By Nicholas Zielinski
Max’s weight obsession started with a comment. He and Ryan Beaumont, his agent, were discussing Max’s career when Ryan grabbed Max’s stomach and said, “This is your problem.”
“Hands off,” Max deadpanned. “You’re smudging the merchandise.”
Ryan was drinking a highball with green smoke rising off the beverage due to strange compounds added by the barman. Dozens of patrons had them, filling the air with green haze.
“Weight is not the issue, man. I’m too old.”
“Not true! I have plenty of seasoned clients.”
“Then why don’t you send me out with them?”
“Because you can’t compete,” he sipped his drink. “In this market, you can either be fat, or you can be old, but you can’t be both.”
If there was one thing Ryan was good at, it was adopting trends, and – weirdly – that gave him an unfixed personality. Lately, he was loud, bold and brutally honest. But when they first met he was quiet, polite, and careful. Max noticed the change; Ryan said everyone at his agency had those qualities, so he built them in himself.
“If you want to book more commercials, you need to lose weight, and I know a place that can help,” Ryan said while flipping through a stack of business cards, “I’ve been going there for years. Everyone has.”
He pulled a card out of the stack and handed it to Max. On one side was an address. On the other side, a word.
The gym’s layout was conventional: an exercise floor divided into zones. There was a cardio zone, a basketball zone, a weight lifting zone, a boxing zone, a yoga zone, and something called a “Yoshemanta” zone. Out of fear of looking stupid, Max didn’t ask what that was.
There were no walls between zones, so, despite the facility’s massive size, one could see the entire gym from anywhere, including the people. And these were stunning people! All nations and creeds represented in a crowd including every type except “ugly”.
When his tour guide led Max to the cardio zone, he saw a familiar person running on the elliptical. It was Alexa Van Horne, a gap-toothed actress and tabloid queen. Max thought of her dead-eyed performance in Road to September, the year’s most popular western. “Van Horne has the charisma of a wet broomstick,” Ryan said as the credits rolled. “You could have played that part better in drag.”
He was right. It wasn’t for lack of talent that Max’s career was slowing down. But talent counts for nothing in this business. Popularity is king, and Alexa Van Horne was popular.
Popular, and thin.
Max’s tour guide was the owner: Pierce Algar, a bald-headed behemoth whose muscles bulged through his tracksuit. He wore square-rimmed glasses and grinned like someone who knew a secret.
The tour ended in the middle of the exercise floor, with both men standing in front of the gym’s focal point – a giant, reflective column that looked like a tube made of mirrors.
“Before I tell you the secret to our program’s success, I want you to sign this,” said Pierce while tapping a stack of papers.
“What is it?”
“A non-disclosure agreement. If you publicize what you hear today, this lets us sue you into oblivion.”
Scary as that sounded, that form is common in Max’s industry. He signed it without thinking.
“Now tell me: what do you see when you look at this reflective column?”
The question felt like a trick. Max took a moment to inspect the column, and, finding nothing, he gave a simple answer. “It looks like a… load-bearing mirror?”
The column distorted Max’s reflection like a funhouse looking-glass, making him appear short and wide, whereas Pierce looked tall and thin. Looking past his reflection, he saw an object beneath the surface, a fist-sized cluster of green lights.
“What’s that?” asked Max.
“That is the central node of a data processing apparatus we’ve been developing for decades. If Optix was a living creature, that would be its central nervous system.”
The thing bobbed, slightly.
“What does it do?”
“It does a lot of things,” said Pierce while squinting at the lights, “But, at this moment, it looks like it’s scanning your biometrics.”
Max’s eyebrows raised. “Moving a little fast, aren’t we?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I’ve known you for thirty minutes, and already you’re scanning my biometrics? Call me a prude, but I was saving that for the honeymoon.”
A chuckle from Pierce. “For most people, there is no honeymoon. Most people run away when they learn what makes our program so… unique.”
“And what is that, exactly?”
“Every month, during the new moon, this apparatus ranks all present members from strongest to weakest. After that, it releases an intelligent substrate onto the exercise floor and commands it to subsume our weakest member during an event we call The Amalgus.”
Max laughed, expecting Pierce to do the same, but Pierce was not amused.
“The event is non-fatal and legally permissible, thanks to a form in the membership packet. Still, people love to criticize. Our detractors call the practice barbaric, frightening, inhumane and so forth; nevertheless, we persist because, ultimately, it’s the reason we’re still in business.”
Max scanned the exercise floor. Hundreds of gorgeous people were sweating in silence, watching each other work, and now Max knew why. They were competing. For what, he didn’t quite know, but he liked his chances of success. With hundreds of slight-framed and dimly talented people like Alexa Van Horne using the gym at any time, the chances of Max being the weakest person in the room seemed small, even in his current state.
“It takes courage to be a member here,” said Pierce. “And those people? They’ve got it. The question is… do you?”
Everyone at the gym had their own locker, and Max kept a modified pistol in his.
The pistol was easy to conceal, but, sometimes, while squatting in the weight room, his shorts would hike up and expose the straps of his holster. Because the gun was strapped to his inner thigh, no one ever saw the firearm, and according to the salesman, the holster was shock proof. There’s no way that puppy’ll come loose… unless you want it to. Still, though carrying a gun by his crotch made him nervous, nothing made him more nervous than being “subsumed” by an intelligent substrate.
The substrate can try to mess with me, thought Max as he stood in front of his locker, peeling off street clothes. But if it does, I’m gonna give it a 22 caliber souvenir.
There was an open shower between the gym and the locker room. Most people averted their eyes when they walked by, but it was leg day, and Max was curious how his calf muscles compared with the other men. As he walked by the shower, he inspected their calves and saw round scars on their feet. Not small scars, either: these were coin-sized mounds of keloid tissue, grotesque and fascinating, painful to look at and impossible to ignore.
The treadmills were crowded, forcing Max to run next to an out-of-shape guy. When Max stepped on the machine, his neighbor was running at a slow pace. After Max completed a sprint cycle, his neighbor did something unexpected: he raised his treadmill’s speed until it was going as fast as Max’s.
Then his neighbor gave Max a look that said, “Let’s do this.” So Max cranked the treadmill to its highest setting and his neighbor did the same. Both men ran with tight fists, panting as their strides rocked the machines.
They made a lot of noise, huffing and puffing and stomping and grunting and catching looks from other members. Sweat ran into Max’s eyes and it stung but he didn’t care, not then, not with so many people watching.
It was time to be strong.
A pained cry left the other guy’s mouth as his legs went limp and he tripped over himself, face-planting on the belt as it flung his body off the machine. Other patrons hauled the man to his feet while Max kept sprinting. With eyes focused on the space in front of him, Max ignored the man and smiled.
After a month, Max’s clothes fit differently. He was getting close to his goal, and for a habitual loser like him, every drop of success was precious. Exercise was the one thing in his life going well, so he spent a lot of time at the gym, but Optix wasn’t perfect. There were things about the place he despised.
No one talked to each other, for one thing. Even in moments where verbal communication was needed, people spoke with silent gestures. Once, Max asked someone how long they’d be using the stair machine. In response, they sneered. What did he do to deserve a sneer? As far as Max knew, there was no rule against conversation, but clearly there was some de facto policy at work, a policy extending even to the staff. Max learned this lesson every time the front desk worker ignored his cordial hello.
The most painful snub happened when he saw Ryan deadlifting in the free-weight zone. He didn’t notice Ryan at first, because he blended in so completely. His sweatsuit was the same color as the carpet, and his hair was cut in the same tight fade worn by other male patrons.
“Mind if I work in?” asked Max.
And Ryan pretended not to hear! Instead of responding, he flexed his hands and stared at the deadlift bar.
“Ryan…?” said Max, unsure if he was speaking to the right person.
Still, no response, but it was definitely Ryan. Max could tell from his trademark, nautical themed wristwatch.
“Welp… see you around, I guess.”
Ryan responded with an exaggerated glance that said, “Read the room!”
The agent continued his reps while Max walked to another zone. He avoided other members, but this didn’t stop other members from watching him – always, he felt he was being observed. The mirrored column in the center of the building was visible in every zone, and, so often, its green light shined on him.
While Max was on the rowing machine, the lights changed from white to black, fading so slowly he barely noticed the transition. A group of men broke the de facto policy by speaking about the lighting change. Desperate to socialize, Max elbowed his way into the circle and the group turned to him, their faces ethereal under black light.
“Nobody can find the staff, and all the doors are locked,” said a short man with cut-off sleeves, “This has to be it.”
“This has to be what?”
The man tried to answer but his voice was drowned out by a tone playing from the speakers. Max could feel the tone in his chest, so loud it shook the air. He craned his neck to search for Ryan, and the column shifted.
With hydraulic precision, the column raised itself from the ground, revealing a space between itself and the floor. Into that space, a substance flowed.
The sight caused everyone to freeze, including Max. With squared shoulders and tight lips, all patrons faced the mass of turbid stuff cascading from the column.
As the mass pooled on the floor, an odor wafted into the space. Max greedily inhaled, gulping more air than his lungs would allow, and the effect was opiatic; a joyful numbness overtook him as the substance flowed over his feet, surging into the space from all directions, rising above his knees.
Eyes looked out of the mass – eyes attached to faces.
Hundreds of upturned faces floated in the substance like dead leaves floating on the surface of a pond, all with vacant eyes and slack jaws. Faces and mass were made from the same stuff, like ice floating in water, so it was hard to see where faces ended and substance began.
As the mass rose to stomach level, something luminous bobbed up from the depths. It was the green cluster of lights, the one that always watched him. It moved intentionally through the stuff, weaving between upturned faces like a water-snake between lily pads before vanishing behind a group of members.
Then Max heard a sleepy moan, and recognized the voice.
Wading in the moan’s direction, he forced his legs to tread between open-mouthed faces until he found where the moan came from. Other members stood by while Max watched an arm sink into the mass, reaching for the ceiling, gasping nothing, dissolving into the substance where skin met liquid. Strapped to the arm was a nautical wristwatch, reflecting green light.
Pierce’s office lacked windows. To simulate a view, his western wall displayed a projection of a beach.
“You like that?” asked Pierce. “It’s footage from Saint Barthes, synchronized to our solar cycle. My father used to take us there when we were kids,” he said, but Max could only think of one thing.
“I’m here to talk about Ryan.”
“Yes, I gathered that from your message.”
“No one’s heard from him in days.”
“Of course they haven’t!” He stood up from his desk and grabbed a vape rig off the bookshelf. “The man dissolved into a viscous abomination only to re-emerge as a bland simulacrum of himself – so yeah: he’s going to need some alone time. Pierce sucked on the vape and blew smoke. “I spoke to him recently, and the man is incapable of organic conversation. Everything he says feels pre-written, like talking to a machine.” Contempt flashed in Pierce’s eyes. “Your friend’s soul, if he ever had one, is gone. That part is normal, but his rate of recovery is faster than average, which takes a certain kind of strength. Not the kind we value, but still.”
“What kind do you value?” asked Max.
He felt guilty for steering the conversation away from Ryan, but he sensed that probing the issue would strain his relationship with Optix, and he couldn’t risk that.
“I know real strength when I see it,” said Pierce.
He motioned to the portrait behind his desk: an oil painting of a man with a brace on his foot and a cluster of green lights in his hand.
“While serving in Vietnam, my father was captured and imprisoned. One week into captivity, he planned an escape, but when he shared his plan with other prisoners, they laughed. The fence is too high, they said. There are too many guards, they said. But he ignored the feckless masses, escaping anyway.
“As he ran through the jungle, a rifleman shot his foot, forcing him to crawl on his belly to an outpost. Once there, he met a doctor who told him he’d never run again.
“Cut to a decade later. Not only does my father run every day, but he also builds the nation’s first competitive gym.” Pierce turned to Max. “If you want to know true strength,” he said, “Let him be your example.”
The Optix parking lot was full. It was always full. And whenever Max looked in the mirror, he understood why. There was a kind of magic in that place, a kind of magic that made people thin, that people strong.
Across from the gym was a hospital. Max parked near the entrance, and glanced through the window, into the emergency room. It was full of people with serious injuries. Not as serious as this’ll be, thought Max.
Whatever made Ryan essentially himself – that face he kept hidden from Max – was trapped in the opiatic pool. But how did he lose it? And how could Max avoid the same fate? Optix was his wellspring of self-respect. To walk away meant losing this only connection to success. He didn’t want to leave, and he wanted to keep his soul. That left one option. He had to become strong.
With his car door open, he took off his sock, cleaned his foot with alcohol wipes, and planted his heel on a rock. Then he removed the pistol from its holster, took a deep breath, and aimed the muzzle at his foot.
“No pain, no gain,” he said to no one.
About the author: Nicholas Zielinski reads, writes and attempts to be kind in Los Angeles, California. You can find him on twitter at @final_nicholas.
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