Saturday, May 5, 2012

The BastardTron 9000

A cybernetic superguru for the Information Age

Dateline: Nepal
There it sits, perched serenely upon silken pillows in its lofty mountain temple: the BastardTron 9000, the most sophisticated artificial-intelligence droid ever created. A full decade of research and development, encompassing many thousands of man-hours and, it is whispered, perhaps a trillion dollars, has gone into its production. Scores of programmers, engineers, clerics, philosophers, mathematicians, poets, and noted academics of every discipline have contributed to its final form. The governments of 17 different countries, including the United States, Germany, Russia, and China, have lent financial and technical support. Luminaries ranging from Noam Chomsky and Stephen Hawking to Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil were seen entering the heavily-fortified BastardTron Labs in Rouen, where the magnificent machine was created, its every stage of development shrouded in secrecy, cloaked in gossip and innuendo.

The purpose of the BastardTron 9000, according to its chief engineer and namesake, the French robotics whiz Guillaume du Bastard, was to be a sort of Cybernetic Superguru for the Information Age, replacing the monks, swamis, fakirs, and holy men of the past. Embedded within the circuits, wires, and gears of this mighty automaton would be housed the sum total of Man's knowledge of his world, the universe, and the very mysteries of Life Itself, including the endlessly complex dynamics of interpersonal relations. At last, they reasoned, the Seeker of Truth would finally have a place to go to find real answers to the most perplexing questions of existence.

Unfortunately, the thing turned out to be a complete bastard.

Sensing this and wondering whether, in retrospect, the name "BastardTron 9000" hadn't been something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the robot's embarrassed and humbled manufacturers decided to house their fantastically expensive metallic scion in a location which would be both theoretically accessible and yet remote enough to discourage all but the most ardent Seekers of Truth. After several months of heated deliberation, in which proposals from several locales were entertained, the members of the BastardTron Relocation Committee opted to construct a lair for their robotic boondoggle at the snowy peak of the fearsome Kanchenjunga Mountain.

Voice of a Bastard
The temple itself is a marvel in its own right, a large, white, rectangular structure, appearing perfectly smooth and featureless on the outside. Within, one finds the 9000 eternally meditating in the lotus position, flanked by two burly IT administrators, their mammoth and muscular bodies squeezed into crisply-ironed khakis, tan Hush Puppies, and apricot-colored short-sleeve dress shirts, with clip-on ties affixed to their straining collars. These two imposing men, known only by their employee ID numbers (000001 and 000002, respectively), spend their days fanning the robot with ostrich feathers and, whenever necessary, attending to its various malfunctions. Frequently, these men are the only audience for the 9000's words of wisdom. When the machine chooses to speak, which is rare, it does so in the voice of Alan Alda. (Alda himself spent months recording voice-over prompts for the project, supposedly bruising his larynx in the process.)

To reach this temple at its 13000-foot elevation is a harrowing ordeal in and of itself, one which has already claimed several lives and is only recommended to the heartiest and most experienced of mountaineers. Once he reaches the summit, the weary traveler is by no means guaranteed entrance to the BastardTron's lair. The robot's otherwise-impregnable mountain fortress has no windows and only one door, a small round portal which opens briefly and at infrequent intervals, as determined by a precise series of complex pre-programmed algorithms. In fact, the area outside the temple is littered with further corpses, the bodies of climbers who succumbed to frostbite, hypothermia, and starvation while waiting to be allowed access to the fabled BT9K.

Still, they continue to come, the dreamers and acolytes, the wanderers and wonderers, and the grad students. So, so many grad students.


Here, then, was yet another traveler: a bland-looking 28-year-old Ohioan named Brad Greenwood. Unable to choose between two potential life paths, one in the Unification Church and another in hotel-motel management, Brad had opted to embark upon a vision quest, a year-long journey which ultimately led him to the BastardTron 9000. He'd already been at the fabled site for a week, huddling outside the nigh-inaccessible structure, praying audibly to be let in. His own provisions having long since run out, Brad had resorted to picking at the remains of the previous, less-fortunate Seekers who arrived here before he did. Even so, he had wasted away to a mere 96 pounds and appeared gaunt and miserable, his haunted eyes ringed with dark circles. He had already lost several toes to frostbite and would soon lose more. He knew he could not sleep, for he could not risk being unconscious should the portal suddenly open. The lack of sleep, combined with the cold, the isolation, and his own hunger, had driven Brad to the verge of madness.

But then on the eighth day, by some divine providence, the portal did open. At first, Brad did not know whether this was really happening or whether he was hallucinating, but his gut took over and forced his body to climb through the small round opening. He clambered into the temple, and the portal quickly closed behind him.

Summoning the last of his reserved strength, Brad picked himself up from the floor and gazed at the surroundings. They were, quite simply, magnificent. The temperature inside was a perfect 73 degrees Fahrenheit. The temple itself was one continuous room, but what a room -- much larger than it appeared to be from the outside! What's more, everything here was perfectly white. There were huge white serrated columns stretching up to the impossibly high ceiling. In the corner, a beautiful white bird in a white cage chirped softly and melodically. Most magnificent of all was a white marble fountain which gurgled soothingly in the center of the room, its gently flowing water appearing just as white as everything else. "Could it possibly be milk," Brad wondered? It was! He drank and was nourished.

The entire space was suffused with a warm light from above. Brad craned his neck upward to the tops of the columns to see the source of the light and was blinded by the radiance he discovered. Quickly lowering his head, he saw something shiny and metallic glimmering in the far distance at the opposite side of this grand hall. As if in a trance, he walked toward it and slowly the object took shape.

It was indeed the magnificent BastardTron 9000, a robot in humanoid form with perfectly smooth metallic skin which appeared silvery and reflective. His limbs were folded in contemplation, and his large belly jutted out like that of the Buddha. Guarding him, of course, were 000001 and 000002, scowling as they waved their feathers in perfect synchronicity.

Taking small, respectful steps, Brad cautiously approached the renowned machine. Hot, salty tears streamed down his face, and he reached out his hand to place it on the machine's perfectly round bald head which beckoned him ever closer with its calm and inviting countenance. As he did this, however, 000001 and 000002 stepped in front of the robot and formed an X with their ostrich feathers. Brad was unable to speak, but his facial expression communicated confusion and alarm. 000001 pointed to a discreet sign posted on the wall:

Please do not touch the BastardTron 9000.
Thank you.
- The Management 

000002 then gestured for Brad to sit on the floor in front of the machine, while 000001 testily took a Wet Ones from his shirt pocket and wiped Brad's fingerprints off the 9000's brilliant forehead. As Brad sat cross-legged on a rug, the robot's two guards resumed their customary position on its right and left sides.

Gathering up his courage, Brad decided to speak.

"Master, I..."

000002 angrily placed an index finger to his closed lips, and 000001 pointed to a second discreet sign on the wall, posted directly below the first:

Please wait for the BastardTron 9000 to speak first. 
Thank you.
- The Management

Chastened, Brad retreated into silence and sat waiting at the artificial feet of this artificial guru, wondering what an entity which possessed all the World's knowledge and wisdom would possibly have to say to him. How long would he have to wait? He glanced occasionally at 000001 and 000002, but their stony, unchanging expressions betrayed nothing.

Hours passed in silence. Unable to keep his eyes open any longer, Brad fell asleep sitting up and dreamed of Julie, the girl he'd left back home in Helmsleyville. In the dream, they were riding on an elevator together, and whenever he tried to hold her hand he got an electric shock. All the while, she smiled demurely and said nothing.

When he awoke some time later, Brad was surprised to find himself still on the rug in the temple and still more surprised to see that the BT9K and its two guards were still there, exactly where he'd left them. Desperate now, he made another attempt to speak.

"Master, I have come..."

000001 again pointed in the direction of the second sign, this time a little more casually than the last. Another day was spent in silence. Then a third. All this time, Brad occasionally dozed off and experienced disturbing dreams, only to reawaken and find himself in the same exact place.

On the morning of the fourth day, Brad -- by now despondent -- picked himself up painfully from the floor and walked toward the exit. He was almost to the fountain when he heard the familiar voice of Capt. Hawkeye Pierce calling after him.

"Leaving so soon?"

Brad, newly reinvigorated, ran back towards the BastardTron 9000 and eagerly sat at its feet, gazing adoringly into its manufactured face. He was overcome with joy.

"MASTER! YOU SPOKE!"

"Of course. That is my purpose."

"I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS FOR YOU, MASTER!"

"By all means, ask away. I am here to listen and answer."

Brad took a moment to compose himself before saying, "Master, since you know everything, you will know how to answer this. I am at a crossroads in my life. I can't decide whether to become a Moonie or a Super 8 manager. It's eating me up inside. Please! Help me!"

"I will help you. But first you must answer something for me."

"Yes, Master. Anything you want."

"You know that I am the wisest being in all the world."

"Yes."

"Repository of all knowledge."

"Yes."

"Storehouse of all wisdom."

"Yes."

"And yet..."

"Yes?"

"And yet you treat me like some kind of goddamned Magic 8 Ball! Listen, schmuck, take some advice from the BastardTron 9000. Next time you have a quote-unquote problem like this, just flip a friggin' coin already and save your parents the airfare to Nepal."

"That's your answer?"

"That's my answer."

Knowing there was no more to say, Brad got up once again and walked the length of the room to the small round portal. It would not move. He pushed it, pulled on it, and hit it with his fists, but it did not budge. Renewed by his anger and frustration, Brad stormed across the room and pointed his finger accusingly at the robot.

"Hey, Threepio," he began. 000001 started to point the sign yet again, but Brad waved him away.

"We're done here, capisce? So how about opening that door so I can get out of here, okay? I've had enough of you and your crummy temple and these two morons. By the way, nice ties, fellas. Are those clip-ons? Classy."

In response, both the robot and the guards began to snicker.

"What are they laughing at? What are you laughing at?" demanded Brad.

"Silly boy," came the machine's reply. "You're not leaving here. No one does."

"Then what happens to me?"

"Simple. You die."

"I die? You're going to kill me?"

"No, dear boy. They are."

000001 and 000002 had already dropped their ostrich feathers and were restraining Brad by both arms. The traveler struggled against their collective might, but to no avail. Escape was impossible.

"We've been tenderizing you while you slept, of course, and now we agree that you're just right. Hope the process didn't affect your dreams too much. Some of our previous guests have complained of nightmares."

"A-are you going to e-eat me?"

 "I'm not, but they are. What do you think we do for food around here? You didn't notice a McDonald's outside, did you? I mean, we have the milk fountain back there, but 000001 is lactose intolerant."

"B-but, why do you leave all those people outside...?"

"Eh, they weren't hungry then," the robot replied, raising its mechanical limbs to point at the guards.

"Then why did you let me waste away to nothing like this?"

 "Oh, that. Well, it's simple, really. 000002's on a diet," said the robot.

A panel on the droid's stomach opened, revealing that its hefty stomach was, in fact, a convection oven already preheated to 300 degrees.

"Nice of the boys at GE to install this, eh?"

The machine and its keepers laughed and laughed.

"YOU BASTARD!" Brad yelled. "YOU COMPLETE AND UTTER BASTARD!"

"That's my name," replied the BastardTron 9000. "Don't wear it out. Eh, you know what? On second thought, go ahead and wear it out."

Brad screamed himself hoarse doing just that.


THE END

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