Thick arm around me. The smell of roofing tar cooling in the night air. The pulsing of light sources shining against my eyelids as I was carried past. My eyes cracked open to observe a dimly-lit shed growing bigger as we approached. I saw the old man open the door in front of us.
In the center of the shed stood a tall metallic box with a numeric display on top and a button on one side of the front. It looked like an elevator door. Indeed, when the old man pushed the button, the doors slid open.
“Put him down, Kratos,” the old man said. Then, once I was down, “Follow after us. Don’t want this poor fellow to feel claustrophobic, eh?” He clapped my back.
I looked around cautiously.
“I assure you, if you run, you will not get far,” he threatened me. “Get into the lift.”
My gaze traveled up the height of his monster, Kratos. He was wearing his gold mask again. I could still see his grin overlaid in my mind. Not seeing any other choice, I stepped into the elevator.
The old man followed me in and pushed a button. The doors slid closed silently, and we glided very gently downward. There was a little ping periodically, I assumed to mark floors as we passed. Third, second, first, basement, then two more floors after that. When the doors slid open again, I guessed we must’ve been something like 25 feet or so underground.
The room the elevator opened into was stark white. Clinical. Almost blinding in its brightness. It smelled like antiseptic and…something else. I couldn’t quite place it, but it was deeply unsettling.
The old man gestured for me to step out. As I did, I became aware of the two guards standing on either side. They were only slightly smaller than Kratos. I backed away from them quickly, agape at their appearance.
One was a woman with limbs as thick as my torso. Her face was stitched all over with bare metal wire in symmetrical patterns that were at once beautiful and grotesque. The other was a man with similarly bulging musculature and stubby metal spikes protruding from his otherwise bald scalp. He wore a gold mask across his eyes. I did not desire to know what lay underneath.
The elevator doors closed and several minutes passed as I trembled against the wall, my eyes never leaving the two terrors before me. When the doors opened again, Kratos unfolded himself from inside. He was so big, it would’ve been hilarious to see him emerge from the elevator if the situation weren’t so seemingly dire.
The old man stepped over and patted Kratos’s arm. He waved to the three giants. “These are my soldiers,” he said proudly. I have many more through those doors.” He nodded to a set of double doors on one end of the room.
“If you are good, I’ll add you to the ranks.” He smiled in a way that made my skin crawl.
Somewhere in the distance, a drawn out scream reverberated across the whole floor. I jumped at it. Shortly after that, the elevator doors opened again. Once again, I jumped.
The pale man with the dark, parted hair stepped out. He smiled broadly at me. “Greetings, pal. You ended up here quicker than I thought you would.”
“Is it done?” the old man asked him with a hint of impatience.
The younger man’s smile morphed into a devious grin. “Oh, yes,” he nodded. “Torched. I’m afraid we might lose the whole building.”
The old man glared at him. “Did you get carried away? You were supposed to only destroy the one apartment.”
“Hey,” the younger man shot back defensively, “fire ain’t easy to control. And it’s late. Everyone’s asleep. By the time anyone noticed, half the top floor was in flames.”
The old man rubbed the bridge of his nose under his thick glasses. “There will be a lot of attention on the neighborhood because of this.”
I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask, “Did — did you burn down my apartment?”
“You will find our accommodations more than adequate,” the old man said. Suddenly, his demeanor changed and he was all smiles again. “How go your travel plans?” he asked, turning away from me.
The pale young man smiled back. “I fly out this morning. The headmaster himself will meet me when I arrive. I look forward to seeing his progress.”
The two of them grinned knowingly at each other for several seconds. “Well, I’m about to give our guest the tour,” the old man said.
The young man looked at me with that smile again. I hated that smile. “You’re in for such a treat! Not even the headmaster can boast such a collection. My uncle has the largest army in the nation.”
I looked at him with wide eyes, the unspoken question written clearly on my face.
“Oh, yes,” he said with great relish. “We are everywhere, my friend. The world will be so shocked. I can’t wait for the day when we march.”
“Perhaps you’d better go pack,” the old man told him with a significant look.
The young man nodded, very businesslike, and turned back to the elevator. “See you in a week, everyone!” he shouted cheerily. “Later, Socrates,” he said to Kratos with a chuckle.
Kratos growled after him.
“Let him be, Kratos,” the old man soothed. Then to me, “Come. Let’s show you what we do here.”
Kratos opened the double doors and walked into the hall beyond. The old man prodded me to follow while he walked beside me. As if the size of Kratos’s back weren’t enough to block my view, I noticed that his reddish pony tail appeared to be a braid of copper wire sewn into the skin at the base of his skull. It was hard to pry my eyes from it.
“This section represents my greatest successes,” the old man began his tour. “Through a series of treatments, therapies, and augmentations, these soldiers have achieved the zenith of human physical capabilities. This coupled with an intense obedience makes them the ideal fighting force for the battle that approaches.”
As we walked down the hallway, we passed compartments on either side enclosed with thick metal bars. They looked like prison cells. And within the cells were individuals much like Kratos. They were massive specimens with impossible muscles. Each of them had some kind of gruesome body modification, in some cases caked with blood at the edges. I saw horns, spikes, tusks, protruding bones, torn flesh. And each monster stood unnervingly straight and still at the bars of each cage. We must have walked past dozens of them.
“Every human possesses the potential for such greatness. With training and the generous application of science and medicine, anyone can unlock their full strength,” the old man continued proudly.
At what cost, I wondered. Off in the distance, another chilling scream echoed down the corridor. I became aware of the faint sound of weeping, occasionally moaning.
My tour guide sighed. “Now we come to the next section,” he said in stony monotone.
I looked to my left first. In that cell, there was a woman. Massive, like the rest, but she was not standing stoically in her cell. She had her hands wrapped around the bars. Every few seconds she leaned back and pulled herself headfirst into the thick metal. It was clear she had been at this for some time. Her face was drenched with blood. Beneath her mask of wet crimson, a vacant expression. I was more terrified than ever.
“Every army needs its fodder,” the old man explained. “These individuals were not well suited to their treatments. They are still powerful, and delightfully violent, but obedience utterly fails them. Still, dropped into a populated area with no supervision, they will sow the appropriate level of chaos.”
We passed another set of cells. I looked right. A monster of a man stared back with one eye. His other eye was only a bare socket, freshly scabbed over. He had deep bite marks all up and down his forearms, some freshly bloody. Telltale red rimming his mouth made me a bit queasy.
“Unfortunately, this section is quite long,” my guide informed me.
For many minutes, we walked down the hallway, passing horror after horror. Some huddled in corners. Many stood or laid in pools of their own blood, vomit, or waste. Many sported fresh injuries of their own doing. Some were stuporous, some weeping, some screamed and reached for us as we passed. I was certain a few of them were dead in their cells. The smell was awful. I longed to return to the uncanny stillness of the previous section.
“These last few cells are new recruits,” the old man explained. “Depending on the outcome of our interview, you may find yourself in one of these.”
I swallowed hard. I’d have rather died. Tears began to roll down my cheeks. I looked into these cells. Most of the inhabitants were bound. Many had their heads covered with sacks. These were normal-sized people. They had not yet been perverted, as far as I could tell. I wondered how far I would get if I turned and ran. No doubt Kratos would have come after me. I doubted he would kill me, though. If not, it really wasn’t worth it.
“Kratos, bring number eight,” the old man commanded. He gestured to me to continue walking with him past his giant.
We finally reached the end of the hall where another set of double doors stood. The old man opened one and waved me inside.
The smell in the room we entered was sterile. It was a welcome relief. But that was really the only comforting thing about it. Off to one side was a few desks and filing cabinets. There were glass cabinets filled with vials. One wall was lined with drawers. The other side of the room appeared to be an operating theater. My heart really couldn’t take much more of this.
“Come,” the old man directed me. “Take this seat here.”
I walked over to the seat by one of the desks and sat down. The old man walked around the desk and took the seat opposite me.
“I suppose,” he began, “you must be wondering why you’re here. Why we haven’t killed you already.”
I could only sit there with a wild-eyed expression. No response was obvious to me. I was trying not to cry from overwhelming fear.
“Well, that’s not really how we operate here,” he continued. “The truth is, I want to offer you a choice.”
“In this army I am building, there are really only two possible paths,” he went on. “One is all those soldiers you saw out there. The other is as a strategist, a commander, a leader. Think of it as enlisted versus officers. While soldiers like Kratos are overwhelmingly powerful killing machines, the treatment they undergo kills their intellect and ambition. They need someone who can tell them what to do.”
As if summoned by his name, Kratos entered. He was guiding the woman I had seen on the roof in the afternoon. If only I had missed that earlier development, I might not have been here now. Her head was still covered. She was breathing fast, clearly terrified.
“Ah good,” the old man called. “Strap her to the table.”
She began to sob as Kratos dragged her to the operating table and strapped her to it. Though she resisted, he seemed remarkably gentle with her.
“Now, where was I?” The old man mused. “Ah yes, so the choice before you. It’s very simple. Swear your obedience to me and your loyalty to our mission. If you do so, you may escape the fate of this young lady.”
I looked over at the woman in the table. “What are you going to do to her?”
The old man stood and walked around the desk. “Watch closely,” was his only answer.
He walked over to the woman, who was struggling fiercely against the restraints, and removed the sack from her head. “Dear, dear, dear,” he clucked, “I don’t think we’ll be able to get an IV in you at all.”
He turned to some equipment near the table and began to twist a dial. Once he was satisfied, he picked up a pair of what I assumed were electrodes attached by leads to the device. He peeled back the paper exposing the adhesive and placed one electrode on each of the woman’s temples.
“Now, dear,” he said calmly to the woman, “I highly recommend you relax as much as possible. Since I can’t sedate you chemically, I have to use this. There is a risk you might break a few bones. Do your best to be still.”
I heard her panicked moan as the old man turned and pressed a button on the device. She suddenly jolted her body began to quiver under the restraints. She shook slightly for nearly a full minute before becoming completely still.
My knuckles were white as my hands gripped the back of the chair where I sat. I looked at the old man with wide eyes.
He smiled back at me. “I’ll be thoroughly honest with you,” he said with a chuckle, “this is my favorite method of sedation. I probably could have gotten a needle in her arm, but it was important for you to see this. And I found it very amusing. Now, to work.”
He put on a pair of nitrile gloves, though I hadn’t seen him wash his hands. It really didn’t seem like a sterile environment, despite the smell. He opened a small case that was sitting on a tray near the bed and pulled out a small metal mallet and some long thin tool that resembled an ice pick.
I didn’t want to watch. I wanted to jump up and tackle this demented doctor. I wanted to run down the hall screaming. I wanted to wake up in my bed from this, the worst nightmare of my life. But I didn’t do anything. I sat frozen and watched in horror.
The old man positioned the pick over one of the woman’s eyes and slid it under her eyelid. Once the point was touching the bone of her eye socket, he began to tap it into her skull with the mallet.
My throat closed up. I gagged uncontrollably. A half day’s worth of food forced its way up.
The old man was undeterred. He continued to hammer until he was satisfied at the spike’s depth. Then he laid down the hammer and began to swivel the pick from one side to the other.
I couldn’t watch any more. I buried my face in my arms and wept. I eventually heard him tapping the hammer on the other side. I could clearly see the image in my mind’s eye. I gagged again, but nothing was left to throw up. I sobbed and drooled.
In a matter of minutes, it was done. I heard the nitrile gloves snap off and looked up.
“Lovely,” the old man offered, looking down at my mess. Somehow, it seemed like he was genuinely pleased.
“I’m sorry,” I said stupidly.
The old man shook his head. “Not at all. It’s been some time since anyone reacted so viscerally. I’m not often so entertained by my audiences.”
“Now,” he continued in a more serious tone, “do you understand why I’ve done this?”
I shook my head and shrugged. “Because you’re crazy?”
He laughed. “I understand why you might think that, but I don’t think you understood my question. Let me illuminate you. I showed you this process so you would have full disclosure about the options that lay before you.
“You can volunteer to be a lieutenant. You would be put in charge of a unit, which you would command according to my guidance. You would swear to complete any task I assign to you without question or resistance. You would otherwise have full autonomy. You could do as you wish: take what you want from anyone, kill your enemies, come and go as you please. Provided your loyalty to me and our cause is absolute, there would be nothing you couldn’t do.”
I couldn’t fathom why I would want to do almost any of that. But I was guessing it would be relatively benign compared with the alternative.
“On the other hand…” he looked over at the woman on the table.
“You’ll torment and kill me?” I asked. I felt weak, shaky.
He looked offended. “I’ve never killed anyone. That girl is not dead,” he barked, pointing at the woman on the operating table.
I looked over at her. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing.
“I have performed a very simple procedure on her,” he explained. “She will now be more pliant. With a combination of other treatments, I will be able to mould her into a being that realizes her full potential. She is not dead. She has only just begun living.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. His soldiers, like Kratos, might be very strong, but were they really living? Was standing behind the bars of a cage until being commanded to some horrific task any kind of life? It didn’t really seem like much of a choice.
I knew these really were there only two options before me. If I refused the first, it’s not like I could escape. They would probably tie me to the table right after putting that woman back in her cell. Maybe I could fake it. If I were free to come and go, how could they really stop me once I was away?
“I suppose the first option is the only one that makes sense,” I said.
The old man smiled broadly. “Excellent! Now, let’s — “
The double doors burst open suddenly and a police officer walked in. For just the tiniest fraction of a second, my heart soared. Then I recognized who it was.
The cop who had threatened me several hours ago looked at me, then down at my vomit. “Nice,” he spat, disgusted. “Why aren’t you in a cage?”
“He is my guest, Vincent. Let him be,” the old man chastised. “Why are you here?”
“The fire,” Vincent said. “I assume you had something to do with it.”
The old man gave a sour smile. “My nephew. You know how enthusiastic he gets.”
Vince shook his head. “That kid’s a fucking idiot. You really oughta put a leash on him.”
“Language, Vincent,” came the unexpected reply.
“He’s going to get this whole fucking operation caught. Then where will I be? Ain’t no coming back from this shit,” Vince said defensively.
The old man looked at me. “You leave my nephew to me,” he said. Then changing the subject, “Anyway, you’ve come at just the perfect time. I was just about to put our newest recruit to the test.”
Vince looked at me, looked over at the woman on the table, and laughed. “This should be good.”
The old man reached into a desk drawer and produced a handgun. He brought it over to me, holding it out for me to take.
I looked from the gun to the old man and back. I’d never used a gun. I’d never even been in a fight. I wasn’t even sure I’d use it right. Did I have to cock it? Release the safety? Was it as easy as pulling the trigger?
“Be careful, it’s loaded and the first round is chambered,” the old man said as if reading my mind.
I tentatively reached up and took the gun. Having only ever held guns as a kid, the weight of it was unexpected. It was some kind of pistol, though not a revolver like my pewter cowboy pistols from childhood. This was modern. Semiautomatic, I assumed, though beyond that I was at a loss. I wrapped my right hand around the grip and rested my index finger on the trigger.
“Don’t put your finger on that trigger unless you intend to fire,” the old man warned with a smirk.
Did I intend to fire? I suddenly realized the barrel was pointed directly at him. I hadn’t aimed that way on purpose. I wasn’t aiming at all. Just limply holding the gun. If I pulled the trigger now, what would happen next?
“Easy there, hotshot,” I heard Vince say behind me.
I turned to look. Vince had his own sidearm drawn and pointed at me with definite intent. Kratos stepped over beside him and folded his arms over his chest looking as imposing as ever.
“The pistol you are holding is a Colt M1911, which fires a .45 ACP round,” the old man explained from behind me. “What that means in layman’s terms is that if you aim it at Vincent’s head or chest and squeeze the trigger, you are almost certainly going to kill him.”
Vince flinched. “But he’s not going to do that because that’s not what you’re asking him to do,” he clarified, bristling. “That was just a warning to be careful.”
“On the contrary,” the old man corrected, “that is precisely what I’m asking him to do.”
“What?” Vince asked sharply, moving his aim. “You psycho motherfucker. You think this little fuck has the balls to kill me? Nobody’s killing me tonight.”
He tried to sidestep away from Kratos, but the giant’s arm swung out faster than I would’ve thought possible from his size. He grabbed Vince by the back of his shirt and snatched his gun effortlessly with the other hand.
“Obedience, Vincent,” the old man said calmly. “I don’t ask much of you. I told you to watch your language, and really, you were quite unflattering to my nephew.”
Vince stopped struggling for a moment. “Yeah?” he shot back belligerently. “Well, fuck you, fuck your nephew, and fuck this little bitch right here!” He pointed at me.
The old man stepped up behind my chair and placed his hands on my shoulders. “You may shoot him, now. Please,” he said evenly.
I looked down at the gun again. No options. Here I was, holding the most powerful weapon I’d ever touched, and I was completely impotent. Could I shoot the old man? Maybe. Kratos would likely deal with me swiftly. Or maybe slowly. Could I shoot Kratos first? Something told me he could take a few rounds on his way over to me.
I pointed the gun at Vince. He looked at me venomously. I really didn’t like him, but I wasn’t sure it was enough to kill him. I looked past him to the woman still unconscious on the table. That was the fate that awaited me if I disobeyed.
“Squeeze the trigger,” the old man encouraged me softly, as if he sensed I was giving in.
My fingertip touched the trigger. I looked into Vince’s eyes. I could see his hatred. Defiant to the end. If I didn’t shoot him, Kratos would no doubt finish the job. Or maybe he would strap him to a table. Then me.
I put slight pressure on the trigger, moving it back ever so slightly.
Could I really do this?
What choice did I have?
Never having fired a real gun before, I did not know how much travel the trigger should have. Was it like my old pewter six shooters? I had hoped there would be some moment when I would know, some stop or resistance that let me pause for one last chance to decide once and for all.
I squeezed ever so slightly more. The gun clicked. I flinched. So did Vince.
“Oh my,” the old man said with feigned embarrassment. “I guess I never loaded the gun. Silly me.”
Vince hung there in Kratos’s grip agape. He suddenly burst out laughing. “Jesus! You had me going, man. Fuck! I nearly pissed myself.”
The old man walked up to Kratos and took Vince’s gun from him. Then he walked back to me.
“And you, you little bastard!” Vince continued to me. “I really didn’t think you had it in you. Christ!”
I was looking back down at the gun in my hands. I really had pulled the trigger, hadn’t I? If this hadn’t been a test, Vince would be dead. It would’ve been because I killed him. Was that really who I was? I was so consumed with these thoughts I almost didn’t notice the new gun being offered to me.
“This one really is loaded,” the old man said. “You’ve already pulled the trigger once. You’ve proven what your capable of. No more practice. Now, you may kill him.”
Vince fell silent. I looked up. Here was the second chance I had hoped for. This was the real moment where I would define who I was. I suddenly felt free. The stress of the night evaporated.
I was not powerless.
I had all the power.
I took the gun, jammed it into my mouth and squeezed the trigger.
“Oh, dear,” I heard the old man say. “Did I put the safety on?”
Then my whole body seized up as 53 million volts of electricity coursed through my body from the stun gun pressed to my bare neck.
The end for now. This piece was actually inspired by a dream I had years ago. It took place in the triple decker apartment home in Massachusetts where I grew up. Only a couple of the parts of this story actually played out in the dream. The rest seemed to fill in with that omniscience we sometimes gain in a dream state. It was reordered and expanded for continuity and a little bit of suspense.
Hope you enjoyed this peek into my crazed unconscious mind. More to come later. Be warned.