Donna sat nervously in Dr Grey’s office, as he studied her report.
“Hmm,” he said, nodding in approval. “Some of the theories you have proposed are interesting.”
Donna looked up, surprised. Coming from Dr Grey, this was nothing short of praise.
“Particularly,” continued Dr Grey. “The concept of gene mutation to allow animals to survive in spite of food shortage is intriguing. But I am afraid, it can only be imaginary” keeping her folder back on the table.
Donna’s face fell. “Look, I see potential here,” he said, pointing to Donna. “Don’t waste it on your philanthropic ideas that won’t do anyone any good. The report is good; I need it to be better.”
Donna picked up the report and stood up.
“Where are you going? I am not finished yet.”
“I am sorry, Dr Grey” murmured Donna and sat in the chair.
“You seem to be interested in gene mutation. I am going to give you a chance of working in Lab 1X. Show me what you can do. You have three months.”
Donna could not believe her luck as she walked back from Dr Grey’s office. Working in Lab 1X was considered the most privileged thing in BioResearch Inc., and from what she knew, she was the youngest junior scientist to be given a chance. Lab 1X was the place where all the great things happened. That lab saw all the amazing discoveries and the top-secret research some of the senior scientists carried out. Donna was excited about even stepping into the lab, let alone work there for three months.
The next day dawned bright and blue. Donna walked to the entrance of Lab 1X, her face glowing with excitement. She pressed her ID card at the entry, but the gates did not open. She was disappointed when she realized she was not authorized to enter the lab.
“Dr Donna Smith?” said a voice behind her.
She turned to look at a tall bespectacled guy in a lab coat.
“Dr Xang Wu,” he said, extending his hand.
As she shook hands with him, he asked, “Are you trying to break in?”
“No, no,” she said, flabbergasted. “I am… Dr Paul Grey asked me to – ”
“Relax, I know,” he said, smiling. He placed his palm on the small screen, and the door opened for him. He held it open for her to enter.
“Thank you, Dr Wu,” she said, entering.
“No problem. Get your bio-metrics done before leaving” he said, smiling at her. “And….call me Xang.”
“So Donna, Dr Grey tells me you are a genius.”
“Did he actually say that?” she asked, surprised.
“No. But he sent you down here to work is reason enough to assume that.”
“I have been told” continued Xang “to give you a tour of the lab. Then you have to decide by the end of the day what you want to work on.”
Xang took Donna through all the work-centres in the lab and explained what everybody was working on. Donna was tremendously impressed. What she had only ever imagined in her dreams, people here were already halfway through researching. There was such state-of-the-art equipment which she had never believed existed. There were rows upon rows of microscopes, potted plants, little insects in glass jars, and people working on them.
“Impressed?” asked Xang, looking at the awed expression on Donna’s face.
“This is amazing.”
“This is nothing,” he said, grinning. “Wait till you see the showstopper.”
He opened a white door, which had no nameplate on it, and they entered. Donna stared at the bare white walls of the room. At the far end, there was a little sofa, with something curled up on it. As Donna went closer, it sat up and looked at her. It was a monkey, and it sat on the sofa, scratching its head, blinking at her. Manidipa Bhattacharyya.
“Donna, meet Cooper,” he said, pointing to the monkey. “Cooper, say hi to Donna.”
“Hi, Donna,” said Cooper waving one hairy arm.
Donna’s mouth fell open as she tried to grasp the existence of a real, talking monkey.
“Xang,” said the monkey. “Donna seems shocked to see me.”
Donna looked at Xang. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said, “I told you.”
“I’ll come and talk to you later, Cooper,” said Xang. “I need to show Donna the rest of the lab.”
“See you later. Bye” said the monkey, as Xang wheeled a stunned Donna out of the room.
“Wh – how…this…what – ” she stammered.
“Yes, I am getting to that. Cooper is a genetically engineered monkey. He did not have monkey parents. We created him in the lab. He is our most successful experiment by far.”
“But, how can he talk?”
“Half of Cooper’s brain cerebrum comes from a human.”
“Oh my God!” said Donna, as she slumped into a chair.
“Cooper is great. He is so smart; I sometimes forget he is just a monkey.”
“What do you do with him?”
“Well, he is four years old. It took us three years to make sure he was going to survive. Now, we use him for studying animal behaviour and human evolution. Unlike other monkeys, he can tell us his feelings and experiences.”
“That is amazing,” said Donna.
“I know. This brings us to the end of our tour. Let me know by the evening what you want to work on.”
“I don’t need time till the evening,” said Donna, grinning. “I have decided. I want to work with Cooper.”
“Great,” said Xang. “Welcome to the team.”
Days went by. Donna worked really hard with Cooper. She studied various behavioural patterns and Cooper’s responses to different stimuli. In due course, she got really attached to Cooper and considered him a friend. One day, she came to Cooper with a bottle and a needle.
“No, not that. I am scared of that” said Cooper, looking at the needle, jumping up and down on his couch.
“It won’t hurt, I promise,” said Donna, trying to calm him down. “Look what I have brought for you,” she said, showing him a tray full of bananas. “If you are good, all these bananas are yours.”
“Huh, bananas,” said Cooper, making a face. “That is what I get every time. I want something new.”
“Okay…” said Donna, thinking. “If you let me take a blood sample, I would take you out on a tour.”
“Hmm, that sounds fun,” said Cooper. “Okay, you may take the blood. But, don’t take much. And the bananas are still mine.”
Donna smiled and proceeded with her work. She divided the blood into four test tubes and took it out to one of the assistants.
“I want two of these samples to be checked for any anomalies you might find,” she said to the assistant. “Keep the other two samples as they are. Also, please label all of them.”
“Donna,” she heard Xang say her name. She turned around to see he was standing right behind her.
“Can I speak to you for a minute?” he asked. Without waiting for a response, he turned around and walked towards the cafeteria. Donna followed him, surprised.
“Please have a seat,” he said when they found an empty table.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked, as he took the chair opposite her.
“Yes, you can’t bargain with Cooper to get your work done.”
“I just – he was displaying sure signs of anxiety.”
“Because he is afraid of needles like kids are. But he is not a kid, he is an adult monkey. If you go back on your promise, he won’t ever let you work with him again.”
“Why would I go back on my promise?”
“Donna, you promised to take him out. You can’t do that.”
“Are you expecting to walk into a café with a talking monkey, and order doughnuts? Donna, Cooper does not exist for the outside world. He is a top-secret project. If the world knows we have created a monkey, there will be government involvement, media, social activists, and God knows what. Even other employees of BioResearch Inc., who don’t work in Lab 1X are not aware of Cooper’s existence.”
“I am sorry, Xang. I had not given a thought to all of this. Now, what do I tell Cooper?”
“Try to convince him. Tell him it’s snowing outside, or something. He is a good boy, he’ll listen.”
“Ok. But Xang, we would need to disclose Cooper’s existence someday, right?”
“Believe me, Donna, a day might come when you would feel grateful that Cooper is a secret.”
As Xang got up and went away, Donna kept pondering over the meaning of his words.
Donna sat in Cooper’s room. He was not talking to her.
“But Cooper, it’s snowing outside,” said Donna. “You’ll fall sick.”
“I don’t care,” said Cooper, turning away from her. “You had promised.”
“Cooper,” she said. “I am very sorry. But I can’t take you out in the snow. It’s bad for your health. We’ll see in a few weeks when the weather improves. Ok?”
“Yeah, OK,” said Cooper, dejectedly. “Xang told you to say that.”
“What?” gasped Donna. “No, he – ”
“I know. He cares too much for me. So he never allows me to leave the lab.”
Donna sat staring at him when the door opened suddenly and Xang entered.
“Donna,” he said. “Jane, the assistant was looking for you.”
“Thank you, Xang.” Turning to Cooper, she said, “Cooper, don’t sulk now, please. I’ll be right back, OK?”
She followed Xang out of Cooper’s room and went to the assistant’s desk.
“Yes, Jane,” she said. “What do you have for me?”
“Nothing much,” said Jane. “The reports are ready so I thought I should let you know. There are no known anomalies I found in the samples. The blood has a high RBC content, higher than the norm for humans, and that has led to higher levels of ATP energies, that’s all.”
“Higher ATP energies?” asked Donna, her eyes wide open with astonishment. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” said Jane, handing the reports to Donna.
Donna looked at the reports, and her beating heart showed through her face.
“Oh my God,” she said to Xang. “Do you realize what that means?”
“Yes,” said Xang. “But, not here. Let’s go to Dr Grey’s office.”
Dr Grey was seated in his brown leather armchair when Donna and Xang burst into his office.
“Dr Grey,” said Donna, standing in front of him. “Thank you for –”
Dr Grey raised his hand and silenced her. “Enough with the formalities, Dr Smith,” he said to her. “I am assuming you are here to tell me that you have put your time in Lab 1X to good use.”
“Yes, Dr Grey,” she said. “We ran some tests on Cooper after exposing him to different levels of sunlight. His blood shows a high level of ATP energies.”
“Interesting. Go on, please.”
She looked a bit uncertainly at Xang and looked back at Dr Grey.
“If we can find the cause and replicate it in humans, it would be a sort of vaccine against cancer.”
Without any show of excitement, he asked her plainly, “Have you considered the side-effects?”
“No. We need to do further tests for that.”
“What are you waiting for? Go on, do the tests.”
“Actually, Dr Grey, I wanted to ask you if we could get a cancer patient to do further tests on.”
“No patient, even a dying one, would agree to act as a guinea pig for your experiments. And even if he does, the government won’t let him do it.”
Confused, Donna looked at Xang. His face was rigid, and she could not read the expression on it.
“Use the monkey,” said Dr Grey.
Donna abruptly turned to look at him, stunned. Xang nodded, turned on his heel, and left. Donna turned to look at him, but he was gone.
“Xang,” she called out to him. “Xang, wait.”
She chased him as he rushed to the lab. She finally caught up with him. “I have been calling out to you,” she said, out of breath. “Why are you running away from me?”
“I am not running away,” he said. “I am just going back to work.”
“To do what Dr Grey said?” she said to him, fuming. “I am surprised, Xang, how could you agree to that?”
“What other option do we have?” he almost shouted.
“We could suspend the tests, drop the experiment.”
“Do you hear what you are saying, Donna? We have most probably hit upon a vaccine for cancer. If we are successful, we could save millions of lives. You want to give that up?”
“And you want to kill Cooper? Inject him with cancer yourself?”
“He might not die,” said Xang, avoiding her gaze. Then he looked at her said, “Look, I love him too, and I don’t want him to suffer. But, let’s be practical here. Cooper is meant to be a helping tool in the experiments of Lab 1X.”
“Xang,” she screamed, outraged. “He is a living being. He is our friend.”
Irritated, he yelled at her, “Don’t put your emotions in here. He’s not even a real monkey, okay? I made him. I could make another. Look at the positive side.”
“I am ashamed I ever considered you a friend,” said Donna, her eyes fuming with rage.
She threw her badge on the floor and stormed out of the lab. Xang watched her go. Then he silently went back to Cooper’s room.
“Hey Xang,” said Cooper. “Where’s Donna?”
“She won’t be coming back for a while,” said Xang, sitting on a chair opposite Cooper.
“Why not? We were supposed to go out for a treat.”
“Listen, Cooper,” he said. “I won’t be coming to see you for a while.”
“I have some very important work to do. That would leave me no time to talk to you, or to play with you.”
“You are lying,” said Cooper, looking at Xang intently.
“No, I am not. There are some things I can’t get done while I am feeding you bananas or playing basketball with you.”
“Ok. Will you be back soon?”
“I don’t know.”
“When will Donna be back?”
“I don’t know that, either.”
Cooper looked down with sadness in his eyes. Xang stood up and places his hand on Cooper’s head. Lovingly, he said to Cooper, “Don’t be sad, Cooper. Always be brave, no matter what happens. And remember, I will always love you. And so will Donna.”
Saying this, he left the room never to come back.
Months went by. Donna never came back to the lab. She left BioResearch Inc. Xang and his team went ahead with their experiments. Cooper became weaker day by day. He did not have his beloved friends with him when he needed them the most.
Xang would pass by Cooper’s room in his routine rounds of the lab, but would never enter it. He knew what lay in there, and that he was the cause of it. He got his assistants to do all the interactions with Cooper. They would do the tests, the observations, and monitoring, and would just give a report to Xang. He would then instruct them on the further course of action.
One day, the assistant, Jane, showed a report to Xang. He congratulated her and immediately sent out a mail to Dr Grey. Then, he shut himself up in his room for the entire day. After everyone else had left, he got out and stood in front of the door to Cooper’s room. He entered slowly. It was all darkness in there. A frail shape lay curled up on the couch. Xang looked at his dying friend and a drop rolled down his cheek. He placed a tray of bananas next to Cooper’s couch, and quietly left the room.
Five years passed. Donna had moved to a different city. She had joined a research lab there and was relaxing at home after a busy day at work. As she was flipping through channels on her television, she hit upon a news item from BioResearch Inc. The reporter was standing outside the entrance to Lab 1X, saying “This is the place where the miracle happened. BioResearch Inc. has undoubtedly discovered a vaccine for cancer, and they have received their approval from the Ministry of Health today.”
Donna sat up straight, as her eyes were glued to the TV.
The reporter continued, “The vaccine is mysteriously called Cooperccine. The scientist behind the discovery, Dr Xang Wu, is unfortunately unavailable for comments. But on behalf of our entire team, I would like to congratulate Dr Wu on his brilliant accomplishment, which would save millions of lives all over the world. That’s all for the evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.”
The remote slipped from Donna’s hand, and she sank to the floor. She realized the ultimate sacrifice that Cooper had made. “Cooperccine” she thought. “Every cancer survivor would have Cooper’s name associated with him.” She remembered a line she had read somewhere, “Great achievement is born of great sacrifice.” The words rang so true.
She wished she could meet Cooper one last time, and say thank you. An image of Cooper smiling at her, while eating bananas in his room flashed in front of her eyes, and she burst out crying.