calliope, calliope 2016

The Billionaire Club

photo credits here, edited.

by Chinmoy Saayujya

‘Sir! Come here, quick!’

With a twinge of annoyance, Kaufmann put down the mug of coffee on his desk and the book he was reading beside it, taking careful note of the page he was on. The story was interesting, and the doctor would have loved to continue on to the end, undisturbed. He would have done so, but there was something in Walter’s voice, a sort of restrained excitement mixed with urgency, that made him do otherwise. The doctor was very particular about his coffee break, as Walter knew from experience, and did not like to be bothered for trivial matters. Kaufmann, meanwhile, had come to the conclusion the some major breakthrough had occurred, which was why he had decided to interrupt his respite.

‘What is it, kid?’

‘It’s done, sir!’ Walter said quite breathlessly, his face flushed with fervent anticipation. ‘Can we start now?’

‘Are you sure?’ Kaufmann himself was feeling dizzy, a tad overwhelmed. He steadied himself on Walter’s shoulder.

‘Positive. It accepts the data, sir! The test boot went flawlessly!’ Walter’s hands were now quivering with excitement. ‘We need to call a test subject up immediately, doctor!’

‘Now, now, Walter, we have to take this step-by-step. That device is quite dangerous in itself, and if it is not perfect, the subject’s mental function could be damaged, or even destroyed completely.’ Walter was relentless. ‘We’ve been working on this for far too long, doctor. I need to see it in action! The General has requisitioned thirty-five test subjects sir, thirty-five! Using one now would not do any harm.’

Kaufmann felt a little apprehensive of his subordinate’s persistence. ‘That’s enough, kid. You’re off work today. Go on home and rest. I will be conducting a few final tests and we can start with the real guinea pigs tomorrow morning.’ Walter nodded despondently. ‘OK sir, see you tomorrow.’

Kaufmann watched Walter walk down the corridor. The kid’s real intelligent, he thought to himself. A good catch. Could become quite overexcited at times but otherwise extremely hardworking and loyal. It was extremely lucky that he was able to procure the kid’s help at such short notice. Kaufmann himself had to go through quite some trouble to ensure that Walter came to him; a few strings had to be pulled; passes faked on the kid’s failed psychology tests. But in the end it was all worth it. Only nineteen and already working for a top-secret military project. The doctor himself couldn’t predict what the future held for the kid. Funnily enough, Walter reminded the doctor of himself, but a less arrogant version, of course. Kaufmann laughed at the thought, and then was suddenly jolted back into reality. Remembering his promise to Walter, he strolled into the room that contained the machine and sat down in front of the control station.

A few hours later, Dieter Kaufmann walked out of the testing area, picked up the unfinished book from his desk and left the atrium of the Military Research Center.

***

Back at home, Walter Banks was lounging on his recliner, a glass of red wine in his hand. He never quite appreciated the drink, and thought it smelt quite like some sort of medicine, but there was a piquant aftertaste to it which both intrigued him and made him repeatedly refill his wineglass. Walter didn’t care much for wine, but the fact that it functioned as a status symbol and he could afford it ensured that his cabinet remained well stocked. He refilled his glass for the eighth time and sank back into the comforts of his couch. Walter knew that he was an instinctive person, quite spontaneous and not a prospective thinker. But recently, his success in his research with Dr. Kaufmann had made him stop and think about his future. Walter Banks was well aware of his intellectual prowess and was quite proud of it; his friends often found him supercilious. He wanted fame, power, and wealth; expected it, and sometimes even thought was entitled to it. The job he was working in now was temporary, he reminded himself. He would soon move to higher callings, where he would be respected, paid well, and would not have to slog for eight hours a day. A private jet would be at his beck and call, yes, as well as a chauffeured limousine. He would hold social prestige, and would mingle with only the most famous actors, singers and politicians, la crème de la crème. At black tie dinners, he would be a common sight, strolling under crystal chandeliers in a Dolce tux with the stem of a glass of Chandon pinched between his thumb and index finger. Walter stared down at his Merlot with a sudden feeling of revulsion. He would leave the MRC as soon as this project was over, he thought. He could not bear having his scientific genius stifled under the dotard, Dr. Kaufmann. When the General accepted the new device, he would hand in his resignation to the senile doctor and set up his own company, where his dreams of prosperity and puissance would take shape.

Walter Banks went to bed with a smile on his face.

***

‘General Tyson’s office’

‘Good morning Frieda, this is Dieter. Is the General in?’

‘Oh hello, Dr. Kaufmann. Yes, he is, I’ll pass it to over to him.’ ‘Thanks dear.’

‘Tyson speaking’

‘General, this is Kaufmann. Can we have a test subject up please?’

‘Sure. I’ll be sending 4A-75. This one’s in for armed robbery and a double homicide, so there’ll be an armed guard, naturally. Dieter, do you mind if I come over and take a look at the tests?’

‘No problem, General. Thanks.’

‘Anytime, doctor.’

Dieter Kaufmann replaced the phone in it’s bracket and disconnected the encrypted hardline to the General’s office. He walked back to his office and saw Walter sitting at his desk, staring into the distance. The doctor found this unusual for a moment but decided not to let it bother him. After all, today was the day when his greatest project was going to be put to the test. Kaufmann had more pressing matters to worry about.

‘They’re sending him up, kid. The General’s coming to watch.’ ‘Yessir.’

‘Can you set up the device? I’ll see you in the lab in five.’

‘Yessir.’ Walter nodded. He picked himself up and sauntered out of the door.

At nine o’clock on the dot, General Tyson entered the laboratory, bringing along with him 4A-75 and his armed escort. Kaufmann was the last to arrive. The door was locked from the inside.

‘Morning, General Tyson. Due to the complications of this procedure and the necessity for an undisturbed working environment, I have locked the door from the inside in such a way that it can only be opened from the inside. No access cards will work from the outside anymore. C4, thermite, napalm, acid, you name it; it won’t break through that door. I hope you don’t mind. I couldn’t proceed without your permission.’

‘No problem, Dieter. Go ahead.’

‘General, what you see here is a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, neuroscience and engineering, combined to form what we call an Artificial Reality Simulator, or ARS for short. This device is capable of generating neurosignals and passing them to the sensory cortex in such a way that the subject thinks he is truly in a world that is in fact computer generated. Any signals sent out by the motor cortex are then captured and translated by the computer program in the device, which then uses its artificial intelligence engine to process the input and send the corresponding input signals to the sensory cortex again.’

‘You lost me, doctor. I’m trained to kill people, not to understand how they work.’

‘Yes, of course, General. Let me give you an example. Let’s say the machine sends a visual signal to the brain, which makes it believe that there is a gun lying five feet ahead. The brain then decides to pick up the gun and shoot a bullet into the sky. But, before this signal can reach the muscles of the body, it is intercepted and passed to our program. The artificial intelligence engine then does the required computations and sends signals to the brain which makes it see the bullet’s flash, feel the recoil, hear the gun go off, smell the gunpowder and even taste its bitter tang. The actual subjects physical body, however, is not affected.’

‘Hmm… so this machine controls the subject completely?’

‘It doesn’t control, General. The brain is in full control of itself. This device just sets the context and determines how the environment responds. The subject feels no physical effects of the session. He just remembers it later on it as if it were real.’

‘Ah. So how will this benefit the army?’

‘General, we can put soldiers in this simulation and make them experience real wars without risking their lives. They will learn how to fight, shoot and kill, not real people, but elements of a computer simulation. This device alone can make our army the most trained battle ready army on this planet! Apart from this, though, there are plenty of other possible uses. Doctors can practice surgeries safely, amateur sportsmen can play with and learn from the pros, why, you can also spend a day as a billionaire! In fact, I have already written programs for these four scenarios.’

‘Excellent, doctor. I had complete and unwavering faith in you. Your sedulous efforts will be rewarded, mind you!’

‘Thank you, General. Always a pleasure. Walter, turn on the device, please!’

Walter Banks lumbered up to the start switch and thumbed down. But nothing happened. The machine remained dead. Kaufmann stared at his associate with a bemused visage.

‘Hold on a minute General. Something seems to be wrong.’

‘I can see that, Kaufmann. Being in the army doesn’t make me a dunce.’

‘Of course, General. I’m sorry, General.’ Kaufmann, quite embarrassed, ducked behind the machine in an attempt to hide his face and locate the snag. He found it before the General had time to reply; the power was off. ‘We found the problem, General. Walter had forgotten to turn on the power, I believe.’

‘Even a cadet would remember to start a car before attempting to drive it, Dieter.’

‘Yes, General. We scientists are quite preoccupied sometimes. The machine requires another minute to start, General. Sorry again for the delay.’

‘Hmph.’

Kaufmann glanced at Walter. His associate had not said anything to him since the General entered the room. In fact, the kid looked quite unlike his usual self. He seemed far away, pensive, the doctor thought. Wasn’t he rearing to go just the day before? Kaufmann began to feel a little worried. He made a mental note to himself to ask the kid what was wrong once the demonstration was completed. The doctor began to regret not sending Walter to the psychiatrist before signing him on. It was standard procedure, but Kaufmann needed the kid in a hurry. Perhaps this lapse in thinking was taking its toll now. He hoped-

‘Dr. Kaufmann! The machine is ready to be used, I believe.’

‘Yes, General.’

‘What on earth were you standing about for then? I haven’t got all day!’

‘Actually, General, it takes some time for the internal processor to cool down and I don’t want the machine to overheat when I feed in the data. Just two weeks ago, I-’

‘KAUFMANN!’

‘OK… 4A-75, take a seat here,’ Kaufmann said in a peremptory tone.

4A-75 sat down in the large chair in the middle of the room. Kaufmann strutted around him, first inserting a needle into his arm, then connecting leads to his temple, the back of his head and down his spine, making quite a ceremony of it all. He stepped back and rubbed his hands in apparent satisfaction. ‘We are ready to go, General. The sensors and actuators are connected, as well as a nutrient drip that could technically provide him with enough to go on for half a century. I now have to put 4A-75 in an induced state of unconsciousness so that his brain wakes up in a completely new environment and he does not know that this is just a simulation. To him, it would be no different than real life.’

‘Now wait here just a minute. I ain’t letting any of you queers mess with me head.’ 4A-75 sat up straight in protest.

‘Let us? Let us? You have no rights here, you moron! To the outside world, you’re dead. Even the judge who sentenced you thinks you were hanged five months ago! Kaufmann! Put him under!’

The doctor motioned to Walter, who pressed a button on the control panel. The subject gave a twitch and fell back onto his chair, motionless. Kaufmann turned around. ‘General, shall we start with the war simulation?’ Tyson smiled enigmatically. ‘No doctor, let’s play with his head. Send him to the billionaire club. Show him the life he is missing.’

‘As you wish, General.’ Kaufmann tapped another button, turned to the unmoving subject and then glanced at the row of monitors on the wall. The vital signs were normal. Everything was going as planned.

‘Leave him there for four hours, Dieter. Let’s go for lunch. We’ll be back at three. The guards will stay here.’

‘OK, General. Walter, remember to lock the door from the outside this time.’ ‘Yessir.’

‘An interesting security system you have in place here, Dieter.’

‘Yes, General, I designed it myself. I used to operate it too, until I became quite forgetful. Walter here now has complete control. I have to ensure that he never leaves my sight, eh? If I’m doing my work and he decides to lock me in from the outside, I’d never be able to get out!’ Still talking, they walked down the passageway and towards the pantry.

Two minutes later, 4A-75 woke up in a different world. He was lying on a giant white bed, with sheets made out of the finest Egyptian cotton. The subject took in everything; the extraordinary softness of the material, the cool, lightly perfumed air. He paused for a moment and then shouted out for his butler. A man in a black suit left the observation deck of the giant yacht and went to attend to his master.

***

Four hours later, the doctor, his assistant, and the General returned to the test room. Kaufmann walked up to the control panel and turned off the machine. 4A-75 opened his eyes almost instantly and surveyed his surroundings with an air of deepening realization and dislike. ‘SEND ME BACK IN! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME! THAT LIFE WAS PERFECT!’ The General was quite taken aback. ‘My, my! Kaufmann! You have done quite a good job! I wasn’t expecting such a reaction, to be honest.’ The doctor nodded politely. ‘Guards, take him back to his cell.’

‘Hey! You there!’ Walter Banks spoke for the first time. ‘What was it like?’

‘It was unreal.’ 4A-75 was quite calm now, having resigned himself to his fate. ‘A dream come true. I had more than I wanted, more than I hoped for in my wildest dreams.’

Walter’s mind was now a whirlwind of complex thoughts and emotions. Then there was a momentary gleam in his eye. ‘Doctor, why don’t you follow the General to his office and question the subject even further? I’ll stay behind and complete the shutdown procedure.’

‘Why, thank you, Walter! I think I shall. Very kind of you to do so.’ Kaufmann was truly grateful, and felt a surge of affection for his young associate, ever present, ever helpful. He turned and followed the General out of the door. The armed guards dragged the limp, unprotesting 4A-75 along with them and made a swift exit. Walter Banks locked the door from the inside.

***

Less than an hour later, Dieter Kaufmann returned to the laboratory. He made an attempt to open the door and was quite taken aback when he found it locked. He tried again, this time putting his back into it. The door didn’t budge. ‘Walter! Open the door, please, kid!’

There was no reply.

In a different world, Walter Banks was strolling under crystal chandeliers in a Dolce tux with the stem of a glass of Chandon pinched between his thumb and index finger.

***

Notes: This piece was previously submitted to Science Chronicles 2013 and won Third Place in Category A.

Advertisements