Black Sands

Photo by Velvetfish

The headlands had looked inviting from the Golden Gate. When they round the bend at Hawk Hill and start down the one lane, 18% grade descent, they find a less hospitable atmosphere awaiting them on the ocean side. Within a hundred feet they are entombed in dense fog.

Emily feels a mild panic from the passenger seat. She soothes herself by reaching her right index finger to the inside of her left wrist and stroking the soft skin in a slow circular motion.

Jack is driving slowly, hands tight on the wheel. Usually this stretch of Conzelman Road is a front car of the roller coaster experience, with a dramatic drop off on the left side and unhindered views of the coastline stretching out in front of you. Today, Jack is fixated on the road, with such limited visibility he can barely anticipate the curves.

“Uh, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” Jack says with a nervous laugh.

Jack and Emily are here on their third date, and this destination was Jack’s idea.

“No, this is great,” says Emily. “I love the fog.”

They make their way to Upper Fisherman’s Parking Lot in silence. It is only a few minutes, but Emily feels every second of it. Why can’t she think of anything to say? She resumes stroking her wrist.

Jack parks in the empty lot and gets out to stretch. Emily busies herself in the car for a moment, collecting herself and the things she wants to bring down to the beach. She feels better and smiles to herself. This is going to be fun, she thinks.

Jack opens her door and holds his hand out. She accepts his gesture, putting her hand in his. It feels comfortable, like they have been together for years.

They walk to the trailhead, their skin and clothes already damp with fog. They can see about ten feet of the steep dirt trail, but not much else.

As they start down, Emily asks, “Why do people love the ocean so much?”

“Don’t you?”

“Yes, of course. But it seems hard wired into our biology to love it. Why do you think that is?”

Jack makes a skipping step and kicks a rock off the cliff. “Uh, we can eat things from it. We can clean and cool off in it. There are people hanging out near it with their bodies on display. The ocean is beautiful.”

Jack runs down a short stretch of especially steep trail, then whirls around to face Emily as she catches up. She runs to meet him.

“Interesting that you mention beauty,” Emily says. “To seek out beauty is a less obvious fundamental animal drive.”

“Sorry to be so obvious,” Jack teases. He stuffs his hands into his pockets and continues walking.

Emily pushes on. “I’m just saying it is interesting that you lumped in beauty with our other basic human needs. Do you think we need beauty?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say we need it.”

“I wouldn’t either, but we clearly do seek it. We feel good when we look out at a natural scene.”

They break below the fog and pause to take in the view. Tall black cliffs jut out into the sea on either side of the dark sandy beach, creating a protected cove. The thick clouds block the sun, so ocean and beach look monochrome. A significant shoreward wind produces visually striking white caps atop the large waves rolling in.

The beach is completely empty. Combined with the ceiling of clouds and the power of the wind and waves it feels at once intimate and unreal.

Emily brings her arms together and starts to stroke her wrist, a fidgety habit that Jack noticed on their first date. He thinks it is adorable. He walks up behind her and pulls her close.

“I am feeling pretty good right now,” he says.

“Me too.” Emily lets herself be enveloped by the warmth of Jack’s body. She leans her head back into him, and his breath is hot on her ear as they both look out at the waves. She continues to stroke her wrist.

“I think beauty is an abstraction of human needs,” Emily posits. “Our animal ancestors came to the ocean because of all the concrete needs it provides. At some point in our evolution we started to feel calm and joyful simply looking at the ocean, in anticipation of our needs being fulfilled.”

“I can see what you are saying, but what about all the other things we find beautiful? All beauty can’t be connected to needs like that.”

Their bodies fall apart and they make the final descent to the beach. They discard their shoes and belongings on some rocks and walk toward the water. The sand is coarse and damp, cold against Emily’s skin. It hurts her feet a little but she likes it. She misses the tough soles she has in the summer. By this time of year her callouses have all worn away.

“I was just reading about a new pill you can take that makes you feel like you are looking at something beautiful, even if you are just staring at the wall,” Jack says. “Even if you are looking at dog shit. I hate big pharma selling us delusions. It completely disconnects us from reality.”

Jack picks up a big rock and throws it into the ocean like he will get points for velocity of impact.

“I don’t know about that,” Emily says. “Plenty of medicines have helped people live better lives. Happier lives.”

“Ugh, that is the biggest delusion of all. We aren’t meant to be happy all the time. What the hell kind of life is that?”

Jack throws another rock.

“And now they are making mood altering implants that,” he makes air quotes and puts on an exaggerated mocking tone, “last a lifetime.”

Jack runs his hand through his damp hair and looks at Emily. “As though that is some kind of selling point.”

Emily steps forward into the water. A wave crashes into her legs. Watching her feet sink into the dark sand as the water recedes gives Emily a bit of vertigo. She reaches for her wrist.

Jack notices her fidgeting and softens his tone. “I mean, I get sad sometimes,” Jack continues. “We are meant to get sad sometimes. It is the cycling between happy and sad that makes us human. It is what motivates us. Without the alternations between states, we are dead in the water.”

“Some people are dead in the water because of their mood disorders,” Emily says, thinking of how good it feels to float in the ocean.

“I don’t know,” says Jack, turning his attention to the ground and starting to slowly stroll away, bending over to collect flat rocks. “When I go from being happy to sad it shakes things up. I get a lot of new ideas. I evaluate myself and come out stronger. I don’t know who I would be if I was just happy all the time.”

Jack tries without success to skip a rock on the turbulent water.

“Well, that’s nice for you. I have known plenty of people who don’t experience life the same way.”

“Look, I study computational models of systems,” Jack plows on as he continues to try skipping stones. “Every system cycles between states. I can adjust things so that the cycles happen faster, or so that the level of a state is higher or lower. Most systems are robust enough to compensate for that. But if I change the variables in a way that breaks the cycle, the system fails.”

Emily is looking past Jack, toward the cliffs. She can see the layered earth tipped sideways. She read somewhere that the headlands started to rise out of the sea about three million years ago. Now the weathered cliffs are falling back into the sea.

“Consider this beach,” Jack says, reaching for an example. “This sand used to be part of a massive rock, but it was worn down into sand, and someday it will be buried deep enough to become rock again. That cycle has been happening forever. And do you know what would happen if the cycle stopped? Do you imagine we would just get to keep this beach exactly as it is? No. Without the cycle the earth as we know it could not exist. Our brain is no different. Our brain is a system that produces consciousness. If you think of our sense of continuity and self, our subjective experience as an awake and alive human being, as the surface, it is the cycles churning beneath the surface that keep it all going.”

Emily watches the sand tumble in the waves and resettle on the shore. Though it looks uniform from a distance, sand is actually made up of many different types of rocks. She sees black, rust, amber, gray, green.

“Humans are only a hundred thousand years old,” Jack continues, “and we are already mucking about with our cycles, thinking we know what is best. We can barely define what consciousness is, much less understand all the cycles that support it. And then in comes big pharma selling happiness and people buy it even though we don’t really understand the consequences.”

“Okay, okay. I get it,” Emily says. “But what makes you think drugs make the brain stop churning? You said you can change certain variables without breaking the system, right?”

“Right.”

“I think scientists and drug developers have come a long way in understanding how to regulate mood. Yes, in its infancy, mood pharma sold pills that they didn’t understand. They just knew that it worked for some people. Those early pills were a blunt tool to elevate neuromodulators at all times in our entire bodies. That has completely changed in the last fifteen years. The implants are much more precise.”

“Well, even if they do understand what they are doing now, I still think the goal sucks,” Jack says, finally giving up on skipping rocks and dropping the remainder of his collection on the ground. “I mean, great, so now you can take a pill and sit around feeling happy. Guaranteed this time. Then what?”

“Stop harping on happiness,” Emily says. “Jesus, I am sorry that I ever said the word. You are right, people don’t want hedonistic happiness. They might think they do, but they don’t. People really want self-actualization. They want fulfillment. Who is to say that these new implants can’t help people become their best selves?”

Jack shrugs. “All I know is, I will never get an implant. This human enhancement tech creeps me out. It isn’t going to work out well for those who try it, just watch.”

Emily realizes that she is shivering, from anger as much as from cold. Jack notices and says, “I’ll go grab a blanket.”

As Jack walks away Emily traces circles on her wrist, roughly with her thumb this time. Under her skin, the peripheral terminals of her synthetic nerve sense her touch and send an electrical signal along the length of the nerve cable into her brain. There, one central terminal releases serotonin into the prefrontal cortex, and another releases dopamine into the nucleus accumbens lateral shell. She feels herself become calm and focused.

Four months ago, Emily was among the first hundred people to receive a Living Synthetics implant. At a quick doctor’s visit, a small incision was made to place the implant, about the size of a grain of sand, just below cervical vertebra 7 at the base of her neck.

Once in place, the implant initiated its program. It extended peripheral and central projections, guided by molecular nanosensors embedded in the tips. Within three weeks, the projections had grown to their targets: The peripheral terminal in the skin of her inner wrist, and the central terminals in the specified locations in her brain.

Now Emily has control of her mood. A simple stroke of her wrist triggers the release of neuromodulators exactly where she needs them to produce a sense of focused well-being.

At first Emily only used it when she felt deeply anxious or depressed. It was immediately effective. The relief from her debilitating mental state felt something like waking up on your first day of full recovery from the flu.

So this is what life is like. I had forgotten, she thought.

She found that she was able to get things done a lot more efficiently, and to interact with people with ease.

She soon found herself going for her wrist for lesser evils, such as feeling a bit foggy headed, or having self-critical thoughts. It helped. She was more alert and able to focus. She still felt like herself, but only the best parts of herself. She had always thought of herself as someone with a lot of potential, but for the first time she felt like she could actualize that. She had accomplished more in the last three months than she had in the previous three years.

Lately she had been experimenting with applying more pressure. It gave her an extra boost, bordering on sexual arousal.

Jack is back with the blanket, and he wraps it around Emily.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks.

“Rocks,” she says.

Emily looks at Jack’s face. He hasn’t been weathered by the elements too much yet at twenty-six. His skin is still clear of sun damage and wrinkles, and he has all of his thick brown hair. He is most attractive when he smiles. His eyes sparkle then, making him appear playful. More often his lips make a straight line.

Too bad, she thinks. I was just starting to like him.

She strokes her wrist.

Jack sees, and puts his arm around her.

“I need you inside of me,” she says, laying the blanket onto the sand.

He grins and says with affected confidence, “You think I am beautiful.”

A few minutes later, as he enters her, she thinks about how they are on the edge of inhabitable space as it slowly falls into the ocean. And she smiles.


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