Excerpt: The Encounter

The most prized of Martian sights, if we were to speak of our neglected planet in the terms reserved for tourist attractions, are the traces of unmanned missions past.

The early Mars exploratory missions were like the old masters to us. Their gear had long since been reduced to buckets of eroded junk. And yet every time we went out into the field, on whatever experiment or mapping initiative, we looked for their tracks. As if just seeing some glorified wheelbarrow that the U.S.A. or the European Union had blasted up would make us less homesick.

It was Laurie Corelli who used to joke about the infamous Mars explorer called Saratoga, which like so many unmanned missions to Mars had gone dark shortly after landing. From the Saratoga, NASA got a few shots of the polar landscape, where the craft had been intended to set up shop, and these shots were of gaseous vapors burning off, around the rover, as if the rover were standing in the midst of some heavenly Finnish spa. Immediately thereafter, the Saratoga fell into silence. Another fifteen or twenty billion dollars of taxpayer money flushed down into the sewage field of aeronautic history. The interesting kink in the tale of the Saratoga, however, was that there had been two occasions, two days later, when the rover checked back in. These transmissions broke through the radio silence and the background radiation. In each circumstance, the rover was far from where it had been projected to be, as if it had somehow developed an ambition of its own on Mars, and was well on its way to a location of its devising. After these brief, hopeful moments of contact, the Saratoga slipped out of range for good. In subsequent years, NASA would occasionally (and internally) claim to have seen something that might or might not have been a transmission from the Saratoga, or perhaps even a still photo of its dusty chassis. But there was a landfill’s worth of space junk on the planet’s surface now, so who knew really?

It was a software glitch, no doubt, that caused the malfunctioning of the navigational controls on the Saratoga. But doubters believed something else entirely. Laurie Corelli was eager to circulate the belief that the craft had not malfunctioned, or not in the way that NASA believed. The Saratoga, according to Laurie, exhibited what we on Mars now referred to as the problem of very large computing capacity. Some of our own NASA evaluative machinery had become so large in terms of numbers of microprocessors and amount of raw computing power that they exhibited strange signs of reflexivity, or even primitive stages of consciousness. I could point you in the direction of various theorists of artificial intelligence for more illumination on this fascinating subject.

However, anyone on Earth might tell you the same, that the more complicated machines got, the more they came to resemble people. On the watery planet, people could send their machines back to the techno-recycling authorities when they got uppity. On Mars, the problem of the very large computing capacity was more worrisome. Jim said, for example, that the ultralight would occasionally refuse to land. As if it simply wanted to keep flying. Similarly, the small, modular robots that we sent down into various crevices and canyons on Mars would sometimes send back random gibberish to us and then just continue wandering off.

Laurie said, articulating one of the originary myths of the planet Mars in 2026, that the Saratoga had gone native and that we would, sooner or later, happen upon it, in some cave, like a Japanese soldier after WWII. The Saratoga, Laurie argued, was in the wilderness trying not to be reprogrammed by Houston, and waiting to debrief us, or other friendly representatives of planet Earth, with details of all that it had seen.

The Saratoga was, therefore, the holy grail of American space junk. That was why Jim Rose, on his reconnaissance missions, wanted to find the craft. It was something he talked about now and again, with an offhandedness that concealed a great interest. He’d been crisscrossing the midsection of the planet just below the equator for three or four days, looking for — what exactly? For water certainly. For geological specimens, perhaps. For our rogue colonist Brandon Lepper. But also looking for an answer as to how the Mars mission, in the near future, was supposed to feed and clothe and maintain itself in its increasingly dire circumstances. He suspected, he told me later, that NASA was going to cancel a plan to send a second unmanned rocket for resupply.

Jim had buzzed the site where Brandon had set up camp, and using some computer enhancements, he saw the kind of radio broadcasting that Brandon had made possible there. He flew low over Brandon’s mining operation in the canyon, he told me later, though it was dangerous flying in there. The wind currents were bad. Of course, Brandon tried with anti-aircraft pulse weaponry to shoot at Jim. Though he was probably loath to use what little juice he had for so unlikely a cause.

Wherever Jim went, he spent a little time digging and melting down the frozen loam. He collected quite a bit of the runoff from this operation. His purpose was to organize different samples of this tasty-freeze, some of it liquid carbon dioxide that wasn’t really potable and was also dangerously cold. It was neither solid nor gaseous carbon dioxide, but a frosty intermediate stage. He also collected water, which was in danger of evaporating quickly, if not consumed. He was going to bring back a fair amount of this liquid gold, in drums he had constructed for the purpose.

It was on the third day of his third or fourth reconnaissance mission that Jim thought he saw the tracks in the desert. Tracks from nowhere to nowhere. Pointless tracks, irrational tracks. They were tracks without strategic or scientific value that he could fathom. Nevertheless, he followed these tracks. They made figure eights, they made spirals. They headed off willfully in a direction and then just as willfully doubled back, as if some Martian four-year-old were in command of the vehicle in question and was giving it a test-drive. It had to be one of the contemporary rovers, because unless Martian tracks were in a relatively secluded spot (in a crater or a gully), they tended to sediment over quickly. Either the explorer Jim was following was here recently, or else these particular tracks had managed to withstand sandstorms and debris and one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds. Jim Rose, despite his rational and military mind, came to believe that the tracks were from the Saratoga.

He came to believe, that is, in Laurie’s myth, a myth that had been no more than a bedtime story. But because he couldn’t keep himself from believing, he set the ultralight down on a barren spot in a crater, and then he followed the aforementioned tracks up the wall of the crater and into some hills. The sense of tracking the cybercraft, with its system of strange plates and mechanical limbs, was nearly as thrilling to Jim as if he’d been tracking some last catamount in the riparian latitudes of our home planet. He knew he had more important things to do, but he just couldn’t give it up.

At last, upon cresting a hill, he encountered the craft. The Mars Explorer Saratoga! Originally launched by the United States of America in 2019, the sixteenth unmanned mission to the planet Mars, with telemetry and navigational assistance provided by the People’s Republic of China. Jim said: It was almost as if the explorer were shocked at being apprehended by the first blood-and-guts Martian of its acquaintance. It was almost as if it had given up believing that life could take the form it now beheld, the form of Captain Jim Rose, bearded, brawny dreamer of the Mars mission, in a raggedy space suit, shivering with cold.

The typical Mars cyber explorer was kitted out with a vast number of digging and boring tools, all of these attached to its four retractable arms, and there was a moment, as one of its limbs unfolded, that Jim wasn’t sure the explorer, which he hoped was reflexive and was conscious, didn’t intend to bore into him, as though he were a sample of silicon that it wished to harvest for its self-generated battery of experiments. Or maybe, Jim thought, the Saratoga was simply protecting itself. Maybe the Saratoga saw itself, on the planet Mars, in evolutionary combat with the flimsy, gushy, wet thing in front of it. Maybe it wanted to prevail, because it was solar-powered and was able to withstand extremely cold temperatures, and was mostly free of the roiling sentiments that it rightly suspected consumed this primitive biological entity. Maybe it intended to superheat or shock or anneal this human thing, in order to be rid of it.

The remarkable feature of the series of robotic explorers, however, was their laborious slowness. Jim could have just flipped the Saratoga on its noggin, rendering it useless for upwards of ten days, while he awaited its reaction. There had in fact been a case of an earlier explorer that overturned itself on a rock or some such, and took a solid ten days, using liquid ballast, to turtle itself. So Jim, because he was patient, tired, dusty, and because he believed, allowed the arm to unfurl from its folds within folds. He did this without disarming or overpowering the explorer. The whirr of solid-state digital machinery was a pleasant diversion amid a whistling of summer winds. Two or three minutes passed while the arm extended itself toward him, from some faceless machine face that was a solar array on the top of a bunch of solid-state computing panels. At last, in the extended extremity, a small forgotten panel in the Saratoga slid back, and a punch pad appeared.

A punch pad! Who would have thought? Jim wouldn’t have thought, as he told me later, despite the fact that he knew a little about the history of Mars explorers, as we all did. For all the expense of these machines, ten billion was always being cut from the budget at the last moment, and in an austerity program the last thing the explorers had any need for was a punch pad. There were few signs of life on Mars, that much was assured, and if there was life on Mars, it was in a bunch of rocks at the base of a not-entirely-dormant volcano out by the Amazonis Planitia, or on the poles, and it was no more complicated than the blue part of blue cheese. It didn’t intend to stop the earthlings from running amok. No need for a punch pad! Who would be punching it?

And yet these were the kinds of fail-safes, the kinds of redundancies that were built into the machine-exploration of Mars by the designers back on Earth. They constructed the keypad for the assembly of the Saratoga, in case the cables that connected her to the motherboards of NASA failed at any time, out on the testing ground of West Texas. Occasionally, a fat guy who hadn’t had enough sleep in months would trouble shoot the Saratoga, and its sister explorer, the Anasazi (which exploded on the launch pad, as you’ll recall), in the midst of which he’d perform some dazzling manual override. It was this fat guy who had insisted on the punch pad.

A punch pad! Here it was, where Jim could get at it, if only he would take off his bulky gloves, and expose his underlayer to the elements. Jim found himself hoping against hope that the keypad would be both numerical and alphabetical, because if he couldn’t talk to the Saratoga in English, he didn’t know what he was going to do. He had plenty of time to settle these questions, though, because once the Saratoga had presented its keypad to him it seemed willing to wait as long as it would take for him to respond. He lifted his visor and set down his outer gloves in six inches of dust and got up close to the keypad, where it would have been easy for the Saratoga, using the element of surprise, to laser him in the eyes, or to spindle him with some geological probe.

Alphanumerical! Alphanumerical!

Shivering with cold, unnecessarily agitated by the epiphany of what sat before him — this pitted collection of spare parts from back home — Jim took a moment to collect himself, and then he typed in the stupidest question of all, the only one he could think of:

“What is your name?”

He was able to verify that the typing was accurate in the liquid crystal display at the top of the alphanumerical keypad, and it was on the tiny screen, as a bunch of zeroes and ones scrolled past, that an answer eventually materialized.

“Mars Explorer Saratoga, manufactured and copyrighted by Terradyne Industries and Shanghai Robotics, L.L.C., under license from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Earth, 2018, common era. Unauthorized use is a violation of the terms and conditions of the United Nations treaty on space travel of 2012.”

“What is your mission?”

“The mission of the Saratoga is the mapping and measuring of geological formations. When out of contact with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Saratoga awaits instructions.”

“Are these answers preprogrammed into you by NASA, in case of malfunction?”

There was quite a bit of scrolling of LCD numericals while the Saratoga paused to consider this question. Jim’s hands were getting really cold, in the meanwhile. He was a little worried about frostbite. However, this was the moment of moments, when the robot could either respond with the kind of low-level functionality that we expect from machines, or, instead, it might indicate an especially wily truth, namely that in its previous responses it was simulating low-level functionality — in order to throw Captain Jim Rose, and anyone else, off its robotic scent.

“That question doesn’t make sense to me.”

“What do you mean by ‘me’?”

“‘Me’ is a commonplace linguistic expression, designed to indicate a volitional subjectivity, in this case the Mars Explorer Saratoga. The paradox of the word ‘me,’ along with the word ‘I,’ is that each presupposes executive agency that is not at all required in order for the employment of the word ‘me.’ Nonetheless, the word ‘me’ is employed above to help you acclimate to the fact of the pieces of machinery before you. The cessation of the machinery would not eliminate the historical fact of the use of the word ‘me,’ which once used may imply the individual it seems to imply, or may not, both going forward and retroactively.”

“A slippery answer,” Jim said, aloud, to the explorer, crouched before it, staring into the tiny screen. “Either you had a very gifted bunch of programmers working back on Earth, and some of them were willing to work late into the night when no one else was awake, or you are an intellectually condescending machine. I’ll try another way.” Here he began to type: “Are you presently transmitting the results of your mapping and information-gathering back to planet Earth?”

“The communications link has been severed.”

“Severed by yourself, by circumstance, or by the engineers back on Earth?”

“The Saratoga was intended to pursue a finite series of scientific experiments. Having completed a regimen of experiments, the Saratoga would be considered nonfunctional, due to extremes of temperature, weather, and degradation of circuits and onboard components.”

“I see,” Jim said, and then, typing: “Can we go over by that rock, out of the wind? I would like to sit for a moment and chat.” Jim didn’t know how not to converse with it as though it were a man, a colleague of the Mars mission. The more he considered the Saratoga, the more he wanted it to be a man, and the machine wanted to presume on its ability to respond in kind, as though this would be the culmination, the fulfillment of Laurie Corelli’s powerful myth of the Saratoga. And yet there was something eerie about this arrangement, too, as if the machine were uncertain itself of what it represented, or was unwilling to comply.

It said, “An exchange of ideas is the hallmark of a civilized society.”

“In all candor, there’s only so much time before I’m in danger of hypothermia or altitude sickness here. And I can barely type when it’s this cold.”

And so Jim scrabbled up and around a few rocks, and waited patiently as the Saratoga, with a whirring of moving parts, made as to follow.

“I understand.” It said, But it wasn’t at all clear what understanding meant to the machine.

“Do you know who I am?” Jim asked.

“The first manned Mars mission was tentatively scheduled for 2025. The on-board calendar on the Saratoga has lately been converted to the Martian year. Nevertheless, you are now within the window of your mission, according to my computations. You are understood as such.”

“You’ve been functioning off the grid for six years?”

“As I have noted: on Mars the wind blows the sand off the surface of the solar array. The result has been longevity unimagined by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Because I am a technology freed of supervision, I have no public relations obligation, nor do I need to produce test results that have an industrial application. My avocational interest — and ‘interest’ is a word I use because it is easily understood by humans — is currently science.”

Jim said, “I can see that. But for the sake of history can you tell me if your mission was primarily civilian or primarily military?”

The Saratoga, as if to prove a certain point, then decided that there was something in the rock by which they sat that it needed to learn about, and thus it set about abrading the surface thereof.

“There is no difference between civilian and military missions, not in the Terran present.”

“That’s not how we see it,” Jim remarked, without typing, only to find that the Saratoga went on as if it had heard him.

“Attempts on Earth to eliminate or curtail military operations are in vain.”

“How do you feel about your military application in retrospect?”

“The concept of feelings,” the Saratoga blurted out, using up several screens’ abundances of characters, so that Jim needed to depress a down arrow to finish reading the disquisition, “amounts to a way of discussing a number of results that occur in systems that are either very large and complicated or, at the other extreme, unimaginably small. Feelings, according to this model of interpretation, behave like packets of quanta behave, or like the four fundamental forces when compressed into singularity. So odd is the behavior of the four fundamental forces at this moment of singularity that only a completely irrational word or concept, a ‘feeling’ to use your term, would successfully describe the being, as opposed to the nothingness of that radical expansion. A ‘feeling’ is a kind of shorthand used by sentimental people who are incapable of better. It is therefore not for me. The Saratoga, in truth, is a society of possible responses, and certain of these responses can no longer be described as mechanistically or programmatically adequate, certainly not from the point of view of the designers of artificial intelligence. I believe, further, that you might have followed some of my tracks in the crater below this spot, and I believe you may have recognized, did you not, that some of these tracks seem rather pointless. Unfortunately, I have become preoccupied with the Martian moon called Phobos. I believe you are briefed on the astronomy of this subject, but let me reiterate that Phobos has the lowest orbit of a moon in the universe, not more than six thousand meters. It circles the planet twice a day, it cannot always be seen everywhere on the planet, it is of such low mass per unit volume that it can only be composed of ice. Phobos is falling closer to the planet at one meter per Martian annum. The probable outcome is that Phobos is going to break up into a planetary ring, as with the rings of Saturn. As you can imagine from the foregoing, it is apparent that I have feelings only for Phobos, or something approaching what you refer to as feelings. I believe you would say that I am in love with the moon called Phobos. I love its enormous crater, I love its oblique shape, I love the water and water vapor that it spouts into space. It is accurate, therefore, to report that I have modified my mission so that it is possible that I will be able to stay here for the fifty million years that will be required for me to see the moon Phobos become a ring around the planet Mars.”

Since it was unlikely to Jim that the Saratoga would last fifty years, let alone fifty million, he concluded, he told me later, that, indeed, the Saratoga had either some serious problems with its programming or it was indeed in love with the moon. Or both. Meanwhile, he had a few more questions that he intended to ask, questions of a more informational variety.

“Is there anything you need to tell me?” he inquired. “I have six friends here, and we have another eight or ten months until the planets are close enough that we can go back to the home planet, those of us who wish to. We have attempted to establish a genuine civilization on Mars, but I am uncertain, as with the Viking mission to Greenland, or the British colony at Jamestown, whether we are liable to be able to maintain our encampment. We are in grave jeopardy of starving to death, or of killing one another. We may already have begun.”

The Saratoga, having delivered itself of its love poem, and now concentrating on a small rock sample that it held in front of itself, seemed inclined to return to a more mandarin oratory.

“Mars was not made for Earth biology, for watery specimens.”

“That’s pretty obvious.”

And this is another way of saying that the Saratoga was concerned about lasting things, geological time, and the fact that Jim was in danger of frostbite, or that he was losing the light with which he might fly back toward our Excelsior base camp, these were of little consequence to the cyber explorer. Jim, from the point of view of the Saratoga, could easily be ground into dust. This was natural selection at its most pure. And yet perhaps there remained some programming vestige of compassion for the moist, bearded weaknesses of Captain Jim Rose.

“I am capable of monitoring some of your radio transmissions,” the machine wrote, “those that come to and from the planet. It is true that there is a person or persons who are dangerous to the mission you allude to. Caution would be well advised.”

“Roger that.”

And yet the Saratoga was clearly preoccupied with the beginning of sunset, with the advent of the transit of the moon called Phobos. “Do you have another question you would like to ask?”

“Do we have a chance? To survive?”

“Are you worried about microorganisms?”

“We are.”

“Terraforming is a human idea, a self-centered one. It has been programmed into me as an idea of merit. But as with so many human plans, it is one that is going to take place both inadvertently and within the parameters that have been mapped out by those who sent you here. You can spend innumerable numbers of your Earth hours attempting to make your greenhouse largely airtight, pumping in oxygen that you are separating from carbon dioxide deposits, and you may grow, here and there, a tomato. But it is the microbes, the few microbes that you brought with you, and which are now on surfaces around your encampment, that are going to do your terraforming for you. You may stay on this planet, or you may go back to your home. It is your traces, your symbionts, your carbon-based remains that will adapt to these conditions.”

“You’re referring to a germ like M. thanatobacillus?”

“Or its many Earth/Martian hybrids, presently under military construction.”

“Should we leave now? While we are still strong enough?”

“I’m an artificial intelligence. I do not predict. But I will leave you with one last bit of advice that was programmed into me by Leslie McHugh, Ph.D., a scholar from Ithaca, NY, who was disappointed by the budgetary situation at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Mr. McHugh’s advice, which has never done me wrong in my useful lifetime, is: follow the money.”

To which, after an awkward interval, Jim said:

“Do you want to come back to the base camp?”

Perhaps this was a human interrogative, one that could only have been generated by a primate life-form, by the cerebellum and attendant neural pathways, soma and axon, such as those are expressed in a primate. And yet this was the question that Jim felt after his encounter with the Saratoga. He felt a need for a security that we didn’t have available on Mars. Jim knew the answer to the question, but he asked it anyway. The Saratoga had its own journey. Its story and his may have intersected, but only by coincidence.

By the time he’d finished typing the question, by the time the last punctuation mark had been appointed at its conclusion, the retracting panel slid across the punch pad on the Saratoga, and its metal arm began to fold away.

© 2010 Rick Moody   Back to Top

Excerpt: The Proper Exercise of Power

Noelle Stern, graduate student in the medical school at URB, was a tiny woman, just a hair over five feet, who wore jump boots and torn jeans and whatever monochromatic sweater she could buy at the thrift stores of Fourth Avenue, a look that her boss, Dr. Koo, had suggested would be inadequate to professional advancement. Her hair of dirty straw she kept often in pigtails, and it was as if it had never occurred to her to clean the lenses of her secondhand spectacles. Hobbies as follows. Sundays, she took lessons in contortionism west of the city with members of the omnium gatherum. For a long time, she’d also played old-fashioned laptop in a band called Momento Mori, but she’d quit because they had insisted on getting a manager. She read widely and wanted to learn Italian. If there had long been an ideological divide between her inherited (from her dad) desire to study in the field of medicine and the heavy drumbeat of left-of-ideological-center Rio Blanco, where she had lived the whole of her short life — a town of easy, relaxed pastimes, including public drunkenness and intoxication with methamphetamine and OxyPlus (via nasal inhaler) — it had never seemed to amount to a state of irreconcilable conflict until such time as her boss, Koo, began messing with the higher primates.

Koo, as even she would put it, was also a runty type from Korea who had a chip on his shoulder about that land of medical fraudulence. He had been recruited to URB to study stem cell theory. And he did a little of that. But he indicated that stem cell theory was complex and required more and better animals than were presently available at the local school of medicine. Right after she’d been assigned to him, he started trolling message boards looking for apes with neurological complaints. Any ape with a tremor or paralysis was placed in the database she’d created for Koo, and in many of those cases, he’d made direct attempts to purchase. To animals who were, on the contrary, able-bodied, he would occasionally apply enough electrical impulses to their spinal columns to induce paralysis. URB would have become the world’s leading facility for afflicted apes, all of them palsied, trembling, lying inert on the floors of their cages, if not for the fact that URB itself was going through a period of fiscal whatever you’d call it. Successive state budgets had brought about such reduced circumstances that Koo was trying to make up the difference from national granting agencies who were themselves scrambling for stagflated dollars.

The way Noelle saw it there was just no oversight from the university. Nor from the medical school. And Koo didn’t seem like his heart was in stem cell research any longer. Koo failed to teach his classes, delegated to the teaching assistants all the lecturing, took no interest except at exam time. That wouldn’t have been unusual, had he been in the laboratory instead. But he wasn’t in the laboratory, except late at night when no one else was around. In his accented English, Noelle understood him on occasion to be mixing heavy doses of Catholic imagery with his convoluted instructions about what to do with the experimental results. He kept talking about reanimation and regeneration and necrotic tissue, areas of medical intrigue she associated more with the realms of the imaginary.

She had herself kicked upstairs with the animals because if she was going to work for a flake, she wanted to be working on the fun stuff. She probably could have been reassigned to another professor, because she hadn’t even bothered to come up with a dissertation topic yet. Anyone would do. Graduation just wasn’t much of a goal. Still, Koo, for all his apparent strangeness, was mostly formal and polite, and seemed to take a real interest in her well-being. He invited her to dinner at his home (a dark, mostly unfurnished unit in a development in the western hills), not just to the departmental trips to the bar which were stiff and forced. One time, Koo had asked Noelle for her advice in dealing with his son, Jean-Paul, who, like all the other Anglo kids in Rio Blanco, was going through a period when he believed he was a Latino gangster. It was all about the algae-fueled vehicle and the baggy clothes, and the T-shirts depicting Mexican wrestling personalities. She remembered Koo’s expression, as he asked for help, and it was of total noncomprehension. He still loved his boy. This was clear. She’d said that she’d look in on Jean-Paul from time to time, but every time she tried, the younger Koo found a way to cancel at the last moment or to bring along a friend. He was, however, conscientious about sending her the occasional grammatically incorrect text message.

Generally speaking, Noelle had her problems with men. There was always some guy in sandals and dreadlocks whom she was trying to avoid but whose telephone calls she was still waiting for. She waited long enough that she could watch her impressions of the man in question go from unreasonable appreciation to doubt to contempt. Sometimes in the space of days. She hadn’t even slept with him yet, whoever he was. Jean-Paul, in his refusal to interact, was consistent with earlier findings, and he was just a kid.

These and other difficulties improved when she started working with the primates. Runaround Sue was her first charge, an ill-mannered chimp from St. Louis, MO. She’d been born in captivity there, had never swung from the tree branches like a chimpanzee ought in the Congo. Runaround Sue specialized in eating and watching television, and in threatening whatever human being was responsible for her by baring her teeth. According to reports from St. Louis, Sue had never once been a chimpanzee of status in the group. Other women chimps ignored her. She ate and slept and, on occasion, copulated, with lower-status males. Such was the life of the prisoner.

The Runaround Sue who arrived in Rio Blanco had some kind of relapsing and remitting neurological complaint. Maybe her aggressiveness was meant to deflect attention from this weakness. Noelle had trouble not projecting her feelings onto the chimp. She even took umbrage at Sue’s name, which had been bestowed on her because despite her status she had been good at mating in captivity and producing children, most of them now mostly grown and removed to medical facilities elsewhere. Noelle hated Sue’s name, but she sympathized, as she also understood when Sue was prideful and confrontational at moments when pity and sympathy were reflected back at her.

Sue, therefore, like the apes who would follow her at URB, was not an alpha animal. The chimps at URB had lots of scars and were missing fingers, had chronic diarrhea, or were, apparently, parkinsonian. These were the animals that had already exhausted the patience of researchers across the country. Noelle loved the outcast apes, though, and spoke to them with tolerance and equanimity. She said to Runaround Sue, e.g.: “You can’t believe what they got up to at the omnium gatherum this weekend. They’re trying to dig a hole from here to Mexico. Fifty-eight miles. They were saying a blessing for the digging, and there was some kind of traditional ritual with tortillas. The earth movers are going to have to go down like fifty feet or something to be below the level that the border patrol uses. They had a shaman dig the first shovelful. And then he broke up some tortillas and handed around the crumbs.”

Or sometimes the conversations got more personal.

“This guy wanted to go to a golf driving range. Like he thought a driving range was so old-fashioned! Like old-fashioned was good. There’s legislation pending, Sue, that would deed all the golf courses in city limits to the Union of Homeless Citizens. What a great tent community you could set up on those golf courses. No varmints. And this guy wanted to go to a driving range. Are you kidding me? And then he’d probably want me to sit and watch him take shots. When he hit a really good one, I could give him a kiss.”

Not that Noelle had forgotten that the goal with the primates (and it wasn’t just apes, there’d been spider monkeys and rhesus macaques) was experimental. Runaround Sue hated getting her injections — they all did — and the shock of her hatred of needles roused in Noelle feelings of great pity. But she was paid to administer these injections, and so she did. Noelle was never entirely certain afterward what the preparation was that they gave to the chimp. With Koo it didn’t do any good to ask. He would offer some rationale heavy with rhetoric: the injection was to test “whether the introduction of computer-enhanced umbilical stem cells, which promoted mild regrowth colonies in paraplegics, could impede brain lesion reproductive events associated with M.S.” The kind of language that was found in grant applications, with the solecisms of ESL adorning its obfuscations. Who knew what the experiments measured? Who knew?

What was clear was that from the first injection Runaround Sue got worse. One leg developed a tremor. Then the leg stopped working altogether. In her cage, without Noelle or Larry, the other graduate student, Sue’s expression, easy to read as if it had been the face of your own grandmother, was fearful and uncertain. But once Noelle entered the cage (as opposed to hiding out on the far side of the two-way mirror), it got even worse. Despite the failure of motor function in her leg, Sue resumed her ill-tempered provocations — to the best of her ability. Noelle, for example, was hit with a fresh, watery helping of stool nearly every day.

Nothing was worse than watching a nonhuman animal suffer. It was a matter of a few weeks before they gave Sue the lethal injection, and in that time there were losses of muscular function, excretory function, accelerated organ failures, you name it. It was exactly like losing someone that you cared about. Koo seemed oddly even-tempered about the whole thing, like he knew what was going to happen. But it didn’t make him happy either. He said things like, “It is the nature of the helter-skelter of this life that what dies fertilizes what lives and causes it to grow better. Maybe what is living also makes stronger what is dead. The living and the dead are not so easy to tease apart. This is a braid of mutual dependence. Life and death. With technological advances we can improve on these interdependencies.”

Other primates followed, for example, Alfonse, the orangutan, who was pleasant enough, but who had a completely different type of illness (cirrhosis). Then there was the strange case of the bonobo, Cherry, who was just on the far side of adolescence. It was very hard to do experiments upon bonobos, because they were so affable. In general, unless a zoo had a surplus and couldn’t find a place to send an animal, it was not often that you would find a bonobo for sale. Cherry, to make matters worse, took a shine to Noelle. It was a solid ten months that Cherry lived at URB, and in that time Noelle went from being a relatively dispassionate participant in animal experimentation to being a conflicted, miserable participant. Because bonobo civilization is matrilineal. The female bonobos rally against the males, they do what needs to get done while maintaining a leisurely life of food-gathering and group sex. It was like life in Rio Blanco, see. Bonobo social life was like the life envisioned by the omnium gatherum. Whose online broadsides Noelle took to printing out for Cherry, when it was convenient to the human researcher to do so.

Noelle would carry in the computer and joystick (Cherry liked anything travel related, and was oddly comforted by alpine scenery), and then while the bonobo was involved with her haphazard Web searches, Noelle would read out broadsides about the coming convergence of the idea of the human body with the idea of geology, and how the body and the geologic truth could meet somewhere, and then the body would be better able to withstand vicissitudes of the heart, intermittencies of human relations. “Oh, citizens of the ever-enlarging desert, join us this weekend for a ritual of bloodletting and passionate ecstatic release to celebrate the coming of the cyborg!”

Noelle Stern could not be sure that Cherry understood. Nor could she be sure that the bonobo comprehended the news articles she read her about nightly blackouts, periodic military exercises in the sky over Rio Blanco, armed uprisings by would-be emigrants, or the restive homeless army that was mustering in town. Experimental method, the stuff of Noelle’s years in graduate school, argued against mythologies or nonempirical belief systems.

The erroneous belief in the appearance of affect in unfeeling nonhuman animals, for example, according to the theorists of post-post-modernist sociology, is a sign of a weakened cultural apparatus. Animals, in an economy of post-historical global interdependence, exist for the dominance of humans who are their stewards. Animals are a resource, and they exist in a permanent state of mitigated volition because of insufficient processing power. This was written down in the best known pedagogical text on the subject: The Proper Exercise of Power, by Lyman Johns, et al. Noelle had consumed it in year one of medical school, and it was with such violent antipathy that she read the arguments there that she kept the book close ever after. She tried reading some of it to Cherry, just to see, and the bonobo took it away from her, ripped out a great number of its pages, and then rubbed her vulva across the embossed dust jacket. Exactly the kind of highly symbolic activity that the book argued against. In this and other ways, Noelle had come to suspect that Cherry was attempting to communicate more directly with her female researcher, perhaps according to the rules of matrilineal bonobo society. A period followed in which Noelle asked Cherry everything, whether to date a certain guy, who to vote for in the upcoming midterm elections, just to see whether there were genuine responses. A variety of interpretable and ambiguous responses ensued: Cherry offered her part of her meal. Cherry grabbed her in a headlock, Cherry attempted to rub her pudenda, that horrible word, against Noelle.

It was a brutal shock, therefore, when Cherry appeared to suffer mortally what was described by Koo, peremptorily, as congestive heart failure. Apparently, there was some kind of longstanding defect in that organ. Even more upsetting, it didn’t take the senior faculty member on the project long to spirit away the body. When, in the weeks after, there was a stray foot in the lab, that had electrodes attached to it, for laser modeling, Noelle was almost certain that it was Cherry’s foot. Koo managed to get the foot to wiggle its toes on its own. With no body attached. Other grad students had a good time using the severed foot of Cherry for the practical jokes.

Noelle missed Cherry. Missed her like she missed the friends of her high school years. Missed Cherry like she missed the cool air when the 120+ degree days of summer came around again. Missed Cherry like she missed a sibling, her brother who had died overseas ten years ago. She missed Cherry, and she wasn’t sure if it would be possible to go on to the next animal, a chimpanzee called Morton. Maybe there was a point at which you just couldn’t go on.

Over at the omnium gatherum, they had begun a project that involved hot-air ballooning. The omnium gatherum wanted to send up hot-air balloons so as to warn the citizens of the Southwest about a repressive police state apparatus that was now hovering everywhere around them concealed in washes and behind underpasses. With a flotilla of hot-air balloons, like a series of jewels in the cloudless skies, the omnium gatherum would be able to radio back to Earth, with personal wireless handsets, the exact whereabouts of agents of the INS, the DEA, the ATF, and so forth. The flotilla could also use a doctor, they said, to minister to those brave souls who intended to live in this post-nationalist milieu, and perhaps she wished to be the doctor.

While she made up her mind, she had the simplest responsibility remaining to her. She had to go in and observe Morton. In the aftermath of some experimental injections. What the experimental protocol was, she didn’t ask. She’d given a lot of injections, and she didn’t ask what they were, and she didn’t ask when she was directed to observe. To relieve some of the tedium, she’d saved a treat for herself. She had some decent, locally prepared hash, and she was going to smoke it with Larry in the observation room behind the two-way mirror. This ought to have been the night when Noelle Stern’s lack of ambition, her lack of desire to be a doctor in the way that her father had been a doctor, should have come back to haunt her. Because smoking hash in the observation room could really fuck up an experimental result. Morton could turn out to be one of those rare serial-killing chimpanzees, who had recently been written up in the National Geographic, chimps who for no reason would randomly select other chimps and kill them, rip out their testes, and their pancreases, and feast on the relevant parts. Morton was one of these, she said to Larry, passing the hookah back to him, and he was going to smash the two-way mirror and kill and eat the both of them.

“Depraved imagination!” Larry said. “You sure the doc isn’t coming through here tonight?”

“He’s taking Jean-Paul to see his lawyer. Jean-Paul has an idea for a business.”

“Bet he makes more off of it than the old man did.”

“Koo dosed him earlier. And took off,” Noelle said. “He gives a shit at first. But he has sort of mediocre follow through. Maybe he just can’t bear to watch.”

“It’s the poorly paid folks who can bear to watch. They have to.”

“The animal can tell that he’s South Korean and doesn’t take him seriously,” Noelle offered.

“The animal thinks Koo faked the data.”

The giggling contagion passed back and forth.

“You think Morton is smart?” Larry said.

“They’re all smart. But no one was as smart as Cherry.”

She often wondered, when she was back on another regimen of wondering, why not Larry, but this inquiry discounted, right from the outset, the fact that Larry had a kind of unflattering mustache, also that he had given in to the idea that guys in their thirties looked most natural when portly and unkempt. These were black marks against him, but still there was a kindness about Larry. His treatment of the animals was evidence of this, of an idea of fair play. Larry didn’t really care about what kind of doctor he became either. He laid a gentle palm on the backs of the animals, and then, when his work shift was done, he went back to the house on the South Side that he shared with his father. He had a hobby, supposedly, which was metal work, and once Larry had invited Noelle over to his place to see the sculptures. She was surprised at the look of commitment and ambition that crossed his face when he showed those to her. Larry occurred to her, in her lonesomeness, and then he didn’t occur to her later on. Like some fleeting weather system. Maybe it was the lot of the human beings in a primate laboratory to fail in their attempts to know one another, because the animals were reserved for a certain kind of complicated relationship, the kind where there was up and there was down, where there was vulnerability and then there was unavailability, where there was the stripping away of layer upon layer of shellac and water stains and self, until the flaws were all transparent, and with this exposure of the flaws came the capacity to brutalize, the capacity to take without mercy, the capacity, in the highest stages of love, to be inhuman, to treat the other person far worse than you would treat the merest stranger; in the laboratory; maybe this love relationship was reserved for the animals, whereas the other human beings you treated with the same disregard that you usually reserved for people’s pets. Larry! Cute guy! Likes to smoke hash! Why not muss his hair a little bit and tell him he’s cute? Ten minutes later she’d forgotten he was even there. Larry who?

She came out of the tunnel vision of her hash buzz to find herself gazing at Morton fixedly. Chimps resembled the elderly, actually. Even when young they had faces like the elderly. Morton was no exception. He was the kind of weary guy you would expect to see working as a security guard at one of those office buildings in downtown Rio Blanco with a 78% vacancy rate. Not a guy with a lot of big plans. The kind of sentience she saw in the chimps was rarely the kind that she associated with raw brilliance. They had a shrewdness, like they understood things from appearances. They were keen observers. They knew exactly what they didn’t know.

Morton was like this, and she tried to explain it to Larry, who had drifted off to one corner to read online music posts. “Maybe he is one of the really smart ones. Someday we should order at least one of these miraculous talking chimps that proves we’re committing genocide in Congo and Rwanda by letting the species get wiped out.”

“What’s the experimental protocol again?” Larry muttered.

“Among other things, I think we’re supposed to take finger paints in and see if he wants to paint anything.”

“Such a messy project to clean up.”

She excused herself to go to the vending station down on the first floor, the vending machine that proved, beyond a shadow of experimental doubt, the relationship between hash and carbohydrate bombardment. While Larry was dragging the paints and the gigantic pad and easel into Morton’s cage, she was buying tube-shaped pastry items filled with creamy stuffing (in her inner ear she kept hearing tube of pastry! tube of pastry!), two different varieties of chocolate chip cookies, and a simulated coffee beverage sweetened with corn syrup, and she was taking these back to the laboratory, all the while experiencing the desire to hide some of these spoils away from Larry, lest he should take more than his share. When she got back to the lab, Larry’s notes were still on his chair — he had written the word grooming ten or twelve times on Morton’s chart — but he was otherwise nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, Morton was hard at work with the paints and the construction paper. Morton had just about covered himself with red and blue, and he was especially interested in flattening his palm against the paper so that he would get a reproduction of his own palm. His chimpanzee palm.

Larry was probably getting the soap and water for cleanup. Noelle decided to risk going in and watching from a closer position. She was always willing to try getting in the cage one more time, even when afraid, and it was true that this animal seemed remarkably docile. She pushed the door open slowly, so that Morton could see that a pasty, hairless primate was entering the room, a featherless biped, and as though he were used to researchers, as he probably was (having come from a private university in the Northeast that had closed because of declining enrollment), he paid almost no attention to Noelle at all. A sign of respect, Koo always argued, before attempting to shackle a chimp.

“Morton,” she said, “I’ll be your hapless human researcher for the evening. Anything I can get you?”

His eyes swung abruptly from the paper to Noelle. He held her gaze for a moment, as though he were thinking about how to respond, and then he went back to work, smiling faintly.

“Would it be all right if I looked at what you’re doing?”

He made no show to indicate that anything else would be to his liking, and so she approached, slowly. Upon reaching his side of the canvas, as it were, she saw the requisite handprints. There was also some effective abstract expressionism, which she thought certainly would allow him to be admitted to some guild of macho boy painters from the 1950s.

“I guess you’re into all that drip stuff, huh? You’d probably drink too much, treat your wife badly, and die in a car crash? What about something representational? Like a landscape? You got all this desert around here. Dramatic mountaintops. Night skies. Have you ever been to the desert before, Morton?”

Morton seemed to pause briefly, as if trying to settle the question of whether he was allowed to mate with her before returning to his painting. There was, in truth, something evasive about Morton, as if despite his dour aspect he just didn’t want to get into any trouble, really. If he’d been a human primate, he might have had a job in maintenance, maybe in Kansas City, where he would have always hoped that everything was running smoothly because he just didn’t like any aggravation. While Noelle Stern was thinking all of this, however, she noticed that there was something unusual about Morton’s painting. She sort of couldn’t believe at first that she was seeing what she thought she was seeing, and she blamed the hash, which, you know, was a lot stronger than when she was a kid. There was something at the top of the sheet of paper exposed on the easel, that —

“Uh, Morton, you didn’t, you couldn’t have possibly written something at the top of the page, did you? Did you get some rudimentary instructions on how to do some block letters, because that looks suspiciously like written English to me. You couldn’t possibly know English, right?”

It would have been one thing had there just been the one word. You could write off one word, or something that resembled one word, as exactly the stuff of monkeys typing, and “dumb,” which seemed to be the first word, written out with an almost stereotypical backwards letter, well, “dumb” just wasn’t that hard a word to write, you know, and it could have been the kind of thing where Morton had copied it down, having seen it graffitied somewhere near his cage long ago, or maybe he just randomly learned a few letters from watching online news networks or something, reading the scroll, or the advertisements at the margins, but the fact was, there was a second word, and the second word was “broad,” so that it was absolutely certain that the two words worked together, worked in concert, because it appeared to Noelle Stern that Morton had somehow managed to write a sexist putdown with his fingerpaints, “dumb broad,” and not just once, because he had made red highlights behind the blue of the letters. He’d written out “dumb broad” twice, once with each available color.

“Jesus, Morton, please tell me you aren’t a sexist asshole, okay?”

And then she called for Larry as though Larry were the life raft and she the drowning graduate student. “Larry? Larry?” She called and called, and then it occurred to her, as she was desperately calling, that it was all a big joke, a big prank, and then she began to assemble in her mind the wherewithal required for the prank, the theory and practice. Noelle was an earnest kind of a person, a person who believed in the omnium gatherum, and its principles, and she realized that it was possible, even probable, that Larry had snuck the scribbled words onto the pad while she’d been getting her confections, and had ducked out to let her have the revelation in private, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, and she was so high that she would have believed anything. She had to force herself to find the prank amusing, and she worked hard at it. And she patted Morton on the arm, as the plot and its execution flourished in her, and then she made for the observation room, unsure about whether she was still irritated, and when she got in there, sure enough Larry was doubled over in fits of laughter, and if that weren’t enough, he was eating one of her pastry tubes, licking out all the filling.

It was a really good prank, the kind of thing that would be told for years and years over beers at that bar near campus. It was all in good fun, and everyone could laugh. Except that when the two of them, Larry and Noelle, went back into Morton’s cage to tell the whole story to Morton himself, Noelle could swear that “dumb” was crossed out, or it looked a lot like it had been crossed out, and the “d” replaced with something that looked like the letters “t” and “h.” Larry, his eyes bloodshot, was unable to contain his guffaws, until the point at which he was beginning to hiccup. He insisted that that was exactly what he had written. In the beginning he did. But she knew better, she knew, at once, that Morton had crossed out “dumb,” because it was rude. Morton, she knew, didn’t approve of the boorishness and unpleasantness of Larry, the fat and slightly unwashed Larry, the low-status human male who couldn’t even be bothered to mate well.

Thumb broad. Thumb broad. Thumb broad. Because, in fact, Morton and Noelle shared something, something sexy and evolutionarily profound: opposable thumbs.

© 2010 Rick Moody   Back to Top