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the mechanism of grace

by Daniel Abraham


It was the flying dutchman of neuroanatomy; the structure which explained not the self — cognitive science had joined with the Buddha years before to spill the candy from the unified I's piñata — but rather the ability to intend. He spent his days searching his own physiology and others' for a ghostly neuron whose dendrites brushed the abstract soul or a pattern of flesh that could explain how someone could choose to walk or sit, eat or fast, could, in fact, choose anything without invoking God or Gaia or Skinner. He sought the mechanism of will.

Andrea, his wife and chair of the department, often expressed the opinion that the task was impossible — that the structure of intention was too detailed to be comprehensible by its own instrument; that a brain was too complex to be understood by a brain. She phrased it more elegantly.

"Sweetie. It's too hard."

He proved her wrong on the eighth of December, 2033. The wet, thick snow that fell in a soft blizzard restrained him from running naked through the streets screaming Eureka, but his emotions were only slightly less euphoric. Andrea was sitting on the front porch reading M.F.K. Fisher and drinking a bright citrus tea when he came to her.

He showed her the evidence. Here, a loop of neurons mixed with a cocktail of chemicals to create an unstable output. It was this pure impulse — raw, selfless, without content — channeled through the labyrinth of the brain that produced the possibility of choice. Glowing on his screen was the blueprint of free will, and he knew as she looked — as his most intimate critic reviewed his conclusions — that he would be remembered as long as anything existed capable of memory.

"But sweetie," she said as the porch grew darker, the sun setting invisibly in the west, "this isn't a universal structure. There's a bunch of your samples here that don't even show this loop. Look. You haven't got one."

"I know," he said and smiled because, after all, he had to.


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Daniel Abraham has published more than a dozen stories and garnered a good bit of attention, including four honorable mentions in Gardner Dozois's current (Nineteenth) Best Science Fiction of the Year. Look for his work in Asimov's SF Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and The Silver Web. In his day job, he provides technical support, "helping confused, hostile people get their email." He is working on a novel.

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