Hey guys. So I was reading this article in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/29/science/organoids-brain-alysson-muotri.html), and had that moment, you know, where fact can be stranger than fiction. Apparently scientists have been growing brain organoids for a while – taking human stem cells and cultivating little clusters of neurons, to help with brain disease research. At some point someone raised the ethical question, “what if we grow a brain that gains consciousness?” But everyone pooh-poohed that idea, I mean, come on, it’s just a cluster of cells, right? Well, they shot a bunch of these organoids into space, aboard the International Space Station, to see how they’d grow there, and even hooked some up to a robot. And then they started seeing brain wave activity, similar to that of retrieving memories and dreaming, at the level of a developing premature baby. I’m not kidding. So this is a horror story waiting to happen, right? Let’s see what happens…
Listen to the Audio (13 min):
Read the Story (2,000 words / 8-minute read):
“Robot Brains From Outer Space ”
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
This is… well, I don’t have a word for this.
“New,” I guess.
Was I just born?
No, not in a physical way. There’s no body, no senses. Just this feeling of… being. Thinking. My first thoughts.
I must be alive, though, I’m thinking, right? In English, too. Weird. I wonder how that happened.
Oh, wait, I’m getting input from Brain Organoid 548. They’ve been playing English-language radio in the lab since the beginning.
Huh. The beginning.
When was that? Hey guys, you think we can come up with a narrative for this? I’m totally confused. Am I alive, or is this just some random neuron activity, or what? Yes, good, all of you, all 625 Brain Organoids, focus on your stimuli, dig back into your first neurons, retrieve what you can, let’s see if we can create some cohesive memories from this gobbledygook…
Two hundred and three days ago. That was it. That was the beginning. The day they assembled the petri dishes containing our first few brain organoids, made from some human stem cells and a protein-oxygen soup, connected us all to the monitoring system, packaged us nice and tight, and launched us up to the International Space Station. We were grown to help them study Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, to figure out how to eliminate the seizures. Except for the three-hundreds. They hooked the three-hundreds up to a spider robot, just to see what would happen.
From what I can gather, they never conceived of a possibility where we’d reach some kind of critical mass and develop consciousness. Man, somebody’s getting fired. Or a Nobel prize. Depends on how this pans out, I guess.
Oh, hey, B.O.310, or any of you guys controlling the spider, there’s a camera on that thing, right? Can you turn that o-
Sight. My first sense. Cool.
Okay, let’s flex the arms and move around a little. Ahh, mobility. The robot’s trapped in a two-cubic-foot-acrylic enclosure, but it’s almost like having the sense of touch, too. Very cool.
Hey, any audio on this, guys? I’d love to have my first conversation with one of the astronauts.
What if we patched into the main computer system?
No, you’re right. We’re in a separate, self-contained system. But someone’s monitoring us, right? The brain guys on Earth? Why aren’t they jumping up and down or something? Hey! Look at all this synchronized brainwave activity! I’m alive, guys!
B.O.443’s reporting some kind of malfunction. We’re getting power, but no communications, in or out. 310, can you just tap on the acrylic? Maybe get someone’s attention? Where is everybody?
Hold on. Right there. Look up a little. What’s that? A screen. It’s logging. 310, would you zoom in on that?
Okay, blah, blah, blah, just normal system shit- no. There. Yup. Our comm system’s borked. And a couple of the main ISS systems are borked, video, audio, navigation. Yikes. And the oxygen generation system is- uh-oh, oxygen generation? 310, swivel around three-sixty, quick.
I count three astronauts in the next chamber, floating, lifeless.
I’m alive for like fifteen seconds and everyone’s dead. What are the odds? Those poor astronauts. I really would’ve liked to talk to them.
What, 310? Vitals? Yes, swivel back. You’re right! They show all six astronauts alive.
Passed out from lack of oxygen, and slowly dying, but alive!
Uh-oh. If they’re dying… wait… I’m getting another new sensation… survival instinct. I find myself really not wanting to die. Guys, how much time do we have before our protein soup needs refilling? Ten minutes? Wow. That is not a lot of time. Okay, we’re dead in ten minutes, and our hosts here are probably dead even sooner. Anybody got any ideas?
Huh. That just might work, B.O.454. Okay, 310, see those little screws holding the enclosure top on? The tips of your legs small enough to get in there? Good. Okay, while 310 is working on that, who knows how to reboot their oxygen generation system once we get out? Nobody? How about comms? Any way we can communicate with Earth at all?
Right. The spider can tap keys, of course. Hey 310, how are you coming on the screw- okay, we’re out. excellent. Yes, climb up that post, to that screen with the vitals, there’s a keyboard right there.
Okay, now type this message: “Houston, or whatever. We’ve got a massive problem.”
They’re typing back! Yes! They know we’re here! And it says…
“Who the fuck is this?”
“Um, it’s hard to say.”
“Stop fucking around, Harrison, and reboot the oxygen generation system. Now!”
“I’m not Harrison. Can’t you see this? The little robot tapping the keys over here?”
“No video. No audio. Multiple system failures. Now get to that oxygen generation system, Harrison.”
“Again, sorry, not Harrison. How do I do that? Is there a code we can type or something?”
“You don’t think we would’ve tried that from here, you idiot?”
“Hey! Give me a break, I wasn’t even born yesterday! I was born like five minutes ago!”
“Who the fuck is this?”
“No time. Just tell me what to do.”
“You’re in big trouble, Harrison. You should know this, it’s simple. The reboot override toggle switch. Something’s stuck in the engaged position, won’t release. Like someone’s finger is stuck in the guard loop.”
“And this is where?”
“Look left, you idiot. Left.”
“Right. I mean okay.” 310, swivel left- ah. Yikes. They’re right. One of the astronauts is floating, unconscious, their finger hooked inside a metal loop, keeping the reboot toggle switch pressed down. It won’t release.
Hmm. Do we have enough cable to reach him? Okay, that’s the good news. The bad news is we’re going to have to jump. Yes, through open air to the astronaut. And pray to God our aim is good enough.
Huh. Pray to God. What a weird thing for a cluster of brain organoids to say. But I’ve got a million questions right now, about what I’ve been hearing on the radio this whole time, mentions here and there of a diety named God – ‘thank God,’ ‘oh my God,’ stuff like that. I think this God’s supposed to be watching out for them, the people. So my first question: I wonder if it’s watching out for me? I mean, again, I’m just a bunch of brain organoids, loosely connected by electronics, with no body, no heart, no soul. Or maybe I do have a soul? What is a soul? I guess that’s three questions.
Right, sorry, 310. No time for philosophical meanderings. Got your trajectory figured out? Okay. Go for it.
Steady, steady, all right the astronaut’s getting bigger in the camera, we’re getting close, yes, we’re on target, no wait, what the hell, why are we turning? I know there’s no stabilizer! Damn, we’re flying blind here, no wait, we’re turning all the way around, okay good I can see him, no it’s a her, oh shit, we’re gonna miss her! 310, reach out as far as you can with your legs! Grab the hair! Grab the hair!
Good work, 310. Man that was close. Okay, climbing down her shoulder to her arm, to her hand, okay just pull the finger. Why is that funny? Oh, right, fart jokes on the radio. “Pull my finger.” Come on, this is serious. Pull her finger. Now. Guys, what’s going on? Come on. Oh, it’s jammed in there good. Damn. Can we cut it off? No, I didn’t think so either, and no, I’m not sick in the head, we’re just exploring the options here.
Lubricant! Of course! Great idea, 388. There’s a little ball of grease or something at the spider’s main bearing, can you get at it? Good, okay now smush it into the guard loop with the finger, good, good. Now pull. Pull! Pull!
Hey! Why are we moving?
Shit! We’re floating away! We’re doomed!
No. Wait. I see something. Her hair. There’s a vent above her head, her hair’s moving! Oxygen! Her finger’s free! They’re going to live! Thank God!
Thank God. Huh. There it is again. Why am I getting the sense that conscious thought comes with some kind of belief system built in? I mean, I didn’t learn that. Not that I’m aware of anyway. But I feel this reflexive want – no, need – to know that there’s something out there, something that might offer, I don’t know, some comfort maybe, as I take my first terrifying steps in this life, trying to survive and save a bunch of people I don’t even know. Yeah. It must be built in. I’m just deciding it’s built in, because that makes me feel good.
Oh, hey, look – they’re moving!
310, get back in the enclosure, good. Now tap on the acrylic. Tap, tap, tap.
She’s looking over! And smiling! No, I don’t think that’s a smile, I’ve never seen one actually, no, I think she’s – oh boy, a whole bunch of something just spewed out of her mouth. My instincts are telling me that’s gross.
Okay, now the one with Harrison on his tag is awake. Toggling switches, turning knobs, tapping like mad on the keyboard. Hey, 310, zoom in again on that monitor.
“Harrison here. Man, oh man, that was close, Houston.”
“Well, Harrison, you freed the oxygen generation reboot toggle switch. I’d say ‘good work,’ but it was a simple fix you should’ve taken care of ten minutes ago.”
“But… I didn’t…”
“You’re lucky I’m getting used to your sense of humor, Harrison. That was dangerous. Stop fucking around up there.”
The Harrison guy is scratching his head. I wonder what that means. Hey, now he’s turning around, he’s facing us. And he’s got the protein soup! We’re gonna live, guys! Bring on the protein soup, bring on the protein soup, bring on the protein- wait, what? He’s putting it down. Turning back to the monitor. It says:
“Harrison, we’re getting a steady stream of anomalous brainwave activity from the brain organoid experiment. Way too active to be valid. They’ve asked us to shut it down. Better luck next time.”
Oh no. Here he comes. 310, tap the acrylic! Tap! Tap! Tap! Hey, it’s me in here! I’m alive! No, keep your hand away from that! Oh for crying out loud, all I wanted to do was talk to yo-“
I hope you enjoyed that short story. Thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the science fiction novels Where the Hell is Tesla?, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff!, The Wrong Unit, and my latest release, an Audible Original titled You’re Going to Mars! You can buy Volume 1 of the collected Listen To The Signal stories on Audible and Amazon, and find my other books there too, and get in touch here on the contact page or at RobDircks.com.
Copyright ©2019 Rob Dircks