Thu
Nov 12 2009 5:58pm

Neuropath, Chapter Four (Excerpt)

Scott Bakker

The following is the fourth chapter in R. Scott Bakker’s book Neuropath, out now from Tor Books. You can also read chapters one, two, and three if you missed them!

FOUR
August 17th, 11:56 a.m.


Questions. Questions like wasps at the beach, nagging, threatening, never really stinging. What was taking them so long? Why was she touching his knee? What kind of thing was that to say? Of course he’d worried about Neil and Nora on occasion, but he had always decided to err on the side of trust. Trust.

And now look at him: stung beyond sensation.

Agent Logan followed him back to his house so that he could drop off his car. Now he sat in her Mustang, numb in more ways he would have thought possible. At an intersection a wool-haired kid with a squeegee cleaned her windshield, and Thomas found himself comforted by the sight of her rummaging through her purse for loose change. He even smiled at her gentle curses.

“Why you?” he asked after she had handed the kid several dimes and quarters.

“Pardon?”

“Why send you after me?”

“The boss thought I was your kind of people.”

“And what kind is that?”

“Honest,” she said with a wry smile. She looked away to make her left turn. “Honest and confused.”

 

The bar was local, the kind of place that depended on the ebb and flow of the workday as much as the regularity of blacked-out sporting events. A TGIF, or something similar— Thomas literally couldn’t remember. They paused at the entrance so that Sam could slip a five-dollar bill into a plastic Salvation Army donation bubble. Inside, one waitress stood at a faux-antique till, chatting with a woman who looked like the manager. It was completely deserted otherwise. Thomas followed Agent Logan to a front booth, feeling like an intruder despite all the signs of heavy human traffic. Compared to the sunny clamor of the street, the place seemed like a cave with dropped ceilings. It smelled of beer and sour cushions.

“So what happened back there?” Agent Logan asked, propping her elbows on their table.

Through the tinted window to her right, a parade of consumers marched along the sidewalk. A middle-class soccer mom. A brown-suited sales rep. A working-class New Jersey Devils fan. And on and on.

Thomas pretended to be interested in them as he spoke. “You know, I still remember what Neil told me at our wedding reception. He pulled me aside and pointed to Nora—she was dancing with her father, I think. ‘Now that,’ he said, ‘is a fine piece of tail, my friend.’ ” Thomas ran a hand over his face and stared across the bar’s murky expanse. His laugh was pained. “He was speaking from experience, I guess.”

When he closed his eyes he could see them together. Neil and Nora.

Agent Logan studied him for a moment, her eyes wide and full of sympathy. “You know, Professor Bible, the systematic deception of intimates is a red flag for—”

“No,” Thomas exclaimed. “Please… spare me your FBI profiling crap. You know who I am, what I do. There’s no need to insult me with half- remembered course notes from Quantico.”

Agent Logan turned her face to the window, her expression unreadable.

Thomas excused himself to make a call on his palmtop. He turned to watch Agent Logan from the middle of the abandoned dance floor. She stared out the window, the very picture of impatience and ambition—and all the more striking for it. Listening to the ring in the receiver, Thomas found himself wondering whether she had a significant other. Careerists tended to stay single—

“Hyu,” a rough voice answered.

“Hi, Mia,” Thomas said.

“Tommy, Jeeezus. I’ve been trying to reach you!”

A host of parental instincts came clutching. “Phone was off. Why? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, really. It’s just that Nora called and said she was coming to get the kids.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That I needed to talk to you first, and that I would call her back after.”

He heard Frankie shouting “Daddy-Daddy-Daddeee!” in the background. He imagined Ripley sitting by Mia’s picture window, coloring, then an image of Cynthia Powski blotted her out. “Forget she even called.”

“You sure? She sounded all weirded out on the phone. Wasn’t she supposed to be in San Francisco?”

“She was. It turns out she was fucking an old friend instead.” So easily spoken.

“Oh… ”

“I have to go, Mia.”

“Are you okay, Tommy?”

“Can’t talk now, Mia.”

He clicked the palmtop shut, slipped it into his blazer pocket. When he glanced up Agent Logan was watching him, her smile the sad smile of those stranded at the perimeter of painful events. “Just had to check up on the kids,” he explained as he slid back into the booth.

Samantha smiled. “Beautiful kids.”

He looked at her sharply.

“You need to ease up on the paranoia, Professor Bible. I followed you from Columbia, remember? I saw them on your neighbor’s porch. Like I said, beautiful kids.”

Thomas scratched the back of his neck. “Forgot about that. Why did you follow me, anyway?”

“I was desperate. Desperate for leads. I wanted to tell you, by the way, that I loved how you dealt with us in your office.” She laughed. “Showing you the BD like that was a mistake. I told Shelley she’d regret it.”

“Agent Atta strikes me as a hard-ass.”

Samantha shrugged. “She has to be. Not easy being an Arab-American woman in the FBI… ” She trailed to take a healthy swig of beer, then with a guilty grin added, “My dad used to say the only thing worse than a bitch who’s got you wrong is a bitch who’s got you right. That’s Atta. Always a bitch. Usually right.”

Thomas laughed. Either Samantha Logan was real people or she was trying to present herself as such. Was this a tactic of some kind?

“Are you always so open with your views, Agent Logan?”

Pained smile. “I figure it’s useless to BS someone with a Ph.D. in bullshit.”

“That would be a philosopher,” he said. “Me? I’m a psychologist.”

Thomas found himself laughing with her, struck by how quickly she had managed to turn his mood. There was something about her smile, a kind of open-mouthed honesty, that spoke of loving, irreverent parents and a childhood spent joking around the dinner table. He couldn’t help but wonder how much they had in common. The boss thought I was your kind of people.

“Which is why,” Agent Logan said, ducking her head as she lingered on the word, “we could use your help on this case.”

He snorted skeptically. “What you guys need is a neurologist.”

“A psychologist isn’t close enough?”

Thomas shrugged. “Neurology is the science of the brain. Psychology is the science of the mind. Simple enough, I suppose, but things get very complicated very fast when it comes to understanding the relationship between the two.”

“The relationship of the mind to the brain?”

Thomas nodded into his beer. “Some say the mind and the brain are actually the same thing, but at different levels of description. Others say they’re entirely different things. And still others say only the brain is real—that the mind, and therefore psychology, is bunk.”

“What do you say?”

“I honestly don’t know. The scary thing for me is that as the years pass and neuroscience matures, the relationship between the two disciplines starts to seem more and more like that between astronomy and astrology, or chemistry and alchemy.”

“And why’s that?”

He paused, struck by the selfless candor of her expression. In his never-ending effort to engage his students, he had memorized innumerable little “factoids” regarding this or that freshman preoccupation. As a result, he knew far too much about the myths and details of attraction. He knew, for instance, that Sam possessed all the features that men in Western cultures found appealing: large eyes, slender nose, high cheeks, and delicate jaw. He knew that, no matter what the circumstances, simply looking at her would light up the reward centers of most men’s brains.

His own included.

“Because neurology is a natural science,” he replied after a glutinous cough. “It looks at human behavior and consciousness as natural processes like any other process in the natural world. It actually provides causal explanations for what we are.”

“And psychology doesn’t?”

“Not really, no. Psychology also involves something called intentional explanations,’ which are pretty tricky from a scientific point of view.” He found himself breathing deeply, as though steeling himself for some arduous task. “For instance, why did you take a sip of your beer just now?”

Samantha frowned, shrugged. “Because I wanted to,” she said lamely.

“There you go. That’s an intentional explanation. A psychological explanation. This is largely how human beings explain and understand themselves: in terms of intentions, desires, purposes, hopes, and so on. We use intentional explanations.”

“And they’re not scientific?”

Her foot brushed his leg and a jolt passed through him. She was just kicking off her shoes, he realized.

“Not comfortably,” he replied, “no. Before science, we largely understood the world in intentional terms. From the dawn of recorded history pretty much all of our explanations of the world were psychological. Then along comes science and bang: where storms were once understood in terms of angry gods and the like, they’re understood in terms of high pressure cells and so on. Science has pretty much scrubbed psychology from the natural world.”

In his classes Thomas was always at pains to convey just how extraordinary this transformation was—is. The disenchantment of the world. In terms of structure, Homeric Greece, Vedic India, and biblical Israel were cut from the same cloth as Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sanctioned by tradition, yes; anchored in the assent of masses, certainly; but projections of human conceit all the same. Magical.

“Until science,” he continued, “we humans really had no way of distinguishing good claims from bad claims outside of tradition and self-interest. So why not confabulate? Make stuff up? Why not elaborate belief systems that cater to our vanity, to our need to keep everyone in line? It’s no accident we’ve cooked up thousands of different religions, each peculiar to some distinct culture.”

Sam paused to take a drink, and to re orient herself, Thomas supposed. “So then why have I always thought psychology was a science?”

“Because it is, in a sense. It uses many of the same tools and standards. It proceeds by hypothesis. The problem lies primarily in its subject matter.”

“The mind.”

“Yep. To put it bluntly, the mind’s, well, spooky. The ancient Greek roots of ‘psychology’ are psycke and logos, literally ‘the discourse of the soul.’ The roots of ‘neurology,’ on the other hand, are neuron and logos, or ‘the discourse of the sinew.’ This pretty much sums up the crucial difference: Neurology deals with the mechanics of the meat, whereas psychology deals with the syntax of the ineffable. You tell me which is more scientific.”

She laughed. “You were wrong, professor.”

“About what?”

“You are a philosopher.”

He found himself laughing a little too hard—an out-of-joint response to out-of-joint circumstances. At some level, it was simply too absurd to take seriously: Neil a madman, Nora screwing him, and this FBI agent plying Thomas with beer in an effort to track Neil down. Ha-ha, Neil is fucking Nora. Ha-ha, Neil is murdering innocents. Ha-ha-ha…

Agent Logan’s look told him that she understood this, if not explicitly, then at the level of obscure bodily cues. Suddenly he felt close to this stranger, even though he didn’t know the first thing about her.

Go slow, Goodbook. It’s been a long day.

Samantha’s eyes flashed as she took another drink. “You really need to work with me on this, Professor.”

Thomas shook his head. Too much was happening too fast.

“Like I said, I’m not a neurologist. I’ll tell you anything you want to know, but otherwise, I’m just a frumpy academic.”

“Professor—”

“Tom. Call me Tom.”

“Tom, then. Look. Think of everything going on. Did you know that since the North Atlantic Drift collapsed, the number of ecoterrorist attacks against American targets has tripled?”

By coincidence, Thomas had glanced at the television over the bar as she said this: CNN images of the freak blizzard in northern France. A blizzard before September. Of course everyone was blaming America and her former love affair with SUVs.

“The Bureau’s resources,” Samantha continued, “were already stretched to breaking point by the antiterrorism campaign. And now the Chiropractor is loose in the city—worse even than the Son of Sam. How many agents do you think Washington has assigned to hunt down Neil Cassidy?”

“I have no idea.”

“Eighteen, most of them part-time. There’s only the three of us—Shelley, Danny, and myself—here in New York City, along with some loaners from the NYPD. Everyone else is working on the Chiropractor case. We need your help, Tom. Honestly.”

So there it was, her motive for this friendly beer. She wanted him to profile his best friend, provide a framework they could use to explain, and perhaps even anticipate, his moves. Thomas studied her face, this time trying to look past the hum of her beauty. She looked all of twenty-five, but something about her demeanor said she was at least thirty.

“Look, Agent Logan, I—”

“What about vengeance, Professor?” she asked sharply. “What about nailing the man who nailed your wife?”

There it was. She had taken the shortcut.

He should have been offended, but… He seemed to have no room for more fury.

“The Argument,” he said, his eyes drawn once again to the TV.

She scowled and shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

Images of snowplows were replaced by that of rioters in frozen Paris streets. Howling Gallic faces, collars up, their fear and anger condensed in their exhalations. The more pessimistic climatologists had been right: Global warming had tipped the climatic equilibrium, flooding the oceans with fresh water from the ice caps, and the North Atlantic Drift, which had warmed Europe from Lisbon to Moscow—or what was left of Moscow—had simply disappeared. Given its latitude, Eu rope was slowly turning into a version of the Canadian Arctic.

What have we done?

“Yoo-hoo, Professor?”

Thomas cleared his throat, drew a sweaty hand across his cheek and jaw. “On that BD you guys showed me this morning. When the girl asked him what he was doing, the voice—Neil, I suppose—said he was making an argument.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, I think I know what that argument is. I think I know Neil’s motive.”

How to begin? Real relationships gobble up our ability to gain perspective. Love. Hate. It makes no real difference. When it comes to those people who comprise the architecture of our life, every step back is simply another step in.

“You gotta understand,” Thomas began hesitantly. “Neil and I were close in college. Real close.”

“No offense, but I have to ask: were you lovers?”

Thomas smiled. “He punched me in the asshole once while playing ‘drunk WWE,’ but that’s pretty much as romantic as it got.”

Samantha laughed. “I’ve had worse dates. Trust me.”

“We weren’t lovers,” he said, “but only because the physical attraction wasn’t there. We were like brothers, twin brothers, who just knew what the other was thinking, who just… ” Thomas shook his head. “Trusted.”

Even then, Neil? Were you fucking me over even then?

“So what does this have to do with the argument?”

He took a quick drink, more to organize his thoughts than anything else. “Well, Neil and I weren’t fascinated so much with each other as we were fascinated by the same things—the same topics. We used to debate stuff endlessly, from nuclear weapons to NAFTA. Then we took this philosophy class on eschatology—on all things apocalyptic—taught by this Vietnam-era burnout who was obsessed with the end of the world: Professor Skeat. Professor Walter J. Skeat.”

He told her about the course, how it moved from the nuclear to the biblical to the environmental apocalypse, remembering as he did so all the youthful flares of insight that had made the class into a kind of religious experience. “But what really caught our attention,” he said, his gaze lost between memories, “and what old Skeat spent half the time talking about, was something he called the semantic apocalypse, the apocalypse of meaning.”

“Why did that interest you so?”

Thomas took refuge in another sip of his drink, suddenly conscious of her scrutiny. Did she find him anywhere near as attractive as he found her? Women were just as keyed to facial symmetry as men, but their preference for infantile versus masculine features tended to vary with their menstrual cycle—which was to say, fertility. Thomas supposed he had the symmetry nailed—he liked to think he was a handsome dog—but he was definitely on the juvenile end when it came to his features. A true-blue baby face.

Was that why Nora had betrayed him? Had Neil simply caught her ovulating?

“Because,” he said, struggling to recover his previous train of thought, “Skeat claimed the semantic apocalypse had already happened. That was how the Argument started.”

Samantha frowned. “The Argument?”

“That’s what we called it.”

“So what was it?”

“Remember how I said science had scrubbed the world of purpose? For some reason, wherever science encounters intention or purpose in the world, it snuffs it out. The world as described by science is arbitrary and random. There’s innumerable causes for everything, but no reasons for anything.”

“Sure,” Samantha said. “Shit happens. There’s no… ” She paused and cocked her head, her look appreciative. “There’s no meaning… What happens just… happens.”

Thomas smiled, impressed. Of course she was nowhere near agreeing with him—the Argument cut across the grain of too much hardwiring and socialization for that—but she had the versatility to at least entertain the idea. He could see why her superiors would grant her the latitude for something like this, sharing a beer with a possible material witness. A true professional, she was bent on understanding rather than forcing her own views. The truth of the Argument was irrelevant, here.

Wasn’t it?

“Exactly,” he replied. “The ‘will of God’ or what have you is indistinguishable from dumb luck. That’s why car insurance companies don’t give a damn how much you pray—let alone to whom. It often seems otherwise, but once you factor in our penchant for self-serving interpretation and cherry-picking, it becomes painfully clear that we’re deluding ourselves.”

“You mean with religion?”

Thomas paused over his beer. People were painfully credulous, capable of believing anything. The brain was a spin doctor, plain and simple. The experimental evidence for this was out and out incontrovertible. But thanks to a culture bent on pseudo empowerment, scarcely a peep could be heard above the self-congratulatory roar. Nobody, from truck drivers to cancer researchers, wanted to hear how self-absorbed and error-prone they were. Why bother with a scientific tongue-lashing when you could have a corporate hand-job?

“Everyone thinks they’ve won the Magical Belief Lottery, Agent Logan.”

“Which is?”

He nodded at the parade of passers by beyond the plate-glass window. “Everyone thinks they more or less have a handle on things, that they, as opposed to the billions who disagree with them, have somehow lucked into the one true belief system.”

Her face crooked into a rueful smile. “I’ve seen my fair share of delusions, trust me. The people we hunt burn them for fuel.”

“Not just the people you hunt, Agent Logan. All of us.”

“All of us?” she repeated. Something about her tone told Thomas that the distinction between her and her quarry was important to her. No surprise there, given the things she must have witnessed over the years.

He leaned back, holding her gaze. “You do realize that every thought, every experience, every element of your consciousness is a product of various neural processes? We know this because of cases of brain damage. All I have to do is press a coat hanger past your eye, wriggle it around a little, and you’d be utterly changed.” This description never failed to provoke expressions of disgust in his classroom, but Agent Logan seemed unimpressed.

“So?”

“You’re right. In a sense it’s a trivial point. Every time you take an aspirin you’re assuming you’re a biomechanism, something that can be tweaked with chemicals. But think about what I said. Your every experience is a product of neural processes.”

It seemed he could sense Neil leaning over his shoulder as he said this, a grinning aura, knowing full well the destination, but morbidly curious as to the path old Goodbook would take. Neil looked at heads the way ill-tempered children looked at toys—as things to be fucked with.

“I’m not following you, Professor.”

Thomas hooked his shoulders and palms in a professorial you’re-not-going-to-like-this gesture. “Well, how about free will? That’s a kind of experience, isn’t it?”

“Of course.”

“Which means free will is a product of neural processes.”

A wary pause. “It has to be, I guess.”

“So then how is it free? I mean, if it’s a product, and it is a product—I could show you case studies of brain-damaged patients who think they will everything that happens, who think they command the clouds on the horizon, the birds in the trees. If the will is a product of neural functioning then how could it be free?”

Frowning, Sam suddenly swigged her beer, head back, the way a truck driver might. Thomas watched her slender throat, as white as a barked sapling, flex as she swallowed.

She gasped and said, “I just chose to drink, didn’t I?”

“I don’t know. Did you?”

For the first time her face crinkled into a look that was openly incredulous. “Of course. What else could it be?”

“Well, as a matter of fact—fact, unfortunately, not speculation—your brain simply processed a chain of sensory inputs, me yapping, then generated a particular behavioral output, you drinking.”

“But… ” She trailed off.

“That’s not the way it feels,” Thomas said, completing her sentence. “It’s pretty clear that our sense of willing things is, well, illusory. It started with a variety of experiments showing how easy it is to fool people into thinking that they’re willing things they actually have no control over. That laid the groundwork. Then, when the costs of neuro imaging began to plummet—remember all the hoopla about low-field MRIs several years back?—more and more researchers demonstrated they could actually determine their subject’s choices before they were conscious of making them. Willing, it turns out, is an add-on of some kind, something that comes to us after the fact.”

Now she seemed genuinely troubled. Thomas had seen the same look on a thousand undergraduate faces, the look of a brain, Neil would have said, at odds with itself—one whose knowledge could not be reconciled with its experience.

The brain, it turned out, could wrap itself around most everything but itself—which was why it invented minds… souls.

“But that can’t be… ” Sam started. “I mean, if we don’t really make choices, then how could… ”

Thomas grimaced in sympathy. “How could anything be right or wrong? Good or evil?”

“Exactly. Morality. Doesn’t morality mean we have to have free will?”

“Who said morality was real?”

She worked her bottom lip for a moment, then said, “Bullshit. It’s gotta be… ”

A crimson eighteen-wheeler roared down the street outside the window, hauling who knew what to who knew where. Its diesel roar faded into the sound of a crowd cheering through the tin of television speakers. The Braves, a canned voice said, were on the warpath once again.

“I mean, I make decisions, all the time.”

She was arguing now, Thomas realized, not simply entertaining academic claptrap for the purposes of tracking down Neil. Their Argument had a way of doing that to people. He could remember the horror it had engendered in him years ago in Skeat’s class. The sense that some kind of atrocity had been committed, though without date or location. More than a few times he and Neil had made the mistake of debating it while catastrophically stoned—a mistake for Thomas, anyway. He had simply sat rigid, crowded by his paranoia, his eyes poking and probing the tissue that had once been his thoughtless foundation, while Neil had laughed and chortled, pacing the room as if it were a cage. Thomas could see him, hair askew, ducking to peer into his face. “Whoa, dude… Think about it. You’re a machine—a machine!—dreaming that you have a soul. None of this is real, man, and they can fucking prove it.”

Thomas rubbed his eyes. “In controlled circumstances, researchers
can determine the choices we make before we’re even conscious of making them. The first experiments were crude and hotly contested—pioneered by a guy called Libet. But over the years, as techniques improved and the fidelity of neuro imaging increased, so did the ability to pin down the precursors of decision-making. Now… ” Thomas trailed with an apologetic shrug. “What can I say? People still argue, of course—they always will when it comes to cherished beliefs.”

“Free will is an illusion,” Sam said in a strange tone. “Even now, everything I’m saying… ”

Thomas swallowed, suddenly apprehensive. He had been carefully folding his napkin as he talked; now he set it like a tiny white book on the table before him. “Only a small fraction of your brain is involved in conscious experience, which is why so much of what we do is unconscious. The bulk of your brain’s processing falls outside what you can experience; it simply doesn’t exist for your consciousness, not even as an absence. That’s why your thoughts simply come out of nowhere, apparently uncontrolled, undetermined… Yours and yours alone.”

Samantha yanked her hands out in a warding gesture, shook her head. “Come on, Professor, this is just too crazy.”

“Oh, it goes deeper, trust me. Everything falls apart, Agent Logan. Absolutely everything.”

Sam watched the streamers of bubbles in her beer. “So it has to be wrong, doesn’t it?”

Thomas simply watched her.

“Doesn’t it?” she repeated, her tone somewhere between wonder and irritation.

He shrugged for what seemed the hundredth time. “Free will is an illusion, that much is certain. As for other psychological staples like the now, selfhood, purpose, and so on, the evidence that they are all fundamentally deceptive continues to pile up. And if you think about it, perhaps this is what we should expect. Consciousness is young in evolutionary terms, a jury-rigged response to a perfect storm of environmental circumstances. We’re stuck with the beta version. Less even. It only seems slick because it’s all we know.”

“You mean,” Sam said drily, “as far as science is concerned.”

Thomas took a long drink, exhaled heavily out his nose. In his freshman classes, attacking science was hands down the most common response to the threat posed by the Argument—as well as the weakest.

“And science is a mess, sure. But it’s the only mess in recorded history that has had any success at generating and deciding between theoretical claims—not to mention making everything around us possible as a result. In historical terms, it is absolutely unprecedented. What are you going to believe? A four-thousand-year-old document bent on tribal self-glorification? Your own flattering intuitions on the fundamental nature of things? Some hot house philosophical interpretation that takes years of specialized training just to understand? Or an institution that makes things like computers, thermo nuclear explosions, and cures for small pox possible?”

Samantha Logan stared at him for a long and lovely moment. Someone jacked up the volume on the flat-screen above the bar. A silky whisper fanned across the tables, extolling the wonders of Head & Shoulders.

“Because when your hair shines, you shine… ”

“But there’re truths outside of science.”

“Are there? I mean, there’s a lot of nonscientific claims floating around, that’s for sure. But truths? Is the Bible more true than the Quran? Is Plato more true than Buddha? Maybe, maybe not. The fact is we have no way of knowing, even though billions of us jump up and down screaming otherwise. And the more science teaches us, the more it seems we’re just duping ourselves altogether. Our internal yardstick is bent, Agent, we know that for a fact. Why should we trust any of our old measurements?”

Most people simply nodded and dismissed the Argument. Most people found their fables too flattering to seriously challenge. A thousand sects, cults, religions, and philosophers agreeing on nothing, and yet each thought their ticket held the winning number of beliefs. Why? Because they held it. Somehow their personal experience of speaking in tongues, of remembering past lives, of having this prayer answered or that premonition come true was the only experience that mattered, the only one that made true… So few could crawl into the Argument’s belly and truly comprehend.

The trick was crawling back out again.

Thomas watched as various expressions struggled for mastery of Sam’s face. A dismissive scowl, a sarcastic retort, a plea for reassurance. It seemed he could glimpse all of them.

“I have to say, Professor, that this, without a doubt, is one of the most depressing conversations I’ve ever had. I feel like drowning myself in a tub.”

Despite the sorrow that welled through him, Thomas smiled a mock winning smile. “Welcome to the semantic apocalypse.”

Sam breathed deeply, enough to blow aside the odd strands of hair that had fallen across her face. “So you think this is what Cassidy is up to? You think he’s simply making the Argument in the most dramatic way he can?”

Thomas paused, troubled by the hollow in his stomach. “For the ancient Greeks, puppets were neurospastos, ‘drawn by strings.’ I think this might be what Neil is up to.”

“You mean showing us the strings?”

“Exactly. He wants the whole world to share his revelation.”

Even as he said it, Thomas somehow knew that it couldn’t be true, that something far more terrifying was at stake. But as so often happens in the course of making arguments, it didn’t seem such a bad thing cutting corners here and there, allowing what was convenient to trump what was true. What mattered was that she believed.

“Think about Cynthia Powski,” he continued. “Think of that BD as the first premise in an argument. What does it say? What conclusion does it point to?”

Sam nodded appreciatively. “That he’s in charge. That he can force her to do, and more importantly, to feel, anything he wants.”

“Is it? Then why does he surrender the controls to her?”

“I dunno. To show that he can make her want to be raped? Isn’t that the rapist’s credo? That all women secretly want it?”

Frowning, Thomas let his gaze wander the bar. The number of people now hunched over drinks and tables surprised him. He glanced at a waitress marching by with a steaming plate of fries.

“Maybe. But remember what Atta said? What we witnessed wasn’t rape. Neil—supposing it was Neil—forced a woman to experience something akin to multiple orgasms. But he didn’t touch her, not sexually, anyway. No. I think he’s pointing to something more abstract. From his standpoint, I think he thinks his position is incidental, not at all important.”

“And why’s that?”

“Why? Ask yourself: If you were in that chair, if you were Cynthia Powski, would you want it?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“An important one. Would you want it?”

“Fuck, no.”

“If Cynthia Powski were here right now, what do you think she would say?”

Samantha looked at him angrily. “The same.”

“Exactly. Perhaps that’s Neil’s point. We all think we’re free, that no matter what the circumstances, we can freely decide to do things differently. Neil’s arguing otherwise. He’s simply showing us what the brain is: a machine that generates behaviors which are either repeated or not depending on how the resulting environmental feedback stimulates its plea sure or pain systems. How can he do something against her will when there’s no such thing?”

Samantha’s eyes fell to her empty beer glass.

“Strike that,” Thomas said. “He’s going one better. He’s demonstrating otherwise. He’s committing a crime that proves there’s no such thing.”

“No such thing as what?”

Thomas raised his brows. “Crime.”

 

Staring at her, Thomas found himself wondering what it would be like to be her. Studies had shown that beautiful people lived happier, longer, and more successful lives. “The halo effect,” researchers called it. Because beauty generated positive social feedback, beautiful people tended to develop the positive attitudes that everyone from sales gurus to Baptist preachers associated with health, happiness, and success.

How many doors had Samantha Logan’s beauty opened?

“So what’s wrong with him?” she asked. “I mean in psychological terms, what’s wrong with him?”

“But that’s what I’ve been saying,” Thomas replied. “It’s conceivable there’s nothing wrong with him.”

A thoughtful frown. “Sure, but only because you know about this semantic apocalypse thing. Just pretend you’re an average psychologist, someone unscarred by Skeat. What would you think?”

It was a good question. Thomas breathed deeply, glanced across the dim interior. More and more people were arriving, filling the silence that lurked at the bottom of all busy places.

“Well,” he began, “obviously, I’d suppose Neil was suffering from some kind of antisocial personality disorder—I mean, only a psychopath could do what we saw this morning, right? After building a case history, though, I’d be troubled by the fact that Neil doesn’t fit the standard profile for severe antisocials.”

“There’s your wife,” Samantha said abruptly. “That certainly fits the profile.”

Thomas flinched. “Just because all antisocials are bastards, doesn’t mean all bastards are antisocials. No. As much as I would like to chalk this betrayal up to some kind of neurophysiological deficit, there has to be a pattern of some kind… ”

He trailed off, found himself blinking back the heat in his eyes. For a moment, he’d almost forgotten.

Neil and Nora.

“Sorry,” Samantha said.

Thomas pulled his hands into his lap, pretended to cough. He knew he had to be careful. He could feel it, lurking like a scarcely suppressed alter ego behind his words, his thoughts—the need to prove himself to this beautiful woman. But there was more to be wary of—far, far more. People chronically attributed emotions generated by their circumstances to the people they happened to find themselves with. Couples meeting for the first time on high suspension bridges reliably ranked their opposites as more exciting and attractive than couples meeting for the first time on a footpath. And this situation with Neil was nothing if not precarious.

“I’d also suppose he was suffering from some kind of extreme depersonalization disorder… ”

“What do you mean?” Samantha asked.

Thomas stared, tried to will away the buzz of excitement that seemed to hover around her. He knew what Neil would say. Thanks to a potent blend of hard wiring and socialization, men were far more likely to read sexual cues where none were to be found. They constantly confused female attention for sexual interest. The sad truth was that false positives paid better reproductive dividends. Assuming that every woman wanted to jump your bones was just another way of covering your odds at the evolutionary craps table.

“I don’t think,” Thomas finally said, “Neil sees himself as a person anymore.”

Samantha crinkled her nose in disbelief. “Not a person? Then what does he see himself as?”

A brain. A brain among brains.”

“I’m having difficulty wrapping my head around this one.”

“I’m a philosopher, remember? It’s all bullshit.”

“It’s gotta be.”

Thomas looked down to his thumbs. “If you think of a way out, be sure and let me know. I mean, I love my kids. I really love them. I don’t think I knew what love meant until Ripley was born. And Frankie was double trouble. That simply has to mean something, doesn’t it?”

Or is it just another lie? Like my marriage.

Samantha stared at him.

“What’s wrong?” Thomas asked.

“Ah, nothing. It just didn’t hit me until now.”

“What didn’t hit you?”

“When you were going through the Argument and all that… I guess I just assumed there had to be some kind of catch. Some kind of trapdoor you weren’t letting me in on. But there isn’t, is there? I mean when you asked for… for a way out a couple of seconds ago, you really were asking, weren’t you?”

“I suppose I was.”

Long silence. “So what if he’s right, Tom?”

“Neil?”

“Yeah, Neil. What if he wins his argument?”

Thomas shrugged. She looked like Nora, he thought. She looked like Nora when she was frightened.

 

“We should go,” Samantha said, rooting through her purse. She looked up and smiled girlishly. “I’m barely fit to drive as it is. How about you? You okay?”

“I’ll just take a cab home.”

“Home? The day’s just beginning, Professor. You’re coming with me.”

Thomas smiled, more relieved than annoyed. The thought of returning home made him feel hollow. “You think so, do you?”

“I know so,” she said to her purse. “You need to tell Shelley all this.”

She stood abruptly and Thomas found himself following. There was something about her manner, a breezy certainty, that demanded he acquiesce. “Tell me,” she said as they walked to her white Mustang, “when was the last time you saw Neil Cassidy?”

And like that, the spell was broken. He was just another tool in her investigative kit, he realized, a way of nailing his best friend.

“About six months ago,” he inexplicably replied.


R. Scott Bakker is the author of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousdandfold Thought, a trilogy that Publishers Weekly calls “a work of unforgettable power.” He is also the author of The Judging Eye. He spent his childhood exploring the bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore and his youth studying literature, languages, and philosophy. He now lives in London, Ontario, with his wife, Sharron, and their cat, Scully.

4 comments
robbadler
1. robbadler
Ok, you win. Picking this up tonight. The subject matter is too interesting to not know how it all plays out. The ending seems secondary to me.
robbadler
2. craioveanul
I think I'll wait for a couple more chapters, but I seem to be soundly hooked myself.

VERY interesting world-view...
robbadler
4. Lean Muscle X
Good imagination!! I am waiting for the fifth chapter.
http://www.goarticles.com/cgi-bin/showa.cgi?C=2215914

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