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Morphic

For more information on this story and a full list of chapters and extras, click here. Please note that Morphic is rated R (M if you prefer Fiction Ratings) for strong language, violence and other sensitive subject matter.

Extra: Dave and Mia Discuss Hotdogs

Scyther are fucked-up Pokémon.

Not only are they surprisingly smart and ruthless predators, but they also have a unique social structure where they group together in swarms only to subsequently make every effort to leave one another alone. They hunt alone, sleep alone and generally mind their own business. They are social, in the sense that other Scyther are an important part of their day-to-day environment and they must have a keen ability to predict and model other individuals. But because their primary direct interactions with one another are battling and mating, they never needed to evolve any sense of compassion or empathy, the way humans understand empathy. It would only have gotten in the way. They understand each other’s point of view, but they don’t care.

There is a lot of scientific literature on the evolution – Darwinian evolution, not flashy metamorphosis-evolution – of different Pokémon species, and Dave has read a lot of it. And because he likes to know what the fuck he’s doing when he works on something new and interesting, he’s probably read close to all of it when it comes to the species they picked out for the Pokémorph project.

So to make a long story short, what he’s read about Scyther has given Dave some suspicions about Mia Kerrigan. She was late to start talking, shows little interest in people, only intermittently makes eye contact, and speaks with slightly off inflections. Cheryl is worried she’s autistic. Dave is worried she isn’t.

He’s no psychologist, but it obviously wouldn’t help to take her to some professional child psychologist who doesn’t know jack shit about Scyther and would have nothing but some autistic spectrum disorder diagnosis to label her with anyway. (Plus he doesn’t trust strangers with anything relating to the Pokémorphs, really. The only way to make sure things get done right is to do them yourself.) So he’s going to attempt to use what he does know to find out what’s going on in her brain.

It sounds simple and straightforward. From experience over the past four years, he knows never to trust things that sound simple and straightforward to actually be that way.

So when Dave sits down opposite Mia at the Kerrigans’ kitchen table, he fully expects her to be difficult. For the moment, though, she’s just looking him up and down and still hasn’t said anything, which he knows her well enough to not find surprising. He places his suitcase on the table before he looks at her and says, “Hi, Mia.”

“Hi,” she responds, her expression the same neutral as ever.

“Your mom might have told you, but if she didn’t, we’re going to do some experiments. All you have to do is answer my questions.”

Her eyes flicker vaguely between him and the suitcase. “Why?” she says, just as he’s concluding she isn’t going to answer.

Dave sighs. “For science,” he says. “It’s not like you have anything better to do.”

Mia considers it for a moment and then nods. “Okay.”

Well. That part was surprisingly easy.

He decides to start with basic empathy. He pulls two pencil cases out of the suitcase and puts them on the table in front of Mia. “They’re empty,” he says as he shows her. “But now I’m going to take this pencil and put it in this one.”

He does so and closes the pencil cases. Mia looks very unimpressed.

“Pretend your mom is in here with us and saw that, all right? And now, suppose I ask her to go somewhere else and she leaves the room. Got all that?”

She nods warily.

“Okay,” he says. “Now, Mia, where is the pencil?”

She looks at him like he’s retarded. “You know where the pencil is,” she says. “You put it there yourself.”

“Yeah, I did,” he answers patiently, “but I want to know if you know.”

“You showed me where you put it.”

“Maybe you forgot.”

“This is stupid.”

Mia is beginning to turn away, so Dave gives up. “Okay, the pencil is in this one, right?” he says, indicating the pencil case on his left, the one that really has the pencil in it. She doesn’t dignify that with an answer, but he never thought she’d have any problem remembering where the pencil is anyway, so he lets it slide and moves on to the next part.

He opens the pencil case, takes the pencil out, and moves it to the other pencil case.

“Where’s the pencil now?” he asks.

She gives him that this-is-retarded look again, and on reflection he’s starting to agree with her. “Okay, never mind,” he says. “That’s not the point anyway. The point is, if your mom came back in now and I asked her which case the pencil is in, what would she say?”

Mia looks at him for a moment and then points at the one on the right.

These kinds of things have always amused Dave. The idea that certain seemingly obvious concepts just aren’t there in the minds of kids for some time is one of those delightfully counterintuitive little nuggets that every so often make you consciously aware of the brain being a machine. He leans a little back in his chair and can’t help grinning. “But how would she know that when she wasn’t in here when I switched them?”

“Because you wouldn’t make her leave the room like that and then ask her about it unless it was a trick,” she says immediately.

This is the precise moment where it hits him, for the first time, that she is fucking brilliant.

He lets out a chuckle of disbelief. “Good point,” he concedes. “Okay, you’re smarter than whoever thought up this test.”

He puts away the pencil cases, watching Mia. She is looking disinterestedly around, unaware of having done anything impressive or unusual. If it were Jean thinking she’d figured something out, she’d he wearing a triumphant grin and looking expectantly at him, waiting for recognition of her achievement. Mia clearly doesn’t give a fuck about impressing him, and that’s exactly what makes it so impressive. She wasn’t expecting a trick question and looking for the answer he wanted; she just told the truth as she saw it.

A really stupid idea strikes him, and he flips through his brain for the dumbest riddle he’s ever heard. “Where do Magikarp keep their money?”

She gives him that look again. “Magikarp don’t have any money.”

“But where would they keep it if they did?”

He waits. She clearly thinks the question is ridiculous and shows no inclination to answer it.

“Give up?” He pauses again for dramatic effect. “They keep it… in the river bank.”

She looks at him for a long second without changing her expression. “They don’t have any money,” she repeats. “They can’t keep it anywhere because they don’t have any. And they can’t even dig in the river bank, so they couldn’t put it there.”

“It’s a river bank. Banks keep your money. See?”

“It’s not a bank. It’s a river bank.”

Dave grins helplessly at her sheer lack of amusement. She doesn’t even think the joke is unfunny; she doesn’t see the joke at all. Some part of him hopes she never will. The world would be a smarter place if everyone made enough of a distinction between words and concepts for bad puns to be this completely lost on them.

“But that’s enough of that,” he says and reaches into his suitcase again. “I have another test for you.”

Mia looks marginally less annoyed at that. She watches his hands as he pulls out a stack of photographs of eyes, then looks back up at his face. She isn’t quite making eye contact, more just looking at him.

“Okay. Just look at the pictures one at a time and tell me how you think the people in them are feeling.”

She nods. He shows her the first picture, and she peers at it. “He’s pretending to be angry,” she concludes after a moment.

Dave blinks and turns the photo around to look at it. “Why do you think he’s just pretending?”

“The eyebrows are too scrunched. People only look like that when they’re pretending.”

In retrospect he supposes it’s a little exaggerated, but it doesn’t exactly make him think ‘pretending’. He switches photos, warily.

“Sad,” she says.

It only takes a few more photos to completely convince him that she is not autistic because she can read these emotions better than he can. Then, as he continues because he brought thirty photos and he might as well get through them all, another pattern starts emerging. Slowly he starts to get the feeling that she’s processing the pictures in a wholly different way than he is. She notices things like two sets of eyes belonging to the same guy (who, she says, is probably really sad, because he’s better at acting sad than happy). She impassively notes that unusually many of the eyes in the pictures are blue. At that point he doesn’t think he’s noticed any of the eye colors, and for all he knows they could all have been purple. She notices particular wrinkles around the eyes and comments on them (or the lack thereof), the differences between the environments reflected in the subjects’ irises (he doesn’t even know how to respond to that), the wideness of the pupils, and even more ridiculous details that seem to indicate she is actually looking at the pictures and carefully analyzing them, not just instinctively picking up the emotion being conveyed.

Is this what she does every time she looks at someone’s face? Does it even count, for the purposes of a test like this? He doesn’t know, because he isn’t a fucking psychologist.

As he puts the stack of photos away, he looks at her and scratches the back of his neck, thinking. He knows there are autistic savants with extraordinary observational skills. He also knows Scyther can pinpoint their prey’s weak points in a split second, before it can react. Maybe this is how they look at everything. So far nothing has been very conclusive. She does seem to have a theory of mind going, with recognition of the idea of others having different knowledge than she does, but that alone hardly disproves some kind of autism.

The most obvious way to test the theory that her oddities stem from her Scyther genes is now to try to establish whether or not she experiences sympathy or concern for others’ suffering, provided she’s aware of it. Autistics don’t have any problems with that, generally. It’s the becoming aware of the suffering that they can have difficulty with, and Mia doesn’t seem to have any problems with that, even if her way of finding out is a little unconventional. It’s psychopaths that lack compassion. Unfortunately for Mia’s chances of having something approaching a normal mind, research seems to suggest that Scyther are psychopaths by nature, but the point is that though she could coincidentally happen to be an autistic psychopath, that’s unlikely enough to make any signs of psychopathy at this point pretty damning evidence that her Scyther genes had a hell of a lot more to do with behavior than they assumed when they were putting her together. The problem is just figuring out how to test that.

Part of him feels like he could actually just ask her, because he decidedly can’t picture her lying about it. But he knows that psychopaths are supposedly often good at manipulating people while appearing trustworthy, and no matter how much it breaks his brain to try to imagine this four-year-old girl is a master manipulator, he also knows he can’t make any assumptions when it comes to the Pokémorphs.

He thinks it over, trying to come up with something that eliminates as many other variables as possible, and then what he actually ends up saying for some reason is, “My dad died last week.”

Her expression doesn’t change. She looks at him and waits, like she’s expecting him to get to the point. He already knows in his gut that she doesn’t care, doesn’t even realize she should care. And for some reason he’s kind of relieved.

“Cancer,” he finds himself saying. “I hadn’t talked to him in years. Never even knew he had it. Funny how that works out.”

Why the fuck he’s dumping this on an empathyless little girl of all people is a mystery to him, but she sits there and considers it, with no apparent perception that this is at all inappropriate. “Then it doesn’t matter,” she says. “If you didn’t talk to him anyway, it doesn’t change anything.”

She says it like it’s about as obvious as the river bank not storing money. He could be imagining it, but it seems like there’s an accusatory vibe to it, like she wants to tell him he’s being a pussy thinking this is any kind of a big deal. (Did he sound upset? He didn’t think he did.)

“Well,” he starts to explain himself, because for some dumb reason he feels like he needs to explain himself to the empathyless little girl, “even if you don’t talk to somebody there’s always this part of you that thinks someday you’re going to, until one day you realize that now it’s just too fucking late.”

He remembers he’s talking to a four-year-old the moment the word is out of him, but Mia at least seems unperturbed. “That would have happened anyway,” she counters. “He would just have died sometime later.”

“Yeah,” he says, because from an objective perspective she’s absolutely right. He can’t say that knowledge makes him feel better, exactly, but it’s sobering to realize even a fucking four-year-old can see that. “You’re right. Never mind.”

She looks around for a moment, apparently content to change the subject. Then she asks, “What does ‘fucking’ mean?”

Goddamn it. “Uh. Not really anything, in that sentence.”

She tilts her head. “Why would you use a word that doesn’t mean anything?”

“Grownups do that sometimes.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yeah, isn’t it? I’m sure you’d never do that.”

“Why do you?”

He looks helplessly at her. “It’s a swear word. Do you know what swear words are?”

“Swear words mean something.”

“Only when you’re really talking about what they mean. I wasn’t talking about what that word means. People say ‘what the hell’ and they’re not really talking about fictional underground torture chambers; they just mean ‘what’. What I said just meant ‘it’s too late’, but I used a swear word because that’s just what people do sometimes for emphasis. You’re not supposed to know that word, so don’t tell your parents I said it. Okay?”

Mia nods slowly. “So what does it mean?”

Dave will never, ever, fucking ever forget to watch his language around kids again.

“You don’t need to know that,” he says in exasperation. “Nobody’s going to talk to you about that for the next ten years.”

Mia considers that and then shrugs, apparently taking his word for it.

That was also surprisingly easy. The easy parts with her, oddly, are exactly the parts that would be hardest with Jean.

He lets out a breath and leans back in his chair. “Speaking of hell,” he says. “Your parents haven’t been teaching you that stuff, have they?”

“What stuff?”

“Religion. Big almighty guy in the sky who created the world and forgives your sins, et cetera.”

She shakes her head.

“Oh, thank God.” He has never understood how otherwise intelligent people can hold on to their childhood religion well into adulthood, but he supposes he can give them some credit for having the decency to not force it on their own kids. “Well, in case they try, it’s all something gullible people thought up thousands of years ago to explain natural phenomena before they had science. There is no evidence for any of it. But don’t take my word for it; ask them. Then ask them why they believe it anyway because I’d sure like to know.”

Mia frowns for a moment. “Are my parents stupid?” she then says.

“Eh,” he says, scratching the back of his neck. “Well, your mom’s great. I don’t think she really believes any of it, deep down. She’s just into the community stuff. And your dad… well, he knows his science just fine. I guess he’s just going for first prize in the Compartmentalization Olympics.”

He expects her to ask what that means, but for whatever reason, she doesn’t.

There is silence. Mia is glancing disinterestedly around; he gets the feeling she doesn’t quite grasp the idea of conversation so much as individual strings of questions and answers.

“Mia,” he says after a moment, leaning a bit forward over the table, “do you ever want to hurt people?”

She seems to spend a second evaluating whether to answer the question before she says, “Sometimes.”

Dave nods slowly. It’s already becoming increasingly apparent that all the morphs, except maybe Gabriel, have some violent tendencies, so that’s not unexpected. The others don’t really act on them, because they don’t have any problem with the idea that hurting people is wrong. He’s just not sure how well that’s going to work if Mia really lacks empathy.

“One day,” he says, “you’re going to grow scythes on your arms. They’re going to be sharp and dangerous. When that happens, it’s going to be very, very important that you don’t hurt anyone. Do you understand why?”

Mia looks at him, probably analyzing the size of his pupils or trying to gauge his motivations in asking that question, and finally shakes her head.

Dave exhales. This seems to be the best confirmation to date that he’s really created a monster. And yet he doesn’t feel like a mad scientist with an unstable creation that must be kept at bay. She’s just a little girl equipped with a slightly different brain than the rest of us – a really brilliant brain, too, even if she’s also missing a circuit or two. Who knows how much potential there could be in that brain?

She’s not dangerous, not necessarily. There are psychopaths who lead normal, nonviolent lives. All she really needs is persuasion that she ought to, in terms that make sense to her.

“Do you like hotdogs?” he asks after a moment of thought.

Unfazed by the sudden change in topic, Mia nods.

“So if there was a hotdog on the table that you could have, you’d eat it?”

She nods again, warily.

“What if I told you I’d poisoned the hotdog, and eating it would make you very sick for a whole week?”

She gives him a suspicious glare. “Why would you poison it?”

He pauses, realizing this probably wasn’t the right way to begin this approach. “Let’s try this again,” he says. “Say there was a hotdog and you were going to eat it, and then I came in and told you actually that hotdog was part of an experiment I was doing and I’d injected it with some nasty bacteria that were going to make you sick. Would you still eat it?”

“No,” she says, in that obvious, I-question-your-motives-in-even-asking-me-this-question way.

He nods and leans towards her over the table again. “It’s important that you don’t hurt people,” he says, “because if you do, there are going to be people who think you’re dangerous and need to be locked away, and they’re going to have things their way no matter what we try. You’ll have to eat what they tell you to eat and do what they tell you to do. You won’t be allowed to go anywhere you want or see people you want to see. And they might never let you out. Do you understand now?”

She blinks at him. She seems a bit caught off guard; he doesn’t imagine anyone has really tried using this kind of pure rhetoric of self-interest on her before. Reward and punishment as people normally think about them are dependent on a system of morality: they rely on the idea that people deserve something-or-other for doing certain things. When people really think punishment is unjust, they want to change the rules; they aren’t content with just not breaking them. Dave doubts Mia would really buy the idea of punishment at all, when she couldn’t properly comprehend why she was being punished. But this is a matter of simple consequences: if you do this, that will happen, grouping the two together so that they must be evaluated as a combination. Mia understood the poisoned hotdog. She has to understand this, too.

After a long second of evaluation, she nods. He leans back and releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding, feeling oddly like he’s just passed some kind of a test.

Maybe a conventional moral upbringing would completely go over her head, but if she can just be reasoned with on a basis she accepts towards the right conclusion, her rational mind should provide a substitute for everything she’s missing. All she needs is the right line of reasoning, the right argument, the right logic to turn the gears in her head the right way, and then…

(Challenge accepted.)

And then everything should be fine.

“So you said you like hotdogs,” he says. “How about we go out and get some hotdogs right now and talk more on the way?”

“That would be nice,” she says with evident satisfaction.

Well, this will be interesting, he thinks and reaches for his car keys.

Page last modified July 14 2017 at 16:44 GMT