So Small And Yet So Vast
Updated: 4 days ago
The material on the slide was pretty ordinary, at least by Foundation standards. It was a tiny sample extracted from a tiny sample extracted from the flesh of a bottom-feeding ocean dweller, an arthropod which would have been relatively mundane if not for the fact that it was, at bare minimum, at least two million yards long. (For all of her scientific brilliance honed over a lifetime of dedicated research work, Dr. Vincent had never been able to break herself of the habit of thinking in Imperial measurements, and had to put extra mental effort into converting them to the scientific community's preferred metric scale before typing up her official reports, whether those had been to her previous research labs or to the Foundation she now worked for.) An observer who didn't know any better would have looked at the half-pound sample that was sitting under glass next to the microscope, and simply assumed that it was a chunk of raw lobster from some surf-n'-turf restaurant; the structural abnormalities associated with its size would escape an untrained eye, and for all of its bizarre provenance, the flesh itself was little different from that of any other crustacean.
Whatever anomalous energy flowed through the body of the "Leviathan" itself, counteracting certain properties of physics which would otherwise have made its existence a scientific impossibility, none of the effect remained within the extracted sample of meat. The sample had arrived in the facility very thoroughly packaged in several layers of vacuum-sealed metal, with everything from heavy radiation shielding to a series of etched runes to counteract "thaumic resonance" (whatever exactly that meant; Dr. Vincent had simply been told it was above her pay grade). However, it had long since passed through the testing stages that proved it had no particularly dangerous microorganisms lurking within it, no cognitohazardous aspects, nor anything else that made it worrisome enough to require extensive containment efforts. So for now it was encased in an ordinary sample jar, airtight to minimize degradation of the sample while its extract was being tested, but not sealed or shielded in any particular way. It was just lobster meat, a trifle unusual in its exact structure, but certainly not wildly remarkable - until you looked at it through a high-power magnifying lens.
And even then, most people wouldn't have known what they were looking at, or why it mattered. On the surface of it, the smear of extracted cells on the glass slide were pretty typical of organic material viewed under a microscope; people who had passed high school biology would know the basic concept of cells having a nucleus and so forth, and there was nothing here which was obviously exotic enough to alarm such laypeople. It was only Dr. Vincent's background in forensic oceanoarthropod microcytology, a very specific subdiscipline of marine biology, which gave her the high-level context necessary to understand what exactly she was looking at, and what it implied.
It was too much; she needed to get some air. Scraping the slide clean and depositing the cloth and stylus into a biohazardous waste receptacle, putting the actual slide into the autoclave for sterilization, and returning the larger sample to its secure metal container, all took about five minutes…not long enough to settle her troubled thoughts. Snapping the final valve of the locking mechanism shut, she stepped away from the microscope, extracted her keycard on its lanyard from the pocket of her smock, hung the entirely stereotypical lab coat up on its peg, and punched open the door release, stepping through the currently-unneeded airlock into the site hallway. From there it was another ten-minute walk to wend her way through various corridors, passing through one security checkpoint after another (performing the various series of identity and clearance challenges which had been rendered entirely banal through repetition, despite the knowledge that she might be summarily shot if she ever failed to perform one correctly).
And then she finally made it out to the employee break area, which included both an extensively stocked cafeteria and a small enclosed courtyard full of trees and fountains and even songbirds. Working for the Foundation was a stressful business, but at least they weren't stingy with providing the basic essentials to help their people remain sane and generally contented. The perks hardly made up for the knowledge of potentially world-shaking consequences, but they were a damn sight better than working in the cutthroat corporate world, where the fifteen minutes it took her to wrap up her work and then travel to the break area, then the same time to get back, would have been counted as part of her hour-long break and deducted from her pay if she exceeded it. The Foundation's pocketbook wasn't infinitely deep, but it was close enough that they had no need to cut corners, when it came to the basic essentials needed for their people to keep feeling human.
You were supposed to leave your work in the lab, even mentally speaking, when you came out here, but Dr. Vincent didn't have that kind of mental discipline (hence why she wasn't part of the cognitohazard containment team, despite having enough clearance to know that it existed). She could avoid talking about her work with people from other departments who didn't have authorization to know about the existence, let alone the details, of the particular skips she was working on. But she couldn't avoid thinking about them, particularly not ones with implications like this. As an unhappy coincidence, the cafeteria happened to be serving shrimp creole this afternoon, and just a glance at the curling lumps of crustacean flesh under their white sauce was enough to dash any hopes she might have had of putting the subject out of her head. So she limited her food purchases to fruit and crackers, and took them out into the little garden area, to sit on a shaded park bench within earshot of a tinkling fountain, where she could ruminate both upon her lunch and on the implications of her discovery.
It was a bit of an exaggeration to call it that, of course; the idea had been bandied about among her and the other two researchers on the SCP-169 tissue analysis project for some time. But there was a huge difference between speculating about the existence of alien lifeforms and actually finding hard proof of their existence; this was the same principle. They'd said it half as a joke: "maybe this thing is just really that old". She couldn't even remember if it had been Dr. Hargrove or Dr. Spinks who had originally said it…or maybe she had been the first one to say it herself, she couldn't honestly recall. Conversations around the office or in the lab were like that sometimes; it was about the ideas, not about who had them. And this discussion had evolved further afield from that comment, assuming that was actually where it had started, and not just one more random branch on the tree of logic that had led her out on this particular limb. They'd talked about how no fewer than eight lobsters on record had lived to an age of over 100, and shown little enough evidence of tissue degradation that it was speculated they could live indefinitely, growing ever larger and more sessile as their metabolism slowed down. Something that still answered to the name of "lobster" could potentially lurk in the depths of unexplored oceans, living for hundreds of years, maybe even thousands. But millions? It was a mind-numbing concept to even speculate upon. And now, with this latest analysis, it had been proven unambiguously true. The telomeres in the freshly-divided cells were identical in length to those taken from the oldest part of the sample; Dr. Spinks's electron photomicrographs had already proven that. Which was where a more hands-on chemical stain of the intact cells had come in, as the next logical step, and by completing that, Dr. Vincent had confirmed the farthest-reaching implications of that initial discovery.
To find evidence which suggested a mind-bogglingly important question was an exciting experience; the thrill of discoveries like that had been what led little Eliza Vincent to begin her STEM career, long before it was a fashionable subject to try and encourage women into. Since then, she'd learned a lot about how to cope with the less electrifying aspects of a scientific career, such as the tedium of writing or peer-reviewing papers (thankfully a largely abandoned task, now that she was within the Foundation's information-restricting embrace, and thus had far fewer actual peers to answer to than in the wider world), or the menial chores necessary to keep a lab properly cleaned and organized. But this was a whole other level of consequence to her inquiries. Being inspired to ask a meaning-of-life-level question was one thing; getting the answer was quite another, and the sobering weight of that difference was something she'd be learning how to cope with for days, at minimum.
But it was all there; with her technical knowledge and the evidence she'd now confirmed, the answer was as blindingly obvious as a sum of two single-digit numbers written on an elementary-school blackboard. The "Leviathan" may have developed a few anomalous qualities over the aeons, but these were probably not even inherent to the creature, so much as attracted to it by the sheer narrative gravity of its symbolic existence. At its most basic, this anomaly was nothing more inherently unusual than a common rock lobster, albeit some other species long thought extinct. A few of its childhood relatives had been found preserved in ancient rocks, dug up from parts of the earth which had risen out of the ocean a hundred million years ago, but there was no real cytological difference between those lifeforms and SCP-169 itself. The cells were pretty much the same; they'd simply self-replicated a few octillion times more often. To think that a DNA molecule, only a couple percentage points different from her own or that of any other human, was capable of a feat like that, and didn't really need an anomalous energy field to make it possible…the more you thought about it, the more staggering the implications were.
Dr. Vincent wondered whether her colleagues had made similar discoveries within their own labs; she hadn't seen either of them in a couple of days, and while such a lapse in contact was nowhere near being alarming, it did give her pause. She puzzled briefly at the thought that maybe, Dr. Spinks's electron microscope had already told her the same thing, in some other fashion Eliza didn't quite grasp the technicalities of, that Eliza herself had needed an old-fashioned glass slide and a tube full of lenses to confirm. Even more puzzling was the thought of what conclusions Dr. Hargrove might have come up with, given that he was specifically a veterinary neuroscientist. All three of them had received sample containers, which the Foundation's Deep Reconnaissance Autonomous Collection Vessel (nicknamed "DRAC-ula", since it didn't anagram any better than that) had extracted from separate parts of SCP-169's enormous body. Though a few hundred feet apart, the collection sites were all part of the same appendage, presumably a leg or perhaps an antenna, which emerged from a part of the brain-shatteringly massive beast. Instead of plates of sedimentary rock over eighty feet thick, this jointed appendage was only lightly armored, allowing DRAC-V's diamond-tipped drills to make short work of it. (They had been designed for a cracking a much tougher nut, without any less-protected parts, on a different anomaly somewhere in the Pacific ocean instead of the Atlantic. But that one was neutralized now, so the submersible was on loan to the relatively low-priority SCP-169 team, until some more Keter-level anomaly was found which would more urgently require "DRAC-ula's" services).
By coincidence, two of the samples had turned out to be pretty similar chunks of musculature, so they called Dr. Vincent in to work on one, and had transferred Dr. Spinks from Site-13 to look at the other, using different methodologies to analyze the same sort of material. But the third had gone to Dr. Hargroves, who was in a different department of the same facility, and thus hadn't needed as much of a move to join the project team as Dr. Spinks had, moving effectively across the hall instead of coming all the way from Alaska. Dr. Hargroves was a nerve specialist, after all, and the third time DRAC-V had drilled into the giant jointed appendage, it had struck a minor neuron instead of a muscle fiber, this probably being the main reason why there hadn't been a fourth sample collected. Striking a nerve once had been an accident, and thankfully an inconsequential one; there was no sense taking chances on stimulating the beast's sensory receptors a second time. If it made even the slightest twitch, the entire city of Puerto Deseado and probably the poorer neighborhoods of Mar Del Plata would likely end up washed out to sea by the ensuing tidal wave, to say nothing of the Falkland Islands (which a few of the more imaginative posters to the Foundation message board had suggested might actually be nodules protruding from the Leviathan's back, though that was almost certainly taking the idea too far).
But while Spinks was only out of contact for a scant 24 hours, Hargroves hadn't showed up for two full days, and now Dr. Vincent wondered if she knew why. Because his research hadn't been aimed as much toward comparing the SCP-169 tissue to that of ordinary lobsters; his work was more about comparing it to human neural tissue. The use of serotonin in the brains of both species was a well-understood corollary, a proof that human beings were not as unique among Nature's myriad species as we wanted to think. But once again, there was a difference between "knowing" something speculatively, based on secondhand and thirdhand knowledge, versus having personally confirmed it. Now that Eliza knew that the Leviathan was nothing more peculiar than the world's oldest and biggest lobster, and thus proof that lobsters could live and grow forever if nothing stopped them from doing so..maybe Dr. Hargroves likewise knew that the neurons of SCP-169 carried the same chemical transmitters as all of our brains. A normal lobster doesn't have much capacity for abstract thought…but a normal lobster doesn't have a brain the size of the island of Sicily (to go with a conservative estimate of the Leviathan's anatomy, based on a typical lobster species). With that much gray matter, even from a "primitive" species such as an Ordovician-era arthropod, and the theoretical chemical complement necessary to feel and perhaps to think…
Well, Eliza had finished eating her apple, so perhaps it was time she finished blowing her mind as well. There was still more work to do; by the time she'd finished compiling her data into a technical report, she probably wouldn't have any "reeling from the implications" left in her. Making sure that she hadn't lost her keycard or forgotten the daily passcode for the security stations, Eliza tossed the apple's core into a discreet compost bin tucked among the roots of the sheltering elder above the bench, and headed inside, to get back to business as usual.
This is released as Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).