It watches. Before It squirms the subject, her muscles tight and twisted. Her tendons pulsate. Instinct demands she try to express her pain through the manipulation of her carapace. Sound. Vibration. Sensations which reach out to others. Sensations which insist on the attentions of the indifferent. Sensations which demand a response. Pain. She is in pain. But no sound comes. No vibration. Her shell has been removed. Pale clammy skin lays exposed. White, with a faint pink tinge. Quivering, she presses her shell-less body against the clear walls of the observation tank. Senseless. This clearly causes more pain. And yet she persists. Does she desire more pain? Does it somehow distract her from her fear? Is fear worse than pain? It is not sure. It has only rarely felt pain. It has never feared.
The figure in the tank was a young female indigenous native. A species as yet unnamed by humans. This suits It fine. It has never cared much for names. It was informed Its name is Three but this is not what It calls itself, in the silence within its head. It thinks of itself as Itself. But this young female has a name. Her name is Final Blessing. A pessimistic name. A name given by those with no more hope. A sad thought. It does not enjoy sad thoughts. Desperate for some response, she begins to strike the sides of the tank with her body. It wonders. So much pain. So much fear. And yet she chose this. So many have come forward, fully aware, yet willing to endure. To overcome fear. To overcome pain. Three times, It turned away this young one. Three times, It told her that she could not withstand the tests. She was too young. Her body was too frail. She would not last. And yet again she came, a fourth time. Asking. Begging. All the while, knowing what she would have to go through. She was not ignorant. She was there when Red Flowers On Snow succumbed to the pain and died. She was watching when Fallen But Not Lost begged for release. She knew. And yet-
It did not understand. But It could try.
It spun Its inner mechanisms faster, sending out a wave of vibrations centering on Its forearm, drawn out before It on the edge of the console. Every tiny speck of Its armored appendage stood out clearly to Its investigation. With Its vibration sense It could detect even the tiniest of imperfections in the smooth black shell. It extended a long curved talon and pressed its jagged point against the shell. It would try to understand pain. It pressed down with as much force as It could and slowly dragged the claw across Its arm. A high pitched keening noise rose up and a slight mark appeared, a long line of grated shell. Immediately Its shell began to regenerate, creating a slight tingling sensation like that of static electricity. It felt no pain. Its shell was too thick. It would have to try harder.
It raised the claw, and thrust it down with a force of ten thousand pounds per square inch. The claw pierced the shell accompanied by the sound of a sharp crack. Thick blood, blue-verging-on-black, pumped out quickly, congealing almost instantly to the consistency of drying plastic. It withdrew Its claw. A sharp sensation ran up Its arm. It was unpleasant. This was pain. It thought It understood. But when It turned back to the subject to continue observation, the sharpness did not cease. It continued. It grew more and more unpleasant. It glanced around uneasily. It did not know what to do. The pain did not stop. How could it continue like this? It tried to ignore, tried to focus, but the pain grew. It could not think clearly. It could not-
It roared, releasing the full blast of its seismic force on the room at random. It swung Its claws across the nearest console, tearing it to ribbons. It slammed Its tendrils against the walls and floors, leaving holes behind. It beat Its arms against the floor. Alarms blared, competing with the Its roars of pain and fury. Interfaces appeared, shining bright in the darkness, warnings etched across their surface. It slashed at them, tore apart whatever It could find.
And then all at once it was over. The pain shut off as though a switch had been pressed. Ah yes. Combat pain control. It was a built in function, allowing the body to be flooded briefly with adrenalin and the sensation of pain. For motivation. Data showed that those who could feel pain performed better in combat. But continuous pain was unnecessary. After the appropriate amount of time was allowed, the brain shut the feeling down. It was no longer needed. It felt immense relief. It had not enjoyed the sense of pain. Though it had lasted only thirteen seconds, it was an experience that It did not again wish to experience.
The thought gave It pause.
It did not enjoy pain. It did not wish it again. It briefly considered stabbing Itself again, and felt a sudden jolt of intense displeasure. Fear. This was fear. It felt satisfaction. In such a short time, It had come to understand pain. It now understood fear. This was good. There was so much to learn. It could not afford to learn slowly.
It went back.
Pale green fluid bubbled. It fizzed around the edges of Its carapace. It floated in a large tank. Surrounded by others. Men and women. Not like itself. Bodies of soft pink and brown skin. Exposed eyes and useless vestigial features. They spoke, aural vibrations softly bouncing from surface to surface. It was hard to detect them in the tank. A pair of them moved closer, standing just before the tank. One male. One female. Now It could hear. They spoke:
“-really don’t think your giving this enough thought. We’ve had considerable success with-” The male spoke. He stood poised, upper body withdrawn. Hands clenched. Nervous. Submissive. The lesser of these two humans.
“This one is useless. Not so useless as the last two, I’ll give you that. But still, there are issues. Its EEG ratings are much too high,” the female answered. She did not allow the male to finish his words. Did she find them offensive? She stared to one side. Foot tapping continuously. One hand searching a pocket of her coverings. Anxious. Bored.
“I still don’t see why that’s such an issue. We don’t know for sure what it even means. It warrants further study.”
“It means it’s thinking. Look around. What has changed about the local area in the past three weeks? Nothing. Same room, same people-”
It was confused. The words this woman said were obviously false. In the corner of the room, a spider worked industriously, building a web. The spider had not been there yesterday. Near the tank, a small object had been dropped, an oblong piece of plastic half an inch long, shattered at one end. It had been dropped by an assistant two days ago and rolled beneath a table, gone unnoticed. Another worker had chopped off several inches of their hair a week prior. There were so many things changing all the time It had trouble noting them all. But it was confident it had missed nothing.
“-what is there for it to think about? It should be settling down into standby mode and waiting for new stimuli. We set the engagement parameters too high, just as I warned about. We’d be better off scrapping this one and getting started on Four.”
“But if it’s thinking so much, then it must be learning something. This could be good.”
“No, it’ll just be focusing on a lot of extraneous details. It’s too stupid to know what’s important. Look, it can hear us right now, you know? It’s floating there listening to us talk about what a failure it is and what is it doing? Nothing. No reaction. What kind of-”
Both figures jumped back, shock running across their features. Its claws were pressed against the tank, where it had slammed them as she spoke. Small cracks spread across the tanks surface. Alarms blared. A force field, invisible but bright as a spotlight to It, surrounded the tank automatically. It paid them no attention, lost in thought. Why had It struck the tank? It had not been decision. It had done it spontaneously.
It returned to the present. A loud crash attracted Its attention. Final Blessing was writhing in the tank, twisting in pain. She had extended one hand and slammed it hard against the tank. It glanced at the readings. She did not have long to live. Another failure. Another waste of life.
Another slam. Her palm against the tank wall, the barrier separating her from all else. It understood. Moving swiftly, it crept to the edge of the tank and extended Its hand, palm to the glass. Fingers over fingers. She looked towards Its head with her eyes, shockingly large and blue outside their shell. It thought It saw a hint of release.