Atrocious grammar aside, there are lots of things that writers can do with worms. Two webcomics that I’ve read, Awful Hospital and Feast for a King, are excellent examples of that. In fact, the latter gave me an idea, which I will discuss shortly. Before I discuss fictional worms, however, I’d like to tell you a bit about some real-life worms. If you are at all squeamish, now is the time to leave.
Planaria (singular “planarian”) are staples of biology lab, I’m told (I never took bio lab, I was a chem major before switching to engineering). These benign (i.e. non-parasitic) flatworms have remarkable regenerative capability, able to regrow themselves no matter what part has been severed. The most well-known example of this, however, is that, when the worm’s head is sliced down the middle, it will grow two heads. The reason for this is that a lateral nerve runs round the worm’s entire perimeter, and as long as part of it is left intact, it can regenerate a whole new worm. Starfish share this trait as well, believe it or not; starfish have ring-shaped brains, and if part of it is contained within a severed arm, that arm will grow a new starfish. Generally, “simpler” organisms have much greater regenerative capabilities than “more evolved” organisms. By the way, I use quotation marks here because, in the context of biology, “more evolved” simply means “more differentiated from its ancestor than its sister clades.” I’ve gone on entire rants on this subject before, and I’m tired of repeating myself; leaves on a tree, not rungs on a ladder. Anyway, planaria: they are fascinating critters, and they would probably make great additions to a fish tank, if only they weren’t so bloody small.
Between Feast for a King and the real world, I’ve gotten some strange ideas for a continuation of The Nine Empires. You may not know this (and probably don’t care, anyway), but The Nine Empires was originally meant to be lore, not the main story. The main story was supposed to be futuristic SF called “Integral,” after the ship that plays a central role in the story (which is, itself, a reference). I fully plan to go back to it eventually, but steampunk interests me much more. That being said, I still occasionally make models for it, such as this monstrosity:
I’ll explain what this is later – maybe. Anyway, I could have very easily put this post into the “Strange Creatures of Varanganska,” but there were too many other things I wanted to mention. Without further ado, I give you empath worms!
As their name suggests, empath worms are extremely sensitive to the emotions of other creatures. Though simple in their physical makeup, the reactions to the brain-waves of intelligent vertebrates, combined with their biological immortality, results in these worms undergoing some rather interesting metamorphoses throughout their lives. In the wild, they usually don’t live long enough to transform into anything interesting, as they are quite low on the food chain, but in the laboratory, they can pick up on neural signals and learn to mess with scientists studying them.
Like planaria, empath worms are capable of remarkable regeneration. Furthermore, there does not seem to be any limit to what sort of body shape they can control. One specimen, for instance, was sliced lengthwise four times, being allowed to regenerate in between slices, and grew into a hand-shaped worm. This “worm-hand” found that, when it gripped a similarly-shaped object, it received positive reinforcement in the form of telltale oxytocin release in a nearby organism. The researcher was “holding hands” with a worm, and the worm fed off the feeling. Further tests with the “worm-hands” revealed that they could eventually learn to tell the difference between a real hand and a fake one, as the lack of actual touch produced no chemical reaction from the fake hand. Because empath worms have very simple nervous systems, it takes a very long time for them to make the necessary associations between certain stimuli and the electrochemical feedback. Nonetheless, since they are biologically immortal, they can continue learning about new stimuli and generating new neural connections forever. As long as someone is willing to study them, a single worm can be the research subject of several generations of scientists.
Laboratory conditions resulted in these worms not only transforming, but also mutating so that they were no longer the same creature. Effectively, they were evolving into more complex organisms without actually having to produce successive generations. That being said, when they were bred, depending on how much they had genetically altered themselves, the worms could produce anything from an organism indistinguishable from a natural worm, all the way up to a perfect replica of themselves. Research with the worms reached an entirely new level, as creatures that were biologically worms began to look and act like entirely different animals. At first, it was the worm-hand, which was still a worm, with no structural or genetic changes. Before long, they became rubbery urchin-like creatures that rolled around, looking for attention. These rubber urchins also knew the difference between the researchers who sliced them up and those who simply observed, and would shun the former. There was, however, the occasional scientist that the worms simply refused to acknowledge. Scientists that the worms didn’t respond to, were, without exception, chuyinka. This is because chuyinka spend most of their time in a transformed state that suppresses their emotions almost to the point of nonexistence. Therefore, their brains don’t emit any signal that the worms would recognise. This wasn’t seen as pertinent at first, but it eventually became a rather important piece of information.
It wasn’t long before the worms began to figure out how to change their shape on their own, absorbing some appendages and making others grow larger. The metamorphosis was slow at first, but it got exponentially faster as the worms learned more. Before long, the worms began growing proper legs, and they transformed from urchins to sea-cucumbers. It wasn’t long after that the worms began to grow proper eyes as well. In their natural state, the worm possesses simple eyespots, which can discern light from dark only. However, those eyespots began to dish slightly, then more and more, and finally becoming pinhole eyes. Still, even with the specialisation of their own tissues for the purpose of enhancing their senses, they couldn’t perceive the chuyinka; after all, their primary method of recognising another organism was still empathic, not visual or auditory. Oddly enough, while most scientists were dismissive of this phenomenon having any disturbing ramifications, the chuyinka disagreed. Call it bias, but given that the chuyinka themselves were all shapeshifting descendants of genetically engineered creatures, they probably knew, better than anyone else, what might come of further experimentation with empath worms.
During the Age of Decay, which immediately followed the Golden Age of chuyinka society, the population sharply declined as Varanganska began to die and natural resources on the planet quickly disappeared. Many of the best universities were located in the flying cities and orbiting platforms, along with the research laboratories where the empath worms resided. However, though the declining population barely affected the function of the cities themselves, as they were highly automated, there were fewer and fewer actual residents, scientists included. However, one orbiting platform seemed to be fine, with a booming population. Yet, when chuyinka administrators visited the platform to see what was going on, they found that they were ignored completely, as if they were completely invisible to most of the thousands of residents. You can probably guess why. The worms had learned a degree of shapeshifting, and could take virtually any humanoid form of their own size – and the larger ones had grown skeletons by this time, in order to support their greater mass. However, they were still worms, biologically speaking.
If you’re expecting a big conflict between the chuyinka and the worms, I’m afraid that I must disappoint. See, the chuyinka were pleasantly surprised about this development, and made their own tweak – they replaced the empath gene with a telepath gene that psychically linked each clone batch of worms to the chuyinka who ordered them. Yes, they began cloning worms in order to breed armies. Mind you, I didn’t come up with this idea until well after I had already outlined and started writing Integral, so this development basically scraps the entire premise of the story. Luckily for me, I don’t have to worry about the fact that I’m making this up as I go, because this isn’t the story I’m working on at the moment – remember, the Golden Age begins 1000 years after the events of the Nine Empires. And yes, those are still Varanganskan years, i.e. 6600 Earth years.
So, first thought: webcomics are fun. Second thought: worms are cool; disgusting to some, but still cool. Third thought: I can’t help but notice that the progression of my starship designs matches my change in choice of entertainment, from FFIX to SC to SW to 40K. Fourth thought: empath worms are, possibly, the weirdest idea I’ve ever had. Fifth and final thought: I’m wasting my time with all of this.