if they wanted to, arouse the male without external triggers. Like on purpose?

Oh, I don’t see why not, said my Chief. And then he gave me that mischievous payback-time grin again.

I’m really starting to like Broderick.

:

As a rule, Lawrence had no problem pinpointing what set him off.

For one, he knew that if he had not had sex for a while, or if he had not masturbated for a while, he was more likely to find himself aroused. More easily ignited as it were. Sperm buildup, he theorized.

He also knew the danger signs, the danger zones: the subtle scents (perfumes and the like); the accented—as in lifted and pushed out—bust; the exposed cleavage; the long hair; the full (and provocatively painted) lips; the flirty smile; the heavily made up, somewhat mysterious eyes; the long, exposed leg; the soft touch, arm or shoulder; a tongue in ear.

What set him off was always something that he could isolate and define, at least in retrospect. It was always something that had entered either eye or nose or ear and that then, once internalized, proceeded to breathe that warm, familiar need into him along with a quickened pulse and a stiffened joystick.

But now he had no clue. He was just, out of absolutely nowhere at all: horny as hell. That kind of horny that rushed to your head and made you reel; as if all the blood that keeps your brain well-supplied with oxygen all of a sudden abandoned you in their mad rush for duties elsewhere (as in fueling erections).

This was the third time in, what, an hour. And again he had to turn away from Rebecca and again arrange the front of his trousers to hide the unusually hard hammer handle that now, again, strained for release and for something to penetrate.

Not only was this embarrassing and inexplicable, it was incredibly demanding. Warmly insistent. He’d almost asked Rebecca, twice, to join him into the bathroom. However, she was not of the bathroom persuasion. Far from it. She would definitely take it the wrong way and would never agree. Perhaps on his own, then.

Yes, he would have to. Empty the bucket.

And did.

Better. Much better.

But damn if it wasn’t back, as warm and insistent as ever. He’d never experienced anything like it.

Off to the bathroom again.

Ah, that’s better.

But damn if it didn’t come on again. He could not believe this.

He was alone in the room now. Rebecca was out getting them something to eat. So, not a female in sight right now to stir things up. Not even a picture of one, nor a thought of one, just, again, these very strong waves of pure, yes the right word for it was lust. Hard and hot as hell, pounding.

Why? How? From where? For Christ’s sake, from where?

And then, indistinct but nonetheless definite: the image of a steam ship’s engine room entered briefly, someone stoking fires down below, shoveling coal, pulling levers, and reading dials; hard at work to increase the pressure and increase it did.

Now, where the hell did that image come from? Utterly and amazingly weird. There were bits and pieces floating about now that should add up to something, if only he hadn’t forgot how to add things up.

Something was definitely going on. Something very much out of the ordinary. Way.

And here it came again, that wave. He had to bend over to catch his breath, this was unbelievable.

And that rat, that guy looking right at him from tank number two, he looked like he was smiling. Swear to God, he was smiling.

Reality check, Lawrence: rats do not smile.

Well, tell that to this guy, the one with the smile that says “I know” and that also says “It’s only what you deserve” and that also shows how much its owner enjoys all of this.

Lawrence had to sit down. Did. Gather yourself, man.

He looked over at the tank again. No rat looking in his direction now. Get a grip, Lawrence.

But it had been exactly as if, as if the rat knew precisely what Lawrence was seeing, the busy engineer stoking the fire, pumping him up.

The door to the lab suddenly opened and Rebecca returned with a paper bag in her hand. She held it up high for him to see.

“Lunch,” she announced.

Thank God for small favors, thought Lawrence. Something to distract me.

“Great,” he said, but remained sitting, his joy stick still way too stiff for him to stand up without detection.

“You look flushed,” said Rebecca. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, fine,” said Lawrence. Then he bit his tongue. He was about to tell her about this crazy notion of the rat telling him about the engine room. She’d have him committed.

“Let’s eat, then,” said Rebecca.

“Be right there,” said Lawrence. “Just need to see a man about a horse.”

:

Broderick told me that white-coat Lawrence’s Chief was named Rudolf. That’s Rudolf with an “f,” he said twice. German something, he said. And very good at his job, he said. German efficiency. Poor Lawrence. That’s all he needs on top of his problems with us: German efficiency in the engine room. Poor Lawrence, battling ghosts, no idea what hit him.

Then Broderick told me something interesting. He said that Rudolf never looked for chemicals, not like Broderick. Chemicals wasn’t his trigger. For Rudolf, it was primarily visual, or audio, or touch.

Visual, how? I asked him.

Naked, he said. None of their coverings on.

Weird, I said. And weird it is, for us rats are never covered, always naked, and nothing could be less stimulating than a naked she-rat. Just like a naked he-rat. That’s not even a hint of rat trigger—that is what Broderick said, and he should know.

Touch, yes, I could see that. It could be electric. Broderick nodding at that thought. But visual? Or audio? We were shaking our heads in unison.

But, I wondered, how come Rudolf seems to have our Lawrence in knots without visuals? I didn’t see any naked human females around.

He knows what to do, said Broderick. That’s how he’s programed. He’s got some say. But what really sets him off is visuals.

And then I wondered: who designed it that way?

And Broderick wondered, too: who designed it that way?

Poor Lawrence, he’s looking for somewhere to sit down to cover up his condition. Rudolf and his German efficiency still hard at work.

Okay, I tried to give him a hint, but he certainly is not as receptive to that wavelength as us rats. We really have a much easier time of it than humans when it comes to communicating. Thoughts are so much cleaner than words. Clearer. And their meaning, and intent, so much more apparent. You never know what kind of baggage words carry with them—and they always carry some—and to sort that out from what is really meant, well that can be a career all on its own. A lot of humans are busy doing just that.

Give me thoughts and images anytime. They mean what they mean. End of story.

So I tried to tell this white-coat Lawrence, give him just a small engine room hint, Rudolf busy plying his trade, but he didn’t get it, not really. Part of it, though, he got. He got the image, I could sense that, but no idea where it came from or what it meant.

And here comes his mate. Back from her errand.

Poor guy. Not only is his experiment with us rats going down in flames, now he can’t even stand up straight, courtesy of Rudolf.

Yes, I should feel a little sorry for him, and perhaps I do, but only a little. A very little.

He, and his ilk, deserve this.

:

“What do we do now?” she said.

Lawrence could not quite face her. Her meaning was quite clear: how do we salvage the experiment? Christ, there wasn’t even an experiment yet to salvage. Really, he had no clue. He was a clue-less hard-on at the moment.

He swallowed twice before he answered, more in the direction of his salad than his girlfriend, “I don’t know.”

“We have a progress meeting tomorrow,” she pointed out.

“I know,” he said. “We can postpone it.”

“Not without making waves.”

“No. Not without making waves.”

“So we can’t really postpone.”

“No.”

“So, what do we do now?” she said, moving lettuce and tomato around with her white plastic fork.

He had no answer to that. Instead he said, “And we are sure…”

“About the rats?” she filled in. “Yes, Lawrence. We are sure. Absolutely, one hundred percent sure.”

He nodded. Yes, yes, of course we are.

“And about the females?” Just making sure, still.

“Yes,” said Rebecca. “They are all sexually mature. Good and fertile. Normal adult hormone levels. Ready to go.”

“So, then, why absolutely zero interest?”

“Well, that is the question, isn’t it?”

“We have ruled out illness,” he said, as if (or actually) starting a count.

“Yes.”

“We have ruled out food issues.”

“Yes.”

“We have ruled out depression.”

“As far as depression can be ruled out,” she said.

“There are no other males they’d me more interested in.”

“Not within peeing distance,” she said.

“Can they smell the other males?”

“From the sealed in next door?” Pointing out the obvious.

“Yes, I know,” he said. Then: “Maybe they’re all gay?”

Rebecca laughed. “That’ll go down well in the meeting.”

“But could it be, though?” Hopefully.

“No, Lawrence. The four female rats are not all lesbians.”

“No, I didn’t think so.”

Three more bites of his salad. He could hear the rats laughing. Well, not laughing, but if you were a rat, perhaps that was the sound of laughing. They sounded merry, let’s put it that way.

“Could Osada and Zhang be wrong?” Again, hopefully.

“As well as the verifications? No way, Lawrence.” Statement of fact. “We’ve been over that.”

“Yes, you’re right. Of course.” He looked around for a simile. “But this whole thing is like letting go of a penny and watching it not hit the floor.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” she said.

“Well, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I agree.”

“I really have no idea what could be wrong.”

“That means we’ll have to scrap it,” she said.

“Oh, man. After all that head and heart ache. And the funding people, we’ll have to face them and try to explain.”

“I know.”

He finished the salad and looked over at tank number two, and damn if that rat wasn’t looking right at him, again. “Do you see that?” he said, without turning to her.

“See what?”

“That rat is looking at me. Right at me. And now he’s laughing,” he added.

“You are losing it,” she said.

He turned to face her again. “Could well be.”

She looked past him at tank number two. “Actually,” she said. “He is looking at you. Not sure he’s laughing, but he’s definitely looking.”

“See?” he said. “I have no idea what’s going on. It’s like some sort of rat conspiracy.”

“Okay, officially losing it now,” said Rebecca.

“I’m out of ideas,” he said. And was.

:

I was wondering, so I asked Broderick: “Who was it that trained you? You know, to react that way to 4-HP and squalene?”

“I don’t remember,” he said.

“Was it other rats?”

“No.”

“Humans, perhaps?”

“No, I don’t think so. I’m sure that those who trained us trained Rudolf, too, and that would not have been humans. That would have been like puppetizing themselves.”

“Good point. But no ideas?”

“God?”

“God?”

“Well, why not? Isn’t he behind it all?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “That’s the lazy rat’s answer.”

“Should I take offense at that?”

“No,” I said.

“But you don’t believe God created all this?”

“No.” I said.

“Who then?”

“I don’t know. But my money is on the same guys who trained you, and the female Chiefs. And the human Chiefs.”

“I’m trying to remember,” said Broderick, and the sure looked like it. Then: “No, nothing, no.”

“Did they speak Rat?” I asked.

“You mean thought-speak?”

“Yes.”

“Yes. I think so.”

“So not human talk?”

“No, definitely not.”

“Shapes? Did you see any shapes?”

Broderick really pondered this, but no: “I don’t remember.”

“But you do remember the thoughts?”

“That’s how they trained us.”

“They?”

“Yes, definitely more than one, now that you mention it.”

“Which would rule out God?” I suggested.

“Unless God is many,” he said.

Interesting point, I thought. “Interesting point,” I said.

“I guess,” said Broderick.

“So, many voices. How many?”

“A few. Two, three, I don’t know.”

“But the same guys trained Rudolf.”

“I assume so.”

“Could you ask him?”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“I don’t speak Chief,” I said.

“Ah, he speaks Rat, don’t you worry.”

“Could you introduce me,” I wondered.

“Sure,” said Broderick.

 

Which is how I came face-to-face with Rudolf. Well, mentally speaking. Come to find out Rudolf’s memory—now that he was awake again—was longer and sharper than Broderick’s.

“Yes, I remember the training,” he said. “Quite well.”

“And who was it?” I asked. “Who trained you?”

“Research guys,” said Rudolf. “White coats.”

“Couldn’t have been,” I said, since I could not picture Lawrence and Rebecca training their own Chiefs. Which I pointed out to Rudolf.

“No, not these guys. Their white coats.”

“You mean?” I began.

“Yes, they’re an experiment, too.”

Ah, how ironic.

“But in much bigger tanks,” I suggested.

“Much bigger,” Rudolf agreed.

“So who are these guys? These white coats, the ones who trained you?”

“I’m not sure,” said Rudolf.

“Did you see them?”

“Now and then. A glimpse here and there.”

“What did they look like?”

“Big, hovering, sort of transparent. Wings.”

“Angels?” I said, since that was the image forming.

“Could be, I guess.”

“Robes?” I asked.

“Yes, could have been robes,” said Rudolf.

“And wings,” I wanted to confirm.

“Yes, definitely wings.”

“Sounds like angels to me.”

“Yes, could well have been.”

“So, you’re saying that humanity is an angel experiment?”

“Just like rats,” said Rudolf.

“This whole thing is an angel experiment,” I said.

“Could very well be,” said Rudolf, who seemed to like that expression.

“An angel experiment,” I said. Mainly to myself. “Well, I’ll be.”

:

“You know,” began a small, but clear voice in Lawrence’s head. “We’re pretty much alike.”

Lawrence whipped around to see who was talking. No one there. Then he looked over at Rebecca, who, silently, was regarding him with some concern. “Sorry?” he said to her. “What did you say?”

“Haven’t said anything.”

“Boy, I could have sworn. I must be hearing things.”

“You are hearing things,” said Fennel in Lawrence’s head.

“I am?”

“Yes. And as I was saying, we are pretty much alike.”

“We?” said Lawrence. “Who are we?”

“I’m Fennel,” said the very clear voice. “And you’re Lawrence. Fennel and Lawrence. We.”

“Fennel?”

“The rat. The one you think laughs at you. And, to tell you the truth, I was laughing at you.”

Lawrence spun around again, and there he was, calm as anything, looking right at him out of tank number two. Speaking right into his mind.

“You,” said Lawrence.

“Me, indeed,” said Fennel.

“Did you say something?” said Rebecca.

“No, not really,” said Lawrence.

“Not really?” said Rebecca. “You didn’t really say something. What does that even mean?”

“Sorry,” said Lawrence. “I was just thinking aloud.”

“Well put,” said Fennel.

“Fennel,” said Lawrence. “You have a name?”

“Of course,” said Fennel. “And it’s not 120112A.”

That sent chills down Lawrence’s spine. “How do you know?” he said.

“I can hear you talk,” said Fennel.

“But you’re a rat,” Lawrence pointed out. “You’re not supposed to.”

“Supposed to what?” said Fennel. “Understand human speech?”

“Yes, precisely. That’s one thing you’re not supposed to do.”

“Well, I beg to differ.”

“Nor are you supposed to be aware, like this,” said Lawrence. Then he thought, with sudden understanding: “I’m hallucinating. Too much stress.”

“No, you’re not,” said Fennel. “This is real, I’m afraid.”

“I can’t possibly.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re a rat, for Christ’s sake. A lab rat.”

“Ditto,” said Fennel.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re as much a lab rat as I am.”

That was the second thing that sent chills down his spine.

“I am as much a lab rat as you are?” He thought this question very slowly. Word by word.

“Yes. Afraid so.”

“How could that be? And as much to the point, how could you know that?”

“I have well-placed, well-informed friends.”

Again, Lawrence reached for the hallucination explanation. And again, he did get there when Fennel intercepted with: “You’re not hallucinating, Lawrence.”

“I must be.”

“Sorry to disappoint.”

At that point Rebecca said something that Lawrence didn’t catch.

“She wants you,” said Fennel.

“Sorry, what?” said Lawrence, turning to her.

“Who are you talking to?” she repeated.

“No one. Haven’t said a thing,” he said.

She shook her head. “I must be hearing things.”

Things were making less and less sense to Lawrence. “Just thinking aloud,” he said again.

“What about the progress meeting? What are going to do?” she wanted to know. “We have to think of something.”

“I don’t know.” Shaking his head.

“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to call it a day,” she said.

“Yes, that’s fine.”

“We must tell them something,” she said.

“Tell whom?”

“The progress meeting. What’s the matter with you?”

“Sorry. Yes, I know.”

“You’re not coming?” she said when Lawrence made no move to rise and leave with her.

“No, I’m going to stay for a while.”

She studied him for a breath or two, “Okay, I’ll see you back home then.”

“Yes, see you there.”

And then she did her little right-hand wave—a half-circle in the air—and left the room. Leaving, or so he felt, just him and Fennel. But then he realized there were seven other rats, and all possibly listening in.

“No, they’re not,” said Fennel.

“How can you tell?”

“I can.”

“What do you mean I’m as much a lab rat as you are?” said Lawrence.

“Call it instant karma if you like,” said Fennel. “What you’re doing to us, they are doing to you?”

“They?”

“The angels.”

Okay. Time out, Lawrence. You are most definitely losing it. Finally, he noticed, the joy stick was relaxing a bit, curling up for a nap.

“You can ask Rudolf if you don’t believe me,” said Fennel.

“And who is Rudolf?”

“Your Chief Engineer.”

“I don’t follow.”

“I have a Chief Engineer, a real live guy—down in the sexual engine room—who is trained to react energetically and enthusiastically to 4-HP and squalene. The girls all have their own Chiefs who are triggered into equally enthusiastic action by 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP.”

Another spine chill. “You know about chemo-signaling? How can you possibly?”

Fennel chose not to answer that, but said instead, “And you have a Chief, too, who is triggered by visuals, audio, and by touch.”

Fourth chill. “How can you possibly know that,” said Lawrence, now meaning about his own Chief.

“I do.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Ask Rudolf.”

“Who is Rudolf?” he asked again.

“Your Chief Engineer,” said Fennel. “Right, Rudolf?”

“Right,” said Rudolf, who indeed was listening in.

Though his was a thought as well, it was clearly different from Fennel’s and from his own; as distinct as voices are distinct. Odd, that I should reflect on that, thought Lawrence. Then, odd that I should reflect on it being odd to reflect on that.

“Rudolf,” said Lawrence, and he could actually feel something shifting about in his loin area.

“Speaking,” said Rudolf.

“Where are you?” said Lawrence.

“In the engine room,” said Rudolf.

The image of the steam ship returned, a clear echo. “You,” meaning Fennel, “sent me this. Earlier.”

“Yes,” said Fennel. “A clue, I hoped.”

“Why?”

“I felt a little sorry for you.”

“It’s an analogy, right?” said Lawrence. “I don’t really have an engine room, do I?”

“Yes,” said Rudolf. “It’s an analogy. But not all that far off the mark, to be honest. There are certainly boilers down here, and levers, and dials, and fuel, and steam, and pressure. Lots to keep track of.”

“I don’t believe this,” said Lawrence. “I have lost my mind. Completely.”

“I don’t think it’s yours to lose,” said Rudolf.

Which both did and did not make sense to Lawrence. At times, being tossed about on choppy mind-waters, he had definitely concluded that his mind had a mind of its own, its own volition. Was its own mind. Not his. He could raise his hand at will, stand up, lie down, speak, sing, drink, write, and he was never met with objections, prevarications, or refusals. His body did pretty much exactly what he asked it to do.

Not so his mind. Thinking one thought through from beginning to end, without it darting down odd and dark alleys to never quite arrive at point B, well, that was pretty much unheard of in his universe. His mind was the boss of him, not the other way around, and this, at times, had kept him up at night, pondering. Was that his mind pondering about itself, then?

What was it Saint Augustine had said?

The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance. That’s what he had said, and Lawrence knew exactly what he was talking about. Fingers, arms, tongue, lips, hands, all so obedient. Mind, so defiant. So true.

Not yours to lose, he’d said, this Rudolf. The engine room? Oh, man. Who are you kidding?

“Well, is it?” said Rudolf.

“Interesting point,” said Fennel.

“Rudolf, is it?” said Lawrence.

“It is,” said Rudolf.

“Chief Engineer?”

“Yes I am.”

“Prove it,” said Lawrence, having had pretty much enough of this hallucination.

At which point his penis sprung to life with a speed and force he’d not thought possible. And not only was the erection unprecedented, but so was the wave upon wave of sheer lust—warm, hot, overwhelming: he almost lost his sitting balance, and had to steady himself by the table edge. He found it hard to breathe. Suddenly, he was so horny that he would have accepted anyone, anything almost, as a mate, as long as legs were spread apart and willing.

He was on the verge of fainting when Rudolf said, “Happy now?”

The waters began to recede; the tent in is pants losing some of its altitude; breath returning in one gasp, two, three.

“Okay,” said Lawrence. “I believe you.” Then, “How could you possibly?”

“I’m good at what I do,” said Rudolf.

“German engineering,” offered Fennel.

Lawrence could almost sense Rudolf pulling up straighter than usual with pride. “Indeed,” said Rudolf.

Lawrence couldn’t tell for sure, but it sounded like Fennel was laughing under his breath. Looking at him now, looking back at Lawrence, he sure didn’t give anything away. He looked like he was enjoying this, though.

All these unbelievable but nonetheless believable things floating around, none of which was holding still. Still, Lawrence tried to form at least one logical thought, one logical question. One finally came to mind: “How long have you been here?” Meaning Rudolf.

“You were born with me,” he replied.

That answer made as much sense as anything made sense right now.

“Of course,” Rudolf added, “There wasn’t much to do until puberty.”

That made more sense.

“Who’s your boss?” Lawrence heard himself say in Rudolf’s direction.

“The angels,” said Rudolf.

“I told you,” said Fennel.

“The angels?” said Lawrence.

“The angels,” confirmed Rudolf.

“I told you,” confirmed Fennel.

“You’ve seen them,” said Lawrence.

“Not recently,” said Rudolf. “But I remember them from my training.”

“Your training?”

“I had to learn about visuals, and audio, and touch. I had to learn what I should act upon, and what actions to take. You know, how to crank up the heat and pour on the pressure.”

 “Same as my Chief had to learn about 4-HP and squalene,” offered Fennel. “And the girls’ Chiefs had to learn about 2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP.”

“You have a chief, too?” said Lawrence, not remembering whether Fennel had told him already.

“Broderick,” said Fennel.

“That’s your Chief? Broderick?”

“Broderick, yes.”

“And the angels trained him, too?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. We’re all part of the same experiment.”

“You’re an experiment?” said Lawrence, meant for Rudolf.

“I guess so, yes.”

“An angel experiment?”

“It would seem that way.”

“What goes around comes around,” said Fennel.

“Are you a part of my mind?” said Lawrence, again meant for Rudolf.

“It’s not your mind,” said Rudolf.

“You know that I mean.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m down here in the engine room all the time. Sleep in the corner. It might be a mind-corner, I don’t know. Perhaps the whole engine room is mind.”

“That has my vote,” said Fennel, happy about that for some reason.

Lawrence tried to picture it, and to his amazement discovered that he could: the engine room. Yes: all mind.

“Do you, by chance,” he said to Rudolf, “know any other mind-citizens?”

“I mind my own business,” said Rudolf.

“You’re quite alone then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“There are others?”

“Not here, not in the engine room. Well, apart from my crew, of course.”

“You have a crew?”

“So does Broderick,” said Fennel.

“Engineers?” said Lawrence.

“That’s what they are,” said Rudolf.

“Yup,” said Fennel.

“But outside the engine room, there are other mind-citizens?”

“Sure, quite a crowd. Who do you think runs the heart, or the liver, or the lungs, the pancreas or the kidneys? That’s a lot of work, lots to sort out, many, many decisions to make, and they all have to be made on the spot. Takes a crowd to be sure, an alert one.”

Well, that made sense, actually. It shouldn’t, since all of this was sheer insanity to begin with, but sense was made, and it was making it.

“And who do you think interprets and executed DNA?” added Rudolf.

Interesting. “But you keep to yourself,” said Lawrence. “You haven’t met these guys. Not interested in mingling.”

“I have a job to do,” said germanly efficient Rudolf. “Takes all my attention. I have to be on the lookout.”

“For visuals,” said Lawrence, urgently putting twos and twos together.

“Yes, visuals. And audio. And touch.”

“But the others, the outside-the-engine-room crowd, the heart and such, they never come to visit?”

“No, never. They stay put with their own tasks, mainly.” Then he added, “It’s a big ship. Many tasks. Big population.”

Again, that made sense. Should not but did.

“I’m a big ship,” said Lawrence, more to himself, but aloud nonetheless.

“I don’t know about you,” said Rudolf. But this body is. A big ship. This mind is. A big ship.”

“A big population.”

“Yes, lots of running about overhead. I can hear them. Upper decks.”

Mind, body. Kidneys. Upper decks. He was shaking his head. For an hallucination this was frighteningly real.

“You are not hallucinating,” said Fennel.

“I know, I know,” said Lawrence. Then the thought struck him, “How come the chemical signaling doesn’t work on you guys? Neither naturally nor through injections?”

“We’re on a mating strike.”

“You’re on a what?”

“Mating strike.”

“What the hell is a mating strike?”

“It’s a refusal to comply with your wishes for us to copulate.”

“How on earth do you manage that?”

“Broderick discovered how to ignore 4-HP and squalene.”

“Your Chief discovered how to ignore 4-HP and squalene?”

“Yes, that’s what I said. And then he taught the female Chiefs how to ignore,” he said.

“Don’t tell me,” said Lawrence. “2-HP, 4-MP, and 4-EP.”

“Exactly.”

“Why?” said Lawrence. “Why would you do such a thing? You nearly killed me and Rebecca.”

“In protest.”

“In protest of what?”

“The gas showers.”

“How on earth?” said Lawrence.

“You left the gate open one night,” said Fennel. “We slipped out, Unicorn and I, and we had a chat with the guys next door, those heading for the showers.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Lawrence. “I had nothing to do with that.”

“Maybe not directly,” said Fennel. “But when all is said and done, you have a lot to do with that.”

Fennel was right and Lawrence could think of nothing to say.

“We’re not your toys, you know,” said Fennel.

“But you are,” said Lawrence. “Well, not toys, but, you know.”

“Lab rats?”

“Yes, that’s what you are. Lab rats.”

“To be tortured and gassed?”

There was no answer to that. Fennel was right. They did not have the right to. “You could have said something,” said Lawrence. “Before. Earlier.”

“That was never part of the plan, as I understand it,” said Fennel.

Rudolf seemed to nod in agreement.

“Oh, man. I have to report on progress tomorrow. This will go down really well.” said Lawrence.

“But it’s the truth,” said Fennel. “We’re on a mating strike. That’s why you can’t entice the girls. That’s why they couldn’t care less about our urine.”

Again, Lawrence had no idea how to respond to that.

“Actually,” said Fennel. “You should try it yourself.”

“Try what?”

“A mating strike.”

The really strange thing about what Fennel the rat had just suggested was that the notion of resisting the sex urge and refusing to comply had crossed his mind, and had crossed it more than once. Soon followed by the equally strange conclusion that if everybody did that, there would be no humanity left after a while.”

“I’ll help,” said Rudolf.

“How?” said Lawrence.

“I don’t have to spring into feverish action at the sight of a bared breast or at the touch of a perfumed finger. I can choose not to.”

“Meaning I don’t have to react either?” said Lawrence.

“Meaning precisely that,” informed Fennel.

“Meaning precisely that,” confirmed Rudolf.

“Well, that would be something,” said Lawrence. “Especially if everyone went on a mating strike and stuck with it: The human race would die out.”

“Big loss,” said Fennel.

“And a bunch of pissed off angels,” suggested Rudolf. “Wondering what on earth to say at their progress meeting.”

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