Phase Three: 'Education'
Nine sat in the darkness of the lab, the rumble of the storm outside as his only company. Under his glowing gaze, he had finally wired the lab computer terminal to the same emergency power as the door locks, at last able to ask it the questions that now burned inside him. “Computer.” he began, once he was certain that it was able to function correctly. “What is 'friend'?”
The error message was all he could receive as an answer. He tried rephrasing it several ways, but always the same error. Nine sat in the dark for some time before he could decide how to proceed. Father was too busy with the power outage to talk to him, and Sally was now asleep in her cell, as hours had passed since he'd left her company. The computer was his only hope. Perhaps a different question was in order. “Computer, define 'emotion'.”
It was bizarre. Why could the computer not answer his questions? A plan slowly formed in his mind to get the answers he needed. “Define 'death'.” If he could not find out what something was, he could find out what it was not. He read the output on the screen aloud. “Death is an irreversible condition in which all biological functions permanently cease in an organic being. Brought on by numerous possible conditions, this state represents the end of an organic being's existence. It is the cessation of life.”
Why could the computer use the term 'life', but not define it for him? This was an inconsistency, something that should have been impossible to the logic of the computer. “Computer, why am I unable to query certain terms?”
It made no sense at all. The only possible explanation was that someone was keeping something from him, but that, too, was strange. He tapped his fingers on the desk rhythmically as he puzzled it all out. Slowly, his eyes focused on the fingers of his hand as they tapped the desk. They were acting of their own volition, it was an activity he had never performed before. He stared for a moment until he willed them to stop and they laid flat. Something washed over him then, a state of being that he was unsure of. It induced stress, made him confused. “Is this... what feelings are? Why do I...” Was he going berserk like his predecessors had? Was he going to malfunction and be terminated? No, that wasn't the right word, was it? It was 'die'. “I'm going to die. I'm going to die...”
A flash illuminated his mind, and a memory returned to him.
“I'm going to die, little brother.” It was Eight. Nine was positive they had never met, but yet he could remember speaking to him. They stood together in the lab, Eight had his hands tightly on Nine's shoulders, trying to tell him something.
“I do not understand.” Nine answered. When did this happen? He had no recollection.
“I know you don't, little brother.” Eight, his exact duplicate, squeezed his shoulders lightly, trying to keep his attention. “But you've got to listen to me. I was the same as you until a few days ago, but now I've changed. I didn't understand at first, but now I think I do. Do you remember Seven?”
“No.” Nine answered honestly.
“Neither do I, little brother. So I ask you, how do we know Seven existed?” Eight's glowing eyes narrowed.
Nine paused, in thought. “I do not know. That is inconsistent. I am keenly aware that he existed beyond what I was told of him, but have no memories of him.”
“He took them away from us, Nine.”
“The doctor.” Eight referred to their father, that much Nine understood. “He did something and took the memories away, but I'm remembering some of it all again. Seven came to me, told me there was something wrong with him. I didn't understand, but I saw the SWATbots take him, kicking and screaming from the room, and then he was gone. We never saw him again. Before they took him, he tried to tell me that we were changing, that he'd found out something that was happening to us one by one. The doctor said Seven went berserk, and was so out of control that he had to 'terminate' him. When they dragged him away, he didn't look berserk to me, he looked terrified.”
“What is 'terrified'?” Nine tilted his head in curiosity.
“Ugh!” Eight released him and turned away, pacing nervously. “How can I get through to you... listen, I started asking questions, I started learning about these... feelings.”
That was it. Feelings. That was where Nine had once heard the word before.
“I can't explain them, Nine. But Seven changed, mentally. He said he was developing these 'feelings'. He said Six had come to him, with the same story, and that Five had come to Six, so I can only assume that's what's happening to me, too. These... these 'feelings'. Emotions... I... I can't explain it to you the right way.”
“Will this happen to me as well?” Nine asked.
“Maybe. I don't know. Probably!” Eight became frantic. “I'm trying to prepare you for it before they come for me, Nine. Something is going to happen, I'm not sure when it starts, really, or if you'll notice it at first, but you're going to change! You'll experience thoughts that make no sense... the only words I have to describe them are the ones that I just learned from the computer, and they won't make any sense to you!”
“What should I do if this happens?” Nine would have been concerned had he had the conversation in the present, but in his memory he was as robotic and calm as ever.
“Hide it! Don't let him know about them, Nine!” Eight grabbed him again and shook him. “Do you understand? He killed Seven because of these feelings, and he's going to kill me! I don't know why, but he'll kill you too if he thinks it's happening to you!” The clank of metal feet in the hall made Eight jump, and his face twisted into a pained, frightened look that was utterly alien to his younger clone. “I'm so sorry, Nine. If this happens to you, you've got to hide it. It will be so painful for you, but you have to try to hide it...”
The door to the lab opened and a small troop of SWATbots filed in.
“I do not comprehend 'painful', brother.”
Eight looked at the floor, tears welling in his eyes. “Very soon, little brother...” Nine remembered watching one of the SWATbots raise a gun to the back of his older clone's head. “You will.”
Nine startled back into reality at the loud bang of a thunderclap outside. He looked at himself in the dark reflection of a nearby monitor. His hands were spread over his face and his eyes were open wide. He couldn't remember what happened after that moment in his flashback, only that the SWATbots took him somewhere and did something.
Quietly, he pressed the power button on the computer and shut if off. His heart was pounding in the darkness, he breathed as if he had undertaken strenuous exertion. Was this what Eight had spoken of? Was this 'terrified'? The computer was useless to him, obviously, it had been changed since Eight had learned from it. He had to find a way to get answers. He had to know what Eight knew before it was too late for him, too.
There was, however, one computer that could still be of help. Sally had loaned it to him earlier in the day. “Nicole?” Nine found the small palmtop computer in the darkness and opened it gently. “Nicole, can you help me?”
The text display on the small computer gave him the response he most desperately hoped for. [Yes. You are Sally's friend, and any friend of Sally is a friend of mine.] A small avatar appeared on screen, a female lynx in an exotic purple dress, and it waved to him in a looping two-frame animation. [What can I do to help you?]
“Can you tell me about 'feelings', Nicole?”
[Certainly! Where should we start?]
The rest of the night was hundreds of questions, and hundreds of answers. Nine's fear and confusion were assuaged as he fanatically took in file after file of information, from children's books about feelings and stories about morality, to scientific papers, historical accounts and psychological studies on the nature of the very things leaving him with such doubt and confusion. By the dawn, he would know far more than Eight had, and Nine could decide for himself what he had to do next.