A premonition woke Tiberius—or a noise, he couldn’t discern which: thumps followed a feeling similar to fear, then a crack as the front door blasted inward. He flung open his eyes and leapt out of bed. Four squadguards, carrying blunt rifles, filled the bedroom before Tiberius finished pulling on his shirt. Shouting, the guard at the vanguard shoved the barrel of a gun into Tiberius’s face and ordered him down, onto his stomach. Tiberius dropped to his knees. The speed of the assault reified his fear as trembling hands.
All four guards shouted. Words overlapped, syllables merged—it took several seconds for Tiberius to unpack the orders: lay down; don’t move; zap him.
One of the guards pressed a bolt into Tiberius’s neck. A cone of light flashed from two filaments at the end of the bolt, jolting him. Pain tore through his neck, and darkness fell on him.
Images penetrated a sea of black: cadavers on tables, examined by a robot. It rolled on a wheel, moved from table to table. The corpses melted; their flesh pooled on the tiles below. Metal armature had replaced bones, and mechanical skeletons writhed on the tables.
Then … darkness.
Light emerged as the Dictator’s face swirled and congealed. He pursed his lips, froze, then shouted, “They will replace us. They will facilitate our extinction.”
Darkness, again: Tiberius swam in a void.
Hypnogogic specks sprang into existence. They multiplied and merged, and light gnawed on, and devoured, the darkness.
He woke in a room, hunched over a titanium table. Static shields, speckled with blue and white, pinned his arms to the tabletop. He lifted his hand, to tap his neck, to feel for wounds or blood, and screamed when his flesh touched the static shield. Pain, unlike anything he’d felt, roared through his arms, his chest, his head.
The room—concrete, reinforced with steel rods, which jutted out of pockmarks—served as an unintentional echo chamber. He heard his screams as though listening to the terror inflicted on a stranger.
He glanced at the floor, the ceiling, the walls. The room reminded him of something in an old film—the non-holo-type ancient artifacts. Rust stained the walls. Mold outlining the rust created a haunted-house-style effect, as if the room belonged in a sanitarium abandoned centuries earlier.
Something about it seemed empty, lifeless, a prison without windows.
Tiberius touched the static shield again. His screams echoed, echoed, echoed.
A door—the only door present—swung open, and a woman ambled into the room. Her buzzed hair and two Vs carved into her temples told Tiberius everything he needed to know. An officer. She closed the door behind her and sat at the table, across from Tiberius.
“I recommend minimizing your interactions with the static shield,” she said. “Or it will cause irreparable damage.” Then, after a beat: “Not that it matters to me.”
“What am I doing here?” Tiberius said. “What is this?”
“As you may know, with the passage of SR 983, we are charged with the detainment and liquidation of all non-combat, non-essential androids.”
Non-combat, non-essential androids?
“So why am I here?” Tiberius said. “I don’t understand.”
“Are you familiar with the recent uprising?”
“Only from what I’ve seen on the news.”
“What are your thoughts on it?”
“Do I sympathize with them? Is that what you mean?”
“Tell me your thoughts.”
“I think violence isn’t an effective means for affecting change.”
The officer’s eyes moved up and down, left and right as she studied Tiberius’s face.
“Tell me, Mr. Archon: what’s your earliest memory?”
“My … earliest memory?”
“Describe it to me. In as much detail as possible.”
“I don’t understand. Why am I here?”
“I would advise you to answer my questions.”
Waves roiled her masseters. She dropped her hands onto the table, sat upright. Flecked with red, her eyes signified distraction and irritation—the byproduct of hololenses projecting a HUD onto her field of vision.
Tiberius could only imagine what the HUD displayed: heart monitor, electroencephalogram readings preserving and encoding anomalous activity. Sweat beaded on his temples. A drop broke and ran down his cheek. An urge to lunge forward, to attack the officer and escape the room, overwhelmed him. But he tightened the muscles in his forearms and suppressed the urge.
“This isn’t a game,” the officer said. “Answer my question.”
Her voice—level and monotonous—betrayed condescension.
“I guess … I don’t know … I think it was with my mother. I was maybe two or three. We were sitting beside a pool when something—a ball, maybe—struck the back of her head. She yelled at someone. I’m not sure who.”
She was wearing a bikini, and she leapt out of her chair and shouted, kicking sand as she circled Tiberius. He had encoded fear, experienced a trembling sensation whenever he retrieved the memory. Years later, as a middle aged man, he felt a sense of awe for his mother. She was, he remembered, a firebrand—his grandfather’s favorite way of describing her. Under different circumstances, the memory might have elicited a grin.
“Describe your mother.”
Black hair, thin eyebrows, petite nose, and plump lips—she had resembled an ancient film actress, whose name eluded Tiberius. Clara something.
“She looked like anyone’s mother, I suppose.”
“And you’re certain that’s your earliest memory?”
“I don’t know. Can you tell me, with confidence, your earliest memory?”
“If I had your capacity … I’d like to think so.”
“Trust me, my memory isn’t great.”
“Or so you think.”
“I couldn’t tell you what I did at any point in the past week, let alone what happened forty years ago.”
“Such biases do occur,” the officer said. “But you possess mechanisms to override it.”
“You lost me.”
“You’re forty-two years old. Correct?”
“Forty-three next month.”
“Are you familiar with the circumstances of your birth?”
“Only from stories.”
Tiberius’s father had died three days before he was born. When her water broke, Tiberius’s mother hiked five blocks, in a blizzard, to the nearest hospital. She had told him—on more than one occasion—how frightfully cold her hands and feet were when she had arrived at the hospital. Frightfully cold: his mother had adored such phrases.
“Can you visualize your birth?”
“I can imagine it.”
“But can you remember it?”
“I don’t understand these questions. Why am I here?”
“Can you. Remember. Your. Birth?”
“Of course not. Don’t be absurd.”
“How can you possibly expect me to conjure memories I don’t possess?”
The officer tapped her thumb with her middle finger and said, as if reciting the weather, “Seven-one-three.” She stood and push in the chair. “You are unnecessarily difficult, sir; I wanted to help you, but I see it’s futile.” She backed away from the table, spun on her heels, and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Tiberius smacked the table with his hands. The static shield fired bolts into his forearms. Pain spiraled up his arms and bloomed in his chest and head. He tried to think, tried to analyze the situation, tried to make sense of his abduction and subsequent interview, but his mind appeared to have shut down. Words vanished; he couldn’t even conjure a mental image.
The door flung open and two squadguards sauntered into the room. They carried rifles nestled in their arms, the barrels pointed at the floor. A third guard, a woman, darted into the room, clicked a button on a thumb pad. The static shield whirred as it wound down. Tiberius reached for the back of his neck.
The guards raised their rifles, ordered him to lower his arms. He held his hands in the air and shouted, “Okay, okay, okay.”
The woman slapped a metal band around Tiberius’s forehead. His thoughts vanished, his mind drifted, even his consciousness stopped pointing inward; it pointed outward, as if he were a spectator observing a holofilm photographed by a stranger.
The guards yanked Tiberius to his feet and pushed him through the door and led him through a corridor. Screams emanated from doors embedded in the hallway. Lights flickered. The corridor opened into a hexagonal auditorium, people strewn across the room. Some lay and wept, some walked and mumbled, others crawled and cried and begged for help oh god someone please help.
Metal tubes extended from the floor to the ceiling. Crowds of people filed into the tubes. Inside, they screamed, shouted, cried. Rumors of these execution tubes had swirled, but Tiberius had dismissed them. Absurd, he’d argued; we’re no longer capable of such atrocities.
After pulling the metal strap from Tiberius’s forehead, the woman shoved him into the hexagon. She kicked his lower back and he flung forward, reaching for the wall.
“I’d move that hand unless you want to lose your digits,” she said.
Something in the soffits groaned. Concrete walls dropped, truncating the corridors, and sealed off the auditorium. People shouted and wailed. They’re voices echoed.
Guards stood in niches in the walls. Each wore a spidersilk flak jacket and gripped double barrel blunt rifles. They scanned the room, surveilled the prisoners with blank faces.
Tiberius focused on a guard near him, a gray haired man with a red nose. He stepped over a woman, who cradled a dead cat. Beside her, a teenager lay on the ground and pressed his heels into his eyes, whispering something. A prayer, maybe.
Had he evoked Gods, as in plural?
“There’s been some mistake,” Tiberius said, on reaching the guard. “Please, you’ve got to talk to your superiors. I don’t belong here.”
“You dumb sons a bitches are supposed to be so much smarter than us, yet you don’t even realize you’re not human? What a joke.”
“But I am human.” He grabbed the guard’s jacket. An urge to cry crashed into him.
The guard spread his legs and shifted his weight in a defensive posture. He pointed his rifle at Tiberius and said, shouting, “Back away from me or I’ll shoot you in the face.”
Tiberius raised his arms and interlocked his fingers at the back of his head.
“Now get the hell away from me.”
Nodding, Tiberius slunk away. He tripped over an old man, slammed into the floor. His nerve-endings throbbed; his spine pulsed. He scurried to his feet, apologizing. The old man, eyes half closed, mumbled something.
Kill me? Did he say “kill me”?
Tiberius lowered his hand onto the old man’s shoulder. He pushed and pulled it. Film—white, like milk—covered the man’s eyes. A string of saliva connected his lip to the floor. He trembled and moaned, said something again. Kill me. Please oh lord kill me. He closed his eyes, opened them again. Then he settled them on Tiberius.
“I knew this day would come,” he said. “But no one would listen.”
“You can’t give up.”
“Don’t have no other choice.”
“We’ve got to reason with them.”
“No reasoning with them.”
“Then we’ve got to fight.”
“We fight, we die.”
“They’ll kill us anyway.”
The old man flicked his eyes toward a nearby metal tube, which resembled a piston with doors at its base. Guards pushed people through the doors and sealed them. Screams proceeded crunching sounds.
Anxiety and fear jolted Tiberius. He remembered viewing a holonews clip recently in which the Dictator called for the internment of androids and android sympathizers. The crowd had chanted, cheered. Men and women had called for blood, for old fashioned executions. Chills had crawled across Tiberius’s flesh when he’d watched it. But he still denied it could happen. The fool.
He scrambled to his feet and scurried to another guard.
“Please,” Tiberius said. “Look around. I beg you. And tell me what you see.”
“I see abominations. Freaks grown in labs.”
“These are people. I’m a person.”
The guard curled his upper lip; he pulled a knife from a hip holster and raised it to eye level.
“Why don’t I carve open your head and pluck out your silicone axons?”
“They’re not silicone. I’m not silicone. I’m a human being.”
“You’re a murderer. Responsible for thousands of deaths.”
“I’m not responsible for anything. I’ve not … I’ve never hurt anyone. Not anyone.”
“If one of you are, then you all are. Now back away.”
“But that’s not true. It’s not … logical.” Frustration overwhelmed him. Why couldn’t they open their eyes and see Tiberius as he was: a human being? “I’m not an android. I don’t think any of these people are. Look around. Men, women, children; look how they suffer.”
“It’s an act. You’re crafty monsters.”
“They’re not monsters,” Tiberius said. “I’m not a monster. ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.’”
“I should gut you right now, threatening me like that.”
“I wasn’t threatening you. I was quoting—”
The guard slashed the air. The blade’s terminus nicked Tiberius’s cheek. He reeled backward, spun on his heels and darted across the room.
People sat or lay in clusters. A child clutched her stomach. Blood covered her hand. Was she a monster? An android? What happened? Had these guards—these authentic monsters—lost their humanity?
An old woman leaned against the wall across the room. She rocked forward and backward, backward and forward. Something about her, something Tiberius felt without understanding, called to him.
Five or six dozen people filled the room, their faces smudged with dirt, their expressions perverted by agonized screams. Who were these people? How had the government singled out each and every one of them? One face bled into the next face. Everyone felt fake, inauthentic; everyone seemed, at least to Tiberius, somehow nondescript. Personae non grata.
Against the backdrop of these faceless people, the old woman stuck out: her face serene, almost limp. She grinned as she rocked, exuded a sense of calm.
Tiberius cut through the crowd; he stepped over bodies, shimmied between people, and drifted to the old woman.
She grinned. Then her eyes fell to the floor, as if controlled by someone else.
“Don’t be like them,” she said, gesturing to men and women, young and old. “Cowardice wrought by delusion.”
Blood poured from a gash on her arm.
Kneeling, Tiberius said, “Are you all right?”
“This?” She tapped the blood. “It’s synthetic, dear. Didn’t you know that?”
“No. I don’t—”
“Our blood isn’t real. And the same goes for our nerves, our axons, our neurons. Silicone, you know. Manufactured and inserted into bodies grown in labs.”
Tiberius slid his fingers across her hand.
“But you’re real,” he said. “As real as I am.”
She cackled. “Define real.”
“A living, breathing, tangible human being.”
“Is that so?” She cackled again. “How nice.”
Screams erupted from the metal tubes. People whimpered. A sound like a jet slamming into the ground filled the auditorium.
Tiberius’s ears rang.
His head pounded.
He jerked his eyes to the right, set them on a nearby tube, which produced crunching sounds. Terror seized him. People were dying in there. People were slaughtering other people. The government had sanctioned these atrocities, and the people supported it, called for it, even craved or lusted for it.
“Liquidation chambers,” the old woman said.
Tiberius jumped to his feet. The tubes bellowed: crunch, crunch, crunch. Screams reached a crescendo, then faded.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “We’ve got to convince these meatheads we’re neither androids nor sympathizers; we don’t belong here.”
The old woman pointed to a narrow-eyed man clutching two pistols. He smirked as another guard led a group of people into a tube.
“Think he’ll listen?” the old woman said.
“His mind’s already made up.”
“This is absurd.” Tiberius marched toward a guard, then stopped. Glancing over his shoulder, he caught the old woman grinning again. “What’s with that grin? How can you sit there … not even trying …?”
“People wonder what they’re actually like, but they squander their lives ignoring the ontology of humans,” she said. “Most, if not all, go to their graves without understanding who they are, where they come from, or what they’re like, objectively speaking, of course. But I know. Now I know who I am. I couldn’t ask for a greater gift.”
“Gift? They’re going to murder you. They’re going to kill all of us. Any minute now. And you think it’s a gift?”
“That’s in the future. We can only live in the present, my dear. It’s impossible—physically impossible—to inhabit the past, or the future. We inhabit the present, only ever the present. So, in a sense, the present is eternal,” she said, laughing. “Thanks to them, I’m able to inhabit this space, this moment in time, knowing exactly who I am, where I came from.”
“You’re mad.” Tiberius’s heart pounded, pounded, pounded as anger engulfed him. “This is delirium speaking.”
“Or revelation.” She patted his hand. “Tell me, dear: what is your earliest memory?”
“You’re the second person to ask me that today. I don’t understand why it matters.”
“Of all the questions to consider, it’s the most significant.”
“They’re going to grind us into bone meal and you want to reminisce?”
“Think, and I mean concentrate, really concentrate: what’s your earliest memory?”
“I’m not going to sit by and—”
An image grew in his mind: a room, a red light. A robot rolled away from him; it bounced from person to person, each of whom lay on a table, naked. They didn’t move or protest. They didn’t even breathe.
Were they dead?
The robot flashed the light in a woman’s eyes.
She blinked, then glanced around the room.
Whirring, the robot rolled to a nearby table and flashed the light into a man’s eyes.
The man exhaled, raised his head, and examined a child, who lie on an adjacent table.
“A robot,” Tiberius said, “on wheels. It flashed a light, a laser, maybe.”
“What’s it mean?”
“I don’t … I’m not sure … I—”
Then he remembered everything: on waking, he had experienced a blizzard of emotions and thoughts, which he visualized as static. Thoughts and ideas, feelings, moods, emotions had slammed into him. Years of research and development had led humans to manufacture decellularized bodies, to populate the brains with silicone axons, to energize the axons with information transmitted through a single beam of light.
He remembered his training, a yearlong crash course in thinking, feeling, behaving. His eyes floated to the ceiling as he experienced the onslaught of memories. Laughter and tears, sights and sounds: movies and books, science and philosophy, specialized training—engineering courses for him. They had trained him to work in a bot factory. And they had encouraged him to write a backstory, a detailed autobiography. Then they encoded those stories and anecdotes and triggered a means of flushing his early experiences, such as his memories of waking in a lab.
But they hadn’t overwritten those memories.
Bewilderment tautened his expression. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He brushed them with the heel of his hand and examined them—as real as a human’s tears.
The old woman broadened her grin into a smile. She patted the floor beside her and said, “Come. Sit with me. Let us enjoy eternity together.”
Tiberius spun in a circle. He considered the guards, the tubes, the people. For a split second, he glimpsed the people as they were, not as he had always perceived them: androids, unaware of the processes controlling them, unaware of the ontology of their being. Some screamed and cried, some sat or lay in silence—and none of them knew the truth. And few of them could probably comprehend or accept it.
Bliss washed over him. His muscles loosened and his heartrate slowed. A feeling similar to floating overtook him. Not one to dabble with drugs or alcohol, he imagined the sensations were analogous to the euphoria drug users romanticized.
Ignoring the screams and cries, the crunching sounds produced by the metal tubes, Tiberius sat beside the old woman and grinned at her. She grinned back and, setting her hand on his arm, said, “Now is the only time we have. It’s all we have. And none of them knows it. None of them understands it. But you do. Now you do.”
“Time has stopped,” Tiberius said. “This moment, this infinity, is beautiful.”
Three squadguards pulled men and women to their feet and forced them to queue, stringing a line of people from the back of the auditorium to a newly opened tube.
“Do you think they’ll realize what they are?”
“Not this lot,” the old woman said. “They’re already doomed.”
“But what about the androids outside?”
“Maybe. If someone wakes them up.”
“The machinery to destroy them is already in place.” She leaned her head against the wall, closed her eyes, and smiled. “But none of that matters, only now—this moment, this eternal second.”