by John Tissandier


A dystopian story that combines current politics, sci-fi and horror. The main characters are: Dominic, who works at 10 Downing Street; Peter the CEO of HPS (Hard-Problem-Solved), a company that specialises in developing intelligent systems based on both silicon and living cells; a shadowy figure referred to as the Master; and a famous philosopher who died in 1832.

"That will be all, Boris."

    Boris bowed deeply and left the room walking backwards. Dominic took off his glasses and wiped them carefully. That man was driving him insane, but for now he was a necessary evil - a performing seal fit only to entertain the vast pool of ignorant fools. The main thing was that it was all going according to plan: he was ensconced in No10 and his pistachio ice cream loving Master was pleased.

There was a knock on the door. "Enter."

    A heavyset man came in and deposited a box on the desk.

    "Did you have any trouble?" asked Dominic. He was looking at the box with great curiosity, but did not touch it.

    "No, sir. It all went smoothly and we left the replica in its place."

    "Good. Have the box placed in the boot of my car."

    "Yes, sir."

    Dominic made sure all the papers on his desk relating to the NHS sell-off were safely locked away. As he left Downing Street he mused that it was one thing to be thought a genius by one's minions, but it was quite another to keep it up. He needed some fresh inspiration.

A few hours later he was sitting in the boardroom of HPS (Hard-Problem-Solved), a company that specialised in developing intelligent systems based on both silicon and living cells.

    "How's it going?" he asked his old friend Peter.

    "Much better since since you managed to swing that government contract my way."

    "Excellent," said Dominic. "I'm sure the tax-payers will be impressed with what you achieve with it, and if not it will soon all be forgotten."

    "Let's hope so," said Peter stroking his well-groomed beard and reflecting that he was lucky to be living at a time of many concurrent disasters so that there was no time to investigate any of them. "So, that's it." They both looked at the box. "How old is it?"

    "Well he died in 1832 so you can work it out," said Dominic.

    "And you think he can help?"

    "Listen, the guy was a genius. He was reading Latin at three and went to Oxford just nine years later. He was a brilliant philosopher and a great Englishman."

    "To be truthful," said Peter, "all I know about him is 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. But what I'm concerned about is whether there's enough viable organic material in that box for our plan to work."

    "It's your job to make it work," said Dominic sternly, then he added, "but you should read him. He wrote about every subject under the sun; he was still writing in his eighties."

    "Is it time to open the box?" asked Peter.

    "Yes," said Dominic and for once this supremely rational man was unable to control his emotions - his excitement was palpable.

That night Peter lay in bed reading a book about the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, born in London 1748 and famous for his doctrine of Utilitarianism. In his will he had left instructions for his friend Doctor Southwood Smith explaining what he wanted done with his body:

"The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me."

Peter discovered that not all the post-death procedures had gone according to plan. The head had turned out so hideous that it had to be replaced by a wax head à la Madame Tussaud's. The dressed skeleton had started out in the Cloisters of the Wilkins Building, then much later been moved to the atrium of UCL's Student Centre on Gordon Square. Bentham's real head was kept locked up and out of public view elsewhere at UCL. And now it lay in his lab waiting for the attention of his scientists and technicians. That night he dreamt of Frankenstein's monster...

The months passed. Busy months sorting out secret deals with American companies and turning the civil service mandarins into eunuchs. Today, once again, Dominic was heading up the M11 towards Cambridge and the headquarters of HPS. Next to him on the seat was a thick file emblazoned with the HPS logo, a clever composite of both analogue and digital shapes that suggested a cyborg. Despite believing he had a prodigious IQ, the scientific details had been too much for him. Understanding the complex architecture of neural networks was one thing, but combining that with the use of neuro-chips that coupled organic living cells with silicon circuitry was another. Even the bog-standard parts of the system had been tweaked by using components that combined photonic circuitry and electronic circuitry on a single chip. One thing was clear: the line dividing living organisms and machines had become very blurry indeed. All this powerful hardware was linked to an ocean of data, including the archives of the civil service, and the greatest philosophical writings of all time, and the tiny seed that would set the initial direction for this goal-seeking, artificial behemoth was the DNA of Jeremy Bentham.

    Dominic recalled a recent phone conversation with Peter.

    "He spoke about his childhood in Spitalfields."

    "He spoke!" had exclaimed Dominic.

    "Yes, we've fitted a speech synthesizer."

    "But you haven't asked him the question yet?"

    "No," had confirmed Peter. "We're waiting for you before we ask the question."

The car drove into the HPS corporate campus without being stopped and minutes later Dominic entered the main lab.

    What the hell was this?! The place looked like a Spielberg filmset. The grotesque head of Jeremy Bentham was centre stage, lit up with as many flashing LEDs as a tower computer specially designed for a nerdy teenager. They'd "borrowed" the box not to resurrect Bentham's biological brain as such, but to retrieve biological traces. The whole thing was a bloody sham. In one corner of the room he recognized several Russian oligarchs and in another corner there was a large cortège of men in grey suits. He hadn't organised any of this, but he understood immediately what was going on. Peter was prancing about as if the whole thing had been his idea. He was making a power grab and wanted the people who wielded power to know he was at the centre of this breakthrough.

    "How do we proceed," asked Dominic, "do we have to ask the question?"

    "No, it's already been programmed in," explained Peter. "On my command the technician simply has to press this button and the system will begin seeking the optimal solution."

    Dominic calmly walked over, stretched across the technician's console and pressed the start button. At first nothing happened. Then the perpetual humming in the lab and adjoining rooms, filled with servers and cooling systems, became more intense - almost painful for some. It was a tidal wave of white noise, but to Dominic it was beautiful. He heard the ravishing sound of gushing data, marshalled down arterial cables by logic, and felt an intoxicating rush of power.

    It was probably an illusion caused by reflected light, but the eyes in the head began to shine. Its skin was brown and wizened, the nose sunken, the lips paper thin, but the eyebrows were still present. The eyes were large and an extraordinary blue. They were not Bentham's biological eyes of course, they were the original glass eyes he had chosen for his 3D skeletal avatar which he had carried around in his pocket for years before his death.

    The monstrous hybrid of AI and salvageable remains of Jeremy Bentham was coming alive, or if not alive then as close as science could manage in the early part of the 21st century. The voice synthesiser produced the electronic equivalent of a throat being cleared and then spoke in a slow gravelly voice.


    There was a pause.


     And with that all the lights in Bentham's head winked out.

    Cries of dismay rang round the room; Peter looked utterly crestfallen. This was not Jeremy Bentham! How could the creator of Utilitarianism spout the exact opposite of his central precept? The technicians tapped on keyboards and checked readings, but to no avail.

    Only one man remained unaffected and as silent as a mummy. Finally, Dominic slowly lifted his head; his face was not showing disappointment, it was displaying a huge grin. Without bothering to approach any of the assembled VIPs, and not wishing to speak to Peter, he found his car and headed back to London. There would be an hour or two to think in peace.

Of course, it all made perfect sense. It was genius! It was confirmation that he had been going in the right direction all along. He laughed - more suffering! That idea would go down well with the Master, who wanted the UK broken into pieces. But the brilliant thing - the most brilliant thing of all - is that all the time it would be serving Dominic's own secret plan. What happens if there is the greatest suffering for the greatest number? Well clearly only the strongest survive. If life is too easy then the weak somehow manage to hang on and it all degenerates. Everything (including A-levels) becomes devalued. After he had finished with the country the only things left standing would be fear and suffering - soft rocks are washed away, hard rocks remain - it would be the optimum conditions for the rise of a new super-race! The Master was not young and would pass away, then he Dominic would be left in sole charge of this sanitized sceptred isle.

    The details would have to be worked out of course, after which he would pass on a simple summary to Boris who would wave his arms about and do his performing seal act for the media. Only then would the PM be allowed another holiday.

    By the time he passed the junction for Stansted Airport the fate of 66 million people had already been determined at least in outline.

© 2020 John Tissandier

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