Sunday, July 29, 2012

Risks. Chapter 14

The Risks of Empathy, a Novella

Chapter 14

Richard Selling had recognized the risk to Stan and Earnie as soon as he understood the government's intention toward the animal TEs. Selling had the inventors moved quietly into a new, well-hidden laboratory. When federal agents swooped in to take the scientists into custody, all they found was an empty building and a single TE recording disc.

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Karen awoke when the sedan hit the rough road. The slight odor coming from the litter box down on the floorboard made her think of Harlow, and she started as she realized he wasn't lying on or next to her. But her slight worry disappeared as she sat up and saw the big orange cat curled up between the two people in the front seat. Out her window she saw sagebrush reaching to the horizon, while the other window and the front windshield framed forested mountains.

Karen turned and looked out the rear window and saw that they were being followed by large truck.

"How much longer?" Karen asked.

"Well, good morning," said the passenger who turned and put out her hand to Karen. "It'll be a couple more hours before we reach the camp, but we'll stop at one of the rodent barns first. My name's Sarah."

Karen shook her hand and caught the driver's eye in the rearview mirror. The man nodded to her and said, "I'm Harry. Harry Mahoney," but kept his eyes on the ruts and stones in the road.

Sarah leaned over and hit Harry in the shoulder. "Harry's an ex-cop. All business. You'll get used to him."

Karen looked out the window again saw half a dozen silhouettes on a low hill. "I think I just saw some ostriches!"

"It could have been the emus," said Sarah, "but they probably were ostriches. There are almost two hundred here now. They've been pretty easy to rescue. Most of the big ranches don't have guards and the birds are really docile at night and are easily herded into a truck. They seem to like it here, but I don't think anyone has listened in to one of them yet. Have they Harry?"

"I don't know," answered Harry.

They drove around another low hill and then stopped. Karen noticed that the road had stopped abruptly and she wondered what was going on. "I though we were stopping at a barn."

"This is it," said Sarah and as she was explaining that the hill in front of them was actually the top of a dome sunken into the earth, a large door opened and they drove into an expansive room that appeared to be a warehouse. The truck pulled in behind them and the door slid shut.

"You worked with rodents in that lab, didn't you Karen?" asked Sarah. "Come on, I'll show you around. You're going to love this."

"But what about Harlow?"

"He seems to like me OK," answered Harry. "He can hang out here with me until you get back."

As they walked along people said hello to Sarah and she introduced Karen to many of them. Karen saw carts loaded with plastic boxes with pale blue lids. The boxes held guinea pigs and hamsters and were being pushed along and toward a set of double doors. "Those are some of the animals you helped rescue Karen," said Sarah. "These guys were on a truck ahead of us. They'll be quarantined and spayed before they are released into population. Come on."

They stepped into a small room and the door closed behind them. A lock clicked, and a door on the other side of the room opened. "We have a double door system to keep them from getting out, but some of the little buggers manage to escape every now and then no matter what we do," laughed Sarah. "Watch where you step."

A dirt path greeted them as the entered, and almost immediately a small brown body scurried across and along a much narrower path that disappeared into the grass. "Let's sit over here," said Sarah and led them to a wooden bench. As soon as they sat down two squirrels appeared and one of them jumped up on the bench. "There's a rule about not hand feeding them, but it's pretty clear that not everyone follows it."

The squirrel sat for a while, seemed to give up and jumped down and vanished into the grass with the other squirrel close behind.

Karen was surprised by the sheer size of the park. Park seemed to describe it best. There were bushes, small trees, paths and well-mown grass. She noticed holes and little mounds of earth here and there. "Are those burrows?" she asked.

"Yes. The gerbils, hamsters, ground squirrels, and rabbits all burrow. The rats prefer to nest in the buildings, and the guinea pigs have nest boxes."

"What buildings?"

"Come on. Remember to watch your step."

As the women walked along the path, Sarah explained that the grass, which really wasn't mowed after all, and small plants, served to feed most of the dome's residents, but that grains and fruits were provided daily. Water flowed through a small shallow artificial stream, but sprinklers provided "rain" two days a week and kept the plants lush. The light was artificial. A population of flies, ants and other insects had established themselves and were eaten by some of the rodents.

"How many animals are in here?" asked Karen as two more squirrels stopped in the path and seemed to check out the possibility that the women had treats.

"About a hundred thousand in this barn. There is another barn about the same size nearby, but the big barn holds almost a million."

"Oh my God. I never imagined..."

"We don't have room for them all. Mr. Selling is trying to establish other sanctuaries around the world, but the number of refugees surpasses anything we might be able to provide. It's a real mess, and the fucking labs, the ones that haven't been burnt down yet, keep breeding more. No one knows what we are going to do."

A small flock of birds zipped by Karen's head. "What in the world?"

"They're larks. Some asshole was experimenting on their brains trying to discover how they learn their songs. He raised some in complete isolation and discovered that if they don't learn their songs early in life that they can't learn them later on. Big deal. Just what we need to know. There're about thirty of them in here. We didn't know what else to do with them. They don't know how to live in the wild anymore, but they seem to relish flying. Here're the rat buildings."

Buildings seemed like a funny word for the things Karen was looking at, but she could not think of a better one. The rat buildings were about six feet high and seemed to have nine or ten stories or levels. They were made of wood and no two looked alike. A new one was under construction. Karen saw balconies and holes in the walls leading to inner compartments. Some were blind alleys and some were interconnected. It was a village, or town with about a hundred or so of the buildings arranged rather randomly. Arial walkways connected some of them. The odor was exquisite.

"They are constantly gnawing and remodeling. We give them a new one every so often. Look over here." Sarah walked through the town and stopped at one of the, apparently, older buildings. "I know the rat who lives here, unless he's moved." She looked down at her watch, "It's still a little early-you won't believe how busy it gets in here at night; except for some of the squirrels, almost everyone is nocturnal-but Ratty might be willing to get up if he recognizes my voice."

Sarah knocked on one of the walls. She looked into a dark hole and called gently, "Ratty. Are you in there? Come see me."

A black nose appeared and twitched this way and that. A large black rat stepped out on the balcony, stretched, yawned widely displaying his long yellow teeth, and walked over to Sarah and sniffed her nose. "There you are!" said Sarah as she stroked his body. She put out her hand, and with no hesitation the rat crawled into her hand, up her arm and onto her shoulder. She took him in both hands and kissed him on top of the head. "Want to hold him?" she said to Karen and offered the rat to her.

Karen had understood, both intellectually and emotionally, the implications of the rat TE she had experienced over and over again in her apartment. Her understanding had led to her willingness to help these people break into Yu's facility and steal as many of the animals as they could. But she had never handled a rat or even a hamster or a guinea pig for any reason other than picking one up to break its neck. This big black rat that seemed anxious to get to her frightened her. "I don't know if..." she began, but it was too late. Sarah pushed the rat to her, and without effort the rat crawled up her chest and on to her shoulder and began rooting around in her hair and sniffing her ear. Karen was frozen.

Sarah watched for a few moments, seemed to understand Karen's reaction, and took the rat back. "He's great isn't he?" She set him on the balcony in front of his hole. He yawned again. "Come scratch his side. He loves it."

Sarah showed Karen where he liked to be ticked and Karen summoned up the courage to scratch the big rat. As she scratched around his ears and on top of his head, he closed his eyes and seemed to drift off. She thought back to her days in the lab, looked around rat town and around the park and then to the small animal who was trusting her to scratch his neck. Her life had taken a large u-turn.

"We better go," said Sarah, "you'll need to get your stuff and grab Harlow before we find you a place to bed down." The she reached into her pocket and pulled out a peanut still in the shell.

"Here, give him this, but don't tell anyone," she grinned. "By the way, if you come back here on your own later on, be very careful around the rats. Most of them will bite you as soon as look at you. Rat bites hurt like hell." She kissed Ratty on top of the head, said goodbye, and led Karen back along the path.

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