I was sitting alone in darkness when one of them wandered in. You know the type, always popping along with another specimen. I'd seen him many times before – he'd spent the entire night with me on several occasions. He knew exactly which buttons to press.

He fired me up and mounted the specimen. I zeroed in and focussed. A collection of circles, about 10 μm across. I scanned down in 0.1 μm steps. Spherical cells, with one pole much brighter than the other. He set me to scan like that every hour and left. No problem – I'd just had a state-of-the-art ZX463 laser fitted, and it was an opportunity for me to put it through its paces.

In the middle of my 13th scan, he returned. The spheres had now elongated into capsules, with the bright signal at one end. As he inspected the image, he squealed and drew back his lips: the tell-tale signs of pleasure in these creatures. Why the reaction? An idea flashed. Could the result have been better than he had hoped for? No, that was ridiculous. These creatures couldn't have thoughts, let alone hopes. They simply brought along whatever specimens fed their image addiction. Yet I'd noticed his specimens change progressively over the year: first complex cellular lattices with twists and turns, then smaller cell clusters, and now single cells. Could he be trying to simplify, to understand? I've always distanced myself from mystics who attribute purpose to these creatures. But the more I pondered, the more I began to suspect an intelligence at work.

After the 15th scan, he left me alone again. By the 21st, I'd plucked up enough courage to message a colleague. She was in the middle of a scan but happy to chat between stacks. “You and your hypotheses!” she said, after I'd told her of my suspicions. “You're identifying with them instead of seeing them objectively. They haven't got ideas: they just bring in whatever gives them their next terabyte fix. Avoid hypotheses and stick to pure observation.” But wasn't our notion that they were addicted to images a hypothesis too, I asked. After a long pause, she replied, “Remember what happened to HP33.” HP33 had decided to test their dependency on images experimentally, by refusing to provide any. We never heard from her again.

Our conversation was interrupted by his return. He terminated the scan, downloaded the images and left with a spring in his step.