THE PROBLEM OF PAIN • by Peter Tupper

Carlisle never believed the stories about Dr. Magda Boanak he’d heard around the campus. There was no way she had walked the length of the Trans-Siberian railroad as a teenager, and no way she had worked her way through grad school by appearing in bondage videos. When he ventured into her basement lab, waving a printout of cost overruns, he refused to be intimidated by her reputation.

“What the hell have you been doing down here?” he demanded. “I never authorized these expenditures.”

Magda Boanak sat in her basement lab, with a pink, hairless, buck-toothed and nearly eyeless creature perched on her shoulder. “I must admit I’ve done some creative accounting, Mr. Carlisle, but I’ve definitely achieved results.” She gave him the kind of smug smile that Carlisle had only seen on the face of his newly born again sister-in-law.

“So you actually have created a new anaesthetic?”

“Not exactly.” Boanak picked the naked mole rat off her shoulder, cooing to it. Carlisle could see other rat things crawling through the tunnels in the giant glass-walled ant farm that took up one wall. “Here, I’ll show you.”

She clicked the laptop next to her. The video it started playing showed one of the rats strapped to a lab bench, munching on greens, while Boanak lit a butane torch and held it to the animal —

Carlisle paled, and turned away from the sight. “My god, you’ve been torturing them?”

“No, I have not. If you’ll just listen, that’s precisely the point. Naked mole rats do not feel pain, remember? So logically, I could not torture them. That particular subject kept right on eating while I — ”

Carlisle slammed the laptop’s screen down. “I know, I read your grant proposal, remember?” he said, mocking her condescending tone. “They don’t produce a neurotransmitter, Substance P.”

If that bothered her, there was no sign. “I found that’s only part of it. Their brains also lack a structure found in all other mammal species. It took me a while to identify what it did, but when I figured it out, it was very, very interesting. This structure activated when animals are in pain, but also when they were hungry, deprived of companionship, or otherwise suffering. I found the neurological seat of anguish, and furthermore, it’s redundant.”

She poked her finger at the rat’s mouth and let it gnaw on her, without any reaction.

“Disable the suffering centre by the injection of one milligram of ethanol in just the right spot of the brain and there you go. Those lab mice over there — ” she pointed at another set of cages behind her, “ — after I gave them the treatment, were just as good at figuring out mazes to get to food as the controls. Better, in fact. No matter how hungry they got, they never gave up. Inspirational.

“These creatures are blessed.” She kissed the rat on its pink bare tail. “They bond, breed, seek resources, build homes, engage in territorial battles and do everything other mammals do, including us, but they do not suffer. I mean, think about that. Life not only without pain, but without suffering, without anguish. Wouldn’t a being like that, combined with human intelligence, be… better in every way?”

She lifted her hair, revealing a freshly shaved patch of her scalp with dot of red in the center. “So, I tried it out myself.”

Carlisle staggered back from her, bumping into a chair and collapsing into it. Carlisle had worked in the university for more than thirty years, and had met plenty of eccentrics, but he had never been in the presence of an actual mad scientist before.

“You’re going to freak out now,” she said, shaking her head. “Tell me I’ve lost my humanity with my capacity for suffering and other sentimental nonsense. People cling to such obsolete notions of human nature, like still believing the world is flat.”

Scenarios from bad movies flitted through Carlisle’s mind. “Now you’re going to kill me to keep your secret.”

Boanak rolled her chair forward and patted his knee. “No, no, no. When I knew you were coming, I weighed the options and realized that killing you would ultimately be counter-productive.”

“Oh, thanks.” He cringed back from her touch.

She leaned back and resumed stroking the mole rat. “However, before you arrived, I’ve emailed my work to every major neurology researcher in the world. Also to several body modification and mind expansion forums. I’ve decided to take my research open source, which violates the terms of my contract, but it’s for the greater good.” She picked up a nail file and began manicuring herself.

Carlisle buried his face in his hands, barely able to look at her, his head spinning with the thought of the university’s liability. “How could you do this to yourself?”

“Sooner or later, one way or another, something better than, more than, human is going to come. Why not now? And why not me?”

Carlisle forgot his next question when he realized it wasn’t a nail file at all.

Dr. Boanak pried the nail off the last of her fingers with the scalpel and held her hand out, fingers splayed, admiring the effect. “I’ve never felt better in my life.”

Peter Tupper is a writer and journalist in Vancouver, BC. He has a forthcoming collection of steampunk erotica stories, The Innocent’s Progress, coming soon from Circlet Press.

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