The psychiatrist enters the interview cell firmly, like a man who’s used to questioning the criminally insane. He’s no rookie at this; he’ll get his answers. The interviewee sits across the small room, legs splayed apart over the grey swivel chair; dark hair overgrown and shrouding his face; hands clasped together on the table before him, the fingers rubbing so hard against the knuckles that the skin’s flushed. His prison uniform hangs rebelliously from his weakened frame.
‘You’re different,’ is what the prisoner says when the doctor takes his seat across the table from him.
‘What do you mean? You don’t know me yet,’ the doctor replies.
‘No, that’s exactly what I mean. You’re not the same doctor I usually speak to.’ As he speaks, he lifts his head occasionally to take in the new man’s features.
‘Does that bother you?’ the doctor asks as he takes out his Dictaphone, a pad of paper and a blue ball-point pen.
The prisoner shrugs. ‘I guess…it’s just…how do I know you’re real when you keep changing like this?’
The doctor stares at him a long time, but doesn’t answer. Instead, he presses down the ‘record’ button on his Dictaphone, introduces the interview and then says, ‘When did this start?’
‘Oh God, do I really have to tell it all again?’ the prisoner spits out, slamming his hand down against the table and his chair repelling away from the situation. ‘Every time you change, I have to explain my story again, answer the same questions. But the one thing that doesn’t change…is the fact that no matter what form you take you never seem to believe or understand me. What’s the point?’
The doctor stares at him again. ‘Well. I understand you so far. That must be difficult for you. How are you ever to have a chance at parole some day when everyone keeps giving up on you and handing you to someone new?’
‘Giving up on…?’ the prisoner slides his chair back to the table.
‘Didn’t you know that? Why did you think everyone kept leaving?’
‘I just…I don’t know,’ he admits.
‘So you tell me,’ the doctor continues, ‘why my predecessors might have felt driven to leave this case?’ And once more his shadowy eyes peek out under shaggy grey eyebrows and stare hard. When the prisoner remains silent, the doctor repeats his original question: ‘when did this start?’
Sighing, the prisoner speaks. ‘It was the train station. Victoria.’ Then he purses his lips tightly.
‘Why have you stopped?’ the doctor questions.
‘Because I’ve said this so many times…. Okay. I was sitting on a bench, waiting for my train to come up on the departures board, and I watched all the other people rushing by me to catch their train home. I was in one of those moods where you find yourself thinking too much about silly things, so I started thinking about how all those people had lives to return to, places to go, families to see, activities to do, interests to pursue…and that they all must have thoughts, just like I did. Except then it struck me that I honestly couldn’t imagine them being like me, thinking like me.’
‘No one can think just like you,’ the doctor points out during the prisoner’s pause.
‘That’s what all the others have said. But you’re missing my point. I don’t mean thinking like me. I mean thinking at all. I couldn’t imagine being them, being them and thinking about the world around me. It just didn’t seem real. How can I explain this to you? Nothing seemed real. Suddenly everyone running past me was just….’
‘A robot?’ supplies the doctor. When the prisoner glares up at him, the doctor easily asks, ‘Am I jumping ahead? You tell it your way.’
The prisoner shudders briefly, like a chill is passing quickly through his body, then continues, ‘All of them, flitting past me, hardly seeing or acknowledging each other, like one cold, mechanical organism – unit, rushing forward without a clue what they were rushing forward to. I sat at the side and watched, watched as they pushed past each other as though they might die, should they not make the first train. Then it hit me: it was like they’d been programmed. No amount of reasoning would calm them down and make them slow themselves enough to see the world around them. That wasn’t how they were wired.’
‘I tried to shake the feeling away. This is what everyone forgets: I tried to make this stop. That’s all I’ve ever done, in fact. But it just wouldn’t let go of me. And even now…. Well. I went to work the following day –’
‘What did you do?’ asks the doctor.
‘I’m a…I was the IT manager for an insurance company in the City. But don’t start on about that computer theory everyone keeps coming out with. This is something different,’ he rolls his eyes. ‘Anyway. It was the way people were speaking to each other. The small talk. The way they could speak for minutes at a time, in beautiful flowing accent, and when you broke down what they actually said you realised it was all meaningless, trivial. They seemed to have so much to say about…fish and chips, or their favourite candy bars from childhood, or…I don’t know, just anything, anything mundane.’
‘And how is that bad?’ the doctor wonders.
‘I knew you wouldn’t get it,’ the prisoner almost shouts, his teeth bared through paling lips, hair shaking across his barely visible forehead.
‘No, I suppose I don’t,’ the doctor admits, sitting back in his chair easily, arms resting against the sides, hands folded in his lap comfortably. ‘I’d say it’s nice when people can take pleasure in the little things that make up our lives.’
‘But it’s pointless!’ the prisoner bursts forth. ‘It’s just so pointless, all of it. It’s like the news. You turn on the news and, just because they’re wearing nice suits and speaking in that TV-formal dialect about world-changing events, you think they’re saying something important and eloquent; but you stop and listen to the actual words they’re saying and it’s just so childish and careless. There’s nothing clever about it. And even the things they’re saying…it’s just the same thing over and over again….’
‘Hm…,’ muses the doctor.
‘I’m not explaining this properly, I know,’ speaks the prisoner, his throat gravelly from just shouting so loudly.
‘Then why don’t you try saying it another way,’ suggests the doctor.
‘There is no other way!’ he shouts again, and pounds his fist on the table again too. ‘You either get it or you don’t, it’s as simple as that.’
The doctor is quiet a moment, tapping his pen against the arm rest of his chair. Then he stops tapping and says pointedly, ‘Let’s skip a bit. Tell me why you locked yourself in the house.’
The prisoner gives a mute laugh that barely stretches the corners of his mouth, but is registered all the same. ‘Why I locked myself in the house,’ he repeats, closing his dark eyes and slipping into a near-trance. In his mind, he can see himself, like in a swirl of misty grey clouds, huddling on the floor below the window of his former home; the wood-handled hammer in his right hand, the long nails scattered on the floor; his dining table hacked to pieces and then pounded against the window frames to block them out. Could that really have only been six months ago? ‘It was when I realised the truth,’ he whispers.
‘The truth…?’ prods the doctor.
‘That they’d all been taken over. That they weren’t…they weren’t human anymore. They were just…machines. I mean, they looked like my friends, my neighbours, my…family. But they just weren’t. They’d been copied. Or…maybe their skin had been taken and fitted over the machines, I don’t know exactly. I just know…I knew they’d been changed. They weren’t real anymore…they weren’t people.’
‘So you locked yourself away because…?’
‘I couldn’t risk being taken over, myself,’ the prisoner explains as though it’s obvious. ‘I had to keep them out before they could get to me.’
‘Paranoia,’ the doctor murmurs, jotting the word down in his notepad.
‘I wasn’t paranoid,’ the patient informs him. ‘I mean, call it what you want, I guess, but I know this wasn’t paranoia. This was true.’
‘It was true, you say. So tell me, is it still true?’ the doctor counters. The prisoner glares back at him levelly and says nothing. ‘So how did you come to kill the man?’ the doctor finally gets to the real goal of this interview. The prisoner draws his gaze away immediately, pulls his legs up onto the chair so his knees touch his chin and wraps his arms about them, then swivels the chair around so his back is to the psychiatrist. ‘You want to get out of here, yes?’ the doctor offers. ‘So tell me what pushed you to murder. It’s the one thing you haven’t told anyone, but how can we hope to assess you if you won’t explain the one thing we really need to know?’ The prisoner is still motionless and mute. ‘Look, I need you to speak to –’
‘I don’t need you,’ the prisoner breaks his silence. ‘I don’t want you here. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t care if I’m stuck here, I just don’t want to talk to you anymore, now leave me.’ He says all this with his back still to the doctor. The doctor simply sits a moment, speechless himself. At last, he decides to stand, pack away his things, head for the door.
‘You’ll have to tell me sooner or later,’ he says. ‘I’ll be back.’
‘With a new face,’ mutters the prisoner. And when he’s finally alone again, he exhales heavily, surprised to realise he had been holding his breath for so long. Well, at least that so-called doctor is gone. Like hell he’s going to explain everything to one of them.
He stands up, his limbs feeling like leaded fruit, and he swings his arms drastically while pacing up and down the cell. He’s still unsure how to feel about being locked away. In a sense, it’s exactly what he wanted, to be locked off from the rest of them. But then again, if his hunch is correct and his captors have already been taken over…then he’s at their mercy. He wonders what it will be like, when he’s destroyed, made new. Will it hurt? Or perhaps he won’t even notice it happening; one day he’ll simply be going about his business and he will find he’s one of them. Except…he won’t know to notice or question it; he’ll believe that’s just how people are.
* * *
Without trying, the memory jumps at him, like it often does these days: it always made him nervous when the months changed. This year, the autumn had come too fast. The cold set in before he even had the chance to notice summer, and that was bad news for him because the gas was running low and he couldn’t go down the road to top-up. He couldn’t let any of them see him, couldn’t let them know he was different.
He saw them walk the streets with mechanical rhythm: step-two-three, step-two-three. Or maybe that was wrong. They could have been stepping in twos, or even fast fours. But he always saw it in threes. Sometimes he would catch himself moving to the same rhythm and wonder if it wasn’t just something to do with the way the human body is constructed, our proportions. But then – if it’s so natural, why did it disturb him so much?
If it was a matter of uniformity versus individuality, he had nothing to worry about. He’s never been nothing like them. He would whisper to himself, ‘I am human and they are…something else.’ They were strange, distant creatures moving like dreams, and he was locked inside, not daring to venture outside and speak to them.
It startled him to realise they had been there so long, he’d forgotten the ‘important’ things: where they came from, when they arrived, where all the others went when they appeared. All he knew was they hadn’t got him yet – and even that, well, sometimes he started to doubt himself. The trouble, you see, was this: if he did become a different person, how would he know? wasn’t that why no one was able to prove or disprove things like reincarnation? There’s no former self to bear witness to the change. So, for all he know, by now he was one of them – but in denial. Maybe that was why they had (for the most part) starting leaving him alone.
These creatures now filling the world were not aliens. He didn’t think so, anyway. He had a vague belief that they are androids. There was once a time when we had to define that term. Then one day, everyone already knew what it meant, and he thought the word was almost superfluous, because they’d become the new dominant race. He didn’t know how they’d done it. Carbon replicas? Or perhaps everyone had been operated on, and transformed into those robotic things. Who was to say?
They would’t get him, though. He wouldn’t come so easily.’
He had set aside a store of tinned foods he’d collected the last time he dared go to any shops. The other shoppers had kept glancing at him suspiciously, but he slowed his pace, stared blankly at the shelves, vaguely handled the goods on offer; made as though he were reading ingredients labels, while his mind was clearly elsewhere; walked his cart into other shoppers, as if he were blind, and they pushed onward without acknowledging what he’d done. He asked a shop worker where the peanuts were, and pleasantly accepted the caramelised popcorn that was absurdly pointed out to him instead. He dutifully pulled out his store card when the man at the till asked for it while he looked absently in the other direction, where nothing stood but a plain wall. In short, the prisoner had blended in with them. Admittedly, it was trying; he often had the overpowering urge to throw his cart’s contents, item by metallic item, at the heads of every blank face he saw, every inane voice he heard, every unthinking speaker – but he resisted – he resisted for the sake of that supply, for his escape…well, his hideaway, for the time, but eventually his escape.
(A terrible thought: what if there was nowhere to go? What if they’d taken over the whole planet?)
Food, food…he’d never been a huge eater, so he’d be okay for a while. He had tin after tin after tin of soup, baked beans, kidney beans, sweet corn, garden peas, baby carrots, precooked pasta, macaroni, peach and pear slices, evaporated milk, custard (for a treat); loaves of bread, pies, oven chips and pizzas in the freezer; cartons of juice and UHT; boxes of cereal, bags of pasta and jars of tomato sauce; his trusted water filter, with enough replacement filters to last a few years; 30 bottles of iron and vitamin C supplements….
If it were America, he supposed he’d be in the basement; but it was Surrey, and he’d had to make do with the boards on the windows (a DIY excursion gone horribly wrong) and nine padlocks on the front door (seven on the back door and two per window). It was only a small flat, so there weren’t too many places they could get in through…but it was the ground floor, so he couldn’t be too careful. Although, maybe it would have been just as dangerous on the first or second floor. Maybe they could fly. Maybe they had taken over the birds, too.
And sometimes Alton would knock on his door. ‘Victor!’ he would call through the wooden boards, his voice sounding so far away, despite being just a few inches from the prisoner’s head. ‘Victor, please open the door. We need to talk…I’m worried about you.’
The prisoner was never sure how to respond. It had to be said: Alton was the harder part of the whole messy situation. Waking up one day to find they had taken his brother, well…he kept hoping the answers would come to him, that he’d suddenly know what to do about the problem, but each day he hoped, he found himself disappointed. Sometimes he would run the scenario through his head, imagine replying:
‘You’re worried about me?’ Victor’s voice would finally return, a hint of bitterness staining his words.
‘Yes…I’m quite concerned,’ Alton would probably say.
‘”Quite concerned”? Let me see if I understand this. I’ve locked myself in the flat and boarded up all the windows and you’re only “quite concerned”?’
‘What more do you want me to say, Vic?’ Alton would ask wearily.
And Victor would say nothing, because he would know without a doubt that they had taken the man on the other side of the door.
Who was to say this was really how it would have happened? But the prisoner felt convinced of it enough not to speak or move a muscle when Alton came knocking.
For an invasion, they weren’t very discreet. If he were invading another world, he would go out of his way to learn their customs, behaviours, to mimic them as thoroughly as possible – like he did at the grocery store. He’d take them over slowly and subtly. But they didn’t do that. Oh, they were quick, he’d give them that; but how could he not be suspicious of his brother’s complete lack of passion, good or bad? Of a sense of concern that seemed to come from programming, rather than true emotion? They were once such close friends. The prisoner supposed that, wherever they come from, they didn’t have passion or intensity. They were just machines consumed by automation. Even now, they can’t comprehend what they’ve stolen from him.
* * *
Then his nosy neighbour Roger decided to find out what was going on with ‘that weird house up the road’. He rang the bell several times – then rang it some more – then knocked and knocked and knocked – then started pounding on the boarded-up windows. Finally, the prisoner (he was a prisoner even before this cell, he knows) relented and opened the door. To this day, he curses the moment he made that decision. If only he had stayed down, Roger would have left and things would have turned out so differently….
It was when Roger threatened to call the police to have him looked at for psychiatric evaluation. That was when the prisoner just knew he was done for – this neighbour meant to change him, and the prisoner would be damned if he was about to let him do that. So he decided to smash his circuitry.
There was the hammer. And there was the robot. It wasn’t hard to figure out what would happen next. Except…the blood…why was there blood?
With horror, he dipped his fingertips into the spreading pool, watched the colour seep under his uncut nails and stain them a horrible dark colour. Then he licked the stains, once, twice, three or four times. He just had to be sure it was real. And it was – it was real blood. Real human blood.
‘No no no no no no no,’ he kept repeating to himself, frozen above the corpse, unable to think what to do next. ‘No no no. How can this be? How can this be? He was…he…no, he…how could he have been alive?’ Oh God, was he mistaken about the others, too, then? No, he couldn’t possibly….
The police came the following day, after Roger’s wife filed a missing persons report and pointed them in the direction of the house. When they dragged him outside, it was the first time the prisoner had seen daylight in months. He remembers the burn of the sunshine against his eyes and pale skin, and the cold metal of the handcuffs as they came down on his wrists, emaciated from lack of care during his solitude. Today, he’s put on a bit of fat, but he sees the worry in the eyes of his mother when she comes to visit him. Which is odd, considering she was one of the first he decided must certainly be a machine….
‘I just don’t know what to believe anymore,’ he mutters to himself furiously. And as the door opens and his prison officer enters to take him back to his normal cell, he can’t seem to stop the flashbacks of that crowd of people rushing forward for their trains – running back to their families, their friends, their hobbies, their lives – and he thinks that maybe they are real, they do think…but he definitely learned something that day at Victoria Station:
They certainly don’t think like him.