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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Croesus Chamber: A Science Fiction Story

Harold pressed a button on his desk, saying, “Send in the first person.” A man in a blue suit entered Harold's office.

“I have a sensational business deal to discuss with you,” said the man. “We have a very tasty new type of candy that will make billions for you. The only drawback is that one time in a thousand it will give a child a little bit of indigestion.”

“Why I would never be involved in something that might occasionally cause a child indigestion, no matter how many billions I made,” thundered Harold indignantly. “Get out of my office right now,” he demanded, pointing to the exit.

Harold pressed a button on his desk, saying, “Send in the next person.” A young woman entered.

“I came to you because you're one of the richest men in the world,” said the sobbing young woman. “The problem my family faces is the worst nightmare of every mother and father. But I thought to myself, if there's anyone in the world who can solve my ghastly problem, it's you.”

“Tell me all about it,” said Harold.

“My husband and I have had seven children,” explained the woman. “The doctors have told us that due to an extremely rare genetic defect shared by both me and my husband, all of our children will die before reaching the age of 15. Is there something you can do to help us?”

“There certainly is,” said Harold. “I am going to write a check for 50 million dollars. This will fund a team of the best doctors who will work night and day to solve your problem. I'm sure with a crash program funded by this check, a medical solution to your problem can be found.”

“Thank you so much!” said the woman, sobbing. “You're the most generous man in the world.”

Harold pressed a button on his desk, saying, “Send in the next person.” A middle-aged man entered.

“Tell me your name, and tell what I can do for you,” said Harold.

“My name is David Fallon,” said the man. “I'm sure you've heard about the hard times San Francisco has been experiencing for years. After the devastating earthquake, they never rebuilt the city properly. It's been a nightmare for the children. They don't have any proper schools to go to. They go to schools in ruined buildings, and as soon as they get out, the children go to beg on the street, or they go into gangs that steal money from adults.”

“I'm sure I can fix that,” said Harold. “I am going to write you a check for 500 million dollars. Use that to build the best schools money can buy. You should have a lot left over to fund some after-school programs.”

“You're an angel of mercy!” said the man, and he left.

Harold again pressed a button on his desk, saying, “Send in the next person.” A man with gray hair entered.

“What can I do for you?” asked Harold.

“I come seeking assistance for the people of Bangladesh,” said the man. “Ever since global warming got worse, and the sea levels started to rise, the life of the people in Bangladesh has been a watery hell. Every few months there's a flood that destroys their homes. Millions of them are starving and homeless. Is there anything you can do?”

“Why there certainly is,” said Harold. “I am going to write you a check right now for twenty billion dollars. I want you to use that money to relocate the entire population to higher ground. Make sure that nice dry houses are built for all of these people.”

“The gratitude of the people of Bangladesh is boundless,” said the man.

Yes, this is very satisfying, thought Harold. This makes me feel much better, he thought. But somewhere down inside himself he knew that it was all just an illusion.

None of his visitors really existed. He was in a room that could generate holographic illusions. He could sit on the chair behind the desk, and a computer could generate a series of visitors, who would look just like real people coming to meet him. Harold would write the checks, and give them to the holographic visitors, but he would not really be giving away any of his money.

Harold never really give away any of his money, one of the biggest fortunes in the world. He had become incredibly rich by doing what was right for his bank account, not what was morally right. He had started out investing heavily in cigarette companies. Then he started a company which sold self-driving cars. He made billions of dollars of profit when self-driving cars were very popular, before people realized that they caused a lot more fatal accidents than cars driven by people.

Then Harold started another company that created robot policemen. The robots put policemen out of work, and the robots didn't work right, meaning that many innocent civilians were shot by accident. But Harold made a fortune selling the robots, before people wised up as to how poorly they worked.

Then Harold invested in a biotech company that promised to turn back the clock, and reverse aging. Its product was bought by many millions, giving Harold billions of dollars in profits. Harold knew all along the product gave people cancer, but Harold sold all his shares before that fact became public.

Sometimes Harold would feel bad when he thought of all the suffering that his greed had caused. At times such as that, he would come to his holographic chamber, and press some buttons. Then a random series of computer-generated visitors would come, most of them asking for huge donations. Harold would write the checks, as if he was giving them whatever they wanted. Somewhere inside him, he knew it was an illusion and a charade, but nonetheless it always made Harold feel a little better, just as if he was someone with real moral feelings.