Number 17 was different. He – it – looked like he – it! – was smiling. We added the external valves and tubing just to reinforce his – it’s! If you’re recording this then the least you can do is sound impartial! – mechanical nature. People empathised with Number 17; we designed him that way.
There was a wheezing, on the stairwell. The heavy thud of metal against an ancient, frayed runner. The creaking of wood, like nightingale floorboards. There was a shout – there often was. A shout, followed by screaming, and the sound of shattering glass, a crystalline waterfall, cascading onto the street. A woman crying. Number 17 transmits all audio-visual stimuli back to the laboratory for processing. He’s too dangerous. Too unpredictable to make his own decisions.
Humans must decide what the next course of action will be – even though Number 17 would make the same assessment.
This way there’s someone to blame, if it all goes wrong.
Number 17 and its ilk were designed to make use of an extraordinary power source: souls.
It’s a new kind of magic – one that works.
Naturally, only humans have souls, or at least the correct type of soul, that ephemeral, unmeasurable quality that separates us from the animals. And, precisely because each soul is unmeasurable, no legal action can be taken against that exploitation. Certainly the process of processing can lead to psychological trauma, but without scars no tissue is strong.
Without scars there can be no emotional growth.
One wonders why the plebeians run.
His soles slapped against the cracked concrete as he ran, ignoring the thousand small cuts across his face and arms. He imagined the construct stepping onto the street behind him. He could feel its heavy weight press down, crushing the straggling dandelions as they fought for scraps of dirt and grit in the pavement. He could feel its mechanical eyes drilling into his back.
Number 17 sent in its report. The selected had chosen to flee. Faceless men depressed levers and commented on the incoming data – placing bets on how long the runner would evade capture. Not if he would escape, how long he could run for. Number 17 would not stop, not until it had captured its quarry. Questions flew across the Command Centre, discussing variables and the ever-shortening odds. And why it was that the plebs always ran. It wasn’t as though they were taking anything substantial. Nothing of any substance was removed at all.
None of them had volunteered, of course.
The educated classes were above such depredations.
The walls seemed be leaning in toward him, crowding out the sun. He saw the black-mirrored lenses of surveillance cameras swivel in their mountings – the wealthy, the upper classes monitoring his flight. It was a sport to them. He flicked them the finger as he ran.
He glanced over his shoulder.
There was nothing there.
The machine stood instead at the other end of the alleyway. It was smiling at him.
Number 17 squatted, its bulk filling the narrow street as its target lifted his hands, as though pleading with the machine. It clanked forward, gears crunching and grinding as it approached along the cobblestones, valves shrieking.
He fell to the ground.
Hard, onto his knees.
Begging, like a dog.
The extraction was quick, and relatively painless.
He lay in the alleyway, for an indeterminate period of time. The sun may have set, may have risen. Neon lights flickered between states of hibernation and activity. The streetsweepers swept around him.
They took his shoes first, then his jacket, his phone. His eyes, for sale on the organ markets.
They harvested his kidneys, and his liver, as sure as Number 17 had harvested his soul.
They harvested his meat for the nearby soup-kitchens.
A net benefit for society.
Written for a couple of Terrible Minds challenges, as well as for one of this week’s BeKindRewrite prompts,
and that amazingly detailed Mattias Adolfsson image above,
although perhaps he didn’t intend for Number 17 to be so sinister.
Or maybe he did. Let me know what you think in the comments below!