April 17th, 2013

Winston: Resurrecting An Old Story

This is a snippet from a novelette I wrote ten or more years ago and have been trying to resurrect. Remember what I said a few days ago about that resulting in something better than the old story, but not as good as something I would write now? Yep. That's what I think happened. I'll let you be the judge.

The North Central Illinois University exobiology large mammal containment lab still smelled new, a mixture of wood and drywall dust with electronics. It looked new too, raw, stark. The austere metal and plastic offices laid out in a square around the containment lab added to that impression, with uncluttered desks that still looked empty except for names and titles prominently displayed on each desk.

The bear in the cage inside six-inch thick walls looked comfortable. Its small size, black fur and the white marking on its front made it look like a sun bear, and it might have shared an ancestor with that small southeast Asian bear species a few million years ago. How much difference did a few million years in the cut-throat competition of Bear Country make, Gene Woodward wondered. The bear looked alert, sharp-eyed for a bear. It stared out at Gene, expressionless, yet somehow conveying mild curiosity and a calm self-confidence.
"Looks like he’s the lord of the castle, looking down from his throne," Gene said.
Dr. David Morris, head of the university’s newly created exobiology department, paused at a thick window into the cage. "How does he make that poker face say that?"
Gene studied the bear. "The way he's sitting maybe. It says, 'I'm tolerating being here because I feel like it, but when I want to I'll walk out and make sure nobody ever trusts the University with Bear Country animals again.’ I think I believe him."
"Getting out: that's not happening. The cage could hold an elephant. It probably will hold a mammoth once we get done with Mr. Bear. It'll hold a hundred pound bear."
Dr. Morris tapped on the thick glass. The bear raised its head as if to sniff the air, then yawned, exposing inch-long canines. Gene wondered if those canines still held remnants of human blood. Probably not. The bear’s last kill was at least a week ago.
The bear stood on its hind legs, steady and natural there, stretched, and dropped to all fours to shuffle across the cage. It climbed the smooth metal bars of the cage, making it look easy, then swung from bar to bar across the top of the cage, using powerful forearms.
"Not as smooth as a chimp, but not bad for something with no thumbs," Dr. Morris said. “He would beat any of our bears at tree-climbing, I bet.”
"A killer bear, and I get to babysit it the next few nights. And I see you scheduled my daughter to work with me. I thought we agreed that was a bad idea."
"You said that was a bad idea. That's not quite the same as me agreeing," Dr. Morris said. "How many people can we prove it killed."
"I heard six," Gene said. "And it would have killed that television anchor lady. I saw the video where it mauled her.”
“The police say it killed one scumbag drug dealer because another scumbag drug dealer trained it to. The rest of the deaths may not be linked. Good riddance to the scumbags. Nobody would have cared if it had been drive-by shootings."
Gene struggled to keep his eyes open. Dave asked, “Are you going to be okay driving home?”
“If I get out of here within the next half hour. It’s almost 8:30 in the morning--past my bedtime. When did I go from graduate assistant to glorified night watchman?”
“When you were too nice for your own good,” Dave said. “We’ll let you go in a minute. First I want you to watch a student experiments and I need your okay on your schedule.”
Gene said, “You have one week before they send Mr. Bear to a maximum security Bear Country-rated zoo or kill him, and you’re wasting a morning on student experiments. When are you going to do your work?”
Dave shrugged. “We’re still a college. The experiments will be a total bust, but the kids will learn from them."
"Why?"
"They’re classic experiments designed for monkeys. The bear doesn't have hands. He can't do them the way they want him to."
Gene walked over to the lab window. As he watched, workers in biohazard suits moved a heavy wooden table inside the lab and nailed a long screen wire tube with an apple inside to the top of it.
Gene laughed. "Let me guess. He can’t reach the apple, but there is a stick for him to rake it out with?"
"Yep."
"And he’s supposed to pick up the stick with his non-existent hands."
“Yep”
The bear came out of the holding cage, sniffed, and went over to the table. It reached down the tube, snorted, then stepped back and sucked on its front paws.
The professor organizing the experiments strolled over. "It does that when it's thinking."
The bear shuffled to the other side of the table, put its front paws on it, and lifted that side of the table off the floor. The apple rolled out of the tube. The bear promptly ate it.
Gene whistled. "That's impressive."
"Yeah. That table weighs over two hundred pounds. He made it look easy," Dr. Morris said.
"The strength is impressive too, but that was good problem solving,” Gene said. “He figured it out in under a second."
"Maybe it triggered a trained response."
The students and their professor gave each other high fives. The professor said, “I knew that big brain had to have some use.” He turned to Dr. Morris. “Ultrasounds say that old boy has six-hundred and eighty cubic centimeters of brain space. That’s nearly two times what the average chimp has, in an animal about the same size.”
“He got lucky,” Dr. Morris said. "Bolt the table to the floor next time. The floor's too nice and shiny-looking anyway."
The workers lured the bear back into his cage with his favorite treat, chocolate-covered almonds, and closed the cage door.
“I don’t feel comfortable being in charge of a shift when Becky’s working.” That was part of Gene’s problem. And I’m afraid I’d be tempted to cover up if she screws up. "Will we have guns?"
Dr Morris laughed. "No way. I might trust you with a gun, but not some of the people we get for your job. You can call campus security if you have any problems. The bear won’t get out anyway."
“I’m more afraid of people getting in,” Gene said. “PETA and the other militant animal rights groups can’t be happy we’re probably going to kill the bear.”
“I haven’t heard anything from them. No demonstrations planned. No nasty e-mails. Hopefully we’re flying under their radar, or they have more photogenic causes on their plate, or maybe they finally got the memo that Bear Country animals are dangerous--diseases, potential for ecological disruption.”
"Or they don’t want to tip their hand.  I'll have my master's degree at the end of this semester. What will you do then?”
“We'll miss you. We need someone we trust on third shift."
The students released the bear from the holding cage again. It walked over and crushed the part of the tube directly in back of the apple closed, forcing the apple forward. The bear repeated the process until the apple rolled out of the tube.
Gene whistled. "Like squeezing a toothpaste tube. He didn't have to stop and think about a solution. We can safely say that this old boy is smarter than the average bear."