(SciFi story treatment, 1150 words)
Many aeons ago, an advanced alien civilization began a vast and ambitious program to seed intelligent life across the universe. This noble project saw much success in the distant regions of the heavens, and had some setbacks here and there as well.
The program featured a two-prong approach to the seeding process. On lifeless planets that met the basic requirements, they initiated the new life forms with a protoplasm matrix called Betagen. In locales which featured animal life that met the much more stringent requirements, they inoculated the animals themselves with the matrix Alphagen. The two protogens were basically the same structurally, but each with a different establishing interface. Alphagen was rarely used, as the appropriate life form vessels were quite rare themselves, and the delivery system had to be custom designed for each species. Its overall design was accordingly much less well tested.
At some point, program scouts discovered a small, vibrant, blue-green planet they called M1 which featured a fairly advance animal form that much excited the engineers who oversaw the project. Among the vast variety of types, the planet featured some bipedal mammals with budding brain forms that very much fit the bill. The creatures were rather fragile and vulnerable to the many predators they shared the surface with, but they were bright and clever and were holding their own. Projections showed potential domination of the environment in a scant few hundred thousand solar cycles.
So the program was launched on M1 with a fair amount of optimism. The Alphagen matrix leveraged the evolutionary profile of the subjects themselves meaning the proto-genetic symbiots would not emerge as conscious beings for a long time. Once matured, the matrix would achieve self awareness and exert control over the nervous system of the host, using it then as a sort of borrowed body. The matrix possessed no body plan of its own. Host bodies would benefit enormously from the new controlling consciousness which was an order of magnitude more advanced than ordinary evolution could hope to accomplish. For them it would be like taking a smart pill and suddenly entering an unimaginable and god-like realm of awareness.
By the time of the Ninth Program Review things had taken a very wrong turn. The hosts had developed nicely, dominating the planet as predicted, and had even achieved rudimentary space travel. But they also exhibited problematic behaviors which threatened the success of the program. Similar problems had been encountered on projects in other galaxies, but this time it was trickier.
After several hundred thousand years, the host bodies had developed a much needed immunity mechanism to ward off disease which unfortunately had detected the presence of the matrix and targeted it as enemy cells. Still intellectually inert at this time, the matrix had no recourse but to fall back on one of its programmed defense routines. It met the attack by invading neighboring cells and triggering uncontrolled cell replication which, if the immune response failed to check, would disable critical body systems and result in death of the host. Otherwise, the agent would be terminated by the immune response. Either way, the program was facing catastrophic failure. The hosts, having achieved an impressive understanding of their own body plan, began to study this confusing disease with a great deal of interest.
They called it ‘cancer’ and it was responded to as a real threat. They developed treatments and then treatments for the side effects of the treatments, and sought to eradicate this widespread health menace. As an industry sprung up around the fight against cancer, it occurred to some at the administrative level that successful eradication of cancer would deflate a large and profitable industry. They quietly planned to sabotage eradication efforts and save the industry by keeping focus on the profitable treatment side.
This was the first sign of the planted agent’s critical emergence of self awareness and was the subject of the program’s Tenth Review. Evidence of matrix control of host nervous systems was presented to the program engineers with much fanfare. Things were starting to turn around. Host administrators were beginning to fight back against the researchers intent on destroying the entire life seeding project, which they misunderstood to be a disease when the real problem was an errant immune response.
Intrigue among infected hosts at this stage of the development was an expected side effect of critical emergence. The first batch of hosts to succumb to matrix control were often identified as dangerous to the surrounding culture and dealt with harshly. So it was very fortunate that these were ruling class hosts who were themselves a kind of controlling agent within the species. The program engineers were pleased to say the least.
But they were not out of the woods yet. Creatures with advanced brains but little experience with the universe at large were capable of lurching and lunging in wildly destructive directions. An advanced civilization had never reached that stage without a few brushes with catastrophic error.
So the little blue-green planet was facing the big test. To the neighboring galaxies that still allowed gambling, this was like a Superbowl.
In the case of complete program failure the species would be marked for destruction. It was bad practice to leave bits of Alphagenic material laying around. Mutant variants infecting non-targeted species never worked out well for anyone. What happened in the star cluster Zedklap-9 was so severe that no one would even speak its name. A galactic pandemic that nearly spread to the civilized universe. They call it “the z-word” if they must refer to it at all.
This treatment is a bit of world-building which could form a basis for a SciFi adventure (book/film). I acknowledge borrowings and similarities as follows: Betagen is based on the Genesis Project from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, obviously, while Alphagen borrows from the basic idea in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but is mainly inspired by the fungi which infects carpenter ants and controls their behavior, which is an actual thing. There’s something of the backstory to the Alien saga in this too. The idea of gambling on the outcome of a species’ evolution strikes me as a Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy kind of thing. Do advanced civilizations have vices? If anyone could hazard a guess, it would be Douglas.
Also, the idea that consciousness emerges from a material/biological source is contrary to my Buddhist world view, which dismisses that as a wrong answer to an unimportant question. If you have read this blog long enough you know this already.
This was a middle-of-the-night idea that I scribbled out in the morning, (what if cancer turned out to be something else altogether?) and later polished up a little bit. I have no intention of developing a story from it, I don’t like SciFi all that much.