Muscle Memory

Chase Jackson opened his eyes. A doctor was standing over him.

“Where am I?”

“In a special clinic,” the doctor said.

Jackson heard large fans. The sound seemed to be echoing down a long metal hall. Jackson tasted nutmeg.

“Who am I?”

“It won’t help if I tell you,” the doctor said. “We’ve temporarily masked all your memories. You aren’t anybody at the moment.”

Jackson lay still, probing for information inside his head. It danced away from him. In spite of the fans, the air around him was still. The room was white.

The doctor helped him sit up.

“Wait here,” the doctor said, and left the room.

Presently a man in a dark suit came in. He sat down next to the bed.

“You are an agent,” the man said. “Code name Chase. We’re sending you on a mission that is so risky, so very risky, and you know so much, so very much, that we’ve removed your memory in advance. There are accounts of your exploits, but you won’t be reading them. Also, a warning: You may act in ways inconsistent with your true character. Do not let this worry you. When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”

Jackson wept.

“Can I wear a dress?” he said.

The agent stared.

“Just messing with you,” Jackson said.

“Circus,” the agent said.

Suddenly, Jackson’s mind was awash with memories.

“They’re artificial,” the agent said, as he watched Jackson ponder the thoughts called forth in his brain. “Full of misinformation. You’ll be passing these memories along, if need be. Remember the trigger word.”

Jackson slept.

“Who am I?” he asked the doctor when he woke.

Two agents, one tall, the other short, got him up, dressed him, and led him down the hall and into a room where a safe sat on a table.

“Open it,” said the short agent.

Chase stepped over to the safe. He laid his ear to its side. His fingers caressed the dial on its door. Shortly, he pulled down on the handle and the safe opened.

“Muscle memory,” said the short agent.

Later they escorted Chase to the firing range. He discharged a variety of weapons offhand, with devastating results.

“Muscle memory,” said the short agent again.

“The Russians have developed an ultimate weapon,” the tall agent told Chase. “We’re sending you over to learn something about it. One of its inventors, a scientist named Tskeltofski, became so horrified by his work that he refused to have anything more to do with it. He’s been confined to an asylum for intellectuals and political prisoners. That’s where you’ll find him. We’re going to add an unstable streak to your nature before you go, so that you’ll fit in when you get there.”

The short agent held up a pack with wires hanging out of it.

“In the asylum, you will attach the green wires to your head and the red wires to Tskeltofski’s head. You will turn on the device in the pack and use your trigger word. An exchange of information will occur between you and the scientist.”

That night, they unbalanced Chase’s mind – ten degrees to the east – or so they thought, and transported him out to a secret landing strip. The agency flew him around the world and dropped him into the night in Russia, with his pack on his back. Agents on the ground spirited him through the woods and pointed to a high wall. Chase scaled it. He dropped into a garden behind a large Soviet-era building constructed in a style popular with the Nomenklatura vacationing around Drohobych in better times. The air was heavy with the scent of gardenia.

As he had requested, Jackson was wearing a dress, along with a wig of dreadlocks, turned backwards so that he stared out through the braids. A man in uniform confronted him.

“Please return to your room, Comrade,” the guard said in Russian, running his eyes over Chase’s outfit.

Chase’s eyes welled up. A soft sob escaped his painted lips.

“Please,” said the guard. “I dislike using force on the insane.”

Chase entered the asylum’s main building, which retained its sense of interior luxury. A second guard indicated the grand staircase.

Chase simpered, gathered up his train, and ascended the stairs. Somehow he knew which way to go. He entered the third door on the right. A man of Slavic aspect sat on the bed. He wore a heavy beard and heavier eyebrows.

“Tskeltofski,” Chase said. He turned his back to the man, bent over, and peered at him from between his legs.

The man sprang to his feet and adopted the same position. In this way they conversed, in a complex mixture of languages, between the two sets of legs.

“You are the one with the code name Chase?”

“I am. You are the scientist?”

The man snorted.

“You are the scientist,” he said.

“I’m not a scientist. At least, I don’t think I am. I am a secret agent,” Jackson said.

The man snorted again. He straightened and gestured, leaving the room and leading Jackson down the hall. They entered another room, where a safe sat on a table. Tskeltofski went to it, put his ear against it, caressed its dial, and in this way opened it. Jackson nodded.

Tskeltofski held up a warning finger.

“Safes nowadays usually utilize a keypad,” he said. “We live a lie.”

The two went down to a cellar range and fired handguns: 9X18 Makarovs, Nagant M1895s, Tokarev 7.62X25s. The insane gathered to watch. The two put on a clinic.

“For a scientist, you shoot well,” Jackson said.

Tskeltofski snorted for a third time.

“Is that an Eva Devecsery you’re wearing?” he asked. “It’s fetching.”

“You also have an excellent eye for fashion,” Jackson said. “For a scientist.”

“Why are we doing this?” Tskeltofski said.

“I can’t remember,” Jackson said. “I presume there are compensations.”

“When we get back to my room, look in my closet. You’ll find a little black Irfe cocktail number by Olga Sorokina in there, and a rather pathetic Marina Asta. How is one supposed to live like this?”

They passed the evening in the garden, drinking vodka, eating Sevruga caviar on toast, throwing back their heads and laughing in the wavering orange light thrown over them by torches inserted in sconces on the walls. The two were mad in the way that those who understand the fleeting nature of life are mad.

The next day, they took up Chase’s pack and attached its wires to their heads, green for Jackson, red for Tskeltofski.

“Circus,” Jackson said.

“Tsirk,” Tskeltofski said.

They turned on the device inside the pack.

When they came to, they detached the wires. They changed into short smocks and sandals, and shaved their heads. Tskeltofski brought out a similar pack and again they attached the wires, not switching colors.

“Tsirk,” Jackson said.

“Circus,” Tskeltofski said.

When they came to again, they stripped and oiled themselves, and later bathed. Then they slept.

“One of us must go back and one of us must stay,” the taller of them said.

“Of course. It could not be otherwise. We are star-crossed. Who goes and who stays?”

“Which of us is Jackson and which Tskeltofski?”

Neither knew.

“What about our memories?”

“Circus, tsirk” they said together, but the recorded memories in their brains ran backwards and only confused them.

“The one who wore the Devecsery so beautifully must go,” said the short man.

They both tried on the dress. It fit the tall man.

“Muscle memory,” he said. “Is it a Russian or an American frock?”

“New York couture, without a doubt,” said the small man. “You could whistle for such a dress in Russia.”

When night came, the tall man scaled the wall and returned to the waiting extraction team in the woods. A small plane landed and he boarded it. In due course, he found himself back in the clinic in the United States.

The doctors removed his memory block. He stood in front of a mirror, staring into his own eyes.

“Huh,” he said. Emotions paraded across his face. Boring ambient music bubbled out of speakers in every room. Someone had posted red, purple, and blue squares on the white walls.

The next morning, Jackson awoke. A doctor was standing over him.

“Where am I?” he said.

“In a clinic.”

“Who am I?”

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