This story is by I. K. Brady and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Tonight, my colleagues, we toast to a future scientific discovery like none before. What we embarked upon today will be to the science of humanity what Einstein was to physics, Curie to chemistry. We seek the innermost essence of man. We seek to probe the depths of the human consciousness unadulterated by the unseen influences of survival needs and of the society into which we are all born. We seek to observe humanity tabula rasa.
“So raise your glasses, my friends, raise them to God, to gods, to glory, to whatever the hell you believe in—raise your glasses and raise ‘em high. Tonight we make history!”
Thunderous applause met Dr. Martin’s words. After the toast, the scientists flocked around their experiment. Some anxiously checked over the wires that protruded from her soft body like industrial umbilical cords. Some marveled at their own genius, made manifest by the sleeping infant suspended in green gel. Some merely floated at the edge of the crowd, too tipsy for thinking.
Dr. Martin, his breath reeking of champagne, threw an arm around a colleague’s neck.
“Well, we’ve taken the first step. Nothing to do now but wait.”
For twenty-seven years, to be precise.
On the twenty-seventh anniversary of their embarkment upon “the greatest experiment in the history of mankind,” the remaining scientists, now grizzled and gray, unsealed the tank. The charismatic Dr. Martin, a man distinguished more for his dramatic flair than for his scientific importance, had long passed. No one gave a toast that day. No one popped champagne bottles. No one thanked God, gods, glory, or whatever the hell else they believed in.
“This better have been worth it,” the eldest scientist growled before snapping the last latch.
From behind their viewing glass, the scientists watched the now twenty-seven-year-old blank slate awaken from her lifelong coma. She noticed the pile of clothes that they’d left at her feet. She stared. Then, like any normal human who’d dressed herself every day of her life, she pulled them on.
Someone whooped from behind the glass.
She—subject 002—stepped into the meadow of her new environment on wobbly legs. The whooper blushed, worried that he’d whooped too soon, and shriveled beneath nerve-fraying tension. An astute listener could have heard a fly cough on a wall.
002 sprinted into the woods.
The sheer force unleashed by the celebratory exclamations, hugs, and even tears from the scientists blew that ailing fly right off the wall. May he rest in peace.
Frantically, amidst the uproar, a few of the more level-headed jotted down notes. Muscle/brain electrode therapy appears to have worked—002 has normal human skills. Skittish, but curious. Demonstrates an understanding of the objects which she encounters.
In a company-issued composition book, someone bulleted a list of each of 002’s actions on a page titled 5/30/2062. Printed on the composition book’s spine were the words “Pure Human Experiment.”
002—Patricia, as the scientists nicknamed her—adjusted rapidly to her new, non-gelatinous habitat. She befriended a bird (or so she thought, having only a superficial understanding of friendship) by feeding him seeds and Kellogg’s cornflakes.
If one placed Patricia and her friend the bird on scales measuring knowledge, Patricia might’ve launched her feathery companion into the air. The pure-human experimenters commissioned an entire new field—neurological programming—in order to educate their subject without tainting her essence with experience. Quantify bits of knowledge as semi-valuable knickknacks and Patricia would be richer than a pawnshop broker in a pandemic. She knew that seeds were the reproductive vessels of plants and other intimate details of plant biology. She knew that the sun, a glowing, gaseous yellow dwarf star, anchored the Solar System. What did the bird know? That seeds were food and the sun warmed his back? The poor thing couldn’t compete.
Yet place the same two on another pair of scales, one measuring “Contextual Purposefulness” (a phrase coined by researchers at Stanford University in 2034), and Patricia might just float away.
Within the first few days of her freedom from the tank, Patricia trashed her cottage.
On Day Five of the pure-human experiment, Patricia hunted. The whole ordeal, including the stalking, killing, and skinning of a rabbit, took about fifteen minutes. After, Patricia made herself a bowl of cereal.
On Day Nine, Patricia created art. She crudely sketched herself and her friend the bird in the dirt, linked by a dandelion chain arranged to form a heart.
On Day Ten, Patricia slammed her hand in her dishwasher. She broke three bones in her hand and required immediate tranquilization.
She had been scrubbing dried rabbit innards from her knives, having grown weary of living in a pigsty, when she pondered the dishwasher. She understood its purpose, how it functioned, even how to fix it—but she could not articulate any of this information. It drifted around her brain in an elusive haze. A pair of chasms gaped between Patricia and her seemingly concrete knowledge, dubbed by cartographers of the brain as The Language Gap and The Dry Sea of “Why.”
Patricia enjoyed no language and no “why.” She, an adult woman, knew essentially nothing except how to feed, clothe, and clean herself. She was a robot.
Why did she know how to load and start a dishwasher? From where did her knowledge arise? For that matter, from where did she arise? Did she drop from the sky? Why did her life have no beginning—and no substance?
Patricia flew into a rage.
Since no one, not even her friend the bird, was there with her, the scientists should have expected her to attack herself. But they didn’t. Alas, these empirical minds failed to tap their greatest well of experience: their own.
They patched her up and deposited her in her warm bed.
Patricia awoke to pain, an unfamiliar sensation. She had, after all, never fallen off a bike or been stung by a bee. Nor had she been given a kiss to make it all better.
Patricia’s experience with pain hampered her. Her routine grew monotonous and perfunctory. Scientists observed with disappointment.
“This isn’t remotely going how we’d planned,” one junior scientist remarked to another in the bathroom. Don’t judge; private spaces are hard to find in research facilities. “We were supposed to be isolating the human essence from the body to study it, not watching some bizarre husk-person lounge around.”
But if she was a husk, then where were her insides?
Oh, my dears, if only you knew that you’d succeeded!
The scientists had expected to distill Patricia’s humanity from her body, stare at it, manipulate it, hopefully gain profound insights into the universal human experience from it, maybe slap a label on it and sell it for $27.99 a bottle. They sought to purify the human essence of the corroding influences of language (means of expression) and experience (means of learning) to observe it in its “natural state.”
They forgot, it seems, that expression and learning are the cornerstones of the universal human experience. Hadn’t they read any self-help books from the twenty-first century?
If they realized that they had isolated Patricia’s essence, not extracting it, but dropping it down a deep well which Patricia couldn’t hope to see the bottom of, perhaps her antics wouldn’t have so baffled them. Each morning, after brushing her teeth, Patricia looked at herself in the mirror and slapped her own face. She pinched, poked, and pulled at every square inch of her skin.
Wake up! Wake up in there! I’ll make you a bowl of chocolate Cheerios—I’ll let you sleep in! Come on now, don’t be like that. You have to wake up, because you’re me. If you’re not here, then I’m not here, and if I’m not here…then where am I? Where are you, me? I said WAKE UP!
On Day 105 of the experiment, Patricia slit her own throat.
The scientists rescued her, of course. She had botched it.
They again returned her to her controlled habitat.
Patricia adjusted to her apparent immortality, despite its logical contradictions with her meager education. She found a new routine riddled with distractions.
Instead of thinking, Patricia skipped rocks across a pond.
Instead of wondering, Patricia built birdhouses out of twigs.
Instead of aching, Patricia slept.
If only Patricia had had the Internet, that endless playground of distractions.
The scientists expected another outburst. Moreover, they expected her to exhibit severe symptoms of loneliness—but how could she? How could she miss something that she never knew?
Then again, how could she not?
In her last act before settling into a dulled mental state which, when described in the Pure-Human Experiment report, sparked outrage and vindicated fatalists, Patricia built herself a shrine. It was no Eighth Wonder; a gust of wind could have toppled the whole thing.
It was her tribute to herself. Like a gravestone for a stillborn infant, it mourned what never was.
Dr. Martin would have been ashamed of Patricia’s simplicity.
Hemingway might’ve approved.
“I am not human,” said the heap of branches.
“I was here.”