THERE ARE CERTAINLY EASIER ways to make a living than what I do, but they aren't nearly as much fun. Then again, neither are the easier ways as risky as what I do.
I got into the business of risk after I dropped out of high school, got my GED and fibbed about my age. With the GED and the fib about my age, I initially managed to get into the Coronado SEAL Teams and I worked very hard to keep up with the other guys. I had a little success and a little failure. I was involved in what became a one man operation and I beat the odds to make it a success. However, due to the methods I used, they threw me out of the SEAL Teams when I got back.
I got a few jobs as a result of a little publicity that leaked out about my first operation. I managed to make the jobs I took on a success, often by using unusual tactics.
I'm now offered a job for more money than I have ever made in my life. The job seems easy enough on the surface, but there's this one little problem. Apparently no one has ever come back from the job alive.
I sit across the desk from Janice. Janice is an old lady of oh, maybe a bit past thirty years old. However, she's kept herself in shape and she still looks damn good!
Janice looks searchingly at me for few moments and then tells me, "James Aquila, we have a reality simulator beyond anything you have ever even imagined. It should allow us to train personnel in a variety of situations, without having to move the people to remote locations. Right now, we only have one training location, a location that seemed ideal for our initial evaluation. However, the people we send into the simulations die."
I ask Janice, "Are we talking simulated death or actual death here?" I then watch her face closely as I wait for her answer.
Janice grimaces. "James, a volunteer is strapped onto a sort of table. He's then hooked up to the reality simulator and sent into a simulation. While the volunteer is in the simulation, he lies blind and deaf on the table and appears to be almost dead. The problem is that the volunteers have been actually dying before they can get back and tell us what happened. We had one volunteer go into a simulated world and then immediately return for our first test. The entry and exit from the simulation were exactly what we expected and everything seemed fine. When we sent the same volunteer back for a second, longer trial, he actually died before he returned from the simulation. Every subsequent volunteer has also actually died."
"Please call me Jim. The volunteers actually died of what?"
"Jim, we don't know. They just seem to turn off. There's nothing wrong with the body, except that it's dead."
"But, the first volunteer did return. So the simulator machine does work and doesn't just kill the user." I continue to look searchingly at Janice' face.
Janice looks back and says levelly, "We think so. The first user did go into a simulation and then return unharmed. I say he was unharmed, but it goes well beyond that. When the user returned from the first test, we tested the guy for everything known to medical science. There was nothing medically wrong with the guy when he returned. Then we sent him back and he died during the second simulation."
"How long did it take him to die?"
"The exact time is very classified. However, it was a few minutes. He didn't die instantly.
"What can you tell me about the one volunteer who did come back?"
"The simulator is located on a Marine base. Like all of the volunteers, he was a Marine. He was twenty two years old, six feet two inches in height, some two hundred and six pounds, muscular and trained to survive in almost any conditions. His vital signs were at the top of the range and he had no known defects or handicaps." She then shrugs to indicate that she has no idea what could have killed the Marine.
I nod and say, "In a war situation, it's well known that the Marines go in first. They frequently land on a hostile shore, secure the landing area, set up a perimeter and then lead the rest of the troops when the other guys land. Do you know how the Marines know where to go once they land?"
Janice is obviously a bit puzzled by my question. She says, slowly, "Well, I assume they're told where to go by the command."
"No, they're given orders by the command as to where to land and then, when they land, the Marines follow the markers left by the SEAL Teams. I'm SEAL trained. When do I go in?"
"Well, we can quit worrying about a lack of confidence. You're eighteen years old, real age, not the two years older from the fib about your age you told the recruiters. You 're six feet six inches in height, two hundred forty pounds of lean muscle and your vital signs are even higher than the one guy who did come back. You have really not been trained for the simulation that you'll enter, but you have all of the necessaries. You have a security clearance that's currently inactive, but I can have it reactivated with a phone call." With that, Janice seems to make a decision and calls someone on the phone and murmurs some information into the phone. Most of the information is my name and Social Security number.
Janice finishes on the phone and then asks, apparently in honest puzzlement, "Why are you willing to risk your life to try to discover why the simulation is killing people?"
"Some men can do routine work. I'm not one of those men. I'm quick, strong and I'm trained. I can survive in situations where other men might die. If I'm to make a success of my life, I must take some chances. The chance you have been describing is one I need to take to establish myself."
Janice nods and says, "Well, you'll have the same physical skills in the simulation that you have in real-life. However, your strength may not help you in the simulation."
"From what I have been told before and what you have just told me, I'll have the same physical skills in the simulation that I have in real-life. I'm strong, as you have noted. However, my quickness is more important than my strength. My size and my reach are also very important. I'm larger than most guys and first time opponents tend to underestimate just how close I have to be to effectively strike them. However, most important of all is my mind. I can routinely analyze a situation in a fraction of a second and then make the right move while others are still blinking with befuddlement."
Janice digests what I have just said and then continues, "The simulation you enter will find you naked on a remote island. The island is perhaps seven miles long by two miles wide. A very high volcanic ridge runs down the centre of the island for very nearly the seven mile length of the island. The ridge and the area near the base of the ridge are each pretty much covered with small trees. The trees are of only two types and are perhaps two to three feet high. The trees are too small to have anything that would be of any use as a weapon. There's a narrow beach pretty much surrounding the island, although there are a few places where the ridge goes directly into the sea with no beach. There are a few coconut palms on the windward side of the island. What do you do? Now!"
"How do I interact with the environment? Can I seem to physically affect items in the simulated environment?"
"From what the man who designed the simulator says, you will seem to be a real person in the simulated environment. You can do anything in the simulation that you could do if you were actually there."
"If I start on the beach, I quickly scan the area for something I can use as a weapon, driftwood or whatever. If I can grab a weapon, I do so. In any case, I then begin to gain altitude as quickly as practical. I need to get up the ridge so that I can see as much as possible. Up on the ridge I'll also probably find a rock or two, split off from the volcanic ridge that I might use as a weapon. I'll also look for anything else that might serve as a weapon."
"What of animals on the island?"
"If it's an isolated island, there should be nothing that can harm me unless it's insect based. If the island were inhabited by, say, some sort of fish eating lizards, the first time guy would have seen and noted something like that. He didn't, so there isn't a herd of small predators. A large predator really can't exist on such an island, as there's nothing for it to eat. Birds would be fishing birds and would not likely bother a man. The main problem might be some sort of insect, particularly if the insect is poisonous. However, there really can't be too many insects, they would lack enough to eat."
"What if the birds do attack?"
"I lie down and use the little trees as shelter. The birds could still dive on me, but they would get tangled in the trees if they miss. I'm not too worried about the birds. I do have a major worry."
"What are you worried about?"
"If the only man to actually experience the island was there for only a brief few minutes at best, how do you know so much about the island?"
"A very good question. The man who operates the simulation says that the one man who made it back provided the general details and then they did some psychological work to estimate the size of the island from his observations."
(The explanation has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese. Something isn't right here. The something is very probably behind why the volunteers are dying. The only way I can determine what's happening is to become a volunteer. I can see the risks, but what the hell, everybody dies sometime.)
I ask Janice, "There are other simulations, many of them games. If a person is controlling a game character and the game character dies, does the person also die?"
"Of course not! However, the characters in other simulations aren't so tightly coupled as in the simulation we're talking about."
"Okay, I go into the simulation. I find out things, perhaps including why the other volunteers died. I then return. How do I return and where do I return to?"
"You appear in the simulation on the top of a large flat rock on the beach. Apparently the rock has some sort of properties that allow it to serve as the entry and exit point. Once you're in the simulation, you can leave the rock, but you must then return to the same rock in order to exit the simulation. You don't have to do anything special to exit the simulation, just return to the rock and stand on it."
"Does it occur to you that the man who controls the simulation might just be behind why the volunteers are dying?" I again watch Janice' face very closely.
Janice says (in a very shocked and suspicious tone of voice,) "Why would you think that?"
"The matter of the volunteers dying seems very strange. The person most directly connected with the matter is the guy running the simulation. There's no proof, but it might just be suspicious."
"I can assure you that Doctor Smith is a very well respected professional and you're way out of line."
"Okay, but it's something you just might keep in mind." (I can see that Doctor Smith is protected politically. However, I'm hoping that I might at least have planted the seeds of doubt in Janice' mind.)
Janice then produces the contract documents. She says, "If you're willing to take the risks, here are the conditions."
I read the contract carefully. What I'm signing up for is just what Janice has told me. I then sign the papers that commit me to being a volunteer for the simulator. The papers also commit the government to pay me a hefty sum for being a volunteer.
Once I'm signed up, I go to the Marine base where the simulator is located. I then go though a lengthy sequence of medical and physical tests.
The government wants to be sure I'm healthy, find out exactly how healthy and also baseline my psychological state for post simulation comparison.
My main concern is that there will be a post simulation comparison of my psychological state when I return from the simulation. The key item here is 'return from the simulation.'
While they run the various tests, I move into the Marine base. I eat where the Marines eat, I sleep in a Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ) and I work out where the Marines work out.
This last may seen as a little strange. The heroes of fiction normally train by doing twelve ounce curls with a beer glass in a bar crawling with sexy women. Instead, I pump iron and work on self defence techniques with real heroes. The heroes do what they do so that they might come back alive from dangerous missions. I do what I do for exactly the same reason.
After a few days, I find a message in my room in the BOQ calling me in to interview with Doctor Smith who runs the simulation machine.
Doctor Smith lives in an office where he sits behind a large desk. He's back in semi-shadow while I sit in front of two powerful lamps that shine in my face. The situation is a lot like being questioned by the police.
Doctor Smith wants to know, "Why do you want to volunteer for the testing of my simulation machine?"
I tell him, " I make my living doing unusual tasks. The testing of your simulation machine is an unusual task."
Doctor Smith thinks over my reply for a bit and then says, "We have had some trouble with previous volunteers. Are you aware of the problems?"
(I can see that Doctor Smith doesn't like me. Since I have never met the guy before, I have to wonder why.) I tell Doctor Smith, "Janice told me that there were some problems with previous volunteers. However, she didn't provide me with a lot of details. Perhaps you could explain a little more." (I'll get as much information directly from Doctor Smith as I can manage.)
Doctor Smith again thinks over my reply for a bit and then says, "My simulator is beyond anything that's so far been built. When you get into the world of the simulation, you'll become a part of that world. You'll be able to do anything there that you can do here. You won't be able to do anything there that you can't do here. There's no reset button."
"What I think you're telling me is that I need to do my very best during the simulation and avoid making mistakes."
Doctor Smith nods sagely and says, "That would be well."
"Could you give me any more specific advice?"
Doctor Smith again nods sagely and says, "Avoid overconfidence." He then goes on for a bit about the physical circumstances of the simulation. He tells me that the real me will be strapped to a table, so that I won't fall off the table while I'm unconscious. Despite being strapped to the table in real life, I'll be able to move about in the simulation. I'll go into the simulation and attempt to explore the island a bit. I'm scheduled to spend perhaps an hour in the simulation and I'm then to return to the rock that serves as an entry and exit portal.
I can get Doctor Smith to volunteer no more useful information. I do manage to ask Doctor Smith, "What sort of weather will I encounter during my time in the simulation?"
Doctor Smith snaps, "It could vary quite a bit." He then seems to realize that he's said too much. He clams up.
I can get nothing more out of Doctor Smith and the interview quickly winds down.
After my interview with Doctor Smith, I again return to wait mode. I do have a couple of conversations with Janice while I wait.
Janice asks me, "Did you talk with Doctor Smith?"
(Janice knows damn well that I talked with Doctor Smith. She obviously wants me to make some sort of statement.) I say, "I talked with Doctor Smith. He basically told me to dress warmly and stay out of drafts."
"Actually, that's about all I was able to get out of him as well. You're then concerned?" (Janice may now be a little suspicious of Doctor Smith, thanks to my previous preparation.)
"I'm very concerned. However, the only thing I can do is to go into the simulation and then return. Well there's one thing that I would like to have done just before I go into the simulation."
"I would like a complete physical inspection just before I go into the simulation. I would ask that each mark, bruise, callus, whatever be catalogued. Oh yes, I also want a very careful measuring of my weight."
"What's the point?"
"While I'm in the simulation, I'll be strapped to a table and basically unconscious. I shouldn't change physically while I'm in the simulation. If I do change, we'll need a baseline to determine that I have actually changed."
"You suspect that you'll change physically while you're in the simulation?"
"The thought has occurred to me that what the Doctor is putting me through just might not be a simulation. I have the suspicion that I'll show some physical changes while I'm supposedly in a simulation. If I'm running around an island, it seems to me that I should sweat off a little weight."
Janice thinks for a bit and then says, "Interesting. It won't be a great deal of trouble to do the physical inspection. Perhaps we'll learn something of importance."
"Just between you and me, I asked Doctor Smith about the weather conditions in the simulation. He told me that the weather could vary quite a bit while I was in the simulation. He then seemed to realize that he had told me something he shouldn't have and he would comment no further."
"Would it be so strange that the weather might change during a simulation?"
"The volunteer can't change the weather, nor can he affect the weather. If the weather is to change during the simulation, do you think it might help the volunteer to survive if he at least had some idea of what to expect in the way of weather?"
Janice is suddenly alert. "Yes, I can see how information as to the state of the weather could help the person in the simulation. Since the person can't change the weather, it would seem useful to tell the person what the weather will be during the simulation. Particularly because of the trouble that's happened during the past several simulations. It's strange that Doctor Smith didn't want to discuss the weather."
(I have now again alerted Janice to the possibility that Doctor Smith just might not be what he seems to be. It's just one small step, but could be useful in the future.)
Janice and I then wrap up the interview.
As I wait for my time in the simulator, I continue to work out. I spend most of the workout time practising hand to hand combat with the Marines. There should be nothing on the simulation island that will harm me, if I'm careful. However, those who have gone into the simulation have come back dead. Normally, the most dangerous thing for a well prepared man is another man. I'm preparing to face another man, an enemy, during the simulation. I don't know that I'll actually face another man, but it seems a wise precaution to prepare to do so.
A few days pass. One morning, I'm summoned into a physical inspection by Janice.
Janice pretends that it's her idea, perhaps for political reasons, and I go along.
I get poked, prodded and very thoroughly examined and catalogued. However, thankfully there are no needles. I hate needles.