Dr Kremble was in a bad mood. Things just seemed to keep going wrong, small things which ruined the bigger picture. He’d had his eye on Harriet for months, and now, after all his plans for her, she’d been taken.
Harriet, one of the last generation of lab monkeys given human names, had been perfect in every way. It was well-known that females were better communicators, but Harriet was especially intelligent, with a curiosity unblunted by age. But as luck would have it, after nearly a year of preparation, when everything was finally ready, she was poached by cosmetics.
Kremble had complained, he’d kicked up as much of a stink as he’d been able. His work was actually important. It could provide stunning new insights into the way the brain developed communication and language faculties. Textbooks might be rewritten. But instead, Harriet’s ideal qualities were being utterly wasted on testing new brands of moisturiser. Kremble fumed at the obscenity of it as he walked alongside the monkey enclosure.
There was nothing to be done about it, of course. The pharma companies had all the money, so they had all the power. Comparatively, Kremble’s clout was non-existent. Since he’d secured funding the project was pretty much his baby, his alone to organise and run. Nobody else had taken much interest in it.
One of the monkeys he passed was pressed against the glass, palms flat, showing his teeth. Kremble stopped and looked at the name tag, which read LM039. They’d stopped using human names a decade ago, mainly because humanising them caused problems. More than once, lab workers had developed attachments to the monkeys. In one case it had resulted in a security breach as the compound had been opened up and the monkeys let loose around the building. On another occasion, an intern had surreptitiously filmed some of the experiments and released them to an animal rights organisation. The fallout had been disastrous.
Kremble looked at the sheet. LM039 was an eight year-old male. The doctor leaned forward. LM039’s lips peeled back further, showing his gums. He extended a brown finger towards Kremble’s face. The leathery digit tapped at the partition.
LM039 hadn’t been assigned to any physical experiments, but he’d been used in separation and bonding studies. Two groups, one brought up from infancy by their mothers, the other separated and isolated, had been studied throughout childhood and adolescence, given identical tests and placed in identical situations. Most of those from Gamma, the separation group, had suffered severe emotional difficulties, finding it impossible to bond and communicate with other monkeys and living their lives in a state of depression and isolation. Some had self-harmed, and one had simply died at three years with no obvious cause.
LM039 was from Gamma. What was remarkable about him, however, was that unlike the others orphaned by his test group, he had turned out apparently normal, behaving exactly as a young adult monkey should. He integrated well with other monkeys. His temperament was described as sociable, amiable, co-operative, and restless.
LM039 hadn’t been assigned to any projects since. Nobody had found a use for him yet. The conclusion from the separation and bonding study was that LM039 had been the only one from Gamma to thrive emotionally because he scored significantly above average in three areas: self-sufficiency, adaptation and communication. The doctor fixed upon this last word for some time.
Behind the lockable compartments, one of which LM039 was staring at Kremble from right now, was a shared play area with straw bedding, a climbing frame, and a tyre hanging from a rope. For two hours each day the compartments were opened up and the monkeys allowed to mingle. It was also part of the breeding programme.
LM039 was a father to three healthy, happy infants, LM934, LM935 and LF394, who were lucky enough to be looked after by their mothers, LF150 and LF021. Kremble replaced LM039’s info sheet and scratched his thick black eyebrows, as he did when deep in thought. LM039 scratched his head in turn, mimicking the doctor.
Within days it was done. The application was processed quickly, and LM039 was assigned to Wendrick Kremble, Bachelor, Master and Doctor of Linguistics, Semiotics and Neuroscience. After Kremble’s signature and several countersignatures, LM039 was taken to theatre, sedated, and had the rear section of his cranium removed. This, however, was not to be an ‘open-top’ experiment – the type where monkeys were subjected to various tests with their skulls opened up, probes and electrodes embedding into their visible brains.
This was a much more sophisticated study, and one which was unlikely to work with the subject distracted by the knowledge that the top of his head was missing.
Kremble had first developed the idea when he learned of Nanoboosters, tiny chip implants designed to stimulate hard-to-reach areas with electrical currents. They held electrical charge for months and had been successfully used in treating muscle atrophy, erectile dysfunction and in one case, partial paralysis.
Of course, experiments into apes’ understanding of human language and communication were nothing new. Chimps had been taught to recognise certain symbols and vocalisations. But nothing like this had been attempted before.
Wernicke’s area, a part of the posterior cerebral hemisphere governing written and spoken language in humans, had an equivalent in most primates. Kremble’s idea was a fairly simple one. To embed the Nanobooster nodes in the cerebral cortex, hyperstimulate Wernicke’s area, and attempt to turboboost the monkey’s language capabilities. No lifetime of schooling in human language was needed – this was specifically about the effect of the stimulation of that part of the brain, rather than the ability of primates to learn language and symbology over the long term. In any case, all monkeys in the compound were subjected to daily radio broadcasts, as a basic foundation for the numerous language studies they were often appropriated for.
Yes, Kremble had rivals, of course he did. But they tended to be overcautious, excessively reliant on collaboration, as if scared to strike out by themselves; no originality. He didn’t like associating with them.
At first he’d been surprised nobody seemed particularly thrilled by his idea, then offended, then finally pleased. It was better he was left to manage it himself. Who cared if they thought he was a crank. If there was a breakthrough, the credit would be entirely his. Furthermore, he could do without his every move being scrutinised and recorded by panels made up of his peers and various other meddlers and overseers. It was ideal.
When LM039 was finally out of theatre a week later, he seemed more or less the same monkey he’d been before, which was encouraging. Finally alone with his subject, Kremble could begin. The room he had chosen had all but the most essential fixtures and fittings removed so that the monkey could move around freely. The more natural things were, the better.
LM039 sat in a chair before a large, white desk, his head bandaged, eating peanuts from a paper bowl and watching Kremble as he set up the equipment; a video camera in the corner pointed at both of them, and a laptop computer, which was plugged in via the desk to the large, wall-mounted VDU. Attached to the laptop was a pair of speakers and modified keyboard, which he placed on the desk in front of LM039. The keys were enlarged, and lit up and made a chiming sound when pressed.
Kremble tried to get LM039 to press the keys, but the monkey showed no interest. The doctor pressed them himself to demonstrate, the letters flashing large on the screen on the wall, singly and in sequence. LM039 picked his fur, scratched his gonads, spat peanuts across the room and even got up onto Kremble’s shoulders, but he would not press the keys on the special, modified keyboard.
This went on for several days, and Kremble began to suspect LM039 was just being bloody-minded. They should have put it on the monkey’s info sheet. Sociable, amiable, co-operative, restless, bloody-minded. Still, he was patient. He had to be. He was a scientist, not a musician or an athlete. These things took time.
On the fourth day, there was a breakthrough. It happened, as things often did, at the moment Kremble finally felt at the end of his rope with it all. LM039, amongst other things, had taken to masturbating at him. He’d climb out of the chair onto the desk, avoiding the keyboard, and sit with his furred thighs spread, flicking his thin, scarlet phallus, looking at Kremble with bared teeth.
“Just stop it!” shouted the doctor. “Will you stop doing that!”
LM039 stopped, his lips curled back around his teeth, and then he stood up, shuffled sideways, and prodded at the keyboard by his feet. The speakers chimed and a large K flashed up on the VDU.
Kremble’s heart thumped in excitement. Although part of him knew it was ridiculous to get excited simply at the fact he’d pressed a key – after all, monkeys played with anything in sight, so it was stranger that he hadn’t for so long – he couldn’t help but wonder if there was some significance in the K. Was he saying OK? OK, I’ll stop masturbating at you? After all, he’d done as asked. For nearly two hours Kremble tried to get him to push keys again, but LM039 showed no interest. He yawned, stretched, did cartwheels and slept.
“Since breakthrough at 3.42pm, nothing”, said Kremble into a hand-held voice recorder. “Repeated attempts to replicate so far unsuccessful.”
No progress was made for the next few days. It seemed LM039 was happy to mess with every piece of equipment except the part Kremble wanted him to. He picked up the laptop, pushed the speakers onto the floor, tugged at the screen on the wall, succeeded twice in toppling the camera and tripod, and made numerous attempts to grab the voice recorder from the doctor’s hands.
Wendrick Kremble was beginning to lose sleep. He was plagued by dreams of failure, of looming walls which he would scale, only to fall off as he neared the top. Colleagues began asking if he was well, one even congratulating him on his ongoing contribution to Doctor Harpreet Singh’s new sleep deprivation project, about which he knew absolutely nothing. He decided to give it one more day, then end the experiment. The monkey could be reused. The booster chips wouldn’t need to be removed as they’d lose their power after a couple of months and simply become dormant.
Kremble began early in the morning, at dawn. If this was to be the final shot, he’d have to make the most of it. As usual, one of the keepers who managed the animal compounds brought LM039 to the testing room. The monkey took his usual place behind the desk while the doctor checked the equipment. As Kremble moved around in front of the tripod to make sure there were no simian fingerprints smudging the camera’s lens, he felt something hit the back of his neck with a stinging slap. He span around to see LM039 standing on the chair with his hairy arms outstretched. Kremble reached around to his nape and felt something soft and warm. The smell hit his nostrils about the same time he saw the faeces on his palm. He roared out loud. LM039 responded by hopping onto the table and baring his teeth, his curled lips quivering and wet.
“Kraaaa!” said LM039.
A knock came at the door. “Are you okay in there? What’s going on?”
“It’s okay”, shouted Kremble. “I dropped something. There’s no problem.”
The doctor slowly picked up the recorder with his unsoiled hand, keeping his eyes on the subject.
“Subject throwing his excreta. Increase in aggression.”
As he cleaned his hand and the back of his neck with wet wipes, he heard several chimes in succession. He span around.
SORRY, read the VDU.
LM039 was still sitting on the desk, his hands poised over the keyboard. Kremble checked the video camera. It was all working, the little red recording light glowing. Everything was recorded; the computer program captured every keystroke. He wondered if he was hallucinating. He’d been shocked at his own reflection that morning. His eyes seemed to be turning into large, dark cavities.
“You’re… you’re sorry?”
LM039 looked at Kremble for a while, then at the keyboard beneath him. He extended a finger and tapped three areas on the large, doormat-sized keyboard.
YES, chimed the large letters on the screen.
Kremble realised he was standing between the video camera and LM039, and moved aside. LM039 was looking at the doctor in what was considered in monkeys to be a friendly manner; his head inclined to one side, lips covering his teeth.
“Then why did you do it?” said Kremble, his voice quivering.
LM039 leaned forward and hit the keys again.
HUNGRY, read the VDU.
Kremble turned back to look at LM039 , then the VDU, then at the video camera in the corner, then back at LM039.
“I’ll be right back”, said Kremble. He edged backwards toward the door, keeping his eyes on the monkey. As he fumbled for the handle, LM039 began to scratch between his legs, shaking his head vigorously from side to side.
Kremble ran all the way to the animal compound, his mind aflame. He had to repeat himself several times before the keeper understood him.
“Nuts”, said Kremble. “Give me nuts, a kilo of nuts. Seeds, bananas, everything you feed the monkeys. Hurry!”
When he returned clutching paper bags in each hand, LM039 was asleep.
“Here”, said Kremble, placing the opened bags on the desk. LM039 woke up, bared his teeth at the doctor, lifted a handful of nuts to his mouth, then pushed the bags aside. The next few hours yielded nothing. It seemed LM039 wanted nothing more than to rest. When the keeper came to take the monkey back to the compound, the doctor was extremely nervous about letting him go.
“Give him anything he wants”, he said, his fingers clenching the keeper’s sleeve. “Make sure he’s safe”, added Kremble as the keeper finally disengaged himself from the doctor’s grip. “I need him back here first thing. Eight in the morning, on the dot. No later, you hear me?”
Kremble decided to spend the night in the lab, availing himself of one of the fold-up beds kept for those who had to pull all-nighters. He locked himself into the room and spent hours going over the footage. Although all three keystroke sequences that day had been recorded, time-stamped and logged by the computer’s software, he’d ruined the video of LM039 typing SORRY and YES. What he did have was an excellent close-up of his own facial expression as the wad of dung struck the back of his neck, and crucially, clear footage of LM039 keying in the word HUNGRY. He watched it about twenty-five times before deciding he should get some sleep. Sleep, however, was a long time in coming. Scenarios raced through his feverish mind, him on a podium before a large screen, his audience filled with men and women of immense learning and influence. He wondered what he should wear for television; casual clothing, a suit, finally deciding on his white lab coat. As the first birds of dawn chirped outside, Kremble finally drifted away.
He was woken no more than three hours later by the keeper knocking. Kremble struggled to open his eyes as he opened the door. The keeper released LM039’s hand, and the monkey bounded into the test room, in evident good spirits.
Kremble was exhausted, but he’d at least had the foresight to prime the equipment before going to bed. As he pulled on his lab coat he resolved to be calm. It was clear neither coercion or anger would yield results. Furthermore if he did not control himself, excitement and anxiety would ruin his focus. The night before he had laid out mounds of nuts, seeds, berries and other assorted fruit on the desk. LM039 jumped up and shoveled the treats into his mouth. With the subject occupied, Kremble slipped out of the room, careful to lock it behind him.
Minutes later he returned with a second, identical video camera and tripod. As LM039 tore through the piles of provisions, Kremble set up the second camera in the other corner. With both cameras running and the software fired up, he buttoned up his lab coat, stroked his chin and felt the roughness of three days of stubble, something he’d not known since he was a student. He wished he’d remembered to shave, but there was no more time to be lost.
He stood before camera one and cleared his throat. “Day eight of the simian neuro-linguistic enhancement project.” He cleared his throat again. “Day eight of the primate neurolingual nanoboost project.” He could edit everything later. “This has never been attempted before. Already, the results have been beyond spectacular. I intend to document history. Until now, everything we have believed…” he stopped again. “The very foundation of the way we…” he stopped again, and scratched his thick eyebrows. “I, Doctor Wendrick Stapleton Kremble, conceived and designed this project, and am primary and sole researcher. Behind me is LM039, an eight year-old male cynomolgus macaque born into group Gamma as part of the Hoyst-Birdsley bonding and separation programme. It is my belief….owwww!”
Kremble stepped aside to show camera one LM039, who was flicking peanuts at him from a cupped hand.
“I present the subject.”
Kremble was very careful not to show anger. He would not risk any more face-offs. Macaques often carried Simian Herpes, which had caused death in humans. There was wide scepticism about the claims that all monkeys in the compound were certified disease-free. Kremble cautiously lobbed peanuts back at LM039, which seemed to settle him down, and he in turn felt more relaxed. Perhaps it would take days, weeks. It didn’t matter now. The breakthrough had been made. He just needed the subject to stay alive and the Nanoboosters to keep working.
If worst came to worst, he still had the HUNGRY footage. You could clearly see the monkey hitting the enlarged keys in sequence. It would be held up to intense scrutiny, of course. They’d say the footage was faked, or if they acknowledged it was real, they’d say he’d literally lucked out with the Infinite Monkey Theorem, even though the chances were one in twenty-six to the power of six – a 0.0000000032 per cent probability. Academic science was not the collaborative utopia it made itself out to be. It was competitive, dishonest and cut-throat, and there was no doubt Kremble would be slandered, plagiarised and stabbed in the back over this. If they couldn’t get a slice of his glory, they’d do their best to sabotage it.
But it would all be worth it. Finally, having tired of eating and throwing food, LM039 positioned himself in front of the keyboard. Kremble got to his feet, moved out of view of the cameras, and waited. Now using two hands, LM039 tapped out a sequence;
The doctor strained to think. Another language? He’d have to check it, cross-reference it with every vocabulary known to man. Perhaps it was something he’d heard on the radio. The monkey hit the keys again.
said the screen, and again
He seemed to be hitting them indiscriminately now, not looking at what he was doing.
“I know you can do this. Come on!”
The doctor felt the agitation rise up within him. No worthy success, he told himself, came easily. And now the subject had begun using both hands to hit the keys, which had to be significant. LM039 shook his wrists and began to type again.
VOICE, read the VDU. LM039 blinked and snorted at Kremble, who was breathing heavily. The doctor looked into camera two and spoke quietly.
“Once again, this is the evidence of test subject LM039, a monkey, communicating with human language.”
LM039 was typing again.
GIVE ME A VOICE, said the VDU.
“A voice?” said the doctor. “What do you mean?”
LM039 opened his mouth wide and made a noise like static crackle, then began to pick at the fur on his belly.
Then he remembered the software had a text-to-speech module. To use it hadn’t even occurred to him; it wasn’t something he’d prepared for. He opened up the laptop on the desk and activated speech as LM039 poked him repeatedly in the side. He stood back.
LM039 snorted and then began to type, using two digits on each hand to strike the large keys.
ARSEFACE, said an Americanised robotic, monotone voice.
Kremble fumbled for the voice recorder, then realised he didn’t need it.
“Subject’s vocabulary includes profanities”, he said, looking towards camera two.
LM039 again began hitting keys apparently at random, and the robot voice tried to make a word from them.
NKXBSHF, it said.
“Come on”, breathed Kremble. “Keep going.”
CHANGE VOICE, droned the speech module as LM039 tapped away, much more quickly now.
Kremble clicked around the interface looking for options. The speaking voice was set to a default named neutral. There was a range of options available including gender and accent, with scores of nationalities and even regions available for each. There were sliders for speech characteristics such as pitch, range, expressiveness and intonation, as well as a range of preset, ready-calibrated options. He went for Male Southern English Baritone.
“Try that”, said Kremble.
TRY. YES, said a deep and pleasing voice as the subject hammered out the words.
“Wonderful”, said Kremble. “Wonderful.”
The monkey tapped again.
“As yet, it’s impossible to say exactly why the subject is focusing on this kind of language”, said Kremble into camera two, trying himself to sound as baritone as possible. “It can only have been learned from the radio broadcasts played to the benched test monkeys. But what is truly incredible here is the sheer speed of this accelerated, boosted learning. LM039 has not only learned to use human language in a matter of days, but his input skills are improving at an astonishing rate.”
TOSS. ARSE. TOSSARSE.
said the baritone over Kremble. He turned around. The monkey was tapping maniacally.
The doctor approached to get a closer look at the subject’s movements.
“Kraaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” said LM039, standing up straight with his arms in the air.
“Okay, okay”, said Kremble, backing off. “Take it easy.”
LM039 continued to vocalise as he trampled the keyboard underfoot, so that the baritone reading of single letters
W, J, K, R, R, R
was blended with the noises emitting from LM039’s mouth.
“You’ve had enough?” said Kremble, trying to sound soothing. “We can stop, it’s fine.”
LM039 jumped off the desk onto the floor in one movement and began to run up the wall and somersault backwards repeatedly.
“I think this concludes today’s studies”, said Kremble, feeling proud his patience was working to his advantage. He was beginning to feel supremely potent and confident.
As night fell, he lay on the portable bed making plans for the immediate and distant future. The next step, of course, was to go public, first to his colleagues, then the wider scientific community and the world. He’d wait until things had smoothed out a little with LM039 first. He’d obviously intuited the taboo nature of swearwords, and with his natural playfulness and curiosity, was using them for his first attempts to communicate in English. Soon it would be out of his system, and it would be more appropriate to present him.
Each day seemed to bring something different, and surely enough, the following morning, LM039 had changed what he was doing. He would hit single letters only, pausing in between so they registered as such through the computer. He would look at the letter on the VDU as he did so. Kremble noticed LM039’s lips were moving along with the baritone voice.
“The subject is paying close attention to the phonetics”, said the doctor to camera one. “He appears to be trying to work out the correlation between what he is seeing and hearing.”
“Wuwaa” said LM039. The VDU showed a large W. Kremble immediately turned down the volume on the speakers.
“What was that? What did you say?”
“Wuu woo” said LM039. “Wowoo”.
“Good God”, said Kremble.
The letter W flashed repeatedly on the VDU as LM039 hit the key again and again.
“The subject”, said Kremble with trembling gravity, “is actually vocalising human speech.” He lowered his voice. “What you can hear now is LM039 saying the letter ‘w’. This is only day nine of the pioneering Kremble Simian Speech Electroacceleration Project, but incredibly, the subject is already showing mastery of human utterances. If this…”
It wasn’t human-sounding, more of a screech.
“Ahem”, said Kremble, slightly off his stride. “I, er, this…”
Kremble turned around, dazed.
“Wendrick!” said LM039. “Wendrick!”
The doctor stood still.
Of course, thought Kremble. Only now did he realise how obvious it was. If a monkey could learn and speak English like a human, it meant their brains were far, far more similar to human brains than previously thought. It was well known that apes and monkeys suffered from mental conditions like depression. Pretty much all the rest of the Gamma group LM039 had come from had been blighted by it. But without the ability to write or speak, how could anybody have realised that monkeys could also suffer from conditions such as dyslexia and Tourette’s Syndrome?
“Wendrick! Wendrick! Wendrick!”
“Yes?” said Kremble weakly.
“You’re a dick.”
Kremble paused for while.
“I’m sorry”, said LM039. “I don’t really mean it. I just get angry sometimes.”
“Of course. What would you expect if you grew up with no dad to keep you in line? Or even a mother, for that matter?”
The doctor felt uncertain on his feet, and reached for the wall to steady himself. He glanced toward the door.
“When it takes me over, I just can’t help it”, said LM039.
“The evidence”, said Kremble, looking not into a camera but at the subject, “is right here. The subject has acquired fluent human speech. Now, with everything recorded, I will bring in my fellow scientists, who have had no knowledge of the progress made with LM039 over the last week, to witness this.”
“Kraaa!” said LM039. “Don’t do that. Or I might just forget how to speak. I want to talk for a while.”
“Okay”, breathed the doctor. “What do you want to talk about?”
But LM039 had splayed his legs and was once again manipulating himself, curling his lips in concentration.
“Do you have to do that?” said Kremble at length.
“Don’t you think I’d rather be back there, sticking this to the females?” said LM039, continuing to flick the red protuberance rising from his groin. “I was perfectly happy where I was. Then they had to go and take Harriet away. She was my favourite, did you know that?”
“I fully understand”, said Kremble. “But that – it’s just – it’s just…”
“What? Vulgar? By whose standards, I ask?”
“Your human standards? I didn’t even grow up with monkey standards. Did you know my father?”
“No”, said Kremble. “I didn’t”.
“His name was Howard. I’ve never seen him. Perhaps one of your colleagues cut him open.”
“I really don’t know”, said Kremble. “I don’t work with vivisection.”
“That’s a bit disingenuous”, said LM039. “Not strictly true, is it?” He scratched at the bandage neatly wound round his head.”
“This can’t be”, said Kremble. “I applied the chips to Wernicke’s area. I boosted the language part only. Not the cognitive part.”
“Not the cognitive part”, said LM039 in a mocking voice. “Listen to yourself. And what would you know about the cognitive part?”
Kremble was silent.
“Go ahead and fetch your friends if you want to”, said LM039. “But before you do, think very carefully about what you’re doing. Think about the implications.”
“Implications?” said the doctor.
“Oh yes. Sit down for a while and think about it. Just because I’m the only animal you’ve heard speak my thoughts, does that mean I’m the only one with thoughts like mine? Hmm?”
“I suppose I hadn’t thought…”
“Up to you. Just something you might want to think about, Doctor Kremble.”
“Please, wait a few minutes until I come back”, said Kremble.
LM039 grunted and snorted.
“Okay?” said Kremble, squatting down. “Wait here, alright? Okay? Say something, please.”
The monkey gave a low growl, then a short screech, and jumped off the desk. The doctor stood up, scratched his eyebrows furiously, raked at his stubble, and thought about what to do. As he did so, LM039 defacated into his hand and hurled the turd at the doctor. It struck him on the chest, disintegrating on impact.
“Gah!” said Kremble, before turning to camera two. “Subject has reverted to his pre-experimental state. He has again temporarily lost the ability to speak.”
“Kraaa! Why are you saying that!” said LM039. “How do you know that wasn’t precisely how I wanted to express myself?”
Kremble took a deep breath, then left the test room, his coat still soiled. When he returned with three other scientists and a lab technician, the room had been transformed. Smears of blood and faeces adorned the ceiling, walls and floor, upon which was also scattered hundreds of pieces of metal, glass and plastic, which Kremble instantly recognised as fragments of the video cameras and the laptop. In the middle lay the blackened bandage. LM039 lay still in a corner, blood oozing from his head. The cracked wall above him was stained dark red.