Despite the rocky start, Daniel found that the next few years were the happiest of his life.
He started off as a janitor, doing nothing more than basic maintenance and bathroom detail. It wasn’t very enjoyable work, but he was fed well and given a room on-site, and his pay wasn’t half bad, either.
Every time the work got too difficult or disgusting, he thought back to the man in white’s words, “from the ground up”, and pushed through. Every time he felt like quitting, he remembered the despair and sadness he felt when he lost his fiance and house and looked to the future, which at the time seemed bright.
It was hope that carried him through, and it was through the strength it gave him that he got his first promotion.
It wasn’t much of one, but it allowed him to access a computer, at least- he was assigned the duty of debugging faulty code.
Despite the monotony of this task, he was excited. For the first time in a long time, he’d finally be putting his talent to good use! He couldn’t wait to begin, so when the next week rolled around and he was given his own cubicle on the research floor, he eagerly tackled the task head-on.
As he was given program after program to work on, he continually impressed his colleagues. With hardly any effort, he identified, solved, and streamlined hundreds of lines of code on each of his shifts, all with a smile on his face and not a single complaint to be heard. His manager gave him more and more to do, to the point where he worked overtime every day, but he cranked through every single one with little to no mistakes.
Within half a year, he was promoted to Team Lead, and in another year he was promoted to Robotics, three doors down. Higher and higher he climbed, astonishing everyone he worked with and earning numerous bonuses and laurels for his outstanding work.
Then, one day, to everyone’s surprise, he received a manilla envelope simply titled, “For Your Eyes Only”. His coworkers smiled and patted him on the back, telling him to go to the board room, congratulating him on finally reaching “the big leagues”, but as he left, he heard one of them mutter, “Too bad, I liked that guy.” At first, he d assumed the person was just going to miss him, and thought nothing of it.
Looking back on it now, it made the man sick.
When he reached the designated meeting room and walked in, he was greeted by a massive table and several very serious-looking men in business suits. He looked around for a couple of seconds, found a single empty chair at the far end of the table, and sat down in it, feeling more than a little awkward in his t-shirt and cargo pants.
“A-hem.” A man cleared his throat at the other end of the table, and their attention switched from Daniel to him. He couldn’t quite see the man’s face due to the surprisingly dim lighting, but, then again, he didn’t have to.
The man wore a perfectly pressed, perfectly starched, clean white suit.
“For our first order of business, I’d like you all to welcome the newest addition to the Circle, Daniel Rustenford,” the man said in his smooth, snake-oil voice.
“Welcome,” they all said, perfectly in-sync. Daniel gave an involuntary shudder.
“For our second order of business, I’d like to propose a toast. Here.” As he said this, small apertures opened in the seemingly perfect mahogany surface of the table and flutes filled to the brim with perfectly chilled bubbly rose from some hidden chamber within.
Everyone picked up their glasses, once again all in sync, and Daniel tried to do so as well. Instead, he fumbled with it, spilled some on his t-shirt, and drank before the toast even began, mistaking the raising of glasses as a signal to drink. He tried to splutter an apology, but instead burped from the carbonation.
Daniel sat back down.
But if the man in white saw anything, he either didn’t show it or didn’t care, because after that embarrassing display, he continued his speech.
“To our new member, whose astonishing work ethic and dedication to our cause will undoubtedly bring us to our goals faster than ever before.”
“Hear, hear,” they all said, their voices not only syncing up in time, but in pitch and tone as well. They lifted their glasses towards their mouths and drained them in one draft.
“And thirdly, let us...aw, I can’t keep this going any longer with a straight face. Initiate factory reset, code 102-b, authorization 50-c.”
The men, no, robots, Daniel realized, instantly dipped their heads and let out a puff and whine as their functions ceased.
“What the- “ Daniel tried to stand up, but he suddenly felt very dizzy, and very sick. He tried to throw up, to get whatever was wrong out of his system, but he didn’t even have the energy to blink, it seemed, let alone vomit.
It was all he could do to stay awake when the man in white sauntered up to him. He tried to get up, to punch him in his smug face, to curse at him at least, but all he could do was twitch one of his fingers and let out a pathetic moan.
Through his bleary vision he could see the man, now nothing more than a white smear, and he heard what sounded like laughter, no more than a distant muffle.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you never to trust strangers?”
And then he felt nothing but a comfortable numbness overtake his senses as everything faded to black.
From the man’s perspective, he could see everything now. He may have passed out when he was in Daniel’s body, but now he wasn’t, and he could see every last detail as the man in white dragged him out of the board room and into the research lab. He knew the man in white had prepared everything for this since day one, from his carefully rigged promotions to his perfectly choreographed placement in Robotics. The man in white even went so far as to place him in the research floor to make his capture and transportation easier and more efficient.
Despite the disgust and anger the man still felt, he had to give the man in white credit.
He was very good at what he did.
Daniel woke up, cold and confused, with a splitting headache.
Where am I? He thought, looking around. He tried to turn his head, but found he couldn’t move it more than an inch under the strap secured over his forehead. He tried moving his arms and legs, but they, too, were tightly strapped in. He strained his eyes as far as they could move in their sockets, but all he could see was a perfectly white ceiling and a set of intense fluorescent lights.
“Ah, so you’re awake,” a voice came from behind him. A familiar face loomed over him, smiling a black-toothed smile.
“Y-you...” he croaked. Anger and hatred filled him to his core, but his mouth and throat were too dry to get out more than a word at a time. The man laughed, and Daniel wanted to throw up at the smell of his stale, rotten breath.
“It’s funny, isn’t it? How hope can make someone so blind,” he stated, his face tilting to the side as he examined Daniel.
“You hate me, don’t you?” he asked, his face tinged with mild curiosity.
“What do you think?” Daniel retorted, his mouth contorting into a scowl.
“I think we have more in common than you'd imagine,” he winked, a smile rising to his lips again as he slowly walked around the gurney, “Although to you, I may seem evil...”
Daniel struggled again, trying to loosen his bonds, uncomfortable at the prospect of listening to this madman give some half-baked speech.
“...I’m somewhat in the same position you are.”
Daniel stopped squirming, suddenly intrigued. The man noticed this, and he could hear the smirk in his voice as he said, “Got your attention now, have I?” Then his demeanor changed, and his voice grew harsh as he continued.
“The human emotion, hope, is a horrible thing, Daniel. It is meant to get us through awful times and give us something to look forward to, but it is intoxicating, and too much of it will blind even the most forward of thinkers.” Daniel scoffed, and the man stopped, smugness dripping from his voice as he said, “Just look at you. You let hope blind you, and now you trusted a total stranger.”
Then he leaned in again, the man’s face obscuring his vision as he grinned with such an expression of utter glee that Daniel couldn’t help but let out a whimper.
“A stranger who plans to do awful things to you. A stranger who will enjoy it very, very much.” Then he straightened back up, and continued to pace, his speech now picking up in intensity.
“I have hopes and dreams too, Daniel. Ones much grander than your silly notion of living a ‘normal’ life. I have dreams of creating a utopia out of rubble, a paradise out of ashes. On others’ bones, I will build the perfect society, one where humans can forever live in peace.”
“Do you know.”
The man stopped pacing.
“How many bones it takes to build a staircase to heaven?”
Daniel stopped squirming and went silent, and the man in white stopped, too, waiting for an answer. Then he looked over, and smiled warmly, before pulling out a cattle prod and jabbing it into Daniel’s side.
“One can only hope it won’t take too many.”