Put a thousand men in his position, and one would find that they’d almost all have the same, predictable reaction. He was no exception. He duly interrupted the quiet with his “Oh my God’s” and “What the fuck’s.” Those were followed by only a couple rounds of screaming “HEEEEELP’s” and “Can anyone hear me’s” until something dawned in him, behind his wavy, blonde, now-sweaty head of hair. Perhaps they shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. To alert their assumed, unseen captors might fall somewhere next to last on a list of things to do when you wake up chained to the wall of a pit.
“Hey! Heyy! Wake up, bro!” the thinset man hoarsed to his chubbier friend in a whisper-yell. The second man had already stirred, due to the previous yells, and then reacted nearly identical to his companion upon completely coming-to. “Shhhh! We gotta stay quiet,” the first-to-awaken man had decided. “What if they come back?”
“Come back? Wh- who the fuck did this!?” the second asked, paleness invading his doughy cheeks.
“I don’t know. I mean, somebody put us here. Somebody did this for some fucking reason,” wavy-hair rationalized.
As would be the expected next order of business for anyone, the men surveyed the surroundings that hosted their disoriented state. The pit floor was earth and gravel. The four walls, thirty-some feet of a crude stone-and-mortar build. On opposite ends, each of the two had their right wrists inside a shackle that was chained and riveted to the wall only a couple inches above the floor. When either of them tried to stretch to their full height, they were forced to hunch over. It was uncomfortable and they were weak, so they opted to sit. A dense, forest canopy undulated over the opening of the pit. Whether daylight or moonlight shone through it was unclear.
“I can get out of this.” The first man’s statement was abrupt, absent of hesitation. Contorting his hand with an inborn flexibility, he put in a few short minutes of exertion and was then free from the shackle. No bruises or scrapes were left behind to evidence the temporary handicap. As smooth as a trip through the intestines of a prune juice fanatic, he’d achieved something remarkable without any arduous journey to show for it. Was it talent? Skill? Maybe he was just a lucky bastard.
“Wooo! Hell yes!” His celebratory fist pumps took precedence before he strode over to his still-shackled fellow prisoner. Staying quiet suddenly seemed moot to the both of them.
An understanding had come, somehow conceived, as if placed in their thoughts by an outside source, that no one was coming for them. None would save them nor rain further torture. No cameras. No wires. No objects or clues as guidance whatsoever that would unveil some fucked-up game of “Would you Rather” at the whim of an eccentric madman with an obscene amount of money and time to spend. The task of freeing themselves was the only other noteworthy presence in that hole.
“How did you know you could do that?” the heavy man asked.
“Whaddya talkin’ about? I just did it–I don’t know. You gotta get outta yours too, man. It’s not hard.” The blonde then attempted an explanation of how he’d escaped, albeit a shitty one. It was one of those things a person can’t really make someone else do well no matter how carefully they demonstrate it. You either got it or you didn’t.
It’s not that chubby didn’t try. Far from it. He’d whipped himself around frantically for a long interval until perspiration had soaked the roots of his thinning, dark hair and the folds of skin on his neck. What began as a hopeful effort to replicate the strategy of the easily-freed man, was eventually reduced to a depressing match of tug-of-war, the small man pulling with his bigger teammate. In vain. The wall was winning.
“C’mon man, goddammit!” He squeezed his fists around his yellow hair, pacing back and forth across the pit.
“It’s not gonna come off! I don’t know what the fuck to do!” Mortal panic and emotionality were setting up camp.
“These fucking shackles are bullshit for babies, bro! Just do it the way I showed you!” he replied, frustration arising.
“I am! It’s not bullshit to me! It’s impossible!” His blood swam and his pudgy hand throbbed. Adrenaline kept much of the pain out of mind. He was almost able to ignore his swollen and battered wrist. “I need a key–I need something–something I can use.” He started kicking the ground, then digging in the rocks and dirt with his free hand.
“Fucking retard!” The thin man had always been a crass guy, but in those moments, imprisoned helplessly as they were, his insensitivity was approaching level ten. “Why would they have just left a mothafuckin’ key!? That would be pointless. The whole point of this is to trap us. Are you stupid!?”
The overweight man did feel quite stupid then, and small, even though he wasn’t literally.
He remembered his rottweiler had gotten its head stuck in an industrial-sized jug of pretzel bites one summer. The problem required the help of a pair of pruning shears and he and his dad struggling to hold the dog still for an exhausting hour. The dog would’ve lived out its days in that jug had he not been set free by someone else.
I can’t do something even when it’s to save my own life. Am I even surprised though? I’ve always needed rescuing, but never got it.
Watching him strut around the pit, wavy locks bouncing, it occurred to the shackled man how much he despised the guy’s apparent arrogance. But why? Was it fair for either of them to judge anyone at a time of crisis? But maybe he’d been a cruel asshole many times in the past and deserved that label.
“Well, I gotta find us a way outta here ‘cause you sure as shit ain’t gonna do it,” the blonde added, as if he hadn’t already said enough. He turned to grope the walls and look upwards in search of a method to climb out.
“It’s laziness. Weakness. You obviously just don’t want it bad enough.” The man on the ground looked up, but realized the other of the two hadn’t spoken. He must’ve imagined a voice, or perhaps remembered one. It was unsure. Fuzziness clouded his vision and he thought he might be close to blacking out. Had he already?
“It’s your fault,” the voice continued.
“No it’s not,” the large man replied aloud. The smaller man didn’t even stop to notice.
There were things in life that failed to be a barrier for some people. Those same people criticized others who couldn’t overcome the gauntlets, as if there was some choice in the matter. When the other man had found himself chained, he wanted out and he could get out. Simple. But one can’t fault another for existing without that same ability. The balding man was made this way, packaged with batteries not included from day one.
It was almost too easy for him, the man thought to himself of the other’s shackle escape. Paranoid thoughts began to crawl. The blonde must somehow have been in on the kidnapping. No, that was silly.
“You will end up just like your uncle; it’s a matter of time,” the voice spoke again, to him only. Four-hundred pounds, drinking Stillhouse Whiskey from the bottle in an easy chair, the miserable image of his dad’s brother emerged in his thoughts. Marking time, the drunkard sat. Numb, yet suffering through every minute.
On his free hand, the one that’d been digging, he suddenly noticed a bunch of two-finger-thick, black millipedes. They were enshrouding his wrist and climbing his arm. It seemed an unnatural number of them, although he’d never been in a location like that so it was hard to say what was commonplace there and what wasn’t. When he shouted, as he flung the arthropods off into the air, it startled his companion, who’d been busily making attempts at scaling one of the walls.
“What? What happened?”
“Oh my god, they’re all over you too!” chubby alerted the man. He’d just noticed that millipedes were covering him as well, except they were on his chest, not his hand. He swiped at them frantically before removing his shirt and fleeing across the pit, panting. Creatures like that, especially of that size and slick, black sheen, probably caused most everybody to recoil in disgusted horror. Yet they’re harmless. Nonetheless, blondie could not get a hold of himself. For far too long, he kept up his ridiculous, shrill yelps, running from phantasms and swiping at his skin.
“They’re not venomous!” the kneeling man ineffectively offered as comfort to his hysterical friend. They aren’t a problem—I’m not a problem either, he thought.
A plan came to mind. It was as sharp and resolute as a spearhead burying into wild game. As unexpected as it was sudden, the yet-to-be-free prisoner found that he was new, his former self deceased.
First, he knew he’d need to relax his heart rate to reduce the swelling in his right arm so he laid down flat in the cool dirt. As far as the short chain would allow, he lifted his arm, as if saluting straight into the air, and rested it on the wall behind him. The blood would need to drain out.
This plan wasn’t just physical. He also began muttering to himself, repeating a command to his body, telling it to elongate his hand and wrist to thin it out. Once, in high school, in between self-defeating daydreams, he’d remembered an article from anatomy class about how there was some evidence that the mind may have an effect on the body. However minute the chances were, he was unconcerned with the possibility of the article being a bullshit, crackpot theory. He committed anyway to both parts of the plan completely.
“What the–you’re lying down now!?” shirtless criticized, still frenzied. “You’re useless.” Although there wasn’t much use in his continued skittishness for the local wildlife, albeit a ghastly horde. Inversely, the other man, now in a Zen-like state, glanced to his side and noticed several dozen millipedes slinking back towards him before closing his eyes in a serene reassurance. He’d been counting on them.
When a couple of the oversized creatures had again reached his fingertips, he slowly upturned his palm, welcoming them willingly, as if some sort of communicative bond was occurring. He moved into a comfortably seated position then, leaning against the stone wall.
“Forgive me,” he whispered to no one. He abruptly closed his left fist around the millipedes and smashed them forcibly onto his right hand. A foul-smelling, oily secretion was forced out, probably a protective design to ward off predators, yet it only caused slight irritation to human skin. (This agitated the other, finicky man even further.)
The messy job wasn’t yet fulfilled to his satisfaction, not by half. Gripping yet another several millipedes, he brought them to his mouth and chomped off their ends before squeezing their coppery innards all over his shackled hand. As though emptying a tube of lotion onto parched skin, he smeared all the oozing fluids the nightmarish things would provide. To be thorough, unnecessarily, he hocked up a couple globs of his own mucus and added it to the pile of death sludge already on his arm, which was now slightly numb due either to the fact that it’d been up in the air for a period of time or irritated by the millipede secretions.
Was it even possible to pull an object through a space that it wasn’t meant to fit? To slide his now-lubricated arm out of the shackle, bones and flesh had to shift and so did his mentality, in a way. Any natural human compulsion to stop, to pull away from the searing pain, was circumvented. His hand finally birthed from the shackle after an ugly and laborious episode of twisting and pulling. It was miraculous. But he didn’t have an inclination to cheer or react afterwards. No doubt the thin man was uproariously emoting to these events but that was on the periphery of the ever-focused man’s perception, who’d ebbed out any distractions.
No reason to idle now. The man’s thinning hair feathered backwards due to his own swift movement towards each corner of the pit, which he examined carefully. The pit was imperfect. Noticing that one of the corners was angled less than ninety degrees, he too removed his shirt. The next three steps lay ahead clearly in his mind’s eye: One- Slather his bare back with as many millipede guts as possible. Two- Sidle up that tight corner in an opposing-forces fashion. Three- Don’t stop for any reason.
As a double-chinned pre-teen, he’d twice been dragged to an indoor rock climbing facility by his family. His parents were on another one of their frequent but short-lived “we need to be more active” kicks. He remembered a term the instructors had used there–stemming. He’d spent more time analyzing the word and how undescriptive it seemed rather than actually practicing the technique. But he did learn that it meant to press oppositely into two different walls as a way to wedge yourself in place and gradually ascend that way.
The blonde, who’d initially deemed himself the martyr or savior of the pair, began imitating the stemming technique and made it only a few feet up before losing his footing and having to jump back to the pit floor. He’d doubted his heavier friend, treated him as burden, and rightfully so; there’d never been anything extraordinary about him until then. There was no explicable reason he should’ve been capable of any of it, but no amount of agony deterred him.
As the larger man reached a height of about fifteen feet, the other on the ground looked up and screamed in revulsion at the trail of scarlet blood left behind on the stones. Apparently the millipede lubricant hadn’t lasted long and the flesh on his back was sloughing off as he slowly and excruciatingly inched his way up to the top.
Pushing himself up over the lip of the pit and onto the soft grass, he wouldn’t even allow himself to register the sheer exhaustion in his muscles or the pain of hellfire that throbbed on his back, which was saturated in blood and hanging flaps of skin. He tried to orient himself but only saw more forest. It was hard to see beyond the diffused and ambiguous light that shone through the thicket and trees.
A rope. It was confusing yet, there it was, coiled up in a neat ring, tied to the nearest tree, complete with pre-made knots like those in a school gym class. It seemed too easy, unfair somehow. He considered whether he would throw the rope down to the other man who’d been so uncaring to him. To have that power, to be that which could be the unmaking of a man, had become so precarious. One was a god to another, a decision maker. The fact that he’d even fathomed the thought of being superior, humbled and shamed him immediately. He daren’t even let the sickening train of thought fester for more than a second. It dispersed before it even took hold; there was no question. Of course he sent the rope down into the pit.
When he gets out, we’ll work together to find our way home. He’ll respect me now, going forward, he told himself as he watched the other man slowly ascend the rope.
Nearly there. Just a little further. His blonde waves finally reached the air above the pit and he then threw both of his arms onto the grass. As he hoisted his torso up, he was suddenly paralyzed. It was as if some sort of invisible barrier had been breached or a laser-beamed shocking device had been triggered in his chest. And the cocky blonde fell silently back to the remaining millipede horde and hit the bottom of the pit with a muted thud.
“Mr. Gregory,” an even-toned voice spoke. “Sam–Sam, go ahead and squeeze my hand for me, mmkay?” the voice continued reassuringly. Sam did as he was asked, blinking his eyes open. He found himself in a reclined chair inside a place that resembled a dentist’s examination room. The forest was gone. He quickly became conscious again and remembered easily where he was and why he was there, yet the lab technician kept talking anyway. It was procedure. “You’re in the GrettaSoft lab. You might be feeling strange but that’s normal…”
Sam was feeling sore, not to mention the torturesome pain in his hand and back. No part of him was physically injured, it’s just that the mind took a while to convince the body. The awful sensation would fade.
GrettaSoft, Inc., in recent years, had successfully created the first-ever series of virtual character tests. Market research had revealed that clients were seeking the development of screening software that could assist them in weeding out and sorting through potential employees. Companies had been surveyed at length and there’d been an uptick in embezzlement, fraud, and the like. Technology had wrought about a new breed of criminal over the decades. Trustworthiness had become a rare commodity. GPA’s and degrees were becoming obsolete to more employers, replaced by the desire for integrity, ability, and potential. Economic crisis had made manipulation on a personal level more commonplace as well; the new software was in demand for those wanting a potential spouse to be screened, although that’d been limited to more affluent clients who had money and assets to protect.
“I’m gonna unhook you, Mr. Gregory. Go ahead and sit up for me, mmkay?” the technician instructed gently. “You feeling alright?”
“Yes,” Sam whispered weakly.
“I have to tell you, Sam. I’ve tested hundreds of subjects and I’ve not yet once gotten results like this before.”
When the number of customers ordering the screenings took a dramatic increase in the previous couple years, it was decided that there should be upgrades that would streamline the process. The original procedure was so taxing on the test-taker. To induce an unconscious state and run someone through a virtual scenario in which they were convinced was real may or may not have some negative, long-term effects. It was risky. It was time consuming and costly. It required highly trained technicians and constant monitoring. A lawsuit waiting to happen. So, a new method was designed and engineered.
Picture putting your soul in a giant Xerox machine. That was how it was explained to the layperson. Essentially, a brain and all its contents could be scanned and uploaded into a database and from that copy, any one of dozens of virtual scenarios could be played out through a complex series of algorithms. Then, afterwards, the client would receive a detailed report about the nature of the test subject. No one would have to be put through the exhaustive experience of the scenarios. The new software alone would predict the outcome.
It was brilliant from a business standpoint. Less cost. Less to deter people from being screened. It could be more available to a wider market and serve a broader customer base. But, in the final stages of testing, comparing the actual scenario outcomes to the artificial algorithm-based ones, there’d been an anomaly. Sam Gregory’s hadn’t matched. A portly custodian for years at the corporation, Sam had seen the memos posted asking for testing volunteers and God knows he could sure use the extra money. But the xeroxed prediction said he’d be forever imprisoned in that pit-in-the-jungle scenario, with no extraordinary behaviors to speak of. GrettaSoft, Inc. could no longer guarantee the validity of their newest product at 100%. Still, 99%+ was pretty damn good.
“It’s not that I personally had you pegged, buddy. It’s just that the program had things turning out very differently for you in there. It’s never been wrong before. I’m honestly impressed,” the lab tech explained.
“Well, believe me, I’m more surprised by this than all of you put together,” Sam admitted to the tech and his assistants, chuckling humbly. Although he’d no potential spouse or employer awaiting his particular results, the experience had put him on the other side of something, and he was grateful for that. “How ‘bout those little critters? Did you guys put them in there as a distraction?” Sam asked, the memory of it still fresh with him.
Without stopping, Sam excitedly piled on more questions, reliving the events he’d just been through. “And what about…my other…the other guy?” The name eluded him. He’d only a wisp of feeling connected to the blonde man then. He’d thought him to be a childhood friend, but in those moments he was suddenly questioning that.
“For that scenario, I wasn’t aware of any other subjects being present,” the lab tech said, puzzled. “Was there?”