Cartoon mouse in lab

The Ultimate Experiment

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

[Editor's note: This submission won second place in the Synapse storytelling contest fiction category.]

Three brothers had been killed that evening, leaving the fourth alone in his cage. He threw himself violently against the cage wall until it toppled over, and he stumbled out.

Emboldened by grief, Number-42 scurried along the hall to tour the rest of the lab now that most humans – except an occasional mad-eyed grad student – were at home sleeping. The flies buzzed excitedly.

Hello, 42, meet our new babies! We birthed 432 new maggots today! 42 forced a smile but glanced pointedly at the adjacent vial of ethanol filled with thousands of fly carcasses. He pattered across the benchtop to check on his worm friends, who slithered elegantly across their agar plates to meet 42.

Without him having to ask, they told him the body count. Most of them are in the biohazard bags but some perished more gruesomely at the Bunsen burner.

Finally, 42 visited the lab’s bacterial and yeast colonies. It was a great joke among the lab creatures: these cells, with their fast evolution and sophisticated chemical communication, were the smartest creatures of the bunch but the human researchers – those dolts – had no clue.

42 found these visits the most interesting because he knew that the cells he conversed with on any given day would not survive until their next conversation, for their lifespan was so short. If you had only one chance to talk to someone, what would you say? Brethren, this cannot go on. I have a plan.

As expected, 42 faced opposition, particularly from Number-1, the alpha mouse who lived in the cage opposite his.

“Are you crazy? You forget that all our sacrifices are for a greater cause: studying humans. We have uncovered so much already about their genes, problem solving abilities, emotional resilience, and more. Anything we learn about humans helps us treat diseases in our own species. And how else will we develop strategies to circumvent human-catalyzed climate change? The best way to keep the humans in our clutches is to let them think that they are studying us.”

“They killed my three brothers today just because they had aged out and they needed the cage space for their new microscope.”

“You forget that the three brains from my sisters yielded valuable insight on neurodegeneration. The humans think that those data are just for them, but we know how to apply the data to all species that suffer from similar conditions.”

“Yes, but what if we instead culled their brains for study? We could get valuable data without sacrificing our own families.”

“If we killed the humans, then the microchips we implanted will no longer transmit information about their thoughts.”

“There are billions of humans – plenty for culling with enough left over for our own research.” Number-42 scampered back to his cage, leaving the other animals in deep discussion.

The next morning, the human researchers trickled back into the lab and Number-42 discreetly checked the microchip readout station.

Human-subject-3 (HS3) was distracted by photos of his new cat on his phone, bespectacled HS5 had just received her first grad school acceptance letter, and HS6 had barely made it out of bed this morning because of her depression.

This will increase our n for the dopamine and serotonin studies,” thought Number-42 excitedly.

Number-42 watched numbly as HS6 carted a few mouse cages to the euthanasia room and hooked them up to the CO2 chambers. Immediately after their deaths, HS6 held their still-warm bodies in her hands and uttered a brief prayer before cutting off their heads with a pair of sterilized scissors.

She swiftly peeled open their skulls with her thumb and scooped their brains into chilled tubes for analysis. HS6 shed no tears, for this procedure was now routine, but when Number-42 checked her microchip readout he found the signatures of a morbid thought: That could be me.

That night, Number-42 again rallied the lab creatures to nurture the seeds of his plan.

“Fellow animals, Number-1 is correct in saying that we amass terabytes of valuable data from our human microchip readouts each day. However, I think it is time we start doing manipulative experiments on them in addition to gathering these observational microchip data.”

“What kind of experiments did you have in mind?” asked Number-1, whose heart had softened a bit, for the mice euthanized that day were his daughters.

“Just follow my lead tomorrow.”

Sure enough, Number-42 got an opportunity to reveal his plan when HS6 approached him for his morning injection of vitamins. He bit her hand when she tried to pick him up, though HS6 paid it no heed for mouse bites were routine in this business.

Unbeknownst to HS6, however, Number-42 had coated his teeth with a powerful drug thought in the mouse community to ameliorate depression at low doses but exacerbate symptoms at high doses – the dose threshold was largely underexplored until now.

The other mice followed suit, injecting their human subjects with a variety of antibiotics, hallucinogens, and the works.

The worms were even more noble and inventive in their methods, for they sent volunteers to crawl into the digestive tracts of the researchers and set up parasitic colonies within the gut.

The bacteria, however, took the crown. Motile colonies crawled into the researchers’ skin lacerations (caused by the mice, of course) and inserted foreign DNA fragments into the humans’ genome.

Four days later, Number-42 woke up to the sound of human sobs. They had found HS6 dead in her apartment that morning.

The mice were not surprised, given the reams of microchip data coming in. Number-1 thought mournfully of his daughters as he watched HS6’s donated brain roll past on a cart.

The other humans also began exhibiting a variety of curious symptoms, confounding their families outside the lab.

Some human researchers became euphoric, some bedridden with nausea, others with mysterious bouts of botulism, and still more with healed arthritis.

The animals worked overtime to analyze the exciting new data until Number-1 pointed out that their n was substantially too low to infer any sort of statistical significance.

These data are meaningless unless we can show they are reproducible across batches. But alas, the creatures had already nearly exhausted their supply of human researchers in the lab.

“We have an idea,” chimed the bacteria in a whispery chorus. “We will take you to meet our small friends, for they can help us.”

Number-42 held a sealed plate of bacteria in his mouth and listened to their directions to help him navigate. He scampered into the adjacent BSL-3 facility, the one that humans never entered without hazmat suits.

He pawed and gnawed at the -80C freezer to unlock it, and then began thawing a yellow test tube with his own body heat. A soft hum began to emanate from within the tube, thrumming through 42’s body rather than speaking with an external voice.

“Thank you for awakening us. Do you know of our powers?”

“We do! We do!” exclaimed the bacteria in an excited commotion. “You infiltrate almost every organ system in the human body – the lungs, the brain, and everything in between!”

Number-42 shivered from the gravity of the situation.

Unleashing this virus would render all of humankind a petri dish, and his brethren would learn so much about genes that confer immunity, the environmental factors that protect against respiratory failure and fatigue… a few humans would die of course, but that was nothing compared to daily lab carnage.

What a windfall for life on earth! Finally, biomedical research would benefit all life, not just a single species with a self-congratulatory name. Sapiens, ha! A single move from 42 could save Earth from global warming and –

Hum hum let us out, let us out, let us multiply,” the virus interrupted 42’s musings in a mesmerizing drone.

42 squeezed under a series of doors and made his way to the threshold of the lab breakroom, where he paused to take in the conversations on the other side. The humans were making coffee and laughing about sports, trying to lighten the mood after receiving word of HS7’s hospitalization that morning after a cocaine overdose.

HS1, enjoying his sudden and implausible recovery from diabetes, had brought donuts for everyone. 42 plunged into the breakroom, dumped the contents of the yellow test tube into HS1’s coffee, and then instantly retreated.

“The world’s going to hell, but you do make a damn good cup of coffee,” sighed HS1 as he breathed in the freshly roasted scent.

The world changed irrevocably in an instant.

When the humans left the premises later that night, the coterie of creatures gathered around the door to the building.

“We have flipped the door. The outside world is now our lab.” Number-42 announced to the crew.

Reams of human data inundated the servers. With each cough, each clogged nose, the thrumming grew louder until the little ones screamed through the planet with a singular message: Nature is experimenting with all of us.