Author: Salvatore Difalco
Maintenance received a call from one of the bio-labs to come and replace a panel of flickering fluorescent lights. They were upsetting the mouse. “The mouse?” I asked Jerry, the shift boss. I’d only been working at the Polytechnic Institute for two weeks and barely knew my way around its brutalist, labyrinthine layout, let alone familiarized myself with its machinations. One thing was certain, they’d spared no concrete—if not architectural cruelty—constructing the joint.
Jerry chuckled. “They’ve got a special mouse up in bio-lab 14,” he said. “Something like an uber-maus. Roided up, I’d guess. This Dr. Ashbery from Stanford runs things. I hear he’s a bit of a mad scientist. But I don’t ask too many questions, you know.” He touched his temple as though a brilliancy sprang to mind. “Hey,” he said, “why don’t you go up to bio-lab 14, replace those lights—and you can meet the mouse yourself?”
His tone disquieted me for some reason. “What’s so special about the mouse?” I asked.
“Nothing as far as I could tell with the naked eye,” Jerry said. “But something’s up with it.”
I went to the utility room and grabbed foldable stepladder and a box of fluorescent lamps. I made my way up to bio-lab 14—on the seventh floor somehow—and a gaunt man in a white coat behind a blinking console buzzed open the reinforced steel door. A light panel in the middle of the lab was on the fritz. The man in the white coat approached me.
“I’m Dr. Ashbery,” he said. “How long will this take? The mouse is in distress, as am I.”
“It’ll be just a jiffy,” I said, glancing at the cage housing the mouse as I unfolded my stepladder.
The little gray mouse in the cage appeared normal, except it kept staring at me. I mean, its moist black eyes locked on to me the moment I stepped into the lab and had not looked away. Its forepaws even grasped the cage wire like the tiny hands of a Lilliputian prisoner. No matter where I stood, and even as I mounted the stepladder, I could still feel those beady black eyes peering at me.
I completed the task, restoring normal luminescence, and presumably saving the mouse from further distress or an epileptic seizure. The mouse continued peering at me, though it had stopped clutching the cage wire and lightened the pitiful vibe.
“Does he have a name?” I asked.
Dr. Ashbery nodded. “He answers to Maurice.”
“Looks like Maurice wants to say something.”
Dr. Ashbery smiled. “He does. He does want to communicate. He’s aching to to so. But we’ve yet to figure out a way. Of course he lacks a voice box—and his physiology also militates against any available sign language. We’ve tried alphabet boxes and pointing charts and so on. In vain. Perhaps he can learn to tap a keyboard. That’s where the breakthrough will occur, I believe.”
What was he talking about here? Mickey Mouse goes to college? To my simple ears, it sounded like some freak-Frankenstein show. My confusion—indeed, alarm—must have been etched on my face.
“You see,” Dr. Ashbery explained, “since he was a fetus, Maurice has been enriched with human neural and cerebral organoids.”
He what? This was all above my pay grade and perhaps more than my nervous system could endure. “So you think …”
“That he has consciousness?” Dr. Ashbery sighed. “I believe so, yes.”
I shakily folded up my stepladder and glanced at Maurice again. He winked at me.