‘Lost In Thought’ Chapter two – The Brainchild
Richard Trescerrick glanced across at his old friend Seb Morley, the only one here he really trusted, then turned back to the computer and entered the numbers. Morley shielded him, making sure no one else in the lab could see.
“I’ll tell no one,” Richard said. “Not even you. Not yet. Not until I’m sure about Dubois. I don’t trust the man. Never have.”
“You’re sure about this algorithm? I don’t want to face a firing squad if you’re not certain.”
“Don’t worry. It’s all in the maths.” Richard gave Morley a grim smile. Years of work, decades of research had led him here, to the final piece, the algorithm that solved the feedback loop conundrum. The formula that made the Brainscape safe. “But there’ll be no firing squad for you. It’s my formula. I take the first hit.”
Richard made the final adjustments to the neuro-signal processor, then changed the settings so they couldn’t be re-used. Or decoded. No one was getting this formula until Richard had answers.
He would face death inside the game. If it all went right, if the algorithm worked, he would wake up, alive and unharmed, his heart unshaken, his sanity intact, his mind alert and undamaged.
“If this works,” he said, “we’re ready.”
“We go public?”
“Finally. We’ll take this invention to the world.”
Richard pointed towards the medical beds on the other side of the lab, built in the basement of the manor house company headquarters. Above each bed, a skull-shaped tangle of metals and wires.
“It’s time,” he said, and brushed the nurse away. “I don’t need the tests every time. I know my own invention.” He lay down on one of the beds and fitted the Brainscape helmet to his head.
“The usual,” he told the assistant. “The World War Two scenario.” He glanced across at Morley on the next bed and nodded. The two men had created this game to test the potential of the device. An immersive role-play set in Nazi occupied London, involving spies and deceit and double-dealing. This time, though, Richard would take the game to its logical extreme. “Safeties off,” he said. “They’re no longer needed.”
In truth, the safeties had never worked. One dead colleague, another insane, a third in a coma, could testify to that. Now things were different. This time, Richard would battle the forces of darkness inside the game. He would offer himself as a sacrifice, put his life on the line. His life’s work would be vindicated. He would prove his invention was finally safe.
“Lock the doors,” Richard told the team hovering around the beds and monitoring the equipment. “And for god’s sake, don’t anyone contact Dubois. Let him a stew a little longer.”
The phone on his desk rang. Bernard Dubois looked at it, took a breath, paused for an instant, then picked it up. “Richard?”
Damn. Adam. Dubois put on his smoothest, most confident voice. “All is well. Making good progress. Very close to a breakthrough.”
“The knives are out for the PM. I need to make my move. Is it ready?”
“They’re running tests, as we speak,” Dubois said. We’ll know today.”
“I need this. You promised this would work.”
“Have no fear. It’ll be ready.”
“But how long? There could be a challenge within days.”
“Just a little longer. I’m waiting for a call, they’re finalising tests.”
“Get back to me. I need an answer.”
Dubois put the phone down and shuffled papers on his desk, barely seeing the words. They were so close, but it all hung in the balance. One man dead, another a vegetable, and a third riddled with confusion, his neurones fried.
Make it safe the regulators bleated. Make a breakthrough the shareholders begged. Make it safe, before the money runs out. Money owed to the worst kinds of creditors, the kind to put a chill into any businessman’s heart. The Government, the City, his wife’s parents. His own father.
He lurched to his feet and opened the window to feel the cool breeze of the summer afternoon. The smell of cut grass wafted from the grounds below. In the distance, the sound of children playing, high-pitched, happy voices drifted from the village primary school. It reminded him how much he missed his own boys, off at a private establishment, two hours drive away. So young, but it was the way things were done.
Half past four. The end of the day, the investors had said. Where was the man, Trescerrick? Did it work or not?
He should go down there. Maybe they were dead? Was it safe? That was all he needed to know. He’d held them off so far, the wolves circling the company, ready to bring it crashing down, but not for much longer. Not without making it safe.
He breathed in the warm June air, closed his eyes and listened to the sound of cars in the distance, the hum of a lawnmower, the songbirds of Oxfordshire. The ringing of a telephone broke his reverie and he snatched at the receiver, saying a silent prayer for good news.
Richard waved away the medical team trying to prod and probe him.
“How did it feel?” Morley pulled the Brainscape helmet from his head, untangling himself from the jumble of wires.
“I’m fine. A shock to the system, no damage.” Richard spread his arms wide, a triumphant smile on his face. “It works.”
A cheer rolled across the room, people hugging and celebrating, congratulations and slaps on the back. He heard a champagne cork pop.
“You jettisoned early,” he called across to Morley. “Any side effects?”
“It was fine. I felt free to disconnect whenever. No more being trapped until the end.”
“So we’ve done it.” Richard wished Elisabeth was here. How proud she would have been.
“You’d better tell Dubois,” Morley said.
“At least he’ll be happy this time. He can finally make his money.”
Richard was tired of arguing about the damned money. Dubois had been brought in to find investors. Instead, Richard was pouring in his life savings to keep the company afloat. Selling Elisabeth’s parents’ place, turfing out Luke. But the Brainscape was so close to being ready. They had to keep going.
“How much do we tell him?” Morley said. “How far can we trust him?”
“It’s time we found out,” Richard said. “Send them off.” He gestured towards the rest of the R&D team. “Tell them to celebrate. I’ll get Dubois down here, give him a demo.”
“Pick his pocket.” Richard gave Morley a grim smile. “Distract him, rummage around. Find out where he keeps his secrets.”
“Find out about that second device,” Morley said. “It’s gone somewhere.”
“And his business partners,” Richard said. “It’s time to find out what plots the man has been hatching.”
In the basement of the manor house headquarters, the Brainscape operations room was primed and ready to go. Richard had the equipment prepared. All he needed was his victim.
Dubois bounded in. A beaming smile evaporated when he realised everyone but Richard had gone.
“They’re celebrating. The pub I think.”
“What’s this formula?”
Richard hesitated. “Advanced math. It wouldn’t mean much. But if things get too intense, you wake up. Exit the Brainscape automatically.”
“No heart attacks?”
“No brain damage,” Richard said. It was the heart attack that had done for Jacobsen, while Jenkins had been left in a coma. But Richard was haunted by the memory of Porteous. The man was a shell, a gibbering wreck, brain turned to mashed potato, as Dubois so charmingly put it. If it wasn’t for the government investment the project would long ago have been called to juddering halt.
“We’ll need tests, follow procedures, before we go public.”
“But the shareholders, the investors. We can tell them. You’re sure? We’re there?”
“Still work to do. But we’re sure.”
“Show me, let’s see it in action.” Dubois lay down on one of the Brainscape beds and pulled the helmet onto his head.
“You won’t notice much difference. It’s the same Brainscape.” Richard adjusted settings. Dubois was there for the taking. Because there were things only Richard knew. Such as how to lock the doors, bolt them so tight no matter what metaphors they threw at you, there was no escape.
Dubois sat up and leant on one elbow. “We can end it, whenever we choose? No need for all that metaphor? The phone calls?”
“Jump out any time you want. There’s no time limit.” Richard made final adjustments to the software settings, and pressed the enter command. He crossed to one of the empty beds and put the helmet on his head as he lay down.
He focused on his muscle relaxation routine as the whirring helicopter beats of the brainwave entrainment thumped in his ears. He felt his body slip away, his mind floated free. The lights of the room span around him as he was tugged into the vortex, the outside world faded to a dream and his thoughts converged on a single point of light that dragged him forward and hauled him down, sliding into the rabbit hole, submerged into the Brainscape.
Bernard Dubois picked himself off the floor. Where were they? It looked like a market in the Middle East. It should have been an uproar of colour, but the world was diminished to black and white, subtle shades of grey.
People won’t pay for this, he thought.
A policeman across the street looked at him suspiciously, blew a whistle and shouted in French. A hand clapped him on the shoulder. It was Trescerrick. “We’ve taken a wrong turn,” he said.
“It’s not all black and white, is it?”
“Of course not. Give me a moment.”
Richard hailed a taxi and a 1940s black Citroën pulled up, driven by a Moroccan man wearing a fez. Richard half pushed Dubois onto the back seat. “Take us to the mountains.”
Moments later the car stopped on a mountain pass in the Alps, snow on the peaks, the world ablaze with colour, the air fresh and sharp with the cold.
“One of the new gaming programs,” Richard said. “Ski racing. I know you love skiing.”
“That last place looked familiar.”
“Old film set. One of many. They’re not complete.”
Richard steered DuBois towards a ski-lift. “We haven’t dared try this program before, in case someone fell and broke a leg.”
At the top, Richard handed Dubois a set of skis and pointed him towards the piste. “See you at the bottom. Then I’ll show you more of the safety features.”
Dubois looked at him through narrowed eyes, as though he suspected something. Richard knew the chance to try out the black run would be too much temptation. Sure enough, Dubois pushed himself off with a shriek of pleasure.
Richard watched until the Brainscape CEO turned sharply, disappearing behind a clump of pines. Then he turned and headed off-piste, up and over and across the mountains, slipping unannounced into Bernard Dubois’ subconscious mind.
Richard stood in a street that looked not unlike Geneva on a rainy Tuesday. On the opposite side of the street stood the kind of bank only the stupidly rich could use. Typical of Dubois, he thought, using a Swiss bank account, no doubt a safe deposit box.
He crossed the road, and sauntered into the building. He had to avoid detection, cause no alarms, because he was interacting directly with Dubois’ subconscious defences. Richard was convinced the man would be distracted, probably doing something similar, rummaging around trying to find the algorithm.
But he’d never know where to look.
Richard strode into the bank’s foyer and clicked his fingers at a clerk who loitered behind the reception desk. Now the hard part. Even here in the dreamworld he struggled to tell lies, make something out of nothing, to speak things that weren’t true.
Standing taller, gripping his belly muscles, his jaw set hard as a Hollywood heartthrob, in a gravelled voice he announced a false name.
The clerk paused, as though sensing something was wrong, but a moment later Richard was asked for a fingerprint, a password. He scribbled on the paper, the first nonsense that flashed across his head. A gamble. If the clerk raised an alarm, it might bring Dubois, get the man’s conscious attention. But Richard was calculating, sure Dubois would have rushed things, trusted to his luck and charm, instead of being meticulous and setting up rigorous defences.
Security should be all or nothing, he thought. If in doubt, hide in plain sight. Moments later, he was alone inside a room with a safe deposit box. He opened it, took out the precious paperwork and began to read.
Richard flung the Brainscape headset to the floor. “I’ll stop you if it kills me. This is not a weapon.”
“What’s wrong? Talk sense man.” Dubois fumbled with the wires, tearing at the connections, muttering under his breath.
Richard stomped towards Dubois, wagging his finger. “You think I don’t know? I’ve seen what you’re up to.”
Dubois stepped back. “What’s this formula? You’re holding out on something.”
Richard turned, crossed the room, his hands gripped together in anger, as though he didn’t trust himself. “You think I’ll give it to you now?”
Dubois put his head back and puffed out his chest. “I run this company. Where do you think the money comes from?”
Richard pulled at his collar to ease the pressure on his neck. “You won’t get away with this.”
“It’s good business,” Dubois said. “That’s what we’re doing here. Making something people can use.”
“Helping people. That was the idea. Therapy, not torture. Brain-washing.”
“You’re over-reacting. Sit down and talk.”
“I’ve seen your plan. Over my dead body.”
Dubois pursed his lips as if considering a suggestion. “You’re a shareholder. You stand to gain.”
“There are laws. Standards. Right and wrong.” Richard kicked the bed next to him, rattling the headset.
Dubois held out his hands, his voice calmer. “I do what works. So do you. We’ve been investigating options, that’s all.”
“They’ve been using it. On suspects.”
“Lives are in the balance.”
“You won’t get away with this. I’ll expose you all.” He knew he held the trump card, the algorithm, locked in his head. “You’ll never get that formula.”
“Is this blackmail? We pay you well. But if you want to negotiate a bonus…”
Richard stared at Dubois for a moment, as though he hoped the man would turn to stone, then spun around, stormed through the door and slammed it behind him. He swept across the lobby, barged the front door open with his shoulder and paused on the driveway, breathing deep.
He’d got that all wrong. He should have waited, but he’d put his cards on the table and opened a rift with Dubois. And when it came to poker, when the stakes were high, he knew Dubois cheated.
He fumbled in his pocket for his car keys. At least the algorithm was secure, concealed in his memories where no one would find it. Cloaked in a riddle wrapped inside a metaphor and left out in the open, where no one would look. Hidden beyond cunning, because no one knew him well enough.
No one had the keys to open that lock.