MAGNETS OF THE SOUL
J. Robert Dewitt
The nurses open the blinds and tell the pilots it is time to wake up. They roll the carts into the ward and hand out breakfast trays with mashed peas and eggs and fruit all sectioned into shapes. Max sits in his bed and stares at the shapes. He tries to murmur words like circle and triangle, but the words will not come out. He cannot make the smoke.
The students stand in front of Max’s bed clutching clipboards to their chests as the doctor explains. The pilots immersed too far, he says. Their minds entangled with their ship’s computers. He lists off words in his hand and steams out terms like electromagnetic aphasia and backfire inanition and the students scratch down the puffs of jargon with their pens. Max tries to grab the words floating from the doctor’s mouth, but they waft from his hand and fade.
They were all once great pilots, like Trou, who every morning rolls his wheelchair to the lounge windows where he watches the birds on the trees. He sits all day in the sunlight, his shadow revolving around him like a sundial. There is Viktor too, the giant Russian who cannot stop laughing. He strips off his gown when the nurses are not looking and runs naked through the halls, billowing plumes of laughter until the nurses pin him to the ground and stick needles in his butt.
When it is time to sleep, the nurses shut off the lights. In the dark, the pilots whimper in their beds like dogs. Max whimpers with them, dreaming of his life before he could not see the words.
He had come up from Earth on a two-day shuttle to work as a pilot. The move had been hard. His wife, Mary, was back on Earth, working alone, and they had just bought a home together.
“It’s just for a little while,” he promised her in the bedroom before he left. “You know the only way I can be a pilot here is if I gain some wings up there in space. They won’t even look at my resume without some kind of flying experience, and all the starter spots on earth are filled. Plus we need the extra money.”
“I know,” she said, holding his hand. “I just wish you didn’t have to leave.”
“I’ll be back soon.” He smiled. “It’s space. The new frontier. I bet I’ll get a pilot position in no time.”
But when he arrived at Langrage Station 1, everything was taken: the space cruisers, the garbage junkers, the mining shuttles, even the prison transports to the Phobos labor camps. All he could find was a position at a shuttle servicer on the dark side of the moon at Langrage Station 2, a cheap place called Super Space Repairs where some of the smaller, mining shuttles tuned up before their jump to the belt.
His manager was a short, fat man named Gordo who smoked cigars and swore constantly. He gave Max a repair ship from their hangar, an old pre-war type with rusty thrusters and a couple of busted mechanical arms. It was hard getting used to the old controls, but soon enough Max was out fixing shuttles, thrusting a little this way, thrusting a little that way, mending tile after tile on the mile-long mining ships.
Months passed. Applications went out. Max received no offers.
“Please come home,” Mary said over the phone. “Being with you in the virtual web is not enough. I need you here.”
“Just a little more time,” Max said. “Any day I’ll nab a good position, and then I’ll come back, and we’ll be together. We just need to make it through this rough patch. Just think of it as an investment. That’s all it is. An investment.”
Months became more months. Repairs increased. Soon Max and the other pilots could not keep up with the demands of the shuttles.
“We can do better,” Gordo said one day. “We’re putting a new face on this place. Out with the old, in with the new.”
The next day the old ships were gone from the hangar. In their spots stood new repair ships, shiny and sleek.
“These babies don’t need thrusters,” Gordo grinned at Max and the other pilots standing in the hangar. He slapped one of the new ships on its side, the curved surface so polished it reflected his body and warped it into a man even shorter and fatter than himself like a mirror in a funhouse.
“They’re new fangled, these puppies,” he said. “They move using these clouds of electromagnetic particles we got pumping out from our probes floating about. You get that through your heads? The whole things magnetized, so all those electromagnetic pulses are tugging on you here and there and all over. You know, like strings on one of them wooden puppets.”
Gordo removed his cigar from his teeth and blew a milky puff of smoke that splashed across the surface of the metal. He laughed.
“Now get out there and make me some god, damn money.”
The speed of the new ships was extreme, so extreme that Max threw up in the first minute of flight. He could go fast. Too fast. He could travel at 200 miles per hour and come to a dead stop in one second flat. He could zip up and down and back and forth and zigzag and spin. If a refinery shuttle needed service three miles away, all he had to do was attract his ship’s magnetic hull to the quadrant’s regional particles and away his ship went, flying across space, the electromagnetic lines of attraction pulling him at top speed. When he finally docked back at the hangar that night, his stomach felt like a punching bag, and he threw up again in his bunk.
Soon the flying became second nature. Every day the shuttles docked inside the clouds and Max and the pilots fluttered and flashed like wasps about them, their ships’ robotic fingers thin as needles, tinkering with hulls by minute attractions and repulsions, precise and meticulous. But still it was not fast enough.
“We need to go faster,” Gordo said. So they put great computers in the ships, and the pilots wired their brains into the processors. With the mere flash of a thought, they moved their robotic arms and zipped across space.
“We need to be more efficient,” Gordo said. So they connected their minds together via the cloud’s electromagnetic pulses and moved as a swarm about the shuttles. Their thoughts and feelings wove in one great web, each aware of the other, all working as an organic team.
“We need to work more,” Gordo said. So Max went out into the cloud day after day, working until his mind was a daze, and he could barely open his eyes. Then one day he came back to the hangar, and he could not speak.
He was not the only one. Many had felt it. The doctors all had their theories about its cause. Perhaps the pilot was flying in the sphere during the passing of a solar flare, and the electric patterns of his mind mixed with the electric patterns of the sun. Or perhaps the pilot was installing his last catalyst rod, and a small, magnetic meteor flashed through, disrupting the particles. Or perhaps it was something internal that started slowly, nothing saliently wrong at first, a pilot returning to the hangar after his nth repair day, feeling fine, feeling his nth relief from work, eating his nth dinner, returning to his room and scratching out the nth date on his calendar and then waking up the next morning completely changed.
The pilots had all kinds of words for these backfires: frizzled, fried, solared, pancaked, powzzled. They had bought insurance for these. Gordo had warned them of the risks when they entered those clouds of magnetic particles. But the money was good, and everyone knew that speed came with its sacrifices. At least being frizzled or fried was not the worst thing that could happen. At least they did not make a quadrant mistake like Chez and smash into a mining shuttle at 400 miles per hour. They had a word for that. They call that dead. Speed came with its sacrifices.
“Gordo tells me you’ve stopped talking,” the service station doctor said to Max. He shined a bright light into Max’s eyes. Max was silent. He could see words puffing from the doctor’s mouth, but he could not understand them.
Mary visited the next week. When she walked through the medical bay door, he did not stand to greet her. She ran to him and clasped his face in both her hands and cried. He thought he knew who she was, but he could not remember her name. She said the name Mary out loud, and he saw it pass from her lips in a smoky stream, beautiful and smooth like silk. He loved it. He wanted to feel it between his fingers. But when he reached out for it, it vanished, and he could not find it again.
They brought him down to Earth to a white building where a nice woman in a white skirt wheeled him into a white room with white tiles where, standing beside a group of white-clothed young men and women, a doctor wearing a long white coat gazed at Max and smiled and said:
“We have a special guest today, students. This is Mr. Maxwell Harris. He has what we call electromagnetic aphasia. We’re going to be studying him this month, so take notes.”
They did many tests. They looked at his brain with lights and scanners and probes. The doctor pointed to parts and trails of pontificated smoke passed from his lips and whirled around the students. Sometimes the smoke was long and complex. Other times it was terse and short. Then one day he said something that Max had never seen before, and when it flowed from his mouth, it moved like the smoke from an extinguished candle. Ribbon-like and smooth.
“Do any of you know who Thales is?” the doctor asked. “Thales, you know, the first scientist and first philosopher?”
None of the students raised their hands. The doctor smiled.
“Doesn’t matter. What matters is a fragment of Thales that I want to share with you. I think it will help you all understand the pathology here of Mr. Harris. The fragment goes something like this: The magnetic stone has a soul because it sets the iron in motion. That’s it. That’s the whole fragment. Now what do you all make of that?”
The students stood quietly. A few looked at each other in confused glances. None of them understood the significance.
“Now I know what a lot of you are thinking. You might be thinking, geez, what an anachronistic way to think, right? Of course magnets don’t move iron through souls. They move iron by electrons and pulses and quantum forces. But I want you to think for a minute. Ask yourself. What are these electrons and pulses made from? Quarks you might say. And what makes those? String theory you might say. And those? At some point you are as clueless as you began. Shortly you realize that the mystery of how the magnet sets the iron in motion is just as mysterious to us as it was to Thales.”
A student raised his hand.
“What does this have to do with Mr. Harris?”
The doctor smiled.
“That’s what I’m getting at. To say that the magnet moves the iron via a soul is not saying that the magnet has some embodiment of a ghostly spirit. It’s merely saying that how the magnet interacts with the world is through a mysterious force, a force one might call a soul, not unlike the mysterious force of the electric pulses of our brains that set our thoughts into motion, a force we commonly refer to as our soul. In a way, both are alive.
“So, when you look at Mr. Harris, think of that simple fragment I told you. Remember how at first it seemed simple to you. And then remember how it changed its appearance as I explained. Everything interacts in ways we cannot see. Mr. Harris’ mind interacted with a greater electromagnetic soul and came away broken. That is what you must remember about these pathologies. That is what you must think when you diagnosis every disease here. Know that the mind is as complex and mysterious as the world that affects it, and that the motion in our skulls is not immune to, nor so different from, the motion outside it. All right. I think that’s enough for today. Mr. Harris needs his sleep.”
When Max wakes up the next morning, the nurses open the blinds and hand out the breakfast trays. Like every morning, he tries to remember his dreams. But each time he tries, the dream fades away. He feels like a child trying to grasp smoke, opening his mind like a fist and finding nothing there.
During visiting hours, Mary visits and reads him children’s books. It may help regenerate his cognitive abilities, the doctor has told her. Mary she sits in a chair and reads them to her husband. Today she reads him a story about a dog burying a bone. Max watches the smoke flow from her lips. He reaches out and catches one. This time the word does not fade from his hands. He opens his hand and sees the word lying in his palm: Dog. The word jumps like a cricket in his hand. Dog. Dog. He repeats it in his mind, laughs a little. Dog.
Max sits all day in his bed, opening and closing his caged hands, watching the word jump, saying the word again and again in his mind until Trou is rolled back to bed and Viktor is drugged to sleep and the lights are turned off. Dog. He can feel words burgeon around it: dog, bone, bury, yard, grass, trees, house, family, Mary, love, miss.
With each word, he feels a new force added to his life, a new way to pull and move about in the dark space of the night, another magnet added to his soul to set motion to his thoughts. As the pilots whimper, Max smiles. He feels the life of the words breath life into him, and suddenly he can remember the dreams and the ship and the beautiful woman he left so long ago on Earth. In the dark of the night, Max slowly opens his mouth.
“Mary,” he says. “I’m home.”
Food for Thought
This story rose out of a single fragment from Thales:
“The magnetic stone has a soul because it sets the iron in motion.”
At first glance, the fragment seems simple, even uninspiring. But as Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, there is more going on with these pre-Socratic thinkers than meets the eye.
It’s hard to see Thales’ point at first. The word “soul” is a loaded word. We think of angels and spirits when we hear it. But as Professor Stephen T. Asma notes in his article “Soul Talk,” the word “soul” must be looked at through a Wittgenstein lens in which we define soul within the context of language, not via its religious and metaphysical baggage.
Soul here means life. Life means interaction. And though we might scoff and say a magnet is not a living thing, it’s best to pause and think for a moment. The magnetic force that sets iron into motion is not so different from the electric force of our brains that sets our thoughts into motion, a force we commonly refer to as our self, or, our soul.
This story embodies this idea using the most basic element of intelligence: language. Max, the protagonist, has been mentally damaged from using a new type of electromagnetic ship, and he suffers from mental incapacity and aphasia. His struggle to see words again (which appear formless and vague to him like smoke) is the core of the story as he tries to set his mind back into motion and regain his soul.
About the Author
J. Robert Dewitt is currently a law student at Washington University. Though he enjoys the study of law, philosophy as always been his first love. He is currently a staff editor and writer for the Washington University Jurisprudence Review, a publication that delves into the philosophical foundations behind modern day law.
I like this one! Some good characters and emotions to go with an interesting premise.
Typo: “Langrage” should be “Lagrange”.