“What are we doing, exactly?” asked Raffo. He had followed me with remarkable ease, and now he wanted answers. That definitely wasn’t the right order to do things in.
The corridor was very long and very quiet. The robot wasn’t moving very quickly but we needed to say behind it to avoid being seen by the camera on its front.
“We’re following the placenta,” I said, like that would explain everything. “Can’t you see it glowing purple like it’s lighting the way?”
“No,” said Raffo. “It doesn’t seem to be doing anything other than dripping some rather noxious fluids.” He lifted a foot to avoid stepping in a puddle.
The robot trundling along ahead of us had Mandy’s placenta held daintily in its large pincer. The corridor was long and empty with the air of one of those tunnels that run under busy roads. The type that always smell of piss, only this one smelled of something far worse — ejected fetal organ.
“You can’t see it glowing?” To me, it was emanating a very clear throbbing light like it was radioactive.
Raffo frowned and sniffed loudly. “No. Are you sure you’re not seeing things?”
“Never mind. My mistake.” If no one else could see it, that was good. It meant they weren’t aware of magic the way I was. Either that or I was insane.
“What do you plan to do with the placenta?”
I couldn’t really say I was thinking about eating it. I know women ate their own placenta for reasons I’m not sure of (showing dominance?) but me wanting to eat one to claim occult powers might seem a bit weird.
“We’re going to follow this robot until it leads us to the baby. The baby is the key.”
“Yes,” said Raffo, nodding emphatically. “We have to kill the baby.”
“Right.” At some point I would need to convince him not to kill the baby, but I probably had plenty of time to do that. Convincing people not to kill, it was my speciality. Plus, Raffo was all religious and stuff. Bible thumpers were always going on about not killing babies.
“Sure, we’ll kill it with this arrow.” I waved the arrow in my fist. “No problem.” I just had to pick my moment to turn him around. I didn’t want to push him too hard, though. Religious nuts also had a hard-on for sacrificing things they loved just so they get to show how much they care. No chocolate for Lent, thirty days of fasting for Ramadan, murder your son Isaac on an altar for, um, reasons.
Whatever his faith-based delusions, having Raffo along was useful. I’d only just come back to this world having missed four years. A lot had happened in four years. Technologies had advanced, human decency had regressed, Tottenham Hotspurs had failed to improve in any meaningful way — it took time to adjust to matters of that magnitude. Having a guide along was very helpful.
“How long is this bloody tunnel?” I said, more out of frustration than a genuine inquiry.
“I had no idea there was a facility this large down here.” Raffo turned to me. “Shouldn’t we keep our voices down?”
“If there’s a mic on the robot,” I said, “it won’t be turned on. Woman screaming while giving birth, no way the guy controlling this thing hasn’t got it on mute.”
We continued down the endless tunnel, having already got to the point where going back would be too much of a waste now that we’d come so far. There were still no sounds other than the slightly squeaky placenta-bearer.
“So, you’re a Unitarian…”
“Utilitarian,” Raffo corrected.
“Right, right. And that’s a… self-help program of some kind, is it?”
“It’s a religion, a philosophy and a systematic theory of ethics. It is what you need it to be.”
“Got any famous members?”
“And it was invented by the Scots?”
“An Englishman, Jeremy Bentham, in 1789,” said Raffo.
“Your prophet’s name is Jeremy?” I wasn’t trying to sound mocking, but it’s hard to say ‘Jeremy’ without sounding like you’re taking the piss.
“He wasn’t a prophet. He was a potato scientist.” Raffo tossed the potato he was holding into the air and caught it again. “Just a normal man who saw that God is a reasonable entity who is trying to put more good in the world than bad, and that we should try to do the same. Nothing very revolutionary, you would think.”
I wasn’t sure which god Raffo was referring to. The only ones I knew of loved to run the ‘bad’ tap every chance they got.
“And how did he suggest we put in more good than bad?” This was where the crazy probably kicked in. Sacrifice virgins, attack the infidels, don’t tell your parents what I just did, it’ll be our little secret, etc.
“You choose to do the thing that maximises happiness for all affected individuals. Even if some are disadvantaged, if most see an improvement, that is the correct path to take. It is a simple calculation balancing pleasure against pain.”
He made it sound very simple, as though humans were good at telling good from bad, for themselves or anyone else. Voting habits of the poor and stupid would suggest otherwise.
“But how do you even measure pleasure or pain?”
“Intensity, duration, purity, certainty,” said Raffo.
“And you stand on a special scale for that, do you? Or use a tape measure?”
“No,” said Raffo. “That would be ridiculous. You use Bentham’s Felicific Calculus. It is a very accurate calculation device.”
“I see, it’s pragmatism as a religion. You’re right, it is very English. Still requires you to believe in an invisible man in the sky, though.”
“No,” said Raffo,” it certainly doesn’t. If the Divine exists, it does not need to conform to our ideals. It doesn’t even have to be interested in our day to day activities. It only exists because it happens to. Faith, prayer, singing hymns, they are all of no consequence. Do it if you think it improves things for you, stop if it hurts others.”
A religion where God didn’t really care what you did. How was that going to get bums on seats at your local megachurch?
“But by your own definition, if killing six million Jews makes life in Germany a good time for everyone, then it’s okay?”
Raffo looked at me with a mixture of disdain and contempt. “Maximise happiness for all involved. I fail to see how the joy of being an anti-semite outweighs the suffering through torture and death of millions. The calculations wouldn’t show a net gain, not unless you chose to discard one side of the equation.”
“I dunno, a lot of evil has taken place in the name of the greater good.”
“That is because it was not the greater good, it was fudged maths to make it look like the greater good. That is the true evil.”
Raffo nodded with great solemnity.
As far as religions go, it didn’t seem so bad. Reducing moral decisions to an algorithm couldn’t make things any worse. You could make it an app and give everyone’s choices a weighting. Sounds horribly plausible, doesn’t it?
Raffo’s religiosity was a little odd, but that was what made it sort of acceptable. If you’re willing to think about what a godly figure might want of you rather than what you want and how to make Him give it to you, then perhaps you might come to the same conclusions as the great saintly characters of antiquity. Before being nailed to the nearest scaffolding.
Our debate on the best way to increase the net amount of goodness in the world had to be put on hold as the sounds of clanking and whirring drifted towards us. We continued to follow our robot guide with a little more apprehension.
“Just follow my lead,” I said with utter confidence.
Raffo kept throwing little looks at me, like he didn’t quite trust me to pull this off. He looked relatively calm, but he had a very tight grip on his potato.
“There are sounds from ahead,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“There might be people. What will you do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Have to wait and see.”
“You don’t seem nervous.”
“I’m not.” There’s no point worrying yourself before you encounter a problem. Complete waste of time and energy. Once you’re facing your opponent, that’s the time to shit your pants.
The sounds grew louder and more mechanical. There were no voices.
We reached the end of the tunnel and held ourselves back as the robot trundled into traffic.
There were numerous other robots, all differently shaped and outfitted, on their way to various destinations. There were dozens of them. We seemed to have reached a depot of some kind, with many more passages leading off it.
“I had no idea any of this existed,” said Raffo, eyes wide with amazement as we observed the robot underworld. “I knew Mr Pelago had many projects underway, but this…”
Although I hadn’t expected to see something on this scale, I wasn’t that surprised. If anyone was going to go fully automated, it was going to be the guy with the underground bunker carrying out secret experiments that contravened international human rights laws. Less money spent on people, more money in the budget for that laser on the moon.
The coast was clear and we headed out. I was pretty sure henchmen didn’t have a union, so bye-bye job security, hello easiest infiltration of my life!
Actually, there were probably people somewhere down here, most likely at the end of all these tunnels. It was all very well wandering around trying to blend in with robots, we still needed to find a way to avoid getting caught.
“I can’t see our robot,” said Raffo.
“That one over there,” I said. Raffo looked impressed but it was the only robot with a purple glow about it. I could see things others could not (like the bloody obvious).
We raced after our placenta-wielding friend, keeping as close to the walls as possible and keeping an eye out for cameras. There was a good chance we were going to get spotted, but there was also a good chance that anyone who was meant to be keeping an eye on the place was messing about on their phone or taking a very long dump. The quality of the workforce doesn’t improve with their alignment. Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil, ninety-nine percent are lazy jobsworths.
Our robot took a left off the main concourse and headed down a narrow slip road. We were right behind it. There were doors ahead that looked very solid. They had bars across the small windows and big strips of metal where they met. They slid open as the robot approached. We hurried to catch up.
Inside the room were lots of consoles and screens. NASA control would have found it confusing to look at.
The robot rolled up to a large silver machine and dropped the placenta into it. Seemed a long way to come just to put it in the trash. Then it turned around. We carefully placed ourselves in its blind spot and danced the dance of the sneaky bitches.
The doors hissed open again and the robot left. I checked the silver machine but other than a fetid smell there was no sign of my delicious placenta.
The room had a glass wall on one end, the other side of which was dark. There were some flashes of light, but other than that it was impossible to see what was on in there. A purple glow caught my eye.
I cupped my hands around my eyes and placed my forehead on the glass. Slowly, I began to see the contents of the large room on the other side of the wall.
Rows and rows of babies.
Each newborn was in a cot with a bunch of wires coming out of it. The room we were in had lots of screens where the kids were being monitored. It was a pretty high-tech set up for observing a baby farm.
I didn’t think all these kids were demon offspring, but I didn’t have time (or the interest) to find out what was going on. I just needed to find Mandy’s baby and get out of here. Mandy’s kid had some kind of magical residue leaking out of it, and I needed to get a bottle of it.
“He’s over there,” I said to Raffo, pointing at the far left of the baby room.
Raffo pressed his bulbous nose up against the glass, steaming it up. “What the…”
As we watched, a large claw hanging from the ceiling moved until it was over a cot and then descended like it was aiming for a plushie in some arcade machine.
It descended, grabbed the kid, and then lifted it out. Then it moved off, taking the baby with it.
“This is horrific,” said Raffo. “They’re treating them like animals.”
“I’ve seen worse,” I said. “Wait till they get into secondary school.”
“We should…” Raffo’s voice trailed off.
“We should what?” I asked him.
“Nothing. There’s nothing we can do.” Raffo’s expression had turned quite grim. Poor bloke was realising that everything that enabled him to get away with whatever he was getting away with was the same power that would stop him from exposing what the people responsible for this were getting away with.
The police, the media, the attention of the public, it was all being carefully managed.
Not my problem, though.
“Let’s get the kid and get out of here,” I said.
“You want to kill the child?” Raffo didn’t sound so gung-ho now.
Now was my time to shine.
“I’m not going to kill the kid, Raffo,” I said. “I’m going to save it. And then I’m going to save the demon.”
Raffo’s eyebrows arched. “But…”
“What if your Felicific Calculator told you the best way to improve the most lives was to help a demon? You’d have to go along with it, wouldn’t you?”
“I mean, I would have to check the calculations…” Raffo was teetering on the brink.
“Look at the room full of children. Look at the claw. Feel free to start adding things up.”
I understood the situation as well as Raffo did. Whatever they were doing here, it was on a big scale and clearly morally indefensible. That meant they had already made sure no one knew about it and would make doubly sure no one ever did.
“They’re just babies,” I said. “They don’t even know what’s going on. If you’re going to do horrible experiments for the greater good, might as well be them.”
Raffo looked at me, shocked. “Are you insane?”
I smiled. “Only a little bit. Come on.”
I moved closer to all the knobs and buttons. The console was like a flight deck on an airliner. There wasn’t even any point in trying to figure it out.
I picked up an iPad (it wasn’t some other kind of smart tablet, it was definitely an iPad from Apple, the number one choice of child abusers everywhere) that was resting on the console and woke it up. At the same time, the baby room lit up, showing the full extent of the project. It was huge.
Babies began to wriggle and squirm. There was probably a lot of crying going on. Fortunately, the glass was soundproof.
Any US drone pilots out there can confirm this is how it works. If you can’t hear the screaming, it’s got nothing to do with you, right guys?
The iPad made everything easy. No passcode, no security measures, just a UI that made it very clear how to operate the baby gacha.
I can spend hours denouncing the shittiness of the Apple business model — the overpricing, the refusal to repair, the deliberate slowing down of CPUs on older models, the use of slave labour, the cheek in calling their tech support the Genius Bar — but when it comes to a beautifully designed interface even an idiot can understand, even I can’t deny they have put the work in to corner their chosen demographic.
“What does that do?” said Raffo from over my shoulder.
“This does this.” I slid my finger across the screen and the giant claw moved from left to right. “And this does that.” I slid my finger from top to bottom and the claw moved up and down.
It only took me seventeen goes to grab the right baby. A couple of babies might have ended up on the floor, but it was a valuable lesson in the fickleness of life (and arcade games).
Once I got his tiny purpleness, I whisked the baby over to the exit (that’s what it said on the iPad) and waited. A few seconds later, the silver machine popped open and presented us with one purple baby yelling its head off.
I picked up the baby and looked at it. I could feel the power emanating from it. Or possibly it had just shat itself and the warmth was hot poo.
“Here, you hold it,” I said to Raffo.
Raffo shook his head.
I was left holding the baby. No change there then.
What we needed now was a way out. A map would be especially useful. I tapped my finger on the iPad as I bounced the baby up and down, and brought up a search box. I typed in ‘Map’ and it filled in the rest as ‘...of infant experiment facility.’
The map came up almost immediately and the exits were clearly marked. It was a big place, though, with many paths. What I needed was a printout. I pressed the print button and a machine in the corner of the room began humming.
Honestly, these modern conveniences make life so much easier.
Raffo picked up the sheet of paper the printer ejected and held it up. There was only one line of text: Please replace ink cartridge.
Modern conveniences suck.
I couldn’t be bothered to memorise the map, so we’d have to take the iPad with us. Which was a problem in itself since they probably had ways to track their property. They might not be too hot on securing the perimeter or observing unauthorised entry, but you know they’re not going to trust anyone to not walk off with a free iPad.
Raffo pulled out his phone. Was he going to use Google Maps? If anyone had the layout of the evil underground lair of a corrupt and criminal organisation, it would be them. Takes one to know one.
Raffo had something else in mind. He put his phone over the iPad and took a picture. Sometimes, you have to go basic.
The baby started crying. Probably wanted its mother. We’d see how long that lasted (I’d put the over/under at twelve years, and take the under).
I rocked the baby and bounced it a bit. Raffo held up his potato and shook it. There was no noise from the potato, but the baby stopped crying and looked at it. Mandy probably had some Irish ancestry.
We exited the room and followed the map towards the nearest exit. There were bound to be guards or some kind of security, but we’d deal with that when the time came. That is the power of procrastination, makes heroes of us all.
In the meantime, I was trying to find a way to suck the power out of the baby without ending up on some kind of register.
“This way,” said Raffo. “Just up ahead, should be an elevator.”
There was. It opened as we approached, to reveal a group of large men, the type with very neatly groomed beards that look almost painted on, so I knew this was bad.
“There you are,” said Neil. “I think you better come with us.”
The baby began to glow a lot brighter.