SHORT STORY: The Agency

This might eventually become a novel — because another book to write is exactly what I need right now — but for now, enjoy this short little tale.

Bethany was sweating.

Surrounded by pitch black, enveloped in silence, the bead of sweat trickling down her forehead and meandering between the nodes stuck to her was the only thing she could register. A soft, rhythmic beep interrupted the silence. Her heart thundered in her chest, as if it were trying to break through her ribcage. Her temples throbbed.

A sliver of light burst through from the other side of the room. Once her eyes focused, Bethany noticed a tiny red dot. She was being recorded, and her ears caught the faint whir of the zoom adjusting. That sound, mixed with her heartbeat and the beeping, created a cacophony of paranoia.

Bethany balled her hands into tight fists, her palms slick with anxiety. She tried to count the nodes stuck to her forehead, a feeble attempt at calming her nerves. But she kept losing count. She never got farther than eight. No matter what she tried, Bethany could not quiet her nerves.

The bitter taste of nausea twisted in her stomach. Her heart started beating even faster, as if that were possible. The Director could probably sense her fear without the fancy equipment he surrounded himself with. The giant gray slab housed all of the Agency’s data, and it was a constant reminder that there were no secrets here — not even in someone’s head.

If this was how the Agency treated one of its own… how did it treat its enemies?

The beeping came to a stop. The red light went out. Bethany was once again trapped in complete dark, complete silence. Next to death, this was what she imagined sensory deprivation to be like. Were it not for the constant thump of her heart, the trickle of sweat down the back of her neck, the hitch in her breath, Bethany would assume she had died.

“State your name, please.”

The booming, disembodied voice startled Bethany. She gasped and flinched hard enough that a couple of the nodes tugged on her forehead. The adhesive peeled from her damp skin, and Bethany hissed in pain before closing her eyes. Perhaps if she focused only on her own heartbeat, she could control it.

But why was she so worried? She had faced lie detector tests throughout her entire adult life; they were part of the territory in her line of work. Even before being recruited by the Agency, Bethany had constantly subjected herself to such screenings. But this was more than a mere polygraph. This machine was imprinting itself into Bethany’s brain, mapping her entire psyche and searching for the slightest irregularity. Even if Bethany answered every question as truthfully as possible, she knew there was a chance she would be expelled from the Agency.

Or worse.

In this void, time held no meaning. Bethany couldn’t tell how long she sat in silence, her brain scrambling to decide on a course of action. She uncurled her fists and latched onto the chair, hoping to keep some grip on reality.

What time was it? What day was it?

“I repeat: state your name.”

Bethany’s gasp was a little louder this time, and she instantly cursed herself under her breath. There was nothing more pathetic than being startled by her own boss’ voice.

“Beth,” she said, her voice cracking. “Special Agent Bethany Louise Harmon.”

The beeping returned.

With a deep inhale, Bethany closed her eyes again. She released the air built up in her lungs, feeling her body shudder with the effort. She swallowed thickly, refusing to let the bile tickling the back of her throat to go any further. She suddenly regretted having pasta for lunch.

“How long have you served the Agency, Miss Harmon?”

Again, the Director’s voice made Bethany jump. She could swear his voice was deeper than usual, though that was likely a trick of her surroundings. Here, his voice echoed off the walls. Were it not for the rampant paranoia, Bethany would have called the voice almost divine.

“Um.” She licked her lips, shook her head. “F-four years.”

Bethany cringed. That moment’s hesitation would undoubtedly be noted. That split second of indecision would be seen as evidence of a lie at best — the potential for becoming gun-shy in the field at worst. Bethany’s record in the field was nearly spotless, but any crumb of information the Agency could use against her, it would. The Agency demanded perfection, and loathe be those who consistently fell short.

Silence reigned again, though Bethany thought she heard a sigh. Was the Director disappointed in her response? That split second it took her to answer? The stammer? Had he already given an order?

“During that time,” the voice returned, “have you ever aided and abetted enemies of the United States of America?”

“No,” she answered in a tone she barely recognized.

“Are you sure?”

Bethany opened her mouth, but she was too shocked to form any words. The follow-up had caught her off-guard — which would also be used against her in any future evaluations. Her heartbeat picked up speed again, just as the incessant beeping returned. Her hands curled back into fists. She felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of her nose. She licked her lips and opened her mouth again, but just like last time… no words.

“Bethany?”

She flinched. The Director had never used her first name before. She had always been Agent or Harmon. His voice had almost taken a paternal quality; in a way, it felt like this interrogation was a personal challenge for him. Did the Director know something? Had Bethany slipped up somehow over the years? Her mind raced with so many questions that she forgot to answer his.

She sucked in another deep breath to steel herself, using the armrests as anchors. “I have never knowingly aided and abetted an enemy of the United States.”

Once again, the beeping stopped. The Director had no response. Bethany’s heart slowed enough that it no longer felt like it was beating itself against her sternum. Her fingers relaxed their grip and her knees stopped shaking. Glancing at the pitch black around her, Bethany counted the seconds.

The count reached sixty. A full minute without another question. This couldn’t be the end of the interrogation, could it? Was it really as simple as stating her name and affirming she had never helped the people she was tasked with bringing down? Something was off; this felt all wrong. This was oddly cryptic, even for the Director.

The room went from pitch black to blindingly white without warning, and Bethany recoiled with a gasp. Squeezing her eyes shut, Bethany curled into herself as much as she could in a sitting position, slowly blinking the stars out of her eyes before they finally adjusted to the light. Two of the nodes tore off her forehead.

When properly lit, the interrogation room was ghost white. Massive databases and digital storage units lined the walls on either side of Bethany. Their secrets were well above even her pay grade, and she stared at the machine attached to her forehead, a black monitor displaying a digital readout of her brain.

The door swung open, slamming against the wall. Before Bethany could react, a tall man in a fine-pressed Italian suit hovered over her. The scent of his cologne, mixed with all of the other sensations bombarding Bethany, almost made her gag. Still, she held her composure as best she could, looking up to see the Director bearing his gray eyes right into her.

His hair was as white as the rest of the room. His nostrils flared and his mouth formed a tight line. The Director’s hands grabbed the armrests on either side of Bethany and he leaned in closer. Bethany had only seen the look on his face once before: five years ago after a mission gone wrong. The next day, over seventy associates of a Korean crime syndicate were dead.

Bethany’s blood ran cold as she once again tried and failed to speak. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Director’s, despite her brain screaming for her to do just that.

“Then tell me, Agent Harmon… who is Grant Pasch?”

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