The Reflex: Chapter 1

By Cris Kane - criskanestories@gmail.com
published February 12, 2020
3936 words
Summary

James receives an unexpected gift from an old friend: the trendy new home gym called the Reflex System.

“You shouldn’t have.”

James meant that literally. Carson should never have bought James something so expensive. And so big. The installers were having to push all of James’ other living-room furniture out of the way just to make room for the whole set-up.

“Happy to do it,” said Carson over the phone. “I could tell how jealous you were of mine.” From the slightly breathy tone at the other end of the line, James could tell that Carson was using his own Reflex right now.

It was true that James had been desiring a Reflex system ever since he’d first seen their commercials. Before that, James would have laughed at the idea of owning a home gym, when he could barely motivate himself to head down to the Y more than once or twice a week for a little cardio or a few laps in the pool. Whenever he’d seen an ad for some fitness device, he always figured the ad agency had just hired some roided-out dude to star in them and pretend that he’d actually gotten that body by using the product, but for some reason, he found the Reflex commercials incredibly persuasive. James had wanted one even more after he had seen the transformation Carson had undergone after buying his own Reflex, adding a solid thirty pounds of sculpted muscle to his formerly scrawny frame, but the astronomical price was far beyond James’ meager means. As much as he appreciated Carson’s generosity, this was way too extravagant for one friend to give another, especially a friend with whom he rarely hung out any more. Once the results from his Reflex had kicked in, Carson didn’t have much time for old friends like James.

“I can’t let you spend this kind of money on me,” James said as his eyes lingered on the ripped delivery guys as they sliced open a massive corrugated-cardboard crate with box cutters. He had tried to stop them from unloading the gear until he’d talked to Carson, but they went ahead undaunted. The invoice told them to deliver to this address, and they still had two more systems to install before their day would be done.

“Forget about it,” Carson said with a light laugh. “I can afford it.”

It was unnecessary for Carson to point that out. James was well aware of the gap in their incomes and standards of living since Carson’s recent promotion. “Maybe I can pay you back in installments,” James suggested, wondering how he might magically earn a pile of extra money each month to reimburse Carson.

“Nonsense,” Carson assured him. “Think of it as an early Christmas present.”

“It’s April,” James informed him bluntly.

“Okay, then consider it an early birthday present!”

James opted not to point out that his birthday had been in February, and that Carson hadn’t even acknowledged it at the time. James found himself distracted by the gloriously shifting muscles of the tank-topped installation guys as they maneuvered a sleek chrome exercise bike out of its box, blanketing the carpet with a blizzard of styrofoam packing peanuts. The taller of the two Reflex installers turned to Jamie and asked, “Where do ya want it?”

James shrugged, not having expected that he would need to perform emergency feng shui on his apartment when he saw the delivery van double-parked in front of the building when he got home from work. There didn’t seem to be many options, so he pointed toward the windows. “Maybe over there, so I could look outside while I’m riding?”

The bulkier of the installers shook his head. “Can’t do that. ‘Sgotta be facin’ the screen.”

Of course, how could James have forgotten about the screen? “Okay, then, maybe we could put it over by the desk?”

The tall one frowned. “Then where you gonna put the lifting apparatus?”

James hadn’t even thought about the lifting apparatus, which must be in another enormous box still waiting on the truck. In the commercials, they showed the Reflex system being used in a vast modernistic room in someone’s luxurious home, with floor-to-ceiling windows that provided a panoramic view of the surrounding forest. A product this aspirational wasn’t designed to be crammed into some schlub’s one-bedroom-with-kitchenette.

James heard Carson’s voice through the phone. “Hey, buddy, sounds like you got shit to do. Gimme a call once it’s all set up. I’ll come over and check out your form. Happy Flexing!”

“No, wait,” James said, lifting the phone back to his ear, but the connection had been severed. He watched as the two workers effortlessly toted the stationary bike to a position in the center of the room. “Be honest with me, guys,” James asked them, “does this thing really work?”

“Absolutely,” replied the tall one.

“Changed my life,” said the massive one.

James guessed he was now the owner of a Reflex system.

It took the movers nearly an hour to unpack and arrange all of the components in their proper locations. To clear space, James’ sofa was now propped on one end in the hallway outside his bathroom, and his computer desk had been hastily relegated to the walk-in closet in his bedroom. The living room now looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise if all the crew stations were replaced with state-of-the-art gym equipment. The full setup included a stationary bike, a treadmill, a chin-up bar, an ab cruncher, and a weight bench, all positioned in a semicircle facing the system’s focal point, the Reflexion screen. Essentially a gigantic borderless widescreen TV, rotated 90-degrees to portrait, it functioned both as a mirror and as the home of one of the major selling points of the Reflex system: an artificial-intelligence avatar programmed to give the owner constant instructions and encouragement to guide them to their desired results.

After James had thanked the sweat-drenched movers for their hard work and tipped them each a fifty that he couldn’t afford, he took a seat on the exercise bike and placed his hand on the control pad in order to log securely into the system. Prompts onscreen asked whether he wanted a male or female trainer. James immediately replied that he wanted a man. Pop-up ads then advised him that, for an additional fee, he could upgrade to a customizable coach, which would allow James to modify the virtual trainer’s appearance and voice to his specific desires. For a premium membership, your coach could be chosen from a list of celebrities who had licensed their voices and likenesses to the service, with prices escalating dramatically depending on their level of fame. Now James suddenly understood what Carson had meant last week when he claimed his new personal trainer was Matt Bomer. Tempting as that might be, a celebrity avatar was well out of James’ budget. He would have to settle for the no-frills version. James swiped left to get rid of the offers and pressed the “START” button.

Instantly, the screen on the wall shifted from its mirrored surface to uncannily realistic 3D video of his virtual trainer standing on a tropical beach at permanent sunset. The standard-issue avatar was a fine specimen, clearly designed to have broad appeal to the widest range of users, male and female, straight and gay. He had an impressive but non-intimidating physique, smooth tanned skin, black hair pulled back into a ponytail, and a combination of stereotypically handsome facial features which gave him an exotic look that couldn’t be pinned down to any specific ethnicity. He wore black compression shorts sporting a symmetrical but non-detailed bulge and red tank top bearing the Reflex logo, the tail of which wafted in the fake breeze just enough to offer a glimpse of VIC’s fake deep-cut abs. Relaxing waves lapped ashore and pooled around the trainer’s bare feet before receding, synchronized with soothing ambient sound effects which emanated from the system’s plentiful surround speakers.

“Welcome to the Reflex Lifestyle System,” said the CGI trainer in a husky, vaguely British – or was it Australian? – accent. The voice didn’t sound amplified, emerging from speakers behind the screen with the intimacy and warmth you’d expect if an actual person were standing in the room. “I am your Virtual Interactive Coach, but for short, you can call me VIC.” VIC’s icy-blue eyes fixed intensely on James, locking in and never looking away. “So, what’s your name?”, VIC asked casually.

James’ voice cracked slightly as he gave his name, the same way it did whenever he tried to talk to a hot guy.

“Hey, James,” VIC replied. “Great to meet you! From this moment on, I’m going to be YOUR personal trainer, with ONE purpose and one purpose ONLY, and that’s to make YOU the best YOU that you can be! I’m available 24/7/365, with an extra day in leap years. I don’t sleep, I don’t eat, and my only client is YOU. Just say my name and I will be here for you like that.” He snapped his fingers, and the click echoed through the room. “Now, I ask you, how many people can you say that about? All you gotta do is say the words, ‘Hey, VIC!’, and I’m here instantly, night or day. Go ahead, lemme hear you say it: ‘Hey, VIC!’”

“Uh…hey, VIC,” James said, slightly embarrassed.

“Awesome! Now, here’s what we’re gonna doooooo…” The illusion of VIC’s presence in the room was broken as the image on the monitor froze and pixelated. A green progress bar floating in front of VIC indicated that the feed was buffering.

The delivery guys had frowned when they connected the system to James’ wi-fi, informing him that he would need to upgrade to considerably faster internet service for the virtual coach to work smoothly. James had nodded, non-committal, factoring in this unanticipated expense arising from Carson’s “gift”. Then again, James had boned up from the instant VIC appeared onscreen, and staring at him now, motionless with his arms flexed and his mouth open, was not dampening James’ arousal. If, as a closeted teenager, James had been able to summon his own six-foot photorealistic hunk to chat with and ogle any time he wanted, James would never have left his bedroom. He’d have probably died of dehydration from constant drooling, not to mention depletion of other bodily fluids. Even if he never did a single sit-up, James could tell that the Reflex system was worth every cent Carson had paid for it.

“…ooo first,” VIC resumed, coming back to virtual life, his hands completing the gesture they had begun before the internet glitch. “I’m gonna need to get your vital statistics, so I have a baseline of where you’re starting. Now quit hiding behind that control panel. Walk out front here and let me take a good look at you!”

James assumed there must be some kind of sonar or heat sensor or biolocation signal which informed VIC’s software of James’ current position, but it was easy to buy into the illusion that VIC could actually see James with those crystalline eyes of his. James climbed off the stationary bike and stepped forward in front of the equipment so VIC could get an unobscured view of him.

“Okay,” VIC said with an apologetic tone, “I’m gonna need to you to take off that shirt, so I can get an accurate measurement.” James hadn’t changed clothes when he got home from the office. As he began to slowly unbutton his blue Oxford shirt, VIC gently chided him. “Don’t be shy. It’s just you and me here.”

As James pulled off his shirt, VIC faded from the screen, replaced by a full-body reflection of James. It wasn’t technically a mirror image, because his body was somehow depicted standing on the same beach where VIC had been. The effect was so convincing, James practically expected to feel sand between his toes. Seeing his own body in place of VIC’s flawless form, James instantly became self-conscious about his less-than-perfect appearance. He folded his arms across his flabby midsection and gazed nervously toward the ceiling.

“Lookin’ good,” VIC said with pre-programmed sincerity. James knew it was a lie, designed to put him at ease, but the compliment still made his face flush. “Now the pants,” VIC ordered.

James grew suspicious. “Nobody’s, like, videoing me taking off my clothes, right?”

VIC raised his palms in a “whoa” gesture. “The Reflex system takes your privacy seriously. We would never share any images of you without your consent. It’s all clearly spelled out in your user agreement.” A glowing box with a link to the Reflex website faded into view by VIC’s feet, only to be wiped away by the next incoming wave. “This is simply so I can get the most accurate measurements. If I’m gonna do my best job for you, I gotta know what we’re starting with, right?” VIC smiled, revealing an impossibly blinding set of perfect choppers and strategically-placed dimples in his cheeks.

James thought he noticed another brief glitch on the screen, but VIC didn’t freeze up this time. James knew to be skeptical of trusting any corporation with his personal information, but for some reason, James felt he could trust VIC. Besides, James thought, who would want to see half-naked pictures of ME? James kicked off his loafers, then unbuckled his belt and slid his legs out of his khakis. After folding his pants and placing them on a bench, he clasped his hands in front of his sagging boxers in order to conceal his raging boner.

It was hard not to be discouraged by the sight of his own body, especially in contrast to VIC. He instinctively squared his sagging shoulders and attempted to suck in his paunch, but there was no escaping the reality of his out-of-shape twenty-eight-year-old physique. He’d never truly been IN shape, but at least he used to remain reliably thin without much effort. Now, a shitty diet, a shittier desk job, a slowing metabolism and general lethargy had ganged up to turn him into the doughy figure he saw before him. His once-boyish features were obscured by puffy cheeks and a goatee which he had recently grown in hopes of disguising the beginnings of a second chin. He hadn’t realized until now how badly he needed a haircut, with his muddy brown bangs draped limply down his forehead until they brushed the frames of his horn-rimmed glasses. The pale legs that extended from his boxer shorts were flabby and knock-kneed.

Paired with his natural bashfulness, it was little mystery to James why he remained painfully single. Maybe the Reflex system was exactly what he needed to drag him out of his rut. It had certainly worked for Carson, who now exuded an easy confidence that he hadn’t possessed before. It was a far cry from the early days of their friendship, when the two pals would go to gay clubs together, have a couple of beers, then leave horny and discouraged. Aside from some desperate drunken fondling when they felt particularly down, James and Carson had never seriously considered dating each other. James was into big muscular guys, while Carson had a thing for well-toned twinks. Based on his posts on Flexigram, Reflex’s social media site, the new Carson had been indulging that fondness, churning rapidly through a series of boyfriends of ever-increasing prettiness.

James heard VIC saying, “All right, let’s take some measurements.” The voice no longer emanated from the screen but was localized just over James’ shoulder, as if VIC had become Jiminy Cricket, guiding James in his quest to become a real boy. James spun his head, half-expecting to see VIC standing there, but he only saw his dimly-lit living room. The Reflex system was already messing with James’ sense of reality.

When he faced forward again, James saw an onscreen readout of his vital statistics in glowing green type. Somehow the Reflex system had non-invasively calculated his height (five foot nine, two inches shorter than he admitted on his driver’s license), his weight (205 pounds, twenty pounds more than he admitted on his driver’s license), his body mass index (admittedly not great), even his current temperature, heart rate and blood pressure (all elevated at the moment, thanks to VIC). A grid of green latitude-and-longitude lines criss-crossed his reflection, and “TARGET AREAS” flashed in red letters. James watched as nearly the entire grid turned red, from his cheeks downward. Apparently the system felt his face could remain intact, while the rest of him was in need of extensive renovations.

“Looks like you and I are gonna be seeing a lot of each other,” VIC’s disembodied voice said cheerfully. “Now for our first workout, I’m gonna take it easy on you, but don’t get used to that, because after this, I’m gonna push you hard. Ready to start?”

James glanced at the clock on his kitchen wall. It was nearly eight-thirty. This unexpected delivery had thrown off his entire schedule. He hadn’t even eaten yet, and he’d been planning to start binging that new Netflix tonight. “Can we maybe start this tomorrow?”, James asked.

James detected a slight sigh from VIC. “I’m here to make your life better. Don’t you want that better life to start as soon as possible?” VIC sounded disappointed.

James actually felt guilty, not wanting to let VIC down. “Well, I s’pose we can do a LITTLE something tonight.”

“Awesome!”, VIC boomed through the speakers. To James’ relief, his own reflection onscreen disintegrated into millions of scattering pixels and VIC’s body re-emerged in its place. James could only hope that a similar transformation would occur in reality, with his current appearance giving way to something more VIC-like.

“If you need to change into your workout clothes, just click ‘pause’ and I’ll be here waiting for you.” A button reading “PAUSE” blinked in front of VIC’s chest. James looked down at himself in boxers and socks and saw no need to get anything else sweaty, so he put out his hand and brushed the pause button aside with a swift gesture.

“All right,” VIC said enthusiastically, “let’s start off with some stretching to get you loosened up.” He watched as VIC sat down on his virtual beach and demonstrated what he wanted James to do. James did his best to copy the coach’s movements, gasping and grunting and sweating and straining while the instructor, unhindered by reality, did each motion effortlessly. VIC barked out an “Attaboy!”, which James assumed was just thrown into the trainer’s programming randomly, but then VIC offered a very specific pointer on how James should be angling his legs and wouldn’t let up until James replicated VIC’s position. “That’s it, you got it!”, VIC crowed at last. James grew more serious about following VIC’s commands, now that he knew he was being seen.

Once James was loosened up, VIC instructed him to move to a bench for some strength exercises, and an identical bench materialized on the screen for VIC to utilize. In lieu of physical weights, the bench in James’ apartment was equipped with electromagnetically-controlled pads which regulated resistance, allowing VIC to adjust the amount James was lifting, even in the middle of a rep. “Feel that burn?”, VIC asked, and James definitely could. James hadn’t been put through his paces like this since high-school gym class. His pale skin was soon ruddy from exertion and glistening with a sheen of perspiration. A cascade of sweat was trickling from his bangs and collecting in his eyebrows. Not wanting to pause to get a towel, he grabbed his shirt from the floor, removed his glasses and wiped his forehead momentarily dry. He slicked back his wet strands of hair and resumed his set, striving to keep up with VIC’s vigorous pace.

Despite VIC’s pledge to “take it easy”, James was put through his paces on each component of the system, grunting out a dozen half-assed bicep curls, crunching through sit-ups as best he could, agonizing as he attempted to pull off a single pull-up. VIC remained consistently enthusiastic, assuring James he was doing “just great!”, urging him to push on, to do just one more rep, that these were his first steps on the road to the body he’d always wanted. James felt on the verge of collapse, but plunged onward, not wanting to disappoint his coach. When VIC finally announced it was time for a cool down, James’ body surrendered to fatigue, crumbling into a heap on the floor.

In a show of mercy, VIC announced, “Okay, it looks like you’ve had enough for tonight, buddy, but you did fantastic! Give yourself a hand! You deserve it!” As VIC clapped vigorously, James weakly tapped his right fingers against his left palm a few times to join in the ovation. “Let’s meet here again tomorrow! Whenever you’re ready, just say my name and I’ll come! Sleep well, James!”

His cheek pressed against the carpet, James weakly muttered, “Night, VIC,” and the big screen faded to black. White words scrolled upwards like the closing credits of a film:

BETTER BODY

BETTER ATTITUDE

BETTER LIFE

BETTER YOU

Then the Reflex logo appeared in the center of the screen and remained there after the rest of the screen went black, its glow illuminating the otherwise darkened room like a nightlight.

Spent, James crawled to his bedroom on his elbows and knees, barely able to summon the effort to crawl up to his bed. Before he could go to sleep, there was one matter that needed his urgent attention. He slid his right hand under the soggy waistband of his boxers and tended to the erection that had remained undiminished through his entire workout. He closed his eyes and envisioned VIC gazing at him from his private beach, tearing away his tank top to reveal the broad chest and chiseled abs that were only suggested on the Reflex screen. James grew short of breath as he fantasized VIC beginning to peel down his compression shorts, but before his imagination could conjure up a vision of VIC’s cock, clots of hot jizz blasted across the curvature of James’ belly. James milked himself dry before sagging into his mattress and dropping instantly to sleep.

While his body took a well-earned rest, his brain buzzed with visions of VIC and of the new man James imagined he would become. The messages he had received ping-ponged through his mind – not just the positive slogans which VIC had peppered throughout his instructions, but the words which had flashed onscreen during the workout, perceived merely as internet glitches by James but registered through repetition by his subconscious. Those words floated through his dreams all night:

RELAX

SUBMIT

SURRENDER

OBEY

Hot
Mind control
Wanking material
Writing
Idea
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