Xenobiology by James Cohan




James A. Conan

It was a preposterous position for any medical researcher to find himself in, and at the same time, a dream come true. The ethics of the situation were questionable, but then, what did I really expect when I signed on to work as an experimental neurosurgeon at a secret government bio-research lab? That first contact with an alien species was a ticklish problem, made even more difficult by the nature of the specimen I found under my scalpel. No one could have predicted how it would end up.

“It’s still alive then?”

“As far as we can tell. It’s anthropomorphic enough that our men have been able to draw certain parallels with our own physiology. A few discrepancies, but it has a skeleton, musculature, circulatory and respiratory systems … It’s the brain that’s giving us pause. Massively enlarged frontal cortex, or so they tell me. My bosses at the Pentagon want to know if it can be revived from what appears to be a state of catatonia and, if so, can we communicate with it? That’s where you come in, Captain Cohen.”

“Doctor, please. For the millionth time.” I was impatient. I didn’t like being addressed by my official rank. I became particularly stuffy when the man doing so vastly outranked me. Being dragged out of bed to vivisect some poor, unconscious visitor from another world can have the side-effect of making one irate. The fact that the elevator to our facility’s sub-basement was taking forever didn’t help me to maintain my calm. “Tell me everything, General.”

“It’s craft appeared on our radar around 0400 this morning. We scrambled a squadron of jets to intercept it and shoot it down. We were successful. The ship crash-landed in the desert, mercifully far away from any civilian observers.” He chuckled. “We didn’t even have to feed anyone the usual weather-balloon BS we have on tap for when Air Force prototypes go down.”

“And the specimen?”

“Unconscious on recovery. Our teams brought it here. The craft is being examined by the tech boys in Nevada.”

“And my assignment?”

“Real simple, Doctor. Cut into its brain. Try and figure out how we can revive it. If the specimen should die on us, you’ll be acting as the lead examiner in the performance of a full autopsy. One way or another, we want to find out as much as we can about what it is, where it comes from and, most importantly, why the hell it came here.”

I listened without really hearing. I had a feeling the General was just making this up as he went along. Despite the contrary opinions of a few thousand internet conspiracy theorists, there were no protocols in place to deal with this sort of situation. My experiments before then had been focused mainly on infectious diseases that attacked the brain. I found out later that our facility was chosen because of the ease with which quarantine could be imposed. Personally, I didn’t care. Despite my shock, I was experiencing a sort of elation, a feeling that my neuroscientific Christmas had come early this year.

Was this wrong of me? Was I callous to take it all so lightly? Without question, yes. But you must understand, I’d been performing illegal and unethical experiments on human brains, at my government’s behest, for some time at that point. I had been made by necessity to lock my moral compass in the desk drawer many months before.The elevator dinged, and we stepped through the doors into a crowded hallway overflowing with nervous-looking men and women in lab coats and military uniforms. They looked at me expectantly. I could sense the anxiety in the hall, but I didn’t return their gazes. My own eyes were focused squarely on the double doors straight ahead. I think I practically bounded down that corridor.

I was stopped by Dr. Chang, my most senior assistant. “Sir, please. The operating room is still hermetically sealed. You’ll have to put this on.” There was a note of exasperation in his voice, and rightly so. My underlings shouldn’t have had to remind me of procedure.

“Of course.” That ended my reverie. Reality began to sink in. This thing I was about to cut into could release toxic vapours, unknown contagions, or even spray me with sulphuric acid for all I knew. I slipped into the proffered haz-mat suit, hoping it would be sufficient protection.

After all that buildup, my first sight of what awaited me on the operating table was rather underwhelming. I had expected fangs, claws, perhaps a spiked tail of some kind. I felt a rather childish surge of disappointment.

The specimen was slightly smaller than the average human adult. Its limbs were elongated, but far from underdeveloped. My first step was to touch its arms and feel its muscle tone. As I did so the monitors my colleagues had attached gave a little beep, and the specimen (patient?) gave a little twitch to go along with it. Still alive, but barely. Almost absent-mindedly I realized how strong this creature must be. Someone, one of the lab techs now in the room with me no doubt, had cut into its chest cavity. I took a peek—no surprises. If anything, the fact that I was able to recognize most of the major organs and systems and their functions was the real shock. My eyes wandered upward along its body. It was almost human, except …

“No mouth.”

“Pardon me, Doctor Cohen?”

“There’s no mouth, General. I see nostrils, and lungs down in the chest cavity. Clearly it respires. Maybe even oxygen. But there isn’t a mouth. Odd indeed,” I said, gesturing at the open thorax. “That appears to be its stomach. I wonder how it feeds?”

“We’ve been giving it nutrients intravenously,” said Chang. “We can’t be sure of the effects yet, we’ve only had the damned thing in here for an hour. Anyway, the possibility of starvation seems like the least of its worries at this point. If it can worry.” He had spotted my hand wandering down toward the instrument tray, and was guessing my thoughts.

“General,” I said, “our odds of reviving the specimen appear to be negligible. Even if we could, I’m not sure it would do us any good. Verbal communication is clearly out of the question. What intrigues me far more is the possibility of non-verbal communication. How does this creature interact with members of its own species?”

“I assume you have a theory, Doctor?”

I did. I hoped against hope that I’d just discovered an alien species capable of speaking to one another telepathically. I didn’t share this. I’m ashamed to admit it, Hippocratic oath and all that, but in this case I was instantaneously more excited at the chance to dissect a dead patient than attempt to save a live one.

“I have to ask your permission to examine the brain before I can state anything definitively, sir. I believe I can learn far more from the subject while it is still, however marginally, alive.”

He thought about it for less than a second. “That’s what we came here for. Proceed.”

A simple scalpel got us through the dermis. The skin was more elastic than expected, but easily held in place by retractors and scalp clips. Chang assisted me as we sawed through the enlarged skull, slightly tougher and more time consuming than my experience with a typical human cranium, but not a serious obstacle.

The brain itself was a far greater hurdle. I took one look and realized I was in trouble. Only the shape of the cerebellum and medula bore the slightest resemblance to human neuro-anatomy. I admit it, I panicked. I had no idea what to do, how to wring answers from that strange lump of grey matter. The others began to notice my hesitation. The specimen below my knife gave another twitch, smaller and weaker this time.

“Any time now, Captain. The Pentagon expects results.”

I reasoned my goal was to try and discover, or perhaps even stimulate, a communication process with this creature in the limited time-frame before it expired. I raised my scalpel to perform a cursory examination of the part that most resembled Broca’s area, the area of the human brain which is closely linked to speech. It was all I could think to do.

What happened next … well, I don’t have to tell you. If you lived through it you know, if not, you heard about it. The second my knife touched the brain I was overwhelmed by pain, and so was everyone else around me—Chang, the General, the whole lab staff, doubled over and heaving up our stomach contents, the result of a wave of psychic agony inflicted on us as the last act of our visitor from another world. I don’t know whether or not this was malicious, or a genuine attempt to make us understand what it was and why it had come to us.

All at once I could see its whole life—the world it had come from, a world of peaceful explorers and scientists seeking out other intelligent life; the pain it had felt when we had blown it’s ship from the sky; its last moments of bewildered torment, not being able to understand, to reach out to us primitives until my surgical instrument linked us cortex to cortex.

That wasn’t all. The visitor didn’t just link us to itself through me, it linked all of us to each other—the whole facility, the whole country, the whole damned world. For that one brief moment we shared consciousness, all of humanity, and understood. We understood through a new and startlingly alien perspective the hate, the fear of one another, the ignorance that drove divisions between us. And we understood love, and how many had never truly felt it or had received it in some twisted form, or had just gotten too little of it. We saw the power this understanding had to heal us. The glow of a loving euphoria toward the good, and the sickness and contempt of all the dark, malformed souls of our race passed through every one of us simultaneously.

I had been wrong, you see. The visitor and its kind didn’t communicate via telepathy. Or at least, not through thought alone. When it was able to make its first and last attempt to speak to us it did so empathically, not with mere words but with emotions and concepts. Truly a higher form of communication than I had ever envisioned.

It was a revelation, but a painful one. An emotionally traumatic awakening for the whole human race. The glow of understanding was wonderful, but it didn’t last long, and the long-term fallout has been terribly contentious. Never mind the millions all over the globe that died almost instantly in car crashes or were in planes that fell from the sky when the emotional surge overwhelmed them.

The bulk of our species chose to focus on the religious implications, and a plethora of new faiths and cults centred around the sharing of consciousness sprouted up almost overnight. But religious implications have always struck me as the stuff of small minds. The scientific community was abuzz. I had inadvertently proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that humanity had the evolutionary potential to become telepathically/empathically linked to one another. A great “What if” became a fact. I’m not sure if I’m glad of that or not.

I’m immune to any sense of achievement from what I did, you see. The breakthrough I made was purely accidental, and ethically unsound at that. I have never been able to pick up a scalpel again. The very thought causes me to become ill, remembering what I did to our poor visitor, when it made it’s pain our own. And, as I mentioned, the euphoria of the discovery wore off quickly, replaced by a feeling I can’t quite name. We saw each other, all of us, all humanity—for that briefest of moments we gained total insight into each other. It put my own lack of feeling into a greater perspective. Did this cure me, or the rest of our species of its ills? Most definitely not.

Wars still rage between nations and ethnicities, people still rape and steal and kill. Maybe that’s the real cause of the growing religious hysteria toward the event in the years since it happened. The knowledge that such a great leap is possible but that, in the end, it changes us so little. The certainty that, despite any evolutionary advances coming to us, we are likely to remain that species of primitives which put a peaceful envoy from another world through indescribable agony just to find out what made it tick. The greatest discovery from our first foray into xenobiology has been that whatever we have the potential to be, and whatever we may become, we shall remain tragically human.

Food For Thought

This story was intended as an exploration of the consequences of lack of empathy, both towards an unknown alien visitor and our fellow man. In the place of the either the General or the Doctor, would you the reader have acted differently? Are human beings inherently flawed because of our inability to adequately convey our emotions to one another? How well do think you know the feelings of the people closest to you? What would the alien visitor, a creature that communicated solely by the power of its feelings, made of us, a species of beings so cut off from each other emotionally that we steal, rape, murder, and wage war on our own kind so unnecessarily?

About the Author

James A. Conan is a 26-year-old writer and chef. He lives and works in Toronto, and studied Politics and International Development at Trent University. You can follow him on Twitter @jamesaconan and on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jamesaconan/

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