The Last Photograph 2 (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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When the haloes went into active mode, I saw what the other six soldiers saw and heard what they were thinking, and vice versa. They were in my head, and vice versa. The haloes did more than just download skills into our heads—they linked our minds. The technicians rambled about “thought transmission radials” and “encephalic vectors” and other shit when they thought we weren’t listening. Wouldn’t have mattered—I didn’t understand any of it. Bottom line: We thought and reacted as one. In active mode, all we thought about was the objective, doing whatever was needed to accomplish the task, and we operated simultaneously. Our individual goals and desires, and even our individual thoughts, ceased to exist.

As a Soldier, I graduated to being housed in barracks conditions with the other six Soldiers. The barracks were basic bunk beds, little more than a frame and a mattress, but it beat sleeping in a metal cage. The room held thirty beds total, so I suspected we were only the first. The other six slept top and bottom on the first three pairs of beds. As their commanding officer, I slept solo, on the bottom bunk, in the fourth unit.

Our days began with the lights coming on. Time meant little, but I estimated we had twenty minutes to shower, shave, dress in whatever gear they brought to us that morning, and eat the meals they brought to us. Then the haloes went active mode, and we were marched to the chair room for training mode and that day’s downloads.

Then, back in active mode and fully under their control, we drilled. The haloes downloaded skills, but the drills gave us familiarity using them. Most were things I’d already done a thousand times, but were less ingrained in the other six Soldiers. Marching and running for miles. Climbing and rappelling. Guns and grenades and hand-to-hand combat. Our handlers were preparing us for something. When my head was in active mode, I didn’t care; all that mattered was leading my team through the drills, making sure they got it right. I was an excellent Soldier because I didn’t know any other kind to be when the halo was active.

The two Soldiers I had recognized? The new Soldier with his head still shaved and barely stubble grown back was Jason, relegated here after whatever problems prevented him from undergoing the “normal” training that Paul and others apparently went through. The other Soldier I recognized had been haloed longer, judging the way his hair had grown long enough to nearly obscure his halo around the sides and back of his head. I recognized him from that last photograph Paul had sent, where this guy was on the far left, next to my bother—Angel, by name. He never said what he’d done to get haloed; I didn’t ask. Justin and Angel were college kids with heads full of downloaded military skills, but they had the basic physical foundations: athletic physiques, plenty of muscle, fit. They picked up quickly, toughened up fast.

The handlers worked us well past sundown. At the end of the day, we were piled into the barracks and stripped—they weren’t taking any chances with us and took our uniforms before releasing us the haloes’ control. Then we were given about one hour with the haloes in standby mode with the “group mind” subservience shut off, which gave us autonomy and our personalities back. We ate another meal, talked, horsed around some, played poker with the deck of cards we were allowed to have, did whatever we wanted as long as we didn’t try to leave the barracks room—which we couldn’t since, by the way, we were locked in. Most nights ended with the lights dimming, a warning that one minute later the haloes were going into sleep mode. When that mode engaged, we fell immediately into a deep sleep, no matter what we were doing, so we had to be in our racks and ready when that happened.

Most nights means not every night. Our handlers kept us so exhausted during the day, it hardly mattered. Most of us hit the rack before that one hour of free time was up anyway.

But on nights when we weren’t zonked out with sleep mode, after the lights went completely out and darkness hid everything, I’d sometimes hear bed springs squeak as one of the men jacked off furiously. Sometimes I heard quiet slurping that sounded suspiciously like a cock getting sucked. I didn’t care—I was always too tired to stay awake.

One night, after I’d lost count of the days, I slept stretched out on my cot, on my back, covered by a thin sheet pulled up to mid-stomach. I woke when the sheet slid down, exposing my groin to the air in the darkness.

“You awake?” Justin whispered in the darkness. I said nothing.

The mattress sank as he leaned over me. I felt his lips on my stomach, the lightest touch that made my muscles flutter. Fingers slid along my hip, mapping where my body lay in the blackness. Lips traced my treasure trail down to my pubes. My cock was hardening. I was glad the lights were out and he couldn’t see, but he felt it when he moved his mouth down still further and brushed the root of my boner. It felt good. I hadn’t been with a woman in a long time. I hadn’t masturbated in a while. My body responded to the warmth of his breath, his mouth. He couldn’t see my embarrassment or my need in the dark. Good.

Justin’s mouth found the head and swallowed my boner. I’m big, but he knew how to suck, and he managed after a few tries to take it all. I found myself enjoying the simple human contact. His mouth pulled away. I felt the mattress sag as he climbed on. His legs straddled me, butt riding lightly on my stomach. I felt him reach back and find my stiff cock with his hand. I froze. But in a moment of weakness, I didn’t tell him to stop. His ass lifted. He pulled my dick head to his ass and sat back. His ass sank around my cock as if spit-lube was all he needed.

He needed a minute to get used to it in his ass. I didn’t move. His ass gripped my shaft, nursed at it as his hips rode up and down, slow and sweet. I had never stuck my cock in a man’s ass before. Justin did all the work. I felt his palms on my chest. I reached up to where a woman’s tits would be and found his nipples after a moment of fumbling in the dark. His were small and hard and had a few hairs around them, but I stroked at them and pinched them gently like I would a woman’s, which he seemed to like judging from his trying-to-be-quiet groans.

“Shit, you’re big,” he whisper-sighed. “So fucking big.” I do have a big cock. His appreciation made me proud.

He kept sliding up and down, going slowly. Long, even strokes. A couple of times I felt his stiff cock bounce against my abdomen. Felt like he had a good-sized one himself, but I didn’t touch it. I felt his ass clamp around my cock. He sighed. Something hot and liquid hit my chest. His cum.

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


I bit my lip to make sure I came silently. His ass sank to the base of my cock, and my load exploded into him. My body bucked up from the narrow cot as the sensation exploded all through me. It had been a long time. My orgasm was intense.

When it was over, my cock softening and still up his ass, he bent forward. I felt his lips brush mine in the darkness. I turned my face away.

He pulled himself off me. I rolled on my side, hoping he’d take the hint. Instead, he settled in behind me on the cot, fitting his body along mine. Okay. I was too sleepy in the afterglow to say no. He slung his arm across me to keep from falling off the narrow cot. The simple warmth of his skin against mine felt good, better than I’d imagined. His still-hard cock poked the back of my thigh. I lifted my knee, and his cock settled into the space between my legs, under my balls. His hips moved, just a little, barely perceivable, not quite fucking his cock between my thighs, but not quite just holding it there either. His hand on my stomach inched downward, found my cock, half-hard too again, and wrapped around it. I didn’t push his hand away. He started stroking, the lightest of grips. My balls tingled. His body alongside mine felt unexpectedly comfortable, and I half-dozed as he worked at my cock and thighs. He bit my shoulder gently as he came. I felt his cum run down the front of my thigh. I was surprised by how warm it was, warmer than I’d expected. I came too, a minute later, and I fell asleep with his cock still between my thighs and his hand still around my dick.


I came to realize these nights where we weren’t knocked out with sleep mode were intended for such sexual activities in the dark. A relief mechanism, a bonding approach, built in to our schedule.

Justin began giving me small favors, some item of food from a meal sometimes, half his candy bar when we were allowed small luxuries. A commanding officer deserves respect, so I accepted such tributes and acknowledged them as my due with just a solemn nod of thanks. The other men seemed to understand this. Sometimes one of the others would do the same. In the field, though, I gave no special treatment in return, and they respected that.

Most nights when we were allowed to sleep on our own, Justin would come to my cot and offer his body—his hands, his mouth, his ass. I accepted these tributes too, and allowed my body to be used for his pleasure as well as mine. I allowed myself to be fondled, sucked, my thighs to be fucked. I never allowed myself to be kissed, my hands to touch cock, or my ass to be penetrated. Sometimes someone other than Justin came to me: a hand impressed by my muscles or the thickness of my shaft, a mouth unaccustomed to my size.

I came to expect the nighttime comforts, the furtive orgasms. The other men were forming bonds of their own. Justin made his attachment to me clear. Angel and two other Soldiers seemed to connect. The final two, a pair themselves. I could see it in their interactions during our free hour each night. The groupings were primary, but not exclusive—they flowed and recombined, the fluid mechanics of affection, free of jealousy.

We didn’t talk about it. Our handlers must have wanted us to bond in this way. The daily programming in the chair room, as I thought of it, was changing us gradually. I felt the change happening in myself, the way I came to allow my fingertips to graze a nut sack other than my own in the dark, or my hand to slide along the cock indirectly attached to the mouth pleasuring me that night.

Sometimes more than just Justin joined me. I’d be lying on my back. Justin’s familiar hand would be stroking my cock standing proudly in the darkness, or his mouth swallowing it into a different kind of darkness, and another hand would touch me, would find the point where my cock met Justin’s body, perhaps a moment of frozen surprise at finding my cock already engaged. Sometimes that new hand would join Justin’s. Sometimes the new hands would move to my balls or chest, supplementing, complementing, both of them collaborating on my pleasure and maybe taking pleasure between themselves too.

One night, Justin and another touched me. I lay on my side. Justin sucked at my cock, the other massaged the dense muscles of my chest. They swapped. The other was an adequate cocksucker, not as talented as Justin. I felt Justin stumble in the dark, come around my cot. He lifted my leg. I expected him to fit his cock between my thighs, as I usually allowed, but he buried his tongue in the crack of my ass instead. No one had ever done that to me before. The way his tongue swirled and lapped and poked—I hadn’t expected my ass to be so full of nerve endings, so ready to fire sensations that made my body tense and shiver.

Justin pushed at my hips. I got the idea and got up on my hands and knees, so the other man stroking my cock, a firm and enjoyable grip, could still reach me. Justin’s confident hands parted my ass cheeks; his tongue became familiar with my ass again. When Justin pulled away, when I heard him hawk up a ball of spit, I suspected what would happen. I surprised myself by not moving away. He pressed his cockhead to my hole. I allowed it. He pressed his cockhead slowly forward into my hole. I allowed it too. He entered me slowly. My hole was tight. It hurt, but there was a rightness feeling too, in my ass and in my head. I was supposed to allow this; I was supposed to want this. I had taken worst; I could take this. I allowed Justin to enter me and use my ass for his pleasure. Truth is, after a few minutes of pain, it began to be my pleasure too. Underneath me, the other’s hand stroked me slow and firm, and his second hand rubbed my nipple. It didn’t last long—a thing like that never does—and then Justin’s hips behind me pushed forward into my ass and held there. I felt him convulse, his hands squeezing on my hips, as he orgasmed in my ass. My balls chose that moment to catch fire and my cock erupted in that milking hand. I bit my lip to prevent myself from crying out. My body crumpled to my cot. I felt Justin climb off the mattress, heading for the other’s body, followed by the sound of Justin’s familiar cock-sucking slurping and the other’s final groan as he came.

“Damn,” someone nearby whispered, “that sounded hot.”


You see movies where the hero puts on all this cool-guy military stuff, and you think, Wow, yeah, I wanna be that guy. Then you put on all that gear, and it’s like, Whoa, that’s intense.

Our morning mission gear changed to wetsuits. Our handlers had a specific mission in mind. After our daily programming, when we shifted to active mode and hit the field, we were given specialized closed circuit scuba equipment. I was familiar with this—rebreather equipment meant no bubbles, making divers harder to detect. For special ops missions, stealth is everything.

Our training outdoors shifted to water. I drilled the Soldiers harder, because I knew something was coming. Our handlers did not say when, but we were about to be deployed for something that would test everything the Soldiers had learned so far. The haloes gave them the basic skills—I watched them carefully to make sure they gained the familiarity to perform the mission safely.

Three and a half days later, the time came. We were halfway through our day of training on the scuba equipment, focused intently thanks to the active mode haloes. I felt a tingle in the back of my head and froze; my halo was downloading new instructions. I climbed out of the water. The others too. We marched to a section I had not visited before. A helipad. We climbed aboard a waiting transport helicopter. Mick was already on board. We sat and strapped ourselves in.

Part of me wondered if I would recognize landmarks once we got in the air. Would I be able to determine where this place was?

Mick looked at me and grinned as he pressed a few buttons on his controller.

The blades, the noise—the helicopter began to lift off.

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

My eyes closed, and I slept.

We slept until we arrived. We did not need to know locations.

Active mode.

I blinked and lifted my head, saw the others do the same—saw and felt them come online in the group mind again.

Outside, it was dark. We left in mid-afternoon sometime, and now it was night.

Our haloes had downloaded the mission parameters while we slept. Vessel infiltration and search. We moved by Zodiac transport boat to within two thousand yards of a container ship parked at a pier just off the coast. We would swim one thousand yards, then go subsurface for the final thousand yards to the target. Four Soldiers would pull actions on security. The other three of us would be the search team. The objective was to covertly board the ship and conduct a coordinated search for a piece of precious cargo, a briefcase containing something critical. We would then slip back into the water, recover our gear, and swim back to the Zodiac, two thousand yards away out at sea. All without alerting any other potential combatants onshore.

The mission was a go. We loaded into the Zodiac and headed out to sea.

We geared up. Two thousand yards was as close as the Zodiac could go without risking being heard or seen. “Enter the water,” I ordered quietly, because sound carries, and simultaneously the Soldiers and I rolled backward off the edge of the Zodiac and into the sea. Our mission clock had started, and we had to hit our objective.

We planned to swim on the surface to the halfway point, but no battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy. A helicopter, presumably civilian, entered the area. It could have spotted us and compromised our stealth. All our target needed to do was hear the civilian pilot radio someone about divers in the water and we would lose the element of surprise. I gave the order in my head for an emergency descent. The halo relayed the order to the other Soldiers, and we dove under the water as one. Using the rebreathers, we left no telltale trails of bubbles to give our presence away as we swam below the surface. The difference between planning and execution—that’s why our handlers needed my Special Forces skills.

The mission focus imposed by our halos in active mode ensured none of the Soldiers panicked. Adrenaline kept our heart rates up as we swam, but every thought and motion was purposeful, directed at getting us to the target location. No distractions.

We stayed subsurface and out of view from any patrols or guards. In the pitch black, against a fairly stiff current, we followed the compass-man to the edge of the pier where we prepared to covertly board the vessel. This was familiar for me, but the other Soldiers had never done anything like this, especially in the dark. They had only the downloaded skills and whatever experience I’d been able to drill into them. The swim was not easy, but we were fit and dedicated. We made it to the pier.

I surfaced on the dark side of the ship to confirm we were on target. Thanks to the haloes, all of the Soldiers saw what I saw. Enemy were on board. We definitely would be confronted by good security. I saw at least two guards, both armed. One faced to the stern with his rifle, and another on the aft side of the ladder faced toward the bow with his rifle.

We stashed our rebreathers subsurface. So far, so good. Now it was time to board the ship.

With our rifles, we quietly worked our way up the boarding ladder. As one Soldier climbed, the others covered and looked for threats. This was a critical point in the operation: if we did not get on board quickly, without being detected, it was mission failure.

We successfully boarded the target vessel. So far, we had evaded detection by the enemy on board. Now we had a whole new set of responsibilities in order to complete the mission. First, we had to search the entire ship, stem to stern, looking for the precious cargo which could be concealed anywhere. Second, we had to find the location to plant the explosive charge to disable the ship. Third, we had to get back off the ship with the cargo, back out to sea, and back to our Zodiac, without being compromised.

The four Soldiers on security paired off and moved out to provide cover, while the other two Soldiers and I started a methodical search of the ship for the briefcase. The risk of detection was high. Now, everything hinged on stealth.

Our haloes kept us concentrated on the mission. I could sense all six of them—calm, dedicated, focused.

We found no entry points near the front of the ship. We had to move aft, toward the bridge, where the potential for running into an enemy skyrocketed. We crept slowly to the entry below deck, and at last we were inside. The search for the case began.

A hallway led through the middle of the ship. The first door: A small bathroom—ship-sized shower, toilet, sink, a cabinet underneath. Nothing.

A galley. Styrofoam cups, plastic bowls, more cabinets. More nothing.

An area used as an office. A computer, printer, papers. Clear.

A laundry and storage compartment. Searching this took more time. We came up empty. Time was running out.

When Mick had said Soldiers never talked much while in active mode, that wasn’t correct. We talked a lot—just to each other through the shared thought link of our haloes instead of out loud.

We checked the entire floor. No sign of it, Angel sent to me through the halo link.

You checked everywhere?

Yessir, I looked.

We’re missing something here.

The search was taking too long, and we were losing the advantage.

They are engaging!

That last came from one of the Soldiers topside, on security detail. Through his eyes I saw several enemy emerge from the bridge and fire on the Soldiers. Seven enemy total, five armed.

Once the shooting starts, any plan goes down the crapper. Then everything is up to the team leader to make on-the-spot decisions to get the mission accomplished, get overboard, and get back to the rendezvous point. That team leader would be me.


Four Soldiers moving as a coordinated unit quickly took out the four of the armed enemy topside. Another two minutes, and they took out the fifth. The two unarmed went down too.

But now our cover was blown. Enemy forces on land would be down the pier and on us in minutes. If we hoped to complete our mission, we had to move fast. We had to adapt as the mission unfolded, and no downloaded skill could teach you how to do that. I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and altered the mission plan. I reallocated the team—one Soldier on security, all others on search.

We searched the bridge, the engine area, and again the below-decks spaces.

Through one Soldier’s eyes, I saw a false back on one shelf. A quick bash with his rifle butt to break through, and I saw a case. Found it, he broadcast.

The plan worked. We had it.

With the case in custody, another Soldier entered to the engine area and set an explosive charge to disable the ship. It would detonate in fifteen minutes.

We assembled at the boarding location. The search team went into the water first with the precious cargo case. Then the security team and I hit the water. In pitch-black water, we located our rebreather gear and rigged up. We could hear voices at the far end of the pier—oncoming enemy—but they were too late. We slipped away under the water.

Two thousand yards of swimming later, we linked up with the waiting Zodiac, and the mission was a success. We had been able to improvise, adapt, and overcome, and the mission was accomplished.

The Zodiac headed back to meet the transport helicopter. We boarded and strapped ourselves in. “Good work,” was all Mick said as the helicopter lifted off.

Reward mode, said that voice in my head.

I was enveloped in the encompassing white fog of ecstasy, swallowed by it, lost in it, reveling in more pleasure than I’d ever known.


The next morning, Mick appeared in the barracks doorway with our daily gear. I’d just finished my shower and shaving. I was still trying to work through my head how we’d gotten from the helicopter back to our barracks and out of our gear because the last thing I’d known I was having one hell of a high, better than a hundred orgasms, in the helicopter as we took off, and then I was waking up in my rack, naked under my sheet like usual.

He yawped, “You, Soldier! In the hallway, now!”

We were all Soldier, but Mick was pointing to me. I didn’t wait to get dressed. Like I said, I’m not plagued by modesty. I followed him into the hallway.

He opened the door across the hall from the barracks room. “The Leader was impressed with the job you did last night. You earned a special privilege. You got five minutes.”

I walked into the room, and he shut the door behind me.

“Petey!” a familiar man said. But who was Petey?

Wait—I was Petey to someone, long ago, in another life. Only one person called me that. “Paul?”

“Yeah, bro, it’s me.”

He stood off to one side—I hadn’t seen him when I first walked in. He approached quickly and hugged me. I knew what I was supposed to do and hugged him back. He was just as naked as I was, but neither of us seemed to care. At least I didn’t.

“They told me you did a good job yesterday. That’s why they said I could see you. Look at you!” He touched the gold metal around my forehead. By now, my hair had grown back to its usual military length and obscured the part of the band that ran around the sides and back of my skull. “Look at you, bro—you got yourself haloed! I thought they only did that to fuck-ups. What’d you do to deserve that?”

I tried to remember. I said, “Tried to escape.” I didn’t say, Let your best friend swing on my johnson in a metal cage.

He walked over to some crates and sat down. I followed him and sat too,

“Why the fuck would you wanna escape, bro? This place is great—I love it here.”

“Wanted ...” Why had I tried to escape? So hard to remember. “... To find you, get you out of here.”

He grinned at me like I was mentally deficient. “But I don’t wanna leave. Why would anybody wanna leave? You sound like Justin and Angel. You remember my buds Justin and Angel, don’t you?”

Yes, I thought, they’re across the hall with haloes implanted in their heads. But I couldn’t say it. I nodded.

“Angel tried to escape. Justin too. I heard they got haloed too, right? Is it true what they say, the haloes do a group-mind thing?”

I nodded again, to both parts of what he asked.

“That must be so cool. Can I try it?”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t come off. It’s permanent.”

“Man, all they ever used on me was the subliminals. I fought it some at first, but everything got a lot better when I learned to just let it happen. I can’t imagine how much cooler the haloes must be. I’m jealous, bro!”

Don’t be, I thought.

“Look at you, bro—you’re like some fucking super-soldier now. You’re all crazy-ripped and shit. You look damn good.”

“You look good too.” Which was true; he’d put on some muscle, gotten some definition, and it looked good on him.

“Thanks, bro!” He flexed a bicep. “They started out teaching me all this stuff about sex and how to seduce people. Now they’re teaching me all this assassination shit. It’s so fucking cool! They want me to be able to get close to people and either get with them or get them out of the way. They tell me I’m just about ready for field assignments—I can’t wait! It’s been a crazy six months!”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Paul being trained as a seducer or an assassin, but I latched onto the second part. If he had been here six months, that meant I’d been here five months. That seemed concrete, a knowable fact. I turned it over in my head. Five months ago ... Maybe I could use that fact as a wedge to open up more memories of my life before this place, this team of Soldiers. I felt like I should have more memories, that Paul should feel more important to me.

“You got a big dick, bro,” he said, apropos of nothing, staring at my crotch. He grinned lopsided at me. “Is it as big as mine? Wanna see which one of us is bigger?” He reached for my cock. “Want me to show you how much I’ve learned?”

I grabbed his wrist. “No.”

“Why not? Get it hard, bro. I wanna see who’s bigger. C’mon. I’ll make you feel real good. I always get top marks in my group at pleasuring.”

Active mode, whispered the voice in my head, and the world dropped away.

I stood up. Our time’s up, I wanted to say but couldn’t. Paul and any memories of him were drowned in the mission focus and the return of the shared perceptions from the other six Soldiers.

“Oh,” Paul said. “The halo thing, right?”

But I was already walking back to the barracks to gear up and begin my day.


After hours, we were halfway through our one free hour at the end of the day.

Active mode, the voice whispered in my head. I straightened up, stood up. Justin and Angel stood up too. I recognized their expressions: the same as mine.

“What’s going on, guys?” one of the still-seated Soldiers asked.

“Did they go active?”

“Why didn’t we?”

Justin, Angel, and I walked to the door. It was opened for us. We passed through. It shut before the others could follow, if they even tried.

Mick met us in the hallway. He had the controller in his hand and an evil smile on his face. He guided us into a nearby room, a storage room stacked with mattresses. A few had been pulled out onto the floor.

“The guests of honor have arrived,” Mick announced with a flourish. We walked in and stood at attention. Mick’s buddy Pedro was waiting for us in that room, along with Lucas the waiter-slash-guide. Mick put his hand on my shoulder as if we were pals. “Our recruiters like to take an interest in the men they bring us. I wanted to show them how well you’ve been tamed. And since you came looking for your brother’s friends, I thought it only fitting that the two of them should join us.”

Lucas ran his fingers across my chest. “Oh, fuck,” he admired. “I remember this one. He’s so built. Make him flex for me.”

“You heard the man, Soldier,” Mick said.

I flexed my arms and chest for Lucas, and he hummed his appreciation. He explored my chest with his hands and teased at my nipples a moment until he decided to explore with his lips. His tongue darted out and he lathered at my muscular chest with his tongue. It felt good, but it would have distracted from my mission focus so I did not respond as he worshipped my body with his lips and tongue.

“You’re our toys tonight, Soldiers. Your mission is to make us feel good in whatever ways we can dream up, understand? Of course you do.”

“On your knees,” Pedro told the Soldier designated Angel. “I order you to suck my cock.” The Soldier dropped to his knees and started unfastening Pedro’s belt. Pedro reached down and stopped him by pushing his head away. “Not so fast, horn dog. What makes you think it’s that easy? Suck my dick through my pants first.” The Soldier brought his face to Pedro’s crotch and ran his mouth it along the tube in his pants.

“You want it bad, don’t you?” Mick hissed at the Soldier designated Justin. “Go on, then. Take out my cock and lick it.

“Is your ass virgin, Soldier?” Lucas asked me.

Words were beyond my mission-focus so I said nothing.

“Do a good job of sucking my cock, and I might fuck your ass for you. On your knees, Soldier. That’s an order. Take out my dick and suck it. That’s an order too.”

I dropped to my knees and pulled at his pants. His cock was already hard and sprang out to meet me when I dropped his pants.

Some hesitancy lingered in my head, but it was easily conquered. I had my orders. I worked my lips around Lucas’ cock head and tried to get more of the shaft into my mouth. I nearly gagged and took no more. I sucked and licked on it the way women had sucked and licked on my cock like a nursing calf. I looked up at him for confirmation or approval, and he grinned at me. I suckled at Lucas’ cock a long time. Aside from hissing, “Watch your fucking teeth,” at me a couple of times, he seemed satisfied with my performance.

Lucas pulled me to my feet, led me to one of the mattresses on the floor, and pushed me face-down on it. He ran his hands over my muscular ass cheek and slid a finger along my crack. “Moan for me—let me hear how bad you want it,” he cooed.

The how bad part didn’t make any sense to me, but I understood the order behind moan for me, and I moaned.

He grabbed one of my butt cheeks and ran his cockhead up and down my ass crack. His index finger slid from my butt cheek to my hole and pushed at it.

“Just relax, Soldier. I’ll ease it in before I fuck you good and hard.”

He slipped that finger into my ass, and the muscle clamped down on it. He fingered my ass, probing as deep as the clenching ring of muscle allowed. “Relax, Soldier,” was followed by a second finger poking in. “Relax. When I push in, you push out, and my cock will slip in smooth and easy. I’m going to make you feel better than you ever have before.”

He positioned my cock head against my hole. “I’m going to take your cherry, Soldier. You ready?”

“Yes, sir,” I breathed. My ass was no longer cherry after Mick’s assault some months ago, a lifetime, or some of our nocturnal gropings in the barracks, but my mission-focus did not involve volunteering that information so I didn’t.

“Remember, relax and push out.” When Lucas began to press against my tight ass, I did as he told me. The head of his dick slipped into my ass.

“Ooooh,” he purred. “Nice, tight ass!”

He slid more of his hard cock up my ass, working his dick in deeper and deeper. He worked it all in and just held it there for a bit before he pulled it mostly out, then pushed it in once more. He worked into a rhythm, poking my hole for his pleasure. I found pleasure in it too—after a few minutes of pain, this tingling pleasure started up in my ass.

“You want it hard now, Soldier? You want me to fuck you like a man?”

A yes-or-no question. Soldiers should always agree with commanding officers, so I said, “Yes.”

He fucked me hard and fast, using my body for his pleasure.

At some point he reached around my hips and grasped my erection and stroked it. My mission focus kept me detached. My body responded to the physical stimulation like a clinical experiment, all rising arousal and hardness and a building tension and little jolts of pleasure running through my nerves. I held back my ejaculation, wanting my commanding officers to take their pleasure first.

Over there, the Soldier designated Justin lay on his back, legs in the air, getting fucked by Mick. Over there, the Soldier designated Angel lay on his back, as Pedro straddled him and jacked himself off as he rode the Soldier’s dick like a pogo stick. I watched them rut. Mick bellowed and came, followed by Justin. Angel and Pedro came at virtually the same time.

I felt my impending ejaculation. Lucas pounded my ass with everything he had. I could not withstand his full fuck-force for much longer. His cock felt oddly good inside me, nothing compared to reward mode but pleasant enough, touching something inside that buzzed when his cock rubbed it inside my guts.

I was sweating and breathing hard as Lucas rocked against me. He began to whimper and moan loudly. “Unh!—Cumming!” he yelled. I felt him tense. He whimpered as he shot his load into my ass.

“You too, Soldier,” Lucas said. He wasn’t fucking me now, but his dick was still up my ass. He concentrated all of his motion on fast-jacking my cock. That took me over the edge. I moaned involuntarily as my nervous system responded to his tight, pistoning grip. My eyes rolled back in my head as I shot my semen.

“That was fucking awesome,” Lucas said, and wiped his cum-covered hand on my ass. “Excellent work, Soldier.”

“Thank you, sir,” I replied automatically.


Our gear that day was pants and boots, nothing else. That made sense later, when I sat up in the chair with a head-full of advanced programming about hand-to-hand combat.

I drilled them hard that day on hand-to-hand. I think the other Soldiers loved the rough-and-tumble shit like that, the pure testosterone and adrenaline rush, but it was hard to tell with the active mode suppressing their personalities. They were bruised black and blue by nightfall, but they’d become familiar enough with the implanted memories to kick the asses of anybody short of a ninja squad—and even against them I thought they could hold their own. Hell, I was bruised too, ‘cause they’d held their own against me and most had given as well as they got.

I was already sore when I bedded down for the night. Seems I’d just closed my eyes when—

“Get up.”

Mick. Great.

“No time to shower. You got two minutes to piss and get dressed.”

I blinked, waking up. Morning already? My body was almost immobile with stiffness from yesterday’s nonstop drilling in physical combat. The other Soldiers groaned their way back to painful wakefulness too. Soon enough, the haloes would kick in and active mode would take away the pain. Until then, our haloes still seemed to be in standby mode and they’d just have to deal with the aches.

Mick stood above me. “Get dressed,” he repeated as I sat up. He dropped a bundle in front of me.

We were deviating from the routine—no shower-and-shave. We Soldiers double-timed into the head to piss, since our bladders were about to bust.

Mick was wearing civilian clothes, tee-shirt, jeans, serviceable multi-purpose boots that wasn’t military. I hadn’t seen him or anyone wearing civilian clothes in a while. That’s what he dropped in front of me too: civilian clothes. I picked up something, a pair of jeans, and tried to wrap my sleep-addled head around where I’d seen them previously. The pair was one of mine. I used to wear them all the time, back before ... Before when?

I worked out how to pull the jeans on and did so. No underwear—wasn’t there supposed to be underwear? A pair of beat-up multi-purpose boots, also mine, that I remembered I used to love, a hundred lifetimes ago when I used to wear civilian clothes. Why weren’t they issuing us the boots they usually gave us?

The tee-shirt was new. It was not mine. Black. Like Mick’s, it said Security across the front in white block letters. That seemed odd—security was a job for the guards, not us Soldiers.

We stood before Mick. He inspected me with his eyes, pursed lips, evaluating. All he said was, “Come on.”

Another deviation—the haloes had not kicked into active mode yet.

Outside. Mick led me outside. Sunshine, clouds, trees, birds, the works. I wasn’t in the active mode mission head-space. I hadn’t been outside as me in forever. The other Soldiers looked at me. I could see the questions in their eyes, but they followed my lead and kept their faces carefully expressionless.

“You’ve been rented for a job. The Leader thinks you’re ready, and what he says goes. I’ll be watching you. Got that?”

“Got it,” I said, then added, “sir,” because respect seemed appropriate.

He led us to a transport helicopter. Pedro was there too, and he was wearing civilian clothing with Security emblazoned across his tee-shirt too. He nodded, busy conversing with a guy in a jumpsuit. Our pilot, I assumed. I returned Pedro’s nod, as if last night hadn’t happened.

No breakfast? No chair programming? And still the haloes were in standby mode? No group mind? I had a thousand questions, but I kept my mouth shut, kept myself and the other Soldiers out of everyone’s way, and tried to be as inconspicuous as I could, which isn’t easy when you’re as tall, wide-shouldered, and generally imposing as I am.

We climbed into the helicopter and strapped ourselves in.

Mick said to me, “Don’t bother trying to memorize landmarks or plan escape routes.” He pulled out the controller and poked a few buttons. I expected active mode and a mission download, but the halo whispered Sleep mode. I closed my eyes and slept.

A couple of hours later, and I knew it was a couple of hours by the position of the sun, our haloes whispered Standby mode into our heads and we woke up. We were landing at a small airport. We boarded a waiting plane. A private jet. If these people had the resources to swing the complex and all this head-tech, it made sense they could swing a transport helicopter and a private jet.

Mick parked himself in a chair, picked up some magazine, and said, “Restroom’s in the rear.” The Soldiers and I staggered back there because our bladders were about at full capacity.

Angel and I crowded the mini-toilet and emptied our piss. When I pushed out and made way for the next one, I picked up a magazine in the pouch behind the door. Nice of them to provide “reading material” for the john, but the magazine was dated September two years ago. I’d get no useful information from it, not even confirmation of what Paul had said about how long I—we—had been held prisoner.

Something crinkled in my back pocket. I pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded it. It was that photo of Paul and his friends, creased and the worse for wear, but he was still recognizable. The Paul I’d met two days ago was someone I didn’t know. But here on this piece of paper, smiling at me from the printed photo, he was the same carefree kid I sometimes remembered. No matter what, I had to stay in our handlers’ good graces so I could see him again.

Back in the cabin, the photo safely stashed again, I took my seat. “This job is part security and part recruitment,” Mick said without looking up from an old news magazine. “Your part is to provide the security. Step out of line just once, and I’ll shut down your heads faster’n you can blink. Got that?”

I answered on behalf of all of us Soldiers: “Yes, sir.” Then, because the questions were nagging at me, I said, “But what—?”

“Always with the questions.” Mick interrupted, rolled his eyes. “I still think you’re not ready for clear-head field assignments. I just told you your job. If it’s not your job, you don’t need to know.”

I kept my mouth shut after that. The other Soldiers followed my example.

“Good. Make yourselves comfortable. It’s going to be a long flight.”

We landed in a major city in the United States. Customs? We bypassed that. These people must have some serious pull. We piled into a carefully nondescript mini-van—“Inconspicuous,” Mick said—and were driven to a convention center. Mick seemed to get progressively nervous, worrying we weren’t ready for a clear-head assignment. As we pulled up to the center, he appeared to make a decision. “Screw it,” he muttered. “We’re doing it my way.” Mick kicked us into active mode as the van pulled up to the curb.

A controversial techno-geek type of apparently some renown, even though his name was unfamiliar to me, was giving a presentation at some conference of big-shot techno-geek types. The controversial one was a prime target. Trouble was expected; threats had been made, an attempt was expected, and the Leader wanted us there to take advantage of the chaos. Our handlers didn’t say how, though. Mick and the other Soldiers would be working general security, but Pedro and I were assigned to work with another agent on the ground as the Techno-Geek Prime’s personal bodyguards and security force. If anything got in the way, we were to take it down.

The “recruitment” part Mick had mentioned on the plane was not explained.

When we got out, the embedded agent met us and looked us over. He seemed impressed. Here where other people were milling about, Mick’s Russian accent was back. If anybody remembered him, they’d say, “It was the Russian security guard.” Great ruse.

I kept my ears open, and I managed to put some pieces together. Techno-Geek Prime worked on a “mind-machine interface,” whatever that was. Tests on animals and prisoners had been promising. Animal rights activists and prisoner rights activists hated him. They found themselves in an uneasy alliance with a bunch of hippies, humanists, and Luddite fringe groups who disliked the technology on “free will” grounds. Prime’s research seemed to have united the whacko element. His fellow geeks were just as rabidly whacko, but in the opposite way; they practically worshipped this guy, like he was going to save the world or something by “ushering in the next phase of human and technological evolution.” Maybe he was. I didn’t care. I stayed focused on getting the job done so I could earn more trust from our handlers.

The embedded agent was Prime’s personal bodyguard and had his trust. He introduced Pedro and me as, “Those buddies I told you about, the ones I served with in the war,” even though he’d never met us—well, me at least—until twenty minutes earlier. Techno-Geek Prime seemed relieved to have us there. With the three of us guards forming a wedge and Prime tucked safely in the middle, we pushed our way through a pack of people who either wanted to touch Prime’s holy vestments or tear him limb from limb. I didn’t much give a shit what they wanted. My job was to keep them away from him, and that’s what I did.

Techno-Geek Prime lived up to his name. His presentation would have gone—Whoosh!—over my head about five seconds after he opened his mouth if I’d been listening to him. Something about a new thought broadcasting technology he had invented. I wondered briefly if the Leader would be interested in that, but that was a distraction. Distractions caused failures. I went mission-focused and sifted through the perceptions I shared with the other Soldiers, looking for threats in the crowd and surrounding area. I could tell who his fans where. They were the ones watching his presentation like it was God Himself handing them the meaning of life. I could tell who his detractors were too. They were the ones hissing about mind control and free will, booing, staring at his presentation like it was the ultimate horror film. I didn’t care, as long as they stayed in their seats and didn’t make threats of themselves. One or two tried to rush the stage, but the general security types handled them before they got close enough to be my problem.

Time to hustle Techno-Geek Prime out the back. The hall led maybe one hundred feet along the side of the convention center, and the wall to our left was fifteen feet tall and all glass. Would have been really scenic too, except for, first, the five hippy-type people coming our way from the other side of the hall and, second, the squad of four paramilitary-types rappelling down from the roof and trying to smash their way through the glass.

In the movies, it’s always ultimate stealth ninjas bursting in. This crew?—Not so much on the stealth or the ninja part. The hippy-types in front of us were more like a bunch of mountain-climbing, tree-hugging civilians who somehow got past security and wanted to make a capital-B Big Splash statement for the media. Except there were no media people around—just Prime and his three body guards. I assessed them as a nuisance but not a threat.

Paramilitary types rappelling in always click high on the threat meter. Rappelling down and smashing through fifteen-foot windows is harder than you think. In movies, the window explodes into tiny shards the moment the ninjas kick it. In real life, reinforced glass means most people bounce off. Two or three times, too. Apparently their mission briefing had not included information about the reinforced glass. Finally, one guy who had to be pushing two-seventy pounds, and not all of it muscle either, pulled out a sidearm and fired three shots, and the pane in front of him dissolved into shrapnel. That was noisy, but the screams from the hippy-types were nearly as loud. Paramilitary tubbo managed a not-ungraceful landing inside, considering his size. His friends bounced their way over to the hole he created, which was probably smart.

One of the hippies yelled, “Fuck! I cut my fucking hand!” Well, that’s what shattered glass does in the real world, you big baby.

All the drama wasn’t wasted on Prime, who collapsed against the far wall, the one that wasn’t glass, squealing like the hordes of hell were upon him.

One of the hippies, a woman, tried to seize the moment and started reading a prepared speech. This was useless, since obviously Prime and us bodyguards weren’t members of the media with television cameras handy and the four paramilitary types obviously weren’t stopping to hear what she had to say. She yammered that her hippy-dippy group was kidnapping Prime to make a public statement and would release him unharmed once the world realized blah-blah-blah. That kidnapping part jumped her up to a full threat in my mind. Prime may have converted to a squealing lump of cowardice, but if my mission was to be his bodyguard then no one was taking that squealing lump on my watch.

The professionals though were still the bigger threat. Two steps and I intercepted the first oncoming ninja-wannabe professional. I assessed them as a paramilitary fringe group, trained, but not military-trained. Apparently they thought this would be as easy as just rushing past the security guards, grabbing Techno-Geek Prime, and zipping him off to wherever. They had the intel to know when we were in the hallway, but they hadn’t planned on the distraction of speechifying hippies intent on hijacking the moment for their own fifteen minutes of self-righteous fame. One of the hippies tried to rush over to Prime, and Professional number one got distracted by the competition. A quick elbow to the face and a blow to the back of the neck, and Professional went down hard and stayed down.

That’s when the six Soldiers arrived through the door behind me. They’d known the minute this started because they saw what I saw through the group-mind connection.

The hippies had delayed the schedule too long. The professionals weren’t expecting to be out-numbered. Two more steps and I was on the next one, the tubby one with the gun. I was faster and taller, which gave me a longer reach. He managed to squeeze off a round, which missed me but caused the hippies and Prime to harmonize on another round of screaming and floor-hugging. Professional number two threw up his arms to guard his face. I slugged him hard in his stomach. He bent forward. I grabbed his head and smashed it against my upcoming knee at a high rate of speed. Number two was unconscious and no longer a problem.

Two Soldiers took care of Professional number three. The embedded guard and Pedro stayed with Prime, though they weren’t trying to shut up his wailing. That would probably be a lost cause anyway.

The gunfire had another side effect: All of the hippies had decided to run—except for the speechifying woman. She wasn’t smart enough to run, even though she saw me coming. She tried to defend herself. She had some self-defense training, but I was still the mad dog that Special Forces made me. I have no problem hitting a woman when she’s the enemy. It was a short fight, and she went down and stayed down.

Two Soldiers were fighting with the last professional, a strong combatant who was nonetheless yielding ground and about to be overpowered. Otherwise it was just us guards and Techno-Geek Prime left standing. Well, cowering in his case.

“I want him conscious,” Pedro yelled at the Soldiers on the last professional. “I want to know who sent him.”

“Don’t worry,” the embedded guard was telling Prime. “It’ll be all right soon, you’ll see.” Then he sprayed Prime in the face with one of those mist bottles, and Prime shut the hell up—finally!—and went limp. The guard looked at Soldier Justin and me and said, “You two—one of you carry him.”

I heard something thump against the floor. The three-man fight with the last professional had degenerated into a rolling brawl on the floor.

Mick arrived and surveyed the scene. He raised an eyebrow at the hippy woman on the floor. “Some fringe group, looking to make a big statement for the media,” the guard explained as Justin hoisted Prime into a fireman’s carry. “Wrong place, wrong time.”

“Fuck you! We’re ready for you and your tech!” the last professional was yelling. He’d broken free, gotten to his feet, and had backed himself against one of the unbroken glass panes. He waved something in his hand that looked like a silver ink pen. Pedro and four of the Soldiers moved in. This wouldn’t take long.

Then I heard a ping in my head and the world went all whirly. The halo vomited a bunch of indecipherable shit into my skull, and I went down. Angel and three other Soldiers went dark, suddenly no longer part of the group-mind.

I pushed myself off the floor. Justin and I were farthest away from the professional—we were down but conscious. The other four Soldiers were down and unconscious. Pedro wrestled with the professional’s hand, the one holding the silver thingee.

“Weee-ehm-feeee!” Mick yelled, nearly indecipherable to my compromised hearing. I couldn’t focus through all the halo-vomit streaming into my head along with the flickering on-off connection to Justin. He looked at me and his eyes weren’t mission-focused. They were scared, nearly pain-blind.

E.M.P. That’s what Mick had said. The professional had used an electromagnetic pulse device to fuck up our halos.

Pedro and Mick had the last professional down. Mick had a spray bottle and squirted the pro twice in the face.

“Fuck,” Mick growled, stalking back to me. “What a cluster-fuck. What’s your condition, Soldier?”

I thought about it for a second. How did my voice work? How did I make words? The halo was cutting in and out, sometimes there spitting headachy crap, sometimes silent. “I’ll live, sir. I’m good,” I said. And that was plain old me saying that, not the Soldier part of me.

I looked at Justin. He winced as his halo spit garbage into his head at the same time mine did. Justin looked back at me and figured out my unspoken message, nodded slightly. Good man.

Pedro hauled over the drugged-docile professional.

Mick nodded at the pro. “Who’re these clowns? Who knew enough about us to bring an E.M.P.?”

“Don’t know. We’ll have to check him for tracking devices, but I figure it won’t take long for the tech boys to pull who he works for out of his head.”

The other four Soldiers groaned and tried to sit up. They still weren’t reconnected to the group-mind. That was silent except for occasional bursts from Justin.

Mick scowled. “What a cluster-fuck. Okay, we got four men able, four men compromised, and two drugged-out liabilities to manage. Soldier, see to those four. If they’re mobile, get them on their feet. We need to be gone five minutes ago.”

The other four Soldiers were already standing up, shaky but ambulatory. They’d make it to the mini-van. I told Mick that.

Mick nodded at the embedded guard. “He’s staying behind to tell the story. Make it look like there was a struggle. Knock him out, and let’s get outta here.”

I looked at the guard, and he nodded curtly. A black eye, bruised jaw, and minor head trauma would be convincing. I hit him with quick one-two pops to the eye and chin, so fast he never saw them coming. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.


The other four Soldiers made it to the mini-van, all right, but collapsed over the course of the next hour, one by one, after the plane took off. They were still unconscious when we transferred them and our liabilities to the helicopter. The technicians had gone ape-shit over us the minute the helicopter landed back at the compound. They attached some sort of sensor to our halos. Full failure for the unconscious four. Sporadic imminent failure for Justin and me. While the medics gurneyed off the four unconscious Soldiers, the technicians berated Mick and Pedro for letting this happen. These halo prototypes were expensive, blah-blah-blah. They’d have to replace them all and didn’t have spares, blah-blah-blah. They’d need days to get replacements; they’d need days to get us back to usable condition, and that was assuming there was no permanent organic damage to our brains; days of diagnostics.

Justin and I got marched to sickbay too. We stripped off our clothes and submitted to more tests and poking. Did we feel light-headed? Dizzy? How many fingers did we see? Two, four, six—what number came next? Nauseous? Headachy? Auditory or visual hallucinations? Finally, they forced our malfunctioning haloes to shut down, which immediately lessened my headache, though it also cut off my intermittent connection to Justin. I’d been using that to help keep him calm.

The recruitment angle to the mission made sense now that we had Techno-Geek Prime back here at the base. The professional would likely be interrogated, then liquidated.

Mick was off probably making sure Prime and the professional got taken care of. I suspected he’d come by shortly to collect the clothing. I pulled the photograph of Paul and his buddies out of my pocket and stashed it under the cot mattress where I lay. I couldn’t lose it again. I’d have to find a better hiding place and soon, after Mick and the medics left us alone, someplace I could come back and retrieve it. That would be hard to do in the unfamiliar sickbay. Maybe inside the ventilation grill?

Mick hadn’t been able to knock us out with sleep mode. On the way back from the airport by helicopter, I’d seen enough to know generally which way to go and how far it was going to be. And getting to the nearest civilization was going to be a long trek. I lay back with my eyes closed, burning the images into my memory.

Justin and I had to stay in the sickbay that night. It held eight beds—my team and I occupied seven of them. The four unconscious Soldiers were attached to all sorts of monitoring devices that ran squiggles of light across the screen and occasionally made soft beeping sounds. Justin and I weren’t attached to anything. Mostly the medics ignored us after they got tired of poking at our haloes. After a while the medics disappeared entirely, the lights were dimmed halfway to mean “nighttime,” and we were alone.

I lay on my back under the sheet with my hands behind my head and stared at the ceiling in the semi-darkness.

“What’s going to happen to us?” That whisper came from Justin in the next cot.

“I don’t know,” I murmured back without looking at him. I had an idea forming. This might be my only shot.

I touched the back where the halo went into my skull. I’d felt it a hundred times.

I pushed up on the front of my halo, the part crossing my forehead. It didn’t want to move. I sat up and found a long, slim sensor doohickey on a table and used it to pry at the halo. It moved. Not much, but I could tell it was a fragment of an inch higher on my forehead. I pushed and worked at it. The progress hurt. It had been put in place and was meant to stay there.

“Holy!—What are you doing?” Justin hissed incredulously. “You can’t do that.”

Probably, like me when the haloes were working, he’d never considered getting it off.

A little further. That sucker was on tightly. A little more and it popped up over the top of my forehead. I wasn’t sure how it attached at the back. I pushed it backward. I felt a little pain and pulling at my flesh. Something popped, and it came lose in my hands. Looks like it just ... plugged into something back there. I felt under my hair. No blood. No pain. Maybe a little socket? That kind of made sense—a way to keep the parts that required precision connection into my brain separate if the external, and apparently damageable, parts needed replacement.

Justin stared at the piece of yellow metal in my hands. “Holy fuck.”


“Did it hurt?”

“No ... Just a little when I was working it off, maybe.”

“So now what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do me!” Justin sat up and tipped his head toward me.

I pried at his halo—“Ow!” he protested when I dug at his forehead to get leverage—and after a couple of minutes I had his loose. I handed it to him. “Cool,” he said, turning it over in his hands.

“They’re not watching us. We’re not locked in. I’m thinking we get the fuck out of here?”

Justin grinned. “That’s what I thought you were gonna say. But what about your brother Paul? What about Angel and the others?”

“I saw Paul the other day. I don’t think we’re going to be able to convince him to escape with us, even if we could find him. As for the others, unfortunately, this is probably the best place for them right now. Nobody knows more about this tech and what happened to them than the people here. I’m thinking we get out and send the police or something back to raid this place. Kidnapping; human experimentation—there’s a shitload of criminal charges we can bring to make the police listen.”

No one had come by to collect our clothing. I reached for and pulled on my pants, stuffed that photo of Paul in the pocket, and reached for the rest.

I knew what Justin was going to say. I wasn’t sure I wanted a Soldier turned back into college student tagging along. But if he still retained the fighting and survival skills, he might be an asset.

Justin watched me dress. Then he reached for his clothes too. “You think we have a shot? Let’s do it.”


No plan survives the first contact with the real world.

One year later, I sat hidden in the underbrush overlooking a resort hotel on the northeast corner of a backwater village. Below me, through my binoculars, I could see the restaurant’s outdoor dining area. It was afternoon. A pair of waiters moved among the few guests still lingering over their lunches.

Justin and I had managed to get out. It wasn’t easy. We had to fight. We had to run. We had to hide in the jungle until we found a road, a town, a police station. No one believed our story there. When someone was finally sent to investigate, they found no evidence of the high-tech complex we had described. I suspected they hadn’t looked hard or were paid to look the other way, but I didn’t want to stick around. If they wanted to dismiss me a crank, so be it as long as I got to walk away.

Justin and I stuck together. If Mick or the Leader or whoever was in charge sent people after us, we thought the best way to protect ourselves was to stay together. We went back to the States. There, we just disappeared. We moved to a different part of the country. We took fake names—Justin became “Jason,” and I took the name “Paul,” in honor of my lost brother. That was a mistake on my part, because the name and my resemblance to my brother reminded Justin too much of his lost friend, who he loved too but in a different way, constant reminders like a knife in the heart. I got a job in a mom-and-pop restaurant, a place willing to pay me under the table in cash, no questions asked. Justin got a job in a local department store that wasn’t too thorough about paperwork. It wasn’t much money, but together we made enough to live on, enough to afford a small apartment. Life was different, but for a while it was good, at least more good than bad.

I stayed in touch with my parents but only occasionally. I didn’t want to bring trouble to their doorstep if the Leader’s people were watching them. Once a month I bought a different untraceable prepaid phone and called them. I told them I hadn’t been able to find Paul. I intimated that I’d run into some trouble myself—I was okay, don’t worry, but I needed to lay low for a while. I let them believe I’d been in a bar fight while looking for Paul and there might have been charges pressed and I needed to keep a low profile for a while so the police wouldn’t find me. They’d believed that. Each time I called them, I told them I loved them, in case it was the last time.

I dated a few women here and there, mostly no-strings relationships. I’m big, blond, and good-looking; I let my hair grow out a little, enough to cover the tiny plug that was only noticeable if someone touched exactly the right spot, and the slightly longer-than-service haircut just seemed to make the ladies more interested in me. When they asked about my obvious military background, I told them I’d been in the Marines, just gotten back from my final tour. It seemed a plausible substitute for the Army Special Forces. I hinted there might be post-traumatic stress. I let them think that was to blame for the emotional distance and the obvious holes in my history that hid secrets. I made sure the relationships never got too intense or lasted too long. No relationship survived long after the woman started asking questions.

Justin had trouble adjusting. Life seemed grayer, colors and smells and sounds less intense for both of us, compared to the sharpness of being haloed. No pleasure compared to the bliss of those times we’d experienced reward mode. Justin and I depended on each other for safety and stability, and he confused that with love. Sometimes Justin and I had sex, but it was mostly for the comfort of being with someone who understood. He tried not to be jealous of the women I dated, or at least he said he tried. He found himself a boyfriend briefly too, but it didn’t work out. Justin chomped at the bit—he hated the secrets we had to keep, the restricted way we had to live; he wanted to return to his college, to his family and friends, his old life.

One day, six months after we escaped, Justin disappeared. There was no sign of struggle. There was no intrusion of hostiles, as I first feared. I searched his belongings and his computer, an old clunker we’d bought second-hand, and put together the story. No, one day Justin just took his real-name passport and boarded a plane with the ticket he’d bought using money his parents had transferred to an online bank account he set up. He told them he was sorry, had finally outgrown his misspent youth, was ready to come home, settle down, be an adult. He bought a ticket, but not home to his parents like they expected. He erased the flight information.

I suspected Justin went back to South America. Life “outside” seemed colorless, alienated. I knew it was probably the residual mind control talking, but I missed Paul, I missed Justin, I missed the intensity and the connectedness I experienced through the halo. I missed the Soldiers. The halo made life feel more ... I don’t want to say predestined, but ordered, uncomplicated. More real. I missed being a Soldier.

After a year, I made my decision. That’s how I came to be on this hill above this restaurant in this backwater village.

I checked the dining area again through my binoculars. Another tourist couple had just left. One waiter bussed their table while the other fussed over the last remaining diners. I hadn’t expected to see the bussing waiter, not so soon. He looked good; he looked content. There was no flash of gold at his forehead, but maybe the tech had evolved in the last year, especially now that Techno Geek Prime was probably working for them.

I pulled that last photograph of Paul and his friends out of my pocket. The paper was cracking from being folded and unfolded so many times. In the picture, they’re all giddy-grinning for the camera—shirtless, squinting against the sun, thinking they were setting off on a grand summer adventure, not knowing exactly what that adventure would be. Life turned out differently.

I took out my cell phone and snapped a photograph of myself. I made myself smile as if everything were perfect. It wasn’t; it never is; it can’t ever be perfect. Improvise, adapt, overcome. Compromises had to be made. I was ready to make them.

I wanted to look happy in this picture. I wanted them to look at my smile and think everything would work out, happy endings for everyone on the horizon. I sent the photo to my parents, attached to a text message saying not to worry, I’m all right but I have to be out of touch for a long while, and I want them to know I love them. I pressed the Send button and waited while the message transferred.

Then I turned off the phone and flung it as hard as I could out into the ocean. The salt water would make short work of it. I could barely hear the splash amid the surf. No turning back.

I guess, really, I was happy in my own way. I knew what I wanted. Everything hinged on the next few minutes.

I stood up and brushed the debris off my ass and thighs. Now it was time to walk down to the restaurant and talk to the waiters, Lucas and Justin. It was time to apologize, tell them I wanted to come back to the complex. They’d have to see I was sincere. I’d accept the halo, submit to whatever, if the Leader would take me back. I was ready to be a Soldier again.