“Forty-seven… forty-eight… forty-nine... fifty!”
Each grunt left Zaya’s lungs with the force of a punch as she counted her push-ups. Her body was shaking and her pale skin was slick with sweat, and she was only just getting started. It was that damn food. Three times a day, a meal emerged from the chute in the door of Zaya’s cell, and each time, it was equally lacking in taste and nutrition. She had decided to assume it was three times a day, anyway. Without a window through which to view the changing glow of the smog-sick sky, she had no way to judge the passage of time. But three meals seemed like a day, and however weak she felt, Zaya had decided to keep to her regular, daily workout routine. She had to keep up her strength. She was going to need it, because any day now, her rescuers were going to come for her.
Zaya believed that with her whole heart. You had to believe in things like that, if you were going to join a rebellion.
And you had to believe in them even more strongly if you were going to lead one. Zaya understood very clearly that, as much as anything else, it was her role to keep the faith and be the torch that lit the way for everyone who followed her. It wasn’t all on her shoulders, of course. There were other fighters and other leaders. But somewhere along the way, thanks to her hard-fought victories, she’d become the face of the movement. People called her a legend, even when she tried to stop them. Her face and her words were plastered across a thousand posters, pamphlets and illegal holo-broadcasts. Friends and foes alike whispered that she was invincible.
Maybe her capture would finally put a stop to that, at least.
As Zaya well knew, every run of good luck had to come to an end sooner or later. So here she was, rotting in a Regime cell, waiting for someone to come for her.
She’d seen worse cells, at least. This one was state-of-the-art. The walls, floor and ceiling were all made of some kind of black glass. She had a comfortable bedroll to sleep in, all her necessities were being seen to, and they had even let her keep her own clothes. Even if it was much, much too quiet for her liking.
Zaya was just about to start on her sit-ups when she heard the sound of the lock in her cell’s heavy, metal door roll open. That was new. So far, everything had come through the chute. The rebel leader surged to her feet and grabbed her old, heavy, military surplus jacket, throwing it on over her shoulders like it was armor. Almost everything she wore was armor in some way or another, save for the light tank top she had on under her jacket. Her boots had metal caps at the toes, her black pants had been modified with a dozen huge pockets to help her carry her gear, and even the dizzying, abstract tattoos on her face were carefully calculated to allow her to evade facial-recognition algorithms. The way she styled her short, spiky, blonde hair was just about her sole concession to vanity.
With a loud clunking noise, the lock finished opening, and an instant later, the door slid open into the ceiling.
Zaya was poised like a tiger as a quintet of Regime soldiers filed into her cell. With their black, featureless masks and sleek bodysuits, they creeped her out a hundred times worse than the automatons and drones she was more used to dealing with. Once she saw who they were escorting, though, the soldiers were the last thing on her mind.
“You!” Zaya spat, and flew at the woman.
Predictably, she made it only one single step. Her raised fist didn’t make it even close to her target’s face before she found herself thrown off her feet and slammed into the ground by two of the faceless, silent soldiers. As she grunted and strained uselessly against their iron grip, the cell filled with the sound of rich, cruel laughter.
“My, my,” said Domina Lionstone, the woman Zaya hated more than anyone in the world. “Zaya the Star. Leader of the rebellion. You really are everything I’d hoped.”
“Go fuck yourself!” Zaya growled. She couldn’t believe this. Lionstone was right here, not six feet away from her. In that moment she would have given anything for a loaded gun in her hand.
“And so articulate too!” the dictatress mocked. “Can’t we have a civilized conversation?”
Lionstone snapped her fingers, and the soldiers on either side of the captured rebel hauled her to her feet. They released her immediately afterwards, but it was perfectly clear that they were still watching for any sudden movements. Zaya decided to wait for them to drop their guard, and in the meantime, get a proper look at the woman who had come to torment her.
Lionstone, Domina of the Seven Houses, was undeniably beautiful, and carried herself to make herself seem every bit as regal and powerful as she did on her propaganda broadcasts and at her carefully-scripted public appearances. There was something unearthly about the way she looked, so clean and perfect, on a world that had become little but smoke and grub. Her deep red hair was in a sleek, shoulder-length bob, her black lipstick and eyeliner were immaculate, and for someone who spent so much time styling herself as the defender of the people, her clothes were achingly extravagant.
A huge, black, fur-lined coat was draped across her shoulders like a cloak, and underneath it, she was dressed in a latex halter top and tight latex leggings that ran all the way down her long legs to connect seamlessly to her heels. It was an outfit that spoke to an absolute refusal to compromise style for the sake of practicality, save for a bulky watch on her wrist. Everything was black, and polished to a mirror sheen. Her jewelry was the only exception. It was all gold instead, and emblazoned with a rainbow array of gemstones. She wore multiple rings on each hand, multiple piercings in each ear, and a single, heavy chain around her neck. Zaya scowled. She wondered how many miners’ lives even one of the diamonds had cost.
“A civilized conversation?” Zaya repeated, her voice thick with decades of slow-building anger. “No. No, we can’t. Because you and all the other fucking leeches burned the whole world out of greed, and now you want to be kings of the ashes too, making the rest of us work like slaves for your benefit. So we can’t talk, can’t stop, until we make you pay. Until we’re free.”
Lionstone arched an eyebrow.
“Very impressive,” she drawled. “Did it take long to practice? Did you need a mirror to nail that look of self-righteous superiority? Well, fine. If you insist on being that much of a bore, we’ll talk politics.”
She started pacing, strutting back and forth across the large cell. Zaya’s eyes were bulging out of her skull. She couldn’t believe how theatrical Lionstone was. Clearly, it wasn’t all just an act for the holocams. She was a genuine psychopath.
“The people love me,” Lionstone declared, plainly relishing the chance to lecture her. “They trust me. They need me. You want… what? A return to the democracies of old? Ridiculous. And besides, I’d win whatever vote you put before the masses.”
“Because you lie!” Zaya spat. It was taking every ounce of her will to hold back from trying to choke the dictator. “You twist their minds with your endless lies. If they just knew the truth-”
“I give them the truth,” Lionstone countered. She seemed completely unashamed of what she was saying. “The version of the truth that counts, anyway. I will keep them safe. I will keep them stable. Thanks to me, the vat-farms will keep running, and the shipments of riches from the outer planets will keep flowing.”
“Riches that you and your cronies keep hoarded for yourselves!” Zaya roared. She would not hear this. She’d grown up on one of those farms. She knew what they were like. “Where I come from, we never saw a single cent, while you…” She gestured furiously at Lionstone.
Her captor sighed. “The masses need something to aspire to,” she explained slowly, as if talking to a foolish child. “But I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Not yet. But you will.”
Lionstone made that threat with menace in her voice, and Zaya answered it with a derisive laugh.
“You really are insane,” she said, and she believed it. The rebel could see something in Lionstone’s eyes. Something that went beyond the usual, corrupt love of control. In another life, she might have pitied the woman for it. As it was, she could feel nothing but hatred.
Lionstone stopped pacing. She faced Zaya and crossed her arms. “Oh, do be a bit less dull,” she snapped. “Why do you think I came down here? It’s because I wanted the pleasure of breaking you myself.”
Zaya’s response to that was nothing more than a brisk nod. So, it was torture, then. It was good that she knew what to prepare herself for. She made her face a stony mask. “You won’t break me,” she declared. She was determined to take those words into herself and make them her truth.
“We’ll see,” Lionstone replied, smirking. After pausing briefly to savor the moment, she lifted a hand and snapped her fingers, and the cell walls around them came to life.
After spending so long in relative darkness, Zaya couldn’t help but stagger backwards and cover her face as she the room around her was suddenly filled with light, and she assailed by a kaleidoscope of white, purple and red from all sides. It wasn’t just the four walls surrounding her, but the ceiling and the floor too. They were all vast holoscreens that had now flared into full activity. It was several long seconds before Zaya’s eyes adjusted, allowing her to blink them open and see what was being shown to her.
It was several seconds more before she could actually comprehend any of it. At first, the flashing lights around her seemed like nothing more than random, shifting, incoherent colors. Eventually, though, as she adjusted, Zaya was able to make out some familiar images. Images she’d seen and sworn at hundreds of times, splayed across posters, billboards and the sides of skyscrapers. It was all propaganda, attesting to the glory and invincibility of The Regime, the thing she’d devoted her life to bringing down. Zaya’s eyes darted back and forth as she tried to make sense of it all, but the task was all but impossible; the images weren’t static, but constantly moved and flickered, shifting in circular patterns in the arms of an infinite set of swirling, interlocking spirals.
Most of the images she could pick out were of Domina Lionstone’s face.
Zaya looked over at her captor, brow furrowed, head throbbing. Her captor seemed to have had no trouble whatsoever adjusting to the disorienting holoscreens. In the ever-changing light they emitted, the latex-clad dictator’s face was cast in all manner of shades of red and blue, and somehow, it made her seem taller and more menacing. In her eyes, Zaya could see Lionstone’s own face, reflected again and again.
“What the fuck…” Zaya began, but stopped when she realized how quiet her voice sounded.
It was only then that she noticed the sounds, and that it was more than just blaring white noise, or the hum produced by so much electrical activity. No, it was far more deliberate; a swirling, auditory maelstrom of whispers and chants that all conspired to bleed into her ears, making it difficult to hear her own thoughts over the din. One phrase repeated itself over and over, more insistently than any other, until she could pay attention to virtually nothing else. It was the phrase that was the unofficial motto of so much of The Regime.
Glory and service to Domina Lionstone.
Zaya couldn’t believe this. She was in a brainwashing chamber.
“Do you like it?” Lionstone asked conversationally, effortlessly projecting her voice above the din. “It’s very advanced, you know.”
“You’re insane,” Zaya told her flatly.
Lionstone rolled her eyes. “Yes, I believe you’ve said that already.”
“This is completely delusional!” Zaya had to laugh, despite it all. “This… god. It’s like something out of one of those old comic books. I knew you were a cruel bitch, Lionstone, but I had no idea you were so unhinged from reality.”
“It’s not a delusion.” Lionstone refused to rise to the rebel’s defiant mockery. “Merely one of my most closely guarded secrets.”
“Sure,” Zaya scoffed. She couldn’t believe her luck. This was nothing compared to the pain she’d expected. “Whatever you say. You’re more than welcome to lock me up in here for as long as you want. Throw away the key, if you like. Just as long as those delicious meals keep coming.”
Something in Lionstone’s vicious grin gave her pause. “Are you sure, Zaya? Is that really what you want.”
Zaya took a moment to recenter herself, and realized that something was very wrong.
It was a little like being drunk. At least, that was the only comparison the rebel could think of. She wasn’t seeing straight. The room around her was spinning dangerously, and she completely lost the ability to tell up from down as she felt the dizzying array of neon colors bleeding into her brain. With each second, with each turn of the spirals, the colors throbbed and pulsed, and each time, the pressure mounted, threatening to crack her thoughts open like an egg and take root in her deep self, her inner self. Zaya had been in too many fights not to trust her instincts, and they were telling her she was in serious danger.
She tried to close her eyes, to plot out the visual assault on her mind, but it did her no good. Zaya could still see the propaganda images, impossibly bright, beating against her eyelids, making her see stars in the dark, and worse, Lionstone’s sickening, smirking face. And with her eyes closed, she was helpless to stop her ears straining. The whispered slogans and lies and chants seemed to raise themselves to a deafening roar that was even more disorienting than the spirals. Within seconds, it had Zaya so nauseous and so off-balance she felt like she was going to be sick. She reluctantly opened her eyes again.
Zaya imagined spending weeks in a room like this. She imagined what that would do to your psyche.
But, mercifully, she wouldn’t have to endure weeks. Her comrades had to be coming for her. All she had to do was hold out a little longer, and deny Lionstone the pleasure of seeing her break.
Zaya had more than enough strength for that.
“This won’t work,” Zaya declared thickly. “I don’t care who you’ve broken before. It won’t work on me. I’m stronger than that, and I won’t let you win.”
Lionstone just laughed; she seemed, if anything, pleased by Zaya’s stubbornness. “You know, you’re probably right,” she conceded. “According to our research, willpower is crucial, and I’ve no doubt you have plenty of that. But you’re just as stupid as all the other rebels I’ve captured if you think that’s the only trick I have up my sleeve.”
Zaya bristled, instantly on her guard again.
“Guards!” Lionstone called out suddenly, a lopsided, sinister, predatory grin on her face. “Strip her.”
“What the-” was all Zaya managed to say before the pack of silent guards descended on her as one.
Zaya was no fool. She knew she had no chance of overpowering all five of them. But that didn’t mean she was going to go down without a fight. The moment she felt a gloved hand seize her shoulder, she was all spit and fury. She threw it off and flew at her nearest assailant with all the strength she could muster. Zaya thought she’d managed to land a few pretty good blows, but in the end it came to naught, and after a moment or two of frantic wrestling, they had her firmly restrained. The rebel was unnerved by the way the guards seemed to move as a single, perfectly-coordinated machine without saying so much as a single word to one another.
Then, they started removing her clothes. Zaya wasn’t going to take that lying down either. She refused to meekly submit to whatever fucked-up perversion Lionstone had in mind for her. She squirmed and writhed like a cornered wolf, but of course, it inevitably proved just as futile as any other act of resistance. For all that she roared and raged when she felt the silent, faceless guards rip off her jacket or tug roughly at her pants, it didn’t stop them. Once she was completely naked, they hauled her up into a kneeling position, and she glared hatefully at the tyrant who had ordered them to humiliate her.
The look Lionstone gave her in return, though, was anything but hateful. She didn’t bother to conceal her lust or appreciation as she studied the contours of Zaya’s body.
“Not bad,” the domina purred. “Maybe all those months spent tramping around in the mud causing trouble are good for something. I don’t suppose I could interest you in a position on my personal stuff?”
“Die,” Zaya responded instantly.
Lionstone shrugged. “Oh well.” She snapped her fingers again, calling her guards to attention. “Now, the suit.”
“Huh?” Zaya managed, before she felt the guards beginning to force something onto her limbs.
This time, they had her too firmly restrained for her to offer anything more than token resistance, and so, before long, they had her arms and legs all forced into the appropriate parts of a tight-fitting, black bodysuit, and were zipping it up over her torso.
The suit was alarmingly similar to the ones the guards were wearing. It was all black and made up of a number of solid plates, all sewn together beneath a dense, skin-like mesh that kept her completely covered from her ankles all the way to her neck. The rebel couldn’t fathom what it was for, but she hated it anyway.
“What the fuck is this?” she demanded. “Need me all in black so you can get off?”
Lionstone’s laughter was as rich as ever.
“You’ll soon see,” the tyrant promised. “But first, the final piece.”
Lionstone reached into one of the pockets of her huge, fur-lined jacket and brandished something that immediately had Zaya far, far more concerned.
The small device in Lionstone’s hand bore an uneasy resemblance to a spider. It was about an inch long, and most of its ‘body’ was covered in a glass-like purple housing, whilst eight pointed, articulated limbs jutted out in pairs on both sides. A few tiny wires connecting different parts of the device were visible, and within the clouded, purple body, something was glowing with a faint, unnatural light.
Zaya didn’t like the look of that one bit.
“Now,” Lionstone said, voice thick with the thrill of anticipation. “Be a good girl and stay very, very still.”
Obviously, that was the last thing Zaya was going to do willingly, but it seemed that Lionstone’s guards took as much as an instruction to them as to their prisoner, and no less than three of them seized her head to hold it in place.
“No!” Zaya spat, as Lionstone drew closer. “No! Get the fuck off me! Get the fuck away from me!”
Lionstone completely ignored her, and with a precise, delicate touch, placed the device in the center of Zaya’s forehead.
Immediately, the thing came to life, and all eight of its sharp legs bit deep into Zaya’s skin.
Against her will, Zaya cried out at the sharp, unexpected pain. Her nausea grew. The spirals were still there, on every side of her, above and below, their sinister, mind-warping propaganda images always threatening to worm their way into Zaya’s skull. All the rebel could do to distract herself was try and picture all the gruesome things she would do to Lionstone when her precious Regime finally fell.
“This is what’s going to break you, my darling little rebel,” Lionstone gloated. “Just like it has so many before you.”
She turned her attention to the watch on her wrist, pressing a few small buttons on its side. Clearly it was more than just a watch. Some kind of control device, Zaya assumed. She got her answer when Lionstone pressed one last button with a flourish, and the device on her forehead flared into life.
Zaya, still on her knees, immediately went rigid. She made one last, sharp, strangled gasp before she felt herself freeze so completely she could barely breathe. Lionstone’s guards stepped back, judging that they no longer needed to hold her in place. They were right. She couldn’t stand, much less throw a punch. To Zaya, it felt just like she’d been hit by a thunderbolt. Her every nerve was aflame with something that burned and froze all at once. She might have thought she was having a seizure, if not for the bright glow she could see out of the upper corners of her eyes.
“Isn’t it just wonderful?” Lionstone sighed like a lovesick schoolgirl. “Truly, a technological marvel. I’ll always be grateful to the very, very bright young lady who invented it for me. It was almost a shame, to make her its first conquest. But I couldn’t have her letting slip any secrets.”
Zaya’s lips trembled in disgust and fury as she struggled to form words.
“I won’t bore you with all the technical details,” Lionstone drawled. “You wouldn’t understand anyway. But suffice it to say: even your iron will can’t beat simple neuroscience. The brain runs on electrical signals. I’m sure even you know that much. Well, what would happen, do you think, if it was possible to override those electrical signals?” Lionstone’s grin took on a particularly twisted quality. “Why I’d be able to make your annoying little rebel brain dance to any tune I pleased!”
Zaya spat in her face.
Even that small, insignificant gesture of defiance took an almost unimaginable amount of effort, but it was worth it to see Lionstone’s smirk curdle into a petulant scowl. She was shaking as she wiped Zaya’s spittle from her previously immaculate face. Zaya managed to muster up the focus to offer her a shit-eating grin.
“Told… you,” the rebel leader grunted. “Never… break… me.”
“We’ll see about that,” Lionstone snapped. “We’re only just getting started.”
She tapped the control device on her wrist, and Zaya’s plight got much, much worse.
This time, as she saw white and as her back arched painfully, the rebel screamed. She hated to give Lionstone the satisfaction, but there was no helping it. She was no longer in control of her muscles. They all seized up at once as the bolt of energy coursing through her doubled in intensity, making her twitch and convulse and force all the air out of her lungs in a cry of distress. Now, she could feel it crackling through her whole body, and she realized that the strange suit they’d forced on her had also come to life. The whole thing was thrumming with a powerful current, tiny little sensors, electrodes and motors mounted hidden within beginning to calibrate themselves so they could distribute the electrical signals from the device on her forehead all over her body.
The worst part was, it didn’t hurt. Not exactly. The feeling of violation and invasion was monstrous, but it didn’t hurt. Not after the initial burst of energy, like the sharp shock of a static charge. After that, it settled down to a constant sensation of warmth that made her tingle and had her muscles melting helplessly, like she was being given a massage after three days of hard marching. Even the discomfort of her constant, irregular twitching faded. All in all, Zaya had never felt anything quite like it. It was as if something was reaching into her chest and trying to rip her soul out of her body, and her newfound sense of separation between those parts of herself was making her light-headed and weak. Her efforts to speak, to protest, resulted in nothing more than a thin trail of drool leaking from one of the corners of her mouth. She was truly helpless.
It might have been pleasant, in a warm, soporific way, if not for the sensation of Lionstone’s propaganda being driven hard into her mind like a jagged, frozen icicle.
With Zaya’s mind broken open like a wound by the vile device embedded in her forehead, the world around her was rushing in to fill the void. And the world around her was all spirals and whispers and proud, glorious images of Lionstone’s face. With her focus and stalwart resolve ripped from her, Zaya was unable to keep her guard up against the onslaught, unable to shield herself with memories, and unable even to focus her gaze on the few stationary points in the room so that she could keep her balance. Now, she could feel the maelstrom of sickening images bleeding into her mind.
She could feel their pull.
“There,” Lionstone said, the corners of her lips once again curling up to form that familiar, vicious smile. “Not so cocky now, are you?”
Lionstone was different. No, Zaya quickly corrected herself. She wasn’t. She just seemed different. But the effect was potent. Lionstone seemed bigger, somehow. It was hard for Zaya to be sure, with the room warping and spiraling around her, but the latex-clad tyrant suddenly appeared to tower over everyone else. Her voice was suddenly filled with a kind of gravitas, and the cruelty of her words sent a fearful shiver down Zaya’s spine. That, in turn, scared her. She’d never been afraid of Lionstone before, not once in her life. But now, when Zaya looked at her, she felt small. Insignificant. The energy current forcing its way through her brain foisted an image on her: an image of Lionstone standing on a balcony, looking down at a baying mass of cheering, adoring followers.
In Zaya’s mind’s eye, Lionstone now seemed more like an evil goddess than a petty dictator.
“Y-you!” Zaya spat, forcing her shaking tongue to form words. “W-what… what are you… doing t-to me?”
Lionstone giggled, delighted. “I did warn you,” she said offhandedly. “Your brain is just neurons and electrical signals, Zaya. If you know how to manipulate them, you can do, well, anything you want. Memories, feelings, beliefs. It’s all malleable.”
Zaya groaned. She could feel the truth of what Lionstone was saying. It wasn’t a bluff. Her mind-control device was working. Lionstone’s horrifying slogans were beating at the inside of her mind like a drum.
Glory and service.
Glory and service.
Glory and service.
She knew she had to fight it. She knew she had to resist. But how? How did you resist something that was already inside your head? Even framing that question in her mind was monstrously hard. Her whole body was bristling with heat, nerves and muscles betraying her as her mind succumbed to Lionstone’s conditioning. The images spiraling on the walls felt more and more true. They felt like a part of her. Lionstone’s armies. Her palaces. There was something glorious about them. Zaya couldn’t not feel that. She simply couldn’t. It had been written into her.
But, Zaya realized, there had to be a limit. There had to be. People were more than just Lionstone’s playthings. That arrogance had always been her greatest weakness. As much as the tyrant could mess with her, she couldn’t take away the things she treasured the most: the bonds she shared with her comrades. They were coming for her. They always came for their own. They never left anyone behind. That was enough. Knowing that was enough. She was Zaya of the rebellion. She wouldn’t let that go.
“This…” Mustering the focus to speak was painful, but Zaya did it anywhere, pure spite giving her the strength. “This is… a farce. This… doesn’t… work! I’ll… never… ever… let you break me!”
Zaya meant it, with every fiber of her being.
She was hoping to see dismay on Lionstone’s face. Instead, the dictator sighed theatrically. “That’s what they all say. Fortunately, I know just the thing to prove otherwise.”
Lionstone snapped her fingers, and beckoned one of her guards to her side. The silent, faceless guard obeyed at once.
“Remove your helmet,” Lionstone instructed.
The guard saluted, and reached up to unseal the black, featureless, dome-like faceplate of her helm. As she lifted it off over her head, Zaya’s heart died in her chest.
“Fareeha…” she breathed.
As much as Zaya wished she didn’t, she recognized the woman under that helmet. She would have known that face anywhere. The two of them had fought together a hundred times or more. Fareeha had saved her life just as many times as any other rebel under her command. They had laughed together, shed tears together, shared memories together. Zaya had wept bitterly when Fareeha had gone missing in a failed sabotage op several months before. They’d searched everywhere for her, raiding dozens of Regime bases, but in the end they’d been forced to conclude she’d either been killed or shipped out to an off-world prison colony.
But here she was, in the flesh.
With one of those glowing, purple control devices on her forehead.
“F-Fareeha!” Zaya begged. “It’s me… it’s me! Zaya! C’mon, you know me!”
Fareeha’s face didn’t so much as twitch. Her eyes were glassy and empty, and betrayed no hint of recognition.
“Guard,” Lionstone purred. She spoke slowly, savoring the moment. “What are you? Tell the prisoner.”
In a ghastly motion, Fareeha pounded her chest with her fist in a salute. “I am a humble servant in the service of Domina Lionstone, honored to have a place in her personal retinue,” Fareeha chanted. Her voice was stone. “Glory and service in her name!”
For the first time, Zaya was truly lost for words. She couldn’t believe this. She literally could not believe the evidence of her eyes. She didn’t want to hear any of this. She didn’t want to hear the fervor and loyalty in Fareeha’s voice. It was like a nightmare.
“N-no,” Zaya whispered. “This isn’t… this isn’t real. This can’t be. This…”
“Oh?” Lionstone’s smile was wider than ever, like she was feeding on Zaya’s despair. “You want more proof?” She turned to Fareeha. “Guard! Command word: layer blue.”
Fareeha blinked, and as the emotionless slab of her face melted a little, kernels of treasonous hope began to sprout in Zaya’s heart.
“Huh?” Fareeha said blearily. “I… oh!” She noticed Zaya and rushed to her side, kneeling. “Zaya? You’re here?”
Despite the mind-warping energy still coursing through her, Zaya was able to breathe a sigh of relief. This was the Fareeha she knew. Her personality had been restored. It shone through in every little thing about the way she spoke and the way she moved. This was her comrade - even with that sinister, mind-warping thing still attached to her.
“’Fraid so,” Zaya replied bitterly. “They got me, Fareeha.”
“Ah,” Fareeha said oddly. “I’m sorry about how this feels. But don’t be afraid. It’ll be OK, I promise.”
Something about the way she said that made all the warning hairs on the back of Zaya’s neck stand rigid. “What does that mean?” she asked, guardedly.
Like a nightmarish, twisted sun emerging from the clouds, Fareeha’s face warped into a radiant smile. “Soon you’ll be just like me,” she explained. “Soon you’ll know just how wonderful it is to serve Domina Lionstone.”
Zaya could have wept. “B-but… but…” she spluttered. “You hate her! You revile everything she stands for!”
“I did, once,” Fareeha conceded. “I was so misguided. But now I understand. She knows best for us all, Zaya.”
“Fareeha,” Lionstone interjected, holding out her hand like one of the queens of old. “Kiss me.”
“Yes, Domina,” Fareeha replied at once. She hurried over to kneel at Lionstone’s feet, and kissed her hand.
The look of absolute loyalty and satisfaction on her face was what broke Zaya.
“You see?” Lionstone gloated. She walked right over to Zaya, bending over and putting her face close to the rebel’s. It was clear she knew she had no fight left in her. “I told you. I told you I’d win.”
Zaya said nothing. She felt numb.
“And do you want to know the worst part?” the tyrant continued. “All this? Unnecessary. All I really needed to do was let that thing burrow into your brain for a few days. I didn’t need to be here. She didn’t need to be here. But I wanted you to know.”
The sheer weight of Lionstone’s cruelty and malice was crushing. Zaya still couldn’t tell if the woman was a goddess or a devil, but either way, she was something much, much greater than human. Something irresistible.
“Besides,” Lionstone added perkily, straightening. “Breaking your will the old-fashioned way does have the benefit of speeding things along somewhat. And judging from the look on your face, you’re ready for the last little push.”
She started adjusting the control unit on her wrist.
“Don’t worry, I’m not all bad,” she said with a wink, as she pressed the button. “You’ll enjoy it, in the end. I promise.”
In an instant, Zaya’s mind was blank. She lost everything - memories, thoughts. Even her own name. She felt like a computer being rebooted. After a few seconds, it all started to come back to her, though, and when she mustered the strength to look up at Lionstone’s face, everything made sense again.
At first, she just froze, gripped by awe. She was in the presence of Domina Lionstone. Images and false memories of the Domina’s speeches from months and years past flashed through her head. What was she meant to do in the presence of such greatness? It was almost overpowering. She no longer felt the energy coursing through her body, or thought about the device attached to her forehead. How could she think about anything but the words pounding through her head? It was an insistent, irresistible mantra that would define her new existence.
Glory and service to Domina Lionstone.
“How do you feel, Zaya?” Domina Lionstone asked.
Zaya let out a small, breathy sigh. It felt like a blessing that the Domina knew her name. But almost right away, she snapped out of her stupor and rose to her feet. This was no time for girlish fawning. Zaya, the former rebel, snapped to attention, and clasped her fist to her chest in a salute as if she’d been doing it for her entire life.
“Ready to serve, Domina Lionstone.”
“I once rebelled, just like many of you. I thought I knew best. But now I see the truth. There’s only one person who’s fit to lead the people. She truly knows best for us all. So I urge you to heed her words, and place yourself at her disposal, in the name of creating a brighter future for us all. Glory and service to Domina Lionstone!”
As she watched her own performance on the holoscreen, Zaya felt nothing but pride. Her Domina had asked her to make a public speech, to be broadcast again and again as propaganda, and she had done so. How could she feel anything except the sweet satisfaction that came with obedience? It was a privilege to be able to serve Domina Lionstone. Zaya might have wondered how many rebels had been demoralized and swayed from their cause by her words, but it wasn’t her role to wonder. Just to obey.
Domina Lionstone’s mind-control device was still on her forehead. She wore it at all times, except when in public view. Wearing it or not made little difference - its conditioning had already buried deep into her memories and personality - but the Domina liked to make sure her guards were always perfectly brainwashed. Zaya agreed with her about that. She should be perfectly brainwashed. She no longer had the capacity to disagree with Domina Lionstone about anything. She regarded her mistress as perfect, and loyalty to her meant more than anything. Anything at all. Her pride as a rebel, her horror at Domina Lionstone’s cruelty, her bonds with her comrades - all of those had been smoothed away to nothing.
Only loyalty was left.
“Zaya?” Domina Lionstone drawled, reclined on her bed, surrounded by her other guards. “Come to bed. You know you’re my favorite.”
Without a second thought, Zaya started to strip herself of the tight-fitting bodysuit the Domina had all her guards wear, exposing her taut, muscular body.
She knew exactly how best to serve her mistress.