#10 of ten short stories from my 2015 self-published horror anthology, Random Number Hotline.
When Nikolas Bryant woke, the first thing he noticed were his surroundings. They were completely unfamiliar. The bed he lay on, the room and everything else inside, he had never seen any of it before in his life. What the hell happened last night? He sat up and rubbed his eyes and face, trying to wake up. The entirety of the previous twenty-four hours were gone, like they had never happened. The memories were just…empty. Whether he had drunk too much or if someone had slipped something into his drink at the bar, he didn’t know. He wasn’t sure if there had even been a bar. All he knew was he felt like shit.
It wasn’t the first time he had woken up in some stranger’s house after a night out on the town. But even if that were the case, he should have been able to remember something; who owned the place, where it was, anything. The more Nikolas thought about it, the farther he felt from an answer. He looked around the room again. There wasn’t a lot to see. A steel bed, a small wooden desk and matching chair, an old telephone sitting on the desk and a painting hanging on the wall next to a closed steel door. Other than those, the room had nothing else of note. Nikolas groaned and rose from the bed.
The door was only a few steps away, but walking there proved far more difficult than Nikolas had thought. Every step caused his head to pound in pain, to the point where he thought he would pass out if he took one more. He brushed past the painting, which swung on its fixture before coming to a halt a moment later. Nikolas reached out and tried to pull down on the door handle, but it refused to move. Unperturbed, he tried again, wiggling the handle up and down this time. Still nothing. He gripped the handle with both hands and put all his weight onto it, but no matter how hard Nikolas tried, the door wouldn’t budge.
“Hey!” Nikolas yelled, knocking on the door with his fist. “Is anyone out there? Unlock the damn door, someone’s in here!” He put his ear to the cold metal and listened for activity on the other side. For a moment he thought he heard footsteps, maybe even a muffled voice, but after a second he heard nothing more.
“Hello?” Nikolas tried the handle again, but he already knew it was pointless. There wasn’t anyone out there. A chilling thought came to him as he backed away from the door and slumped back down on the bed again. Here he was, in an unfamiliar place, with no memory of the previous night whatsoever. Have I been abducted?
It made sense. How else would he wake up in a place like this with no clue about how he got there? Even though he was still half asleep and groggy from the booze or whatever he had taken last night, Nikolas knew there had to be another explanation. Or at least he hoped. Maybe there was some other trick to opening the door. Finding out what it was though would take forever in his current state.
The painting caught his eye again. Birds covered the canvas, an entire flock which appeared to fly right out of the paint towards Nikolas. As he moved by it, he bumped the painting again, this time knocking it off the fixture and onto the ground. The glass frame shattered in an instant.
“Shit…” Nikolas grumbled. With one foot he swept the broken painting under the bed. He glanced back up at the space where the painting had been and noticed something interesting. A hole in the wall, exactly the size the picture had been, cut right out of the wall’s brickwork. It looked like a safe, but with no door. And inside…
Nikolas reached in and pulled out the wall’s contents, a small scrap of paper and a metal strongbox. The box felt heavy for its size, and boasted a ten digit combination lock on the top, built right into the unit itself. He inspected the paper and found someone had scrawled a ten digit number in the same untidy writing which had been in the notebook: 2025550119. Curious, Nikolas sat down on the bed with the box in his lap and input the combination into the lock. When he tried to open it, the box remained shut. He checked the number on the paper and the numbers he had put into the lock. Everything was correct. This number mustn’t be the combination for the box. What was it for?
He placed the box and paper on the desk and sighed. Why was he here? What the hell was going on? This whole situation didn’t feel right at all. Nikolas stared at the box for some time, before his eyes moved over to the phone still sitting in the corner of the desk. It took a bit longer for the penny to drop. The phone. He could call someone for help, to get him out of this place. Nikolas picked up the phone, punched in 911 and held the phone to his ear. After a full minute though, it became clear to him nobody was going to answer. Is it even working? There was a dial tone, so the phone had to have the ability to be able to reach emergency services. Unless it wasn’t connected to the network.
Perhaps the number wasn’t for the strongbox. Maybe it was a phone number? Nikolas picked up the phone and dialed the number, ensuring it was exactly as it appeared on the paper. When all the digits were in, he hit CALL and held the phone up to his ear. Static flooded through the speaker, screaming into his ear. He wanted to pull away from the phone, but for some strange reason he felt obliged to continue to listen.
The static soon parted way to a continuous sequence of numbers. A female voice read them out. She sounded somehow computerized and human at the same time, Nikolas couldn’t tell which. He listened, entranced by the strangeness of it all. His eyes drooped, almost falling asleep again. But he fought to stay awake, and kept listening to the static numbers. “…Twenty-four, seven, thirty-six, twelve, one, fifty-five…” the phone recited, void of emotion. It continued for what felt like an hour to Nikolas. But soon enough, the sequence concluded. “…sixty-eight, eighteen, four, ACTIVATE.” Then the line cut to silence.
As soon as the call went dead, Nikolas felt a wave of nausea wash over him. He wanted to vomit, but a strange sensation told him he didn’t need to. The numbers rattled around in his mind, filling every vacant thought and space in his brain. Before he knew what was happening, Nikolas held the strongbox in his hands once again. The scrap of paper fluttered to the ground and vanished from his sight. His fingers were a blur as he entered a new combination of numbers into the lock, as if he had known the correct numbers all along. As soon as he punched in the last digit, the box’s mechanisms clicked and the lock deactivated. Nikolas opened the box and pulled out something he never would have expected to find.
Why is there a gun in here? He gripped the gun professionally in his hands, despite never having held one before in his life. Something strange was happening here. In one quick movement, Nikolas pulled the magazine out of the pistol and inspected it. Fully loaded. He jammed it back into the receiver and pulled back on the slide, chambering a round. What’s going on?
Nikolas wanted nothing more but to drop the gun back into the strongbox and get out of here. But something told him to ignore the urge. With the gun in hand, he stood next to the door and pounded on it once, for all the good that would do.
But to his surprise, the door swung open with zero resistance. Part of Nikolas felt shocked at the strangeness of this entire ordeal, but the other half didn’t seem to care. He strode out of the room, gun raised and ready to fire. The hallway he found himself in looked nothing like the room he had awoken in. While the bedroom looked more or less like a cheap apartment, the hallway looked as if it should have been in a submarine. It consisted of steel walls and floors and looked difficult to navigate, thanks to the stacks of crates and other obstacles filling the hall.
Nikolas felt bothered by all this, but his face didn’t show it. Before he could question anything he broke into a run, vaulting over every obstruction in his path with ease. To his shock, as he made his sprint through the stretching corridor, targets started to pop out of nowhere. The instant each appeared, Nikolas pointed the gun as he run and fired, nailing every single one until the pistol ran dry. He reached the end of the corridor, tossed the empty gun aside and burst out the next door into blinding light. People surrounded him from every angle. With the sudden explosion of sunlight, he shielded his eyes and stopped in his tracks. As soon as he emerged, Nikolas heard a single phrase out of one of the strangers’ mouths.
“Six, two seven, deactivate.”
He collapsed the second he heard the words, eyes wide and unblinking. Every ounce of energy evaporated from his body in an instant. Nikolas could hear and see, but no matter how much he willed himself to, he couldn’t move. Silhouettes glided over to him, their faces obscured by the sun high above them. They stared down at him, motives uncertain, and as they observed, the strangers began to talk. Their sentences sounded distant, but he could hear every word they said.
“…and as you can see gentlemen, the test subject remains completely obedient, efficient and precise with its actions, maintaining traits such as accuracy and muscle memory for the duration of the exercise. As you saw with the lock box provided in the apartment enclosure, our procedure allows the permanent retention of information programmed into the subject’s memory many months prior, and lets us instruct them when we wish for him to draw from that knowledge.”
What the hell were they talking about? Nikolas focused what little of his strength remained and tried to make sense of their conversation. Some of the men appeared to be wearing white uniforms. Lab coats, maybe? The others wore dark green suits, their chests covered with shining medals and badges. Soldiers? Nikolas felt even more confused now, and far more terrified. What were these men doing to him?
One of the military men, who seemed to be the higher ranking officer in charge, spoke up. “So what exactly have you accomplished with this technology, Doctor? Because from what I’ve seen so far you have made a man who can follow instructions, and I don’t have any shortage of them at my disposal.”
“If you’ll forgive my frankness, General Cooke, you would have to be blind to not see the future potential of this procedure. The data we collected from the recovered artifact up north has allowed us to convert the malicious resonant frequency emitted from the bird statue into a simpler signal consisting of numbers. The numbers by themselves are completely useless, but when heard in a specific sequence, we are capable of controlling individuals who are…how can I say this…programmed to recognize the sequence.”
General Cooke’s thick eyebrows rose. The scientist continued. “Just imagine the ability to remove fear from your men, remove the ability to question orders, alter pain thresholds. The applications are virtually limitless.” A couple of the other military personnel murmured among themselves. The rest of the scientists struggled to hide the satisfied grins on their faces. Nikolas couldn’t move, talk or respond in any way, but he continued to listen. Test subject? Reprogrammed? Who the hell were these people?
The lead scientist stood over Nikolas’ motionless body and stared down at him. Nikolas stared back with dead eyes. “As you can see,” the scientist continued, “when reprogrammed, the subject becomes completely unable to contest the orders we give him. If told to shoot, he’ll shoot, accurately and without hesitation, as you saw. If we tell him to climb a mountain, he’ll climb the whole damn thing twice without breaking a sweat. If we tell him to shut down every muscle in his body, he’ll do it with a smile. There are no workarounds. Observe.”
Nikolas watched as the lead scientist stepped back and held his arms behind his back. He cleared his throat and issued a command. ”Four, nine, nine, activate.” In an instant, Nikolas felt a wash of energy flood back through him, like a computer rebooting. He stood, and although he wanted to run at the scientist and strangle the life out him, part of him refused to comply.
“Run to that post and back,” the scientist ordered. While Nikolas himself refused, his legs said otherwise, and carried him over to the nearby post and back again in seconds. He stood before the scientist, awaiting his next order like a dog. “Salute General Cooke.” Nikolas did, straightening his back and performing a quick salute to the amused general as he watched the show. On and on it went, the scientist issuing orders, Nikolas obeying. It all felt so degrading, but he had no way to express his white hot anger towards his captors. All he could do was obey.
“Alright Doctor, I get the point. It works. Tell the man to stand down, or deactivate, whatever the hell you call it. I’ve seen enough,” General Cooke said. The scientist actually looked disappointed to stop. Bastard. Nikolas listened for his next command, feeling worse by the second. One of the other military personnel stared at Nikolas with a glare which could have frozen water. He didn’t give a shit about Nikolas at all, which only made him angrier. But he still couldn’t do anything about it.
“This is all very interesting Doctor Wilkes, but I’m still not convinced this technology can be utilized safely,” another military man said. “I’m sure this subject didn’t exactly volunteer to be a part of your tests. What’s to stop him from breaking free of his programming and refusing orders? I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel confident in a man who can’t think for himself having my back in a fight, especially when he could decide he doesn’t want to be a slave anymore.”
Doctor Wilkes chuckled. “You still don’t get it, do you? The programming cannot be broken. When a subject undergoes the initial programming procedure, we jam thoughts originating from their own mind with our signal. He is incapable of deviating from any orders. If you’ll hand me your gun, I’ll demonstrate.” Wilkes held his hand out towards a nearby soldier.
The soldier hesitated for a moment, but General Cooke nodded. “It’s okay son, give it to him. I want to see where this goes.” He pulled the nickel-plated service pistol out of its holster and handed it to Doctor Wilkes. He levelled the barrel at Nikolas’ expressionless face and held it there for a moment. But then he lowered and, to Nikolas’ surprise, held it out for him.
“One, nine, zero, terminate.”
Nikolas flicked off the weapon’s safety and held it to his head in the blink of an eye, his finger on the trigger. Doctor Wilkes didn’t react at all. General Cooke watched with shining eyes, captivated. Nikolas’ mind screamed at him not to follow the order, but the numbers which echoed around in his head superseded the thought. He could hear the numbers demand he pull the trigger, but the other half of his brain buzzed with activity, doing its best to ensure survival. Do it now, the numbers repeated to him over and over and over. Finally, Nikolas couldn’t take it anymore.
“NO!” he bellowed. Nikolas yanked the pistol away from his temple and instead aimed it at a new target, the chest of Doctor Wilkes. Before the shocked scientist could even react to the unforeseen outcome, Nikolas pulled the trigger over and over again, until the gun clicked empty. All seven rounds hit their mark, and Doctor Wilkes dropped to the concrete, his torso a bloody mess of bullet holes. The scientists gasped and scattered, while the military personnel drew their weapons as all hell broke loose.
Nikolas threw the empty pistol at the nearest man, which hit him in the face, stunning him. It gave Nikolas the perfect window of opportunity. He lunged forward and yanked the pistol out of the dazed soldier’s hand. With one arm around the man’s neck and the other arm pointing the gun at his head, he now felt in control. Even though he could still hear the numbers in his head struggling to regain their grasp on him, Nikolas knew he could fight them now. The surrounding soldiers pointed their weapons at him and yelled all at once. Nikolas tightened his grip on his hostage.
“Release me right fucking now! I swear to Christ I’ll kill him! Back up! Back up!” Nikolas screamed as he moved away with his human shield. The scientists nearby froze and watched in horror as the future of their project went up in smoke before their eyes. The soldiers, led by a furious General Cooke, didn’t falter for one second.
“Son, you let him go right now or you won’t leave this place alive, that I guarantee you.”
Nikolas stood there, finger on the trigger, the numbers still fighting him with all their strength. The soldiers ignored him and continued to advance, ready to fire the instant the opportunity presented itself. Nikolas closed his eyes for a second, the numbers still insisting he follow Doctor Wilkes’ instructions. In one split second, part of the order managed to force its way into his mind, and the result was absolute chaos.
He received the order while his mind continued to clash with the numbers, a battle invisible to both him and the soldiers. The message ended up being received broken and incomplete. His gun went off, seemingly on its own and the hostage fell to the ground, half his face gone. The soldiers open fired. And Nikolas welcomed his end.
General Cooke lowered his weapon, the barrel still smoking, having fired the killing shot right into Nikolas’ brain. He turned to face the scientists still nearby. They all appeared sheepish and nervous, for a good reason. This project was supposed to be their ticket into military and scientific history, and now…
One of the senior scientists, the man with the highest clearance since Doctor Wilkes met his end, sauntered over to the General and his surviving men. He stared at his feet.
“Uhh…so obviously the programming procedure still has some…minor bugs to iron out. I’m sure they’ll be resolved in time for your next visit…sir.” The General turned to meet the scientist’s gaze. He looked about ready to strangle him. This visit was a disaster. Whoever had overlooked the effect of rage on the integrity of the programming had a lot to answer for. General Cooke grabbed the scientist by his collar and brought him close.
“Get it done,” he said, before he shoved the man away. “And clean this shit up.” Without another word, he turned and left, stepping over the blood-slicked corpses of his man and Nikolas without even a second glance.