The dogs know it's time. They have been baying non-stop for hours. In the concrete compound between their quarters and ours the black wolf rears on its chain, mad eyes glinting like blood in the glare of the spotlights. I no longer fear its ferocity as I did at first. Its savagery diminishes as it grows more exhausted. Or perhaps it is that I am growing wilder. As I watch it through my secret spy-hole between the chinks of brickwork I even feel a flash of sympathy. We are fellow prisoners now. I who was once the jailor have become the captive.
There are six of us left, herded together in what used to be the chimp holding facility. It was not designed for human habitation. There is no room to stand upright and we take it in turns to stretch out. How long it is since we have breathed free air, I cannot say. Time has no meaning in this dungeon place. There are no windows and the lights glare day and night, robbing us of all diurnal rhythm. We are housed in the primate section, along with the monkeys and baboons. At first they were in terror of us. They had come to associate our presence with pain. Now they view us with indifference, understanding that we are no longer any threat to them.
Outside these perimeter walls, something more terrible moves. Creatures of unknown origin and unfathomable intention. They, our captors and tormentors hold us here for reasons that we cannot guess. They leave us alone for long periods, descending at random intervals to pick us off one by one. What they want with us, where they vanish to, is a mystery. All we know is that none who are taken from here ever return.
They are not very different to us in appearance. But that resemblance is a mockery, for whatever they are, it is not human. Their heads sit oddly on their shoulders, and where their flesh shows it is pale as maggot skin. They smile and croon at us in a speech of baffling inflection. We have come to fear their smiles, for we have learnt that there is no mercy in them.
None of us can recall how we came to be in this confinement. There is a blank spot in our memories. One day we woke here, and here we have remained. Sometimes it feels as if we have never known any other kind of life. As if there never was a time when we were on the other side of the wire.
These cages have been designed for practicality not comfort. Wire on all five sides. Nothing to perch on, nothing to sleep on save the unforgiving steel. Below runs a metal guttering, doused periodically with water to sweep away our faecal matter. The conditions that we are kept in are no different from the other animals. We shit and pee as they do, through the wire. We no longer have the luxury of modesty or privacy. Our diet consists of dry pellets, which we eat from communal food trays, filled from automatic feeders. It does not help to know that these conditions are of our own making. We wither away in the sterility of our own efficient design. Even body lice would be a welcome distraction. But we are not permitted such luxuries. Metal showers affixed to the ceiling regularly drench us in a powder antiseptic. Hygiene in these facilities is paramount.
This used to be an animal-holding facility, one of the most renowned biomedical research labs in the country. We were the fêted scientists at the forefront of the genome race, poised on the threshold of discoveries that would put a stop to human ageing forever. Ours were among the most brilliant minds; now we are reduced to the status of lab apes.
In our early days here, we still had hope that we would regain our freedom. "Surely they must see that we are not the same as the animals they've caged us with?" we comforted each other. We occupied ourselves with devising ways to signal to them our superior intelligence. Then it dawned on us that perhaps intellect is not the criteria by which these beings distinguish higher from lower life forms. Or even worse: perhaps they cannot see because it suits them not to.
"They've come," a soft voice says from beside me. "They're here. Can you feel them?"
She sits huddled in the corner, her stubbled scalp like the shadowed face of the moon. Her waiflike fragility irks me. The crimson scar on her crown stands out too vividly against her pallor. Whether it is the result of some former accident, or something more sinister I have never dared to ask.
"The animals sense it too. Look at them."
A shiver breaks over me. She is right. The vervets are clinging together, wide-eyed and bobbing timidly. The baboons swing restlessly hand over foot along the wire perimeters of their cages. They are kept in solitary for ease of handling, each cage only just big enough for an adult male to turn around in. Space is always at a premium in these facilities. One cannot allow sentimentality to interfere with practicality.
My ears strain for the telltale swish of airlock doors opening and closing, the whisper of slippered footsteps approaching along the cage rows. But the only extraneous sound is the faint whoosh of piped air through the vents.
"Perhaps it will be one of us this time," the girl says. "I pray that it is my turn!"
Panic has its own aroma. We smell it on each other and it unnerves us more.
"You can't mean that," I say.
"At least it would be over. There are worse things than termination."
"Yes," I say, "there are. That's the trouble."
"Anything has to be better than this cage. Than sitting here into eternity, imagining the horrors in store."
As she speaks the dogs break out into a fresh cacophony. There is some disturbance in the courtyard that I can't see. The wolf gives tongue, joining its voice to theirs. Its head twists back, muzzle straining up towards the concrete ceiling, high, wild howls erupting from its throat. The sound is utterly primeval, inutterably bleak; the cry of damned souls howling their despair to an uncaring god.
My spine is full of gooseflesh. An unreasoning anger swamps me. If I had the power, I would euthanize the beast and put it out of all our misery. It should never have been brought here in the first place. I forget what the original purpose was. Some dubious experiment of Doc's, no doubt. He's always been too much of a maverick, given to crossing lines. Forgetting ethics in his pursuit of breakthroughs and glory.
At first it was put into the dog section, separately caged, of course. But its proximity drove them to such frenzy that it made them worthless for any procedure. So we chained it in the courtyard as a temporary solution. There it has remained, with each day that passes a more pitiful spectacle. A haunting embarrassment.
"I hate that sound," the girl pants. "Why do they keep him there? Surely even they can see the torment he is in? Do they get pleasure from his suffering? Are they that cruel?"
She rocks herself backwards and forwards.
"You read too much into things," I tell her gruffly. "He suffers less than we do, I assure you. Animals adapt. They are more easily reconciled to harsh conditions. That is their survival strategy. They don't feel things to the same extent that we do. Remember that their nervous systems are less refined. They lack our emotional and imaginative capacity."
She turns her head to look at me. Her face has the contours of a bird. She has stopped eating, I notice. Does she think to escape their clutches that way, by starving herself to death? As scientists, we would never permit such liberties. We force-fed where necessary. Experimental subjects are far too much of a valuable investment to lose through carelessness. They must be kept alive at all cost.
"It suited us to think like that," she says. "It's what we told ourselves, to quell our conscience for the way we used them. Perhaps that's what our captors tell themselves about us now. They are only dumb animals," she mocks. "They lack our own exquisite sensitivity to pain. Their sentience is illusion, mere projection on our part. They were put here for our good, to serve us, as the god-favored species. Is that not the argument all tyrants use to justify their tyranny? The slaver can never admit the equality of the slaves."
Her prim moralizing irritates me. It is not the first time we have had these conversations.
"Doesn't it worry you to know that you are so completely in their power?" she baits me. "You of all people know the lengths to which science can be taken. They can do anything they like with you: slice you open, change your body parts around, tamper with your mind...implant you so full of electrodes that you lose all sense of yourself. With no more conscience than you showed towards your lab rats. After all, you are nothing more than a specimen to them. Perhaps they are our retribution," she mocks. "They have been sent here from some distant star system to be our jurymen. We wait here on our cosmic death row until we have served our time. Then we are released. Liberation, or termination, take your pick."
Her eyes have a strange glitter as she says it. An icy worm inches up my backbone. For a moment her face distorts, shakes in the air. I have a wild, disturbing fantasy that she is nothing but a projection. That none of this is real...a data implant, existing only inside my own head. At this very moment, I am being studied, scrutinized, my every move observed, my very thoughts noted and recorded. Is this fact, or paranoia? Which is the reality and which the delusion? It grieves me that I can no longer tell.
It is the experimenter's job to know the subject through and through; its deepest fears, and most sensitive trigger spots of pain. Those zones of reactivity are also the zones of greatest possibility.
The girl nods at me owlishly. "Scientists and torturers have a lot in common," she says. "They both rely on pain to extract their knowledge."
Her words make me jump. Had I spoken aloud?
She gives me a sly wink. "Be careful of your thoughts," she mouths. "They monitor everything."
It strikes me that if she is real, then she herself is not entirely sane. Prolonged captivity has driven us all to the brink. It is hard to keep a grip under these conditions. There is too much time to think here, nothing to do but think. When one is at this level of sensory deprivation, the mind throws up its own distortions.
More and more I find that my thoughts are centred on her. She is a puzzle to be solved, intriguing as all mysteries are. I am curious to know how she came to be here, what someone like her was doing in a science lab in the first place. She seems so misplaced among us. I do not remember her from before. Most likely she was one of the juniors, brought in to assist on someone's project. Strange that I did not notice her. Someone so young and attractive would have been hard to overlook. But I was doubtless immersed elsewhere. Buried in my work as usual. My work has always been everything to me.
It has not occurred to me to ask her history. Avoidance of the personal seems best under such circumstances. It is only recently that she and I have begun to talk at all. In the beginning, I maintained a deliberate distance. It seemed the safest course, given the enforced intimacy of our situation. The truth is that her female presence discomforts me. I have urges that embarrass me, find myself watching her at times with almost predatory lust. I have spent so many years repressing my desires that I no longer know how to deal with them.
These days I sleep as little as possible, for I find my dreams too disquieting. Increasingly, they are of the girl. Sometimes she has become one of the apes. I pin her down and do what all my pent-up lust requires, what I would never dare to do, one human to another. At other times, in sleep, I reach towards her and my hand touches not flesh, but fur. As I start awake, in that moment of blurred realities, I see that it is not her, but the wolf in the corner beside me. It rears its blood-flecked muzzle imploringly. There is something I am on the verge of understanding, but I choose not to.
The girl stirs beside me, her head resting inches from my shoulder.
"It's night outside," she murmurs. "Shadows blow across the moon and owls call in the thickets. There are stars...so many...glittering like frost, like phosphorescence on a dark sea. I never understood how the world could be so beautiful and terrible both at once."
I see that her eyes are full of tears.
"I don't remember colour any more," she says. "I try to picture flowers ... I draw them in my mind to keep them alive. But they're all etched in black and white. How long is it since you saw flowers growing?"
Her words stab me with a queer sort of pain. How long since I saw a flower growing? Have I ever paid attention? Even before this confinement I had stopped seeing the beauty in life. I schooled myself not to get attached. It was a necessary virtue. To be a scientist requires detachment from all sentiment. One doesn't simply switch it on and off on entering and leaving.
"A cold fish" was what my wife called me when she left me. What did she expect?
Scientists are not ogres. We could not do the things we do if we allowed empathy to take root. Detachment is a skill that has to be cultivated and practised daily. One must exercise constant vigilance. In the labs, we took great care not to assign "human" qualities to the creatures in our charge. They were not animals, but experimental subjects. Their distress was a necessary tool. In order to work with them we needed to be indifferent to their pain. We knew them by cage numbers, not names. We were trained to be careful with the language we used; nothing was allowed to ruffle the surface of conscience. We did not "kill" we "euthanized"; we carried out "procedures". Many a time I have had to harden myself consciously to do what needs to be done. I did not enjoy putting animals into restraint, feeling live flesh squirm under my hands, hearing their cries and whimpers of distress. But to give in, just once, to emotion would have been fatal. I always had to remind myself of the bigger picture, of the higher good involved.
They will come for me soon. That is a certainty. It is only a question of when. I look for loopholes, tactics that might persuade them to clemency. What is the gesture, what is the sign that will get through to them, that will wake them to compassion? Always I come up against the wall of my own pragmatism. Reason tells me there is no hope of moving them, whatever we do. Any more than the animals in our charge could dissuade us from our intentions. What were the girl's words? The slaver can never admit the equality of the slaves.
It is quieter now. The dogs have at last fallen silent. Around me my fellow inmates slump in dull-eyed stupor. I have grown to hate the sight of them. Wild-haired, unshaven, they seem less human by the day. I watch them scratching at imaginary fleas, dread to see myself reflected back through their eyes. It is as if we are sliding backwards along the evolutionary scale to our atavistic beginnings. Even language deserts us, for we have used up all the words between us. Except for the girl, I rarely talk to anyone these days.
She drowses sitting up, her eyes not fully closed, her mouth grimacing words I cannot hear. Her body shakes intermittently from cold or fear, I don't know which. I put my arms around her thinness, surprising myself with the gesture. It is so long since I have offered human comfort to another. I feel her relaxing against me, drifting off into a more peaceful sleep. The warm waft of her breath stirs something vulnerable and unfamiliar in the pit of my stomach. What would I do, how would I feel if she were the one taken? It is better not to care.
Only the wolf and I are left awake. I watch him, framed in the honeycomb lens of the brickwork. He, too, has given up the struggle. I see it in the sag of his head, the loll of his swollen tongue, the glaze of his eyes. The chain has bitten deep into his neck. I wish I saw these things less clearly. My powers of observation that I once took so much pride in have become a curse.
At first he was just something in my field of vision. A convenient object to fix my eyes on for lack of other distraction. Now I watch with a painful compulsion. I know his every move before he makes it. I am no longer armoured by my scientific distance, by the detachment of one who has full control of the situation, who can terminate the suffering at any stage. I feel his pain, but I have no remedy. I have committed the cardinal error of becoming emotionally involved.
Sleep comes in mid-thought, taking me unawares, descending as it always does these days like a fist crashing into my temple. I dream that they have come, that it is me they have come for. In my sleep, I try to reason with them. Words burst from my throat in an urgent stream. "We are sentient beings," I cry to them, "just as you are. We have nerves that transmit pain, flesh that bruises, a mind that suffers torment, high intellect. We are visionary artists, we weave symphonies and hurtle to the stars. We know the secrets of life—just as you do. In all the ways that count, we are no different to you." I sink to my knees, raise my hands imploringly. But they laugh at my antics, the way one would at a chimp that parodies human manners.
I wake in confusion, not sure where the borders are between dream and aftermath. It is dawn outside. How I know this I have no idea. It is as if I hover between two worlds at once. I see myself striding through the morning as I used to, dressed in the green lab gear of my scientist days. The fresh day sparkles like a sunlit spider-web. Birds swoop, flowers quiver, butterflies float by on wings of beauty. But I don't look up.
I enter through the secured gates of the facility, slot my pass into the pupil of the electronic eye. Airlock doors open and close obediently. I go through the chemical shower, head on down the long tunnel that links to the primate holding facility. I enter the animal lab, and the picture slips and fragments like a shattered mirror. My image is suddenly multiplied into a dozen green-outfitted clones. They fall in step and swerve together towards the chimp cage, where the captive me is held. Surgical masks disguise their faces but against the green, their complexions have a ghastly pallor. They crowd around our cage, in a replay of my dream, bobbing and smiling their treacherous smiles. I know it is me they have come for this time. One of them reaches in with gloved hands. I cower back against the wire, but there is nowhere to hide. The crush partition is activated and I am penned and pinned down. There is a painful jab in my thigh. My muscles slacken and I no longer have the power even to struggle. As consciousness slips away, the face before me looms ever closer and the mask slips down. My terror is boundless, for it is my own face that I am staring into. And I know then that I can expect no mercy.
* * * *
It is night outside. The sky reels under tossing fragments of cloud and the cold stars grind against each other like icebergs. I have lost time again. Another wormhole in my memory. I vaguely recall that there was a girl in here with me once. But she vanished long ago. The wolf is sitting in the space beside me. We are alone together in the cage. It watches me earnestly, reading my face as a dog will, as if trying to fathom my thoughts. "Why did you hate us so much?" it asks me in great puzzlement. "Why did you hurt and torment us? What did we do?" Over and over again it asks me those same questions. The remaining shreds of my reason tell me that this apparition is not real. It is a figment of my troubled conscience, nothing more. But it distresses me to the point of madness. Time stagnates, sullenly freezing and unfreezing, measured now not in days or hours, but nano seconds. I feel myself growing more feral with each pulse of my breath. My body shape is changing, elongating and my hair coarsening. Speech leaves me and when I open my mouth only howls come out. Is this their doing? A drug-induced hallucination? An electrode implanted into my perceptual lobe? It no longer matters. The wolf sits upright beside me, growing more human as I transmogrify. It frowns down at me in bewilderment while I loll at its feet. They have done this to me. To us. Why, is a cruel mystery. We pace. Back and forth. Forth and back. Snarling at wire. Strangling on chain. There is no distinction between us. We are both made of suffering flesh. There is a shaking in me that has nothing to do with fear. Tears gush from my eyes and something wakes deep within me, painful as a blade. We are both made of suffering flesh. That is the most terrible realisation of all.