The Last Photograph (mm hypno)

Disclaimer: The naked hypnotist strides confidently into your room. His lips curl in what might be a smile as he dangles his shiny crystal pendulum before your eyes and announces, “Listen and obey. If you are not of legal age, or if you offended by sexual situations, you will leave this place immediately. From here on, no matter how autobiographical it may seem, everything will seem like fiction to you, a pleasant dream where scientific possibilities and laws may change according to my suggestion. Now, if you are willing, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.”

Copyright © 2012 by Wrestlr. Permission granted to archive if and only if no fee (including any form of “Adult Verification”) is charged to read the file. If anyone pays a cent to anyone to read your site, you can’t use this without the express permission of (and payment to) the author. This paragraph must be included as part of any archive.

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In the photograph, my brother stands second from the left. He came here with a group of his friends. He’d saved his money all year to be able to spend his summer break roaming around South America with his friends, seeing the continent like the residents did, before they headed back to college in the fall. At least, that was the plan.

The photo shows my brother and all five of his traveling friends. They must have gotten someone else to take the picture. In the photograph, they must have just gotten off the boat in this God-forsaken backwater coastal village. They were two weeks into their trip, and a couple of them already had the patchy beards and scraggly hair that college-age backpackers and hostel-stayers aspire to. They’re all wearing shorts, flip-flops, and backpacks—shirtless, smiling, squinting against the sun, setting off on the next leg of their summer adventure. At least, that was the plan. But no plan ever turns out quite as expected.

My brother emailed the photo to our mother, attached to a brief Having a blast, don’t worry, love you message. She forwarded it to me. That was a month ago. That email message was the last time any of us heard from him.

Me, I left the United States Army a few days ago. Special Forces. I did a lot of tours of duty I can’t talk about. I loved the Army, but I loved my kid brother too. Somebody had to go look for him.

That’s how I came to be in this backwater village, with all my worldly possessions—the few that weren’t in storage back home—packed in my duffel bag. There’s some tourism here, a few small hotels, but mostly there’s just the people who live here and the beach. I couldn’t afford the hotels. I could sleep on the beach. If anyone tried to mess with me?—Well, the Army trained me well.

How was I going to find him? That part I was making up as I went.

The local police were no help. Backpacks, clothes, cell phones—all their gear was found abandoned on the beach, just a klick or two north of where I sat right then. It wasn’t robbery, the police said. My brother and his buddies just left all their belongings and vanished. Six Americans go kapoof into nothing? I wasn’t buying it. Someone had to know something.

I’d been there nearly a week. The village wasn’t that big. I’d quizzed nearly every resident in just a couple of days, waving around the print-out of that last photograph, asking the same damned questions: “Have you seen any of them? When? Where?” Some people thought they looked familiar, but nobody much remembered a clutch of tourist kids from nearly a month ago. Tourists were disposable, hardly worth noticing unless they were waving money, then quickly forgotten once the money was spent. One man told me he remembered them—they asked directions to a bar. Another said he told them where to find the local cat house. Just the sort of things you’d expect a bunch of nineteen- or twenty-year-old college fuckheads on summer break to be interested in, and just the sort of dead ends that would’ve had me pulling my hair out if it weren’t still too Army-short to grip.

I slept on the beach, a couple of klicks north of the town. I bathed and shaved in the ocean, but I still had to buy food unless I wanted to spend all day fishing and scavenging, which wouldn’t leave any time for my search. And I was just about out of money.

There was a small resort hotel on the beach, on the northeast corner of town. Sometimes tourists drifted as far north as where I was camping, just walking the beach or looking for a private patch of sand with no one around. They heard about this town or maybe read about the area in some travel magazine article about locations unspoiled by tourism and came looking for the authentic native experience or some happy horseshit like that. But they were usually pretty damned happy just to be able to get a cold beer and a cheeseburger at the hotel, so they never drifted this far north for long.

Late afternoon, after another fruitless day of looking for clues.

I’d finished a swim in the ocean and flopped on the sand to dry, near where I’d stashed my duffel bag. The water was perfect; it was always perfect. A couple of swimsuited tourists, both men, had set up a little towel-and-cooler operation about fifty yards south of me. They probably were tourists from the hotel. I nodded, they nodded back, and we proceeded to ignore each other.

A while later, the brown-haired one in the red swimsuit walked over, offered me a bottle of beer, introduced himself as Mikhail in a Russian accent. “Call me Mick.”

I accepted his beer and introduced myself: Peter. “Pietro,” Mick said, smiling, converting my name to the Russian version. Pretty soon, his bleach-blond buddy in the madras-checked swim trunks came over too. He introduced himself as Pedro—nothing too unusual about that in South America, but his accent was pure Brooklyn. They were tourists from New York City.

We talked about baseball, football—“American football, too slow,” Mick sniffed, but he knew all the teams and admitted a fondness for whoever was beating the crap out of the Dolphins any particular week. At some point Pedro hauled their cooler over to my spot. I pegged them at around their mid-twenties, same as me. At some point, I also pegged them as gay, and definitely more than friends. Maybe it was their gym-bunny bodies. Maybe it was when they asked me if I wanted to have sex with them. I said no and told them I’m happily heterosexual. The rejection didn’t seem to bother them. They just nodded.

They told me about how they met as graduate students in NYU’s film department, how in the fall they planned to start filming a project of their own, about a beautiful but fiery Latin dancer from Brooklyn who falls in love with an equally headstrong Russian businessman-cum-gangster. They’re pleased with the amount of gunfire and explosions their film will contain. When they found out I had just left the Special Forces, they asked a lot of questions about guns and explosions—“For our project’s authenticity,” Mick said. That’s how I spent the rest of the afternoon talking and drinking beer on the beach with the Russian named Mikhail who liked to be called “Mick” and the Latin named Pedro from Brooklyn.

The more outgoing one, Mick, asked if I was staying at the hotel. I told him no, that I was sleeping on the beach not far from there. When he asked why, I told him the short version about my search for my brother and my dwindling funds. “You must come back to hotel with us,” Mick said. “Eat a good dinner at the restaurant, our treat.” They won’t take no for an answer. Mick leaned in and whisper-assured me, “No strings; just dinner.” I had no plans, I had to make the trek back to the town anyway for food, and a dinner I didn’t have to cook, pay for, or scrounge for sounded good. I accepted their invitation.

I wasn’t worried. If their offer turned out to have strings after all?—Well, for the U.S. Army Special Forces I was a mad-dog killer and well-trained in hand-to-hand. I was pretty sure I could defend myself from the advances of a pair of New York film students.

They insisted I order the steak, and it was delicious. They asked more about my search for my brother, what he was like, had he ever done anything like this before, what did the police say, had I quizzed all the locals yet—and what about our waiter Lucas, with whom they’d been flirting some, had I quizzed him yet?

The waiter, friendly, a young, good-looking guy who probably was about eighteen or maybe nineteen, around my brother’s age, didn’t look familiar, and I said so. He was heading our way with our latest round of drinks. “The photograph, let me show it to him,” Pedro said. I was feeling a little sloppy from the beer. I pulled out the printout of that last group photo, unfolded it, smoothed it out on the tabletop.

Pedro asked the waiter in Spanish. My Spanish is good, but Pedro spoke like a native—even his Brooklyn accent disappeared. The waiter finished distributing our drinks, then frowned at the photograph. He said, yes, he remembered them, maybe a month ago—which would be about the right time frame. He remembered because they stayed here at the resort, were boisterous and loud, drank a lot, tipped well. He always remembered the good tippers, in case they came back. Mick and Pedro exchanged a knowing look.

Did the waiter know where they went? Yes, he had told the boys about some old ruins in the jungle to the north, maybe a day’s hike away. Few tourists went there. Out of the way. Difficult to reach, but very nice. Rumored to be haunted by the spirits of the original natives who built it. Only the locals knew of it. He was sure they had gone there. Could he give us directions, maybe arrange for a guide?—We’d be willing to pay, of course, Pedro assured him. And we’d be very grateful, Mick added, also in perfect Spanish. Very, very grateful. There was no mistaking the look he gave Lucas.

We? Pay? Pedro and Mick were going too far. I didn’t have the money to pay for anything that wasn’t essential, and I didn’t remember making my investigation into some Scooby Doo Mystery Tour to supposedly haunted ruins accompanied by a couple of tourists I’d just met.

The waiter smirked, trying to smile. Well, certainly, he would be happy to take us there. He had tomorrow off, and he had a truck, could drive us there himself, most of the way anyway. He knew a back road that ran near there, then the trip could be finished on foot. Cut the trip down to just a couple of hours, plenty of time left over to enjoy the sights if we found no trace of the brother. He would be happy to do this—for the right fee, of course. There was no mistaking his meaning.

I whispered, “Uh, Mick, I don’t have much money. Just ask him for directions.”

Mick waved me away and continued haggling with Lucas over the fee. They agreed on a number. They agreed on a time—meet in front of the resort at eight in the morning. Mick handed over cash, payment for dinner, a tip, and a sizeable deposit in advance for “guide services” so Lucas could buy gasoline for the trip. Lucas slipped away, obviously happy with the arrangements.

“So it is settled,” Pedro said to me in English, Brooklyn accent back in full force. “You will stay the night with us. Our room has a sofa that pulls out to a spare bed. Tomorrow, we go look for your brother.”

I made my excuses. This was too much; they didn’t have to do this; I could find the ruins on my own. No need to inconvenience them.

No inconvenience, Mick assured me. It makes perfect sense, he said. No need to trudge all the way back to the beach, then all the way back here the next morning. Better to just stay here on their spare bed. They had more booze in their mini bar; we could continue drinking. And there were adult movies.

I knew what they wanted. I was about to remind them I was heterosexual when Mick added, No strings, and Pedro nodded. Just new friends enjoying some beer and porn before a good night’s sleep.

I knew what they wanted. I wasn’t drunk enough to go as far as they wanted, but I decided it wouldn’t hurt to let them watch. And I did owe them from bringing in another possible lead.

In their room, Mick hit the mini-bar, and Pedro turned on the television. “You like blondes, yes?” he asked me. He navigated his way expertly through the onscreen selections, and seconds later, on the screen a woman and her made-for-porn tit job were climbing out of a barely there bikini and into a hot tub. Mick put a tumbler of vodka in my hand—“cheap American crap, like piss next to even the worst Russian vodka,” he complained. I settled down on the couch, carefully taking up too much room for them to join me, to watch the screen and do my part.

Mick and Pedro took their drinks to the king-sized tourist bed. I kicked off the shoes I’d put on before dinner, and peeled off my tee-shirt. I stuck my hand into my jeans and massaged my genitals. My eyes were locked on the screen, where the blonde was rubbing an assortment of pool-cleaning gadgetry between her balloon-breasts and moaning. I sipped the vodka. From the corner of my eyes, I saw Mick and Pedro kissing, watching me, starting to peel off their clothes, making out now, watching me, naked and probably already hard. I didn’t care what they did, as long as they did it over there and to each other.

The onscreen blonde had climbed mostly out of the hot tub and progressed to using the pool attachments for purposes their manufacturers never intended, riding them in a way that made her breasts bounce in time with her moans. I hadn’t been with a woman in a long time. The blonde and my hand were doing their job. I lifted my hips and pushed my jeans and underwear down to my ankles. From the bed, someone gasped appreciatively. I’m six-four, Viking-blond, and I have a wide chest with a little hair across my pecs and a tight, well-muscled body thanks to the U.S. Army, but the crowning glory is the thick eight and three-quarters inches I pack between my legs, which was standing straight at attention and thwopped against my navel when it popped free of my pants. I settled back, started stroking it. It needed both hands. I used both hands.

After a couple of minutes, Mick climbed off the bed and knelt beside the couch. He was naked and hard too, but nowhere near my length or thickness. He reached for my cock. I nudged his hand away, still stroking with my other. He reached again, and I knocked his hand away again, this time with enough force to nearly topple him. He wised up and withdrew.

A few minutes later, Pedro took his shot. He crouched naked by the couch and bent his mouth toward my meat. I pushed him away. He tried again, and I pushed him away. “No,” I told him. He ignored me and tried a third time, then a fourth, and a fifth. Persistent bastard.

On maybe his tenth attempt, I figured I was drunk enough, and anyway maybe I owed him more than just a show. Maybe there was no harm in just a blowjob, if I ignored him and paid attention to the blonde on screen. This time, Pedro’s lips touched the head of my cock, and I let my hand slide away. His jaw practically unhinged, and he swallowed my thick rod like a snake. Definitely an experienced cocksucker. I’ve been blown by a lot of women, and there’s nothing better than a blowjob when they’re an experienced cocksucker. I moaned my appreciation.

Pedro tried to stick his finger up my ass, but no way was I ever going to be that drunk. I pushed his hand away and clamped my thighs tightly together so he couldn’t try that again. Pretty soon he was bobbing up and down on my lengthy rod, using his hand to supplement his mouth, as the blonde onscreen bobbed up and down on this pool wand thing she had stuffed up her cunt. Pedro did things to my dick with his tongue that I hadn’t felt in a long time, plus a few things I’d never felt before. I put my hands behind my head, displaying my body to Mick while Pedro serviced me.

“Gonna cum,” I hissed. I didn’t want to cum in his mouth, so I hauled his head off my cock at the last second and finished myself off by hand, spraying my cum on my chest, arm, and hand as a very nice orgasm tore through my body, making all my muscles twitch and jerk. Pedro discretely withdrew. Somebody handed me a towel. I cleaned up, pulled up my jeans, then sprawled out on the couch. The booze, a full stomach, the orgasm, and the soft cushions, so much more comfortable than sleeping on the beach, had me sleepy, and I closed my eyes while Mick and Pedro rutted at each other like bulls on the bed.


The next morning, we met Lucas. He pulled up in this ancient Ford truck; calling it “beat up” would be too kind—it looked like it had been driven off a cliff repeatedly. Mick had brought a backpack, he threw it in the back, and we climbed in. Mick and Pedro rode in the cab with Lucas, and I climbed in the back with Mick’s pack and Lucas’s toolbox, preferring the open truck bed to the tight squeeze of the cab.

Lucas drove like a maniac. Though he was probably around eighteen, he’d obviously been driving these roads for years. He went way too fast over roads that were way too rough, bouncing me around the truck bed like a rubber ball, and once nearly causing Mick’s backpack to go over the side. Might have, too, if I hadn’t grabbed it.

The roads turned to dirt, then to a barely there trail into the jungle. Lucas barely slowed. The truck bucked more than an amusement park ride. If I got pitched out, would they even notice I was gone? Bodies disappear quickly in the jungle.

He drove maybe two hours, possibly more—I lost track of time. The jungle was thick, made getting a good read on the sun’s position difficult. Still morning, but hard to say when. The truck slowed, rolled into a partial clearing. Now I could hear something other than the sound of my body slamming against the truck again. Lucas stopped the truck, killing the mariachi-rock version of “Twist and Shout” playing on the radio. There was a cinderblock house, the remains of one anyway, being dismantled by the jungle. The others piled out of the cab. I handed Mick’s backpack to Pedro and hauled my banged-up self over the side and down to the ground.

While Pedro went off to one side, unzipped, and pissed, Mick was his usually chatty self. “This place, I love it. The jungle, the beaches. Very beautiful. We started in Mexico City, you know, and that was wonderful, but very much like Manhattan, but it was always hot. And then, we went to Guadalajara and around the coast to Acapulco, and down to Costa Rica, then down the peninsula to here, and the jungle and the beaches are the most beautiful thing I have ever found. We came down here to get drunk on the beaches and fuck. It is also very lucky for us too, because we make such good friends.” He grandly waved his arm at Lucas and me. Lucas, returning to our group in the middle of Mick’s chatter, smiled nervously. I wasn’t sure he spoke English well enough to have understood half of what Mick said.

God help me, I wasn’t sure I could get through the day if Mick didn’t shut the fuck up.

Lucas hauled two machetes out of his toolbox. He hefted one and offered the other, grip-first, to the three of us. I took it, knowing I could handle it and not sure I trusted the two New York gym-rats with a blade.

Lucas led the way, with me right behind. The underbrush wasn’t bad. The trail had been traveled recently, but here, if you turn your back on the jungle for even a couple of days, the jungle kicks your ass and tries to take back what belongs to it. Pedro and Mick brought up the rear. Mercifully, Mick did indeed shut up, apparently willing to lose himself in the ambiance of his jungle adventure and the stories he would tell about it back in the concrete jungle called Manhattan.

The jungle was dense. Too dense to see much beyond the trail. Lucas knew the way. We hiked for at least an hour into the growth. Even in this shade, the summer heat and humidity were choking. Lucas took off his shirt. Mick and Pedro immediately doffed theirs too. A few minutes later, even I had to bow to the necessity and pulled my tee-shirt off, tucked it in the back of my jeans.

Pedro asked in Spanish how much farther. Lucas laughed and said, also in Spanish, “Those boys, they were all the time saying the same thing when I brought them here: ‘How much farther, how much farther.’ American boys can be such children!”

I thought to myself, Those American boys were probably the same age as you, you skinny smart-ass punk. Then I realized just what Lucas has said. He brought them here? The night before he had said only that he gave them directions. Maybe I wasn’t one of the Hardy Boys, but I knew enough to be suspicious. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe he took my brother and his friends on a nice, simple hike through the jungle and back, and then they disappeared sometime later. Maybe there was no connection to my brother’s disappearance at all. But there was also the possibility Lucas was the last person to see my brother alive.

Suddenly I was glad to have the other machete. Just in case. I didn’t want to be a killer. I didn’t want to be a mad dog again. But I would if that’s what it took to find out what happened to my brother, rescue him if he was still alive, bury him if he wasn’t, and get out of this in one piece.

And then we started finding paver stones underfoot. Then through a little tunnel of trees, and into a broad open place, there were the ruins. I’m not big on sightseeing, but it was pretty cool.

Lucas played tour guide. He pointed out a partial ziggurat that he said must have been the local temple. There was a structure like an arena. “Big,” Mick said, impressed.

Lucas said it was where they played a game that involved putting a ball through a stone hoop still mounted on one side of the “court.” The other side had already collapsed as the jungle reclaimed the place.

“This is where they put the heads through to score?” Mick asked in English.

Lucas looked confused. Pedro translated what Mick said into Spanish.

“No,” Lucas said in Spanish. “They used a ball.”

Mick looked at me. “I thought heads?”

“You’re thinking of Central America,” I tell him. “There’s some evidence the losing teams were sacrificed.”

“And they played like soccer?”

“Any body part but your hands.”

“See, soccer rules. Much better than American football.”

I turned away. The time was well past noon now; I was losing patience, and we still had the long return trip to make. “Show me where you took the boys,” I said to Lucas in Spanish.

He led us to the collapsing “temple.” We picked our way through a gap and down into a space below the ziggurat itself. Pillars supported the ceiling. Sunlight probed through cracks here and there in the ceiling, enough half-light that we could see. Carvings like crawling snake bodies lined the walls.

“This,” Lucas said, “was where they got separated.”


I knocked the machete out of Lucas’s hand and a second later had him against the wall, my arm at his neck to let him know how easily I could break it. I snarled in Spanish, “Okay, asshole—tell me everything, and tell me the truth. Do you understand?”

Lucas’s eyes were wide, panicked. I’m a big, strong guy, and the Army trained me well.

Mick and Pedro were stunned. “What are you doing?” Mick asked, tugging at my arm but unable to budge it. Like I said, I’m strong.

I said in Spanish, for Lucas’s benefit, “This punk knows a lot more about my brother than he’s been telling us.” Mick gave up, unslung his backpack, rummaged through it. I snarled, “He said he brought them here, and they got separated. Then what, asshole? Then what happened?”

Lucas gasped around my arm. “I—I—”

If Mick and Pedro were over here, what was making that noise over there? I looked and glimpsed a shadow break away from a pillar and run.

I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, but suddenly I was off Lucas and tearing off into the shadows after the runner. He headed back into the darkest part, but I’m fast and heard him directly ahead. I launched myself. My shoulder connected with his hip, and we both went down, rolling on the rough floor. He fought, but I was a trained professional, and I soon had him immobilized on the stones.

He hadn’t shaven in a while, and he was a lot thinner, but even in the half-light I recognized his face. Not my brother, but he was the second from the right in that photograph. “You! You’re one of Paul’s friends. Tell me where he is!”

“Lemme go!” he croaked.

Footsteps ran up behind me. “He caught him!” Mick said.

Under me, the kid struggled fiercely and jabbed: “No! Lemme go!” I still had him down—I weighed more, I was stronger, and I knew what I was doing. He didn’t even come close to getting away from me.

“Hold him still,” Mick barked. While I had no trouble holding the boy down, I wasn’t sure holding him completely still was an option. He wriggled, desperate to escape. I’d let him up once he calmed down, and said so, didn’t he know we came here looking for him? What the hell had him panicked like this?

While I was saying that, Mick stuck his hand in the boy’s face. He held a small bottle with a mister top—one of those little three-ounce spray bottles. Fsst!—Fsst! He squirted it twice in the boy’s face.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I snapped at Mick, craning my head to look at him, realizing too late the boy under me was gradually ceasing to struggle.


Mick sprayed me point-blank in the face with something that felt like water but stank like weeds. I yelled, “What the fuck!”


Twice more. I couldn’t make my arms or legs work right. I was having trouble thinking right. Everything seemed to spin.


I opened my eyes. It was pitch-dark—I couldn’t see anything. I was naked. My hands were tied behind my back.

I lay on my side. At first, I thought I was lying on some kind of grate. No, I was in a cage. Not a cage for holding people—an animal cage, maybe intended for a large dog. It was small, just shy of three feet tall, three feet wide, and five feet deep. Big enough I could lay there and move around some, but not big enough I could sit up fully or even stretch out full length. I’m six foot four and muscular, and my body felt cramped from being folded into nearly a fetal position for a long time.

I rubbed my chin against the wire wall, trying to judge how long I’d been there by my beard stubble. A day? Longer? Less? Didn’t feel like a full day’s growth yet, so just a few hours, I guessed.

The wire grate floor cut into my flesh. In the dark, I had to investigate with my fingers as best I could, with my hands tied behind me. The mesh was one-inch squares. I could get a finger through, but no more, definitely not my whole hand. I couldn’t find the latches. However the door was fastened, I couldn’t reach it. I wasn’t even one hundred percent sure where the door was.

I heard someone moving around. Not stumbling in the dark. Moving confidently. Probably wearing night vision goggles or something. I listened intently.

Whoever it was finished whatever he was doing. Footsteps approached me. The deep male voice boomed out of the darkness only a few feet away and over me. “Name?”

I said, “Peter.”

“Why are you here?”

“I’m trying to find my brother. His name is Paul. Is he—”


I was smart enough to shut up.

“We know who you are. Your brother is here. Now you are too. If you are a good boy and learn your lessons well, you will earn privileges. If you are not, you will earn punishments. Do you understand?”

I didn’t, but I said, “Yes.”

I heard footsteps walk away, a door open and click shut. The interview was over. No sense calling out, because no one was there to respond. But now I knew two things.

First, the voice was Mick’s, only without the Russian accent.

Second. I knew my brother was alive, and close by. That felt like a victory.

Time passed. In the darkness, I tested my bonds, my cage, my senses. Without vision, I depended more on hearing and smell. The area around me was silent, but it smelled like a kennel.

At some point, my bladder reached capacity. I wouldn’t give my captors the satisfaction of crying out. I held it as long as I could, until the pressure built beyond uncomfortable. I maneuvered my hips to the cage wall and let the piss flow through the mesh. Ahh, relief.

I knew what they were doing. I’d been trained to resist it. They were using darkness, confinement, and degradation to break my spirit and my mind. Brainwashing takes time, but it’s remarkably simple and remarkably effective. Boredom, isolation, and sensory deprivation were the first step, would numb my mind and lower my resistance. If they left me here long enough, my mind would go blank, become desperate for stimulation—any kind of stimulation. My mind would turn on itself, question everything about my sense of identity. Once they used this first step to break my sense of self, they’d try to turn me, tell me I should change, convince me. I’d come to believe them, to crave their slightest approval, to desire the change they demanded. Then they could mold me into whoever or whatever they wanted. But that would take time.

I could distance myself from the degradation temporarily. I could deal with the isolation and the darkness. All I needed to do was wait for an opening, that one time they screwed up. I’d make my escape, find my brother, get out of there, and bring back the authorities. I just hoped they didn’t wait too long to screw up.

Some time later, my bowels cramped. I needed to shit. I couched my ass into one corner of the cage and voided my bowels. I made a mental note to block off that area from the way I used the space in my cage. I didn’t want to roll in my own shit.

The metal grid floor of the cage bit into my skin. I ignored it. I dozed.

“I see, filth, you’ve already learned your new home is also your toilet.”

The voice startled me from a half-sleep. I hadn’t heard footsteps approach, hadn’t heard anything. I should have heard. I turned my head in the darkness toward where I thought the voice came from.

Mick’s voice in the blackness sounded as if he were kneeling beside my cage, just a few inches away but behind me. I could hear the smile in his voice, the confidence. That was disturbing.

“Mick, what the fuck?” Meaning, what the fuck is going on, where the fuck is your accent, why the fuck is this happening, is your name even Mick, what the fuck happens next—all sorts of things. But there was no response. I rolled myself as best I could in the confines. “What the fuck is going on here?”

“If you behave and do as you’re told, filth, you will earn privileges. The first privilege will be a mat for the floor of your cage.”

“I want to see my brother.”



“Your brother is healthy and quite happy. His friends, too. They are being trained. Just like you will, if you behave. We have broken many men here. There is no shame in yielding to us. Cooperation just helps the process go faster. Your brother did not fight us long. There is no need for you to suffer either when you too can cooperate instead.”

I kept my mouth shut.

“No protest, filth? Good.”

Something slid along the cage wire. In the darkness and silence, my hearing had become preternaturally sharp.

“Open your mouth.”

Something poked my lips. “What is it?”

“Nourishment. Open your mouth and suck.”

A straw slid between my parted lips. Yes, Mick definitely wore infrared goggles or some other night vision device. He had no trouble seeing in the darkness.

I sucked. A bland semi-liquid, tasting vaguely like oatmeal and beans. The blandness was calculated to give me no taste stimulation, no respite from the deprivation. I sucked and swallowed, suddenly ravenous. I drank the mixture until the straw sucked at air on the other end.

The straw was plucked out of my lips. I heard footsteps. “Mick?” I begged, my first failure, but heard only the soft click of the door shutting.

Time passed. A day? More? Who knew? My hands remained tied behind my back. The restraints were not tight, but they prevented movement effectively. I dozed, slept, sang old songs in my head. At some point early on, I’d accidentally kicked my feet through my shit in the corner; my feet and calves were coated. Periodically, Mick would push a straw through the bars to feed me, saying only, “Eat.” When my bladder burst or my bowels cramped, I’d relieve myself as best I could in the corner. With insufficient room, though, my lower body was caked with dried piss and shit.

More time. I woke from a doze with the sudden sense that I was not alone. I was hungry. “Mick?” I bleated, wanting food or even the human contact of knowing he was there. I immediately hated myself for what saying his name revealed. He had stopped talking to me except to tell me to eat, but that one word spoken in the darkness meant I was not alone, at least for those few minutes.

Something rattled. The wire floor vibrated against my touch-deprived skin. Near my feet, the sound of metal on metal meant the door was being opened. I briefly contemplated kicking it, knocking whoever this was backward, but with my arms tied I wouldn’t be able to get out of the cage quickly enough to press the advantage. No, I needed to wait for a better opportunity.

“Out, filth.” Mick’s voice.

My body protested as I made forced it to move. Inactivity made my joints stiff. I managed to get myself turned around and pushed myself toward where my feet had been. Underneath me, the metal grate of the cage became a concrete floor.

“On your feet.”

With my hands behind my back, getting my feet under me was difficult. I staggered my way upright. My legs felt unsteady, but I was standing for the first time in ... how long?

A hand grabbed my arm and pulled me. Unready, I nearly fell but managed to stumble along.

“Your first lesson. Stand there, filth. Do not move.”

Something told me to keep my mouth shut, not ask questions. I stood right where I was. I heard something slide, then water rushing loud as thunder. A high-pressure hose. Mick was hosing out the cage.

“Stay still.”

Suddenly water hit my chest. I yowled my surprise before I could stop myself. This was not the same high pressure spray I’d heard blasting the cage, just a regular hose, but unexpected and strong enough to knock me back half a step. The water was cold—not chilled, just the cold of having not been heated. I’d been through worse. I managed to keep my footing. Mick sprayed my body from feet to chest. My skin roared with the force and sensation of something touching it.

“Close your eyes.”

Mick sprayed my face. I sputtered through the soaking, turning my head this way and that to avoid the pressure on my eyes and sensitive parts.

The water stopped. I heard the hose and metal nozzle hit the concrete, water running down a drain in the floor. Footsteps in the water, closer. Something rough touched my skin, something slick. I smelled soap. Mick scrubbed my skin hard with something. I grunted but said nothing. He lathered my chest, my arms, my neck, my face—more sputtering—stubble, my military-short hair, and my back. He skipped down to my legs.

“Squat a little.”

I bent my knees, bent my torso forward a few degrees. With a lighter touch, his hand ran the soap between my ass cheeks, which had parted slightly from the squat. His fingers lingered over my asshole. I pressed my lips together and accepted the indignity. His finger traced slow circles around my pucker. Sensing he was watching me through his goggles for a reaction, I kept my eyes forward and my expression impassive. He pressed his finger inside to the first knuckle, forcing an involuntary grunt from me.

“Like that, huh, filth?”

I said nothing.

“I said, you like that, filth? You say, ‘Yes, sir.’” He punctuated my pushing his finger deeper inside my ass.

“Yes, sir!” I barked. It hurt a little, but I’d suffered through worse.

“Good boy.”

His finger withdrew. I heard him lather his hands. I expected him to attack my ass again, but instead he reached between my legs from behind and soaped my nut sack, rolling my balls around in his hand, testing the size and weight of them. His rough touch felt good—better than good. Mick knew what he was doing. My cock began to swell. I felt myself blush. Fortunately, he couldn’t see that from where he knelt behind me.

“Stand up straight.”

I heard Mick come around in front of me. His soapy hand grasped my mostly hard cock, making me gasp again. He stroked it. “Nice,” he said. After a few strokes, he had me fully hard, all eight and three-quarter inches. His hand felt great, sliding slowly and gently along my shaft. I found myself wanting, needing, craving his hand to keep stroking.

“Ahh!” I choked. My balls began pumping, orgasming. My cum spurted and mixed with the soap covering Mick’s hand.

“Good boy, filth.”

I felt both shamed by what I’d let him do and pleased by his praise, pleased I’d earned praise from him. Fuck!—That meant they were getting to me.

The spray resumed, gentler this time, as Mick rinsed the soap off my body. Then the hose dropped to the floor again.

Something poked my lip. “Open.” The straw slid into my mouth and I sucked the bland mixture. I was hungry. It was filling. This time, it tasted slightly more of peas and carrots than beans.



“No.” Something tapped my chest and—zap!—an electric jolt burned at me, even the tiny flash of blue-white light nearly blinding after my time in darkness. I staggered back half a step, more surprised than hurt. The pain was nothing I couldn’t handle.


If I were going to try to break someone, I’d attack their core sense of selfhood, starting with their name. Changing their name is the first step to changing who they are.

“Name?” Impatient.

Had Mick told me what name they would use to try to break me? What had Mick called me? Then I remembered.


“Very good, Filth.”

Something clasped my shoulder. I flinched, but it was only a hand, a gentle congratulatory squeeze.

“Why are you here?”

Days ago, I’d said I came to find my brother. That answer would get me another zap. I tried, “I don’t know, sir.”

Nothing. Then, “Why are you here?”

What were my options? To be broken? Too self-aware—I couldn’t let them know I understood what was happening. To cooperate? Too vague. What had Mick said that first day? I’d turned every word over and over in my head since looking for clues.

“To be a good boy and learn my lessons well?”



“Yes, that’s correct.” Mick sounded surprised. “Very good, Filth.” The squeeze on my shoulder lingered longer this time.

I heard something rustle. Mick ignored me for several long minutes. A hand on my arm led me briskly across the floor again.

“On your knees, Filth. Back in your cage.” His voice was gentler this time, less hard, more the way he would speak to a puppy.

I knelt. My knees and shoulder found the bottom and one side of the cage. I knee-crawled my way inside. Mick shut the door behind me, locking me in again.

There was a mat on the floor of my cage.


A door opened, and the lights came on. I flinched, blinded, eyes clamping shut, dazzled after so long in darkness. A man I didn’t recognize in a generic uniform led in a naked youth. I didn’t recognize the youth either at first—he was glassy-eyed and freshly shaven, body hairless as a newborn’s except for his eyebrows, and even his head was shaved—but it was Paul’s friend, the one I’d tackled at the ziggurat. He had something around his head, a gold metal strip, maybe a quarter-inch tall and as thick, running around his forehead and cranium, a small bandage over it at the back of his skull. He shuffled along, as though sleepwalking, behind the stranger. The stranger led him to another cage, the same as mine, with a mat across the bottom. The friend climbed in, curled up as if going to sleep. The stranger shut and locked the cage, pulled a small device from his pocket, poked at a few buttons on it, and walked away.

“Hey! What happened to him?” I asked, nudging my head toward the youth.

The man ignored me. He switched off the lights and left.

I’d seen the room, though. I knew the layout now.

I was still going over my memory of looking around the room when I heard someone near my cage. I’d gotten used to the sound of the kid breathing quietly in the cage several feet from mine. The sounds covered the someone’s approach.

“Sir?” I asked the darkness, hungry for food, for the bathing when Mick would touch me, the simple human contact.

The cage door opened. “Out, Filth.” Mick’s voice. I found myself grateful for his company.

He hosed down my cage. He hosed down my body. But this time, after he soaped and rinsed me—“On your knees.”

I knelt.

“Lean forward. Further. More.”

My hands were still restrained behind my back. I feared if I leaned forward much more, I’d lose my balance and fall face-first. My shoulder met something, solid enough to bear my weight, and I leaned against it.

Mick positioned my ass in the air. With my hands restrained behind my back, balancing on my knees and shoulder was tricky. His fingers poked between my ass cheeks. He found and jabbed them up into my hole. “Uhng!” I protested, surprised by the sudden invasion.

His fingers entered me as far as they could go. My ass spasmed and contracted and tried to eject the intruders, but Mick worked them deep inside me. He had lubed them, and I was thankful for that.

Mick took his time working his fingers around inside my ass. I’d had fingers inserted for medical exams, but never like this. I could take this. No matter what he threw at me, I could take it.

“Tight ass, Filth. You a virgin back here? Get ready for my dick.”

I felt him kneel behind me. He slapped my butt a few times, the suddenness made me gasp. Mick laughed and spanked me again, harder. Then he placed his erect cock between my butt cheeks and shoved. The head felt like something the size of a fist inside me and I yelped—”Ahh!“—before I could stop myself. Mick kept pushing until the head and shaft of his cock was inside me.

Pain roared through my body, stopping me from thinking about anything except the intrusion in my ass. I trembled and my shoulder nearly fell off its prop.

Mick pulled back, then slammed back in, repeating that maneuver over and over. He moaned.

I felt the excess lube drip down the back of my ball sack. I was getting used to the pain. My cock was soft—this was not erotic for me at all—and I could handle the pain. It was proof I was not dead inside yet.

Mick reached under my stomach and grabbed at my cock. His fingers were lube-slick, but my cock refused to get interested. The pounding in my ass prevented my cock from getting hard for his massaging hand. He tugged at my flaccid prick with rapid, yanking strokes.

He fucked me without mercy, and I refused to beg for any. “Gah!” he cried finally, and his body tensed, and he collapsed across my back. My shoulder slipped and, and my head fell against the concrete. Mick clung to me for a minute. I felt his softened cock slide from my tormented asshole.

Mick pulled away. I heard a plastic snap, the sound of a condom being removed.

Mick’s hand gripped my arm and he hauled me to my feet. He led me through the darkness. The friction of walking made my asshole protest.


Cage time. I went down to my knees.

“In you go, Filth.”

I crawled forward.


I was halfway into the cage, but I froze. Mick fiddled with one of my wrists, and my hands came loose. “Thank you, sir,” I breathed, feeling the ache of my long immobilized arms suddenly swinging free.


The gate closed behind me.

I said, “A question, please, sir?”

Mick sighed—but I had said please and sir. “What?”

“The kid.” I nodded toward where I thought the kid’s cage was in the darkness, knowing Mick could see. “What happened to him, please?”

“He cannot be trained the usual way. Perhaps his time alone in the jungle is to blame—it can make a man crazy sometimes. He has been haloed. That will force his obedience. You would do well to remember and learn from this. Otherwise, a man like you?—nosing around where you don’t belong, asking questions—you might’ve disappeared into the jungle never to be seen again. We know you were military. Your training will be an asset if you learn your lessons. That is the only reason you are here and still alive, Filth, instead of rotting under some tree back there in the jungle.”


I investigated the gate of my cage. Now that I could move my arms—now that I’d done some pushups as best I could in the too-short cage, and some crunches and other exercises to get the blood flowing and muscle tone coming back—I needed to investigate the latch. I had to be silent, because I’d already learned Mick would sometimes be nearby without me hearing him.

I heard someone crying softly in the darkness. The naked youth, whimpering.

I whispered, “Hey. You okay?”

Silence, then a shaky voice, “Who’s there?”

My name is Filth. “My name is Peter. I’m Paul’s brother.”

“You’re the guy who jumped me, right? Back at the ruins? Are you really Paul’s brother?”

“Yeah.” Meaning, all of the above. “I came looking for him,” I added, which explained how I came to be there. The details could wait.

He told me his name was Justin. He told me about how Lucas showed them the ruins, then some other guys jumped them. They drugged Paul and the rest. Justin got away, hid in the jungle. He was terrified of the jungle—Lucas had told them stories about all the jaguars and snakes and poisonous frogs and spiders that could kill a man in seconds—so he stuck near the ruins. Sometimes men came back to look for him, but he always got away. Sometimes they left food, but he never touched it, fearing it was drugged. Instead, he learned to find fruit in the jungle. He thought the isolation was bad—maybe he went a little crazy. He didn’t know where this place was, but the trail on which Lucas had led them to the ruins came from the south, while the men looking for him always came and went to the northwest. He thought the ruins were nearby, but just a drop site, a distraction.

I asked if he had seen Paul. No.

He asked what I thought was going on. I said I thought we were being subjected to psychological torture—I did not say brainwashed. All he said to that was, “Shit.”

After a while, he asked if I knew why. I didn’t have an answer for that.

From what he told me, they hadn’t bound him like they had me. He was just a college student—they weren’t afraid of him. He said he had quickly figured out the latch and kept sneaking out of his cage. He had tried to escape but the room door was always locked. They weren’t much worried about us getting out of the cages since we couldn’t get out of the room.

I heard something metallic rattle, heard a door creak open from the direction of Justin’s voice. I heard something shuffle closer, something bumped my cage, groping, searching quickly. Justin’s whisper came from right outside. “Can I come in? I really need ...”


He worked the gate of my cage open and slipped inside. We sat cross-legged, side by side, knees barely touching. In the darkness that slight contact was how we confirmed the other’s continued presence.

They had moved him along much faster, had only kept him in darkness for less than a day. They had a drug, like the spray they’d used on us at the ziggurat. It numbed the mind, made him feel cooperative and docile. They used it to make sure he was controllable, followed orders.

They had technology, a chair, a screen—it assaulted the brain with images. He said it was like some science fiction movie where subliminal messages turned people into programmed puppets. Justin said the images hammered away at his head until he couldn’t think straight. The technicians weren’t pleased, though—they said the normal programming would not work on him, something about his brain—and then they gave him a drug that knocked him out. When he woke up, they had installed this band, this “halo,” around his head. He said it whispered things into his head, made him feel like a zombie, unsure which thoughts were even his.

That part sounded weird. I decided to ignore that. I touched the metal band, though. It was on tight and didn’t budge. “Ow,” Justin protested when my fingers strayed too close to the bandage I’d seen at the back of his skull. “It’s okay—just real sore.”

He leaned against me. I put an arm around his shoulder and listened to his sniffles and small sobs in the darkness.

You have to remember who you are, I told him. No matter what they do to you. Remember who you are. Hold on to that. Sooner or later, we’ll get free. We’ll get Paul. We’ll get out of there. Just hold on. Wait for an opportunity. Be ready to take it.

His arms circled my chest and he hugged me the way a child would. At around twenty years old, Justin was nearly still a child in some ways. I understood fear, and I understood the need for comfort. After a moment of tenseness, I allowed him to hold himself against me.

At some point, his body shifted, his head and shoulder found my lap. My hand rested on his shoulder. He rocked his body back and forth, trying to comfort himself. The slide of his shaven scalp against the base of my cock felt ... awkward and interesting at the same time. My cock hardened. I was glad the lights were out and he couldn’t see, but surely he felt it when he rocked his skull back and forth and brushed my boner. It felt good. Mick’s violation of my ass had not been sexual to me, but my body responded to the warmth of Justin’s skin. He couldn’t see my embarrassment in the dark. Good.

I leaned back against the wall of my cage, enjoying the simple human contact, until I felt Justin lift his head, turning his face downward. His shoulder moved. He found my stiff cock with his hand. That woke me up from a half-doze and I froze. But in a moment of weakness, I didn’t tell him to stop. He pulled on my dick shaft—a slow, nursing grip, up and down, slow and sweet. I didn’t move. Justin did all the work.

“Shit, you’re big,” he sighed. I do have a big cock. His appreciation made me proud. “So fucking big, just like Paul.” I refused to think about how he knew what my brother’s erection was like.

He kept sliding up and down, going slowly. Long, even strokes. I felt his body vibrate as he stroked himself with his other hand, going faster and harder than he stroked me. I felt his hand clamp tighter around my cock. He sighed. Something hot and liquid hit my leg. His cum, I realized. I’d never had anyone’s cum touch me except my own.

Too late to worry about that. My own balls were suddenly ready. “I’m—”


His lips found the tip and wrapped around the head, and my load exploded into him. My body bucked up from the narrow cage floor as the sensation exploded all through me. I needed this. My orgasm was intense.

When it was over, my cock softening, I felt his tongue brush around the head of it in the darkness. I turned my head the other way. I whispered, “I think you should go now.”

Justin said, “Okay ... Thank you.”

I should thank you, I thought, but said nothing.

He pulled himself away me. My cage gate rattled. A moment later, Justin’s rattled.

At some point, Justin dozed. I heard his soft snoring. I closed my eyes and slept too.


I woke when something smacked hard against my cage.

“Wake up, Filth!” Mick, and not looking happy at all.

Light. I could see.

I risked a glance at Justin’s cage. It was empty.

“Hey!” Mick slammed his fist against my cage. “Don’t try looking for your boyfriend. He’s already been taken away for his new training. I hope you two enjoyed yourselves, ‘cause there won’t be much of him left when the techies finish with his head. These cages are meant to help make you bond with your handler—they’re not a fucking game of musical chairs, sneaking in and out for your little blow-job session!”

Mick sounded like a jealous lover. Out of all though, though, one word caught my attention. I definitely didn’t like the sound of handler.

Mick slammed his fist against my cage again. “Hey! Pay attention. I was going to feed you before your lesson today, but now—I think an empty stomach will help you remember to pay attention in the future, Filth.” I watched him dump my liquid meal onto the concrete floor. “Well? Aren’t you going to thank me for not beating the crap out of you?”

“I ... Thank you, sir.”

“Shit.” He ran his hand across his head and scowled at me. “It’s time for your lesson. Are you ready?”

“Yes.” What I was ready for was Mick to open the cage gate. With room door open, I had an escape route. I could kick Mick’s face in, incapacitate him, stuff him in the cage, and have myself a five-minute head start before anyone discovered my escape. I could find Paul and get us the fuck out of there. No matter where we were, there had to be a way out.

“Whatever you’re planning, Filth, don’t bother.” Mick said. He showed me a bottle like the one he’d sprayed in my face at the ziggurat, an unspoken threat.

Mick opened the door. “On your feet, Filth.”

I began to crawl out of the cage.

A new voice from the doorway asked, “Is this the one?”

Mick whirled and exclaimed, “Sir! I wasn’t expecting—Yes, this is him, sir.” He hissed at me, “On your feet, Filth. The Leader wants a look at you.”

Okay, I could play along. I snapped to attention, a familiar posture from my Army days.

The new man stood in the doorway of my room. He looked vaguely interested and vaguely bored at the same time. He looked my naked body up and down. “So this is him,” the Leader said, as if undecided whether to be completely unimpressed.

“Yessir,” Mick gushed. “Excellent physical shape, as you can see. Wide-ranging military background, American Special Forces. Exceptional leadership skills. Already after only four days, his resistance level has dropped to nil. He’ll be ready for field work within the month.”

“Hmm.” The Leader walked over to me and eyeballed me close up. “What’s your name?”

“Filth, sir,” I barked in the way that always pleased Mick.

“Not your trainee name. Your other name. Don’t lie to me. You haven’t been here long enough for the training to take hold.”

“Peter, sir. People call me Pete.”

The Leader snorted and turned to Mick. “I think you still have more work to do. He is trying to pretend he is unaware of what we are doing. By pretending to be farther along, he intended to deceive us,” the Leader said.

Mick jabbered, “I agree, sir. I think he’s too dangerous to be trained the normal way. If you read my report—”

“Reports are bullshit. Still, you may be correct. Have the technicians map his mind, just in case we have to use more advanced procedures. His military skills and command experience will be valuable assets, but there are multiple ways to make his skills work for us.”

They were ignoring me. The door was open. This could be the slip-up I’d been waiting for.

The Special Forces made me a mad-dog killer. My hand-to-hand combat skills are impressive, if I do say so myself. Right then, Mick experienced my shoulder-to-stomach skills as I suddenly bolted not for the door but right for him. I caught him in the stomach and heaved. With the wind knocked out of him, he careened into that Leader guy and they both went down.

By then, I was out the door and into the hallway beyond. I turned right. I’m fast. I might have spent the last few days locked in a cage, but my muscles were still in good shape and they responded to the kick of adrenaline flooding me. Special Forces training taught me a lot about sneaking unseen and unheard, but right then I needed speed and distance instead, and my legs provided both. Running naked through the hallway beat being a passive prisoner, and I’ve never been shy anyway. But, I didn’t see anybody else around. I mean, no one—as if the facility was deserted. Maybe they only had a skeleton staff.

Identical doors lined both sides of the corridor. Some had numbers. Some were completely blank. One hallway seemed as good as another so I zig-zagged down several.

No turning back now. My plan was to find a way out. Find Paul if I could and take him with me, but find a way out and bring back the authorities if I couldn’t.

I paused in yet another hallway. How the hell did people tell them apart? I tried each door, quietly. All were locked.

One door at the end was unlocked. Overhead lights flickered on automatically when I eased it open. If the lights were off when I opened it, that meant no one had been inside for a while to trip the light sensor. I slipped inside. I needed clothes. I needed weapons. I needed something to give me an edge.

This was some kind of small storeroom, almost completely empty, except for a few cleaning supplies. What could I use as a weapon? An aerosol can: that might come in handy for blinding someone. A plunger: I popped off the rubber end and had a perfectly good wooden stick that I could use as a truncheon.

Armed, I slipped back into the corridor and continued on. A side hallway split off. Down it, I saw a bright red sign mounted at the ceiling—“Emergency Exit”—and an arrow pointing to a door with a window in it. It couldn’t that easy, could it? Only one way to find out.

Emergency exits usually had alarms, but I wasn’t going to pass up the first exit I’d found. Emergency exits usually don’t have guards. A quick peek at the corner of the window told me this one had two, both fit-looking men, standing in the area beyond, guarding what looked to be the exit. The guards wore nondescript uniforms but appeared unarmed. Apparently the Leader decided to have the doors covered just in case.

I needed a diversion, something to separate them. I rattled the aerosol can against the bottom of the door and waited. Sure enough, one of the guards investigated. The moment he stuck his head through the door, I cracked the plunger handle across his jaw, just short of hard enough to break it, then grabbed his head and slammed it down against my upcoming knee. The guard collapsed.

The other came at me. I blasted him in the face with the aerosol and ducked, and he rushed by me, blinded and clawing at his eyes and howling. I slammed the truncheon across the back of his neck and he went down.

Now the only thing between me and the door was twelve feet of air—

—And Mick, who tackled me from behind. “Got you, fuck-face!”

We went down. I twisted, but so did he and I still took most of the impact. I shoved him off me. Before I could reach the door, he was on me again, and we slammed into the wall. I went for his eyes with one hand. He knocked it aside with his arm, and his other hand was in my face with that spray can.


I went down. The world spun. Everything felt far away, like it was happening to someone else.


“Like that, Filth? Absorbed through the skin. Quite effective.”


I couldn’t seem to focus on anything. Everything seemed slow, dreamlike. My arms and legs wouldn’t move right. I found that really funny and heard myself giggling.

Mick picked himself up and stood over me. “I told him, you’re too dangerous to train the normal way. He’ll have to believe me now.” That struck me as funny and I snickered some more. He spoke into a little device. “We have him secured ... Yes, sir ... Yes, sir. I’ll bring him in right away.” He clicked it off and slid it back into his pocket. “It’s your lucky day, Filth. You’re skipping right to the hardcore plan.”

The guards hauled me up roughly to my feet—more giggles from me—and practically carried me along. Mick led us down a hall, then another. The identical halls struck me as funny, and I chortled most of the trip.

Mick led us into a room. Wherever I was, it wasn’t the ruins, or the resort town. The town had nothing this high-tech. Things here were newer. Spartan. Lots of surfaces that were white or silver or gray, antiseptic colors. I felt giddy, high, and something about the lack of color made me giggle. At some point, I caught my reflection in a mirror-like surface. I thought my multi-day stubbled, distorted reflection looked silly, and I laughed some more.

This new room was centered around a semi-reclining clinical chair. The guards dumped me into it. I tried to say Thanks, fellas but it came out, “Ankzz eyluhzz.”

Mick fastened straps around my ankles and wrists and neck immobilizing me. “I’m gonna enjoy watching this,” he said.

A technician began shaving my head. It tickled and I couldn’t stop grinning like a fool. Two other technicians moved in and affixed electrodes and other sensors to my head and chest. One put speaker buds into my ears. High-tech gear cupped my head, holding it firmly in place. Another found a vein in my elbow, and I felt a needle bite into my skin.

What I remember after that were flashes. Just images. No narrative. No continuity. The drug made me sleepy, but I fought it. It made the technicians moving around me seem like a dream—whispers around me, images of people moving here and there around me. I barely registered the sight of one before he was replaced by another. I felt a sharp pain bite at the back of my skull—I’d have winced except my head was held immobile. Words, images, a spot of nagging pain that eased into numbness. Was this some kind of brainwashing set-up? I heard about this shit while I was in the Special Forces. Images, words, all zipping by around me, until finally I couldn’t fight the drug anymore and the world slipped away from me.



Who was whispering my name?

“Hey, Petey? Wake up. It’s me.”

I opened my eyes. My head ached, like something tight was wrapped around it, with a dull throb of pain in the back. My eyelids were the only part of me not stiff and cramped. The lights were out. I couldn’t see a thing. But I was used to darkness.

“Drink this.”

A straw crawled across my lip. I put my mouth around it and sucked. Water. I hadn’t realized how dry-mouthed I was.

“Don’t drink too fast. That’s enough for now.” The straw withdrew.

“You awake now?”

I recognized the voice. “Paul? Paul!”

“Shhh!—Keep it down. Yeah, it’s me, Petey. I’m not supposed to be in here.”

“How are you? Are you okay?” I gripped the wire mesh with my fingers. Paul groped and found my fingers—that was about the most we could do through the mesh. I recognized the feel, the smell—I was in my cage. The lights were off. Why wasn’t I surprised? I was too happy to care about that.

“Yeah. This place takes some getting used to, but it’s cool. What about you, bro? My first couple of weeks were kinda rocky. You holding up okay?”

“Yeah. Chair ... My head feels funny. They drugged me with something ... put me in a chair ... I .... My head hurts ...”

“Don’t sweat it, bro. You’ll be fine.”

“Get me out of this thing!”

“Can’t, bro. They locked you in. I don’t have the key. I’m not even supposed to be in here. But I heard rumors you were here. I wanted to see you.”

He pushed the straw back to me, and I drank greedily. He told me they’d be back for me soon. He had to be gone by then.

He didn’t know where this place was, except that it was in the middle of the jungle somewhere. He didn’t know why he and his friends had been brought here, except they weren’t the first and apparently those “in charge” thought no one would come snooping around. He couldn’t tell me anything about those “in charge.”

Our conversation lasted five minutes, tops. Paul got more and more nervous. I could tell from his voice. Finally, “Listen, bro, no matter what, just remember I’m okay. This place, it’s okay once you go along with the program. Don’t fight it, okay? And don’t worry about me. I’ll try to see you again soon.” And then he was gone.

I stayed awake in the darkness, concentrating on everything about Paul—the sound of his voice, every word he said. I didn’t want to forget anything.


Mick kicked my cage.

That woke me—I hadn’t even been aware of falling asleep. My morning wood started wilting immediately.

“Wakey, wakey, Filth—though I guess I should call you Soldier now.”

Apparently I had a new name. I wondered why and what that meant.

Mick took a device out of his pocket and poked at a few keys. After a moment, the cage door clicked as the lock disengaged. Electronic lock. Mick had pressed three buttons, which meant a three-digit unlock code. He kept the key device in his front left pants pocket. I’d remember that.

Now that I knew escape was at least possible, everything looked like pieces of an opportunity.

He barked. “Get out here.” I noticed he stepped back a respectful distance out of range as I crawled out and stood up, stretching my stiff back. I hoped my satisfaction didn’t show.

He grinned, an evil expression. “Shall we see how it works?” He held up the little device that could have been a mobile phone but wasn’t, not exactly. He made a big show of typing at a few buttons.

Something felt ... not normal in my head.

Active mode, this little voice in the back of my head said.

I snapped to attention.

My eyes were locked forward, but I still saw Mick’s satisfied grin. He held up a metal tray. In its surface I saw a distorted reflection of my head. My head and face had been shaved. There was something gold around my forehead.

Mick’s tone was evil and smug: “Like the new look, Soldier?”

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Oh, that’s right—you Soldier types aren’t that talkative unless it’s in your mission parameters. Well, guess what. Your ass has been haloed, motherfucker, just like I recommended in the first place. You won’t be trying no more of that escaping shit now.”

Halo ... What was it Jason had said about something whispering in his head?

“Here,” Mick said, pushing a bundle at me. “Get dressed.”

I had my orders. I took the stack of clothing and began dressing myself. Camouflage patterned cloth. Some sort of basic military uniform. Tee shirt, blouse, pants, socks, boots. No underwear, no helmet or cap.

I dressed with practiced efficiency. I’d donned pretty much this same type of uniform almost every day when I was Special Forces.

That little device of Mick’s doubled as a communicator. It pinged and he put it to his ear. “Talk,” he said. After listening, he said, “I’m bringing him now.”

Mick led me through the hallways. I followed him because it didn’t occur to me to do anything else.

He led me to the room with the chair—or maybe a room like it, since this one had multiple chairs in a row facing the screen. The closest chair was empty, the others occupied by five or six men dressed as I was, already strapped in, waiting patiently.

A technician came over and fussed with my halo. “You shouldn’t have activated it so soon,” he scolded Mick, who shrugged. “Still ... it seems to be functioning normally. No damage done. Okay, Soldier, have a seat.”

I sat in the empty chair. The technician strapped me down, inserted the ear buds, and tinkered with the halo, attaching something near the back. “Okay, that’s got you, big fella,” he said to me. He checked the halo again, pulled out a device like Mick’s and touched a series of buttons quickly. “We’ll start downloading now.”

Training mode, the voice in my head said. I felt my arms and legs go limp. I looked straight ahead, feeling a new eagerness to pay attention and learn, as the spot in the back of my head burned and I felt information flowing into my mind—images and sounds, all going too fast to grasp. Lots of random words and images in my head, most faster than I could make them out. Relax. Focus. Obey. Belong. Whispers in my ears. Relax. My body felt heavy. My scalp tingled. Focus. My head was whirling, disoriented. Obey. I was drifting, slipping away, sucked into the maelstrom of whirling in my head. Belong. Nothing else mattered.

Active mode.

I blinked. How much time had passed while I’d stared into space?

The technicians moved down the row, disconnecting, unstrapping, and the men stood up. I stood up too and looked at them. I recognized two. But I could ... hear all six of them somehow—not with my ears, but in the back of my head, like a low murmur of voices.

“Fall in!” Mick yelled. The other six men in camouflage quickly formed two rows of three, standing at attention. “Not you, Soldier,” he said as I rushed to join the line up too. “Come here. Look at them, Soldier. We don’t follow traditional command structure. We don’t answer to any government. But we need a small military strike force for certain specialized tasks. That’s where these men come in; that’s where you come in. Some men cannot be trained the traditional way. For them, we use the haloes, as you yourself are discovering. This is their last stop before ... Well, these men are viewed as expendable, perfect for a military task squad. If something happens to them in the field, there’s no link back to us. Military discipline can take away the pain, the fear, the shame. The haloes download the military mindset and special skills needed for special missions directly into their heads. The haloes will ensure these fuck-ups toe the line, and they’ll make these men want to fight for whatever we tell them to fight for, but they need guidance—leadership—they need someone to help train them, help them internalize that mindset, and turn them into soldiers. They’ll need someone to lead them during field assignments. That someone is you, Soldier. We will give you something to fight for, and you will teach them to fight. These are your men, Soldier. We will mold their minds—your mind too—and you will use your military skills to help us mold their bodies. If you fail ...”

Punishment mode, said the voice in my head when Mick pushed a button on his communicator gizmo.

“... there will be punishments.”

Red-hot agony erupted as every nerve roared with every pain I’d even suffered, simultaneously, magnified a hundred times, a thousand fold, roaring louder through my body. My muscles twisted and clenched—I fell—I couldn’t see or hear anything except red rushing through and all around me.

Suddenly, it stopped. I gasped and tried to straighten my limbs, tried to get my bearings.

“On the other hand, if you succeed, there will be privileges.”

Reward mode.

Rapture, bliss, ecstasy—until that moment those had been just words. Now I understood them, the brilliant white light of them flowing through me like an orgasm, better than an orgasm, thousands of orgasms, like seeing God, like every good thing in my world all at once. I writhed again, but from the sheer magnitude of beauty that overwhelmed and swallowed me.

As it faded, I looked up. Mick stood over me, grinning down. “Yeah, I bet you’ll do anything to get some more of that, won’t you. And the best part?—You’ll never be alone again.”

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