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May 26, 2020 1:27 PM
mad scientists make friends

If any of the thirty grad schools she'd applied to had accepted her, she'd be attending the Joint Mathematics Meetings right now.

Instead, she's skimming a much stranger program of talks.

Harnessing parasitic worm enhancements
     (Henry Carlson)

The plurality pandemic
     (Hamza Aarons)

Reshaping superhumans
(Derek Ericson)

Long-term psychological existential risks
     (Steven Shoemaker)

Promoting suffering
     (Horace Oskar)

Future geological revolutions
     (Sharla Rosenberg)

Using evidence for smart impact planning
     (Peter Wainwright)

Personhood initiatives
    (John Tyler)

From agitator to innovator
     (Fred Brooks)

Incubation grants
     (Holly Atherton)

Traps, and how to avoid them
     (Penny Green)

Your personal autopilot
     (Ronald Lafayette)

Holy grail: a pipe dream?
     (Alex Cargill)

Invent evil to do more good?
     (Hildebrande Hauk)

Multiverse-wide cooperation
(Esther Caspar)

Celebrating failed projects
(Michael Vance)

Lunar colony
     (Marshall Williams)

...and that's the first page.


The second page isn't any less weird.

Camilla spends fifteen minutes perched on a folding chair circling the most promising names (and a couple which she just can't restrain her curiosity about), and then heads off to room 204 for "reshaping superhumans."

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Most of the seats are full, by now. The room is full of quiet chatter, punctuated by the occasional exclamation of excitement or outrage.

The row at the very back has only two occupants – one is a young woman hunched over a notebook, sketching, wearing a look of deep and total concentration.


The other is a man, about her age.

At least – it looks like a man, at first glance, until you notice the odd and bloodless cast of its countenance, the delicate stitches running around its neck and across its face.

It's alternately watching over her shoulder and scanning the room carefully, eyes locking on each of the assembled scientists in turn.


...the only other open seats are in the front row. And she's heard stories about things getting exciting in the Q&A sessions, here. Camilla would really prefer to be able to duck out if she needs to.


She's sat next to weirder people at math conferences.

"Is anyone sitting here?" she asks the -- man, she's just going with man -- indicating the empty seats in the back row.


He blinks.

", there's no one."


She doesn't appear to have heard anything.


"Thanks," and she slides into the far end of the row, pulls out her notebook, doodles fractals while she waits for the talk to start.


Eventually, the talk begins, and the noise of the crowd quiets to a whisper.

The man at the front of the room paces back and forth, adjusting his top hat every other sentence, explaining the finer points of a specific technique of clamping and splinting he's used to control supernumerary limb growth in his latest project, an uncomfortable four-armed woman standing on a box behind him.

The woman in Camilla's row takes down the occasional short sequence of words in the margin of her book, but seems not to be paying especially close attention.


It's not a very good talk.

Okay, the presentation is terrible, but that's not the worst of it. The hat is more of a monstrosity than the woman who's being presented, but she could forgive that.

But the man has never heard of control groups. He has absolutely no reason to reject the null hypothesis. He barely even has a case study -- he admits that he changed his experimental procedure halfway through because it wasn't getting the results he wanted -- in a just world he would be laughed out of the room.

Camilla manages to keep her hands in her lap and her mouth shut. She doesn't quite manage to restrain the occasional eyeroll, but she's in the back, no one's going to notice that.


The construct scoffs, very quietly, as the presenter makes his closing claims about the future of human experimentation.


The moment the facilitator opens the floor to questions, Camilla's hand is in the air. There are two or three polite questions before the presenter takes hers.

"Was she -- hi, ma'am, didn't catch your name -- was she your only experimental subject, or was there a control group you didn't mention?"


"–Well, no, she's not my first subject. I've treated others in the past with inferior techniques."


"...and how many arms did they end up with?"


"Of course it varies by the subject, the specific reagents used in catalyzing the transformation..."


"...then how on earth do you know if this one worked at all," she asks, exasperated.


"By observing the limb buds, performing a – excuse me, but do you have the slightest experience in physiology?"


She scribbles anxious zigzags across her notebook paper, pretending to take notes.

"--that's not the point -- did you, did you compare with people who had -- similar limb buds or whatever--"

Her pencil snaps in her hand.


An older man with a mechanical brace on his arm interrupts from the sidelines, looking faintly exhausted.

"Miss, if you would please save further questions for after Mr. Ericson's presentation."


"--yeah. Of course. Sorry."



She waits, biting her lip, until two more questions have been asked and answered, before she pretends to look at her watch and ducks quietly out. Hopefully that's enough to avoid looking like she's storming off in a huff.

The conference is a bit short on hidden nooks for crying in, not having been designed with that in mind. She ends up curled up halfway behind a large potted plant, nose in a book for halfhearted camouflage.


Presently, there's a trickle of attendees flowing out of the ballroom in various directions.

One of them changes course quite abruptly.

She approaches and leans down, without any particular show of sympathy, as if this is an entirely normal place to be sitting.

"Radial compression for budding limbs causes traumatic muscle detachment."


" least, the way he does it."


"--I don't, I'm sorry -- I'm not actually a biologist, I should have just kept my mouth shut, sorry..."

She's focusing very hard on trying to fit the broken halves of her pencil back together.



She sits down.

"You were right."




"It ... was still probably a dumb argument to try to have. But thank you."


“There used to be more arguments at this conference. When it was smaller.”


"'ve been coming for a long time, then?"


“Since the first one.”

This is the 20th annual meeting of this particular conference — maybe she’s older than she looks?

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