“She was born with low dopamine, but high cortisol—”
“Because of your anxiety epigenetics.”
The woman glared at her husband who sat next to her on the couch, prompting the counselor to intervene.
“Anything else?” the counselor asked from her chair. “Activities she’s drawn to?” She tapped her electronic pad twice, then looked up to catch the mother’s eyes, distracting her. The counselor could tell that the father was a usual target.
“She likes to dance,” the mother said.
“Kinesthetic propensity.” The counselor nodded and danced her fingers across the pad. “Great. Well, that’s it for now. Her DNA and brain scan will give us all the further detail we need.”
The three adults stood, shook hands—nod-nod, smile-smile, small talk—and the parents left the white room of credentials and inspiring quotes.
Don’t just seize the day, seize your life!
The woman in white pants, shirt, and sparkling faux-diamond jewelry, walked back to her immaculate desk, sat down in front of her computer and requested the little girl’s DNA profile.
“Nothing we can’t fix,” she muttered, sifting through the information.
Ten years later
“But you love to dance.”
The thirteen-year-old girl remained in the car, arms crossed, determined to look anywhere but at her mother.
“You’ve been dancing since you were five. What’s changed?”
The girl shrugged.
“Are the pills not working anymore?”
Shrug. “I don’t know. I just don’t like it anymore.”
The mother chewed her lip, thinking, and rolled her grip over the steering wheel as if she could wring an answer from the hard plastic. Her daughter had exemplary grades, good behavior, and success in her extracurricular activities. Everything was good.
“Well,” she said, watching her daughter not watching her. “We can ask Authentic-U. They’ll know what to do.”
Shrug. “Just don’t wanna dance today.”
Another young girl walked by the car, and the two teens caught each other’s eyes. Mother didn’t see, but daughter smiled and continued watching the pretty girl as she passed.
“Hormones. Easy,” the rep from the agency said. “Just have to counteract the negative effects of raging hormones.” He laughed on the other end of the face-to-face call. “Perfectly normal. In fact, you should have been sent something about it when she turned thirteen a few months ago.”
“Oh,” the mother said, relieved. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Of course. Don’t worry, all physical changes will still occur normally, it’s just the imbalance of certain neurochemicals that we’ll mitigate.”
“You should get a chip soon. It’s an easy set up. Just a small adhesive chip near the temple that can analyze and regulate the brain activity and chemistry for optimal mental health. It relays info to us and we can create the correct dosage and behavioral therapy to balance everything out.”
The mother laughed. “Wow, can I get one?”
The agent echoed her laugh. “Sure thing. Just have to sign up.”
She waved the joke aside like lost dreams. “Just kidding. Can only afford one family member right now, and we want the best for her.”
“Of course. Got to give her that winning edge in life.”
“Especially these days. Nova’s a special girl.” Her grin solidified like uncapped glue.
“Of course.” His perfect white teeth glowed like strips of LED's.
Ten years later
“How did you know you wanted to be a mountaineer?” Nova asked her girlfriend.
Her lover, Macey, untwined her legs from Nova’s, rolling over to prop herself up on her elbows.
“Just knew it.”
“What do you mean? Like, how?”
Macey smirked. “It’s what I’m best at, and I like the attention.”
Nova pushed her, and the two women laughed with youthful, carefree smiles of love-colored paper and glitter. The dog barked from the other room.
“What?” Macey said. “Brain chemistry off? Did A.U. tell you the wrong careers to pursue? Maybe you need to take some of their ‘experiences.’” She air-quoted the last word with her fingers, and Nova watched the woven muscles of her shoulders flex. Macey was all muscle. Five foot three of perfect muscle and attitude. She never wavered, never questioned herself, never doubted, feared, or was unhappy with her interviews, channels, sponsors, and ten million followers on social media. She had made the perfect life for herself thanks to Authentic-U.
Nova rolled onto her back. “Yeah, maybe. I used to dance you know.” She raised an eyebrow.
“Oh?” Macey raised her brow as well. “You should get back into it, so I can throw roses at your feet.”
Nova shrugged and looked anywhere but at her three-year-committed girlfriend. “Nah, lost interest.”
A wet nose tickled her foot and she jumped.
“Deva,” she gasped. “Geez, dog. You just went out. Again?”
The wolf-dog whine-barked, wagging its tail.
“If only you had the self-actualization Deva had,” Macey joked. “She always knows what she wants and is happy with her choice ‘cause she doesn’t question it. Just moment to moment authentically dog.”
Macey laughed, but Nova’s smile slid from her face as she got up to obey her wolf’s command.
“Would you like our three week or ten week intensive?” the agent at Authentic-U asked her.
Nova fidgeted in her seat, not looking at the agent on her screen. The agent noticed.
“How about the ten week,” he suggested. “It involves a variety of self-actualization experiences including, meditation, horse-back riding, sports, art, music, solo wilderness trek, weapons training, dance, and more.”
His grin could’ve melted pearls. “Modern, classical, and free-form.”
Nova chewed her bottom lip. “All right. The ten week.”
“Great! Let’s get you signed up.”
Five weeks in, Nova was having the time of her life. Everything had been spectacular. The only hitch was the nagging feelings of uncertainty, doubt, and waywardness that lurked in her mind. Some voices told her to do one thing, while others contradicted it a minute later. She felt like one person in the morning and by nightfall someone else. How could she ever ‘find’ herself if she was so many ever-changing selves?
Weapons course was tomorrow, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Guns and knives had never been an interest of hers, but whatever. She’d at least give it a try. Why not? Which was essentially one of the questions she had to answer after every new experience. What did you enjoy about the experience? What didn’t you enjoy? What did you learn? Would you do it again? If not, why? How do you feel right now?
Sharing her thoughts and emotions was never something she’d enjoyed, so her responses were brief. Something the agents noticed.
The next morning her and her group were taken to an arena for some virtual warfare. She chose the more fantastical looking game where the weapon was a magical sword and all she had to do was defeat goofy looking creatures. That seemed less stressful than the more realistic options. At first, it wasn’t bad. After an hour of battling magical creatures and gathering glowing crystals she was actually having fun.
“Would you like to try another game?” one of the trainers asked her when she pulled off the virtual reality glasses.
She paused for a moment, then said, “Yeah, what’s next?”
“Here.” He handed her a V.R. helmet and took the glasses away.
He helped her put it on and a three-dimensional landscape materialized in front of her. It was a forest, but everything had an ethereal, bright glow to it. A few weapon choices popped up in her field of view: bow, knife, staff, or gun. She picked the bow and arrows, and the game commenced.
In the beginning, she felt the familiar rush of adrenaline and she missed the third warrior racing at her out of the underbrush. His all-too-real axe swung in an arc and she screamed, pulling off the helmet, her heart racing. The trainer gave her a sympathetic smile.
“I know it’s scary,” he said, “But give it another try. I think you’ll find some benefit in facing your fears.” He winked.
Nova didn’t return the smile but did as she was bid. This time, something changed. She took a deep breath and a wave of calm washed over her. When the warriors came at her she fired off five arrows smoothly, perfectly. The next ten went down just as easily. She’d never felt so focused, so in the moment, so confident. When her arrows were out, she quickly switched to staff. When that broke, she selected the gun. When the bullets were gone, she stabbed her attackers and didn’t stop defending herself until the game declared her victorious.
Feeling elated and wonderfully alive, she pulled off the helmet and turned her head to smile at the trainer. Her smile faltered until she saw him walk into the room from an adjacent one.
“Oh good,” he said, arms wide. “You finished. Well?”
She swept her sweaty bangs away from her face. “That was awesome!”
“I’d say so.” He laughed. “You were in there for two hours.”
She stared at him. “Two…two hours?”
His laugh echoed around the spacious room. “Didn’t feel like it, huh?”
She shook her head, blinking.
He took the helmet from her.
“Well,” he said, setting down the device and reaching out to touch her shoulder. “If you had fun you can always do it again tomorrow.”
“I can?” Her heart thudded with adrenaline, not from fear, but excitement.
“Sure. When a client seems suited to a certain task, we encourage it. That’s the point of what we do.”
Macey put down the cocktail she was about to clink against Nova’s in salutation.
Nova remained holding her glass aloft. “Yeah,” she said in a tone that suggested there was no argument or guilt trip allowed.
Her rock-climbing, nature-goddess of a girlfriend was a mask of incredulity. “But, you hate that kind of thing. You’ve always been a neurotic, indecisive, hot mess when you’re under pressure.”
“A hot mess I love regardless, but—” She raised her hands and shoulders up—“This is from that A.U. trip? They told you to do this?”
Nova scoffed. “No. They didn’t tell me to do anything against my will. I’m just really good at this, and I like it. I mean, really like it. For once in my life, I have a passion, a purpose. This is it, Mace, this’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Can’t you be happy for me?”
“For killing people?”
Nova sighed, staring into her girlfriend’s eyes. “I’ll be in the recovery unit. Not the front lines. We go in with armored tech-suits, grab the wounded, and get out. I’m saving people.”
Macey looked away and leaned back in their booth. Their favorite club hummed and throbbed with heavy base music, flashing lights, and suppressed glutamate and increased dopamine. She picked up her ginger-mint garnished glass and raised it towards Nova.
“To finding your true self and purpose in life.” But there wasn’t much conviction behind her words.
They clinked their glasses, sipped, and made love later that night. The next morning, Nova awoke to discover an empty bed and a phone full of empty words.
"I don’t think I can do this." Macey had texted at five in the morning. "Your decision has—according to my A.U.—lowered my serotonin and dopamine levels, and increased cortisol and neural activity in regions related to depression and anxiety. So, for my own well-being and to be true to myself, I need to stop seeing you. I know you’ll understand, eventually. Sorry. I did love you. Really."
Nova threw the phone down on the bed, tears filling her eyes, and had a sudden desire to fight and kill some enemies. Grabbing the V.R. set that A.U. had given her, she submerged her pain in virtual death.
Ten Years Later
“She lived a full life, a happy life. Though she will be mourned, know that in that grief there was a soul filled with purpose, meaning, and pride. Captain Nova DeBelle led her last mission into battle with bravery, honor, and a furious love for her country.”
Macey hung back behind the gathered mourners and soldiers as the secular priest droned on. Though she hadn’t spoken with Nova since their break-up eight years prior, no matter what she did or how A.U. tried to help, she’d never fully mended that tear in her heart. Her current relationship didn’t know about her first great love, nor that she was watching Nova’s ashes being lowered under an Infinity-tree No amount of salt-water could cleanse the pain Macey had known she’d have to face one day. She’d tried to escape it eight years ago, thinking that she could remain unscathed.
With a sobbing moan, she threw down the red rose and walked away. In order to get over this heartbreak, she’d already booked an A.U. month-long nature-bonding retreat, and then a week-long intensive called Fighting for Forgiveness. Her now one hundred million supporters were also there with pillars of empty words on social media. She wasn’t alone. She was on her path, true to herself. There would be pain but never regret. Never regret.
A.U. Headquarters five months later
“So,” said the promising intern, “we manipulate them?”
The man, who’s smile had once melted pearls and glowed like lights, rested his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “No. Not exactly. Don’t think of it like manipulation, more like…” he took a slow breath. “More like suggestion. We help lost souls find themselves. ”
“Byyyy changing their brain chemistry and—”
“Guiding them towards their true purpose and passion.” The older man patted the intern on the back to emphasize his disarming laugh. “If you look at the stats crime and suicide has dropped dramatically since A.U. came around. Or how about this; We know that the will to act begins on a subconscious level already. A program can predict your next motor function, whether it’s your hand or lips, long before you’re even aware of it. We know that genetics, culture, and experience dictate nearly every thought, action, and reaction in one’s persona. We also know that it’s as easy as one-two-three to tweak genetics, neural connections, and brain chemistry, so why not use that technology to more efficiently help people?”
The intern’s lip twitched, and his superior saw the doubt washing away in that near-smile.
“People have been altering their brains for eons in search of finding that perfect self in that perfect moment. Tired? Take caffeine. Sad? Take an anti-depressant. Afraid? Try cognitive therapy. Anxious? Glass of wine or toke of marijuana. Full of existential dread? Go on a ‘spiritual’ retreat. Need a spark of creativity and awe? Why not fire all those neurons at once with LSD?”
The intern blinked but the older man barreled on, driving his point deeper into the young man’s psyche.
“Why not pull all of those options together with personal data instead of trying a cocktail of different drugs, or haplessly wandering from one experience to another? Wasted time and effort trying to 'find yourself.’ Am I right?”
“Now try to realize this.” The man raised his hands like he was about to physically pass his next words to the intern. “Chaos and order exist simultaneously in the brain. Free will"—he laughed—"really is a damn illusion whether you like it or not. Multiple perceptions of the so-called ‘self’ exist in your mind and everyone else’s mind, moment to moment, year to year. We’re all just a collection of stories we tell ourselves and each other. So!”
He slapped the youth’s chest, who flinched but released the reluctant smile his boss had been excavating.
“If someone’s uncertain what their story is, we help them find it. If someone is genetically predisposed to low serotonin or high testosterone, we help them balance it. If someone has a mental disorder, we help them find order. Through a series of controlled experiences, medications, and cognitive re-wiring we’ve shown hundreds of millions of people their true selves and true paths in life without the hassle and expense of futile searching. By helping them, we ultimately help all of society. Everyone finds their purpose and place.”
With a deep breath, the young man nodded and raised his eyebrows. “And that’s what the Bravery Helmet does, sir?”
That pearl-melting smile, framed with age, stretched wide. “It’s helped thousands find a strength they didn’t know they had.”
“And helped the military gain thousands of soldiers. How many millions, exactly, have been manipulated to be what society needs them to be? How many minds have you altered with those helmets, and pills, and so-called therapy? How many lives have you ruined because your methods aren't fail-proof? What to do with those who don't conform, those poor, tortured souls?” The intern shrugged. "Why, kill them, of course."
The old man’s grin fell away as the young man raised a small home-printed gun.
“Thanks for giving me the bravery to fight for forgiveness.”
With a grunt, the CEO of Authentic-U fell against the white wall, then slid down a red one.
“For you, Nova.”
Lowering the gun, Macey felt no regret.