Ghosts in the Psycho-Surgical Transmutation Machine
by Michelle Ann King
It was nearly eleven by the time I managed to get myself going that morning, so I thought about the pub — but the state of my finances was even worse than my hangover, so I gave it a swerve and headed for the drop-in centre next to the library instead. It was a pretty good place to blag a free cup of coffee without having to suffer too much preaching and do-gooding in return, which suited me fine. I’d had just about all the do-gooding I could stomach for a while.
It was practically empty when I got there; just Flea, sitting on the ratty little sofa with her head down, intent on rolling a joint.
“Greetings,” she said, without looking up. “Enter and be welcome, fellow traveler on the hard road of life.”
“Whatever, Flea.” The coffee pot was down to half an inch of burnt sludge. I eyed it with trepidation, then took a mostly clean mug off the side and poured it out anyway. Beggars, choosers.
“Aha, the fair Rhona. Haven’t seen you for ages, dear girl. Where have you been hiding yourself?”
She lifted one wiry gray eyebrow. “Really? I didn’t know you were trying to give up the sauce.”
“I wasn’t. But Sascha said it was all free, so…” I shrugged. Free bed and board, when you were sleeping on friends’ sofas — and rapidly running out of people who could even remotely be called friends — wasn’t something to be sniffed at.
Flea nodded sagely. She got it. “And was it useless?”
I shoved her booted feet off the sofa and flopped down next to her. “Totally. And weird. I thought it was going to be all group therapy and kumbayah, but I was the only one there. This whole place, and all they’ve got is one charity case. Fuck knows how they make any money.”
“I very much doubt if they do. All these places” — she swept an arm wide — “aren’t charity affairs so much as write-offs for accounting purposes. But did you say Sascha? As in Sascha Graham, our esteemed patroness? I’m impressed. I never thought the Rich Bitch herself would be interested in the unwashed unfortunates her tax-dodging donations support. Are you not drinking that?”
She produced a hip flask from one of the pockets in her voluminous overcoat and tipped the contents — from the smell of the fumes, whisky that was at least as bad as the coffee — into my mug. My stomach rolled and I turned my face away.
“Bracing,” she said, smacking her lips. “Don’t get me wrong, dear girl, I’m not complaining. She gets to win charity awards and I get somewhere warm to go when it’s pissing down outside, and did you just call her your mother?”
“Sascha Graham. You said, ‘Don’t call my mother a bitch.’ Just now.”
I shook my head, a move I regretted when it sent a bolt of pain tumbling through my skull, then leaned back against the sofa and closed my eyes. “I never said a word. You must be hearing things, mate.”
Suddenly, a warm, calloused finger pulled up my eyelid and a distorted, bloodshot eye peered into mine. “Hello? Anyone alive in there?”
“Ow,” I said, pushing the finger out of my face. “What the fuck, Flea? Get off me.”
It came out slurred, sounding more like Goffme, and whacked me with a surge of déjà vu. Get off me. I’d said that to someone else recently, I was sure. More than once.
Who? When? Probably more importantly, why? I reached for the memory but came up with nothing. Which wasn’t exactly a surprise: you drink, you black out. It’s par for the course. But wasn’t being in rehab supposed to make that better, not worse?
“Aha, we have signs of life. Rhona? Is that you?”
I swallowed, which was harder work than it should have been. My mouth was dry, my tongue thick and sluggish. “For Christ’s sake. Of course it’s me.”
Flea regarded me contemplatively. “Yes, well, that’s not quite the foregone conclusion one might normally expect, you know. Or, no, you probably don’t know, do you? That’s the point. Nicole doesn’t know Rhona, and Rhona doesn’t know Nicole.”
I struggled to sit upright. “Who? What? What the fuck are you on about, Flea?”
“Your alternate personalities, my dear. I’ve only met Nicole so far — charming girl, very refined tastes — but there could well be others. I could hypnotize you, if you like. I took a course once.” She wiggled her yellow-stained fingers in my face. “You are getting very sleepy …”
Once more, I batted her hand away, and she moved back with a look of disappointment. “At least you were having a good time. Having tea at the Ritz with Mama Graham and a gentleman friend by the name of Jonathan, from what I could gather.” She sighed. “How come your delusions are so much better than anyone else’s? I hallucinate, I get cockroaches and giant fang-munching spiders, not a nice pot of Earl Grey and a plate of cucumber sandwiches. It’s just not fair.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come out. Because I did know, didn’t I? Nicole. Jonathan. I knew those names. I knew those people.
“Jonathan,” I said, testing the sound of it. The familiarity. “Jonathan Morgan. I met him in Canada. Banff. I was on a skiing trip, and he was visiting his aunt. We shared a gondola up Sulphur Mountain.”
Flea gave me the eyebrow again. “Canada? I didn’t know you’d ever been further than Margate.”
“I haven’t. I’ve never been skiing, I’ve never gone up a mountain, and I’ve never met anyone called Jonathan. I don’t know him. But I remember him.” I stared at her. “How is that possible, Flea?”
She stared at me intently. “Spontaneous past life regression? I used to be Nell Gwyn, you know. Fascinating place, the seventeenth century.”
“No. It’s not the past. It’s now. I had an iPhone. I was taking photos with it.” I looked at my hand, almost expecting to see a phone in it. For half a second, I thought maybe I did. Then I blinked, and it was gone.
But I could see the photos still, if I closed my eyes. Photos of Jonathan. Of Sascha Graham.
“She’s not my mother,” I said slowly. My mother’s dead. I know that. But … it feels like she is. I remember her, Flea.”
I remembered places I’d never seen, people I’d never met. I remembered waking up disoriented and frightened, pain flaring in my chest. The smell of fire. Hot metal, burning hair. Burning flesh. Then familiar hands, a familiar voice telling me that it was okay, that I was safe.
I remembered Sascha — remembered clinging to her, crying with relief. But I also remembered pushing her away, confused and angry. What are you doing? Get off me!
“What the fuck is this?” I said. My voice sounded strange in my ears. Alien. “Am I going crazy?”
Flea gave this some thought. “It’s not impossible, of course — the demon booze has certainly been known to scramble a cerebellum or two. But while I’m not a qualified psychiatrist, and don’t even play one on TV, I’ve known more than a fair few of said scrambled souls. And in my experienced, if not exactly professional, opinion, I would say you seem perfectly sane. Which leaves, clearly, only one other possibility. You’re possessed.”
“Exactly,” she said, with satisfaction. “I’m glad you agree. It’s obvious that you’re being used as a conduit for the ghost of Sascha Graham’s dead daughter, who has unfinished earthly business that she needs you to carry out for her.”
She looked at me askance. “How should I know? You’re the one who’s been given the supernatural mission. I didn’t even know Sascha Graham had a daughter. We don’t exactly move in the same social circles, you know.”
“This is just …” I breathed out hard and bent over, putting my head between my knees until the room stopped spinning. “What am I supposed to do?”
“We have to work out what she wants,” Flea said, reasonably. “Nicole. So we should start by finding out more about her, and her life.”
I let out a snort. “And how are we going to do that? Hold a seance? Use a Ouija board?”
“We could do that, sure,” she said, still reasonable. “But I was actually thinking about looking her up on the internet.”
“Oh. Okay. That … probably makes more sense.” If sense was a thing that even existed anymore.
Flea pulled a mobile out of one of her multitude of pockets, but the screen was cracked and dark. She shrugged and lobbed it in the bin. “Never mind. It was probably out of credit anyway. Let’s go next door. Libraries always have free WiFi.”
The public-use laptops were all in use when we got there, but Flea solved the problem by hovering behind a little bloke who was googling respiratory infections and coughing on him until he decided he’d learned what he needed to know and vacated the seat.
The library was a bright and airy place, with big floor-to-ceiling windows, but somehow it still managed to feel claustrophobic. I closed my eyes while Flea typed, but it didn’t make me feel better. Jonathan’s face floated behind my eyelids, so clearly it hurt. He was smiling. Happy. Pleased to see me.
No. Not me.
“I’ll wait outside,” I said. Flea waved a hand, then went back to tapping at the keyboard.
I pushed through the double doors and sank onto one of the curved metal benches, turning my face toward the sun. It burned, but I felt cold. I closed my eyes again and saw snowflakes falling.
“What’s happening to me?” I whispered. There was no reply.
I had no sense of time passing, but it must have. At some point, Flea dropped onto the bench beside me.
She held out a printout of a web page titled Randolph Werning and Associates: Who We Are. Among the headshots of staff members was one of a man with curly dark hair and warm brown eyes behind square-framed glasses.
“Jonathan Morgan,” she said. “Thirty-two years old and indeed of Canadian heritage. He works for an engineering firm in Covent Garden.”
“That’s him,” I said, feeling cold all over again. “Christ. He’s real.”
“As is his girlfriend, Nicole Graham, daughter of Sascha. Although our ghost theory has been dealt a slight blow by the fact that she’s alive. Well, mostly. According to the news reports, she had a car accident six years ago and has been in a coma ever since.”
They were real, then. Real people with real lives. I ran my finger over the picture in Flea’s hands, not knowing how I was supposed to feel about that. Relieved? Terrified? Both?
“Isn’t it marvelous?” Flea said, eyes shining. “Do you know what this means? Well, no, of course you don’t. Nor do I. But it clearly means something, so we intrepid duo must investigate the mystery forthwith. The game is afoot, dear girl.”
She jumped up. “Covent Garden isn’t far. If we leave now, we can get to see Jonathan before the office shuts. Come, come. Tempus fugit, and all that.”
“See Jonathan? What for?”
“Did you get sunstroke while you were out here? To tell him what’s happening, of course.”
“But we don’t know what that is. You said so yourself.”
She huffed, her hands on her hips. “Well, yes, but that’s the point — he can help us find out. We intrepid trio, et cetera, et cetera.”
“I’m not sure he’s going to want to sign up for that, Flea.”
“It’ll all come as a bit of a shock at first, I’m sure. But once he speaks to you, and sees that you — that you’re — ”
“That I’m what? Channeling the spirit of his vegetative girlfriend?”
“I’m not sure I’d put it quite like that, but — ”
I shook her hand off my arm. “This isn’t a fairytale, Flea. It’s not a love story. If we go there, he’s not going to sweep me into his arms so that we can ride off into the sunset together. He’s going to take one look at us and call the police.”
“But — ”
“No, Flea. I mean it. I don’t want him to know about me. Not this me. What he had with Nicole was real. Special. I don’t want to spoil that.”
She regarded me sadly. “Well, okay. I suppose it’s your life. Mostly. In which case, may I suggest we commence our investigations at Tesco instead? According to the website, they’re doing those big two-liter bottles of cider for one pound fifty each.”
“Now that’s a much better plan.”
“Let’s not hang around, then,” she said, setting off down the steps. “The lovely librarian was most helpful, although she did start to express some concern about the level of my interest in Mrs. Graham. Add to that a slight misunderstanding about the nature of websites suitable for viewing on the library machines, and I fear we may have rather outstayed our welcome.”
I followed her to the street, where a black panel van was idling at the curb. The door slid open and two large men got out. Flea tried to step past, but the taller of the pair got in her way.
“Good heavens,” she said. “I had no idea the librarian was so well connected. Who are you chaps? Special Branch? Interpol? CTU?”
Neither of the two men said anything. The passenger door opened, and a straight-backed woman with neatly cropped blonde hair got out.
“It’s the filth,” Flea said, out of the side of her mouth. “We’ve been rumbled. Run for your life.”
I frowned at the blond woman. Her face looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Did I know her? Did Nicole?
“I’m glad we finally managed to catch up with you,” she said pleasantly.
“If you’re from the tax office,” Flea said, tapping the side of her generous nose. “I know some much bigger fish you can fry.”
The woman ignored her. “You didn’t finish your treatment program, Rhona,” she said, slightly chidingly, and that brought it back to me.
“She’s from Juniper House,” I said. “The rehab place. Dr. Ruby? What are you doing here?”
“We’ve come to take you back. We all think that’s for the best.”
“Oh. Well, I — ”
I broke off as Flea threw an elbow, hard, into my ribs.
“What the — ” I started, then broke off again at the look of horrified comprehension on her face.
“The rehab place?” she said, pulling me backward. “Sascha Graham’s rehab place? With cold-eyed doctors and scary henchmen and strange unspecified treatment programs?”
I caught my breath, then let it out in a long, harsh, “Fuck,” as I finally got it.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” I said, following Flea’s lead and backing away. “All the shit that’s been happening to me. It was you. You did this to me.”
“I’m sorry if you’ve been having problems,” Dr. Ruby said, tone still blandly pleasant. “But you did leave against my advice, so I can’t say I’m surprised. Come back with me now and I can — ”
“Uh uh. No way. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“I see.” She nodded to the two dark-suited men, who stepped up and flanked me. The bigger one gripped my arm. “Then I’m afraid you leave me no choice.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Flea said, waving her hands. “You can’t just scoop people off the street while they’re going about their law-abiding business and haul them off in unmarked black vans. This isn’t New York, you know.”
Dr. Ruby was unmoved. “Under Section Two of the Mental Health Act 1983, approved medical health professionals can decide to detain someone for assessment in the interests of their own health and safety or the protection of others.”
“And these two gentlemen are doctors, are they? Eminent psychiatrists, no doubt.”
That earned her a cool smile. “They’re professionals, I can assure you of that.”
“Help!” Flea yelled, as I found myself lifted right off my feet and dumped unceremoniously in the back of the van. “Police!”
The last thing I saw before the door slammed shut in my face was Flea, sprawled on the pavement and shrieking, “Kidnapping! Murder!” at the top of her voice. Nobody paid any attention.
Then there was the sting of a needle in my arm, and after that, I didn’t see anything at all.
• • •
Juniper House, the first time I saw it, reminded me of something out of a BBC Jane Austen drama: all gleaming gray stone and elegant arched windows. Now it just looked like a prison.
I was still the only one there, and still got no group therapy or kumbayah. What I did get were more needles, and pills, and trips down to a cold room with a large tunnel-like machine that looked like some kind of space-age MRI scanner. There were restraints on the bed — “We don’t want to lose you again,” Dr. Ruby said, checking me over with her light, appraising eyes — and the constant looming presence of the hard-faced professionals outside my door.
And there was Sascha Graham. Throughout it all, whenever I came back to myself, there was Sascha Graham.
“I dreamed about you,” I heard myself tell her. “I dreamed I was your daughter.”
“You were her,” she said, smiling at me fondly. Despite everything, the sadness in her eyes made my chest ache. “For a while, at least.”
She brushed a sweaty tendril of hair away from my face, and part of me wanted to lean into the touch.
But a bigger part wanted to shove the hand away, and that was the part I listened to.
“Fuck you,” I said.
“I’m sorry if it’s been hard for you,” she said, her voice tightening. “I never wanted to hurt you, Rhona. I never wanted to hurt any of you. I just wanted to spend a little more time with my daughter. You understand that, can’t you?”
I laughed. “I don’t understand any of this,” I said, honestly. “Not a single fucking thing.”
She took a long, slow breath. “You know … what happened,” she said. “To Nicole. The accident.”
“Her body … the damage … it was …”
“Sascha,” Dr. Ruby said, and there was a warning in her tone.
“I can explain, Antonia,” Sascha said, not looking at her. “I can do that for them, at least.”
She looked back down at me, and now her eyes shone. “Her body was … beyond repair, but her mind … her memories … all the things that made her who she was …” She smiled again. “With Antonia’s technology, and the help of wonderful people like you, Rhona, we were able to save them. To save her.”
“People like me,” I said coldly, and nodded. “That’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? The drop-in centers, the clinics, the shelters — it’s not about tax dodging or whatever. It’s about getting lab rats for your sick goddamn experiments.”
“I don’t — ” she started, but the rest was cut off by a loud voice from outside the room. “And they would have got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for us meddling kids.”
I turned my head as far as the restraints would let me and saw Flea standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips and a triumphant smile on her face. Her hair was clean and tied back with a black string tie, and she was dressed in a man’s charcoal gray suit. It wasn’t new and didn’t quite fit, but still. She looked magnificent.
Standing at her shoulder was a young man with curly dark hair and warm eyes. Eyes I recognized immediately.
“Jonathan,” I breathed.
He frowned. “Antonia? Sascha? What is this? What’s going on?”
“Good heavens, dear boy,” Flea said. “Haven’t you been listening? Mindfuckery, that’s what’s going on.” She leaned close to me and lowered her voice. “At least, I assume it is?”
I smiled, feeling the tears sting my eyes. “Oh, yes.”
“Felice came to see me,” Jonathan said slowly, a deep frown still creasing his forehead. “She said that you were — that you’d kidnapped her friend for some kind of mind control experiment. She said it had something to do with Nicole.”
Sascha gave him a gentle smile. “I’m so sorry about this, Jon. Our facility helps a lot of people with long-term substance abuse problems, and I’m afraid delusions and paranoia are common symptoms. I’m sure that Felice means well and is probably very charming, but — ”
“I know it sounds insane,” Jonathan said. “I know that. Kidnappings and mind control and who knows what else.” He gave a shaky laugh, then his face turned somber again. “But I believe her. I don’t know why, but I do.”
“I know it’s been difficult, Jon, since — ”
“No, Sascha. Don’t put this on me. I’m not suffering from delusions or paranoia. There’s something wrong here. Something wrong with what you’re doing in this place. I don’t know how I know that, either, but — ”
Dr. Ruby turned around, a hypodermic in her hand. “Because you’ve worked it out before,” she said calmly. “You just don’t remember. Or not consciously, anyway. I’m not sure yet if there’s some underlying memory retention after each wipe, or it’s a form of conditioning — if the brain accepts the idea easier because it’s done so before. It’s one of the many areas of further study I need to do. Hold him, please.”
One of the men from the van, now dressed in a pale blue nurse’s tunic, grabbed Jonathan’s arm. He tried to yank it back, but couldn’t break the man’s grip. “Don’t make me hurt you,” the thug said, and the corner of his mouth quirked. “Again.”
“Sascha always tries to talk you down,” Dr. Ruby said, “but it rarely works. So I think it’s better if we just get on with it, don’t you?” And with that, she stuck the needle straight into Jonathan’s neck.
“What …?” he managed, then dropped bonelessly to the floor.
“Hey,” Flea said. She stepped forward but the thug shot out an arm and pushed her, the heel of his hand thumping her square in the chest. She stumbled backward, hitting the wall and wheezing. Spittle flecked her lips and chin.
“Fine,” she gasped out. “Kill us all, then. I can’t stop you. But you should know I fully intend to come back and haunt the living shit out of you.”
Dr. Ruby checked Jonathan’s pulse and nodded to the thug, who manhandled him into a wheelchair. “I’m not going to kill anyone, Felice,” she said mildly. “I’m a scientist, not a murderer.”
I struggled against the restraints, but I knew it was pointless. I’d tried before. “Maybe you’re not going to murder us,” I said. “But you’re going to use us as guinea pigs, aren’t you?”
“All scientific progress requires a certain amount of sacrifice,” Dr. Ruby said equably. “You have to realize that the work we’re doing here will completely revolutionize neurological science. We can recreate memory, recreate the mind, Rhona. What that will mean for dementia sufferers alone is incalculable. Then there’s PTSD — we’ll be able to eradicate that completely. No more flashbacks, no more suffering. And that’s without any other potential applications for teaching, for forensics, for — ”
I yawned. “Oh, put a sock in it. Nobody’s interested in helping you rehearse your Nobel Prize acceptance speech. If you ask me, you were right earlier — it’s better to cut the crap and get the fuck on with it.”
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Flea said, nodding. She straightened her shoulders and saluted. “See you around, Rhona. Or Nicole. Or whoever.” Then she tilted her head toward Dr. Ruby, baring her neck for the needle.
“This had better be good shit,” she said.
• • •
I wandered down to the day room to get some lunch and found the old woman whose name I could never remember — Felicity? Fifi? Something like that — pulling apart all the sandwiches.
“They put radio transmitters in the food,” she said when I protested. “Then, if you escape, Mommie Dearest sends out the men in the black helicopters to bring you back.”
Don’t set her off, said a warning voice in my head. It sounded like Dr. Ruby.
“Black helicopters. Or was it vans?” She shook her head. “Never mind. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that this place is nothing but a front for the military-industrial complex and their forays into mind control, personality transplants, weaponized ESP, psycho-surgical memory transference and who knows what else. You and I are mere guinea pigs, dear girl, so you’d better learn how to … well, to make whatever noise guinea pigs make.” She paused. “I think they purr, which is rather inappropriate for the metaphor, but — ”
“All right, Fifi, give it a rest, eh? You’re giving me a headache.”
“I think you’ll find it’s Dr. Frankenstein and her secret neurological experiments you have to thank for that, dear girl. She’s doing her damnedest to wipe us from the hard drive of existence, but remember — ” She grinned, showing square, brownish teeth. “We are the ghosts in the psycho-surgical machine, and it’s our job to haunt the living shit out of these bastards.”
“Hey. Let’s go,” one of the white-coated nurses said. “It’s time for your session with Dr. Ruby.”
I followed him to a small white room, where he handed me off to a doctor in a white coat. I winced. All the glare wasn’t helping my headache.
I squinted at the doctor. Was this Dr. Ruby? I knew the name, but the face didn’t seem quite right. She looked quite a bit older than the woman I thought I remembered.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said, indicating a white — of course — leather chair. Comfortable wasn’t how I’d have described it once I got strapped in, but I still found myself nodding off. Was this a sleep clinic? I couldn’t quite remember. Maybe. My mum always used to say I could sleep for England, but that must have been a long time ago because she died when I was a kid. Didn’t she?
“No,” a voice said. A different voice; gentle, soft. Not the cool-eyed doctor. “I’m here, sweetheart.”
“Mommie Dearest,” I said, and giggled. She didn’t seem to like that, and her voice turned hard as she talked to the doctor. I didn’t understand most of what they said, but something about implants — implants burning out — caught my attention. I knew about things that burned. Knew how they smelled, how they sounded. How they felt. Hot metal. Burning hair. Burning flesh.
I told her all about it, every detail. She didn’t like that, either. Her voice took on a stricken, haunted tone.
Haunted. Yes. That was good. That was right.
“She hated you,” I went on. “She felt suffocated, like you were squeezing the life out of her. She couldn’t stand it. I know, because I remember what it felt like. The crash wasn’t even an accident, did you know that? I drove off the road on purpose. I was trying to kill myself. It was the only way to get away from you, Mommie Dearest.”
I was so tired, and it had become such an effort to speak that I couldn’t be sure if all the words came out. I thought they might have because I could hear someone crying, but it sounded like it was coming from a very long way away.
I felt floaty and disconnected, but I had an idea that was probably all right. I was a ghost, after all, wasn’t I? I was sure someone had told me that.
So I drifted and listened to the distant, sound of sobbing. That’s for you, Flea, I thought. And although I had no idea what that meant, it made me smile.
Copyright © 2020 by Michelle Ann King