Phantom Punch

Erik Sternberger
12 min readMar 27, 2022

Shane Damasco walked down the three flights of stairs from his apartment and the four blocks to where he was instructed. He resisted the urge to constantly check the address on the piece of paper in his pocket at each crosswalk. A force of habit. He can forget things at times. A side effect of the job. The old job, that is. Some habits die hard, which is why he was wearing his wool-lined gloves even though it wasn’t that cold out tonight. “Gotta keep the hands warm”, his first coach told him; RIP.

That coach was a miserable bastard. His breath always smelled like he had just eaten an ashtray, but the first day in the gym he said, “A chef keeps his knives sharp, a carpenter oils his sawblades, a fighter takes care of his hands”, and it stuck.

Shane slipped off one of his gloves to pull out the small strip of paper one last time to make sure he was standing in the right place.

“1472 Laurelwood Ave”. Good. He hadn’t flipped the numbers as he does sometimes. His watch beeped reminding him that it was time for his pill. Shane’s large fingers searched around in his pocket and pulled out a bright orange capsule. He wrapped the piece of paper around it and swallowed them both.

Shane looked to his left down the block and saw a coffee shop whose lights were still on. He leaned his body to see if the LED sign in the window read that they were still in operation or if it was just some hourly employees cleaning up. There might be time to quickly grab a cup of coffee before his ride arrived.

There wasn’t.

He never heard the black Lexus pull up to the curb. It was just there when he turned his gaze back from the coffee shop. Shane sighed and got in the back. He missed the uniquely American romantic notion of working on a loud muscle car with your dad in the garage. Now it’s all magnetic drives and whisper-quiet electrics. It’s not all bad, though. At least with these driverless cars, he could sit back and sleep if he wanted to. He didn’t have to fake small talk with some schmuck who would pretend to rack his brain and “think that he remembered” watching Shane fight once. They never had and then the social construct that was created meant Shane would have to pretend that he believed the liar and list his fights, pausing after each one for a “no…no…well, maybe?”.

The hood sat on the seat next to him. After shutting the door, Shane picked it up. The car wouldn’t move until he put it on, and if he waited too long, the contract would be canceled, and the car would drive around until it died, trapping him inside for hours. At least that was what he was told happened to the guy he replaced a few months back — but he didn’t want to test it out — so he clenched his jaw and put on the hood.

The flexible fabric blacked out everything. No matter how many times he’s done this, the instant darkness and silence were always jarring. Then the videos played.

Images and sounds specifically selected to increase aggression — hand-picked by psychiatrists — lit up his brain. Whether the psychiatrists were paying off a gambling debt, or just doing it to put food on their plate like he was, Shane didn’t know. He didn’t care either. It was an all-out assault on his senses to get his adrenaline spiked. Animals hunting, aggressive sex, assassinations from movies, war footage, and even professional fights flipped by quickly. He always looked to see if they used any footage from one of his fights but hadn’t caught one, yet. The psychiatrists would probably have a word for him watching for himself.

After what could have been an hour, or just a handful of minutes the broadcast abruptly stopped. Shane had done enough of these to know that when it switched to showing massive political rallies or speeches to troops it was near the end.

Those scenes were added to make subjects more malleable to suggestions and requests for the actions they were about to be asked to undertake. Earlier versions of the hood created too many lone-wolf tendencies in their subjects. The engineers were too successful in creating aggression, but it was unchecked. Loyalty had to be added to the equation. Combining it with a mob effect helped with getting subjects to agree to things they might not agree with if they were asked as individuals. It was government tech initially, of course, but once hacked and reverse-engineered it became useful for more unsavory elements of society.

The hood was pulled off of Shane’s head and he saw Boots’ grinning face standing over him with the car’s door open. He had no idea what Boots’ real name was, but he always wore cowboy boots with his suit, so that was how Shane cataloged him in his brain. Easier to remember than a name and Shane didn’t want to know anyone’s names.

“Ready to get in the ring Champ?” Boots asked Shane as he got out of the car.

“I was never a champ,” Shane reminded him. He was pretty sure he’d told him that fact once before. Maybe he hadn’t.

“Just checking.”

“It’s disrespectful to actual champs.”

“Man, you never change, I love that.” Boots laughed.

“Yeah, I like consistency,” Shane said, realizing he must have told him a few times at this point and hoping that covered him.

“Give me your coat and suit up.”

Shane tossed Boots his coat and took off his shirt, leaving him in a sleeveless undershirt. Easier to move without sleeves, but it also shows off his now aging midsection. Ever since he turned 50 his belly had started swelling out. Age combined with the bad nutrition of several years of lean living before he got this job had left him more barrel-shaped than when he was a fighter, but his shoulders were still good enough to throw a punch.

Two men in dark suits walked over and placed a heavy steamer trunk down in front of Shane with a thud. They each wore a ring on the middle finger of their right hands and placed the rings in unison against a smooth metal panel on the front of the trunk. It instantly lit up with a series of lights validating their keys before a magnetic clunk sounded indicating the trunk was unlocked.

Inside the box sat two large metal gauntlets covered in wires and sensors and a pair of goggles with lenses so black you wouldn’t be able to see through them in either direction. Shane put out his hands and the men pulled out two neoprene gloves covered with connectors and built-in sockets. They pulled them onto Shane’s large hands, and halfway up to his elbow.

He flexed his fingers, spreading his palms flat making them as wide as possible, before balling them up. His knuckles caused the material to squeak as it stretched and conformed to the will of his fists. He nodded.

The Trunk Twins reached back in the steamer for the gauntlets as Shane wondered if he’d just come up with that nickname for them, or if he’d thought of it before. It was good. He made a note to try and remember it. They slipped the gauntlets on his hands and started snapping in the connectors to the gloves and calling out “green” when each connection was made.

“Oscillation baseline is green.”

“Speed sensor is green.”

“Tilt is green.”

“Right power is 98%. Green.”

“Left power is 96% Green.”

Once the twins were satisfied with all their readings they indicated for Shane to dip his head so they could fit the goggles on his face, pushing the earpieces into his ears. It always took a little longer with the left ear. Too many hits left it permanently misshapen. There was a second of blackness before they activated, and then Shane could see a video feed of the room through opaque lenses.

The twins motioned for him to follow them across the room. The feed was 1/8th of a second behind real-time. Nothing noticeable under normal circumstances, but just enough that it can create an issue with stairs. An issue they called The Halo, partially due to it being a visual echo, and partially because if you aren’t careful you’ll end up with a broken neck.

Shane took his time with the three steps up into the elevated ring. It wasn’t as if a fall would hurt him too badly, but if he fell and broke the gauntlets, the fall might end up killing him anyway. These things were worth four or five of him and he’d be a cheap enough example to others to be less clumsy.

Standing in the middle of the ring, the visor suddenly came to life. A vibrant display of information suddenly flooded his vision as it booted up and he was no longer in the same room. He was still in the ring, of course. This just meant that the twins had plugged him into the system.

The lines and system updates stopped scrolling and flashing, setting in as he saw the lone figure of a man in front of him. The man was standing with his hands chained above his head and the chains wrapped around a wood rafter. He was bathed in 360 degrees of blue light from projectors that created a three-dimensional tactile hologram for Shane’s end of the system. The scene never changed, except for maybe the man’s build or skin tone. The faces were always a blur. Literally. Shane could never make out the person’s identity. No one except for the interrogator knew the target.

This worked two-fold. Shane never saw the poor bastard he was to wail on, and he never saw the damage he was causing. Made it easier for him to not let up. To not pull his punches. No witnesses, no guilt. Just an anonymous glory hole of pain and money. All Shane saw was a scrambled mix of colored pixels where a face was. Earlier versions of the system had a flaw where tattoos could still be seen, but they took care of that flaw years ago by simply filling them with matching skin tones. It was amazing how much money it cost to be anonymous these days.

Then he heard the scrambled demonic voice and the instructions began.

“Three strikes. Body.” The inhuman voice told him.

Shane drew back and gave the anonymous man a left jab followed by a right jab and ended the sequence with a left hook. If he screamed or grunted Shane had no idea. His audio only came from the voice. The sensors in his fingers and knuckles let him know that he had firmly connected. His knuckles tingled, and he knew the man felt the blows squarely on his midsection. Shane didn’t need to hear anything to know they had to hurt.

The trauma and pain would light up his brain like a Christmas tree. There wouldn’t be a single mark on his body, but to his mind, he had just taken three blows that no untrained fighter is used to absorbing.

Shane’s work complete, he waited. It was quiet in the warehouse with just the scuffing of shoes as the twins checked settings on the rig he was hooked into. Boots must have been standing still. You could always tell which footsteps were from Boots. He wasn’t stealthy, but that never seemed like it was a concern to him. That meant he was either dumb or dangerous. Not that one precluded the other.

Shane was pulled back to the present as the visor flashed to let him know instructions were incoming.

“Four strikes. Three body. One face. Square.” Said the voice.

Shane bent his knees and squared his shoulders. He unleashed a left jab, a right hook, and then another hook from the left this time. He paused for a beat to make the man think the sequence of blows was complete, and then, one dead-center mass on the vibrating shape where his face should be.

Face shots were tricky because the blur made it hard to know where the contours and edges were, but the gauntlets sent vibrations up Shane’s right arm confirming that his aim was true. He stepped back to give space. An old fighter’s habit when he was told to disengage from the fight. He didn’t need to, of course. He took up no physical space in the other room. In fact, from what he was told, the guy he was hitting couldn’t even see him.

The blows came from nowhere, giving the target no ability to anticipate or brace for impact. Not that it would help, but psychologically it can give your resolve a little steel if you have someone to hate. The System took that away. The only thing the person on the other end could feel was the pain.

Shane wondered if your mind would fill in how it felt when blood eventually clotted in a broken nose, or if It just “hurt”. He shook his head to think about something else. The last thing he needed to do was to identify with the human punching bag he was being well paid to punish for whatever sin or slight he’d committed.

As his mind wandered, he became aware of how long he’d been standing still without instructions. The room was totally silent. Wherever Boots was, he wasn’t moving, and neither was the tech geeks. Shane didn’t like the quiet.

“Contract complete”, the voice spoke loudly in his ears.

The visor flashed to red and the room went black. His employers had gotten whatever information they needed, and they were done with Shane. Anything that happened next had nothing to do with him, and he didn’t want to know what that might be, anyway. Shane liked to think the guy would go free with a bit of phantom pain for a day or so. Rumor has it the brain re-sets from the system after a night’s sleep and just treats the beating as if it were one of those dreams where when you wake up, you swear it was real. But, he wasn’t naïve enough to know there weren’t at least a couple of corpses somewhere without a mark on their bodies from his handiwork.

Shane held his arms out to his sides and felt the two techs start removing the gloves in unison. They moved together smoothly without speaking and then set them in the trunk almost as if they were twins. Heh. “The Trunk Twins”. That’s good. He’d have to remember that.

The hoses snapped off with hisses and the neoprene gloves were peeled off his arms by rolling them down to his fists. The hair on Shane’s arms stood straight up, the result of the residual electric charge. He blew on them., enjoying how the cool air felt against his skin.

The goggles were removed, and he took the steps down from the ring towards Boots who held Shane’s coat in one hand, and the black hood in the other.

“Which one you want to put on first Not-a-Champ?” He asked with a grin.

“I had a shirt,” Shane said.

“Oh, right,” Boots said picking it up off the ground where it had fallen.

Shane took the shirt, inspected it, and finding it unsoiled, slid it on not bothering to button it, then grabbed his coat. He walked to the black Lexus that had dropped him off, letting himself in the back.

“Hood, please”, he asked holding his hand out to Boots. Boots handed it to him and he put it on.

“You know, I asked once why we use you. Well, not you in particular, but guys like you, and the system. Shit’s expensive, you know?” He heard Boots say, knowing he didn’t want a response. “And you know what they told me? It’s cheaper to pay upfront for all of this, than one court case. Funny, huh? And people say we’re crooks.”

The door shut, and Shane was thankful for that. Boots talked too much, and Shane didn’t like being around guys that talk too much.

He leaned back into his seat as the video in the hood started. Just like every other time on his way home after a job, it was nothing but soothing nature scenes. Birds chirping, brooks babbling, and some form of deer that had become extinct when he was in his 20s running in a herd. It was nice and made Shane feel at peace. Whatever had transpired that night was perfectly fine and he was a good person, as the butterfly that landed on his nose would have attested to if the hood hadn’t gone dark directly afterward signifying that he was at his drop-off spot.

Shane exited the car and closed the door. He waited and watched as the Lexus silently drove off down the street to its new destination. He thought he remembered that there was a coffee shop nearby and looked for it, seeing that it had long closed for the night.

He reached his hands into his pocket and put his gloves on. Old habits die hard he said to himself, then he trudged home, a lone figure in the night.



Erik Sternberger

Comedy writer, screenwriter and improvisor that always listens to the Star Wars soundtrack when driving in a snow storm. All work linked at