The Pain Surrogate (Short Story)

I.

Pain was almost a myth to him, something he could no more fathom than he could see an atom. He had never felt the stinging, stabbing, burning, or aching that could come from courting danger.

He only knew how the dogs of his neighborhood whimpered when injured, but he could not imagine what was going on inside of them. His siblings could not imagine it either, but unlike them Brand loved being alive, loved it enough to keep on living.

He had known moments of heightened awake-ness when the world had leapt into full color. He had enjoyed the tangy sweetness of a ripe strawberry, the contemplative view of a night sky, and the wonder of his shimmering reflection in a pond. He enjoyed chopping firewood, the blunt sound of impact, he loved shivering in the cozy warmth of a fireplace on a cool night, and he liked to write about them in his journal, how they sounded, how they felt, how they smelled.

All the neighbors were supposed to write in their computer journals and send them to the Supreme Observers or even to each other, but nobody enjoyed writing journal entries like Brand did.

The others did not seem to enjoy much of anything, nor did they learn. Brand learned lots of things. He learned he could approach fire without dying, as long as he did not go too far. He learned that he could immerse himself in cool water as long as he did not try to breathe under it. He felt no discomfort at inhaling water, but he reasoned he needed air to live, and when he realized the water was preventing him from getting it, he rose and coughed and gasped for oxygen, and never inhaled water again.

His siblings were not so savvy. They almost always drowned once they had entered large bodies of water, silly smiles on their wavering underwater faces, their eyes dull, unseeing.

He learned by observing the dying, too, benefiting from the fatal and almost absurd self-inflicted mishaps of his reckless siblings.

He was one of the few, in fact, who lived over a year. “Born” as newly minted adults, the other newcomers felt no pain and they did not observe much. They did not test the limits of their environment. They did not use reason. They died within months or even weeks. They died with vacant eyes, and they all died happy.

It was not that they lacked intelligence. If anything they had too much. They had photographic memories and there was no limit to the complex calculations they could perform in a matter of seconds if asked to. What they lacked was purpose, self-interest, and the will to give it context and direction. They were puppets without so much as a hand inside.

Brand liked to think that not only did he have a guiding hand inside him; he liked to think he was his own puppeteer.

II.

They all lived in a tiny gated village – a kind of neighborhood really – with 50 houses, all bordered by white picket fences. Each had a tiny latticed side garden. Some of his siblings shared houses, but Brand lived alone because his previous housemates had perished. Brand did not mind so much living alone, because even when his housemates had lived with him, he had been lonely. They had never spoken much and they were always smiling even when there was nothing to smile about.

One of them named Elvis had walked into a flaming pile of leaves and burned to death without screaming or even changing expressions. Brand had watched the skin melt off his face until the flames had consumed him. His other housemate had jumped off a building, apparently thinking he was taking a shortcut to the local deli. Brand knew better than to try either of those things. He knew that a glass would shatter when it hit the floor even from a short distance. Brand did not know what he was made of, but just in case it was some kind of glass, Brand tried to stay clear of jumping off buildings.

Everyone in the village had a job: all day Brand picked fruit off tall trees using ladders – apples, oranges, coconuts, and mangos –  from a many-acred ever-blossoming orchard in the middle of town. He and his fellow employees transported them in wheelbarrows to the Altar next to the gate. The Supreme Observer, whose magnificent white stone house could be seen right outside the gate, would collect the fruit as they slept. No one had ever seen his face, only his silhouette or shadow.

His servants had issued all of them clay-colored sacks with their names on them, and they would get paper credits in their mailboxes based on how much fruit ended up in their sack at the end of each day. Even in the absence of pain, hunger was a great pleasure-inducing motivator so that even the most indolent usually showed to work.

There was a commissary where they all bought their food. The commissary had strawberries. Brand loved strawberries; therefore, Brand loved the commissary.

III.

One afternoon Brand had a visitor. The meeting began with a knock on his cabin door. When he opened it, Brand drew in a sharp breath.

At first the newcomer appeared in a cloak and a cowl. Brand could not see his face, but Brand knew. No one else in his village dressed as if made of shadows or would have dreamed of doing so. A visit from the Supreme Observer to an underling like Brand was unheard-of. Brand backed into a corner of a wall trembling with awe at seeing someone of such importance in his own home.

“Do not be afraid.” The Supreme Observer, perhaps taking pity on Brand, removed his terrifying cloak to reveal a stunning ordinariness. He had a bald head, wire-rimmed spectacles, a three-piece suit, and long, pale, almost prim-looking hands.

Honored to have been treated to this rare glimpse behind the mask, Brand stared a moment longer, then bowed as he had been taught to do in the presence of a god. “To what do I owe this honor, sir?”

The Supreme Observer smiled with his bright white teeth that seemed to gleam inside the shadows that contoured the sharp angles of his face. “May I come in?”

“Why of course.” Brand stepped aside freeing the entire door space.

The Supreme Observer entered as if walking on air, lifted his spectacles, and stared closely at Brand with pale green eyes. “I have read your journal, Brand. You are an anomaly,” he said.

Brand took a step backward and crossed his arms over his chest, heat rushing up his cheeks and up the backs of his ears. “I am sorry, sir. I shall try not to be.”

Settling his spectacles back on his nose, the man cleared his throat. “My apologies if I sounded rude. When I say that, I mean it in a good way. You were what I intended the others to be, a rational creature who could survive and enjoy life without the opposite side of joy. Most of my creatures are happy, but they are not functional. They can do any calculation you ask of them, they have perfect memories, yet practically speaking, I still have a society of smiling idiots who are that way because they have never felt pain, because they have never suffered. Their eyes will never glow with the light of wisdom. They have no particular interest in even staying alive. But you, Brand, you are different. Like the others, you feel no pain warning you of the horror of death, yet you still want to live. Why?”  

Brand was not sure he totally understood the reasoning behind the question, but he said, “I live to look at the stars at night and to wonder where they all came from. I live for the warmth of a fireplace on a cool day. I live for the tangy sweetness of the fruit called a strawberry. I do not live so much because I want to stay, but because I do not want those experiences I love to ever leave me.”

“How do you figure out which dangers to avoid?”

“I watch. I watch the others. When they hurt themselves, I make a note not to do what they do.”

The Supreme Observer grinned and clasped his long, carefully manicured fingers in front of his chest. “You impress me, Brand. You impress me very much. Even better, you give me hope, not just for my experiment but for my own species. I am going to keep a careful eye on you.”  He withdrew a device from his pocket, a black rectangular box. At one end was a red button.  “Feel free to call me and let me know now and then what you are thinking and how you are feeling. One press of this button is all it takes. I may not always be available, but if I am not around, feel free to leave a message. I promise to listen whenever I find the time. I will especially be interested in your response after the next phase of your test, which will be soon. Very soon.”

Brand wanted to ask what the next “phase” was but worried it might be rude to ask. Instead he bowed as he had been instructed to do in such situations. “What an incredible honor, sir. Thank you.”

That night Brand had just blown out a candle on his bedside table to go to sleep when a commotion outside his window grabbed his attention. He heard something that alarmed him terribly, something he usually never heard in his village: voices lifted in protest. He looked outside to see the uniformed guards who usually patrolled the streets to make sure everyone met their 7:00 curfew. The guards ordinarily used gentle methods to enforce compliance, jovial nudging, mild scolding at most.

But now Brand saw them holding sharp glowing objects and using them to push his siblings out of their cabins in their pajamas. The siblings who Brand had only ever seen smiling and who apparently felt no pain were apparently capable of displeasure when their routine was disrupted or their televisions were turned off, when they were taken from a place of comfort and forced out into the night without any explanation.

Brand could see them grudgingly handing to the guards whatever they had in their pockets, like the credits they had earned at their jobs, before the guards seized them by the wrists and loaded the prisoners into their cars. Brand wondered at first what the others had done wrong. But Brand had been observing them almost constantly and felt certain his siblings did not deserve this. Brand saw other guards banging on other doors and knew that he would soon be next.

He stashed away everything of any value to him. He began by grabbing his greatest treasure, his cardboard carton of super-ripe, juicy strawberries. He also grabbed the speaker phone the Supreme Observer had given him, but before he hid them, he tried pressing the big red button. He hated to disturb the deity so early but he had to ask what was going on, urgently saying “The guards who usually enforce curfew are carrying dangerously sharp objects and threatening my neighbors. They are taking our belongings and they are taking us away. What is happening? Do you know?” When after a few moments there was no response, Brand hid the solid rectangular box under a mattress. Then he went to his refrigerator, draped a tattered handkerchief over his carton of strawberries, and shoved them into the back of the freezer.

When the guards arrived, he did not resist the threat of the glowing objects he thought were knives because he had observed the others resisting and knew it was futile because of the sharpness. Brand had observed that sharpness could kill, so he went along with the guards without a fight, but he would surely have resisted more if he had known what was in store for him.

IV.

Brand arrived at a flat-roofed cinder block building the guards called “the clinic.” He was shoved inside, where a woman orderly instructed him to line up with the others to become “activated,” whatever that meant. Brand watched as his siblings in front of him went in and came out looking no different than before, except most of them looked baffled. When his turn finally came, he went into an office with white walls and was ordered to sit down in a straight chair.

A man dressed in a white lab coat held a cold instrument against the bone where his ear met his skull, but all he felt was a sudden pressure. “There,” the aide said. “All done. You are now ready to proceed to the acclimation room.” The aide gave Brand a pat on his shoulder and sent him on his way. Brand wanted to ask what being activated meant, but he had the feeling he would not like the answer, and so he was afraid to ask.

On the way out, a woman aide with brown eyes and a prominent mole on her upper lip greeted him and guided him to a room with a long table. In one hand she clutched an oval device with buttons on it.  She pulled out a metal folding chair and gestured for him to sit. He did so and looked with interest at a series of floating items hovering over the table as if by magic. “These are holograms,” she explained. “They are no danger to you. Can you name what they are for me? Or, at least, what they appear to be?”

“A flame, a nail, and a paddle,” Brand said automatically.

“Very good. Now, even though they are not real, I want you to put your finger on each of them in succession and tell me what you feel. Oh, And with the nail I want you to put your finger on the pointed tip.”

Brand stared at her mole. He felt something he had never felt before, a kind of seething pressure. He thought he might actually be angry. Angry about not being told anything about his sudden upheaval and the kidnapping of his neighbors. Angry about having to take orders.  “But why? What is the purpose of all of this? The activation. Activated how? And this test? What is this all for? What is acclimation?”

“You will understand soon enough. If I explained now, you would have to frame of reference. Everything we are doing will give you the frame of reference for the understanding you now lack. Now.” She smiled curtly. “Shall we proceed?”

“I have observed that fire and sharpness can wound.” He stared at the paddle, which was in constant motion, waving back and forth with blurring speed. “I have learned that the force of motion can shatter.”

“Trust me.” The woman smiled. “What you see here will not hurt you. It is all an illusion. If you refuse to cooperate, we will stay here forever until you do or we will put you in a closet by yourself until you change your mind.”

Brand sighed. He did not want to be trapped in a closet. Maybe if he cooperated they would let him go home where he could relax, eat juicy strawberries by the fireplace and listen to the secretive flickering of the flames “Okay,” he said finally.

“Good. But I must warn you. You will not like the sensation, so be prepared.”

Brand reached out his finger, as he never would have done in real life, and touched the hologram of the flame. With a cry, he drew his finger back. The sensation made his finger feel as if it were being stripped to the bone, but when he looked at his finger, it was all there.

“That feeling you just had, it is called burn,” she said. “Now. The others.”

Brand did not want to touch the others. “No,” he said. “I have had enough. Put me in a closet if you like. I refuse to play this cruel game with you any longer.”

“If you fail to accomplish what you need to do here, you will not survive training camp.” She scolded him with a hardening of her brown eyes. “You will certainly die.”

Brand swallowed. He did not like the words “training camp.” Did that mean he was not going home after this? But whatever the case might have been, Brand liked life. He wanted to survive. Brand touched the nail and drew back his hand as before with a gasp.

“Sharp,” she said as he shook his hand frantically. “That is what sharp feels like. Now for the final hologram. See the paddle swinging back and forth in the air? Place your hand in the middle of its motion.” With a grimace of great reluctance, Brand did as she had instructed. The paddle struck his knuckles with excruciating force. With a cry he drew his hand back as before and, as before, his hand remained physically unharmed.

The woman said, “Aches, slaps, punches, all manner of collisions – they all come from force and pressure. They will all feel a little something like what you just felt. Okay?”

Still trembling from the apparent impact, Brand nodded. He would have done or said most anything to get out of the terrible room with the dispassionate woman who seemed to think his suffering was nothing more than an academic curiosity.

At last the lady nodded toward the door. “Acclimation is complete. Now you are ready for your training.”

V.

After Brand left the acclimation room, he was directed to a waiting room with his other siblings. A guard soon came, told them to follow him, and guided them down a hallway to a room labeled above the door as “Survival Training.”

The new room was enormous and confusing, an indoor playground full of traps, mazes, and colorful gadgets. The guide said, “A lot of what you see here are holograms, each of which represents a real threat you are certain to face in real life. When you approach such a hologram, you will feel their danger through burn, sharpness, or pressure – components of what we call pain. You will feel them even though here you are at no risk of actually dying from what you see. However, the risk to your life is real in that you must figure our how to eat and drink, despite the threat of pain.

“For most of you that will mean hard labor working in the boulder mazes. You will find sustenance by clearing color-coded boulders away to reveal secret areas, but the boulders are heavy and require strength to move. Some areas of the maze will contain burn, sharpness, or pressure. And you must be careful to see that you are not expending more energy than you are taking in.

“Food is also hidden in plain sight behind the holograms, but even approaching them will cause you pain that will intensify with increased proximity. You must use your ingenuity, wit, strength, or perseverance to get food and water however you can, or you will perish. If any of you should consider escaping the training room, please note that the door you came in is made of four inch steel, and it is heavily guarded. There is another way out though. It is more of a curiosity than a viable means of escape. We call it the Gauntlet.” She pointed to a machine with rotating parts that caused ropes or whips to whack to floor repeatedly. The ropes, set between narrowly spaced walls, formed a pathway that led to an opened door. Afterward she left, opening the steel door with her fingerprint, exiting, and slamming it behind her. Brand looked around to see more of his new home.

In one area a giant sphere balanced precariously on the top of a steep ramp. A tilted mirror attached to a wall revealed a basket of eggs behind the sphere. Pressure. Walls of spikes that rose and fell, emerging from the floor and back again; you would have to go through them with lightning speed to get the loaves of bread positioned in a stack on the other side. Sharpness.  Behind a wall of fire, a shank of beef lay in the open, and there appeared to be no way to go behind the fire except to walk through the flames. Burn.

The chamber called the Survival Training Room appeared to be a veritable amusement park full of hazards.

Of course, pain was one thing, and discomfort was another; Brand felt uncomfortable on many levels. The survival training room was mostly cold. Brand saw one of the fires and, hoping for a familiar comfort, made the mistake of moving toward it. A mere approach did it; moments later he was curled in a ball on the floor writing and screaming in burning pain.

Hours afterward he felt like his world had ended, not just because of the hurt, but because it appeared that one of his greatest loves, the cozy warmth of a fireplace on a cool day, was forever ruined for him. He was not hungry yet. If anything, he had lost his appetite, so after the burning had subsided and his tears had dried, he did what he always did; he observed.

At first the others were all tempted to grab the food that appeared within easy reach, the shank behind the fire or the loaves of bread across the barrier of moving spikes, but quickly they learned to avoid the “easy” solutions. The torture of proximity was truly unbearable, and it did not stop after stepping away from the hologram. The burns continued to burn. The stabs continued to stab. Sweaty toil lasting hours was preferable to raw unmitigated pain.

At last the gnawing of hunger forced Brand to break away from his spectator role. Like most of the others he participated in the laborious boulder mazes. The mazes had food hidden inside spaces between a mass of color-coded boulders, but you could only get to the food-yielding boulders by working to push the regular boulders out of the way in a certain order. You could only push them and never pull them, so you had to be careful not to push one into a wall unless you were finished with it. Moving the heavy boulders often required group cooperation and it was not without hazards. Sometimes the boulders, when pushed aside, revealed not food but hoard of biting rats. All holograms, of course. Sharp.

Brand would never forget the first time he heard someone cry. She was a petite girl named Cadence. She and a few others were helping Brand to move boulders to reveal a food-rich area when at last they rolled aside a green boulder to reveal bounty: loaves of soft rolls with giant open jars of honey. Cadence opened her green eyes wide and laughed. She ran and grabbed a roll, which she started to dip in honey when a swarm of bees swept up from a jar behind it and slammed into her face. She dropped the roll, screaming as she flailed her arms, and began to cry.

Brand surged forward and grabbed her and pulled her away, but all the while he was observing the strangeness of her crying. When crying, water emerged mysteriously, as if from some hidden fount, from the eyes. The sound of it, an uneven wail, was a wordless language. But the real sorcery was that when others cried you felt something of what they felt. Brand thought about how the dogs of his neighborhood had whimpered when injured, and he thought he understood something of what had been going on inside them.

At night they rested. In the mean time, the labor required to eat and drink took its toll. Hollow cheeks and eyes appeared around the camp. Despite their hard efforts, Brand and his siblings were becoming undernourished.

Soon he and all his siblings knew intimately what “burn, “sharp,” or “pressure” felt like, but they also knew the hollow ache of hunger. But they lived. After only a few days, most of them were gaunt, dull-eyed, and weak-looking.

Brand was surprised to hear one of his siblings say one day, “Maybe pain is good for us. Before, maybe I would have walked right into a big roaring fire for the fun of it. Now I know better. Real fire will never kill me now.” Other siblings said similar things. But there was no joy in their voices when they spoke. He never saw them smile anymore, not at all.

Brand had to admit that his siblings were living longer, even struggling to eat, but was there no other way to save their lives? What about his way? There was no need for this.

He heard one of the aides say that after the training, all “the test subjects” would all be released to go home, but the memories would remain due to something called trauma, whenever the subjects approached something sharp or hot they would feel pain just as if they were back in the chamber again. There would even be a vague feeling that would come when danger was out of view, a kind of pain echo called fear. Brand realized that if that were so, he would never again enjoy warming himself by a fireplace again. He mourned his old simple pleasures.

Here he was in a terrible prison; all his siblings were. More and more often, he looked wistfully toward the Gauntlet of mechanical whips guarding the exit of the chamber. They flailed constantly all day long. For anyone who seriously wanted to escape, there was no way to avoid them. But they were only another pain-inducing illusion.

The guide had said the whips represented all different kinds of pain and their manifestations. There were whips of burning, whips of sharpness, and whips of pressure, but there were many ways those types of pain could manifest. Pressure, for example, could be slow and steady or sudden and shattering. A burn could be a simple soreness of a fiery flaying.

Brand had to escape, lest he lose all joy in life forever which, to him, was the same as dying, or maybe worse. The only way to free himself from the whips was to willingly – though briefly – endure the worst the Gauntlet had to offer.

It might destroy him, obliterate his mind perhaps, but that was better than accepting the undeserved evil that had been thrust upon him and his siblings. Simpletons who defended pain only did so because they saw no way to avoid it, but even before coming here, he had found a better way.

Brand would escape and report the injustice to the Supreme Observer. Brand tried not to believe that the deity who had been so kind to him had any knowledge of the atrocities he and his siblings endured. Surely the Supreme Observer would be infuriated to know how he had been treated. His underlings must have gotten out of control. With the help of the Supreme Observer, Brand would return to free the rest of his kin. And if he by some unlikely chance Brand was wrong and the Supreme Observer was in on the abuse, at least Brand could confront him, demand answers, and persuade him to end the torture.

Brand tried to undergo the tunnel of whips many times and failed painfully.  Luckily, once he had cleared a whip, that one stopped cracking for as long as he was in the tunnel; that meant he could turn back at any time without having to endure the pain a second time; only once he was clear of it would it reset.

Away from the Gauntlet, he would mentally prepare himself for the next attempt, trying to imagine exactly what the burning, stabbing, or pounding pain had been like earlier, so he could concoct a convincing vision of triumphing over it. But on the next night, whenever he reached the midpoint of the Gauntlet, he would realize how bad his memories really were.

The pain was always more flaying than he remembered it being. So each night, before he went to sleep, he meditated, trying to remember better so he could realistically envision triumphing over the memory; he saw himself reaching the end, which always left him with tears of imaginary joy in his eyes. Night after night, he tried again and again to escape, and again and again he failed.

However, one day, after despair had settled over him and he was on the verge of quitting forever, something changed: he woke up and knew with calm certainty that he was going to make it. He was not quite ready to try though. He decided to test his theory first.

Early that night as others slept, he slipped through the hologram of flames, every cell screaming protest, the flaying burn of his skin red-hot, and he emerged, half-insane and still burning, with the basket of eggs. After waiting for the burning to settle down, he marched across the wall of moving spikes and returned, limping with agony, to the sleeping area with loaves of bread. He staggered up the ramp with the heavy sphere at the top and felt its pressure as it barreled toward – and through – him; then, breathless from the impact and weeping, he crawled on his knees to gather the basket of apples that had been behind hidden it. Trembling, he fed himself first. Then, still on fire, feeling like he was walking on a bed of nails, he  took the food to the clearing where he and his siblings usually slept and set it all down where they would see it when they woke. Then, half-broken and delirious, he spoke to them, and particularly to Cadence whose eyes were softly closed. “Enjoy your breakfast,” he whispered.

Them he took a deep breath and headed toward the Gauntlet.

VI.

At the time Brand felt the pain in vivid colors of orange and red, though he would someday remember it as a blue-grey blur. The whips created a seething cauldron of burning, sharpness, and pressure, and Brand imagined himself as a ghost moving invisibly through it all, although his skin felt every raw screaming jolt to his being. Still, he continued, as if in a dream, to move against it. His struggle felt timeless and immediate and unbearably endless.

At last, gritting his teeth, with sweat running down his face, back, and legs, demented and weeping, every cell of his body screaming for him to stop, he finally made it to the end of the Gauntlet – and escaped.

He left the Gauntlet sobbing and laughing. He was hot, yet shivering. His body felt like lead sinking into the Earth, but his head felt light as wind. He had made it through the Gauntlet of whips that burned, cut, stabbed, froze, and even choked him, and there was no better feeling in the world.

Yet he was not home. He found himself in a sterile-looking white room with a single door. He staggered out into a hall. To his surprise no one tried to stop him. At the end of the hall was a door; he exited and found himself just outside the gates of his own village; they were wide open, as if waiting just for him.

He knew nothing else to do but to go through the gates and head back to assigned cabin where he had stashed the mechanical device the Supreme Observer had given him beneath the mattress of his single bed, although he was not totally sure the Supreme Observer could be trusted; he just needed to believe he could be; who else could Brand go to?

Back at home, after a few desperate pushes of the button, Brand heard the voice of the Supreme Observer whose name, it turned out, was also John Calvin, CEO of Cerebrodyne, Inc. At least, that was how he introduced himself upon answering.

“We were taken,” Brand said breathlessly. “The men who usually enforce curfew carried sharp glowing instruments. They forced us to go to a place called the clinic where they hurt us. Please help me. They have the others. We have to stop them.”

“Hmm.” The Supreme Observer cleared his throat a little nervously. “I take it you must have escaped, since Phase 2 is still in-progress.”

For a long moment Brand refused to hear what he had just heard. Understanding came gradually like the setting of the sun. “Phase 2?” Brand said at last, fighting a sudden wave of nausea. “That was Phase 2?”

“Actually, I ordered it.” Brand had to work to keep from retching.  Maybe Brand had suspected that the Supreme Observer had been complicit, but the idea had been too painful to believe. He struggled to make his lips form words. “How could you do that to us? To me? I thought you were impressed with me.”

“I was impressed with you, Brand. I still am, especially now. If you escaped, then you would have to have summoned exceptional powers of will. But you are an important part of the experiment too. You were created for a purpose.”

“Yes,” Brand said. “And you told me yours. You wanted a society of happy creatures who could survive without pain and use reason instead. The way I used to. But Phase 2 is only creating misery. It works against your plan.”

“No, not exactly. My plan was much bigger – much bigger – than you ever knew. You are a reflection of my species, Brand, created in our image, and in a sense we are your gods. My species evolved emotion before it evolved reason. It felt before it knew. It suffered first. It feared first. It hated first. Reason did not emerge until the latest stage of our evolution. Perhaps for that reason suffering is our oldest motivator; it is mainly our anger, our fear, our irrational passions that drive us. But what if we had evolved the ability to reason first? That was the question I kept asking myself when I created you and your kind, Brand. I created you in a lab, organically cultivated artificial life forms with cybernetic components. I wanted to know if such a pain-free creature would be capable of surviving. I gave you the equipment for being rational, allowing you to feel only pleasure.

“But being rational has no meaning without a problem to solve. I allowed you and your siblings to have phenomenal intelligence and perfect memories, yet I kept you innocent in certain areas because I wanted you to discover the world for yourselves. I wanted to see if you could  connect cause and consequence through your actions and use your conclusions to thrive.” The Supreme Observer frowned. “Overall, I failed. So I decided to start a new experiment. What happens to the survival odds of a creature who has never felt pain before but suddenly can feel it?

“The problem at the start was that I was working against reality. Reality has laws, and they are fixed. For there to be pleasure, there must be pain. Like I said earlier, Brand, you are an anomaly. Like you the others are not incapable of pleasure, but they take it for granted. They need something more to push them to survive.”

The revelation that his whole existence meant so little had taken the breath out of Brand, and it took a long moment before he could speak. “But maybe there is hope for them. You said you were working against reality, but I am part of reality, too. You gave up too soon. Your society of happy, reasonable creatures might still be possible. Just give me some time to think, to come up with an alternative, a much better alternative, to pain. Please consider it. Let me at least try.”

“Very well,” the Supreme Observer said. “I see no harm in your trying. I will give you three days. I promise to consider your proposal. Beyond that, I can make no promises.”

VII.

So Brand went back to his cabin and thought about the problem of pain. He thought and he thought until his head hurt. Brand thought, what if the others had an earpiece that could convert pain signals into strident sounds in the presence of danger? He wrote his thoughts in his journal.

The auditory mechanism would make subjects uncomfortable in the presence of threats, but the discomfort would fall far short of torture.

But what was to keep his siblings from ignoring the mild signals if they did not really care about living? Where did the will to survive come from? Brand gave a lot of thought to that. Wanting to live had been indispensable to his own survival. Maybe the earpiece could somehow magnify small pleasures in order to increase a zest for living. Maybe everyone should be required to eat more strawberries.

Brand sighed. His system did not go far enough. The solution of using unpleasant sounds to indicate danger was really only a weakened mimicry of pain. When subjects were ready, they had to have the desire and the equipment for asking the right questions for survival; only then could there be wisdom.

There needed to be a curiosity chip, an algorithm for wonder. He was not sure how to make one but he thought the Supreme Observer might. Somehow life needed to be made fun. And there needed to be an enhanced mechanism for learning from the mistakes of others in order to minimize making them all over again. That way more time could be spent on pleasurable activities like eating strawberries.

He did not know the how of making such creatures, but he thought he had some valid insights on the whats. After the journal entry was all done Brand had never been more excited, more filled with purpose. His mission felt transcendent; it bristled with destiny.

Brand visited the Supreme Observer at his great white house. Together he and the Supreme Observer, looking at the computer there, reviewed the journal entry that Brand had sent. The deity read over it several times and nodded his approval. “Well, you’ve certainly put a lot of thought into this,” he said. “I think I like it. Sure, we’ll try it. Why not? We’ll de-activate the pain for now and create a new kind of algorithm.”

Beaming, Brand could not wait to save his siblings from the scourge of suffering; he felt heroic. He was so transported by his victory he barely heard the Supreme Observer when he offered Brand some tea. Brand finally accepted the offer, and when the Supreme Observer left him alone for a moment, Brand continued to look at the computer, with its large screen, that the Supreme Observer used. He saw at the bottom of the screen a tiny drawing that looked like the Supreme Observer. When he touched it, a list of names and addresses came up, and each address had a tiny portrait beside it. A thrill shivered through him. Did each of the portraits represent a god like the Supreme Observer? Were there gods everywhere? He stared at the addresses long enough to make sure he remembered them so that if he ever met one, he would know what name to call them.  When the Supreme Observer returned, he said that implementation of the pain alternative would begin in a few days, but he would go ahead and call off the “survival training” and allow the subjects to return home, although de-activating the pain would take longer than activating it.

Later Brand went back to the village to wait with the Supreme Observer for the return of his siblings. He was worried that only a few would come back alive, or that they would be mere shadows of their former selves, broken and barely walking. However he was in for a big surprise: his fellow creatures were not the defeated, deflated, pitiable creatures he had left. They had changed. Some actually stood taller. They had gained something nameless that had been missing in them. There was a depth in their eyes he had never seen in them before. They made expressions they had never made before: wistful, regretful, sorrowful, pensive, and yearning. When they smiled, they smiled sadly.

A few women were softly singing songs that were heart-breaking and beautiful at once. Gone was every trace of the vacant smiles most of them had worn before they came. Many of them, though not all, had taken on the appearance of wisdom. Some, even the most emaciated, wore expressions of triumph. And when they saw their homes for the first time in many weeks, some of them cried with hope and laughter in their eyes. At first neither the Supreme Observer nor Brand said anything. Finally the Supreme Observer said, “They are…,” he seemed to choke on the words, “They are beautiful.”

Brand was crestfallen because he knew the new depth his siblings had found may have doomed them to suffer forever at the time they deserved it the least. “Not all of them. Some just look broken. Look. You can see the defeat in their eyes. They are really wounded and they need help.” It was true. A few of his siblings looked dazed, bent, and almost paralyzed. ” Please. Do not be swayed by what you see here. What you see in only a beautiful way of adapting to the ugly, a way to make the unbearable bearable. The beauty of the adaptation to torture does not justify the torture itself. Please. My way is better. The cruel system of pain for survival is unjustified.”

But the Supreme Observer was unmoved. “Before, they had no purpose, no wisdom. I was ashamed to claim them as my own creations. Now they amaze me. I admire them.  No, I like too much what I see.”

Brand felt like crying. He knew he had lost. But he also knew the Supreme Observer was wrong. There was beauty in the wisdom that could come from suffering, but there was also beauty in the powers of reason that could prevent it. Pain was not the only way, just because it was the only way anyone knew; it did not deserve to be enshrined.  Brand could only hope that someday someone with power and vision would see that.

Brand parted ways with the Supreme Observer and went home. The whole time his mind was furiously searching for a way to save his siblings from the scourge of pain; otherwise its curse might be with them forever. Was the Supreme Observer the only one with any power? A thought came to him: he wondered who all the mailing addresses he had seen on the Supreme Observer’s computer really had belonged to other deities. No matter. It was worth a try. Brand sent his journal entries detailing plans for a pain alternative to every one of the hundreds of addresses he had memorized. Afterward his throat began to feel strange and the muscles in his face twitched. He laid his head on his arms and allowed his eyes to leak all over them.

Before long, all thoughts of pain fled and all he could think of was his strawberries, dusky with ripeness. He went to his freezer and dug them out. The night was cool, and he dared to make a flame in his living room despite the trauma, and he popped a few icy strawberries in his mouth next to his fireplace, savoring their tart sweetness as he shivered. Fortunately, after he had escaped the Gauntlet, mere proximity to fire no longer burned him.  After his affair with sweetness, Brand went outside, lay down on his back, and gazed at the stars.

Sharp, he thought. At first the word troubled him, but after a moment or two he could see that the stars were not sharp at all, but swirling with radiance, glowing with a soft and welcoming warmth. They are beautiful, he thought. As beautiful to me as they ever were.

For now, that is enough.


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