The pain throbbed into being at his shoulder, just a modest bubbling of discomfort surfacing from some unseen source. It swished about up there until, as though by accident, it tipped downhill into the biceps, picking up speed as it went and, with it, a subtle sharpness to its ache. The pit of inner elbow slowed the movement, caused it to pool and concentrate, but only briefly. Then the slick, sharp run through the forearm, the rapids of the wrist and knuckles until it spilled out at the base of the pinkie.
The echo of a scream splashed around the room and Ham thought of rubber balls as a child, the blinking lights of pinball machines, planets strung up in a science classroom, the shockwave of every star in the universe exploding at once.
“Alright, Ham,” a voice said, “that’s enough.”
Ham opened his eyes and saw concrete laid out before him, stretching out past his peripheral vision on either side and about three feet in front until it reached a wall—also concrete—and climbed out of sight. From his hip he felt the searing throb of a newly-missing digit. He looked down to see his hand had been roughly bandaged while he was unconscious.
“Any time, buddy. I can wait.”
“I did it,” Ham said. “I showed you.”
“Oh good, you’re back. And you’ve placed my voice. How lovely.”
“Nathan,” Ham said, “I did it.”
“You sure did, Ham. You chopped your finger off like…I can’t find an appropriate simile here, Ham. Like a particularly clumsy ninja? Oh, that’s awful. I did warn you. But the point is this: from now on you can only count to ten in the bathroom.”
Ham finally rolled over. The room was immense. Like a concrete airplane hangar. Everything faded to darkness twenty or thirty yards past where the man was seated in a familiar armchair. The voice was right, but nothing that person was saying matched the entry in his head for “Nathan.” It was definitely Nathan. Crisp, pastel Oxford and neatly pressed chinos, a notebook in his lap. Only, he was wearing combat boots. Ham could see the big, right sole as it dangled from a crossed leg several inches above his face.
“What is this? Where did you—”
“Short answer, Ham, is that this is the fork in your particular road. But as that won’t make any sense to you without the benefit of hearing the long answer, I’ll continue. Beforehand, however, can I offer you something to drink? Perhaps a change of clothes? You’ve been sleeping in your own urine for days now and there’s quite a lot of dried blood.”
“Please.” Ham moved to sit up but felt a stern tap from Nathan’s boot at the top of his head and instinctively stopped.
“Really—I can’t get you anything? Very well then, I’ll continue. Or I suppose I’ll begin. But where to begin, that’s always the problem. You ever meet someone at a party and they start in on a story or a joke and then halfway through they say, ‘I forgot to tell you—the car was blue at the beginning. You need to know that. Blue.’ It ruins the whole thing, doesn’t it? All the pleasure just dries up. So I guess I’ll start at the beginning, Ham, and try not to ruin this for you.
Once upon a time, long before you or I made our inaugural splash in this world, a group of educated, curious men, relaxing over scotch and billiards, allowing the current of their conversation to ebb and flow as it does among educated, curious men relaxing over scotch and billiards, found themselves debating a question posed by one among them: would it be possible to construct a perfect life? They defined the terms of the query and were soon crafting ways one might cause someone to believe he was living a perfect life. It would take, they decided, only wealth and manpower and secrecy. They had enormous wealth. And as a result of their enormous wealth, they each had their share of loyal employees—valets, drivers, bodyguards, spies. That cured the loyal manpower problem.”
Ham was suddenly gasping for air. Water was running down his face, into his mouth, dripping from his eyebrows.
“I’ll not have you falling asleep, Ham. Not during this riveting tale. Now. Our heroes solved the wealth, manpower, and secrecy problems. And they’d roughed out the mechanics of the act. They could monitor a subject closely, repair his mistakes as needed, cure his sicknesses before they’d manifested, plant false characters in their daily lives to lie about events and shared memories—everything, in essence, we’ve been doing with you these last several years, Ham. The repaired towel rod, the wine stains, me. We fixed them.
And these men—we’re back to the men now, Ham, so stop staring—these men saw all of this unfolding before them as though right there on the billiards table. They saw how it could work, understood the potential pitfalls, the mental strain it might heap on some men, the freedom it might afford others. And they wondered how those separate outcomes might work to their advantage. Because let’s face it, Ham, wealthy, educated, curious men might engage in experiments of the mind over scotch and billiards, but if they’re to continue on in the light of day, there better be some profit motive.”
Ham felt a familiar sensation at his center. He’d felt it each morning when he found the troubles of the previous night had been swept away. It was the recognition, he realized now, that reality was slipping away from him. “You’ve been toying with me so you can make money.”
“Oh lord no, Ham. We have all the resources we could need. I’m getting to the point now. Be patient. I’m just trying to be thorough. I don’t want to ruin the ending for you. They thought about money, obviously, and while there is the occasional financial reward from our experiments, our aims are slightly less tangible. You see, our original group of men figured that a person living with the unique circumstances you’ve been recently familiar with has one of three potential outcomes. One: he enjoys or simply doesn’t notice his unusual situation and continues on unhindered until he sinks away with time. Two: he recognizes his situation and takes advantage of it, becoming nihilistic and reckless in his daily activities. A little murder here, a little voyeurism there—whatever he’s into, he’s really into it. Three: he recognizes his situation and the horror of it drives him to test the boundaries of its goodwill. He might, for instance, chop off his left pinkie on a live video feed broadcast on his website.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself what could be gained from this? And you’d be right to do so. The first possibility, I’ll admit, doesn’t present much sport. But you know what, Ham? We’d have to get our hands on a mackerel someone had dressed in men’s clothing in order for the first outcome to happen. And that metaphor might be unfair to the fish. Nobody is that idiotic, Ham. It just never happens. We vet our subjects rather rigorously before engaging them, but still, even before we could just Google you it never happened.
What you need to do is ask what problems our heroes may have envisioned for themselves. Long view, Ham, what did they need?”
Ham moaned and let out long, shockingly wet fart.
“That’s lovely, Ham. But no. Wealth like our heroes’ lives on, it passes from one generation to the next and, provided there are no troubles with the gene pool or degenerate gambling, grows as it moves in time. But what these men saw on their billiard table that they would be wanting for was their supply of loyal manpower. Valets and drivers die like the rest of us and will need replacing. This is where you come in, Ham, but we won’t spoil the ending just yet.
There is the additional problem of enemies. You might not have any yourself, but men like our men acquire their fair share. And sometimes enemies need to be made to go away. Or strongly urged to go away. Or maybe sometimes their daughters go away to college and need never return home. Or anywhere.
You see, Ham, an individual who has lost the ability to know right from wrong is fascinating. Especially when the situations their enacting those loose judgments in are being controlled and manipulated by us. When our subjects have lost their filter, they become like a bullet in a gun. A gun we get to aim. We might bump into them at the coffee shop in the morning, staining their tie; ensure they lose their keys before lunch; steal their cab home while they stand screaming on a sidewalk. The hammer cocks, the trigger twitches. And then from there, through means invisible to them, we guide them into a room with An Enemy and watch what unfolds naturally. Maybe it needs to happen more than once, maybe not. Maybe we can fix it afterwards, maybe not. Either way, the experiment succeeds and all the parties who matter are left happy.
But you—and there are many like you, Hamilton—you are what the educated and curious architects of this program called a Future Loyalist. You broke the code. And in doing so, you ruined your reputation, slight as it may have been, by broadcasting that silly episode to your meager following online. Don’t fret, though, you’ve gone viral. We saw to that. It wouldn’t have happened without us, though. Really, Ham, is it that hard to maintain a blog? To earn a little readership? The way you went about it, you’d think you were constructing a functional time machine from pantry items rather than spinning anecdotal yarns about your daily life. But I digress. And as I said, we took care to ensure that millions have seen your…body modification video. If I can speak for a moment in a capacity outside that of your therapist—which of course I’m not really, Ham—I have to say you come off as nothing more than a raving lunatic in that video. Which means, of course, that now we have you.”
Nathan tapped Ham’s head with his boot and smiled briefly, wiped at the corners of his mouth, and chuckle.
“Don’t I have you?” Ham said up into the bottom of Nathan’s boot. Nathan’s laughter increased. “If I broke the code, I mean. Doesn’t that mean I have you?”
“You haven’t once tried to fight this situation you’re in, Ham.” Nathan’s voice was calm and flat, like the sea of concrete surrounding them. “You haven’t really tried to get up, or overpower me, yelled out for help, tried to ‘kill’ me again. However highly I might think of my own storytelling, I don’t believe that alone could keep someone captive against their will. You’re interested. And weak. We have you, as I mentioned.
Now you’re asking yourself why? Fair point. I like how your mind works. Well, for starters, it takes a shockingly large bureaucracy to maintain these experiments. And like all bureaucracies, we require an army to enact our will on the world. You, Ham, are now being drafted into that army.
But when we began this conversation, I said you were at a crossroads. I meant it. Much as you did when we began our experiments on you, there are now three options available to you. Of course, this time you are allowed to actively choose between them. Can you guess what they are, Ham?”
Ham’s eyes were closed against the pain in his hand. He was remembering a trip to the beach with his grandmother the summer between fourth and fifth grade. He’d asked to be buried up to his neck in the sand—something he’d seen in a movie—and his grandmother complied, digging out the hole and slowly piling the sand on top of him. Ham knew it was a mistake even as it was happening, but enjoyed the smile he saw the old woman’s face and didn’t wish it to end. When the tide started coming in a few hours later, he cried like he never had in his life.
Nathan ended Ham’s reminiscence with a sharp kick to the head. The tapping was over. “Hamilton, I need you here, please. Option one: you walk out of here a free man. Mind, you are now known internationally for believing you’ve been cursed and chopping off your own finger on camera. The life you’d be leading wouldn’t be one you enjoyed. And trust me, Ham—we are capable of ensuring that happens just as we ensured it was perfect. It’s actually much easier to destroy something, as you know.
Option two: I put a bullet in your head. Clean and painless, I end your life. We’re not going to flood this building and make you suffer or drop you into the middle of the ocean in blood soaked clothes. You ask me to, I end your life.”
Ham involuntarily let out a whimper and scratched his cheek against the concrete floor.
“Hold on, buddy. I’m not done yet. You haven’t heard option three. You work for us. You do as we say, help us in our experiments, and you live out your natural life. You’re the faceless stranger who bumps into our man in the coffee shop, who steals his cab, who repairs holes in walls or revives fake therapists after a fall. You’re a foot soldier, Ham, if you want it.”
Nathan pressed his boot into Ham’s shoulder and rolled him to his back. He then stood up and stepped over him, so that his boots were on either side of Ham’s hips. Ham saw he had missed the gun at Nathan’s waist. He was crying, he realized then, sobbing really, totally out of control, buried up to his neck again.
“Come now, Ham,” Nathan said, squatting down so that his face was inches from Ham’s. “Let’s not be like that, man. We’re at the end of my story now. You’re making me feel like I ruined it for you. Just make your decision and we’ll get out of here and on to the next story. What will it be? Just tell me what to do and this is over.”