The Search for Intelligence

by Tommy Blanchard

Ecks stretched out her five arms to stabilize herself as her ship emerged from hyperspace. She wasted no time issuing her first command to the computer: Begin scanning the planet.

Immediately, the system picked up a large warmblooded lifeform. Ecks could barely hold still. Finding life so quickly must mean it's common on this planet. Abundant life meant abundant competition. The sort of environment intelligence is theorized to arise in.

Discovering that the Diri were not the only intelligent species in the galaxy would be the greatest scientific discovery of the era. The thought made the tips of her arms dance.

It would take some time for the scans and wide-spectral analysis to determine if this planet had the fingerprints of an intelligent civilization. In the meantime, this lifeform provided an opportunity to investigate the native wildlife. Perhaps this was a member of the dominant intelligent species. She could be moments away from making first contact.

Ecks inspected the specimen chamber. All the equipment was in place. However, smudges of some red substance marred the walls. Ecks shook with fury. The ship had just been serviced at Starbase. The maintenance staff were always neglecting details, but this seemed egregious. Perform a cleaning of the specimen chamber.

Ecks watched as the scrubbers erased the red smudges. Protocol dictated Ecks should perform full subparticle sterilization, but that meant going back to Starbase. The scrubbers were good enough.

With the chamber ready, Ecks locked onto the lifeform and beamed it aboard.

In rural North Dakota, a man was out for an evening stroll. As he was about to turn around and head home, a bright light surrounded him. Confused, he looked up. He heard a soft humming and felt himself getting lighter. His feet left the ground, and he hurtled upwards. He screamed and closed his eyes, raising his arms to protect himself.

As suddenly as it began, it stopped. The light disappeared and he didn't feel himself moving. Slowly, he lowered his arms and opened his eyes. He couldn't see a thing. He felt around himself, finding a cold smooth surface. He started banging on it with his fist. "What the hell is going on!" the man yelled. "Somebody help! Hello?! Is anyone there?"

A buzzing sound filled the air and the man found his arms were paralyzed. He screamed.

Ecks wasn't sure what to make of the creature. The specimen’s anatomy was similar to that of the Diri in some ways—five appendages branched off of a central trunk. However, they lacked the elegant radial symmetry of the Diri. Two of the appendages were awkwardly distant from the other three. The middle appendage of the upper trio was a short, bony, hairy stump with multiple orifices. The creature was using the largest of these orifices to create vibrations in the gas they had taken into the ship with the creature. This must be some sort of sensory mechanism, a form of echolocation.

It's behavior didn't give Ecks much hope that it was intelligent. What she assumed was a fleeing reflex was causing it to slam a limb repeatedly into the side of the examination chamber, and she had to activate a stasis beam just to keep it from damaging itself.

Ecks ran a scan over its torso. As expected, it was filled with organs. There were nerve cells present, but there didn't seem to be any centralized bundle of them. All of the organs and muscles were connected up to a central cord in the back of its body, consistent with a simple reflex-response system. Ecks felt her enthusiasm ebb. The creature must not be intelligent.

While disappointing, at least the lack of intelligence meant Ecks was justified in doing a more invasive examination. She activated the surgical lasers and aimed them towards the specimen’s abdomen, creating a small incision. Seemingly in response to this, the creature increased the intensity of its echolocation vibrations. Perhaps some reflex to increase sensory input when the body was under threat.

Once the opening was large enough, she used miniature tractor beams to gently extract the major organs one by one without disrupting their connections within the body.

She found a large pump that seemed to circulate fluid, a large muscular organ for digestion, and two sacks filled with gas. Ecks realized these sacks were pumps that the creature was using to push gas up through its stump orifice to cause those vibrations—vibrations that seemed to have renewed vigor with each organ extraction.

The creature flailed again, this time overpowering the stasis beam. It groped at the incision and struck the side of the chamber, leaving a red smear of its internal fluid. Ecks was momentarily disoriented as she saw the smear. It bore an uncanny resemblance to the smudges the scrubbers had just cleaned. Ecks shook off the disorientation and continued on. She increased the power of the stasis beam, putting a stop to the creature's flailing.

Ecks began a survey of the skeletal structure. A central column of bones formed a spine that ran the length of the specimen and carried the nerves that went out to all of the creature’s muscles. Curiously, a particularly thick cord of these nerves went towards the stumpy appendage.

Intrigued, Ecks ran her scanner over the stump. Ecks expected to just find some simple sensory mechanisms. Instead…

Oh no. It couldn't be, could it?

A brain. A big brain.

The number of nerve cells was astounding. Ecks ordered a computer analysis of the images, which confirmed the neuroanatomy was isomorphic to that of the Diri. The creature must be intelligent and capable of conscious thought.

Ecks thrashed her limbs. Why place the brain in such a ridiculous, peripheral place? She had no idea how evolution could come up with such a ludicrous design. Brains were central to every function of a creature, why wouldn't it be central in the body?

Ecks reeled at the implications. The creature was intelligent. It had been conscious throughout this entire investigation.

If the Diri Scientific Council discovered what she had done, her discovery of intelligent life wouldn't matter. Her lifetime of scientific service wouldn't matter. She would be considered criminally negligent and spend the remainder of her life in a penal colony.

Ecks had no time to waste. She could fix this if she acted quickly.

First, she had to deal with the creature. She couldn't just vaporize it—beyond the obvious ethical issues, it made her risk even greater if her mistake was discovered. Ecks returned the organs to their original places inside of the creature and closed the incisions. She ran a scrubber over the creature, cleaning any of its internal fluids that had leaked out onto it.

Ecks ordered a memory wipe of the creature. She just had to hope that its neural encodings were similar enough to the Diri's for it to work. Once memory wipe is complete, beam the specimen back down to the planet.

With the creature taken care of, two considerations remained. The ship's logs, and Ecks' own memories; when Ecks returned from her mission, the debriefing would involve a systematic probing of both. Ecks would be betrayed by her own brain's recording of the event.

The process for both her own memories and the computer's were similar. She would reset both to the exact state they were in when they entered the system. Ecks set the process to activate as soon as she began another hyperspace jump, and programmed the jump to the exact location she had just emerged from. The jump itself was pointless—she was still in orbit above the planet. But, if all went to plan, Ecks would emerge from hyperspace believing she had just reached this system for the first time.

Ecks would get a redo. This mistake was just a fluke. It could not happen again. Then, she would rediscover the intelligent creatures on the planet. She would be a hero, and this mistake would be erased, as if it had never happened.

Initiate the jump. In the split second between issuing the command and when it was executed, she looked over at the specimen chamber and remembered the red smudges on the walls. Then the jump executed, and her memory was no more.