Illustration by benoitb

“Observation period complete. Collect the chosen.”

I perceived the order and set my trajectory. For nearly one hundred years we had been watching these fascinating creatures, recording and analyzing our observations. Aside from the rare outlier, their differences in form followed a typical bell curve distribution, but they had a flexible range of behaviors unprecedented on Earth.

There was only so much we could learn by watching. We wanted to understand the systems underlying their remarkable diversity in behavioral expression. How did each individual decide how to behave?

We saw that some individuals had a relatively steady set of behaviors for the duration of their lifespan, while others transitioned to a new set of behaviors, once or multiple times. Some behavioral transitions were triggered by clear biological changes, such as sexual maturation, having children, injury or illness. Others had no externally observable cause.

We selected several hundred individuals, half who held steady in their behaviors, and half who had undergone several rounds of behavioral transitions, for our initial invasive studies.

I reached my target. Asleep. I injected him with a paralytic agent. His eyes opened and he struggled for a moment before the agent took effect. The stirring woke his mating partner, who saw me and moved herself away in fear, initially backing away, then falling and crawling to a less exposed location.

I lifted the target into a transport cage. His partner ran to the cage then, letting out some high intensity vocalizations, banging and pulling at the cage.

I gently pushed her aside and set my next trajectory.

Damian could see straight above him but could not move his head or eyes to look around. He recognized the ceiling of his bedroom. His wife was screaming, a guttural sound that reminded him of the final twenty minutes of her long and difficult labor with Amy.

Was she ok? He couldn’t move. He was trapped, but by what? Claustrophobic panic set off a futile electrical fire through his nervous system.

He was moving, rising up, but not under his own volition. He could feel everything: Warmth emanating from some sort of semisolid gel beneath him, his eyes and mouth drying out, the vibrations of his wife banging on…banging on what?

He continued to rise. An enormous figure was visible above him, but Damian could not make sense of what he was seeing. It didn’t look human. Was it even biological? They were outside now, moving fast.

He could no longer hear his wife. His throat constricted at the thought of losing her completely. Of never seeing his wife or daughter again. His girls. I love you, he thought, over and over, willing them to receive it.

At least they were safe.

My subject survived 24 days of testing, the longest of any subject. A few days later I presented my findings to the group.

“From a macroscopic level we can see that our predictions about body maintenance were accurate. Upon opening his largest body segment we found that it contained a number of specialized systems working in concert, performing biological necessities such as resource gathering and delivery to the smallest component units, as described by the others.”

“We used this information to deliver essential resources and keep our subject alive. We decided to focus our inquiry on location of the command center.”

“We bound our subject to the table and removed the paralytic agent. After trying a variety of stimuli, we discovered that electrical stimulation of these cables triggered movement of the limbs.”

“We followed the cables to their source. All cables emit from the soft tissue filling the upper body segment. We injected programmable nano-stimulators and sensors into the tissue through the eye socket so that we could explore the effects of electrical stimulation in finer detail.”

“We freed one limb, the one we have observed as having the greatest degrees of freedom, essential for tool use. We discovered stimulation patterns that resulted in complex limb movements, and can reliably deliver a pattern to make the limb reach out and grasp an object of our choosing.”

“We removed the limb, so that it was no longer connected to the control center, and were still able to trigger the basic movements by stimulating the cables. We could not trigger the more complex movements in this way. The control center is needed to refine movements, and we believe it is needed to decide what action to take.”

“Our other explorations had more ambiguous results and require further analysis. We presented the subject with a variety of sensations. We let the subject move freely around so that he was in complete control of his behaviors, then presented him with a series of tests. In all cases we recorded the electrical activity of the command center. We will analyze these data over the coming days and present our conclusions to the group.”

“Our final experiment was to present him with stimuli related to his mating partner and child. He became distressed and went into cardiac arrest. Since our primary goal is to understand individual differences, I suggest that we present these same stimuli to the next round of subjects and compare electrical and behavioral responses. I believe it will also be useful to implant our nano-stimulators and sensors and return subjects to their natural environment for further observation.”

“A good start,” lead said. “Let’s take his surviving parent and child in the next round. It will be interesting to see how these systems change through generations as well as between unrelated individuals. Actually, take the parent now. They are likely to die soon and we don’t want to miss the opportunity for study. But leave the girl until she reaches sexual maturity.”

Thanks for reading

This story was inspired by my recent non-fiction post, “Recognizing non-human intelligence,” and a vision I had during Savasana.