Fan fiction: Butterflies

Hello, I was listening to a presentation by Michael Levin and I had an idea for PGTS fan fiction based on some of it. It’s set about the time of chapter 194. I am unsure of its quality. Like science fiction it might become outdated by advances in science that explain things not with “magic did it”, but that’s okay, the story’s setting’s knowledge is less advanced than 2024 Earth.

It’s mostly speculation in a PGTS context, presented as speculation. I think the speculation might be excessively long. I tried to keep the facts consistent with real science and PGTS science, though I’m not sure if the will splitting bit is accurate. I doubt I got the personalities quite right. I tried a little to match the British-American dialect in the story. The use of words more closely matches mine than Azalea’s.


Sebastien in a free period walked towards her spot in the menagerie to practice light refinement. On the way there, she had an awkward feeling on the back of her neck like she was being watched, but she avoided the urge to turn around. There was no way she knew how her neck could actually be able to sense people’s eyes. If she turned and saw no-one, she might forget about it, and only remember the times when she turned and saw someone. Or turning around might cause anyone behind her to look at or away from her. This did make her wonder how Liza’s divination ward made people ignore her, though.

The time of year had come when the air in the menagerie was thick with butterflies of various colors and patterns. As Sebastien began the light refinement spell, she also decided to practice splitting her will, by trying to focus on both the actions of the spell, and the sights around her. This was difficult given her lack of muscle memory, but she managed to watch the butterflies while drawing lines of golden light in the air and into her forehead.

‘That’s not how beams of light look, though,’ she thought to herself. The things in the air were lines that were emitting light. Perhaps this was a result of transmogrification drawing on people’s idea of what a line of light would look like. Perhaps her spell was inefficient and some of the light was escaping, or the lines being visible was important for it to count as drawing a glyph.

She watched the butterflies. It was the time of year when caterpillars had already eaten and grown, and emerged from cocoons as quite different-looking creatures. ‘A changeling like the seasons.’ What happened to their nervous systems when they transformed? How would a brain for controlling a wiggly caterpillar perform if it was transplanted into a fluttery butterfly? Did the organism keep the same brain through the metamorphosis, or was it broken down, and a new one made for the butterfly?

Sebastien was again getting concerned about how her transformation amulet worked, and her distraction made her fumble part of the light refinement, and the golden lines dissipated. She thought about what Thaddeus wrote about a spirit walking shaman possibly having a soul separate from the brain. ‘I should find out what happens to caterpillar brains.’

Having stopped the light refinement not long after beginning, Sebastien wheeled around to start marching towards the menagerie’s exit, startling two girls who had been standing among some of the plants behind her. The shorter one of them was looking quite rosy in the face. The taller one looked at the shorter one and gave her an unnecessarily hard pat on the back, which seemed to expel the word “Sorry!” from her. Why did people sometimes apologize for things that were hardly their fault? They seemed to have been far more startled by Sebastien than she had been by them. It was only their sudden reaction that had given Sebastien pause to look at them.

“It’s nothing, forget about it,” Sebastien answered.

The taller one raised her hands and said “We can keep it a secret if you like.”
Was she talking about the light refinement? The shorter one, not seeming able to meet Sebastien’s eye, stammered out “We just thought what you were doing was interesting and watched a bit”.
The taller one calmly said “We stalked you here,” which got her a look by the shorter one. The taller one then added “She fancies you.”

‘Fancies me? That could get awkward.’

The shorter one, having regained her composure, looked Sebastien in the eye and said “I just think you’re a really nice person.”

‘Oh, it turns out that’s all it was. She just thinks I’m a nice person.’ They briefly conversed about the light refinement Sebastien was doing, where she had to clarify that she didn’t need it kept a secret. During the conversation, there were four more instances of the taller one saying that the shorter one fancied Sebastien, and the shorter one clarifying that she thought Sebastien was a really nice person.

Having wrapped up the conversation, Sebastien continued towards the University library and found a book containing information on metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. It didn’t give as much detail as she wanted, vaguely telling her that a significant number of neurons in the pupa die, there’s restructuring of the brain, and new neurons grow. How did that work for souls, if they existed? Did the butterfly have the same soul it had as a caterpillar? Does the soul change as the brain is changed? From what Thaddeus had written, the Red Guard seemed not to be certain about souls.

Sebastien waited until after her next lesson with Professor Gnorrish to ask him about caterpillars, without mentioning her transformation amulet.

“Well,” Gnorrish said, stroking his chin, “we can hardly ask a butterfly what it remembers from when it was a caterpillar, and if any magic to that effect existed I expect it would likely be blood magic, but one sort of memory that’s easy to test is the fear of a certain smell. Caterpillars that learned to fear a certain smell will continue to fear it. If they learned to fear a smell when they were very young though, they don’t mind it once they hatch as butterflies. Whereas, if they learned to fear it as older caterpillars, then they generally do fear it as butterflies…”

‘Is the earlier caterpillar soul lost, but not the later caterpillar?’

“… and clever use of sympathetic divination shows that during its metamorphosis, it loses young but not old neurons in a certain region.”

‘So it could be about neurons.’

Professor Gnorrish continued, “Flatworms are interesting. You can cut its head from its tail - which doesn’t kill either half, because they both heal into full worms - and leave the tail half to grow a new head and brain over a little over a week. Moving about with its new brain, this worm can remember what the original worm learned about a link between tactile sensation and food.”

Frowning, Sebastien started rambling “So it’s possible that losing neurons makes a caterpillar lose memories, while losing the whole brain doesn’t necessarily make the worm lose all its memories. Does this work with souls, or is the memory in the tail? Can worm tails retain memories about smells as well as tactile feelings? When the worm’s cut in two, is the soul cut into two souls? Does only its brain have a soul, and not the tail? How do these things actually work? Could souls exist? Do worms have souls? What about microbes, or snowflakes?” ‘Do a simple animal’s thoughts affect transmogrification?’

Professor Gnorrish said “I don’t know the answers to those questions, unfortunately. I’m sure you’d make quite an inquisitive researcher one day, if you turned your hand to it.”

Were there glyphs for souls? How did the being behind the seal in her mind exist? Did it have neurons? A soul? Something else? Was it a soul bound to her brain or soul, using her own neurons to think, in which case if she was drunk, it would be too? What if she died? Did aberrants have brains? Did Nevile still exist? Assuming souls existed, how were they created, and what properties did they have? Did the soul access the memories in the brain, or the brain the memories in the soul? Were the memories redundantly in the brain, and the soul, and Magic? Did Magic store the thoughts of brains or souls? Were souls created in Magic by the brain’s act of thinking? What did a shaman’s brain do when spirit walking? Did the third empire do any experiments on removing and regrowing parts of people’s brains? Would divination show her brain looked any different as Sebastien from how it did as Siobahn? How did the red guard’s memory modifications work?

Professor Gnorrish said “Well, I’m sure this has given you a lot to think about. I have to be somewhere now, but if you can come up with some more questions, I’ll be available after our next lesson.”
Sebastien nodded and left the room heading to her next destination, still in thought. ‘People’s brains change size as their bodies grow, without the number of neurons increasing.’
“What are you thinking about, Sebastien?” asked Anastasia’s voice beside Sebastien.
Sebastien answered “Do you think souls exist?”
“I’m not sure,” Ana answered. “I don’t think it’s a topic that we’ve studied.”

“Assuming souls did exist,” said Sebastien, “What might they do? And what might happen to the soul if a caterpillar changed into a butterfly?” Sebastien remembered the frog Ana had mentioned, and deciding it was safe to mention without making anyone suspect she had an artifact that made her shape-shift, added “And what about the frog you were talking about?”

Ana’s eyes flickered, and she looked at Sebastien with shiny eyes and said “Oh, Sebastien,” patting her shoulder, as though offering sympathy.