A Simulation by Philip Charter

Piotr tapped his signet ring on the metal seat in front of him. He watched the ‘distance to destination’ clock tick down one-tenth of a mile at a time. After months of planning, he couldn’t afford to attract suspicion by arriving late to his simulation appointment, but the driverless bus inched along, stuck in the block gray outskirts of Sheffield.

A girl with tattooed hands unscrewed the top to her lip balm and released a synthetic cherry smell. Piotr still remembered the sharp taste of the fruit from when he was in Poland—from before the fallout from the power facilities and the mass-migration that followed. Back when he was a boy, his mother would send him out to find the fruiting trees in the abandoned groves. Piotr filled the buckets she gave him and ate as many as he could stomach. His family had stayed behind with the dying trees.

The synchronized bleep from passengers’ smartwatches told him oh-nine hundred had arrived and the bus came to a stop outside the Department of Wellbeing, Cognitive Section. If he hurried, he might make it into the building before nine-oh one. Piotr pushed his way in front of the groups of workers and walked toward the entrance double-quick. He scanned his lifecode at the entry barrier and received clearance to enter. The double-height glass doors opened. Only one minute late. The government employees filtered through access-code barriers and Piotr was left unaccompanied, standing in the mirrored lobby waiting for instructions. The operators of The Simulator would be watching him, observing that day’s subject.

Although he was about to steal information that could result in an espionage conviction, Piotr waited with no nervous pacing around the hard floor or inspecting of his receding hairline in the mirror. He thought about his colleague from Metropolitan Hospital, Dorota. She wouldn’t be able to resist checking for gray hairs or crows-feet wrinkles, even though she looked younger than her forty-six years. The jokes they shared in the break room made the dull days pass quicker, in ways AI interactions couldn’t replicate. What would she think about Piotr’s heist? As the minutes passed, Piotr found himself revisiting summers spent in the countryside, before his parents were quarantined in the Warsaw fallout district and he left for England. The images of green hillsides calmed Piotr and stopped him from sweating under the glare of the lights. Was that the point where it became normal to attach monetary values to real people as collateral damage?

Piotr resisted the urge to fidget with his hands and did his best to look bored of waiting. The Simulator was designed to make citizens more productive—to show them the best versions of themselves. Most test subjects sought the answer as to what their ambition was. Piotr already knew. He had already achieved his ambition of becoming a brain surgeon, but he found the reality of performing ‘cognitive realignment’ procedures unsatisfying. Now, he wanted to go deeper, and help develop organic intelligence by building his own machine.

Without warning, the doors slid open, revealing a corridor with a deep red carpet and smooth walls. As he passed into the space, he saw a single painting of sunflowers in a vase placed above a computer terminal. Real flowers would have been too much trouble to change. No pictures celebrated the history of The Simulator, and no photographs gave clues of the previous citizens randomly selected for trials. The computer displayed a consent form stating that he’d read the pre-testing materials and agreed to the terms of the trial. Piotr touched his index finger to the signature reader. Following the instructions, he removed his smartwatch and his grandfather’s signet ring and placed them in the box provided. The doors closed behind him.

A woman in a navy suit entered through a panel that had no signs of being a door. Piotr felt a little underdressed in his tracksuit, but he wanted to appear at ease. The woman’s lapel badge indicated she was the subject liaison officer. Her face was as plain as the walls of the building. “Good morning,” she said. “This way, Mr. Woyzeck.”

They walked down long corridors, through heavy doors guarded by armed men. These machines were more valuable than the lives of the hundreds of test subjects that used them each year. Piotr understood enough about memory to know the procedure could endanger something critical, like the already grainy mental images of his departed family. As they walked, the suited women reminded Piotr of the need to create an ‘earth,’ a strong image that would help guide him out of simulated vision and back to reality. For the second time that day, he pictured cherry trees.

“The team will perform the procedure here.” She motioned through a glass panel to the examination room.

A brown leather recliner sat fixed to the middle of the tiled floor. The sides of the room were studded with control boards and two-way mirrors. Two technicians in blue uniforms and face masks punched in commands.

Piotr was familiar with the process—first the headpiece, then the epidural tap. He listened to the safety briefing with his hands in his tracksuit pockets. He extracted the tiny transfer chip from its casing and pinched it between his finger and thumb. One quick movement was all it would take. The projected vision of his future would begin slowly and increase in pace. Real-time physical readings would be cross-referenced with his life data and the questionnaire he’d completed. The code he planned to extract would enable Piotr to run his own simulations through the machine back in his room in the city center.

The technician approached with the aluminum headpiece. Piotr did his best to avoid his heartbeat climbing to a suspicious rate. Just before the man tightened the metal band, Piotr held up his hand.

“Just a second.”

The technician glared.

He inserted his index finger under the contact pad and pressed the transfer chip onto the skin on his right temple. He scratched up and down at his imaginary itch. “That’s better.”

The technicians looked at each other for a moment. Had they seen the chip? The taller one lowered his mask as if he was going to say something. He scratched at his neck under his beard and replaced the mask. The men continued their work.

Piotr closed his eyes. The key to forecasting human potential came from stimulating positive memories, like those Piotr had of pre-disaster Poland. Yet, the stronger the amplification, the greater the likelihood of those memories getting warped or destroyed. Apart from his grandfather’s ring, he didn’t have a single possession to remind him of that time. The Simulator was a delicate balance of progress and ruin—it could push people toward their perfect form or leave them as empty shells. Even if it meant breaking the law, Piotr would find the advantage human brains had over the AI-run empires.

“Relax your body, sir,” said the technician, with the same indifference that Piotr showed during his surgery observations. “The machine will find its—ah, we’re in.”

Piotr hadn’t felt the needle enter his back even though he’d seen the size of it in the instructional video. In fact, he’d watched all the videos that existed, read the books written by the machine’s creators, and even belonged to an online community that shared information about trying to reverse engineer the technology for the benefit of all. That was something he’d left out on his pre-trial questionnaire.

He thought he’d be excited, eager to get a look at the equipment and experience his first real ‘vision,’ but now that he was here, a tranquillity washed over him, like he didn’t need to worry about petty things such as his impending life-partnership match or his career. The sensation, he imagined, was what opioid medication felt like—floating on high.

A voice, which seemed distant, asked if Piotr was ready.

He gave the signal. “Begin.”

A jolt of current went through the metal headpiece and the transfer of memories and data commenced. As the moving pictures of his life events ran through the next few days, then months, Piotr lived his potentialized life at an ever-increasing speed. He saw himself working on his own simulator, making a breakthrough and actualizing a live test. His future self seemed stable, important, happy. He was back at the Department of Wellbeing but it seemed brighter and more welcoming. The staff knew him. He had a passcode. The pace of the simulation quickened. People, events, and thoughts blurred into each other, but in his drug-induced haze, Piotr understood them all as if he’d lived them.

The distant voice returned. “…Visuals are off the charts… possible over-exposure… should we keep running?”

Piotr did not panic. He was not fully cognizant of the danger, and he accepted it. He needed as much data on his transfer chip as possible, even if it meant he lost part of his brain function permanently. The visualizations had jumped forward several lifetimes, and in the partial images that followed, he got a fleeting glance of worlds beyond his comprehension as a neurologist. People had harnessed technology to grow their brain function, not just to mimic it.

“Grounding subject.”

The visions in Piotr’s mind dissolved into the image of a fruit orchard. He felt the breeze on his skin and the sun shining through the branches of the trees. The blues, greens, and reds of his childhood returned. Instead of viewing his life through a lens, Piotr felt himself sitting in the leather recliner once again. He opened his eyes to white light.

The technicians had removed their masks and were talking in hushed voices in the corner of the room. Piotr thought he heard them mention a ‘development program’ with more tests. When they noticed he was conscious, they stopped talking and returned to the middle of the room. One of the technicians disconnected the headpiece while the other powered down the machine. Piotr sat upright with a jolt. The chip.

He made a grab for the headpiece, still in the technician’s hands. “Can I take one last look?”

The man eyed him suspiciously. He handed it over. “Be careful.”

Piotr studied the connections and display lights with great intensity while he felt for the chip with his right hand. “Amazing technology,” he said, turning it over. Finally, he detected the chip bedded into the pad. He scratched it with a finger. “I can’t wait to find out my results.”

The technician reached for the device and began to pull it from Piotr’s grasp. Just before he took it, Piotr managed to work the chip free and extract it under a fingernail.

The second technician spoke. “Place your hand on the table, Mr. Woyzeck, palm up,” he ordered.

Piotr stiffened. If his pulse were still being measured, it would have shown over one hundred and forty beats per minute. He slowly placed his hand on the table.

The man looked up to meet Piotr’s eyes. “I didn’t realize you were left-handed.”

Piotr managed to stutter something about being ambidextrous. In his right hand, still hidden under the recliner, he squeezed the chip further under his nail.

“Very well. I’ll attach these sensors to conduct your exit tests.”

As Piotr nodded a bead of sweat ran down the armpit of his outstretched arm.

The technicians attached the clips to his hand and gave him the full repertoire of reaction tests, then took some blood. He managed to work the chip out from his fingernail and into the protective case in his trousers. Then, with the two technicians on either side of him, Piotr marched down the sparse corridors in silence.

The subject liaison officer greeted him with his results. This was the moment where subjects discovered what they could become, and what they might achieve in life. She looked at the results screen in front of her and sighed. “Well…”

“Is anything the matter?” asked Piotr, trying to act like the results were more important than the chip currently housed on the inside of his waistband. He leaned forward.

“I’m sorry, sir. It says here, you’re to report tomorrow at oh-nine hundred to discuss them.” She didn’t exactly look encouraging.

“All right, then,” said Piotr. “Shame you can’t tell me anything right now.” Once he got back to his apartment he’d have twenty hours to modify his own simulator design and upload the data, twenty-one hours before they came looking for him. He turned to go.

“Wait,” said the woman sharply.

He held his breath and turned around.

“You forgot these,” she said, holding up his watch and signet ring.

Piotr rode the lift up to the twentieth floor of his accommodation tower. He resisted the temptation to check the transfer chip for damage. The carpeted corridors were almost as bare as those in the Department of Wellbeing and a lot older. Patches of wear showed the path of the residents to and from the lift, but it was rare for Piotr to encounter any of his neighbors. When he pressed his fingerprint to the panel of unit 20-139, the door to his room slid open.

He shuffled in through the narrow hallway and sat on the wooden stool in the alcove which connected his bed space and shower cubicle. Piotr extracted the chip from his waistband and inspected it for scratches. Nothing. Above him, screwed to the shelving racks, were rows of processors, illuminated by flashing red lights and cooled by the whirr of built-in fans. He looked at his watch. Twenty hours to conduct his experiment.

Before Piotr connected his metal headpiece and pinched it tight around the temple, he thought about his parents dying their slow death in Warsaw. That familiar lump returned to his throat. He was their compensation, gifted a new life and a good education in Britain. In his mind’s eye, they waved at him from their modest house. Would they be proud of their son, a criminal? He inserted the data chip into the control panel positioned in his lap and modified the parameters of the simulation to match those from the official test. For the Government, the machine was simply a tool to improve their geopolitical standing but for Piotr, The Simulator was an obsession; it was the bridge between now and forever, the solution to automated lifestyles programmed to put commercial interests ahead of human suffering.

Piotr felt for the entry point of the previous epidural tap. The puncture mark was too small to detect by touch, but a stinging pain told him when he’d found the wound. Piotr jabbed the needle into place and depressed the plunger. He exhaled and braced himself. These were the last of the drugs that Dorota had rescued from the hospital incineration unit.

The concoction of out-of-date painkillers and lucent serums hit his bloodstream like a bus crashing through a wall. He slumped back onto the alcove partition behind him and the syringe dropped to the floor.

This time the images arrived at a much faster pace than his previous efforts. In it, Piotr saw himself go to work and watched the 3D printer fill holes in brain-surgery patients’ skulls. He ate lunch with Dorota. When he returned to his room, he worked on his homemade simulator, tinkering with the apparatus and code. He viewed himself from above, conducting tests, but could not see the visualizations his simulated avatar experienced. Did this version of himself know even more because of its simulation? Going one level deeper was surely the key to exponential human potential. The pace of his life events quickened, but he never made the major breakthrough he hoped for. Piotr lived a long life, fathered children, and ended his career as a respected surgeon.

He needed to picture his ‘earth’ image, but rather than grounding himself and exiting the simulation after one cycle, Piotr allowed the system to recalibrate and start again. It might be his last chance to find the key that unlocked the human mind. Anyway, by the time he was due back for his return appointment, they would have discovered the data breach. He had to continue.

Piotr’s brain moved forward and generated the next simulation at an even faster pace. He sought to improve on his choices and their outcomes. His simulated life flashed by and took him further away from his earth image of a cherry orchard. This time, he successfully altered his machine. He put on a headset, one with more advanced-looking controls. Piotr watched himself insert the epidural and set the test parameters. As he watched his avatar flip the data transfer switch, Piotr’s mind cast him into the new vision. A deeper level of virtuality. What he saw amazed him. By realizing ideas born in multiple-level simulations, people could shape the future however they chose. With this technology, the functions of organic brains were limitless.

But there was no time for Piotr to process his breakthrough. His body, still slumped against the alcove wall, pulsed with the flow of information from his homemade machine. The system rebooted again and cast him straight into another simulation. Piotr’s thought processes, his multiple-level projections and imagined lives became ever quicker and more powerful. He watched as humans realized their dream of spreading the species throughout the galaxy; they traveled back and forth in space and in time, they lived for centuries and they fixed the impossible problems of previous generations. There would be no more automated disasters like in Poland.

After one hour plugged into his updated simulation, Piotr had lived hundreds of lives, going deeper and deeper into the visual loop. He could no longer ground himself to exit. The most knowledgeable being that had ever lived was trapped within the confines of his own mind, sitting in a tiny Sheffield flat.

Searing pain shot through Piotr’s back, up to the base of his skull and deep into his forehead. His eyes and mouth clamped shut in shock. He couldn’t feel his legs.

“Piotr, you there?” The voice sounded close but he couldn’t tell from which direction it came.

He managed to force his dry eyes open and light from the window and the open door flooded in. It was morning.

“Let’s help you up.” The voice belonged to Dorota. She must have used her guest code to get into the apartment.

Piotr rubbed his temples and found some kind of metal clamped to his head. Surely, that was the source of the pain. A hand touched his cheek and a pair of green eyes stared into his. How long had he been sitting on the stool?

Even in his exhausted state, Piotr wanted to make notes from what he could remember of the incredible new worlds he’d visited. There was so much to record, but it was fading, just as dreams slip away in the moments after waking. Each iteration of the experience faded with every passing second.

Piotr heard the sound of boots marching up the hallway, stopping outside unit 20-139. There was a pause.

“Get me some paper,” he said. “I need to—”

Before Piotr could finish his thought, a team of men barged into the apartment, crowding the tiny space and blocking the exit. “Step away, ma’am. We need to speak to Mr. Woyzeck.” 

Dorota protested but they shoved her out into the corridor.

After a few seconds, Piotr’s eyes adjusted to the light to see two security men in uniforms. They couldn’t just gain access to his space. They didn’t have the right.

“A missing person concern was logged when you failed to attend your appointment,” said one of the men. “Subject looks dangerously dehydrated,” he said to his colleague. “Administering fluids.”

Piotr tried to turn his head, but his reactions were slow. The men held a sports bottle to his mouth, pinched his nose, and squeezed. “Hold still.”

He spluttered but was forced to swallow some of the liquid. Piotr winced as they ripped out the epidural tap.

He recognized the bearded man in front of him but wasn’t sure from where. Piotr couldn’t even remember connecting himself to the machine in the room with all of its blinking lights. The pain behind his eyes throbbed and he felt the need to vomit.

“Sir, we are detaining you on suspicion of possessing classified information. We will continue this interview at the Department of Wellbeing. Do you understand?”

Piotr drifted in and out of consciousness, still thinking about committing what he’d experienced to paper.

The flat smelled odd, sterile somehow.

The second security man was fixing restraints to the woman in front of him. She struggled to regain the use of her arms. “What did you see, Piotr?” she shouted. “Tell me.”

Piotr held the bridge of his nose to alleviate the pain behind his eyes. “Where we’re going,” he said, “and how to get there.”

The security men lifted him onto a portable gurney and began checking his vitals. One of them removed the headpiece and Piotr fell back into a deep sleep.

Piotr looked through the wide window into the examination room. The team was ready to conduct the first test. On the other side of the glass were ten subjects seated in their brown recliners and above them on the back wall, a painting of sunflowers in a vase. They had been selected to represent the nation: men and women of different ages, ethnicities, intelligence types. Although he’d never spoken to them, he felt like he knew them from the questionnaires they’d completed and their reactions to the preliminary tests.

He still felt the pain behind his eyes most days, but today Piotr felt upbeat. He and the others running the program were doing the right thing. In the right hands, human-directed AI could improve lives.

“Test Subject One, ready?”

The teenager wore an anxious expression. She crossed her arms, revealing the black and green tattoos on her hands.

Piotr called the other test subjects in turn over the intercom. He watched as they responded and looked to each other for support. After months of work, he was ready to oversee the Government’s first forays into amplifying the capabilities of humans. Piotr wasn’t sure how many months it had been exactly.

He turned and looked at the team behind him with their blue uniforms, devices at the ready. A tranquillity washed over him, like he didn’t need to worry about the future anymore. It was his own machine, but testing the new Simulator was infinitely more important than the cognitive realignment surgeries he used to perform. These people had interviewed him, asked him questions he didn’t know the answers to. They were keen to take down every detail of his multi-level vision, even when it became harder for him to remember. They assured him the information from his final simulation loop would be the last to fade. When they understood his memory was dying, they consoled him. They laughed and cried with Piotr, thanked him, and promised that their work would honor him.

In a few more weeks, Piotr Woyzeck wouldn’t remember them either. His mind was decaying from the endless simulation loops he’d subjected it to. He trusted his team to do the test right this time, start slow, scale it up nationally, and find a way to use what was now being called organic AI. They said the project was for the benefit of everyone.

Piotr thought the woman who was Test Subject Number Eight looked like someone he knew. She was pretty. A relative? Someone from back in Poland? He hadn’t been back for so long. Piotr sat in the leather chair in the sterile room and one of the members of his staff passed him his medication and a beaker of water. “Here you are, Mr. Woyzeck.”

He took the pill and returned to observing the ten subjects through the glass.

“Piotr, remember why you’re doing this,” said the pretty test subject with graying hair and the onset of crow’s feet. “Think of cherries, the orchards, the fallout in Wa—” The sound from the intercom cut off before he could hear the end of what she said. He wasn’t sure if he liked cherries. He’d have to go and look at his folders of notes where his memories were recorded. Although the woman could not see him, she obviously knew he was there, behind the glass.

Piotr stood and walked the length of the observation room a few times. He took the portable control panel with him. Nobody intervened or tried to stop him. In the quiet of the moment, he searched through the archives of his mind for where he knew her from. Looking into the examination room, he watched the ten people, some standing, arguing with the technicians. One of the recliners had been knocked over. He didn’t hear a word of what was said. While he waited, he tapped his signet ring on the metal case of the console in his hands.

It didn’t matter he wouldn’t be present for the full duration of the trials. He’d already lived it, seen the results and applied them to the next set of test subjects. It would be his name people mentioned when they talked about the discovery of organic AI, but before long, he’d remember nothing of the past or the present. He would live only in distant potential futures.

Piotr studied the connections and display lights on the control panel with great intensity. He set the parameters to allow for maximum visual amplification, but only for a microsecond. He wondered which test subject could be trained to potentialize fastest. Perhaps it would be the tattooed girl or the woman who had talked about cherries.

A member of staff in a blue coat touched Piotr on the arm and guided him back to the leather chair. He felt calm, as if he were floating. He thought he heard a distant voice saying something about stopping the test. Piotr looked through the glass and saw the ten subjects fading from view. An image of rows of cherry trees heavy with fruit washed over his mind. It was familiar somehow. Then, it dissolved as quickly as it had appeared.

Piotr raised his hand and said, “Begin.”

Philip Charter is a British writer who teaches writing to non-native English speakers. His work has been featured in The Lit Quarterly and The Corona Book of Science Fiction among other publications. In 2018, he released his debut short fiction collection, Foreign Voices. His story The Fisherwoman won the Loft Books Short Story Prize 2021. Find out more at his website.