Nikko was a media darling. In less than two weeks, he got more than 1,200,000 Likes on his Facebook fan page and another 500,000 followers on Twitter. garnering him a mention on all of the cable network news channels. At least a dozen marriage proposals came into the lab on a weekly basis, an astonishing feat for a three-year-old.
Sprawled out in his hammock, Nikko lazily watched the bustling activity around him. One leg draped over the edge of his suspended cot, he occasionally pushed off the side of his cage, leisurely swinging back and forth.
A man in a white lab coat opened the cage door, gesturing to Nikko in deliberate hand motions. He knew this meant the man wanted him to leave his shelter. Nikko responded by touching his index finger and thumb together. The man emphatically repeated his gestures. Nikko sat up, snapping his answer with both hands.
Nikko’s antagonist gestured to more men in lab coats and called out angry orders. Four men entered Nikko’s shelter, each taking an arm or leg, and carried him out. Deposited on a cold, metal table, the men attached straps to Nikko’s wrists and ankles so that he was spread-eagle across the surface.
Swiveling his head around, Nikko watched as the men ran around the room, gathering papers and excitedly jabbering at each other. When his one friend, a woman, entered the room, Nikko visibly relaxed. He knew she would release him from the trap.
Instead, she carried a smaller white suit, heavier than the lab coat she was wearing. Removing one limb restraint at a time, Nikko’s friend and the men, wrestled him into the white suit. Covering him from his neck, to his wrists, to his ankle, the suit made Nikko panic. When he began to struggle, his friend stuck him with a sharp stick. He soon fell asleep.
“Get the rest of his suit on,” Dr. Dashiell said, barking instructions to the rest of the project team. “The sedative won’t last long, so we’ll need to tranquillize him again when we load him on the ship.”
Camille, Nikko’s handler, took the suit gloves and boots from Dashiell, the lead scientist for the project. She didn’t like him. He treated Nikko like he was just an animal and not a sentient being. On evenings when she worked with Nikko, teaching him sign language, she sometimes envisioned the chimp mutinying against Dashiell like Caesar from “Planet of the Apes.”
While dressing Nikko, Camille talked to him in a soothing voice.
“My clever astronaut,” she said. “You are about to make history. I am so proud of you.”
Promoted as the first mammal to be sent into a black hole, Nikko was more famous than the scientists who devised a way to accomplish the momentous trip into space. A human couldn’t be sacrificed for the project, but a chimp could be.
Over the last several months, Camille taught Nikko how to push certain buttons and levers when a series of colored lights flashed. He would transmit data to the base about what was happening to the craft once inside the gravitational field.
Once Nikko was loaded into the spacecraft, Camille left the control room. She was overcome with emotion, knowing her beloved Nikko was going to his certain death.
As the hours ticked by, Nikko’s craft got closer to its destination.
Having woke from his artificial sleep, Nikko performed his tasks just as Camille taught him, responding to the lights by pushing and pulling the right knobs and buttons on the board in front of him. His own vital signs were being sent along with the ship’s input. He was remarkably calm. Looking out the bridge window, the sky reminded him of his home. Black so dark it looked solid, and millions of tiny specks of light covering the whole vista.
Back at the base, the control room was a hive of activity. The anticipation was running high over the raw information Nikko was collecting. As he neared the black hole, the project team feared they couldn’t keep up with the amount of data being sent.
Then communications abruptly stopped. Nikko’s body function stats stopped, data from the ship’s systems stopped. All talking ceased in the control room, and the team waited. Nikko had crossed into the event horizon.
After the first 24 hours, most of the team left for home, and much-needed sleep. A skeleton crew remained, maneuvering satellites toward the black hole, hoping for some sign of Nikko’s entrance into the field.
When a week passed, Camille returned to the control room, hoping to get some kind of sign that Nikko survived. She was there when the first beeps were heard indicating the ship was once again transmitting.
The control room exploded with excitement. Forward cameras on the ship showed it was returning to base. Nikko’s life support readings went back on line, and his vital signs were strong and steady. Collected data from the ship’s instruments flooded the communication center.
Camille was on the tarmac when the ship finally landed and Nikko was cleared to disembark. The hatch blew, and a small, bald head appeared over the rim of the door. Nikko waved to the gathered crowd, pointing and smiling directly at his former tutor, then he stuck his tongue out at Dr. Dashiell.
“Man, do I have a story for you all!” Nikko said, then climbed down the ladder to greet the stunned scientists.