The Prison Warden welcomed me into his office. He poured iced tea into a glass and filled another cup with engine oil.
“I think I’m going crazy, Inspector,” he said.
He gave me the tea, and I sipped it. You’d expect it to taste strange, being made by a Warden, but it was delicious. I had another sip. Maybe today I’d say the truth outright and not bother with the charade. Then I thought about what my boss would say.
I sighed. “Why do you think you’re crazy?”
He sat behind his desk and drank the engine oil. “Before I get into that, thanks for travelling down here. I don’t want to cause no fuss, but … see, I need someone to talk to, and there ain’t much talking between me and the guards.
“I don’t like speaking ill of folks, but them copperheads give me the willies. They’re just so mechanical. And I beg your pardon, but I don’t mean that because they’re made from steel. It’s how they walk. How they chatter to each other, like a rattling engine. And their stare… those crystal orbs give me chills.
“The other day, one of my boys didn’t leave his cell, so a copperhead dragged him out, kicking and screaming and ahollerin’. He called the machine the vilest names.
And you know what the copperhead said?”
I stifled a yawn. “What?”
“Nothing. The dang copperhead didn’t say nothing. I know the prisoners are the guilty ones here, but they don’t creep me out half as much as the copperheads.”
I glanced at my watch. “You said you were going crazy.”
“That’s why I called you. I got no one else to talk to, save my secretary, and I can’t burden the good lady with this.”
“This morning, as I was shaving, I looked into the mirror. And…”
He gulped. I fought an urge to shake him. If they made Wardens any slower they’d all be going backwards.
“Yes?” I said.
“My reflection… a copperhead stared back.”
“Has this happened before?”
“Yes. Last week, I felt gears under my skin, and it sent me into a mad hot panic.”
“How long have you been Warden here?”
I opened my briefcase and shuffled through paperwork. “My records show that tomorrow would be your 1000th day as Warden.”
“Golly. That’s quite the milestone.”
“Yes.” I took a screwdriver out of my briefcase, and slipped it into my pocket. “Now, about your condition. I have an answer, but first, do you have any other remarks?”
He chuckled. “You make it sound like I’m getting old Sparky’s Chair. No, it’s high time to let you talk.”
I chewed my lip. Every warden meeting went like this. Why can’t they be unique? Why do all the clocks run to the same damn time?
“Roll up your shirt-sleeves,” I said.
He rolled them up, and his frown faded. Standard response. Ignorant villagers are always relieved when medicine men chant in strange tongues. A sign of an expert at work.
“Got a match?” I asked.
He gave me a match. I struck it, then held the flame to his exposed forearm. He yelped and swatted away the match. I stomped to snuff the flame. The warden half-stood, then gasped.
His forearm’s skin grew translucent, and cogs and springs turned underneath.
I stabbed my screwdriver into a freckle on his arm. He gaped, but stayed still, even when blood speckled out and a slit opened in his skin.
I dug my fingernails into the slit. Blood leaked out, and flesh squelched. The Warden gaped, and I ripped a thumb-sized hole in his skin.
Inside, his arm cavity was stuffed with copper wires, and springs, and gears, and pistons.
“I’m one of them,” he said. “A copperhead.”
“Yes. A Talos-3.”
“But copperheads can’t talk!”
“Heron-2s and downgraded Talos-3s can’t, but functioning Talos-3s can.”
“But… My wife… My son… The mugger.”
“You done this before, ain’t you?”
“I’m afraid so.”
And every time I hoped for something different. Something new. Not just a fresh story, or a strange quirk. I want to feel, for a moment, that the thing in front of me wasn’t born on an assembly line. I want to be fooled, damn it!
“What next?” he asked.
“I’ll downgrade you. You’ll become a guard, joining the Heron-2s and the other downgraded Talos-3s. A new Warden will replace you.”
Come on. Give me a shudder; a scowl; a curse. Anything!
He kept gazing at the floorboards. I groaned. No originality here. Just the same dreary progression along the conveyor belt.
I peeled synth-flesh off his face with a wet, sticky squelch. Gears filled the inside of his skull, and two crystalline eye-orbs reflected my image. I grabbed my screwdriver, ready to downgrade the machine.
“Wait,” said the Warden. “Before I go… am I different from the others?”
Tiredness swept through me. I’d lost track of how many men I’d turned into machines, but, for Susan and Billy’s sake, I couldn’t stop. It would break my heart to see them queuing outside a soup kitchen.
I sighed. “I wish you were.”
Jed Herne is an Australian architecture student and author, with stories published or forthcoming in The Arcanist, Scarlet Leaf Review, Flintlock, and other magazines. He hosts the Novel Analyst podcast, where he analyses stories to help writers improve their craft. He loves football, board games, and lists of threes. Observe his twitterings @JedHerne.