by Olga Werby
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Humans have always wanted to know what goes on inside the minds of other animals. But what if humans could become animals? Toby’s father leads a team of neuroscientists directly connecting the brains of humans with those of animals. And Toby is a prodigy at throwing her mind into the animal subjects in his lab—she’s the best there is.
But Toby suffers from cystic fibrosis and she’s not likely to live into adulthood. Could a radical plan to embed her consciousness into an animal allow Toby to survive? And what does it mean to live without a human body?
Can Toby and her father solve the problem of fully merging two beings before she takes her last breath? Will the government succeed in stopping their efforts before they are done? It’s a race against death and into the minds of animals.
“You left the girl alone in there?”
Professor Will Crowe looked past Major Watson’s inspection team at the tall military man. He paused before answering. “It’s ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,’” he said.
Major George Watson watched through the one-way mirror as the eight-year-old girl adjusted the brain-to-brain interface cap on her head and continued to play with the rat. This was the lab rat the whole Brats project was designed around—the one with the brain implant that allowed the wearer of the BBI cap to control its movements.
Will shifted uncomfortably. He looked ready to bolt for the door and retrieve his daughter. But Major Watson, not unkindly, put his hand on Will’s shoulder. Now that this unplanned experiment had begun, he was interested in the outcome.
“That used to be your pet rat, is that right?” Watson asked.
“It was Toby’s rat,” Will said. “The doctors told us we couldn’t have allergens in my wife’s environment, so I brought it to the lab. I couldn’t just kill it. But I didn’t think Toby would recognize Rufus…”
Geez, the rat has a name! Watson tried to hide his irritation. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Rufus?”
“Toby named him,” Will said.
The professor was clearly nervous. He must have known how unprofessional this all must appear to the military people who funded Crowe’s brain lab. The army intelligence grant had paid for everything they’d been doing here for the last two years.
Watson knew how much Will hated surprise visits to his lab, but he did it anyway. It was part of his job to stir things up a bit. But he had never expected something like this. Not only bringing a little kid into a top-secret lab, but giving her access to the equipment? The major was too controlled to let his face give away his displeasure, but he had to actively suppress communicating his disapproval. He believed his demeanor should never reveal anything about his internal thoughts and emotions unless he wanted it to.
“I see.” The major noticed that he still sounded irritated. He was always irritated when visiting civilian-run labs—Dr. Crowe’s facility in particular. The man was so touchy. It was so much easier to conduct research when he could just issue orders. He hated cajoling. He wasn’t a babysitter.
But he had to admit that Dr. Crowe’s work on direct neural interfaces was the most promising he’d seen so far. The BBI developed in his lab allowed humans to govern the rat’s movements—direction, speed, and agility—and even more impressively, Dr. Crowe thought human controllers would soon be able to get partial sensory data from the rat’s eyes and ears. Human brain-controlled rats, or brats for short, were a true breakthrough. This was computer-mediated control of an animal with the potential for complete sensory immersion. Thanks to Dr. Crowe’s work, the military would one day be able to send little ratty spies into dangerous or humanly impenetrable areas. This technology would be invaluable in search and rescue operations—collapsed buildings, tunnels, mine shafts—as well as more “delicate” assignments run by some of the covert military units. Human-controlled rats would be the most advanced mini robots on the planet.
“Here, Ruffy,” said the girl, petting the rat. “See? It feels good, doesn’t it?”
“Can she feel what the rat is feeling?” asked Sergeant Martinez—one of Major Watson’s people.
“It looks like she can,” said Dr. Crowe.
“Find out for sure,” Watson said.
“Okay.” Dr. Crowe practically ran out of the observation center.
“I want this recorded,” ordered Major Watson as the professor carefully opened the door to the lab, obviously not wanting to spook either the rat or his little girl.
The lieutenant behind the camera nodded. Everything was being recorded.
“Hey, Toby,” Dr. Crowe called softly. His voice carried easily into the observation room via a set of speakers.
“Hi, Dad!” Toby greeted her father in the high-pitched voice of an excited eight-year-old girl. She was holding the fluffy black-and-white animal in one hand and using the other to scratch behind its brain implant, located just at the back of the animal’s head. She gently giggled at the motion. To Watson, it looked like the girl was able to sense the touch of her own finger on the fur of the rat. In essence, she seemed to be tickling herself.
“Can you feel that?” Dr. Crowe asked.
Toby nodded. “And I can see you too,” she said.
Her back was to her dad, but Rufus was looking directly at Dr. Crowe, tracking the man’s motion across the lab as he approached his daughter. Interesting, Watson thought. If Toby could see anything at all through the animal’s visual perception, it would represent enormous progress.
“How many fingers do I have up?” Dr. Crowe asked quickly, sticking his thumb up in the air and leaning in close—rats had poor eyesight.
“None!” Toby laughed. Watson and his men behind the mirrored wall held their collective breath before Toby added, “It’s a thumb, silly!”
Dr. Crowe glanced into the one-way mirror, at the unseen observers. “What else can you do with Ruffy? Can you show me?”
Toby put the rat on the floor and let him loose. The professor looked back at the door to the lab that he’d carelessly left open.
“Don’t worry, Dad. Ruffy won’t escape. He likes it here,” Toby said.
“Okay. So what tricks can you do with Ruffy?” Dr. Crowe asked.
“I can tell Ruffy where you keep the treats and have him get them,” the girl said.
“I keep the animal treats locked.”
“You showed me already,” Toby said.
The rat quickly ran over to the professor’s desk, scampered up on top, and used its mouth to grab the key to the cabinet that held the rat snacks. Watson watched with amazement as the rat dropped the key to the floor, climbed down, and grabbed the key again. It then ran over to the cabinet.
But the lock was too high up. So Toby walked over and gave Rufus a lift to the second drawer from the top.
“Don’t help him,” Dr. Crowe said.
Both Toby and the rat, in unison, turned their heads toward him. “Dad! Ruffy is too small to get up this high by himself.”
“Okay. But let him unlock the drawer by himself,” Dr. Crowe said.
Toby extended her hand and the rat put the key into the lock and turned it. With a soft click, the drawer opened.
As the rat reached into the drawer toward the snack container, Toby’s nose twitched. “It smells good and bad,” she complained.
“You can smell the rodent snacks?”
“I can smell how much Ruffy likes them. But to me, it smells bad. It’s like it’s yummy and disgusting all at the same time.”
Major Watson was genuinely impressed. The Brats project was further along than he could have hoped. He left the observation room and walked into the rat lab. Stepping right up to Toby, he asked, “What else can you feel?”
“I can hear you all walk around the lab with Ruffy’s ears. And I can taste what Ruffy eats,” Toby said. She frowned. “Daddy, I hate the taste of Ruffy’s snacks.” She started to rip the BBI cap off her head.
“Wait, honey, let me help you with that.” Dr. Crowe rushed over to help remove the prototype from her head. The handmade BBI cap was quite delicate, with wires dangling inside and out.
Without Toby to mediate the rat’s behavior, the little animal dove for the back of the snack drawer, where it tried to hide away from the bright lights and loud noises of the lab.
“How do you feel?” the professor asked his daughter.
“It was fun, but Ruffy sure likes to eat bad things. And it’s weird to be so small,” Toby said.
Major Watson looked over at Dr. Crowe. Vision, hearing, taste, smell, feel, and even proprioception—a complete sensory experience immersion. This had turned out to be a surprisingly effective demonstration of the BBI technology.
And it was surprising in another way too. As far as the major knew, no one in Dr. Crowe’s lab could exercise as much control, or feel so fully absorbed in the animal subject’s perception, as the researcher’s daughter had just exhibited. She’d even displayed some of the rat’s mannerisms—synchronous nose twitching and darting eye movements. Can’t fake that.
“That was excellent work, Toby,” he said approvingly, squatting down to be face to face with the little girl. “I am Major Watson, and I work with your dad…and Rufus.”
“Nice to meet you,” Toby said, extending her small hand.
He smiled and formally shook the girl’s hand. “How would you like to come and help us work with Rufus?”
“Major—” Crowe began.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Toby?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Major—” Dr. Crowe tried again.
Watson cut him off. “Why don’t you take your daughter home, Professor? We will discuss the arrangements this evening.”
He turned to go, but then walked back to the feed drawer and looked at the rat hiding in there, gorging on the snacks. “You might want to put Rufus back in his case before he gets sick.” Then he left the lab, signaling for his people in the observation room to follow.
“I really liked playing with Ruffy,” he heard Toby say behind him. “It’s like a video game, only much, much better.”
Dr. Crowe replied, but the major didn’t hear the words.
This had turned out to be a great surprise inspection after all.
AN INTERVIEW WITH OLGA
-What inspired you to become a writer?
Funny. There was one particular event that started me down the road of becoming an author…among many. I wrote fan fiction as a kid for stories I loved and couldn’t get enough of. But it was “Twilight” that pushed me towards actually penning an entire complete novel – “Suddenly, Paris.” I saw a kid at school — a girl who I’ve never seen reading a single thing ever – pick up “Twilight” and not put it down until the end. I wanted to know why? Why was this story so compelling to this kid? What gripped her? What made her read a thick book to the end? Interestingly, when I read that novel, I was angry at the abusive relationship described…and yet I still found it compelling. So I decided to write a compelling story where the heroine was not a wet blanket or in an abusive relationship.
“Suddenly, Paris”: What if the world is not made out of atoms? Would it change your high school experience? Would it change how you love? This story focuses on a high school student, Julie Vorov, who suddenly learns something about herself and that turns her world upside down. This book was placed on the Long List for The James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2016. You can read the first few chapters here.
“Coding Peter” is a sequel to “Suddenly, Paris.” It tells the story of Julie’s younger brother Peter. Peter has some very difficult choices to make. Would he be pressed to make the right ones? Read the first few chapters here.
-If you could visit your book’s world for a day, what one thing would you do?
I would try to get into Dr. Crowe’s lab to use his brain-to-brain connection device. I think I would like to be linked up to a raven; but I read that is very hard. So maybe a rat? They are more forgiving, apparently.
-It’s two in the morning. What does your protagonist reveal in confidence? (Don’t worry, we won’t tell.)
I don’t think I’m me anymore…
-Which of your characters would you go out for drinks with?
Rider is a mysterious ex-soldier guy who shows up to help Toby escape the confines of a military base. He is funny and capable and he has a good heart. I think he might be a fun person to talk to.
-You’re in a tavern, and a dwarf challenges you to a duel. What do you do?
I think my answer doesn’t change: How big is the dwarf? When I was a kid, I had to commute to school that was very far from home. Part of the way, I had to walk through a large park, all the way across. In the winter it was dark… My dad told me that if anyone were to bother me, I should lower my head and ram ’em! Only years later, did I figure out which body part my dad wanted me to attack—I was a short kid. So I ask again, how big is the dwarf?
-Is there a genre you could never write? Which and why?
My previous answer: Never is such a long time…but then human life is pretty short. I have written textbooks and scientific papers, science fiction and magical realism. I’ve opined on all kinds of topics, technical and political, and created children’s fairytales. Some of my books have more than a touch of horror to them. Others are funny (in a dark way). All are optimistic and full of love. I’ve also written regular fiction stories. I’d guess I would avoid biographies of important men. It’s really not my genre.
To this I’d like to add “Pornographic Romances.” I want to be specific here – I do enjoy adding a bit of romance into my novels, although this subplot tends never to be the full focus of my stories. So a bit of romance is fine, but pornography is just not that interesting ultimately…to me. And it had been done ad nauseam through out human history (just Google pornography and dinosaurs to see what I mean). I feel like I can add something in other genres. My mind is just not inventive enough to write “Ravished by the Raptor.”
About Olga Werby
Olga Werby, Ed.D., has a Doctorate from U.C. Berkeley with a focus on designing online learning experiences. She has a Master\’s degree from U.C. Berkeley in Education of Math, Science, and Technology. She has been creating computer-based projects since 1981 with organizations such as NASA (where she worked on the Pioneer Venus project), Addison-Wesley, and the Princeton Review. Olga has a B.A. degree in Mathematics and Astrophysics from Columbia University. She became an accidental science fiction indie writer about a decade ago, with her first book, \”Suddenly Paris,\” which was based on then fairly novel idea of virtual universes. Her next story, \”The FATOFF Conspiracy,\” was a horror story about fat, government bureaucracy, and body image. She writes about characters that rarely get represented in science fiction stories — homeless kids, refugees, handicapped, autistic individuals — the social underdogs of our world. Her stories are based in real science, which is admittedly stretched to the very limit of possible. She has published almost a dozen fiction books to date and has won many awards for her writings. Her short fiction has been featured in several issues of \”Alien Dimensions Magazine,\” \”600 second saga,\” \”Graveyard Girls,\” \”Kyanite Press\’ Fables and Fairy Tales,\” \”The Carmen Online Theater Group\’s Chronicles of Terror,\” with many more stories freely available on her blog, Interfaces.com.
Find her online:
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Olga Werby will be awarding a $25 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.a Rafflecopter giveaway