You persistently try to find meaning in a universe apathetic to your attempts. In case you’re reading my story and persistently puzzled by the frequent, out-of-place burning numbers, however, feel inclined to look up “Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning,” as well the criticisms which note that the stages may be circumstantial modes of reasoning—not modes we progress through as we grow. If you aren’t bothered by the numbers, feel inclined not look this up, and feel proud that you possess the ideal soul in your improbably absurd slice of reality.
A nanoscopic “7” burns somewhere as the sack of semi-conscious tissue and nerves that self-identifies as “he” begins to feel warm sensations in its appendages. He blinks, brushing away a blanket with a cool, half-numb hand. He rubs it. The hand is just numb enough to feel like it’s made of leftover chicken. He still rubs it. There’s funky twitching in his armpit as more blood flows, and he can feel his hand finally heating up.
He looks at a clock: it’s a green blur that he guesses reads “8 or something.” He scoots forward in his bed, rocking it. He doesn’t even think about waking his roommate as he climbs down the bed’s frame. A sweet percussion song that’s sung by a girl for some reason, For the Damaged Coda, is playing somewhere in his temporal lobe as he crosses the room. He almost forgets that it’s only in his mind.
He gets his bathroom stuff and showers and all that. He assumes he’s using free will as he nods his head to the sick beat while his cerebellum uses habit to drum along with literally all his movements: hanging his towel, twisting the shower 3⁄4 on before twisting down some and notching quickly back to the perfect heat. His basal ganglia are lazy: his hands twitch awkwardly as he finds the right temperature. The heat is heavenly and the water hypnotizing until he remembers that today is the day he should text his friends.
A picoscopic “3” burns somewhere as his limbic system lights up and an array of thoughts appear which look something like this: [“Do they still like me, even though I haven’t texted in two weeks?”; “I’m Fredrick Wilson, the Debate Captain!”; “Why would they care? I’m boring. We only talk about school and our dreams and that runs low fast; without board games, at least.”] He gets out of the annoying, hot, tickling shower, goes to his room, picks an outfit out of the dirty clothes hamper like a privileged heterosexual college student, grabs his backpack, and leaves. His roommate is still sleeping.
The elevator door opens, and as he steps into it he thinks of going to breakfast and one of the empty classrooms and texting everyone he cares about “hey, what’s new with you? How’s school/work-because-his-parents-don’t-go-to-school?” Then he has the genius idea of texting them now, “so I can give them time to respond as I eat breakfast!” He does. While texting, he realizes it’s eleven, and is glad his meal plan won’t cost extra this week.
He doesn’t remember he has a date with a girl for dinner and a movie tonight.
When the elevator door opens, he transforms into an upright human centipede whose waddling butt is still in the elevator; whose stumbling legs reach across campus, into the cafeteria where they spiral around a seat like an amazing ball of yarn knotted together by a three-year-old, and that shoots off to that room he thought about and wraps itself throughout the room like a pile of spaghetti anxiously, awkwardly texting and waiting to be texted while pretending to do homework that’s no less done within three hours; whose head is sitting in a desk about to tap its head.
He taps his head. “What am I doing?” he thinks. He remembers the three pillars of writing: cognitive ease, that the tendency is to write what makes sense; novelty, that the tendency is to write in both creative, unexpected ways that hook the reader; “aha moments,” that the tendency is to use the other pillars to lead the reader towards epiphanies, which are so addicting they can change all the pointless ways the reader was going to act and think into new, equally pointless ways.
A microscopic “6” burns somewhere as the pillars’ chunking device makes his frontal lobe spit the heuristic, “well, writing resolves Mental Set and Apathy by producing neurotrophic growth hormones in my dopamine tracts—at least that’s something.” He actually reads one of his homework assignments and thinks about it and writes it and rewrites it and eventually makes it easy to read and just novel enough that the professor will like it without being so insightful she feels threatened or skeptical of it. Just as he finishes, he remembers that he needs to make a bibliography.
A yellow “1” burns somewhere as he realizes his teacher will give him a bad grade and his parents and future coworkers and future versions of himself will make him feel bad if he flakes out now. He furrows his brows as he pulls together the rules for the MLA-8 and cites his single source.
He remembers he has a date at 6 tonight with a girl for dinner and a movie. He looks at his Fitbit: its 5:19 and he’s only walked 3,210 steps. He frowns as his hippocampus activates an image of himself and his Mom talking, vowing, to reach 10,000 every day.
He transforms into a centipede that spirals around campus, whose thousands of heads are looking at sky and trees and whose hands are in their pockets. The centipedes’ head exists at 6:01, where it’s standing near the cafeteria and looking at its date.
“Hello Grace. How are, uh, things? What’s, you know, new and stuff?” They’re walking towards the cafeteria, talking about stuff neither of them will remember two decades from now, smiling. One of them laughs. The two become centipedes, curling on each other in an intricate dance about the cafeteria’s buffet.
“Do you mind eating in the little café downstairs? All these people are stressing me out.” There are hundreds of people in the cafeteria.
“Yeah, sure. Why stressful?”
“I have agoraphobia, so I get really stressed when I don’t have a way out.”
“That must be stressful.”
“Just leaving my dorm is hard. Thanks for agreeing to go downstairs; I know it doesn’t make any sense.”
He’s just an agreeable person that doesn’t have a static psychological conception of how people ought and ought not to act, so he says, “No, I mean, it makes sense.”
There’s a white “5” burning in front of a clock near them, and as he glances at it he forgets literally everything and can’t feel anything. Warmth rushes back to his body and he remembers who he is: someone standing in a cafeteria, listening to a girl saying, “Really?” and himself responding, “Sure, why not?”
“It’s just, I’ve had people, friends really, obviously they aren’t anymore, tell me I’m just too much and not worth their time.”
“Family too, my brother acted that way.”
“He doesn’t anymore: I called him the other day crying and asking him to forgive me for everything I’ve done, but he just sorta said, no, its water under the bridge. Don’t worry about it.’”
“That’s good. You wanna sit here?”
“Huh? Oh sure. I love my classes though. In Positive Psych I was freaking out, because, you know, there’s only one door and no windows, but then he taught me about growth vs. static mindset and I realized, you know, I’ve had a pretty static mindset, but I can change; I can grow. That’s the whole point of neuroplasticity.”
“Speaking of that, and fear, I heard there’s this drug that can, like, cure phobias.”
They stare at each other in silence, neither smiling. Suddenly she smiles. “Are you joking with me, or… what?”
“No, I mean, I know I’m very good at my deadpan jokes, but no.”
“Yeah, my professor called it…” he forgot what adrenergic antagonists are called.
“Something. But you just remember whatever freaks you out, think about it, take the pill, go sleep, and the next day the phobia is gone.”
“Yeah, so, I just thought I’d say that.”
They turn into another pair of centipedes who reach from the café to the movie theater one floor below. In seats they both watch the “Secret Life of Pets,” and he constantly either remembers Louis C.K. doing two minutes of stand-up that made him laugh more than the entire film or thinks about keeping his hands and feet from touching hers, because they’re constantly almost touching his, like itchy little spiders. Those two centipedes’ abdomens sit in that particular spot in space-time for eternity, but their heads are outside the entrance to his dorm building.
“What time is it?” She shows him her phone. “It’s only 9! The movie was way shorter this time!” A black “3” is smoking fumes a meter above where they stand, and his body goes numb and forgets everything before feeling returns and he remembers where he is and who he’s with. His limbic system has already decided that they’re only getting dinner and a movie, and that now he needs to play video games until his roommate starts getting ready for bed. His cerebral cortex is too lazy to bother explaining this decision, so he just stands there, hands in his pockets, looking at her.
She smiles. “Ok.” She reaches out her arms, and latent social-modeling memory tells him to do the same. They hug. He steps back again, hands still in his pockets as he watches her.
She frowns and says, “What are you, why are you just…”
“Oh! Right. Good-bye. Sorry, I’m not good at things.” Now he’s walking away from her, and her from him.
The awkwardness makes his neck itch, and the thought that, in pointing out his awkwardness, she “got him good, well played, well played” legitimately crosses his mind, even if only like a spider scurrying across the surface. As he moves towards the elevator he asks why he’s dating her, and answers that they were just going out to dinner because he had nothing better to do, but had moved to movies because someone else standing in the room mentioned a movie and he somehow got politely roped into dinner and a movie with the girl.
He asks himself why he doesn’t want to date her, and his limbic system basically responds with clicking sounds that feel like fear and disgust. His cerebral cortex makes sense of these sounds by recalling that his older cousin married someone with mental problems, and now his family talks shit behind their back about how awful their marriage and their fights are. They’re especially worried for their two daughters, who are super cute but might be traumatized for life.
They were, because epigenetics are a thing. Being traumatized as a kid changes your genes and makes literally everything more stressful than it needs to be.
His cerebral cortex also makes a horseshit comparison of Grace to prototypes of what a “girlfriend” is. Grace was literally 2.1 standard deviations from it. He ignores the thought, but if he was 1/10 of even a level five person he’d have squashed it like the spider it was.
He opens his computer and stares at it. He looks out the window, and is surprised to see 3⁄4 of the sky filled with an enormous purple face, whose protruding tongue dangles between steel grey clouds like moist, sweaty pink whale. He’s about to ask what the heck it is when he remembers the ten million times he’s seen it floating in the sky, even since he first remembered the sky. He’d taken science classes that taught all the different micro-expressions it made, and at which time of the day, and why. He watches it closely, watching its tongue wriggle so slightly it would have been imperceptible had he not known how to watch it. He smiles, remembering the black and white video of Louie Armstrong and Buzz Lightyear landing on that celestial visage, planting a flag in its cornea as they read a prewritten speech about the value of our collective struggles to communicate and work with each other, even in the apparently absurd meaninglessness in which we stand.
He’s opening his eyes, glancing about the white and black sphere as feeling returns to his arms. He remembers that he’s from a time when it’s possible to download the memories of those who died hundreds of years ago. He notices a clock on the side of the tiny pod, and remembers that he has to go to work soon. He decides to live just one more life—he picks a quick one, just a tiny section of an Identity that barely had the opportunity to develop.
He could have chosen to have an active role in the memories; to manipulate and analyze his reality through a dozen different lenses, gathering insight from the manner the memories were portrayed. He can choose to do so now. But even five seconds before he makes his decision, someone with even a primitive fMRI would have known he’d chose to let everything just flow in, raw and unfiltered.
He clicks a button. Four stories below, a cylinder of snotty DNA strands has a needle slowly retracting out of it. The needle moves in a circle and up a level, before finding the appropriate cylinder and stabbing. The DNA cylinder gets filled with synthetic RNA nanobots that begin transcribing data and bringing it back to the needle. There, they’d be spun together into a connectome whose stories were desperately linked up with the “Kohlberg-Haidt Universal Narrative Genome.” Those bugs created bugs, of course; errors in the code that let unrelated but occasionally self-destructive crap get through. The pathetic humans’ prefrontal cortex would smooth over even those, however, to continue to create the illusion that it has a single, continuous identity. He’s leaning back and closing his eyes when his finger accidentally flips a switch, and two-dozen needles emerge from their compartments, each stabbing another cylinder. If he existed in a primitive culture whose inhabitants were unaware that their reality was an eleven dimensional multiverse in quantum scales (from quarks to quasars) physically impossible for their gelatinous organs to comprehend, he probably would have had a seizure. But his culture threw sanity to the wind, just plowing through reality with bio psychosocial moral reasoning and a bad sense of humor, so he didn’t.
He’s looking at a girl looking at him as the coaches’ words, “find a debate partner” echoes in both their ears. He shrugs, because she’s a friend of a friend, and then they’re holding a trophy as he secretly wishes he earned better “speaker points” than she did, then watching her speak as he stutters, frowns, and looks away and prays she makes arguments only moments before she does. They’re hugging, and she’s telling him she’s choosing theater over debate, but that they should “stay in touch.” She talks to him at a party with dyed hair and shows him her tattoo of the neurotransmitter serotonin, “the happiness neurotransmitter,” because before she’d get blackout drunk at all the college parties she was the “happy-go-lucky theater girl,” and she wanted to remind herself of it.
She’s watching him and the theater girl standing with their trophies, smiling, and then she’s telling him that the key to winning is to make your points quick and get out fast. She’s debating with him, just to see if they’ll be a good team now that his partner left, and then he’s driving her home as she’s telling him about her parent’s divorce because he seems so nice and quiet and smart. She mentions her ex-boyfriend being needy and calling her even as she remembers he was there when her ex-boyfriend did so; when she’d responded by putting that loser on speaker while hiding laugher. She doesn’t realize she’s talking to someone she barely knows as she tells the sweet smart quiet kid “I wish my ex and I hadn’t… I just felt so dirty after we did it and…” Freddy’s arms turn into rods as his eyes drill holes in the streets ahead of him. They walk past each other without speaking 29 times those next three years. She constantly runs down the dozens of younger debaters and smiles and chats with them as he watches with a scowl. She stands up when the high school Captainship results are announced, and he’s still scowling.
She’s watching her stand as Captains are announced, and she thinks, “Oh, my poor baby.” She’s driving him home as he stares holes in the road ahead when memories rearrange themselves and she says, “You know, my pastor told me ‘There’s no such thing as quality time without quantity time.’ What he meant was that you need to do lots of boring stuff with people, like debate, I suppose, but any activity really, in order to make relationships come out of them.” He looks at her with an expression like a ghost, and she realizes how few nuggets of wisdom she has for him.
She’s writing on a board as she tells him they’re in college now, and people are busy. He shouldn’t worry if the two of them are literally the only people on the debate team, because that makes them captains. He has an expression like a ghost, and she realizes that she barely even knows this kid’s name and their entire team—club really—is going to die with them. Grace walks in the room, and mentions something which leads to someone talking about the new Avengers movie and he says he wants to see it and Grace says she wants to too and they look at each other and say “Sure, ok.”
He walks along the ceiling, hands in his pockets, as he listens to the older boy tell him about his old partner and the first trophy they won together. He sees a section of the older boys’ centipede that joins a debate team in college that he accidently runs into the ground. He scratches his first bits of peach fuzz while deciding not to tell him, so they can enjoy their moments as partners together. He’s standing in front of a crowd, scratching his long red beard, as he gasps and tells his congregation of summer-camp debaters that, “If you tell yourself you do this activity for the leadership opportunities and trophies, it’ll chew you up and spit you out.” He’s about to tell them how to use the newest advances in neuroscience and social psychology combined with Kantian comprehensions of the innate way we gather and make sense of experience so they may avoid self-alienation, but that’s the moment he’s disintegrated by an alien assassin’s laser-phaser.
He opens his eyes as gasps of heat and light pump through his arms. A clock is flashing behind his head, all numbers lit and singing. He rubs his eyes and opens the pod to discover reality is still clicking away, and he’s late for work.