The gift of intelligence

Updated: May 7

Rats and men share ninety-nine percent of their genetic code. This fact seemed a good enough reason to tweak a rodent’s genes to find the one percent that carries, among other things, sapience. The end result was horrendous. Lazaro was a bulky, disfigured animal half a meter in height, with strong hind legs but weirdly short arms. He resembled the offspring of a Tasmanian devil and a featherless Suzhousaurus. But he was alive, unlike his siblings.

“In practice, the goal of understanding nature is to help our species to survive the long run of evolution. Philosophically, it is to learn how to value life and find meaning in our existence. Experiments like Lazaro’s meet neither of those criteria. It is nothing more than humans trying to play God; straight up unethical.” The professor glanced at Dominico over his glasses, then read the last words. “End of report.” With a sigh, he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “You are in your last year of Biology grad school, right? How the hell did you get this far without understanding the benefits of genetic engineering?”

Dominico pursed his lips. He would love to rub a smartass answer in this patronizing professor’s face, if only he had one. Truth is, if Dominico wasn’t so close to getting his degree, he would have certainly given up Biology.

“I cannot accept this essay. Write something else by Friday,” the professor said.

“It’s Wednesday!” Dominico protested. It took him two weeks to write that damn report, there was no way he could finish another in two days.

The professor reached for his glasses and placed them at the tip of his nose, showing off how thick his gray brows were. He answered with a menacing tone, “Hand me another paper by Friday, or else.”

“Or else?” Dominico closed his fists, holding his breath.

The professor shrugged. “I’ll have to fail you,” he answered emotionless.

It was Dominico’s last assignment to finish college credit. After five years as an undergrad, it was finally time to move on, but this egotistical jerk wanted to hold Dominico back. Surely, he wanted to see Dominico cry and beg, and the student hated himself for considering doing it. The humiliating scene played in Dominico’s head in slow motion. He would plead with a squeaky voice, trying his best to do puppy eyes. He would promise to write whatever shit the professor wanted, write a whole damn book about it and dedicate it to the man, as long as he approved this one insignificant report. He considered bribing the man with a shot of whisky. But only one, since he could not afford two.

Absorbed in thoughts, Dominico did not even notice when his hand grabbed the apple on top of the professor’s desk and threw it against a shelf in the wall, shattering an action figure of Lazaro.

In the end, crying and begging were necessary.

It was a miracle the professor accepted the apology. But not without consequences. The punishment disguised as a learning experience was volunteering as an intern in Lazaro’s lab.

Genetic engineering was not a precise science. Lazaro had been the first success of all of the attempts to create an anthropoid rodent. He was seven years old, the most long-lived among his siblings, who had all expired before they were three. For this reason, the rat was pampered and constantly monitored. And who better for the task than a biology undergrad who needed time as an intern to finish his college credits? The job was simple: spending a whole day with Lazaro, playing games to stimulate his intellect, and providing activities to exercise his body. Yet, Dominico would prefer to write four—five, even—reports in two days, but that was no longer an option. He had to babysit the lab rat if he wanted to graduate.

Lazaro’s pictures were everywhere in the world, but no amount of fame would prepare Dominico for how disgusting the rat was in person. Dominico was not the pinnacle of beauty himself, being short, with asymmetrical eyes, and uneven facial hair that he was too lazy to shave. Still, compared to Lazaro, he was Prince Charming. The creature in front of him was one of the reasons why he lamented his choice of degree. Dominico went into Biology because he loved nature, and there was nothing natural in Lazaro’s creation.

“Nice to meet you,” the rat said, extending his four-fingered hand. Dominico made a conscious effort to keep a poker face and touched it lightly. The texture resembled the skin of a chicken’s foot.

“Likewise,” Dominico answered politely.

Dr. Neminski, the leader of the IntelliGen Project that designed Lazaro, got down on one knee to talk to Lazaro, as one does to a child.

“You are going to stay with Mr. Perez today, okay? If you need anything, ask him, and he’ll do it for you.”

As if, Dominico thought. He was not in the mood to pamper the rat. Still, he nodded emphatically when Dr. Neminksi spoke, with a smile plastered on his face. As soon as she turned her back, Dominico let the fake smile drop.

A tug on his lab coat turned Dominico’s attention back to the rat.

“Run with me?” Lazaro asked, pointing to the giant red wheel installed on a wall. One big enough to fit Lazaro and Dominico.

“No. But I’ll watch you.” The babysitter walked to a soft bean bag beside the wheel and threw himself on it.

After Lazaro jumped on the equipment, Dominico scanned the room more attentively. The rat lived comfortably in a small studio inside the lab. Too comfortably! Hell, his place was better than Dominico’s, who shared an old, dirty apartment with three flatmates.

The modern design and decoration had a Japanese influence, making the cramped space appear miraculously bigger. The main area was divided into a play zone, the bedroom, and the kitchen, with an adjacent covered garden and a bathroom apart. The bamboo dividers separating the garden were stunning.

“Are you one of those people who don’t like me?” Lazaro asked without stopping running.

Dominico raised his brows. “Why would you say that?”

Lazaro shrugged. “You look annoyed.”

Did he? He wasn’t expecting to have to explain himself to Lazaro. Dominico tried to adjust his position in the bean bagit was too soft; uncomfortable. He rubbed the nape of his neck. “I just have a lot on my mind. I have to finish a final assignment to graduate.”

A half-truth, but Lazaro seemed to have bought it. Naturally, Dominico would not mention his distaste for the creature to his face. He twitched his lips to the side. So Lazaro knew about his haters. Poor thing. Sure he was an abomination, but it wasn’t his fault. He was born this way. A wave of sympathy invaded Dominico’s body. Lazaro must be very lonely, knowing he was one of a kind, being hated by a huge portion of humanity.

No. Dominico was not one of them. It became clear to Dominico it was not Lazaro he disliked, but the people who played God and made him like that. “Those people who don’t like you,” he said slowly, trying to find words to comfort the rodent. “They don’t understand. You must excuse their ignorance.”

“A bunch of weirdos,” Lazaro said. “How is it possible not to love me?”

Dominico scoffed, folded his arms, and leaned back. How was it possible? Has he never looked at himself in the mirror? Poor thing indeed. The abhorrent creature had no idea how abhorrent he was. The world did not revolve around his ratty feet, but for something raised in a lab, surely it must seem this way. This annoyed Dominico to the roof and back, but he was willing to take the high road and overlook the rodent’s misguided impressions.

“Well, people are allowed to dislike others.”

“But people are supposed to like miracles,” Lazaro answered. “ And I’m a miracle.”

This, though, was too much. Dominico jumped to his feet, fists closed. Miracle? What the hell? He envisioned Lazaro being worshiped instead of baby Jesus in a Christmas Nativity scene and wrinkled his nose in disgust. Wrong. This was just too wrong! Dominico punched the air to get rid of the image.

Lazaro had stopped running and frozenly stared with wide eyes, startled. Dominico hurried to change the subject. “Enough running. How about we play a game?”

The rat’s face lit up. Luckily for Dominico, it was easy to entertain him. It gave Dominico enough time to breathe and count to three, a technique his therapist taught him to unboil his blood. Lazaro was not the problem, he reminded himself. Those who made him were the monsters.

Lazaro grabbed a towel, dried himself, and ran to the other corner of the room, where there was a colorful foam mat assembled like jigsaw pieces and a small table with several cognitive games on top of it. He wanted to play the Hanoi Tower today. Dominico sat in front of him. ‘Miracle’ was not a word he would use to describe Lazaro’s existence. He stared at the distracted rat, who was doing his best to figure out where in which tower the middle disc would go. ‘Nightmare.’ Yes, this one was more appropriate.

Calmer, Dominico tried the subject again, “So tell me,” he said while helping Lazaro move pieces of the tower. “Why do you think you’re a miracle?”

“Laura said so.”

Dr. Neminski definitely spoiled this rat. Lazaro raised his hand in a sudden, ecstatic movement, and Dominico flinched. “She tattooed my face on her forearm. That shows devotion to me, right?”

Dominico made a face. Why on Earth would someone do that? Thankfully, Dr. Neminski did not show him ‘the art.’ The second-hand embarrassment over a Lazaro tattoo would be hard to hide. A tattoo showed devotion indeed, but to her research, not to Lazaro.

“You can say that,” Dominico responded carefully. He then tried to articulate an answer that would not upset Lazaro, “I guess you are like a son to her, so it’s like a mother’s devotion.”

“But I’m not her son, am I?” The rat stopped his activity, resting his short, bare arms on top of the table. “I am your creation, not your offspring. Thus, I’m the embodiment of perfection to you.”

Dominico was taken aback by Lazaro’s argumentation. He was operating under the assumption Lazaro had an infant’s mind, but no child would reason their existence like that. Well, it was true Dominico did not know many children, but still. Moreover, how in a rat’s ass does creation lead to perfection? Lazaro was a half-baked prototype, not near being immaculate.

“Why,” Dominico leaned forward, struggling to keep a calm voice. “Why do you think we find you perfect?”

Lazaro was again focused on the toy and answered without much thought. “Why else would people create me if not because you think of me that way?”

Why indeed. Dominico sighed. He asked himself this same question often. The real reason was so nasty it was better if Lazaro kept his illusions about being perfect. People liked to play God, that’s why. An insult to the actual God. A breach of ethics among humans.

Dominico’s smartwatch beeped. Time to feed Lazaro. “How about a snack?”

Lazaro put the last piece–the wrong piece–in the Hanoi tower and sprinted to the kitchen, hooraying. Run was his middle name, it seemed. Dominico, controlling the pacing, ambled behind him and grinned when the rat kept bouncing impatiently in his chair. Lazaro thought he should be worshiped but had to conform to humans’ wishes.

Lunch was tomato juice and boiled corn on the cob. No wonder the place smelled like a coop. The sight of the rat devouring the food was atrocious. He had no manners whatsoever. A gulp of saliva gathered in Lazaro’s mouth, which he had no problems spitting at the bowl on top of his own food. Dominico gagged. He pretended to clean the cabinets to avoid the scene.

The question of why people would create Lazaro lingered in Dominico’s mind. Lazaro obviously meant it to be rhetorical, but his reasoning was upside-down. If he knew he was humans’ creation, shouldn’t he be the one worshiping them? Dominico wondered if he could teach the creature the meaning of creation and the deific status of a creator.

“Say, Lazaro,” Dominico said while collecting the dishes after the rat had finished. “What do you think of humans?”

“You’re all right,” Lazaro answered nonchalantly.

“Only all right?”

“Yes. But I like Laura better.”

Dominico finished cleaning the table and herded Lazaro to the bathroom to brush his teeth. For this one activity, the rodent did not run. A rat brushing his teeth. Dominico chuckled at the absurdity. Once inside the bathroom, he asked,

“Shouldn’t you adore all of us? We are special, after all.”

“What’s special about humans?” Lazaro spat, smudging the mirror with toothpaste. He looked like a wild beast with rabies with the white foam in his mouth.

“Well, we’re your creators,” Dominico answered patiently.

The rat washed his mouth, dropped the toothbrush, and ran to the bed while yelling, “Soooo?” It was siesta time. Time to read a book to the rat.

Dominico raised his voice to be heard while proceeding at his own pace to the bed, “So we are special to you,” he explained.

“I am special to you,” Lazaro insisted.

“Yes, you are. But don’t you feel grateful we created you?”

Lazaro’s brows furrowed, and his whiskers twitched twice. “No,” he said, unsure.

Maybe it was too much. Dominico should stop and let the rat be. The last thing he wanted was to cause an existential crisis in him.

“What do you want to read?”

Lazaro picked Alice in Wonderland and was sound asleep by the end of the first chapter.



Naptime meant tidying up for Dominico. He put away the rat’s toys, quietly swept the kitchen, and prepared the next activity for when Lazaro woke up. Basketball. Dominico chuckled, imagining the creature trying to throw the ball with his tiny arms. Should he lower the basket? He decided not. Let Lazaro have a challenge for once.

In the bedroom, Dominico stopped to admire the painting on the wall behind Lazaro’s bed–curly blue clouds in front of a mountain peak, salmon petals floating in the breeze. Beautiful! It did not match the being lying right next to it. Dominico got closer. Sleeping, the rat was almost cute. How could Lazaro not be grateful to be alive? Dominico could not let the matter go. It was a bit insulting that the rodent thought humans should adore him. He was ugly as hell, kinda gross, and had done nothing to deserve such love. Humans, on the other hand, gave him life and intelligence. Lazaro should be the one with a tattoo of Dr. Neminski.

“Why would I do that?” the sleepy rat asked, rubbing his eyes.

So he’s awake. Maybe dreaming? “Do what?”

“A tattoo of Laura?”

Dominico rapidly covered his mouth. Did he say it aloud? The man stood up and paced around the room, trying to come up with a good excuse. He stumbled on his words, “She did one of you. It’s polite to do something back.”

“I did something back.” Lazaro sat in the bed. “I made a drawing of us both and gave it to her.”

The man halted. Now, this was not the same thing, was it? But Dominico said nothing. Better to leave it at that.

“Do you want to play basketball?” Dominico suggested.

Yes, Lazaro wanted to play and ran outside. He was too energetic; hard for Dominico to follow. The man sat on a hanging bamboo couch in the garden, admiring the dazzling backyard. Besides the small sports court, there was a Japanese dry garden at the back with skylights allowing the sunbeams to enter. The natural light created a magical atmosphere if Dominico ignored the statues of mini-Lazaro and his sibling at the center of the garden. Spoiled rat. To live there must be like living in a five-star spa. Yet, the rodent showed no appreciation whatsoever. Lazaro was living the good life with a lackadaisical attitude.

“Play with me?” Lazaro asked, throwing the ball to the man.

As long as it wasn’t running, Dominico could amuse the rat. He had to remember to give Lazaro a chance, maybe lift him closer to the basket. Could Dominico lift him? The rat seemed heavy, and Dominico was not known for his strength. He got the ball; aimed at the basket. “Say, Lazaro,” Dominico said casually. “You know it’s polite to reciprocate a gift, right?” He threw the ball. Two points.

Lazaro ran to catch the ball. Further behind Dominico, he prepared to throw. Dominico smirked. There was no way the shorty would score. The rat bent his muscular legs and stretched them, throwing the ball with his tiny arms. The parabolic trajectory of the ball ended inside the basket. Dominico stared with his mouth gaped, blinking rapidly.

“Not bad for a shorty, right?” Lazaro teased.

The man squinted, then shook his head. Never mind. Lucky break, for sure. Let the rat have fun.

“When we humans created you,” he continued. “We gave you the gift of intelligence. Shouldn’t you repay us by loving us more than anything else?”

Lazaro had a blank expression. Dominico strode to get the ball, quickly glanced at the rat’s pensive expression, and prepared the shot.

“I repay you by letting you put me in those machines to study me,” Lazaro said. “Laura said I am a marvelous wonder, that I exist to make humans proud.”

Dominico missed the shot. A wonder? Lazaro was an abomination. An abomination! So Dr. Neminski spent years denying the allegations that she had a God complex, arguing that the experiment was done following every ethical guideline, and, in the end, she created Lazaro to please her ego. Shame on her. Shame on all involved in this experiment.

Lazaro got three points again. This brat made in a lab thought himself better than Dominico. Holding the ball and standing as tall as possible, chin up, Dominico said, “Think of it this way, if humans are powerful enough to give you life and intelligence, they are powerful enough to take those away from you.”

Lazaro looked at Dominico with confusion in his eyes. “But why would you make me in the first place if it was just to destroy me? It makes no sense.”

“What makes no sense” Dominico shouted, riled up, “is to think the creator must adore the creation and not the contrary!”

The arrogant piece of shit was as egotistical as his creators. An unnatural, ungrateful bastard with a smug attitude. There was no point in his existence, no other than the glorification of men, and yet he flat out refused to thank men for his life. At the peak of Dominico’s anger, he shot the ball, but this time in Lazaro’s direction. The rat dodged, and the ball hit the statues in the background.

Lazaro looked at his broken figurine and looked back wide-eyed to Dominico, who brought his hand to the head to face the mess he had done. If this went to his activity report, he would fail to graduate. What should he do?

The rat’s surprise quickly turned into a grin. “So you are one of the people who don’t like me, after all. Just like my siblings, tsc.” Lazaro glanced at one of the surveillance cameras in the garden and back at Dominico, then whispered. “And you know how it ended for them, right? You will definitely fail. I’ll make sure of it.”

Lazaro started to bawl loudly, pretending to be scared. Snot streaming down his nose and all. Dominico stared in horror. What was that creature? What did Dr. Neminski create? Something somber hid in his brain.

Dominico jumped and grabbed Lazaro’s neck in one movement, squeezing it hard. The rat had the audacity to wink at him! Five people came in, running to aid the mischievous rat, pulling Dominico away from him.

“He’s a demon!” Dominico cried. “A mind-reading demon.” He kept shouting while being dragged outside the lab, voice fading, “We’re doomed. Humanity is doomed!”

Carla Ra

 

Carla Ra is a scientist by day and sci-fi writer by night.

You can read more of her stories here.

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