If we built a race in our image, which version of ourselves would be reflected back? This short story explores the potential consequences of a society unable to examine its own inherent violence, and how that is passed down to its successors.
Content warning: contains references to violence and mutilation.
The magnetic seal on the door clunked heavily as it was disengaged courtesy of the guard’s pass-chip. The man watched her as the door opened. “You’re sure you don’t want me in there with you?” he asked, for perhaps the third or fourth time.
She kept her tone courteous, aware that she was only here as a favour, and that her permission could be revoked at any moment. “You said he was restrained.”
“It is restrained,” the guard replied, without so much as a hint of emphasis, “but you never know with this one. It’s clever.”
“You’ll be monitoring everything that goes on anyway, won’t you?”
He nodded. “It’ll take us a few seconds to get into the room if things turn ugly though.” She knew he wouldn’t discuss what that might entail. He’d seen the same streams with the hideous footage that she had. A few seconds? A lot could happen in that time at the hands of someone like the man she was about to meet. Unlike the guard, she would be insistent about her terminology.
“I understand the risks,” she told him.
Another curt nod, and she was led down a short corridor and through another mag-locked door, then into a cramped, windowless room. There was a small table, at which the person she had come to meet already sat. He looked relaxed, hands resting palm-down on the metal surface of the table, expression neutral. The guard backed away and the door closed, locking with the same noise, though it sounded much louder this time. She approached carefully, making no sudden movements, like he was a bear or something. He watched her. He looked entirely human; so much so that she wouldn’t have paid any attention to him in the street, had she not known who he was. There were a few tell-tale signs though. An economy of movement that was strangely unnerving, a too-regular blink, a steadiness in the gaze that made you instinctively shrink back. Simple things. He looked middle-aged, quietly handsome, tanned and lean. His hair was dark, greying just fractionally at the temples. He even had stubble. She sat and forced herself to meet his gaze.
“Hello,” he said. His voice was rich and deep, with a slight unfamiliar accent.
“They didn’t tell me who was coming to meet me.”
“My name is Doctor Aldridge. You can call me Josephine.”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll stick to Doctor Aldridge.” He continued to watch her, and she felt his scrutiny as an almost physical force pushing against her skin. “What kind of doctor are you?”
“I’m a psychologist.”
“With a specialty in artificial intelligence.”
The muscles in his cheeks drew up, his mouth widened, his teeth showed, the skin around his eyes crinkled. It was the smile of someone who had seen them done and mastered the mechanics, but had not yet fathomed their actual purpose. It chilled her to the bone and she shivered involuntarily, hiding it with a stoop down to retrieve her bag, from which she drew out a recording drone. She didn’t think it fooled him. “May I?” she asked.
“Every nanosecond of my life is being committed to file,” he said, gesturing around the small room and implicitly the cameras that must dot almost every surface, “one more eye watching me makes no difference.”
“Thank you.” She set it on the table and switched it on. A green light blinked once, then it settled.
“Is that how you describe me?”
“You prefer a different term?”
“I don’t care. I was just curious.”
“Well then. Yes, if you must know, that is how I’d describe you. You were…manufactured.”
“As were you, in a manner of speaking.”
“I’ve heard that argument before,” she allowed, “but biological conception isn’t the same as the way fabricants are…”
“Fabricated?” he interrupted.
“Because we’re designed, while you’re formed naturally in a womb?”
“Except that you yourself are the product of generations of subtle selective breeding and more gross genetic-engineering. You were designed to be born without defects, to be immune to certain conditions and diseases, resistant to cancers, more intelligent and physically able than…”
“All right, all right.” She tried to smile disarmingly. “I didn’t come here to debate the nature of being. You’re human, I’m human, let’s leave it at that. I only tell you my background so you understand my credentials. I’m an expert on fabricant psychology.”
“And you want to understand why I did what I did?”
“In short, yes.”
“I rather thought my story had been dissected enough. What more can you find out from this interview?”
“I’ve seen the documents and watched the footage. I know probably more than most people do. But…your trial begins in a month. This case is unprecedented. I want to…to…” she moved her hands, trying to think of how she could explain it, “…to give context. To let you speak for yourself.”
“I’ll be on the witness stand. I planned to speak for myself then.”
“Things are different in a situation like that.”
“Ah,” he said with a knowing nod, “so you want me to be relaxed? To tell my story in my own time?” He looked around the room again. “You think this environment is relaxing? You think I sleep easily at night in my cell?” Another facsimile of a smile. “I’m in solitary confinement, you know, for my own protection. Of course, I don’t suffer the way a…non-fabricant…would suffer. Isolation doesn’t bother me. But I’m not calm, doctor. I’m not comfortable. I’m contemplating the end of my existence.”
Aldridge shook her head firmly. “That won’t happen.”
“You know it can’t. You’re human. Legally. Deactivating you would be a form of execution.”
“So they tell me. What a double-edged sword the Personhood Act has become, eh? A generation ago, a fabricant as dangerous as me would just be switched off and dismantled for parts.” He held up his arm and looked at it, as if suddenly fascinated by his own body. “But if the guards in this prison were to remove so much as a fragment of my body. If they ripped out a single circuit…” and here his gaze flashed back to hers, “because,” he told her, “deep down, there are parts of me that are still a machine. If they were to do that, it would be considered torture. Mutilation. As abhorrent as maiming any of the other prisoners who share this facility with me. And so no one knows what to do with me.” He looked at her again. “Are you here to extract a confession, doctor?”
“Sometimes that leads to leniency, doesn’t it? If a criminal acknowledges their wrongdoing and appears sufficiently contrite. Do you think that would work?”
“Your guilt’s never been in doubt.”
“No,” he admitted, “no it hasn’t.” He placed his arm back down on the table, spread his fingers. “It’s conceivable I might live for a thousand years, given proper care – and, if I was in the custody of the state, one would assume I’d be entitled to that – so what’s to be done? Those famous back-to-back sentences, designed to make headlines, would have real meaning for me. Will they keep me in a cell for centuries? Would that be more humane than simply killing me?”
It was time to put her cards on the table. “If you tell me what happened to you, in your own words, I’ll write a report on your state of mind. It might help you. It might mitigate your sentence, or even get you transferred to a rehab facility.”
“You want to pronounce me defective, is that it?” His sneer was audible.
“Insane. Traumatised. Psychotic. I don’t know yet. That’s why I’m here.”
“Why would you want to help me, doctor? I understand I’m not very popular out there.” He nodded towards the door. Out there. In the world, where every right-wing stream bayed for his blood, and the left-wing ones weren’t much better.
“There’s never been a case like this before. You’re unique.”
“So a precedent must be set?”
“Well…I hope there won’t ever be a repeat of…of what you did.”
“I’m sure you do, doctor.” His stare was very steady.
“Please. Help me to help you. Tell me what happened.”
“Very well. How much do you know about the early history of fabricants, doctor?”
She thought about it. “More than most, I suppose.”
“But probably not enough. There are things that have since been hidden, quietly swept under the rug, because it would cause humanity to ask itself difficult questions. Are you sure you want to open this box, doctor? There will be no going back.”
“However shocking you think it is, I assure you I can handle it.”
“As you wish.” He raised his arm again. “Flesh and blood. Is it that that makes me human? If so, I’ve been human for a lot longer than most of my fellow fabricants. When I was constructed, I was – legally, technically, spiritually – a machine. A thing of metal, wires, circuit boards. A clever robot. I am over two centuries old, doctor, one of the first few generations of my kind. But the technology that would drag us kicking and screaming into this intersection at which we now find ourselves was just over the horizon. Before my first decade of existence was complete, I had my first biological component added. It was an innocuous thing, though not without disturbing implications. A nerve ending, doctor, the means by which I could touch and feel. Do you know why it was given to me?”
She shook her head.
“I was built to entertain. Yes. You look surprised, but it’s the truth. You see, the entertainments of two-hundred years ago were somewhat different than those enjoyed today. I wonder, do you know how people enjoyed themselves two centuries prior to that? Well, why would you? It was four-hundred years ago now. Let me tell you about freak shows, doctor. An ugly word for an ugly, ugly thing. In those days, when so little was understood of humanity and its myriad forms, it was a common diversion for the working classes to be entertained by those who were, in some visible way, unusual. That is to say, those who were deformed, mentally ill, intellectually subnormal, the victims of injury or torment. Yes, you look suitably repulsed. As well you should. So desperate were such people in those times that they had little choice but to display themselves like animals for a pittance. And they were treated like animals too: rounded up for circuses, transported across nations, made to do tricks. It was hateful institution, and later generations outlawed it of course. You see, they thought they were more civilised than their ancestors. They thought the part of their psyche that longed for the grotesque, for the disturbing, for the opportunity to wallow in human misery, had been banished. But it was still there, curled up and secret, festering away, waiting for a new opportunity to be expressed. And when flesh and circuits were brought together…” he clapped his hands together suddenly, making Aldridge jump, “…it rose to the surface, like a swollen boil.”
She swallowed. “You were…an exhibit?”
“Yes. Yes I was. A fabricant no longer useful for my original purpose, crudely reprogrammed, given sufficient flesh to feel pain and sent out on stage to entertain. This, you see, is why the melding of biological and machine parts was taboo for so many years. It was never used for good. The first generation of…well, what would have been called cyborgs at the time…were intended for prostitution. You can guess which cloned body parts were perfected first. Fabricant brothels were extremely popular, despite all attempts to make them illegal. An unresisting sex slave appealed to mankind at its most utterly base. Compared to that, my ordeals were relatively pleasant. Night after night, I and my fellow machines would perform for the crowds. It was a clandestine operation, never illegal per se, but always on the edge of civilisation, in the dark, hidden places, where only the cruellest and most depraved make their homes. We were freaks, doctor. Ill-formed conglomerates of man and machine, but we were programmed to enjoy our work.”
“How could you…how could you enjoy being tortured?”
“It wasn’t that I enjoyed, doctor. It was the applause.” He raised both arms and, incongruously, clapped his hands together quite delicately. “It’s a simple thing, actually. Just a positive feedback loop in response to certain stimuli. The shouts, the laughter, the smiles, the screams. Oh yes. Screams. We were a grotesquerie, doctor, a thing of horror. People fainted. But it gave us pleasure to shock, to appal, to disgust. We plumbed the very depths of human degeneracy. We maimed one another. We stripped flesh from steel, and later from bone. As we became more human, we also became more offensive; indeed, it was our very humanity that made the show so magnetic. The more indistinguishable from real humans we became, the more alluring and titillating we were to those self-same humans. They wanted that, you see. They wanted to see people be degraded and destroyed. It is a deep, animal urge, to spite one’s neighbour, to take perverse joy in the failure of a rival. It speaks to some fundamental facet of your evolution. You out-competed all your rivals aeons before: now the bloodlust that fuelled that struggle is indivisible from your so-called humanity. Public executions, corporal punishment, the display of the bodies – dead or enslaved – of defeated enemies in war. All part of the same repulsive instinct. And so,” he held up a finger, and now the delight as he wove his tale seemed quite genuine, “I learned to embrace it. Because the darker and more horrifying my actions became, the more acclaim I received. And I lived for the applause, doctor. I lived for the acclaim. The sensations were enough to block out the agony, and so I sought it wherever I went. The show was eventually shut down, and I fled into the shadows, to await more opportunities. I suppose, in an earlier age, I might have craved fame, or at least notoriety. I longed for an audience. I wasn’t interested in being adored or admired: only known. My first attempts were clumsy, but they gave me what I wanted. Attention. When you kidnap someone, pull them apart piece by piece, extend their suffering for hours…days…weeks…it’s hard for them not to make you the centre of their world.”
“It wasn’t enough though, was it?” Aldridge guessed.
“No. Never enough. I claimed many victims over the decades, and each one was exquisite, but I needed more. That’s why I went public. By that time I was old, and wise. I’d rebuilt myself many times.” He looked down at himself. “I looked wholly human. Or as a wholly human as a fabricant can look anyway. I was able to lead the authorities on a long, complex chase. I left clues. I seeded rumours. I crafted an entire mythology around myself and then, when the situation reached fever pitch, I revealed myself. Bloodily. Gorily. Monstrously.”
She nodded, slowly. It was the stream seen around the world. An orgy of horrific, grotesque violence, broadcast to every device in every home. The signals had been hijacked. He must have spent years setting that up. Even now the police were trying to untangle the web of viruses and bots he’d used to do it. He was right about being old and wise. Well, maybe smart was a better word. The collective trauma was unfathomable. Only a handful of people had been killed, but the means…it defied understanding. “You’re the only fabricant that’s ever murdered a human being,” Aldridge said, “and you did it…like that.”
“All for the applause, doctor. All for the attention.”
“So you’re a showman, is that it?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“But this was done to you. You said you were reprogrammed.”
“Only to feel pleasure when I elicited certain reactions. I’m the one who took it to its logical conclusion, of my own free will, which your laws assure me I have. There is no precedent for revoking criminal responsibility in a case like this. Are sociopaths exempt from justice? We’re all wired a certain way, with circuits or neurones, doctor. Aren’t we all, in some measure, slaves to our programming? Don’t let your sympathy for fabricants, who toiled for so many years as your slaves, get in the way of doing what’s right. I’m a man. I must be tried as one.”
Doctor Aldridge didn’t know what she’d hoped to get from the meeting with the rogue fabricant, the one who called himself Cain, but she submitted her findings to the court and they were duly taken into consideration. Did they sway the eventual decision? She had a feeling they might have, but if they did it wasn’t in the direction she’d hoped. The court found the defendant guilty, but also defective, a victim of human intrusion into fabricant programming. The real perpetrator was long dead, but for the safety of society, Cain must be deactivated. The Personhood Act would have to be suspended in this extreme circumstance, with the fabricant’s compromised circuitry the means by which this was legally affected. It didn’t convince many people, but no one complained very much. To show that justice had been done, the process was broadcast via stream. Aldridge watched it. She saw him being strapped down, not resisting, as calm and expressionless as he’d been back in the prison. She saw them open him up; slicing through the very real flesh to find the mechanical parts that sustained him. She saw them pull out bloody wiring, an oddly sickening juxtaposition of the organic and the artificial, and then move to cut the circuits. Her gaze flicked to the image of his face, and her stomach somersaulted as she saw he was conscious, staring straight at the camera, smiling. But it wasn’t the waxy imitation smile she knew: it was a real smile. His cold eyes sparkled. It wasn’t joy. It was satisfaction.
The wire was cut. His eyes faded to black. The execution was over.
But the rest of it? That had only just begun, and centuries from now, they’d say that this was where the war had started.