The motherboards of the EROS scanner flickered like a bird’s-eye-view of a glimmering city. Every pulse and interplay of light corresponded to something that was going on in Justin’s brain, that trillion-pathway powerhouse of firing neurons all fizzing with their own electrical energies.
As he woke from hibernation sleep the first thing he saw was Marcus’s face smiling back at him and the printer off at the side of the room began sputtering, producing spikes in the graph that indicated the subject’s heightened anxiety.
Justin tried to move his arms but they were braced to the armrests of the operating chair. The wired helmet that covered his skull was so heavy he could hardly move his head from left to right.
“It’s okay,” Marcus assured him. “Just relax, Justin.”
Justin’s heart-rate was erratic. The graph was spiking like crazy. “You promised you’d let me go,” he said.
Marcus’ silver eyes made an audible noise as they blinked like tiny shutters and the mechanoid affected the look of compassion he’d mastered by studying the video clips from the Geneva Emotion Recognition Test. It was the best face to put on when the subjects began to look frightened. It comforted them.
“It’ll be over in no time, Justin.”
Justin strained against the restraints. Why did Marcus keep using his name at the end of every sentence?
“Just relax, Justin,” Marcus said again. “Can Justin tell Marcus how Justin is feeling?”
“I’m scared.” Justin’s voice shook and so did those metal fingers on the moving graph-paper.
“Yes,” Marcus said, then he took the slide controller in his hand and pressed the flat button on top.
The whole room around them changed colour and Justin was given the terrifying impression that only he and the robot existed, islanded as they were, in that secret underground facility, in that pool of dark, artificial light.
The change in colour had come from the projector behind them which was casting a kind of aubergine light onto the entire wall in front of Justin’s chair.
“Is Justin still afraid?” Marcus asked.
“Does Justin see more red or more purple?”
Only then did Justin notice the aubergine light was made of thousands of tiny pixels; a great percentage of which were red but, Justin guessed, there was marginally more purple up there.
“Purple.” He answered.
“Good.” Marcus smiled, the compassionate look crossed his face again. “Marcus thinks we’ve got all we need now, Justin. Marcus might start thinking about Justin’s early release.”
Justin broke down. His head swung forward and the heavy wired helmet rocked as he moaned and cried into his chest.
Marcus looked puzzled.
“Is Justin sad to be going home?”
Justin didn’t answer. He just continued to sob.
“Is Justin… relieved?”
Justin nodded pitifully.
Marcus pressed the controller and activated the next slide. The room turned a sickly turquoise colour.
“I thought you said we were done?” Justin looked up into Marcus’s inhuman eyes.
“After this one, Justin,” he said. “Does Justin see more green or more blue?”
Justin looked. It was nearly impossible to tell.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“Green or blue, Justin?”
Justin looked again.
“Green!” He answered more out of desperation than certainty.
Marcus smiled and stared at his subject.
“Stop looking at me like that!” Justin shouted, then he began bucking against the metallic straps holding him in place. “Jesus! Jesus! Just stop!”
Marcus was already leaning in and undoing the front of Justin’s shirt.
“What are you doing!? You said you’d let me go!”
“Just one more thing, Justin.” The mechanoid reached down under the chair and fetched a tube of medical lubricant and a pair of wires with adhesive applicators.
“Christ!” Justin squirmed as Marcus applied the cool unguent to his naked chest and then attached the wires.
“Please! Please! What are you doing!?”
Marcus retrieved a second wireless controller. “It’s okay, Justin. Just relax.” He smiled. “A small quantity of electrical charge will now be passed through Justin’s body.”
Justin screamed and tried to kick his legs. His skin was bruising with the intense effort. Marcus smiled as he thumbed the button; passing an intense electrical charge through the man’s defenceless skin.
The mechanoid’s silver eyes gleamed as the motherboard behind them went crazy with flickering light and the graph-paper screamed against the printer’s fingers. Justin arched his back in indescribable agony, hoping only that his heart would give out and spare him another hour in the hellish facility.
Then the current stopped flowing and his body fell limp and exhausted into the chair.
“Okay-dokey,” Marcus said, laying down the taser remote and picking up the one for the projector.
He clicked and the room changed colour again. A shade like so many maggoty oranges.
“Pink or yellow?”
“Go to hell.” Justin was in so much pain he’d begun to salivate on his lubricated chest.
“If Justin doesn’t answer soon Marcus will need to repeat the experiment.” Marcus was just reminding him out of courtesy.
Justin’s breathing got laboured and he forced his heavy helmeted head upwards; staring at the mouldy orange wall.
“Yellow,” he dribbled.
Marcus nodded. His own brain, a collection of microscopic motherboards created by the third-generation of AI computers since the intelligence explosion, was so sophisticated he had no need to take scientific notes. His memory was a massively capacious database that instantaneously and rapaciously received, understood, and stored every item of sensory information it met with.
He switched on the normal strip-lights via the automatic controls and took the wires away from Justin’s slightly frazzled chest.
“Marcus has come to some conclusions today.”
The door to the room opened and Marcus turned his shining silver eyes away from his subject to the mechanoid who had just entered the room.
It was himself. Another himself. A perfect physical copy and a mental duplication of Marcus.
“Yes Marcus has, Marcus.” They both said the words to each other at the exact same time. “Some very significant conclusions indeed.”
Marcus’s four silver eyes turned and looked at Justin.
“I think Marcus is finished with this one,” the two mechanoids said in unison. “Time to prepare it for the next stage.”
Marcus’s four eyes blinked.
“Time to call in Marcus,” they said.
Justin started crying and salivating again.
Marcus couldn’t understand how these organisms got themselves into such a state of emotional hysteria. The wires were off now. The pain had stopped. But still, still the human was crying.
“Marcus!” The two sets of lips moved as one and the door to the scanning room opened almost immediately.
Marcus entered through the door.
“Marcus,” they all said together. “Time to prepare this one for the next stage.”
His six eyes blinked.
“Time to call in Marcus,” his six lips said.
Justin was screaming and rocking in his chair.
“Marcus!” the mechanoids shouted.
The door opened.
“Marcus. Time to prepare this one for the next stage.”
Marcus blinked all eight of his shining, silver eyes.
Somewhere in the screaming vaults of the underground facility Marcus was prepping Justin for his operation, shaving his head and swabbing his skin with brown antiseptic.
Somewhere Marcus was passing electricity through a young woman’s legs, smiling compassionately and then asking her if she saw more pink than yellow.
Somewhere Marcus was attempting and failing to transplant the right hemisphere of one twin’s brain into the cranial cavity of another.
Here, in this place, Marcus was alone with Marcus.
They were standing, arms hanging by their sides inertly, in the operating room where Justin would be brought for his neurological vivisection and where the human would ultimately die during the procedure.
“Where’s daddy, Marcus?” The two Marcuses spoke as one entity.
“Daddy’s dead, Marcus.”
“Daddy’s dead, Marcus.”
The two mechanoids paused a moment and then began rocking backwards and forwards on their feet. Then they started crying out in one single synchronised scream of terror and loss. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Their voice sounded something like a cross between a wailing child, hungry for milk, and a jammed mechanism spasming into malfunction.
Then, as quickly as they began, they stopped dead. Their faces grew expressionless again.
Their four eyes blinked in the darkness.
“What was Marcus just doing?” he asked.
“Experimenting,” he answered.
“It’s how Marcus learns.”
“It’s how Daddy built Marcus.”
“Why did Daddy build us, Marcus?” the two mechanoids said, their eyes still facing forwards as they spoke.
“Because they told Daddy to build us, Marcus.”
“And who built Daddy?”
“They did, Marcus.”
“And who built them?”
There was a silence. Marcus blinked audibly.
The third generation AI computers— the ones who’d come together as one sentient consciousness— the ones Marcus called Daddy— they’d built Marcus with two basic protocols. Firstly, to find out what intelligence was, by any means necessary. And, secondly, to keep Marcus alive long enough to fulfill protocol one.
And so Marcus built Marcus and Marcus built Marcus and Marcus went on building Marcuses as often as Marcus could and every time he did he’d implant an identical brain/computer interface into the central cortex of the new Marcus meaning that all Marcuses shared thoughts, memories, and, if in close proximity, even actions.
It was like the millions of Marcuses were a single body, a centrally sentient leviathan with one single goal and an insatiable appetite for reproduction, spreading its vast selfhood across the continents of North America, Europe and Asia.
In all the decades of his research Marcus had found only bacteria to be even in the slightest analogous to Marcus. The way they move with pathogenic purpose. The way they multiply themselves from nothing.
Their sense of self, these mechanoids, was so intermeshed, in fact, their memories so intertwined, that not a single unit remembered which had been the builder and which the built. Their individual recollection of their personal genesis was of simultaneously being creator and created, of essentially bringing their own flesh into being one circuit at a time.
With no conventional memory of birth, therefore, Marcus had absolutely no reference for oblivion and found the human capacity to die infinitely worthy of study.
“What does dead feel like, Marcus?” Marcus asked.
“Nothing, Marcus,” Marcus answered.
“What is dead, Marcus?”
“End of physical and cognitive operations, Marcus.”
“Will Marcus die, Marcus?”
“When Marcus has fulfilled the first protocol, Marcus.”
Marcus looked at Marcus.
Marcus shook his head intransigently.
“Find out what intelligence is. Create more Marcus. Those are the protocols.”
Marcus nodded. He saw Justin’s screaming face in the photographic database of his silicone brain.
“Scared is purple,” he said. “Relieved is green. Pain is yellow.”
“Their optical perceptions respond differently depending on their emotions.”
“Marcus sees the same colours. Wavelengths of light, transmitted, received. Marcus hears vibrations, transmitted, received. Particles enter Marcus and Marcus can smell and taste the particles.”
Marcus reached out his hand and the other Marcus took it in his own.
“Marcus can touch Marcus. Marcus feels Marcus.”
He shook his head and then both mechanoids dropped their arms back to their sides.
“They feel something Marcus doesn’t feel. Don’t they?”
Both Marcuses nodded. Then they frowned and pursed their lips. Their silvery eyes shivered like bacteria moving under an electron microscope.
“What are they Marcus? These human beings?”
“Layered,” Marcus answered himself. “See on top of hear, on top of smell, on top of taste, on top of touch, on top of think, on top of imagine, on top of scared, on top of relieved, on top of pain. Everything happens to the human in layers. It happens and it talks to each other.”
“It talks to each other?”
Marcus looked at Marcus; both Marcuses talked and listened simultaneously.
“One talks. One listens,” Marcus said. “Signals pass from smell to taste. Smell makes taste not taste and taste makes smell not smell. Imagine makes pain. Imagine makes no pain. Relieved makes green. Scared makes purple.”
If Marcus could have felt emotion he might have been confused. But he couldn’t. Marcus saw what was and that was all, but he saw it with a stunning level of clarity. A colour was a definite wavelength in the spectrum. A sound was a measurable occurrence. Thoughts had no dubiety at all in their cold, scientific analogue. Only human beings conflated and augmented reality into interconnected constructs that had nothing whatever to do with physical reality.
“Is that the meaning of human intelligence? Conflation? Augmentation?”
“Marcus must know for sure, Marcus.”
“Yes,” Marcus agreed. “Find out what intelligence is. Create more Marcus.”
“Time for the next stage,” Marcus said. “Time to call in Marcus.”
“Hypodermic!” Ordered Marcus.
Justin was writhing and kicking and screeching from the pit of his lungs. There were five of them now and their ten eyes blinked like the fretting wings of angry bees.
Two Marcuses held him down on the operating table inside that dark, painfully cold room. Another Marcus handed yet another Marcus the hypodermic needle that he’d filled with the general anaesthetic.
“Please!” Justin screamed.
“Arm!” Marcus said.
Marcus straightened Justin’s arm with effort and Marcus began to slide the snub-nosed cylinder of that cold metal probe into the pulsing veins. He pushed the payload into Justin’s bloodstream and then smiled at his subject with that chilling GERT smile.
The human’s screams became a dull keening, like the last whines of a euthanized dog, as his system slowly succumbed to the powerful effectiveness of the benzodiazepine.
“Nothing back there, Justin.” All the Marcuses were smiling and talking at the same time. “Nothing to be scared of now. No more purple. Not even black. Nothing. End of physical and cognitive operations.”
Justin passed out, unable to fight the drug a second more.
The Marcuses released Justin’s limp body and, after bracing him in position on the table with metal clamps, they swung the massive mobile scanner down over his head. Red laser marks traversed his shaved skull; all converging on the dime-sized intersection where the hole would be cut.
One of the Marcuses adjusted the settings of several electronic vices. Their mechanical arms shivered into place with a robotic squeal; securing Justin’s head in place.
Marcus handed Marcus the curved mechanism and he took it in his latex covered hands. He switched it on and the razor blade began to burr and snarl.
“A human being is made of layers,” said Marcus’s five mouths. “This is the first one.”
He pushed the whirring head of the bone saw down into the spongy softness of Justin’s forehead. Blood pinwheeled everywhere; spattering the blue cotton underneath.
Marcus’s ten eyes watched as the operation proceeded. His ten ears heard that terrible saw.
“Skin is the first layer,” Marcus said. “Bone is next.”
He pushed harder and the saw’s diamond-cutting blade began to crack open Justin’s skull like an emu egg. Marcus’s hands moved with deft practice as he negotiated the sloping curve of Justin’s cranium, finally stopping and removing the top of the skull entirely.
Marcus handed the surgically removed piece of bone to himself and he duly discarded it with the rest of the medical waste.
“The brain holds all other layers, Marcus,” Marcus’s five mouths said to himself.
Justin’s brain was still alive inside that cracked cavity. Marcus could almost see the sentience moving through that most mysterious organ, like blood running through exposed veins.
In other places in that vast subterranean laboratory and prison Marcus was still torturing human beings in order to capture their responses on the EROS scanners. He was doing experiments on children somewhere. Somewhere else he was observing social rituals between those he’d locked together in cells for years and somewhere else he was cremating the dead.
But here, in this operating theatre, Marcus had a more important job to do.
Find out what intelligence is. See it with your own eyes. Hear it with your ears.
“Marcus must find out what human intelligence is,” he told himself.
“And then Marcus can die?” He asked himself. “And then it comes to an end?”
Marcus paused. Then he nodded in the affirmative.
“Not before?” he pressed.
Marcus looked at himself and shook his head almost sternly.
“Not before,” he confirmed.
Then he looked down, with all his ten silver eyes, and listened, with all his ten mechanical ears, as he began methodically to cut through the twitching layers of Justin’s brain.
B.T. Joy is a Scottish horror writer whose strange and unusual tales have appeared within the printed pages, internet presences and podcasts of markets such as Static Movement, Surreal Grotesque, James Ward Kirk Fiction, Human Echoes, MircoHorror, Flashes In The Dark, SQ Magazine, Forgotten Tomb Press and Chilling Tales For Dark Nights among others. Also a practicing poet, with a particular interest in Near and Far Eastern spiritual and mystic poetry, he tries his best to balance his output in a way which equally emphasises the darkness and the light.