The Weight of Truth

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This short story consists of an exchange of letters between a neuroscientist and her mentor after she discovers an unusual microbe. Their exchange is meant to explore the nature of truth, consciousness, morality, depression, powerlessness, and hope.

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Submitted: August 12, 2017

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Submitted: August 12, 2017

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July 29, 1982

 

Dear Dr. Liber,

 

I’m not really sure how to put this but I think I’ve made a terrible discovery. A few months ago, a researcher in the cancer unit asked me to look at an unusually large bacterial microbe in one of their samples. They noticed this microbe contained a neural network and they weren’t sure what to make of it. I told them I would take a look and they have since forgotten about it. This microbe is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I could not find mention of it anywhere in the texts. I confirmed with additional cancerous and noncancerous samples that it is, in fact, native to all mammals and is not related to cancer. These microbes live in a thin layer around the large intestine. They appear to help with the digestive system and regulating various hormones. They are much larger than a typical bacterium, and they seem to have an unusually long lifetime; In every test so far, they were about as old as the person they were taken from. I estimate there to be about 2 million of them in each person. I looked through every book in the neuro lab and didn’t find any mention of them, or any similarly structured microbes. I don’t understand how they could have gone unidentified for so long. Have you heard of something like this before?

 

Regardless, it is the neural network in the microbe which most concerns me. Between the microbe’s cell wall and membrane exists a layer of sensory neurons, which connect to a dense, central, brain-like cluster of neurons mixed in with the DNA of the microbe. Altogether, there are roughly 400,000 neurons in each microbe. Out of curiosity, I looked at the structure of both the sensory and central neurons and mapped their connections as best I could. The sensory neurons are entirely nociceptors - pain sensors - specifically, mechanical nociceptors that react to pressure. The central cluster of neurons is remarkably similar to a mammal’s thalamus and cerebral cortex, only it has been stripped down to the bare pain receiving and identifying network with hints of our limbic and emotional systems.

 

There doesn’t appear to be any useful reason for the neural network. It seems to be a bizarre evolutionary byproduct, possibly the leftover neural system of a more advanced organism that, for whatever reason, shed parts of its neural network and physiology over time to become highly simplified. Somewhere along the line, this pain receptive network must have split with the motor network which degenerated as the microbe became functional on a purely chemical level. This left the pain network powerless but still functioning, essentially trapped. In essence, it has the necessary structure to feel pain but is incapable of anything else. A direct comparison of this microbe’s neural network to a human pain network shows, quite unquestionably, that these microbes have the basis for some form of consciousness but their consciousness, whatever it is, can only consist of pain.

 

The mechanical nociceptors respond to pressure, which occurs whenever the cell wall and membrane expand as various chemicals seeping through the tissue of the large intestine are collected, react within the cell, and are eventually passed back out and into the blood stream as a few different hormones. These chemical reactions and cell expansions last for 18-20 hours and are triggered whenever something enters the large intestine, as in whenever we have eaten within the last day. What’s most disturbing is during the entire process the nociceptors and the central neurons are lit up, almost identical to the neural network we see in humans when skin is sliced open, unanesthetized. However, there is no motor neural network, no way for the microbe to do anything about this pain, and unlike a mammalian’s pain network, which can go into shock or divert subjective consciousness and become numb to prolonged acute pain, this microbe's network contains no similar mechanisms; its neurons fire indefinitely, or so long as the chemical reactions in the cell occur. Based on lab testing, this lasts for roughly 20 hours and, like I said, is triggered every time a new substance enters the large intestine. Unless we have fasted for over a day, these microbes are experiencing immense, consuming, continuous, subjective pain. Every bit of evidence leads me to this conclusion.

 

The hormones regulated by the microbes are essential to our digestive functions, and it seems we are remarkably sensitive to changes in their ratios. Testing on rats showed that injecting the bloodstream with only a tiny deviation in normal ratios led to the immediate collapse of the intestinal nervous system, inability to digest, and death by starvation. I have also attempted to recreate these microbes without their neural network but the integrated structure of the central neural system within the DNA makes it impossible to replicate the necessary sequencing. As far as I can see, these microbes are irreplaceable. I cannot think of anything that can fix this.

 

 I have spent the last few months desperately looking for evidence to counter the conclusions I have come to. There is nothing which suggests otherwise. I am housing millions of tiny organisms that are experiencing never ending torture so long as I eat and live. Although I cannot empathize with them exactly, I know, based on all of my research, that they are experiencing immense subjective pain, a continuous suffering which must induce a ceaseless urge for it to end but without any power for it to stop. Torture. Continuous torture. Every mammal on earth is housing these microbes, amounting to inconceivable numbers of conscious things experiencing nearly endless torture.

 

As I write this letter, I contemplate not sending it to you, and not telling anyone about it. I wonder if it would be better to simply let everyone live in ignorance. Given how unlikely it is that I am the first to discover this microbe, I imagine that others have done the same. I wish this knowledge upon no one - it has driven me to insanity. The truth and magnitude of the situation are overwhelming. I cannot conceive of how to go on living knowing what I know, regardless of whether I tell anyone else. This weight, the weight of the suffering of an unfathomable number of conscious things both in me and in others, is too much to bear. And yet, if I do send you this letter, if I do tell anyone else, and if the evidence does come out and I am not crazy, though I hope I am, if by any interpretation of the data my conclusions are true, what are we to do? What am I supposed to do? Kill myself? Kill everyone else? A mass murder-suicide to end the suffering of a bunch of things we can’t even see? Is the suffering existence of one thing equal in weight to the non-suffering existence of another? Very few people, if anyone, could come to this conclusion, regardless of the weight of the evidence. It would be too easy to assume that this was some kind of conspiracy, an evil plan to kill off a bunch of scientists. Even having discovered this by accident, all alone, I still hope that I am dreaming or will figure out this is some kind of sick joke. I am stuck and do not know what to do with this truth that I stumbled into. My mind tells me I need to die, that the best thing that could happen would be for everyone to die. We cannot go on torturing these trillions of helpless creatures. The truth, the evidence, I cannot overlook, but I don't want to die. I want all of this to be untrue. I want this to be a nightmare I wake up from. But it won’t go away. Every day I wake up and for a brief moment I forget what I know, and sometimes during the day I can forget as well, but these moments fade quickly, and I am left to bear the weight of this world of tiny, unseeable creatures, unsure of what to do. I feel trapped and completely helpless.

 

I guess I’m writing to you to feel less alone, to share some of the weight. But I don’t want to drag you into this, I feel terribly selfish like all I’m doing is passing on an incurable disease so that I’m not the only one with the disease. But it's ridiculous to even worry about telling you or caring about myself given the amount of suffering we are dealing with. The moral implications of this are so staggering that to ignore it is infinitely immoral and I would not know how to go on living with what I know, but to do something about it seems insanely irrational and inhumane and destructive and equally immoral, especially from anyone else's perspective. I wonder if a truth of this magnitude, regardless of the evidence, could ever convince someone who has not had my experience or doesn’t fully understand the science. The media, everyone, would come up with a million reasons why this isn’t the case, why it isn’t true. They would paint me as crazy, even if I really wasn’t. Now I can’t even tell if I’m crazy or not. Maybe everyone would be crazy if they knew what I know. I am stuck with no way out. My only hope is that I’m delusional and I’ve gone insane. Somehow I must come to see this in a different light. There is just so much suffering. How does no one else know about this? Do you know about this? I need some further evidence, something more that shows me it’s not what I think. I suppose that’s why I’m really writing you. I need a way out. Tell me I’m wrong, tell me I’m crazy, tell me there’s something wrong with me and not the world. Please forgive me, Dr. Liber, I’m just desperate and I don’t know what to do.

 

-Janus 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 4, 1982

 

Janus,

 

I’ll cut straight to the point. You aren’t crazy and you aren’t alone. What you discovered has been known for nearly two decades now. Though never documented, a few individuals, like yourself, have also stumbled into it. And like yourself, they had trouble telling anyone else. Most confided only in their advisors or mentors - the only people who might believe them. There have been a few others who didn’t tell anyone. We only know about them because the very few recorded suicides of neuroscientists over the last twenty years all included suicide notes with vague references to unfathomable suffering of things they couldn’t see - descriptions indiscernible to the layman, these were desperate attempts to share the truth with anyone who would recognize it, without passing on the burden to the rest of the world. Altogether, there are about 20 of us, that we know of, who currently know about the microbe. Aside from a dispute back in 1974, when Dr. Ophis wanted to reveal it to the public, everyone has agreed that its existence should be kept secret. Oh, and you should probably know that we code named the microbe “Karpos”.

 

Everyone else, like you, wished this knowledge upon no one but could not bear it alone. Without the assurance of someone they trusted, the easiest explanation for such a colossal change in world view was that they had gone insane. After all, the world did not change because of their discovery, only their understanding of the world. So, in this sense, I suppose it is your sanity that has been lost. 

 

However, I hope to assure you that what you believe is real and it is the truth. I and others have come to the same conclusions, and all evidence gathered suggests it is exactly as you have described it. Your lab advisor, Dr. Eris, was actually the first to show me the Karpos about 8 years ago. I have since reached out to dozens of labs and hospitals with a somewhat nondescript letter of inquiry, in hopes of finding others who have come across it. I did my best to write it in such a way that it would only garner a response or be taken seriously by someone who had made the discovery; anyone else would dismiss it as nonsense. As you know, this situation could arise whenever neurologists work closely enough with gastroenterologists, and I did receive a handful of responses, all of which confirm your and my understanding.

 

I realize the situation appears bleak beyond belief. As I write this I am reminded of the weight of the suffering that I carry with me and my blissful forgetfulness wears off. There is no denying the suffering that exists, and there is no forgetting it long term. It lives inside of us for God’s sake. When Dr. Eris first told me about Karpos, and I looked at the samples myself, I fell into a spiraling depression with feelings of immense guilt, similar, I’m sure, to what you are feeling now. Without anyone else to turn to I tried therapy, booze, medications, hypnotism, meditation and anything else I could think of that might help me shift my perspective or make me forget. But none of it worked. I could only briefly distract myself from the truth before it would come racing back to me as a harsh reminder. I could not escape it. 

 

Your sense of helplessness is certainly understandable, I too was there for a time. But there is one piece of evidence, some truth that you haven’t fully realized yet, though you alluded to it when you questioned whether or not anyone would believe you if you told them. You have overlooked your powerlessness. Let me explain. Many years ago, in a moment of weakness, I told my brother about the microbe, or rather, I tried to tell my brother about it. My brother is no idiot, he’s a lawyer and a damn good one, but he was virtually unfazed by my revelation - he shrugged it off with a “so what?” and after I tried to explain in further detail the magnitude of the situation, he just looked at me like I was crazy. Realizing that to press further meant either somehow successfully convincing him of what I knew and uselessly pulling him into this terrible mess, or further convincing him that I had gone a mad, I decided to leave it at that. He was not gripped by the facts in the way that you and I were because they were thrust upon him, rather than his own discovery, and of course, they didn’t directly affect his life, as far as he could see. He couldn’t even accept the truth from his own brother. This is the same experience the others have had. The vast majority of people simply will not be able to understand the science or they will not accept it or they will not empathize with you or the microbes. Whether this is by conscious choice, or their subconscious simply will not allow them to internalize such a terrible truth from someone else I do not know. But I am certain that no amount of evidence will convince most people that they should die and that every other mammal on Earth should also die. Don’t get me wrong, I have had the same thoughts and reached the same conclusions in the past, but I have come to realize just how insane that must sound to someone who didn’t discover this on their own. People’s minds simply weren’t made to think about things like this.

 

Your powerlessness may appear to make things worse, but there is a silver lining. Your lack of influence makes your belief that your death and everyone else’s death is the best thing that could happen, no longer true. Sure, the 20 of us could kill ourselves and maybe we could persuade a few others to do the same, but you have almost no chance of convincing everyone on the planet to die, not to mention killing every other mammal. And how could you possibly say that that is the best possible outcome? You can’t save the world by killing nearly everything on it! The amount of good - or at least the limiting of suffering - that would come out of that pales in comparison to the potential for good that still exists. You have forgotten that just because right now you don’t know how to solve this problem doesn’t mean this can’t be solved in the future. It’s true, we do not have a solution right now and there are trillions of creatures experiencing immense suffering as I write this. However, I am hopeful that someday, maybe not tomorrow or next year or even in my lifetime, we will figure out a way to end this suffering without ending existence as we know it. This wouldn’t eliminate all of the suffering that has already occurred, but it would correct our course of existence for the better and the nearly infinite number of microbes would not have suffered in vain. I may be wrong, we may never find a solution. But right now we don’t have any proof that this is the case. There is still hope. Think of how much the world has changed in the last 20, 50, 100 years! Who knows what technologies and medicines the future holds? One day we may be able to fix this and the rest of the world will never even know it existed. No one else would have to bear the weight of the suffering. Just imagine it, Janus! Trillions and trillions of microbes would be spared along with the unknown number of people who may end up aware of their suffering. 

 

Janus, killing yourself may end your suffering and the suffering of millions of microbes, but a solution to the problem would end your suffering, my suffering, the suffering of anyone else who knows this terrible truth, and the suffering of a nearly endless number of microbes. The potential for good that arises from a solution is nearly infinite. I can think of no better cause and no other hope for us than to strive to end this suffering. Fight the urge to want to die, there is noble work to be done and you are needed. I urge you to bear the weight of this potential. Take on this responsibility. I can assure you it is your best hope to keep on living with this terrible knowledge and try to make a real difference in this world. Work with me and the others, commit yourself to solving this problem, let’s see how far we can get. The worst that can happen is that we fail, and that’s hardly any worse than giving up now. But together we just might find a solution or at least lay the groundwork for the next generation to find it. This is the larger truth that you must see. Look beyond what you know now, beyond the facts to what could be. You must have faith that there is a possible future you can’t yet see. Janus, we might be able to figure this out. We must try to figure this out. For the sake of an infinite number of consciousnesses, we must figure this out. It is your moral responsibility to try. This is the truth that you mustn't ignore. 

 

Janus, I know you didn’t ask for this. I know this isn’t how you expected your life to go. I know you wish you could be like everyone else, blissfully ignorant. None of us asked for this, and for some it has been too much to bear. But the Karpos didn’t ask for their existence either. You can go through the rest of your life trying to forget but you will be just as helpless and miserable as the microbes. Or you can realize that the only difference between you and them is that you can do something about your situation. You aren’t helpless. You still have hope of a better world and a life worth living; a life of the most profound meaning and purpose.

 

I hope you will consider what I have written. Please, meet me in my office Monday morning. There is great work to be done.

 

-Ben Liber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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