He could smell food. Where? The scent overlaid the environment like a map.
Rufus ran in the direction suggested by slight radial variations in the strength of the odor. But the path had to be safe. Rufus always craved food, but when balancing hunger against fear, safety had to win out. Too bright! Stay in the shadows.
The blue luminance on his head was a nuisance. Rufus was stuck in mid-action—his back leg raised over his head, next to the bright blue light, ready to scratch, his paw just quivering on the edge of action. He never actually touched the thing embedded in his brain.
His stomach grumbled, returning his attention to food. Rufus ran again. He stuck to the edges, wary of the brightly lit center. But after he’d twice navigated the perimeter, Rufus realized the food was in a place he couldn’t get to without risk.
He heard a sound and felt a familiar vibration of footsteps. He was used to the Big Ones–they provided food and water–but he knew this vibration pattern in particular. He paused, waiting to hear what would happen next. His ears turned in the direction of the sound, assessing its danger; his vision was limited to only what was right in front of his snout.
The high-pitched voice raised Rufus’s anticipation of emotional contact and food. After a moment of excitement, he felt his heart rate slow a bit; his littermate was here. She was one of the Big Ones, but she could be trusted; they had grown up together. She smelled right—like home.
Making himself limp so he could be lifted gently, Rufus settled against the warmth of his littermate’s hands. He could hear the slow rhythm of her giant heartbeat. Her breathing motions and the slight gurgling and hissing sounds that emanated from her–these were comfortingly familiar. He closed his eyes and relaxed.
The voice made soothing sounds, repeating “Ruffy, Ruffy, Ruffy”–a sound combination he recognized. This behavior usually preceded feeding and cuddling. Despite the bright lights, Rufus was safe now.
The change came on suddenly. There was brightness and clarity. Rufus raised his head above the fingers and looked around. There was still a lack of definition, but among the light and dark fuzziness that was the great out there, he could sense the functionality of the space. His home cage was placed up high–he had located it before from its odor, but couldn’t see it. Now he was certain of its location without the need to run and explore first.
Rufus was held high off the ground and the littermate was gently rubbing the blue thing on his head, making it throb. That was good, for it had started to tickle and buzz.
Everything got sharper, more focused. With all the new information flooding in, Rufus was most pleased to learn where the tasty little snack pellets were stored. He contented himself with the anticipation of their crunchy goodness, satisfied, for now, with the feel of his littermate’s touch.
It had taken less than forty-eight hours for Major George Watson to get his rescue team to one of the world’s most remote spots–a village on the slopes of the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The drab olive-colored personnel carrier roared up the valley and came to a stop in what had probably once been the center of town. Now that the village had been flattened by a magnitude 8.3 earthquake, it was hard to be sure.
Beside Major Watson in the stateside operation center, Lieutenant Kyle Davis watched the monitors. Seated on Kyle’s other side was Lieutenant May Flowers, his fellow drone pilot. The major barked orders into a microphone and, half a world away, the six members of the ground team fanned out. Each ground team member wore a camera mounted to their helmet and the bouncy video they transmitted showed hardly anything still standing. But they did show survivors–almost all of them urgently needing help.
In stark contrast to the footage from the ground team, two other monitors displayed video that was serene. They relayed high definition aerial views from drones piloted remotely by Kyle and May. A third automated drone had gone straight up to clear the mountains. It served as a communications relay between the operations center, the drones, and the team on the ground.
“Circle,” Major Watson ordered Kyle and May. “What’s the coverage area? Use your Zappers.”
A bit of electricity, applied to the brain in just the right spot, greatly improved the performance of the drone operators, accelerating pattern recognition and accuracy sometimes as much as three hundred percent. The psychologists called the technique by its proper name: cranial electrotherapy. Everyone else called the things “Zappers.”
Zappers didn’t seem to have any side effects and one couldn’t argue with the results. It wasn’t approved army tech yet, but Major Watson’s team had adopted it earlier than just about anyone else in the military. Because of the team’s positive experience with the technology, other units were starting to try out Zappers as well.
Kyle affixed electrodes to his right temple and his left arm and pressed the button. The taste of metal flooded his mouth. With his brain zapped for efficiency, he strapped his helmet back on and zoomed across the mountainside. After years of flying, Kyle felt like his drone was a part of his own body, as much as his arms and legs.
He swiveled around, scanning the leveled village. The surround vision inside his helmet made operating the drone incredibly immersive. It was more real than any video game, almost like being there in person, flying like a bird over the earthquake-ravaged landscape, sodden with heavy spring rains.
“That’s an aftershock!” one of the ground team members cried into his radio.
It was a substantial shaking, but clearly nothing compared to the original quake. In just a few quick moments, it was over and with no damage done. With nothing left standing from the original quake, there was nothing left to be damaged. But it clearly frightened the surviving villagers, many of whom could be seen on the video mutely appealing to the rescue workers.
“Look there!” May cried out.
Kyle pulled off his surround vision flight helmet and leaned over to see what May was pointing at. As always, her view was displayed on a monitor above her flight station. It wasn’t a surround view, nor was it in any way as immersive, but it was sufficient for Kyle to see that she was flying high above the valley, near a mountain ledge that towered above it. May had spotted a large crack that seemed to be getting bigger.
“And over there, sir,” she said. She turned and Kyle saw huge cracks appearing all over the escarpment.
“Everyone out of there!” Watson cried. He screamed into his microphone: “Move! Move! Move! The mountain is giving way!”
It was horrible to watch. Almost in slow motion, the movement transformed the rain-soaked mountainside into a sledgehammer. Kyle tried, through sheer force of will, to stop the avalanche of mud, stone, and debris from slamming into their people on the ground. They were all running now and their raw terror was obvious from their helmet-mounted cameras’ kinetic, jerking, jumbled broadcasts.
“They’re not going to make it out,” May said quietly, her expression impossible to see beneath her flight helmet.
“No,” Major Watson said.
The impotence was almost unbearable. All they could do was sit and watch, in complete safety and comfort, as their colleagues died half a world away. Kyle hated the safety of his job. He’d rather be down there with the ground team. But he was a damn good drone pilot. Too good.
It took only a few minutes before all the helmet-mounted video feeds had cut out. The view from the drones showed a landscape that had completely changed yet again. The earthquake-devastated rubble of the village was gone, buried under a coat of liquid mud. It was like an Etch-A-Sketch had been shaken, erasing all evidence that people had ever existed on the face of that mountainside. Nothing remained, not even the truck that their team had arrived in. Nothing but mud.
“Keep circling the area,” Major Watson ordered. “Swoop down low. Look for survivors.”
They set their drones to fly in a search pattern, scouring the advance toe of the slide that had pushed everything in front of it like a plow.
“It must thirty feet deep,” Kyle said. The craggy terrain was almost smooth now.
Suddenly, the drone views blacked out. Their phone connection to the ground went dead too.
“What’s going on?” the major yelled at the wall of video monitors.
Kyle and May both restarted their workstations, going through the complete reboot procedure, but it didn’t help. The major did the same with the phone. Communications were down.
“Get it back up.” The major paced in frustration and Kyle could see that he wanted to throw something. Major Watson’s feelings sometimes expressed themselves through physical actions.
Finally, a voice came over the phone. The major picked it up. Their helmets off, Kyle and May turned to watch him. There wasn’t anything they could do from their flight stations anymore.
As he listened, the major’s expression changed from frustration to incredulity and then to rage. He rubbed his face in a kind of agony as he finished the call. “They shot them,” he said in a defeated voice.
“Some men from the village–I guess there were a few who managed to get out from under the landslide—they shot down the communications relay.”
“But we were rescue drones,” May protested.
“It’s hard to tell the difference between sniper and rescue drones from the ground,” Kyle said. He was horrified. Even if anyone on their team had survived the landslide, there was no rescuing them now.
Major Watson ordered the deployment of helicopters from the closest US base. While nominally it was a rescue mission for the rescuers, it was grimly clear to Kyle that it was really a recovery mission.
They wouldn’t be looking for survivors. They would be looking for bodies.
Part One: The Years of the Rat
One: Year Zero
“You left the girl alone in there?”
Professor Will Crowe looked past Major Watson’s inspection team at the tall military man. He paused before answering. “It’s ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,'” he said.
Major George Watson watched through the one-way mirror as the eight-year-old girl adjusted the brain-to-brain interface cap on her head and continued to play with the rat. This was the lab rat the whole Brats project was designed around–the one with the brain implant that allowed the wearer of the BBI cap to control its movements.
Will shifted uncomfortably. He looked ready to bolt for the door and retrieve his daughter. But Major Watson, not unkindly, put his hand on Will’s shoulder. Now that this unplanned experiment had begun, he was interested in the outcome.
“That used to be your pet rat, is that right?” Watson asked.
“It was Toby’s rat,” Will said. “The doctors told us we couldn’t have allergens in my wife’s environment, so I brought it to the lab. I couldn’t just kill it. But I didn’t think Toby would recognize Rufus…”
Geez, the rat has a name! Watson tried to hide his irritation. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Rufus?”
“Toby named him,” Will said.
The professor was clearly nervous. He must have known how unprofessional this all must appear to the military people who funded Crowe’s brain lab. The army intelligence grant had paid for everything they’d been doing here for the last two years.
Watson knew how much Will hated surprise visits to his lab, but he did it anyway. It was part of his job to stir things up a bit. But he had never expected something like this. Not only bringing a little kid into a top-secret lab, but giving her access to the equipment? The major was too controlled to let his face give away his displeasure, but he had to actively suppress communicating his disapproval. He believed his demeanor should never reveal anything about his internal thoughts and emotions unless he wanted it to.
“I see.” The major noticed that he still sounded irritated. He was always irritated when visiting civilian-run labs–Dr. Crowe’s facility in particular. The man was so touchy. It was so much easier to conduct research when he could just issue orders. He hated cajoling. He wasn’t a babysitter.
But he had to admit that Dr. Crowe’s work on direct neural interfaces was the most promising he’d seen so far. The BBI developed in his lab allowed humans to govern the rat’s movements–direction, speed, and agility–and even more impressively, Dr. Crowe thought human controllers would soon be able to get partial sensory data from the rat’s eyes and ears. Human brain-controlled rats, or brats for short, were a true breakthrough. This was computer-mediated control of an animal with the potential for complete sensory immersion. Thanks to Dr. Crowe’s work, the military would one day be able to send little ratty spies into dangerous or humanly impenetrable areas. This technology would be invaluable in search and rescue operations–collapsed buildings, tunnels, mine shafts–as well as more “delicate” assignments run by some of the covert military units. Human-controlled rats would be the most advanced mini robots on the planet.
“Here, Ruffy,” said the girl, petting the rat. “See? It feels good, doesn’t it?”
“Can she feel what the rat is feeling?” asked Sergeant Martinez–one of Major Watson’s people.
“It looks like she can,” said Dr. Crowe.
“Find out for sure,” Watson said.
“Okay.” Dr. Crowe practically ran out of the observation center.
“I want this recorded,” ordered Major Watson as the professor carefully opened the door to the lab, obviously not wanting to spook either the rat or his little girl.
The lieutenant behind the camera nodded. Everything was being recorded.
“Hey, Toby,” Dr. Crowe called softly. His voice carried easily into the observation room via a set of speakers.
“Hi, Dad!” Toby greeted her father in the high-pitched voice of an excited eight-year-old girl. She was holding the fluffy black-and-white animal in one hand and using the other to scratch behind its brain implant, located just at the back of the animal’s head. She gently giggled at the motion. To Watson, it looked like the girl was able to sense the touch of her own finger on the fur of the rat. In essence, she seemed to be tickling herself.
“Can you feel that?” Dr. Crowe asked.
Toby nodded. “And I can see you too,” she said.
Her back was to her dad, but Rufus was looking directly at Dr. Crowe, tracking the man’s motion across the lab as he approached his daughter. Interesting, Watson thought. If Toby could see anything at all through the animal’s visual perception, it would represent enormous progress.
“How many fingers do I have up?” Dr. Crowe asked quickly, sticking his thumb up in the air and leaning in close–rats had poor eyesight.
“None!” Toby laughed. Watson and his men behind the mirrored wall held their collective breath before Toby added, “It’s a thumb, silly!”
Dr. Crowe glanced into the one-way mirror, at the unseen observers. “What else can you do with Ruffy? Can you show me?”
Toby put the rat on the floor and let him loose. The professor looked back at the door to the lab that he’d carelessly left open.
“Don’t worry, Dad. Ruffy won’t escape. He likes it here,” Toby said.
“Okay. So what tricks can you do with Ruffy?” Dr. Crowe asked.
“I can tell Ruffy where you keep the treats and have him get them,” the girl said.
“I keep the animal treats locked.”
“You showed me already,” Toby said.
The rat quickly ran over to the professor’s desk, scampered up on top, and used its mouth to grab the key to the cabinet that held the rat snacks. Watson watched with amazement as the rat dropped the key to the floor, climbed down, and grabbed the key again. It then ran over to the cabinet.
But the lock was too high up. So Toby walked over and gave Rufus a lift to the second drawer from the top.
“Don’t help him,” Dr. Crowe said.
Both Toby and the rat, in unison, turned their heads toward him. “Dad! Ruffy is too small to get up this high by himself.”
“Okay. But let him unlock the drawer by himself,” Dr. Crowe said.
Toby extended her hand and the rat put the key into the lock and turned it. With a soft click, the drawer opened.
As the rat reached into the drawer toward the snack container, Toby’s nose twitched. “It smells good and bad,” she complained.
“You can smell the rodent snacks?”
“I can smell how much Ruffy likes them. But to me, it smells bad. It’s like it’s yummy and disgusting all at the same time.”
Major Watson was genuinely impressed. The Brats project was further along than he could have hoped. He left the observation room and walked into the rat lab. Stepping right up to Toby, he asked, “What else can you feel?”
“I can hear you all walk around the lab with Ruffy’s ears. And I can taste what Ruffy eats,” Toby said. She frowned. “Daddy, I hate the taste of Ruffy’s snacks.” She started to rip the BBI cap off her head.
“Wait, honey, let me help you with that.” Dr. Crowe rushed over to help remove the prototype from her head. The handmade BBI cap was quite delicate, with wires dangling inside and out.
Without Toby to mediate the rat’s behavior, the little animal dove for the back of the snack drawer, where it tried to hide away from the bright lights and loud noises of the lab.
“How do you feel?” the professor asked his daughter.
“It was fun, but Ruffy sure likes to eat bad things. And it’s weird to be so small,” Toby said.
Major Watson looked over at Dr. Crowe. Vision, hearing, taste, smell, feel, and even proprioception–a complete sensory experience immersion. This had turned out to be a surprisingly effective demonstration of the BBI technology.
And it was surprising in another way too. As far as the major knew, no one in Dr. Crowe’s lab could exercise as much control, or feel so fully absorbed in the animal subject’s perception, as the researcher’s daughter had just exhibited. She’d even displayed some of the rat’s mannerisms–synchronous nose twitching and darting eye movements. Can’t fake that.
“That was excellent work, Toby,” he said approvingly, squatting down to be face to face with the little girl. “I am Major Watson, and I work with your dad…and Rufus.”
“Nice to meet you,” Toby said, extending her small hand.
He smiled and formally shook the girl’s hand. “How would you like to come and help us work with Rufus?”
“Major–” Crowe began.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Toby?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Major–” Dr. Crowe tried again.
Watson cut him off. “Why don’t you take your daughter home, Professor? We will discuss the arrangements this evening.”
He turned to go, but then walked back to the feed drawer and looked at the rat hiding in there, gorging on the snacks. “You might want to put Rufus back in his case before he gets sick.” Then he left the lab, signaling for his people in the observation room to follow.
“I really liked playing with Ruffy,” he heard Toby say behind him. “It’s like a video game, only much, much better.”
Dr. Crowe replied, but the major didn’t hear the words.
This had turned out to be a great surprise inspection after all.
“You can’t ask me to experiment on my own child.”
Will had been arguing with the major for hours, back in his home office, in the apartment he shared with his wife and daughter. With each exchange, he felt like his grasp on the situation was dissolving. The major could be very convincing.
“Toby was very impressive,” the major said.
Will knew that he tended to fold under repeated questioning from the major, eventually adopting the major’s reasoning as his own. And yet he, too, was stunned by his daughter’s accomplishment and wondered what else she could do with a bit of training. If only she weren’t so young. If only she wasn’t his daughter. Will knew that he was about to agree to everything the major wanted. Just one more push…
“What did she tell you?” Major Watson asked again.
Will replayed his daughter’s interaction with the rat in his mind. What Toby had done was nothing short of amazing. A miracle, really.
“She could even sense physical boundaries with the rat’s whiskers!” he said. “There’s no human equivalent to that, not really. I thought with time we’d be able to physically control the animal, but I had no idea we could ever achieve so much integration with its perceptual system. Toby is just a natural at brain-to-brain-interface command. Who knew?”
Will’s excitement over Toby’s achievement in his lab was coloring his emotions, making him more pliable to the major’s arguments. He knew it, but still he couldn’t control his pride and enthusiasm. Everything he hoped for was happening…just not how he had planned.
“Did your daughter ever try the BBI before?”
“The cap? No, never! She’s watched us do it plenty of times. With Dalla being so sick…I mean–”
“It’s fine, Will. You don’t mind me calling you Will?”
“Of course not. And Major, I know the project is classified, but Toby is just a third grader, you know? It didn’t seem…” Will trailed off. It was hard to justify his daughter’s presence in the top-secret military-sponsored lab just because he couldn’t find a babysitter.
“I don’t mind you taking your daughter to the lab,” Major Watson said. “We’ll just make it official—retroactively. We’ll give your daughter a special research status and all the difficulties will go away.” The major stressed the word “difficulties.” It was clearly a veiled threat.
“But she’s only eight,” Will said.
“Clearance isn’t dependent on the maturity of the researcher.” The major let the ambiguity of whom he was talking about hang in the air.
A sustained coughing fit sounded from an upstairs bedroom and both men glanced up at the ceiling. Will’s wife, Dalla, had cystic fibrosis and her lungs were drowning in gelatinous mucus. She was bedridden most of the time now–too weak to walk, gasping for air. It was only a matter of time before Toby would lose her mother.
Worse still, Toby had inherited her mother’s genetic fault. Toby’s lungs were still strong, but with each bout of cold or flu, the girl developed more lesions and risked making her condition worse.
Will felt like he was losing control. The world just seemed so…overwhelming. The only bright spot in all of this was Toby’s remarkable abilities to control the rat.
“Toby Crowe will join the team of researchers in your lab officially,” the major said. “She will be named in the grant and will help you develop your BBI prototype further. And of course she will be bound by the same confidentiality clause as you and your research team. Since she is a minor, the responsibility for her compliance will naturally fall on you.”
Will stared at the tall, dark-featured, crisply dressed man. He felt dazed by the interaction.
“So I expect to see you and your daughter in the lab tomorrow.” The major stood to leave.
“But Toby has school,” Will protested.
“I’ll make sure her education won’t suffer. I’ll personally assign a full-time early childhood development expert to your team.”
“We’ll get someone very qualified. Would a full PhD do?”
“For Toby’s teacher?” It was amazing how easily the major swept aside all of Will’s objections.
“Just imagine your daughter freed from a lowest-common-denominator curriculum. The girl is a born scientist! And if she’s not in an elementary school germ factory, she won’t get so sick all the time.”
That was true. Being sick was bad for Toby’s condition. It was also bad for Dalla. When Toby got sick, Dalla couldn’t even be around her, as exposure to even the most common cold could be disastrous. So whenever there was a sniffles outbreak at school–which was often–they tried to keep Toby home. It was the primary reason Toby had spent so much time at Will’s lab–they didn’t want her getting sick at school and Dalla was too sick to take care of her at home. Toby was a quiet, self-sufficient kid, and quite happy at the lab, but Will recognized that her school absences were interfering with her education.
“I guess that could work,” Will heard himself saying.
Not only was Major Watson getting everything he wanted, but, Will realized, he had somehow made Will want it too. Will was actually excited about the prospect of working with his daughter and developing her surprising BBI talent.
“Wonderful! I’ll personally oversee all the paperwork. And of course, I’ll make sure that Toby’s teacher’s salary won’t come out of your research budget. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Please give my best to your wife.” He shook Will’s hand and strode from the Crowe home.
In his mind, Will reviewed their conversation. He tried to understand what he had just agreed to. How would he explain this to Dalla?
After the major had left, Toby came into Will’s office and slipped onto his lap.
“I’d like to go to work in the lab with you and Ruffy,” she said.
“You heard?” Will asked, gently rubbing the girl’s back.
“School is boring,” Toby said. “And I like playing with Rufus,” she added. She was convincing herself as much as him, Will noted.
Toby didn’t say she’d miss playing with the other kids. Friendships needed plenty of time and some freedom. She was so restricted with her interactions and she missed so much school, she hadn’t gotten to make friends. Will felt the weight of responsibility. Could he keep his little girl happy? Was this the right thing for her?
“You’ll get a lot of time to play with Rufus,” he said. “But maybe you’ll get bored hanging around with us and all those lab rats.”
“There’s just Ruffy, Dad!”
“There will be more soon. Now that we had a breakthrough, I’m sure we’ll get more animals, more different kinds of animals. But we’ll take it slow. I’ll make sure no one pushes you to do things you don’t want to do. I promise.”
“Don’t worry, Dad,” Toby said. “I loved being Ruffy.”
Will hugged his daughter and he felt how fast her heart was beating. Almost as fast as Ruffy’s.
“Tell me about the girl.” Major Evans had a no-nonsense style. Technically, he was George Watson’s superior, even if he didn’t outrank him. George was mainly an operations man. Major Evans tended to be in the middle of the action, regardless of personal risk. Their roles in the army dictated their working relationship.
“The kid was remarkable,” George said, talking at his computer screen.
“Will Dr. Crowe allow her to participate in the research?”
“A drone indistinguishable from a pest,” Evans mused. “Not likely to get shot down by the locals. Trapped, perhaps, or exterminated. But not shot.”
“Yes, sir. But with human intelligence driving it, we would likely avoid any pedestrian traps,” George said.
“Keep me informed, please.”