The Risks of Empathy, a Novella
Karen placed her hand on the palm reader and heard the door’s automatic lock slide open. She held the door as the five darkly clad figures slipped inside. She knew, and had told them earlier, that there was nothing she could do about the video surveillance in the halls.
She led them quietly and surely to the security center where one of them placed a small plastic explosive on the door, even as the guard inside was calling for help on the intercom. The door blew open, two people rushed inside and Karen heard a muffled pop. She never heard a word from the guard.
Karen left them and ran through the hall to the employee locker room to grab her few belongings. As she was passing Yu’s office, the door opened and the scientist looked out to see what was causing the commotion. Without thought and not knowing why she was doing it, she put her hand on Yu’s chest and pushed him back into the office and closed the door behind her.
“You better stay in here Dr. Yu. There are terrorists in the building, and I think someone’s already been hurt.”
Yu looked at Karen with some confusion, then he seemed to understand what she said.
“Yes. I will stay here. Security must be called.”
“They’ve been called already, Dr. Yu.”
Karen and Yu heard shouts and what sounded like a gun. “I don’t know what these people are thinking,” said Yu. “This is a scientific laboratory. We are scientists!”
“We’d better hide! Let’s get under your desk,” said Karen as she pulled out the chair.
Yu and Karen got down on their hands and knees and crawled into the space under Yu’s large desk. They were both fairly small, and once under the desk, they had room to sit across from each other. It was close and intimate, but they weren’t crushed together. They heard more shouts and more gunshots. Karen noticed that Yu was sweating and that his normally immaculate combed-back black hair had become a bit disheveled. Yu seemed to be aware of this and kept trying to smooth his hair down by using his fingers as a comb. His hand was getting oilier with every pass through hair.
“If we just stay here I am sure we will be safe,” said Yu, but his jerky response to the noises that seemed now to be coming from the hall outside and the floor above belied his spoken assurance.
“What do they want, Dr. Yu? Why are they here?” asked Karen, wondering what was going through Yu’s mind.
“They are the animal people,” said Yu, as if this answered everything.
“But what do they want, doctor?”
“The animals. They think the animals are people. They are crazy. It is those animal TEs.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Haven’t you seen them? Karen? Your name is Karen?” Yu seemed finally to realize who she was.
“Yes Dr. Yu. I’m your lab assistant, Karen Brown. I’ve been your assistant for the past four months.”
“Of course, “ said Yu. “Sometimes I have a hard time remembering names. You are the one who asked be about liver transplants.”
“That’s right, but no, I haven’t seen the animals TEs,” Karen lied. “Have you? What are they like?”
Yu looked at his knees folded and just touching Karen’s. “They are... interesting, but little more. I watched one about a rat. The rat was in the dark, it was a dull creature, there was a fight with another rat. It meant nothing.”
“I heard there were many of them,” she coaxed.
“Yes. There were nine made. Dog, cat, cow, pig, chimpanzee, rat, elephant, dolphin, and chicken. I watched them all.”
“So they were nothing?” asked Karen.
Yu kept his attention on their knees. He continued to readjust his coiffure. He appeared to be in meditation.
Yu started and seemed to refocus on Karen’s question. “The chimpanzee was a little surprising. She was alone and seemed almost unaware of all the people who walked by her cage. She thought of the forest and seemed to remember other chimpanzees that might have once been her family. She didn’t seem to realize that she chewed on her arm all of the time.”
Yu cleared his voice and bumped his head on the bottom of the desk when a small explosion shook the building gently.
“One thing that surprised me was that she seemed to be able to read a little...”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, this is odd, but she knew that the popcorn boxes said Popcorn on them. It wasn’t that she knew there was popcorn in the boxes, which she did, but that she actually read the word. She heard ‘popcorn’ in her mind when she took the time to notice the people starring at her and what was in their hands. It was very human-like.”
Karen didn’t know what to say, and didn’t know why she was under the desk with Yu. “Aren’t there monkeys here at the Institute?”
Yu snapped to, “Yes. Of course there are. We are using them in the transplantation experiments. You know that.”
“Well, after what you have told me about the chimpanzee...” her voice quavered slightly, “don’t you think that, maybe, we shouldn’t be using them in the experiments?”
Yu looked Karen in the eyes, “We are scientists. Even if these animals are like us, what does that matter? We must learn. We must progress. We are human they are animal!”
Yu’s eyes seemed to be bugging out, he had given up on his hair; a small bit of spittle was foaming in the corner of his mouth. Karen thought he was about to explode when the door burst open and a guard was shouting into the room, “Dr Yu! Dr. Yu! Are you in here?”
Yu yelled back, “Yes we are here!”
Yu crawled out first and Karen heard the guard say, “It was one of the junior scientists who let them in, most of the animals are gone.”
Karen crawled out behind Yu, and bolted through the door even as the guard yelled after her, “Hey! That’s her! Stop her!”
But she was gone and down the hall and out the door before anyone could. A dark car drove up and she jumped through the open door into the back seat. The door slammed shut and the car drove away at an unconcerned and unremarkable pace. Harlow crawled into her lap and began to purr; a voice from the front said, “Good job. We wondered why you took so long though. Try to get some rest now. We won’t get to the ranch until morning.”