Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with over four hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and a Full Member of SFWA. He has published six science fiction novels including one trilogy, four monster books, a dark military fantasy and a thriller. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
Oh crap. Something went wrong. It hurts to breathe.
Luca opened an eye. The light was too bright. He closed it again.
A few minutes later, he tried again, and managed to keep them open. He was in a bed. The light from above reflecting off the white sheets was part of the illumination problem. Beyond the bed, the walls were paneled in dark wood, somehow familiar. He’d seen wood like that before, his fuzzy mind just couldn’t quite place where.
He turned his head. There was a small, leather-topped table beside the bed, on which lay a phone, a small bedside lamp—currently off—and a cheap-looking plastic rectangle with a big button in the middle.
The plastic thing immediately arrested his attention. He reached out to press the button.
His arm took an age to respond. Whatever had happened to him had left him sluggish. Had he drunk that much the night before? Or had other things than alcohol been involved? He shook his head, which felt stuffed with lead and wrapped in loose rubber.
Several stabs later, he finally hit the button. There was something wrong with his eyes, too: his hands looked too big, and his fingers appeared to have been replaced with fat sausages.
A blinking red light inset into the plastic reassured him that he’d achieved something. Only time would tell what. Whatever it was, he’d done all he could in his current condition. He relaxed back onto the bed.
The situation seemed familiar somehow. He’d woken in beds like this before. Did he have some kind of condition?
Why couldn’t he think? Why couldn’t he remember?
It was as if parts of his mind were locked off. He knew who he was, knew how he should feel…and this wasn’t it. But he also couldn’t quite reason why he knew that, or how things should be. Instinct told him how things should feel, but couldn’t remember why everything was strange.
Luca realized he was panting for air, and concentrated on inhaling more deeply. After a few seconds, he began to feel better. With it came a bit of clear-headedness, and with that, a sense of urgency, as if he was missing something important. He almost knew what it was…right there, like that word you couldn’t recall that sat on the tip of your tongue. It was something big, something that explained everything.
“Mr. Walker?” a woman’s voice said. “Are you awake?”
He turned in the direction of the sound, and was again surprised at how slowly his body reacted. Used to catlike reflexes, he wasn’t accustomed to every motion feeling like trying to maneuver an oil tanker.
“Who?” he said. Or rather tried to say. His mouth was too dry to form the words, his tongue much too big.
Talking would be a bit of a struggle, then. Had he had a stroke?
A woman slowly came into focus. She was dressed in a pale blue frock that reminded Luca of the nuns from the convent across the street from his apartment. Her graying hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail.
“My name is Janice,” she said. “Anton assigned me to look after you.”
Anton, he thought. Anton was his transfer expert. He wasn’t a doctor. Why was Anton sending nurses? He was missing something big.
“Can you speak?”
He tried, failed again.
“Would you like some water?”
Luca nodded. Actually, he tried to nod, but his head was the wrong shape, an enormous soccer ball with loose folds all over.
Despite the awkwardness, he must have gotten his point across. Janice nodded and moved out of his field of view, returning with a glass of clear liquid. He assumed it was water but, with the way he felt, he couldn’t rule out any kind of drug.
“Here. Slowly, now.”
It didn’t taste like water. It didn’t taste like anything. But it felt wet, and that was all that mattered. He tried to swallow, and sputtered as his throat constricted but, after the second try, he managed to get some water down. Immediately, he began to feel better, more alert.
Things began to fall into place. Anton had sent the nurse. Yes. That made sense. That was their standard procedure whenever he was on a job. It was necessary because—
He looked down sharply. Or he tried to, but only managed a kind of sluggish drift in the general direction. The white mound under the sheets, the bulge that he’d seen but assigned no importance to…that was him. Or rather, that was his client. It was the body that his consciousness would be inhabiting for the next year or so.
How could he have been stupid enough to accept this job? The man was a pile of lard. He should be dead, and he’d probably expire as soon as Luca tried to move the thing…and take Luca with him. Sure, there was a backup copy of his mind somewhere, but Luca never believed that that would bring him back. Without continuity of experience, he wouldn’t be him, but some other Luca who didn’t really exist. He, the real Luca, would be gone.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“I…” he cleared his throat. “I think so. Just a little disoriented.”
“Yes. Anton said you would be. Do you need anything else? Is there anything I can do to help you? Would you like to sit up?”
Sit? He recoiled at the very idea. A body like this one should be allowed to lay where it fell, gradually sinking into the floor, eventually, propelled by its unimaginable mass, sinking all the way into the Earth’s core to be consumed by the fire within.
“No. Can’t. Not yet.”
“The bed is automatic. I can adjust the angle.”
“Oh.” It was still a daunting proposition, but now he was thinking clearly. He knew where he was and why he was there. He was being paid a huge amount of money to do one thing: to turn this diseased form into something that its owner would be proud to show off on the beach. He was being paid because he had iron discipline and a willingness to undergo excruciating suffering. If he’d been good at any sport…or even just a bit taller, he could have been a real athlete. He had the mindset to be an Olympian.
He could do this.
No. He couldn’t. He could barely fucking breathe. Did he really think he could turn the fat man around him into an athlete? Who was he kidding?
“Would you like me to adjust it?”
He focused on the woman. There was no impatience in her pale features, no expression of disgust for the obese invalid in front of her. He wondered if she really was a nun. She looked to be about fifty, thin and pale, but not drawn or haggard. The pallor was the color of someone unused to being out in the sun, not the tone of illness.
Luca wondered what she would do if he had to go to the bathroom, and decided that she would probably just wait until he was done and the clean him off. He resented her obvious competence, her monstrous ability to do her job, Unaffected by the suffering of her patients.
She wasn’t trapped in a body that couldn’t move, that could barely breathe. She hadn’t bitten of more than she could chew. She wasn’t living her worst nightmare. Janice was obviously at peace with what she was doing, with the role the fates or her own preference had dealt her.
All he wanted was to escape the slavery he’d sold himself into.
Escape. The sooner he was done, the sooner he could leave. A galvanizing thought.
“Yes. Let me sit.”
Getting off his back was the first step. It wasn’t something he did himself. It wasn’t even a real advance towards weight loss or recovery. It was just a mechanical movement from a machine.
But it was a step. If he stayed on his back, nothing was happening, there was no progress.
The bed whined, sounding stressed by the weight it had to move. Walker’s body bent.
Luca thought he’d understood the enormity of what he’d signed up for but now knew he had no clue. The massive trunk was so bloated that its folds of fat had to be moved out of the way before it could get into a sitting position. An eternity later, however, his upper body was vertical.
“Thank you,” he said.
She gave him a smile. “Better?”
“Not really, but at least I can see the room now.”
It was the master bedroom in the Central Park apartment. The regular bed had been replaced by the hospital bed, but other than that, it was exactly the same as he’d left it three days before. The only difference was the body he now inhabited.
“Would you like something to eat?”
The word came out without conscious thought. He suddenly realized he was hungry enough to eat a horse. He chuckled, a sound that rumbled deep inside. That was probably how he’d gotten into the shape he was in in the first place. Eating horses was not ideal for the waistline.
And that led to another inward smile. Thinking of the client as “me” was a first step, a real step. Taking ownership of the body, feeling responsible not only for where it was going, but where it was now, was critical to the project.
He was still a long way from that, though. It would take time before Luca could feel any empathy with what the bastard client had done to his own body.
Janice was leaving the room—probably to comply with his need. “Wait. Did Anton give you my menu?”
“Good. What is the planned meal?”
“A chicken breast and pureed squash.”
“Make it two chicken breasts.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I don’t want to be light-headed later. What time is it?”
“It’s two-thirty in the afternoon.”
She disappeared and he spent the time getting used to the new body. His mind was meshing reasonably well with the brain he’d been placed in, but there was still a little work to do. One of the ways to do that was to attempt fine motor coordination. He opened and closed his ham-sized fists, and then attempted to touch his thumb to the tip of each of the fingers of his right hand. It took huge concentration and several false starts. The left hand was almost a complete washout.
Next, he tried to touch the tip of his nose with his right index finger. He almost put an eye out, but that had less to do with incorrect synaptic wiring and more to do with how shocked he was when Samuel Walker’s forearm hove into view. It looked like a side of beef, and it sagged in all the wrong places.
He stopped exercising and waited for his food, too depressed to keep going.
The chicken breasts looked tiny on the plate, the orange goo beside it thin and unappetizing. Even though using a fork was difficult and the knife even more, the food was gone long before it made a dent in the all-conquering hunger.
Only once he was done did Luca focus on the cream-colored envelope beside the plate. It was still sealed, and a tiny eyebrow hair, pale as all of Romina’s hair, was still adhered in place. Either the envelope hadn’t been tampered with, or it had been opened by an expert. He tore it open and read Romina’s letter, chuckling darkly at her admonition to enjoy his new body. He’d get back at her for that, starting with a scathing email.
But now, he needed to rest. The hour and a half of activity had worn him out.
“Could you recline the bed again?”
Despair hit with full force when he woke again two hours later. It always did. There was no confusion this time, no shock to soften the blow. When his body didn’t move the way it was supposed to he immediately knew why, and broke down sobbing.
He would never get this atrocity into shape. Hell, he didn’t even know if he could get to the bathroom, much less all the other stuff.
And the hunger…it was so intense he thought he’d faint.
One way to fool the body into thinking it wasn’t hungry was to drink plenty of water. But that was only possible if he could empty his bladder.
He was damned if he’d give the smug, self-satisfied Janice the pleasure of sponging him off, so that meant he would need to go to the bathroom.
That would be his objective for the evening: to get to the bathroom and use it.
He wasn’t sure he could do it.
In the meantime, he would get up to speed, see what he’d missed. He dug out his phone, quickly sent Romina an email to let her know he was awake—she wouldn’t contact him unless the emergency was dire—and scrolled through the news. The handheld device was difficult to manipulate, but Walker, understandably, had deactivated the implants before handing over his body. The effort wasn’t rewarded: the news reported nothing interesting.
He got to work. Walker had told his business associates that he was on vacation, and that he wouldn’t be reviewing email, but there were probably still messages to check, so Luca logged in to the consolidated forwarding account that they’d set up to run his communications and was relieved to see that there were only a couple of emails.
The first was from Everett Kinney, the CEO of Swalker Holdings. Luca grinned to see the play on Samuel Walker; he’d always felt that corporate branding should be a humorless arena where even disruptive and ludicrous names were chosen for cynical reasons. But, having met Walker, he was pretty much convinced that this one was just a silly pun.
The email itself was the best Luca could have hoped for: just a note from the man who was now completely in charge of Walker’s empire thanking his boss for the chance to prove his worth and reassuring him that everything would be fine. Luca dashed off a quick response.
The other email had been forwarded from Walker’s personal account. It was from Samuel’s brother.
Bob Walker wanted to get together for lunch on Sunday. It fit Samuel’s schedule—though he wasn’t religious, the billionaire kept Sundays clear for family and friends—and Samuel would never pass up a chance to see Maddy, Bob’s nearly three-year-old daughter, so Luca accepted. It meant that he had to be able to move around by himself, or at least well enough to imitate Samuel’s lifestyle, within the next three days, but refusing would have been uncharacteristic.
Lunch would be at the Frisson, a trendy new place on the water near the High Line, which was close to Samuel’s factory home but, more importantly, a place where the staff were acquainted with his peculiar needs and catered to them. They had the option of allowing him to eat on a specially commissioned couch, which they’d offered to buy the first time Samuel had asked them about it.
It would be simplicity itself to get there from the Central Park apartment. His chauffer didn’t care whether the place he chose for lunch was a block away or a hundred miles; the man drew a salary and was always available anywhere in the city on thirty minutes notice.
That done, he had no more excuses.
“Janice,” he called.
Shuffling footsteps approached and the woman appeared. “Yes, sir?”
“I need to go to the bathroom, but I’m scared that if I try to get down from this bed, I’ll fall off…and if that happens, I’m pretty sure I’ll go right through the floor and then next one…and so forth. The Owner’s Association will be pissed.”
That nearly drew a smile, but she managed to control herself. “Don’t worry. The controls allow me to lower the bed nearly all the way to the floor. Excuse me.”
The whirring sounded again and, true to her word, the bed stopped a foot off the ground. From there, it should have been easy to swing his legs over the side and stand…
Nothing was ever that simple, of course. To swing his legs over, Luca had to rotate the colossal body around his rear, pushing with his arms. But the geometry of Walker’s mass was so different from what he was used to that he nearly rolled off the bed. That would have been a real problem; he didn’t think Janice was strong enough to get him upright again.
And he was finding it difficult to believe that Samuel was strong enough to stand, either.
Had they all lied to him? Was Samuel actually already the invalid they were afraid he’d become?
No. He wasn’t. Luca had seen him walk with his own eyes. Slowly, it was true, and with the aid of a walker, but under his own power.
He tried again. This time, he moved slowly and propped the body up first with one arm, and then the other. The weight was incredible, the strain enormous, but it was just possible.
Only then did he begin, inch by inch, to slide his legs towards the edge of the bed. It took an eternity but the soles of his feet were finally planted on the ground, and he was sitting up.
Now came the hard part.
He turned to Janice, who’d been watching quietly without comment, ready to help if asked, but not willing to intrude: the picture of a perfectly trained high-end domestic. “There should be a walker around here somewhere.”
She strode to a corner of the room, brought the walker over and set it in front of Luca.
He studied it for a moment. It was a wheeled version, much too spindly in his eyes to do much more than shatter if he had to put his weight on it. A braking mechanism could be engaged to lock the wheels.
“Could you check if the wheels are locked before I try to stand?”
Again, Janice complied efficiently. “Yes, sir. It’s locked.”
He placed his hands—his huge hands, he noted again—on the top bar and hesitated. This was the moment of truth. He knew, knew, that if he flopped now, he might as well give the money back, that the job was just too big for him.
“Ungh,” the grunt sounded exactly like what a big man should make as it echoed around the room, a sound of pain and despair. But slowly, he straightened his legs.
His massive arms should have given out. His knees should have exploded. And there was no possible explanation for that stringy walker surviving the strain.
None of that happened. Everything held. He couldn’t believe it, but it was true.
For a few moments, he just stood there, trembling, getting his first real sense of the body he wore.
Luca had been inside fat men before. It was always difficult to adapt to the slightly slower nature of their movements, to the fact that they couldn’t navigate tight spaces in restaurants, to the way the folds of skin slapped against his flesh as he walked.
This was different. Horrifyingly different.
The men he’d worked with before had been overweight, yes. One of them, a Ukrainian plutocrat, had been close to three hundred pounds. Samuel Walker was half again that weight, and it was evident in everything about him.
For the first time, Luca was frightened. He was sure he could feel his heart laboring to force blood through grease-clogged arteries. The weight of the fat-filled belly pulled at the skin of his shoulders—how come it didn’t tear away?
But the real pain came from his knees and ankles, holding up all that weight.
He grabbed onto that, using it as a lifeline, a road back to sanity. He would concentrate, especially the first few days, on preserving those knees and ankles. Injury to either would set the program back by weeks, if not months. His freedom would likewise be delayed.
No. It wouldn’t. He’d take care of the knees and ankles.
Ideally, he wouldn’t even use them to walk, but that, thanks to mounting pressure in his bladder was out of the question.
“Could you unlock my wheels?” he asked.
The direction of the sound surprised him. It was coming from around his chest. Was the woman really that small? He turned to look.
No. Janice was a normal-sized woman, not too tall, but not terribly short, either. The difference was that Samuel Walker was a tall man, probably six feet four or six-five.
Luca smiled. At least there would be some perks to living in that oversized hulk. Something he could really enjoy.
Walking wasn’t going to be one of them, though. Not for some months. Tentative baby steps brought him to the restroom at a snail’s pace, each making him think that his overloaded knees would snap at any moment.
At least the bathroom itself was well designed for its owner. Grab handles sprouted from every solid surface, and the toilet was solid and reinforced. This, at least, he had no qualms about trusting with his weight; if terrorists ever nuked Manhattan, the toilet would survive.
There was no question about trying to urinate standing up. Quite aside from the fact that he hadn’t yet mastered the art of balancing his weight, there was also the need to find his penis under all that fat, and hold it using only one hand while endeavoring not to fall over. It was an operation well beyond his current skills. Luckily, his pants were not an issue: they were tent-like and made of soft fabric with elastic waistband over equally uncomplicated underwear.
He sat more heavily than he intended, relief from not standing any further filling the depths of his being, and did his business. He’d almost put it off for too long…but he hadn’t. He’d made it.
His first success.
Buoyed by the thought, he managed to get off the toilet without assistance and even walk back to bed. Only then did he allow himself to collapse.
Janice had retreated to a respectable distance as he relieved himself, but was now hovering anxiously, waiting for any hint that he might need assistance. As soon as he was safely back on the mattress, she began to leave, but he stopped her.
“How long did Anton say you were to be with me?” he asked.
“As long as you needed, sir. He mentioned that you were trying to lose weight, and that you would be able to do more things for yourself as the days went by.”
“Yes, that’s the plan.” He tried to avoid looking too deeply into her eyes. The woman might be a saint, but even the saintliest nurse alive would have heard this kind of thing often, and would have seen one patient after another fail to free themselves the prison of their body. “Did he tell you how I plan to go about it?”
“Most men my size would have their stomach stapled, but I’ve decided not to. Too much risk. So my plan is to work away the excess weight through a combination of diet and exercise.”
“I’m sorry to contradict you, sir, but if you try to exercise, I’ll do my best to stop you. The most important part of my job is to keep you alive, and your heart won’t survive any strain…and neither will the rest of you.”
He smiled. “I agree. Real exercise is going to take a while. I need to lose some weight, first. But I will be moving much more than I have in the past.” He recited from the notes he’d taken. “I normally spend eighteen hours awake. Of that time, I spend an average of sixteen hours on my couch or similar seats in different places, an hour and a half in the car traveling to meetings and half an hour in the bathroom. The total time I might spend on my feet in all that time is maybe ten minutes on a good day. I even sit in the shower.”
She nodded. It sounded about right for a man his size.
“Well, that’s going to change. In the first place, I’ll be sleeping a minimum of eight hours every night. I’ll also be eating only four meals a day, and those will be smaller than what I was used to. Finally, I’ll be on my feet and walking at least five minutes out of every hour for the next few days.”
Janice nodded. “That sounds possible.”
“Will you help me?”
“Good. Because I don’t think I can do it alone. I’m exhausted from going to the bathroom.”
“What can I do?”
“Force me to stay on schedule. Remind me if it looks like I might forget. And, also, more immediately, bring me my dinner and the TV remote. This project will start tomorrow. For now, I need to rest.”
Sleep was hard to come by. No matter what the literature said, Luca was convinced that the circadian rhythm was something that bodies treasured deep within their bones, and that the mind had little to do with it. Walker’s body just reinforced that belief as it fought tooth and nail—perhaps literally?—to avoid getting more rest than it was used to.
In addition to that, he had to fight another enemy, the one he feared most on these projects: hunger.
Around midnight, it began to gnaw at his insides like a rabid animal. Luca refrained from drinking water to combat it; the last thing he needed was to attempt a trip to the bathroom half-asleep. Experience had taught him that, after a few days, his body would get used to the new diet and the pangs would become more controllable. But that night, he would have to earn his pay.
He couldn’t even toss and turn to get into a more comfortable position. He was on his back, feeling his butt sweat, and that was the way he would remain. It was even more uncomfortable than flying. At least on a plane you could squirm a bit and put the weight on other patches of skin. This body was too heavy and too weak to move.
Despite it all, somewhere in the small hours, he finally managed to attain a fitful, oft-interrupted sleep.
Luca didn’t wake rested and alert. He was tired, fuzzy-headed and cranky, but at least he knew where he was, and wasn’t panicked by the idea. Baby steps. It was 7:30 AM, and even if he would have preferred to sleep just a little longer, he absolutely needed to get to the bathroom.
He almost forewent calling Janice—after all, he’d made it to the head once before—but decided against it. It was his client’s body, and if he broke it, his professional reputation was probably doomed.
She appeared prim, alert and awake. Only the knowledge that he would be helpless without her prevented him from sending the smug bitch to hell.
It should have been easier now that he knew the ropes, but getting to the bathroom was even harder that morning than it had been the previous day. He struggled through it, and even managed to cast a look of trepidation towards the shower. He had no idea how he was going to use it…but he desperately wanted to. This body sweated like nothing he’d ever encountered.
Once he’d finished his ablutions—even managing to brush his teeth and comb his hair while holding firmly to one of the handles—Luca called to Janice. “Have you seen the scale? I’m pretty sure I asked Anton to buy it.”
“Yes, sir, but he had a hard time finding one…robust enough for what you need. It arrived just yesterday, and I haven’t removed it from the box yet.” She walked off and returned with a cardboard package about half a yard square and four inches thick. It opened to reveal a scale that resembled some that Luca had seen in warehouses for weighing meat, except that this one had been finished by an interior decorator as opposed to an industrial designer. A standard digital display sat under a piece of plexiglass that looked like it could bear the weight of three Samuel Walkers.
She placed it beside him and he stepped gingerly onto the flat surface. His stomach obscured the view of the result.
“Four hundred and seventy-three pounds,” she said, carefully keeping the disapproval out of her voice.
“We need to get that down a bit, don’t we?”
“It would be for the best, I think.”
“All right, then we should get started. I think this would be a good moment for the first of my five minute walks. I’ll have breakfast in the study.”
She raised an eyebrow, which he interpreted as surprise that he was actually sticking to his plan. Well, she’d get a chance to apply her cattle prod a little later in the process. Enthusiasm was always highest in the beginning.
And with that, the grind began. He lifted a foot, then another. Then he lifted the foot again, then another.
And then another.