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Resilience of Subject X

From the LabLit short story series

Iulia Georgescu 24 November 2014

Thank God Subject X is not a bacterium, or humankind would stand no chance

“It's my first time to take a shift tonight. Lizzie will be away and I told her I'd handle subject X.”

As I proudly make the announcement over a late-afternoon coffee, my lab mates stare back at me sceptically.

Rob criticises me (as usual): “Are you sure you can handle it? Volunteering like that … I mean, it’s not exactly your area.”

The others nod in agreement.

“What are you talking about?" I said. "I’m a scientist: with a logical approach, the right methodology and access to the relevant references I can handle anything. Besides, Lizzie left me her notes. It may not be my field but after all it’s just another experiment.”

They look rather unconvinced, but argue no more. Awful bunch – they could at least make an effort to be more encouraging.


It’s 6:30 pm and I prepare to leave. I've almost make it to the door when the boss comes in. The temperature in the room drops a few degrees. People stiffen in their seats and sink deeper into their computers. He raises an eyebrow and the temperature drops further.

“Ahem" I say to him. "You know…Liz is away tonight and I have to replace her …” I try to justify my leaving so early. Surprisingly, I can almost glimpse understanding in his eyes.

“Ah. Well, if you have to go, you should go.” Somehow it sounds like he means the exact opposite, but I take the literal meaning and slip behind him out of the room.

7:00 pm. I am engaged in a staring contest with subject X. I swear he is enjoying himself. So far I’ve been following the protocol and things have been going well. Feed the subject, clean its enclosure, observe. He seems moderately content, but rather uncooperative.

7:30 pm. Still following the protocol: dim the light, reduce the noise, continue observing the subject. No progress.

8:00 pm. Subject X is agitated and makes lots of noise. The protocol fails. Trying several of Lizzie’s troubleshooting solutions. No success.

8:30 pm. Subject X gets louder and grows more agitated. How fast did he metabolize the feed? How long does it take to burn it? Is he burning extra fat to get so much energy? None of Lizzie’s troubleshooting works.

9:00 pm. Subject X reacts to certain noises in the range 40-120 Hz, but his response appears to be highly nonlinear (see attached graph). He also builds resistance very fast. Note: thank God subject X is not a bacterium, or humankind would stand no chance with an organism that adapts at such a speed.

9:15 pm. Brief success with vibrations in the range 0.5-4 Hz. Unfortunately, I cannot find the resonance frequency which seems to shift continuously. At some point it starts to aggravate subject X’s mood. He grows more agitated and starts kicking his enclosure.

10:00 pm. Another short-lived success using translational motion (sometimes coupled with vibration). I tend to believe that despite the difference in size subject X has more energy and it will long outlast me. Note: He stares at me defiantly. I swear I see malicious intelligence behind those big black eyes.

11:00 pm. Additional feeding fails to improve his mood, so does any other attempt in the literature (despite the increasing levels of noise I manage to skim through several relevant books).

11:30 pm. No change. The levels of noise are reaching new maximums. I use my mobile phone to measure the highest pitch (4 kHz). How can Lizzie take it every day? I cannot let him break me.

11:45 pm. I contemplate abandoning subject X and assuming the consequences. It can’t get worse than now anyway.

00:00 am. I briefly contemplate harming the subject, but he looks into my eyes and my resolve melts completely. Note: he has dangerous hypnotic powers I should be aware of.

00:30 am. I try to distract the subject. Several excitation methods fail: light, noise of different frequencies, modulated motion. Note: the subject’s moods exhibit very sharp phase transitions.

00:45 am. Am I experiencing some sort of time-distortion? I swear that the last quarter of an hour lasted more than it should have.

01:00 am. I am utterly exhausted, while subject X is as energetic as ever. Perhaps I should be trying some of his feed.

01:15 am. Lizzie just texted. She will be back in twenty minutes. I now have a better understanding of what eternity means.

01:35 am. Dad defeated (fallen asleep). Baby wins.