The gurney slid smoothly towards the torus of the NMR/MRI machine. As it entered the halo-like ring, Dr. Stephanie Klein found herself clenching her teeth. The custom-built machine’s table was so wide it always looked as though it might not fit, an event that would ruin the most expensive bit of kit in the entire lab. Karen made a thumbs up sign through the hazy glass of the control room window, her features blurred by the faraday cage.
"Keep still, Stanley." Karen's voice came through the machine’s intercom with additional crackle, so distorted it was hard to recognize who was speaking. Millions on the latest in NMR/MRI tech but the committee had balked at the pittance of additional budget that would have upgraded the sound system. If the experiment could be snatched from the jaws of failure that would all change. She'd rebuild the lab, extricate herself from the park and its vampire-like committee. She'd focus on research the way it should be done. She stared at the NMR/MRI, willing the results to be favorable.
"Dr. Klein? You'll want to see this."
Even through the distortion, she could tell from Karen's voice that it wasn't good news. She hurried to the control room, her chest tight.
In the control room Karen sat in a leather swivel chair, hands across her eyes, legs stretched out in front of her. Large screens showed the scan results, the data mirrored on the tablet in Karen’s lap. "It looks like advanced Alzheimer's or severe dementia." Even without the intercom's distortion, Karen's voice cracked. "I don't understand it. He doesn't seem to be exhibiting any actual symptoms. I mean we've noticed some stress indicators, but he does work with children every day..."
Stephanie swallowed the lump in her throat. "Show me."
As she took the tablet from Karen, her last shred of hope fell away. There were clear signs of frontotemporal lobar degeneration. She rubbed her eyes. It couldn’t be true.
"What if we did another lumbar puncture? This might be transitory." Karen sniffled and Stephanie realized she was crying. The answer was clear, if unspoken. Stanley was not going to improve. Without their subject, the experiment was over.
"You'll have to let the committee know.” Karen wiped her nose on the back of her arm. “Take him off his duties. We can make him comfortable, at least." Tears dripped from Karen's face to the lab floor.
"Oh come here." Stephanie pulled Karen into an embrace. Karen always had been a softie. It was a shame she was crying over the wrong thing. There could always be more Stanleys, but not if they lost their funding. "It'll be alright." She patted Karen’s shoulder. But it wouldn't be. If they stopped the experiment there would be no more money. For K-labs, this was really the end.
I look at my audience, seeing the usual mix of fear and excitement. The excitement I understand. I mean, who wouldn’t be wired after meeting me? And the fear? They’re unsure what to make of me. They always are. It’s like they’ve never seen a talking orangutan before. I laugh and see a few frowns. Predictable as ever.
"Wildlife parks make me sad.” I see one or two of them wrap their arms around themselves for comfort. Sometimes they react like that with me. I’ve seen all kinds. “For most people it's zoos and they're okay with wildlife parks. Plenty of space for the animals to roam and all that. But zoos? People hate them. I have a theory on that. Do you want to hear it?” I don’t wait for a response. “It's because zoos remind people that they're not really free. You see that, right? You are not free."
I laugh again. They're just school kids and they don't understand. Except maybe that one, the one with the sad eyes and the red hair. The one whose uniform doesn't quite fit right. She looks like she understands, maybe just a bit.
"Zoos are good. They're like health spas, or high-end nudist camps where the rich go to let it all hang out for a hundred grand a weekend. Only for animals. It's all champagne baths, silk slippers and no trousers in those places. Sounds like heaven, doesn't it? That's because you're human. You need something to make you feel… better."
I realize I've lost my audience. Even the smart, sad one.
Watching the animals in wildlife parks roaming free brings a tear to my eye. I won't deny it. What's wrong with it? I'm not too big to cry and my tear ducts are perfectly functional. “I'll show you my favorite part of the park someday, but not today. Today it will just make me sad.”
Data meant everything to Stephanie, which was why this was so hard to bear. The subject was deteriorating rapidly. It was unlikely they would get much more from him.
"You could up his dosage." Karen, her assistant, was examining the medication plan.
"It'll likely kill him." It wasn't that she hadn't already been thinking of doing just that. She just didn't want to seem too eager to Karen. She was still young and impressionable. It was what made her such a good assistant. "We'll titrate up until we see improvement. Can you take care of that? He seems to like you."
Karen frowned at the mention of additional dosage. Maybe because she knew it would put them well outside the initial project guidelines. After a moment, Karen said, "Okay. If you think it's the best way to improve his condition."
Stephanie shrugged. It was at least worth a try, and if nothing else, they would get data on the effects of higher dosages of the serum.
On the monitor she could see Stanley sitting at his desk. His reading light was on. "What's he reading?"
Karen let out a sigh. "It's Flowers for Algernon."
"This is, what? The third copy?"
"I know it's unhealthy. I'll ask Cooper to remove it when he sleeps."
"Can I go, Daddy?" It took Brent a moment to register his daughter pulling on his shirt to get his attention. He yawned. Parks like this looked great on paper, but they were just crowd-filled vacuums for the contents of his wallet.
"Uh. What?" He looked down at her. Maddie was six now. Six. She looked more like her mother every day. He smiled. "What is it darling?"
She pointed to a holographic display. The image moved a little with disturbances in the air, but he could read it easily enough. Some kind of tour. An optional extra that would, of course, come at additional cost. The image showed an enormous ape sitting on the floor, story book in hand, with a pair of thin framed gold-colored glasses perched on its nose. It was surrounded by children.
"I want to do that, Daddy. You said I could do whatever I like." The folded arms, the little pout, the celtic red hair and green eyes. She was her mother writ small. He swallowed the lump in his throat that threatened to bring tears with it.
"Did I really say that?"
"Of course you did." And he had. She was all he had left now.
"Anything you want, Maddie."
The hug he received took his breath away. Strong enough even to lighten some of the concern he felt at leaving her with the super brilliant giant ape. It wasn't as if she'd be the only kid there.
They walked over to the sign as it animated itself into a booking agent, its color palette changing to reflect Brent's marketing profile. It was a clever trick, but Brent had seen that kind of thing before. Hell, he'd even helped program something similar for another client, if not quite as flashy.
The agent now wore a humanoid face, having built it from its best analysis of the characteristics most likely to result in a sale. It settled on a smiling brunette with high cheekbones. A good try, but off the mark. His wife had been a redhead.
"Tell me about this private tour. How much is it?"
The agent beamed at him as if ecstatic that he was interested enough to ask. "It's our most popular tour, Mr. Cole. Stanley is the world's most intelligent orangutan, uplifted by our very own Dr. Stephanie Klein. The tour is a collaboration between K-Labs and the Park Authority Trustee Committee."
"Yes, but how much does it cost?"
"The tour has no cost."
"No cost? Ha! What's the catch?" He knew how these things worked. There had to be a gift purchase commission or a fee.
"Every guest must sign an additional waiver."
"What are we waiving?"
"One moment please, sir." The agent appeared to blink. "Would you like to engage legal counsel? The Park special rate is only two Park-Coin. I can remove these from escrow for you now. Please confirm."
"No. Cancel. Just tell me the basics."
"All interactions with our guide, Stanley, will be recorded. This includes the emotional response data mapping of all participants. The data will be anonymized and may be published by K-Labs, Dr. Klein or the Park Trustee Committee."
To be continued...in Part 2
[Ninja edit -- Thanks to The Writers' Block I've made some big changes to this story. I'm editing it and splitting it in a different place as a result. ]
(Both the story and the image are my original works.)
As ever, this story would not have been possible without the crew from the The Writers' Block on Discord (https://discord.gg/vjVavr). Big thanks to everyone who helped edit this. You are superstars, every one, and I give thanks on a daily basis for stumbling across you.