The morning it started, I walked into the lab, listening to the happy chaotic melody of fingers dancing across keyboards and power tools grinding away at metal. A hacked Roomba flew towards me at dangerous speeds, swerving at the last moment and crashing into a wall. The little IR sensor on its forehead spun in confusion.
Someone said “Hey, Sam!” to the back of my head.
“Morning, Jackson,” I replied, turning around to greet my stealthy coworker. “Infraroomba needs work.”
Jackson laughed and handed me a cup of coffee. “You need work, you’re twenty minutes late. I had another idea–”
A figure stood before me. Not Jackson. It held its hand outstretched, and its face–
“SAM! Christ, man, you need the coffee. Can’t be falling asleep at the keyboard, eh? I had an idea about the Monte Carlo navigation tests, should keep things engaging for you once I send over the details. Drink the coffee, man.”
“Thanks, Jackson,” I muttered, shaking my head to clear it. I went in to my office and entered into an eight-hour blur of algorithms and debugging.
On my way out, after work, it happened again. The vision. This time, I could see very clearly that the figure was reaching for me, and it had no face. I didn’t snap out of it until I almost walked into a wall. I waited until I stopped shaking to drive home.
That night, I don’t think I dreamed. I say “I don’t think” because I woke up with the distinct impression that, just a moment ago, a tall pale man with no face had been reaching for me. A tall, pale man in a white lab coat.
Jackson was behind me, as usual, when he greeted me. There was a dissected Infraroomba in his hands and a puzzled look on his face. “Hey Sam! I think I’ve just about got this working. Just imagine: a Roomba that can clean your room without crashing into every piece of furniture.”
“Genius.” I sat down and made slight progress toward my own project, a three-dimensional randomly-generated terrain for testing robot navigation.
The work isn’t as interesting as it sounds. In the middle of lunch break, I saw the man with no face again, clearly enough to see that he had the long, delicate fingers of a pianist or surgeon. A red cross adorned his white coat.
I snapped out of it just as Jackson walked up next to me. “You look awful,” he asserted. “Dehydrated?”
“Uh… yeah, sure,” I mumbled, taking the proffered cup of water. “Yeah, I need to get more fluids. Thanks, Doc.”
He hated that. “Two years in pre-med,” he always said, “and you can’t forget about it. People change their minds sometimes.”
To which I always replied that I wasn’t criticizing, merely observing that a doctor is just a sort of person-engineer, always repairing an all-too-flimsy design. Whereas we robot-engineers could improve the design altogether.
I went home, and most definitely dreamed of a tall doctor with no face, reaching for me endlessly. I made a mental note, when I woke up, to see a shrink later.
Jackson was, surprisingly enough, in plain sight in front of me when I entered the building. He handed me a cup of coffee, saying nothing. Silently, he watched me take a sip.
Then he pulled out a remote control — you know, the funny little kind that come with Roombas. He pressed a key and commanded, “Forward march!”
I forward marched. I tried to open my jaw, to say something, but my muscles wouldn’t obey. Jackson laughed, but it was a friendly laugh unsuited to a supervillain.
“There’s something I need, Sam,” he explained cheerfully. “Roombas are good at finding their way around, but they’re nothing compared to humans. So, we’ll be borrowing some gray matter.”
I tried to stop walking, but with absolutely no luck.
“We don’t need your whole brain,” he went on, “but I’m afraid you won’t be very happy without the bits I’m taking. Not very alive, either.”
We were approaching a locked door, one I had always quietly assumed was a closet. It swung open, and I walked in. He followed, laughing.
That horrible laugh was cut off by the silence of my vision, as the long fingers reached and the smooth, blank nothingness stared at me.
I came back to reality to find myself lying down beneath a huge cephalopodic robot, all arms bristling with scalpels and bone saws and needles.
It was the doctor of nightmares.
And it had no face.