Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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No Pension Plan for Ghosts

by William Lowe

The skin was stretched taut over her hard edged face, yet harder-edged wrinkles still creased it, like a crumpled piece of paper someone had tried futilely to smooth again. The acrid smoke from her unfiltered cigarettes burned my eyes. Her nearly black eyes noticed, they noticed everything from that reptilian stare.

She blew smoke in my face. It swirled about just before my eyes, crawling around some invisible barrier before assaulting me, but that was probably just my vision blurring as it made my eyes water.

I blinked, held my breath, and refused to cough. I was in a cramped office, with a finely polished mahogany desk between us, cluttered with classified documents and photographs of covert operations spanning the last decade. I was there, in the chair that left me looking up and across that expensive desk at my superior, surrounded by symbols of her authority, right down to her tight navy blue business suit with the top clearance ID badge hanging from the collar. I was there in the heart of the Pentagon, staring at a stranger who looked like my boss from years back -- but wasn't. I was there in the most comfortably unfamiliar place, yet I wasn't.

If I concentrated hard enough, my diminutive and emasculating stool in her dominating office became a steel bench with square bars for backrests at regular intervals. If I peered carefully through the haze, my hands clasped in a nonthreatening and supplicating manner on my lap were actually cuffed tightly to another bar, this one copper and connected electrically to god only knew how many volts should someone decide to flip a switch. My feet also were bound and bare on a concrete floor, shackled to the base of the bench, as opposed to being shod in my immaculately-shined leather loafers the way my eyes were trying to tell me.

All these strange interweaving images confused me, but the smoke was surely real, as was the woman breathing it. She sat at her desk, or rather stood over me in the dimly lit cell, and for the longest time neither of us spoke. Finally she broke the silence.

"I remind you, Abbas, you are under investigation as a double agent," the familiar stranger said. "You must elaborate on all facets of your current mission, preparations made, intelligence gathered, all actions taken to this point. You must account for your activity over this time period accurately and fully in order to avoid charges of treason. Your life is on the line, Abbas, think. What measures have you taken to accomplish your mission?"

She was calm and direct, but still intense. She was a dominating presence, just as I remembered my real boss. She exuded authority like it ran in her veins.

Every part of me wanted to tell her, needed to tell her, whatever she wanted to know. But I couldn't remember anything. I didn't even know what mission she was talking about.

Worse than the blanks in my memory was the continued shifting in my perceptions. At every pause in her speech there was a scramble like a TV channel with bad reception, and the cell would reappear. And sometimes when it did, I could see something else. I could feel something; a terrible pressure at my temples, surgical steel protruding from somewhere just beyond the limits of my peripheral vision to support a curved glass pane that hovered in front of my eyes.

I could see her through the glass as well as the cell, but something involuntary kept forcing my eyes to focus on the glass itself, and the faint images generated by it. A desk, polished till it glowed. Scattered documents. A small chair and office walls covered in photos and certificates.

Where was I? Everything was growing hazy again. How long had I been here?

I tried to stand up, to find something that made sense, to go somewhere. My feet rattled in their shackles and my wrists nearly dislocated as a sudden jolt of electric current passed through me. My body writhed and I bit my tongue hard, I couldn't think.

The pain ended abruptly, my eyes opened and the bright white walls of my superior's office came into focus. I had to squint against the light. I must have been having one of my migraines. I tried to remember what she was saying. There was something serious going on, I felt sure of that.

She stared at me with black eyes like a snake stares at a mouse when it has already eaten, wondering if it can fit another meal in its belly yet. I thought I felt wetness dripping down my temples and along my jaw. I must have been sweating but for some reason I couldn't raise my hand to wipe it off. Something was wrong, but a desperate fear rose up in me to avoid thinking about it. I should just answer her questions. What did she ask?

I tried to speak but my tongue felt swollen and hurt so bad I nearly yelped. The taste of copper seemed to enhance the throbbing. Suppressing the pain, I started to wonder what happened to my tongue, and vaguely remembered biting it. Why? A shock...

My wrists hurt, and a bar was digging into my back painfully. I couldn't see straight suddenly. It was like everything around my boss was blurring into a double image. My boss? What was her name? I couldn't remember. I couldn't remember ever seeing her before today, or even coming to her office. I tried to look around but my whole body hurt when I tried to move.

"Calm down Abbas. You'll only make things worse."

Worse than what? I didn't know what she meant. I tried to stand up and a jolt of electricity hit me like a train. One of my wrists popped out of place, I gave myself whiplash and all the muscles in my body threatened to tear away from the bones. Something in my temples snapped and I heard the sound of breaking glass. When the shock ended my body slumped against my restraints and I struggled to stay conscious.

I was in a dimly lit cell on a metal bench. The woman was still there, but her office was gone. My head was bleeding everywhere. I watched a slim man in a lab coat enter from the darkness beyond our solitary overhead light. My heart was fluttering, and dizziness made the world swim.

"Damn it Frank, did you have to juice him that hard?"

My eyes fluttered like my heart, then stayed shut. I could hear their voices fade like they were falling down a deep hole.

"His brainwaves showed the normal signs. The mental suppression was failing, right on cue at forty three hours. For once the memory partitioning training held against the interrogation the entire time. It is a good sign."

"Yes, it's a good sign, and it didn't warrant hitting him with enough current to fry his brain or maybe kill him."

"You know protocol, ma'am. Even a successful subject is to be terminated upon completion of testing. The training, and the mental suppression interrogation system both advance beyond the capabilities of our enemies at the expense of our least valuable agents. We can't be sending broken agents back into the field. That's why we picked Abbas. He's 52 years old, no family, failing physically. There wasn't much mileage left in him."

"Fine. You're right. Well go hit him again, he's still breathing for Christ's sake. Or do you want him to suffer longer than need be?"

"I'll go finish him off."

I almost let myself slip into oblivion just then. I almost welcomed darkness and let it be the end. But that comment, least valuable, put a fire in my mind. Suddenly I was angry, and I wasn't going down without a fight.

With my thumb and wrist out of joint already, I surged up in my seat, jerked my injured hand right out of the cuffs, and reached forward. I caught hold of that navy blue business suit in my good hand and dragged the wrinkled bitch across the copper bar I'd been tied to.

She screamed but it lasted only as long as it took for her lungs to involuntarily shove the air out of her body. Frank must have upped the juice because she started to cook.

I caught some stray current for being so close but it was only uncomfortable this time with only one hand directly in the circuit. I snatched at her suit coat, trying to get at the pocket without killing myself. It wasn't easy fighting the jolts still surging through her corpse. Frank must have thought I was superhuman by that point, since my brain waves had to be hyperactive with the adrenaline.

Luck, she had keys in her pocket after all. I burned my hand on them, but it didn't matter. I had to get those shackles off my feet and make a run for it. Over the hill didn't mean my survival instinct was gone. I was unlocked, unplugged from their equipment and bolting for anything that looked like an exit, but in the darkness beyond my interrogation seat I couldn't even figure out where Frank had gone.

Frank decided to make it easy for me. The bluish white glow of computer monitors broke through the blackness and showed me the way to Frank's station as he exited to see what was going on. I charged the skinny prick with a shout, kicking him in the groin and driving my knee into his nose as he doubled over. Suits and techies never were very tough.

He collapsed to the floor with a groan.

I stomped on his neck, getting a satisfying snap out of it.

In the monitor room I found another doorway, leading into a glaring white hallway. The florescent bulbs flickered and hummed, making me sick to my stomach. I put my head in my hands and felt my temples still bleeding, dozens of super fine wires dangling out of my skull -- apparently the interface to that weird glass piece I was hooked up with. I just had to leave them in there and hope it didn't some how short out my brain and turn me into a vegetable.

There were only two options now. Left or right. I went left.

I ran as fast as my aching body could go, down a seemingly endless hallway. There didn't seem to be any doors, just endless uninterrupted white walls and flickering florescent lights. Finally exhaustion forced me to stop. I leaned against the wall and struggled to breath, my lungs and throat were on fire and I almost wanted to die from the pain in my body. That longing for relief and the pain itself disappeared quickly as I heard the clicking of door latches up and down the hall.

Seamless white walls suddenly split open as far as I could see in either direction at random points. Men came marching out, in dull grey suits with crew cuts and military boots. Big men, hard jawed and steely eyed. They came at me with purpose and caution, slow and deliberate.

I didn't stand a chance. I didn't care.

The first to close in on me dodged my predictable right hook, but he wasn't expecting a spinning back kick in the same motion. My bare heel shattered his orbital socket before he could regain his balance. I was almost as surprised it had worked as he was. Turning your back on an opponent was not the most intelligent tactic, but in a fight like this, my back was exposed no matter where I turned.

I continued to kick and punch with wild abandon. I desperately shoved away from one man after another as they tried to latch onto me and wrestle me to the ground. My blood slicked skin made it easier to slip away. I was just as capable of beating a man on my back as on my feet, but being outnumbered changed the game entirely. Multiple attackers turned the floor into certain death. Eventually it wasn't my choice.

The last thing I saw as they piled on top of me was an image of an older man seen through an open doorway. Half naked and strapped to a metal bench and a copper bar, he wore a strange glass visor plugged into his temples. A young man stood interrogating him. I prayed for the old man. I screamed at him. I felt the boots breaking ribs and fingers, and all started to go black. I guess I wasn't meant to be the hero this time. One hell of an early retirement package, huh?

And thenů and thenů

I was in a cramped office, with a finely polished mahogany desk between me and a hard-faced woman I recognized as my superior. The desk was cluttered with classified documents and photographs of covert operations spanning the last decade.


© 2012 William Lowe

Bio: William Lowe is a twenty-eight year old electrical engineer, unpublished as a writer. He has been happily married for the last five years and has recently moved to Colorado. He enjoys the fantasy and science fiction genres, especially fantasy books, and has developed the urge to write such stories as well as read them -- with results like the story you have just read.

E-mail: William Lowe

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