Raincouver. Lotusland. Vansterdam. The Big Smoke. I was particularly fond of this last epithet for my hometown as my job was to feed marijuana joints to lab mice. On the real. Straight up. No fess.
I started out by offering small doses of medical grade marijuana to the little rodents as rewards for running through mazes. Once they became chemically dependent on the narcotic, I laced the joints with whatever drug the company wanted to test at the time, the latest being ONC-420, Buntt Pharmaceuticals’ wonder drug.
420 was a brain stimulant like caffeine or dextroamphetamine, only ten times more effective. If it paid off, it could slide Buntt back on the pharmaceutical map, or at least out of bankruptcy.
I wasn’t sure who came up with the name 420, probably corporate. Perhaps they didn’t know what 420 meant in downtown drug culture, but nobody ever laughed so I didn’t either, except once by accident. In hindsight, I have to admit the whole process left me feeling a little soiled.
I was a drug pusher to mice.
But I suppose there were worse jobs in Vancouver. At least I wasn’t a lawyer or a politician. And at the end of the day, a guy had to eat. My student loans hadn’t come through yet. My varsity rent was due. My girlfriend was talking about taking a break from our relationship. And worst of all, my little white-footed rodents were acting very strangely.
A week ago, they were flying through their little mazes like little Einsteins, pushing their little reward buttons, toking their little joints, doing all the little things that mice on brain drugs were supposed to do. But now they were sleepy, lethargic, with a bad case of the munchies, like middle school junkies, or me in my freshman year at UBC.
“Vickers!” my supervisor squeaked from his cubicle. He didn’t even rate a corner office like the other managers on this floor. “You finished the 420 report yet?”
“Yeah. I mean, no. Not really.” I stood up, jostling the rodent cages in the process. The mice rocked sluggishly, but didn’t squeak. Not a good sign.
“Why not? It was due in last week. I don’t have to tell you how important 420 is to our funding. If you can’t handle it—”
“I’ll have it in by this afternoon,” I lied. Like I said, my mice were acting very strangely, and that was not something I wanted to put in a final report, especially not two days before our wonder drug moved up to human trials.
Philpatrick nodded, showing off the bald patch on the top of his head. It was pretty hard to hide at any rate, but even harder when he was only a hair over five feet tall.
Dr. Philpatrick was a number cruncher, a bureaucrat, and a bully, even at five feet. He wasn’t even a scientist. His PhD was in business administration. I wasn’t a scientist yet either, but I would be. One more year and I would have my degree, and then it would be “Au Revoir” to Dr. Phil and “Bonjour” to Dr. Fat pharmaceutical company, six figures a year and a month-long honeymoon vacation in Hawaii. If that didn’t put an end to Sandra’s incessant talk about breaking up, nothing would. I mean, what did she want from me?
I waited for Philpatrick to slink into his cubicle before stuffing the drugs into my gym bag. The Buntt apprenticeship program paid minimum wage, which was not even a drop in my hundred-grand ocean of debt. So if I wanted that six-figure salary and Hawaiian honeymoon, I had to take advantage of alternate sources of revenue. Like I said, a guy had to eat.
And that was where Blanch came in.
Blanchard Chesterton was the richest student on campus. We went way back, Blanch and I, or at least back to our freshman year at UBC when I helped him pass his Philosophy final. Helped is a bit of an understatement. I hacked the answers off the university network and downloaded them to his phone—for a price, of course.
Ever since then, Blanch had been my best customer. Medical marijuana. Synthetic alcohol. Knock-off Viagra. You name it, he wanted it, and I got it for him.
We weren’t exactly friends. Truth be told, I hated the guy. Blanch was a snob, one of the social elite from Shaughnessy Heights, the blessed people, the kind who were destined to rule the world someday. I knew it. Everybody knew it. But that didn’t mean he had to rub my nose in it every chance he got.
“Hey there, Mo. How’s my favorite rat catcher?” he said with an evil grin.
I shrugged off the insult. It was a double whammy today. First off, my first name was Moses—not cool, I realize, but even geekier when shortened to Mo. And second, I wasn’t a rat catcher. I was a lab assistant. I worked with mice, the white-footed rodentia, to be exact, which is not even the same species as the rat. But I couldn’t expect a guy like Blanch to make the distinction.
“Adequate,” I responded, my voice emotive neutral, and opened my gym bag. “You buying today?”
He eyed the multi-colored array of tasty chemical delights, and then shook his curly, golden mane. I would kill for hair like that. Who was I kidding? Half the girls on campus would kill for hair like that, except perhaps Sandra who had the silkiest raven locks since Sailor Mars.
Blanch groaned. “Can’t. Got this bloody test tomorrow.” He didn’t say “bloody” but I’m trying to keep this narrative civil. He gestured vaguely towards the mountain of law books strewn across his dorm bed. He could have put the whole Library of Congress on his phone. Why did he bother with those ancient tomes?
But then, that was how the Chestertons did things. Old school. Like his father before him, and his grandfather, and his great grandfather all the way back to the War of 1812 when, according to Blanch, his ancestors chased the Americans out of Upper Canada and burned down the White House. Blanch would tip-toe in his family’s dinosaur footprints, become a lawyer, and then rule the world from behind a silk curtain.
It wasn’t fair, and sometimes it really bothered me. Blanch didn’t deserve to rule the world. He was lazy, selfish, vain and worst of all, stupid. He was never going to do anything of value—cure cancer, bring about world peace, invent a new flavor of ice cream.
I wasn’t about to do any of those things either, but at least I had a steady girlfriend. She was a stunner, bootylicious, drop-dead, campus eye-popper, which should have meant she went automatically to Blanch or someone like him. But Sandra was different. She had a social conscience. To hear her talk, you’d think she was going to save the world. Rainbow flags. Black lives matter. Greenpeace. Baby seals. The Salvation Army.
Sandra was sixth generation Chinese Canadian, her family arriving with the first Tongs in Chinatown. According to Ancestry.com, she was technically a princess with a royal bloodline that went all the way back to ancient China. She didn’t tell me any of this. I kind of stalked her on the internet.
I was crazy in love with Sandra, or maybe it was just an evolutionary bio-chemical response filling my mammalian brain with endorphins. I didn’t care either way. It felt good, and I didn’t want to lose this feeling. But in order to keep Sandra, I needed to finish my degree and sign on with one of the big pharmaceuticals. And in order to do that, I needed to sell drugs to rich guys like Blanch.
“Come on. You know you want it,” I tempted.
He glanced up from his dusty law book and I saw the divine spark of some devious notion ignite behind his deep blue eyes. He thought he was being clever again, but I knew what was coming. I could read him like a book—not that I read books anymore.
“Hey, Mo. You wouldn’t happen to have…?”
“The answers to the bar exam? Nah.” I cut him off before he got his hopes up. “They’re encrypted.”
“Oh.” His eyes fell. I’m not sure he actually knew what “encrypted” meant, but deep down he knew he wasn’t going to be able to cheat his way through this particular test. Too risky.
“But I might have something for you,” I said hopefully, and held up a joint.
“Are you serious?”
“It’s not what you think,” I was quick to explain. “It’s called ONC-420. It’s a nootropic, a neuro enhancer. Just smoke one dooby and you’ll ace any test, guaranteed, even the bar.”
“A joint that makes you smart? Yeah, right.”
“No, really. We’ve had positive results.”
“On mice,” I corrected. “Twenty percent boost in cognitive performance.”
“You mean like Rats of Nimh? Pinky and the Brain?”
I squirmed at the comparisons. Blanch could be so tiresome, but he was still my best customer. “Biologically speaking, laboratory mice are closely related to homo sapiens. It’ll work.”
I handed Blanch the joint.
“Twenty percent?” He sighed at his law books. “I just hope it’s enough.”
“Trust me,” I said with confidence. “It’ll be enough.”
I didn’t see Blanch for some time after that. Security ramped up in the lab after 420 samples went mysteriously missing, and I couldn’t risk making another drug run out to UBC. But I read on Blanch’s Facebook page that he’d passed the bar with flying colours. His score was so high, in fact, that there was even some chatter about an internal investigation. Nothing ever came of it, of course. Blanch was a Chesterton, and that pretty much meant untouchable.
What caused a bigger stir in the college celebrity news waves was his love life. Apparently Blanch was off the market. He’d actually proposed on bended knee, with flowers, a hundred-carat diamond ring and a full-blown marching band. I might have been happy for him if the recipient of his new-found affections hadn’t been the object of my own.
“I don’t understand,” I pleaded. “We were so good together. Couldn’t you wait for me?”
A wave of raven-black hair teased over a smooth, tanned shoulder. She was wearing the pastel anarchy top, the one I’d given her for Christmas. So beautiful I thought I could die. I had been so busy with school lately that I hadn’t seen her in weeks. And then, out of the blue, she texted me to meet her at our old dim sum dive in Chinatown. Didn’t she know how I felt about her? Did she even care?
“It’s not that, Moses. You know I care for you, but it was never going to work between us.” She took hold of my hands. “I hope we can still be friends.”
The words galled in my gut like a week-old macchiato. “But Blanch? Blanch Chesterton?”
“Things are different with Blanch. He’s special. He’s changed, gone completely green.”
I couldn’t believe it. Sandra Wu, with her almond eyes, brilliant mind and deep social values, had said “yes” to a shallow cad like Blanchard Chesterton. She couldn’t have hurt me more if she’d run off with a Backstreet Boy. I felt so ugly inside I wanted to black out the whole world.
“Vickers!” Philpatrick barked. “What on earth are you doing?”
I gazed up at him in a daze, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at my mice. They were dead, all dead, all but one.
“I don’t—I don’t know how this happened?”
The past few weeks had been a blur—a blur of late-night talk-shows, synthetic alcohol and nihilistic depression. I was lucky to still be alive, never mind still have a job.
“Are these the 420 subjects?”
“Yeah. I mean, no. That one is.”
“That one. Subject 13.” I pointed at the little white-footed mouse sucking on a little mouse-sized marijuana joint, the number 13 stamped on its ankle tag in bold Sans Serif font. “The only one still alive. The others, the dead ones, were just control subjects.”
A dark thought crossed my mind, morphing quickly to terror.
I phoned Blanch right away. I had to. 420 wasn’t just a failure. It was possibly lethal. Whatever happened to Blanch now, it was my fault. I guess I could have felt good about that. After all, he had stolen my girlfriend, the love of my life, if I believed in that kind of thing. But still…I didn’t want to kill the guy.
“What are you telling me?” He looked jittery on Skype, his eye twitching, his tone impatient, demanding, even more so than usual. “Have you gone and built yourself an army of stoned zombie mice to take over the world?”
I laughed uncomfortably at his stupid joke. “No, it’s just that one of the mice, subject 13, exhibited odd behavior.” I didn’t tell him that the rest of the mice were all dead.
“Look, Mo. I’m fine. No whiskers. No little pink tail. I’ve never felt better.”
“It’s not like that. The drug appears to cause behavior modification, mood swings, depression, maybe even psychosis. It could be dangerous.”
“Oh really, Mo. Dangerous?” He shook his perfect hair. “Don’t think that I don’t know what this is really about. I stole your girl. When are you going to wise up to the truth, rat boy? She was never your girl in the first place.”
I felt suddenly angry, like a shaken beer keg about to burst. “It killed them!” I snapped into the computer monitor.
There was a long pause. When Blanchard spoke again, his voice had lost its bluster. “What are you talking about?”
I took a breath. “The infected subject—the mouse—it altered the acidity of its urine and poisoned the shared food source, but not until after it had stashed a sufficient supply of seeds in its bed.”
Blanch was struck dumb.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” I continued. “This infected mouse calculated its resources in a closed system and eliminated its competition. It deliberately slaughtered its siblings just to maintain its individual survival. And now your brain is infected with the same drug.”
Still no response from Blanch. He was a perfect Adonis carved in stone. I had to get through to him.
“I’m sorry I have to ask you this, Blanch, but have you been experiencing any bouts of depression lately, any psychosis or maybe even thoughts of suicide?”
His eyes widened. He was angry, but scared as well.
“Don’t call this number again,” he snapped, and closed his laptop on my face.
The next six months had ups and downs, ups for Blanch and downs for me. Blanch ditched his dusty old law books, moved into Yale Town with my tree-hugging ex-girlfriend, founded a successful investment capital company and appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine not once, but twice. I, on the other hand, lost my job at the lab, dropped out of law school one month shy of my degree, and locked myself in my UBC apartment with a psychotic mouse I nick-named Barney and seven more potential victims.
I was determined to find a cure for Barney—some chemical counter-agent to stop the unprecedented growth in brain function. But six months and ten thousand joints later, I was still no closer to finding a cure, and poor Barney was dead. I looked at his little white-footed corpse in the smoky cage and my heart sank.
That same day, on the eve of our one-year anniversary, I received a frantic text message from Sandra. Apparently Blanch was acting weird. I knew he’d gone building crazy. His super-scrapers were shooting up all over town, in Stanley Park, Gastown, Granville Island, the North Shore, even Chinatown. But now Sandra said (or texted) he had a bomb.
“I don’t know what I can do for him,” I texted back, but without abbreviations. I didn’t care how much my phone plan cost. I refused to sound like a thirteen-year-old girl. “The counter-agent didn’t work. I don’t have a cure yet.”
“You have to try!!!” Sandra must have been desperate to use three exclamation points. “You’re the only one who can!!!”
Why me? Blanch and I weren’t friends. And now he had a bomb. I felt my survival instinct kick in, my temperature rising, the hair standing up on the back of my neck like a cornered rat. It wasn’t hard to interpret this physiological response. It said, “Run away.”
But then there was Sandra.
I rode the Hover Train from UBC to the New Shangri-La in ten minutes flat. Blanch’s tech company—Greenthink, he called it—had single-handedly revived the downtown core, replacing the derelict old Living Shangri-La with a state-of-the-art, super-scraper five times taller than its predecessor—self-sustaining, eco-friendly, a working/living community servicing more than two hundred thousand people every day. It even had its own flavour of ice cream.
Sandra met me at the gated security entrance, her once beautiful face drawn and weary. She’d aged decades in just months. We wandered past row upon row of empty computer terminals, coffee bars and lab spaces filled with top secret electronic gadgets that weren’t even on the market yet. From the looks of it, Greenthink was poised to become a powerhouse in the tech industry, the new Silicon North.
But tonight the entire building was shut down, empty as a tomb. Crystal elevators shot us up to the penthouse in minutes that felt like hours.
“We had such hopes for the future,” Sandra said softly, her voice barely a whisper. She was so beautiful, even with her eyes puffy from crying. So beautiful. “We were going to change the world.”
I wanted to ask her what happened, but I knew what happened. It was 420, just like with Barney. It altered Blanch’s brain chemistry, made him into a sociopath, a very smart sociopath with homicidal tendencies. And I had no way to reverse the process, at least not without killing him.
I fingered the lethal joint in my pocket, a human-sized version of the one that killed Barney. What would it do to a human being? It was irresponsible to test it on Blanch, not without more animal trials, but there was no more time.
“Look, Sandra. I don’t know what you expect me to do.”
“Just talk to him.”
The elevator doors opened. Blanch was swimming in a massive hologram of downtown Vancouver. He looked at us through huge rectangular goggles, but there was no change in his expression. Six months ago he’d told me not to call his number. I wondered how he felt now that I was in his top secret lab with his beautiful wife.
“Good,” he said oddly, adjusting his silly goggles. “I want you to see this.”
No “Hello.” No “Get lost.” Just “Good. I want you to see this.”
“See what?” I took a tentative step into his hologram. With a wave of his hand, Blanch flashed a dozen more images up into the radiated air. Satellite arrays. Microwave towers. Other flashing, buzzing structures of indiscernible function protruding from each of his six downtown super-scrapers. Blanch was building something in Vancouver—something big.
“It’s nearly ready,” he said proudly.
“What is?” I asked.
His answer was less than satisfactory, but I pressed on. “So, what does it do, exactly?”
His pencil-thin eyebrows knitted and then he smiled again. “Of course. I forgot. You don’t take your own medicine or else this would be obvious. Let me explain in a way you’ll understand. According to our old Philosophy professor, Dr. Ashworth, what is the meaning of life?”
I scratched my head. I never really paid attention in Ashworth’s class. Why bother when I could just hack the test answers off the server? “Tom Cruise?” I suggested.
Blanch snorted, not impressed with my wit. “The answer, my fatuous friend, is probability. Let me tell you a little story about the universe.” With another wave of his hand, the satellite dishes vanished and the giant room was cast into darkness. I felt the hairs on my neck bristle.
“Once upon a time,” Blanch narrated in a fairly decent impression of Ashworth’s deep, sonorous voice, “there was nothing, nothing but probability, cycling endlessly, over and over again, until one day there was a blip, an improbability that stacked up, building and building until it simply exploded. This was how the universe was born, the big bang.”
A holographic universe exploded into the cavernous penthouse with blinding light and sound. Sandra screamed. I grunted.
“I see,” I said, once the surprise had worn off. “I must have missed that lesson in Hebrew School.”
“But the thing is, Mo, improbability is not the norm,” Blanch continued, ignoring my joke. “It is not right. And so the universe takes special measures to correct this error in the space-time continuum. And that’s where we come in.”
“We, as in…?”
“People. Think about it. All other animals simply adapt to their environment or die out. But homo sapiens actually destroys its environment far beyond what it needs to for survival. At first I thought we were a plague upon this earth and needed to be wiped out. But as I grew smarter, I realized that man was not a plague. He was the cure.”
“And that’s good, right?” I glanced back at Sandra, hopefully. Maybe Blanch’s psychosis wasn’t as far along as I’d thought. I expected to find a crazy man with a butcher knife and a room full of bloody corpses. But Blanch hadn’t really changed that much. He was well-dressed, neatly groomed and still in his right mind. He even had a plan to save the world.
“So how does it work?”
Blanch’s pencil-thin eyebrows knitted again as if I’d just asked the stupidest question on earth. “I already told you. It causes the end.”
I felt my gut tighten. Maybe my optimism was a tad premature.
“This current universe, this accident of probability,” Blanch stated matter-of-factly, “is held together by the highly improbable balance of gravity and electromagnetism. Eventually the destructive activities of future humanity will so degrade this balance that the universe will return to its normal state of nothingness. In fact, the universe created human beings for this very purpose. But thanks to your drugs, I have found a way to speed up the process.”
I heard Sandra gasp behind me.
“Look, Blanch. I know you don’t want to hear this, but this isn’t you talking. It’s the drugs. It’s 420.”
He removed the ridiculous VR goggles. “Yes. That is true. ONC-420 has given me a vision of the future which would have been impossible—”
“No. That’s not what I mean. It has made you delusional, maybe even psychotic.” I didn’t think for a minute that Blanch was really about to implode the universe, but he was obviously out of his mind.
I felt Sandra advancing. “Please listen to him, Blanchard. If you still love me, if you have any feelings for me at all, just…” She broke into tears, unable to finish her sentence. I put my arm around her and she buried her sobs in my chest.
Blanch stared at us, a look of total incomprehension frozen onto his handsome, super-intelligent face. “This is all for you, Sandra. Don’t you see? It’s for all of us.” He waved his hand out in front of him dramatically, throwing more holograms into the room—mushroom clouds, supernovas, the big bang. “It’s for the universe. I’m just setting things right.”
“Blanch,” I said through gritted teeth, and took a step away from Sandra. I was angry, but I didn’t know why. “You need help.”
He blinked his bright, blue eyes, and then nodded, his curly locks bouncing off his ample forehead like little golden bells.
“Yes, you are right. I need your help. Although I am so very close to solving the grand unification theory of gravity and electromagnetism that eluded Einstein and so many others after him, I have reached the limit of my enhanced intellect.”
“So you want more drugs.” I fingered the tainted joint in my pocket.
“No, Moses, you can’t,” Sandra pleaded, nervously grabbing my arm with her delicate fingers. I shrugged her off angrily.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll give you what you want, on one condition. If this fails, and the universe does not end, then let it go—the drugs, your master plan, everything.” I gestured towards the doomsday holograms projected into the air. “You come back to Sandra and you get help, medical help from a real doctor.”
He rolled his eyes with supreme confidence. “Deal.”
Back in the crystal elevator, Sandra beat on my chest with little, balled fists. “How could you? You knew he was mentally unstable, and you gave him your stupid drugs anyways? Why? So he can blow up the world?” Tears were running down her cheeks, spoiling her mascara.
“It wasn’t 420. It was the counter-agent.” I grabbed her wrists as they came to rest on my chest. “But don’t get your hopes up. It might not make him any better. But at least he won’t get any worse.”
“You mean he won’t get any smarter, not smart enough to finish his machine.”
“No, he won’t.” I failed to tell her that it might actually kill him.
I waited a few hours before catching the Hover Train back to UBC. Sandra practically begged me to stay until Blanch was better, but there was no point. Blanch had locked us out of his secret lab, and the longer I stayed alone with my ex, the more I wanted her back. But there was no point in wanting that. It was plain as day how much she loved Blanchard Chesterton, even as crazy as he’d become. Better to go back home and play with my furry friends until the university finally kicked me out of my dorm room.
I was glad to find the mice still alive when I got back. They were just the control subjects and not infected with 420, but still, I hadn’t been the best caregiver over the past few months. I saw Barney’s body still in the corner looking sadly shriveled. I’d forgotten to take him out before I left for Shangri-La.
I leaned in closer and peered at the body. There was something else odd about it.
The phone beeped in my pocket. It was Sandra’s number.
“Moses?” she said, skyping this time, not texting. “He’s okay. The drug worked. Blanch is back to normal.” She was bubbling with excitement. Too bad she never felt that way about me. “Here. See for yourself.”
There was a fumbling noise and Blanch’s handsome face appeared on my phone. “Mo? Hey man, I just wanted to say thanks. I’m feeling much better. I don’t know what got into me. All this doomsday stuff.” He laughed awkwardly. “It was the drugs, right? I mean, none of that was real, right?”
“Just the drugs.”
“Yeah,” he said with another dumb laugh. “That’s what I thought. By the way, I’m re-opening the New Shangri-La so drop by anytime. I’m gonna become a silent partner and turn the day-to-day over to my head scientist, Dr. Philpatrick. I think you know the guy.”
I nearly choked, but Blanch kept talking.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t remember what any of this stuff does anymore. It can’t be all bad. At least I got a new flavour of ice cream out of it.” He laughed again.
I hung up before he had time to put Sandra back on the line. Barney had been okay for a while after taking the counter-agent too, and then he just died. Would that happen to Blanch in a few days? There was no way to know for sure. The science wasn’t conclusive. But at least he hadn’t popped the universe into oblivion.
I peered back down into the rodent cage. Seven little mice nibbled on seeds, and sucked on little, mouse-sized joints. There was no NCO-420 in those joints, just marijuana. I found it kept them calm. I’d still have to get Barney’s corpse out of there before it started to rot.
A thought occurred to me, a notion really. Was it actually Barney’s corpse in the corner of that cage or did Barney kill another mouse, like it did before, and then switch the number tags to cover its tracks? A serial killer learning from its mistakes.
But that was just crazy talk. A mouse couldn’t do that, not even a super-intelligent mouse.
“Barney?” I whispered, more on a whim than anything else. I didn’t expect any of the mice to respond. But then one of them did, dropping its little joint and standing up on its hind legs. For a second at least, I thought I saw a look of recognition in those little rodent eyes, almost a human look. But it was only a second, and then the mouse was just a mouse again, albeit maybe a little stoned.
by David Wright