An exclusive tale from C.G.Allan's forthcoming first collection of short fiction...
MY life has always been filled with questions. Most of them begin with "Why" and end with "me", but about three hours ago I was faced with a new, more profound question which has forced me to try to forget my own problems for the present moment at least.
It was 7pm again and I had become thirsty as I always did at 7pm.
In setting this down now I hope to help myself remember, for the thirst makes me forget things quickly.
Typically, my pockets were empty. When my pockets became light like that I always visited those who had been my friends before.
Tonight it was the turn of John Franks, a former colleague. They never turned me away. Perhaps it was guilt or the remnants of something once alluded to as "social conscience", but I didn’t care to ask "why" when the thirst took over.
I knocked at the back door, as they always preferred me to do.
Three times, to let him know it was me and not some strange beggar.
John was in his lab as usual. That stuff still amused him, evidently. The security system announced my entrance and John's voice came over the intercom. "Come up."
It switched back to its monotonous crackling quickly, almost cutting John's words short.
If it was possible I was even more thirsty by the time I reached the eighth floor of his apartment. But I wouldn't trust any form of technology again, even an elevator.
I knew what to expect as soon as I entered the lab, even though I hadn't visited John for some weeks. His existence was spent slumped over a sparklingly clean steel table at the centre of the lab on top of which were numerous cages. The only thing that had changed since my last visit was the number of inhabitants in those cages.
"No new specimens, then?" I enquired half-heartedly in an attempt to evade the reason for my visit. John took a while to answer.
I continually ask myself "why" this might be now. I don't know if my words just take longer to reach him through the layers of work which John piles upon himself.
Finally he consented to give me a little conversation. "Don't need any more. I'm close."
We didn't speak for an hour after that. I sat watching him, part of me reminiscing about the old days, but the greater part wondered "how" I was going to ask for what I had come for. To ask for what he already surely knew I had come to get.
It fascinated me, the strange nature of John's research. I forgot my thirst for that hour as I watched him work together with Alfred II. Theirs was a master-servant relationship, of course. But there was a definite bond between the two. A bond which really ought not to have been. But it was a bond I recognised.
Alfred was a lab rat. He was as old as a rat can get without dying of "unnatural" causes. He had survived where others had not because John would not allow him to die like the others. But he was running out of specimens as I had tried to point out.
Whenever John handled a specimen he was fairly brutal about it.
Despite at first tempting it with sweet things, he always ended up pulling it out of its cage by its tail. There were no comforting words or soothing tones. Only cold silence. Once out of the cage, the rat was slapped onto the freezing metal surface of the central table. Whilst in a dazed state, it was prodded and injected and left to react to whatever new concoction John and his colleagues had come up with this week.
But with Alfred II he was... different. The sweet things were still offered to him, but I imagined them to be sweeter somehow.
He was carefully lifted out and carefully placed upon a warmed cloth on the tabletop. He was injected and prodded, although they were gentler proddings than those of his siblings. And he was only injected with things that had already been tried and tested on other specimens before.
He was the "tested tester."
Alfred II always survived.
As to "Why" John had chosen to "befriend" this rat, I could not hazard a reason. Was he trying to salvage some shred of decency from our years of animal torture and mutilation? Perhaps it was just that he needed a companion in this lifeless apartment. I was sure that my infrequent visits were the most frequent John received each month.
I watched John jab and predictably kill the three remaining specimens in the other cages on the central table. Only Alfred II remained. He was sleeping in a corner of his cage.
I looked at the clock on the wall of the lab from where I sat in one corner of the room. It was an hour since I had arrived. The memory of "why" I had visited John came back to me and I coughed a dry cough to gain his attention.
"Are you calling it a night, then?" I gestured to the three corpses on the table.
"The problem is..." John's passion for his work came through in the enthusiasm of his tired voice. "I'm testing human diseases on these things."
I wasn't sure if he was addressing me or merely allowing his train of thought to be freed into the real world.
But then he did address me directly with THE question.
"Listen to me, Al. How can we convince them to give us live human specimens to work on?"
My mouth was dry. My head felt hollow and my stomach ached.
"What?" I crackled. "You've been up in this lab too long, Dr Franks. What about ethics? What about your oath? John, it's ludicrous!"
He stared at me for a long while. I hoped my words were slowly sinking down into his being and taking hold of his sense of decency.
Then he blinked as if to wake himself up out of a daydream. "Yes, of course it is. I... I get these wild thoughts sometimes. You must forgive me. How about a drink? I won't have one. Not while I'm working. But you want one, yes?"
Of course I did.
I took the glass from his hand and let the liquid swallow me as it trickled down my throat. It was very sweet. And after that all I remember is the cold, cold silence.
That was about an hour and a half ago. I remember feeling drowsy and being pulled abruptly by the arm... Or was it the leg? I awoke on the central table and felt bruising on my arms and chest.
I can see Alfred II in his cage eating merrily on a piece of cheese.
He always survives. And I feel the thirst coming upon me again.
‘The Thirst for Knowledge’
copyright © 2016 by C G Allan
copyright © 2016 by C G Allan