Harper’s stomach was churning with vicious anxiety as she sat at the back of the crowded lecture theater, waiting for Professor Elbourne’s lecture to end whilst hoping it wouldn’t so that she would have longer to prepare herself. It was nearing the end of the day, and as the light outside was starting to dim, most students were slumping in their seats or yawning conspicuously. Harper was the only one who seemed to be fully alert. Like the students around her, though, she wasn’t really paying attention to what Professor Elbourne was saying. She was entirely focused on the task at hand: interrogating the professor. She’d been putting it off for far too long, hoping that other avenues of investigation would finally bear fruit. But finally, Harper had felt forced to admit that hours of googling and trawling through hopeless internet forums didn’t really count as investigation. She’d had to acknowledge that while she’d been telling herself she was putting off talking to Professor Elbourne because it was dangerous and because it made sense to spend time preparing beforehand, really she’d just been putting it off because she was scared. Harper wasn’t used to being scared. She’d been feeling that way more and more often recently, however, and that was exactly what had spurred her to action.
She was scared of Lori, as much as it pained her to admit it. Her roommate had changed. It was subtle, but it seemed to be growing over time, and it was setting Harper’s nerves on edge constantly. Lori, usually so anxious and unsure, was calmer and more assured than ever. Harper would have been happy for her, but there was something else too. Lori seemed distant and cold, and she was always looking at Harper as if she knew something Harper didn’t. She was completely disinterested in talking to Harper about anything, especially her investigations into the mystery of their dronification. She was spending more and more time with her friends, Sally and Madison, but while once that would have been reassuring, now the three of them unnerved Harper more than almost anything. They were perfectly in sync with another, to an unnatural degree. They had hushed conversations that stopped Harper entered the room, whereupon they looked at her silently with expressions that were somehow both blank and expectant. The trio chillingly reminded Harper of a set of Stepford wives. But even that wasn’t the worst thing. The worst thing were the gaps in Harper’s memory. They were more of them each time she looked back and tried to piece things together, and while she couldn’t prove it, she suspected they had something to do with Lori. Too often, the gaps were preceded by Lori entering her room, or followed by Lori’s scent hanging around Harper a little too intimately. Each time, Harper was left confused, and stuck with the unshakeable feeling that she’d been on the cusp of some kind of earthshattering revelation, only to have it robbed from her. It was all becoming too much. Harper could feel herself becoming paranoid and worse. She couldn’t take it anymore. She had to do something, even if it was something risky. She couldn’t keep living in limbo.
And then there was Jae. Harper had neither seen nor heard from them in the week since they’d ran out on her and Lori, despite her best efforts to get in touch. That worried her too. She didn’t know what state of mind Jae was in, or what they might do. Harper rubbed her temples. She didn’t know how to handle this kind of stress.
“OK, class,” Professor Elbourne suddenly announced, from the front of the lecture theater. “I think we can call it a day here. I can see some of you are eager to get home to your beds, or whatever else you might have planned for your evenings.” The willowy professor smiled a thin smile. “Chapters twelve and thirteen from the textbook, before next week. Don’t forget.”
There was a smattering of applause from the gathered students, along with more than a few sighs of relief. All around her, students were packing their bags and rising to their feet, eager to leave. Harper found herself strangely uncomfortable, with people milling all around her on their way to the door. She realized it had been weeks since she’d been in a room with that many people. Harper blinked. She couldn’t believe she’d only just realized that. Harper sighed. She was even more messed up than she’d thought. As the students filed out, Harper took note of Professor Elbourne’s teaching assistant, Amia Grover, leaving too. That was good. She wanted the professor alone, at least at first. But she needed to find a way to talk to Amia later, if things didn’t pan out with Professor Elbourne. According to Lori, Amia had been there the very first day Lori had discovered her secret dronification. She might have had something to do with it.
Once the lecture theater had emptied, it was Harper’s turn to stand up. Hesitantly, she started making her way down to the front of the room, where Professor Elbourne was sat at her desk, looking at something on her computer. Just as Harper was contemplating exactly what she was going to say, Professor Elbourne raised her head to look at her. “Miss Williams, it’s a pleasure to have you with us - for once. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you in my class,” she said pointedly.
Despite herself, Harper blushed, flustered. She hadn’t realized Professor Elbourne so much as knew her name. “Oh, um, sorry. I’ve been… uh…”
“You can save the excuses.” Professor Elbourne sniffed. “If you don’t think you need to be here, well, I’m sure your final grade will reflect that. One way, or the other. Now, what can I do for you?”
Harper suddenly realized that if Professor Elbourne really was responsible for everything she and Lori had been through, it would make perfect sense that she knew her name. That realization crystallized her resolve. “I had some questions, actually. Academic questions.”
“Oh?” Professor Elbourne raised an eyebrow haughtily, but for the first time Harper got the sense she was actually paying attention to what she was saying. “Well, in that case I’m happy to assist. Ask.”
Harper found herself taken aback by the professor’s cool, blunt manner. Even before everything had started going wrong, she’d only attended Professor Elbourne’s class a handful of times. Attendance wasn’t her strong suit. As a result, she’d never had a conversation with her. She’d never even seen Professor Elbourne up close and personal before. The professor looked every inch the perfect professional academic. She was wearing flats, slim-cut pants, and a pretty, green blouse with a long lab coat on top. Her piercing eyes were framed by large, circular glasses, and her dark brown hair was tied back neatly in a ponytail. Harper knew from her research that the professor was in her late thirties, but she was certainly wearing her age well. Her sharp cheekbones and precise, clipped manner of speech lent her a matronly, almost aristocratic air. Despite Harper’s intentions, it was difficult for her not to see the professor as a figure of authority; someone to be deferred to. She certainly spoke like she expected people to listen. Harper did her best to shrug off the impression. She needed a clear head if she was going to do what she’d came here to do.
“It’s not exactly about the class material,” Harper began carefully. “It’s a bit more… abstract, you might say. Underpinning a lot of what you’ve talked about in computer science is a lot of really basic theorizing about things like programming languages, how computers execute programs, order of operations, following subroutines… stuff like that. How computers think, you might say.”
“Where is this going?” Professor Elbourne sounded genuinely curious, rather than impatient.
“I suppose I was wondering, professor,” Harper continued, her nervousness growing. “What if you were to apply that paradigm to things that aren’t computers? Animals. Or… maybe even humans?”
Professor Elbourne stared at her quizzically. “That’s a very strange question, Miss Williams. Where is this coming from?”
“Oh, um…” Harper could feel herself starting to sweat already. “It’s just a thought I had, I guess.”
“Well, it’s funny you should ask about that,” Professor Elbourne replied. “As a matter of fact, I once co-authored a paper on that very subject.”
“I know,” Harper told her. “I’ve read it.”
“You have?” For the first time in their conversation, Professor Elbourne seemed genuinely surprised.
“Yeah.” Harper was suddenly wondering if it had been such a good idea to reveal that. “But there were a few things I wanted to ask about.”
“Perhaps I misjudged you, Miss Williams.” Professor Elbourne’s penetrating eyes seemed to be staring right through Harper. It was a struggle for her not to shrink from her gaze. “By all means, ask away. I always welcome stimulating conversation.”
“OK.” Harper took a deep breath. She wasn’t sure if Professor Elbourne was on to her yet, but she had to press on nonetheless. “Your paper was all theoretical, right? But I guess what I was wondering was: what if you tried that out for real?”
Professor Elbourne sharply raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“Just… for the sake of argument,” Harper pressed, her mouth suddenly dry. “Let’s imagine you really wanted to, um, make someone like that. Make them think like a computer, instead of a person. How exactly would you go about trying to do that?”
Professor Elbourne seemed momentarily stunned. It could have been the sheer strangeness of the question, but Harper didn’t think so. There was something in the professor’s face; a hairline fracture in that otherwise-perfect composure. It was only there for an instant, but it set Harper’s heart pounding. All of a sudden, she was filled with conviction. Professor Elbourne knew something.
“I… I don’t see how such a thing could ever be possible,” Professor Elbourne finally answered, her face passing quickly through a number of expressions. “Miss Williams, you must understand, that paper was purely theoretical in nature. It was a matter of pure academic, philosophical interest to consider-”
“But,” Harper interrupted, unable to contain her zeal. “What if? There’s all kinds of possibilities out there for altered mental states, right? Brain injuries, mental illnesses, unusual education, drugs… or perhaps even something like hypnosis?”
“Hypnosis?” Professor Elbourne repeated, shocked. Her eyes were wide.
“Hypnosis,” Harper repeated gravely. “Tell me, professor, what do you think someone would be like if you did that to them? Your paper didn’t really talk about that.” It was all spilling out of Harper now, her eagerness to see Professor Elbourne squirm overwhelming her sense of caution. “Would they feel anything? Remember anything? A computer doesn’t really do those things like a person does, right? It just obeys. Would they even have a sense of self? Would they need a name? Maybe just a number. Would they still qualify as a person? Perhaps they’d be just a mindless, obedient… drone.”
After Harper finished her barrage of questions, silence hung in the air. Professor Elbourne looked affronted and astonished in equal measure. Harper was searching her face desperately, praying that the professor would crack and spill her secrets. But unfortunately, a few tense seconds later, composure returned to the professor’s face. She coughed slightly and straightened her back.
“You are talking nonsense, Miss Williams,” she said, deflating Harper. She rose to her feet, and Harper was suddenly conscious of the fact that the professor towered over her imposingly. Professor Elbourne fixed Harper with a deathly glare. “I’m pleased to see you’ve taken an interest in my field, but you must rid yourself of some of these outlandish ideas if you expect to be taken seriously by anyone - including me. I can see you’re quite… excitable. But that does not excuse rudeness, or wasting my time. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Harper met her glare evenly for a long moment, contemplating everything she could do. It was so tempting to call the professor out as a liar, right to her face. Harper was utterly certain Professor Elbourne was hiding something. But then she remembered what Professor Elbourne might be able to do, if she truly was responsible for her plight. She’d probably already tipped her hand, but she wasn’t ready for an open confrontation - not yet. So, as much as it pained her to do so, Harper plastered a sickly-sweet smile on her face.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I just got carried away.” Harper turned and started walking away, heading for the door as fast as she could without breaking into a run. “I’ll see you again soon, professor.”
As she left the lecture building and starting making her way towards the edge of campus, Harper was lost in thought, contemplating her next possible course of action. She was so lost in thought, she utterly failed to notice someone approaching her from behind, until, as she rounded a corner, she found herself being grabbed by the shoulder and pulled roughly to one side. Harper was taken completely by surprise, but her instincts kicked in fast, and she immediately started trying to pull away from and lash out at her assailant, even as she was thrown off-balance and shoved into a hard, stone wall. Harper raised her hands, guarding herself, and was preparing to scream when she noticed who was attacking her.
“Harper, stop, stop!” Jae urged her, in hushed tones.
Harper froze once she recognized Jae’s voice and face. “Jae?” she asked dumbly. She couldn’t believe it was them.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Jae hissed, releasing their grasp on Harper’s flannel shirt. “Don’t freak out, OK? I need to talk.”
“Sure,” Harper said slowly, still confused. She hadn’t been able to track down Jae for a whole week, and now here they were, ambushing her. What was going on? Clearly something had happened. Jae didn’t look like their usual self. They were dressed in a loose, unflattering hoodie, with the hood drawn over their head to help conceal their face. Now that she was up close, Harper could see that Jae was looking stressed, tired, and more than a little worse for wear. There was an agitated, even haunted look in their brown eyes, and skin was looking ashen and unhealthy. What had happened to them?
“OK. Thank you.” Jae looked relieved. “I know this is weird.”
“Yeah, it is!” Harper hissed. She didn’t know why they were talking in such clandestine tones, but she went along with it. “Where the hell have you been?”
“I’ve been… busy,” Jae replied. “I know I ran out on you last week. I was panicking. But I’m not anymore. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been going on, just like you. I’ve actually been looking for you for a few days now.”
“You couldn’t just come to my place?” Harper asked incredulously. “Send me a message?”
Jae shook their head. “Too risky. Lori could have been there. She could be monitoring you somehow.”
Harper sighed. Clearly, Jae was still feeling more than a little paranoid. Or maybe it wasn’t paranoid. Harper couldn’t tell anymore. “I thought you thought I was ‘one of them’ too?”
“Well… let’s just say I’m taking a leap of faith here,” Jae explained. Their eyes were constantly searching Harper’s as if they were looking for something. “I’m hoping you’re not, because I need some help and I need someone who’s gonna believe me. And that’s pretty much just you.”
“I guess that’s fair enough,” Harper reluctantly agreed, although she still bristled at the suggestion that she was anything like what Lori had become. Yes, clearly someone has messed with her head. But she was still in control. She wasn’t one of Lori’s little drone gang, that was for sure. “Fine. What do you need?”
“Just come with me.” Jae started tugging at one of Harper’s sleeves, trying to lead her away. “I need to show you something.”
“No, wait.” Harper stood her ground and crossed her arms firmly. “Jae, you’re being really really weird right now, and you’ve been dodging all my calls and messages for a week. I want to help, but I need you to tell me where we’re going and what we’re doing. Otherwise…”
Jae took a deep breath, and then shrugged, relenting. Harper sighed with relief. She hated having to be so distrustful, but after her experiences with Lori, she knew all too well that she couldn’t necessarily trust anyone anymore. She needed Jae to give her something.
“OK. Here’s what it is,” Jae began to explain. “You’re looking into Elbourne, right? That’s why you went to her class today? I figured you’d go sooner or later, so I’ve been hanging around, trying to catch sight of you. I think you’re on the right track. I’ve been looking into her too. She’s definitely got something to do with all this. But my methods are a bit more direct, I guess you’d say.”
“What do you mean?” Harper asked, trying to brush off how creepy it was that Jae seemed to have been staking out campus to look for her.
“Elbourne has a private lab, right here on campus,” Jae continued. “It’s just for her and her research, no-one else is allowed in or out. That has to be where she’s doing all this, or keeping her research, or whatever. She’d have all the equipment and privacy she’d ever need. And I found a way in.”
“Swiped a keycard.” Jae chuckled slightly at the astonished look on Harper’s face. “Relax, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s a college building, not the Pentagon. No guards, just electronic locks.”
“OK,” Harper murmured, slowly processing what Jae was telling her. “But what does that have to do with me?”
“I’m not just walking in there on my own!” Jae exclaimed. “Who knows what the hell is in there? I need someone to watch my back. And to witness it. If I went in there alone, no matter what I said or what pictures I had, people probably wouldn’t believe me.”
Harper nodded. That made sense. But she still wasn’t thrilled about the idea of breaking into a college building. “I guess I might be willing to help,” Harper allowed.
“Great!” Jae started tugging on Harper’s sleeve again.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Harper held up her hand and stood her ground. “Right now?”
“Yes!” There was a wild, alarming energy in Jae’s eyes. “It’s the perfect time. The sun’s going down, and everyone’s going home. No-one’s around to see us.”
Harper looked around, and had to concede that Jae had a point. It was almost dusk, and now that classes had finished for the day, the campus was already virtually deserted. “W-what about Elbourne?” Harper asked. This was moving way too fast for her liking.
“I checked her schedule. She has some kind of boring committee meeting.” Jae was sounding even more urgent. “It’s on the opposite side of campus, and it’ll take a whole hour.” Jae clearly sensed Harper’s reluctance. “Come on! This is the best chance we’re ever gonna get.”
“I… I don’t know, Jae.” Harper was still looking around uneasily. She just wasn’t ready for this. Talking to Elbourne alone had taken all of her boldness. She wanted a chance to go home and think. Not this.
Jae dropped their hands. “OK, look. I’m doing this. Right now. I’ve been waiting long enough already. I don’t want to go in there alone, but I will if you make me. Are you in, or out?”
“Jae…” Harper stared at them pleadingly, but they were unmoved. She was torn. Her every instinct was screaming at her that this was wrong, that it was a bad idea. But Jae’s desperate resolve was plain, and Harper just couldn’t bring herself to abandon someone going through the same thing as her. “Fine. Fuck. OK, fine. I’m in.”
Jae nodded solemnly. “Thank you.” Without pulling on her arm, Jae started walking away, back towards the center of campus. “Come on,” they called back. “This way.”
Harper felt she had no choice but to follow.
Even though there wasn’t another soul in sight, Harper and Jae crept silently along the walls and peaked around the corners as they made their way through the Merrifield building, in which Professor Elbourne’s private laboratory was located. Strictly speaking, they hadn’t broken any laws or rules - yet - but darkness had fallen in the time it had taken them to get to the building. The building was closed for the night, and while it wasn’t guarded or even locked, a couple of students creeping around after dark was sure to attract suspicion. So far, though, Jae’s stolen keycard had gotten them through every door. Harper’s heart was pounding furiously, and every time she heard the slightest noise she jumped like a startled mouse, suddenly sure they’d been discovered by a security guard, but despite her anxiety Harper was having difficulty suppressing the ludicrous urge to laugh. It was just so ridiculous, sneaking around her own school like a spy in a movie or something. For what felt like the millionth time, she found herself questioning how she’d ended up in such a surreal situation. Mentally reviewing that twisted path, though, completely took the humor out of it. Harper took a deep breath and did her best to steel her nerves. There was too much at stake for her to be acting like a naughty child.
“Here,” Jae said suddenly, coming to a halt. “It’s right here.”
Harper looked at the door they were now standing outside of. She held up her phone to provide a little light. The name panel read ‘Private: Professor Elbourne.’ Mounted on the wall beside the door was a small electronic key-reader. As she looked at it, a question occurred to Harper; something she’d neglected to ask about before.
“Who did you say you swiped the keycard off of?” Harper whispered.
“Just one of Elbourne’s TAs,” Jae answered dismissively, already reaching to swipe the card.
“Wait,” Harper hissed, grabbing their hand. “How do you know they have access? How do you know it won’t, like, trip an alarm or something?”
“They come in and out of here all the time,” Jae told her impatiently. “I told you I’d been watching, remember?”
Harper nodded slowly and removed her hand, although she still couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong. “Fine. Just… you’re really sure this is safe?”
“I’m sure,” Jae said, and swiped the card.
Harper held her breath, but she needn’t have worried. There was a small buzzing sound, and then a green light appeared on the card reader. A loud, metallic click came from the lock on the door as it opened. Without any of the hesitation that Harper was feeling, Jae pushed the door open and stepped inside. From within, Jae beckoned Harper to follow. Harper couldn’t shake her reluctance; once she crossed the threshold, she somehow felt certain there would be no going back. But she knew that the longer she delayed, the more likely they were to be discovered, and so she stepped inside and allowed the door to the lab to fall shut behind her.
Even though the lab’s lights were still switch off, the whole room was illuminated by the flickering, sickly glow of a dozen computer screens, spread out throughout the lab. Harper could tell the room was large and windowless, but she couldn’t see much more besides that until Jae felt around for the light switch on the wall. Harper was momentarily dazzled by the brightness as the fluorescent lamps on the ceiling came to life. Once she adjusted, she was able to see that the lab was divided up by three rows of desks, with the computers mounted on them and stools in front of each one. The computers looked state-of-the-art; no surprise, given Professor Elbourne’s academic and professional standing. At one end of the lab, next to the door, was a large workbench, with a bunch of electronic components scattered across it and many more in various bins and containers underneath. There were some tools Harper recognized, like a soldering iron, and many more that she didn’t and that seemed to be far more advanced. At the far end was a set of large, metal cabinets that stood from floor to ceiling.
“Come on, let’s get to work,” Jae instructed. “We’ve got some time, but not forever. We need to find something.”
Harper nodded. Jae headed straight to the workbench and started inspecting it, although Harper had no idea what exactly they were looking for. Harper decided to start with the desks. There were some papers scattered across a few of them, and that seemed like a good place to find something incriminating. Harper took her time looking around the lab as she made her way over. In most respects it seemed completely mundane, but there was just something about it that was bothering Harper. Why were all the computers left on? What were they doing? What was the purpose of the workbench, or those big cabinets? Why so much security, for something like this? It all seemed just slightly off.
Once she reached the nearest desk, Harper looked at the computer screen. There were lines of code written on it, hundreds of them, perhaps even thousands, all scrolling by almost too fast to read. Harper suddenly wished she’d spent more time studying. She didn’t recognize what kind of code it was or what kind of software was running. As far as she could tell, it was some kind of program being compiled. Whatever it was, it was clearly incredibly complex. Harper had never seen anything like it. She could only guess at its purpose. It could have been completely innocent, of course, but her mind was racing with possibilities. Maybe it was a brainwashing program. Maybe it was the code lying behind those mind-warping spirals that had taken Harper and Lori’s free will away. Maybe it was the very program that those spirals had placed in her head. Harper was lost in thought for a moment, stunned by the idea that she might be looking at the instrument of her misfortune, right there on the screen. But she pulled herself away, once she realized that the constant, endless, scrolling lines of code were becoming uncomfortably hypnotic.
Next, Harper’s attention turned to the nearest stack of papers. She picked up a few, and started looking through them. They seemed to be a stack of printouts, perhaps ready to be filed away. Once Harper started to read them, she realized they were a long series of case files, each of them marked ominously by a four-digit serial number. Harper flicked through them, her heart pounding, but there was no #7005 or #6193. But there were other numbers: #7137, #7428, and a dozen more besides. Harper’s eyes widened. What did that mean? More victims? She started reading furiously, searching for more details, but the files were maddeningly obscure. There was little more to each of them than a set of basic physical descriptors, and a set of coded references that Harper assumed to be describing how their brainwashing was progressing - ‘Subject reached Stage Five’, ‘Subject has undergone Procedure Seven,’ ‘Subject’s responses consistent with that of a Type Three inductee’. Frustrated, Harper threw the papers back onto the desk. Knowing what she knew, it was incredibly troubling, but to an outsider it wasn’t proof. It was nothing. There could even be some kind of alternative explanation. For all she knew, it was still faintly possible that Professor Elbourne was innocent. They needed to find something more explicit. Something truly incriminating. Harper looked to the far side of the room.
“Hey, I’m gonna check out those cabinets,” she called to Jae.
There was no response. Jae still seemed to be preoccupied with the workbench by the door. Harper decided not to interrupt. Instead, she moved slowly past the rows of flickering computer screens until she was standing in front of one of the huge, metal cabinets. They weren’t locked. Unsure what to expect, Harper outstretched her hand, and opened one. The moment she saw what was inside, Harper took a step back and clasped her hand over her face. It was a wardrobe. And inside, were rows and rows of black, latex bodysuits, each one with a matching black hood and mask. This was it. This was proof. There was no possible innocent way to explain this. It was Professor Elbourne. It had been her all along. Harper had already suspected, but now that she was seeing positive proof, she couldn’t describe what she was feeling. She could feel her blood pumping in her ears. She started fumbling for her phone, and began taking photo after photo. Perhaps there wasn’t anything inherently sinister about some sets of latex clothing - at least, to an outsider observer - but Harper felt certain there was no way Professor Elbourne had told anyone that this was what her research was all about. Maybe she could use them to get the university to start an investigation. Maybe they would be able to uncover it all. Maybe-
“I thought I asked you to leave, Miss Williams.”
The moment she heard the stern, clipped, familiar voice coming from the entrance of the lab, Harper’s blood ran cold. She turned slowly, dreading what she knew she was going to see. It was Professor Elbourne, stood tall in the doorway, looking disturbing calm and in-control. She sighed and shook her head, her lab coat hanging all the way to the ground.
“You shouldn’t have come here, Miss Williams. That was very unwise.”
“Fuck you,” Harper spat, but inwardly she was terrified. She looked over at Jae. They were staring at Professor Elbourne too, looking just as dumbfounded as Harper felt.
“It’s a shame, really,” Professor Elbourne continued. “Your experiment was proving such a valuable source of data. I’m going to regret having to terminate early. It’s going to take such a long time to find suitable candidates for a repeat. But I suppose there’s no helping it.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Harper spat. Her hands were balled tight into fists, her body running on adrenaline. There were so many things she wanted to say, so many questions she wanted to scream. But, with her head so scrambled by fear and panic, the only one she could formulate was: “Why? Why did you do this to us?”
“I’d love to explain. I really would.” Professor Elbourne started walking slowly towards Harper. “But I think it would take far too long for you to grasp the purpose of my work, and I’m sure you’re already thinking about how to escape, or perhaps attack me. So I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut our conversation short.”
“W-what are you talking about?” Harper started looking around nervously. There was nothing she could use as a weapon. Could she overpower Elbourne? Maybe. Could she get past her? The door was the only way out. But one phrase from the professor was all it would take to shut her down.
Professor Elbourne looked at her pointedly. “Beta… beta…” She looked down and snapped her fingers in frustration. “What was the number again? I can never remember.”
Harper couldn’t believe her luck. Maybe there was actually a way out of this. She looked over at Jae, trying to catch their eye. She flashed significant looks between them and the professor, hoping to try and signal for them to both try and tackle Professor Elbourne at once. Jae’s expression, however, was unreadable. Harper wasn’t sure they understood what she was trying to convey.
“I suppose I’ll have to use this instead, then,” Professor Elbourne announced. She reached into one of the large pockets of her lab coat, and withdrew a tablet computer. She tapped at the screen for a couple seconds, her fingers deftly inputting a password and then pressing a series of other buttons. The professor’s face was bathed in light emanating from the screen, but Harper couldn’t see what was on it. Not until Professor Elbourne held it up for her to look at it.
It was a spiral.
“Look,” the professor commanded, but it was unnecessary. Harper was already looking. Her gaze was utterly rooted to the spiral. The entrancing effect of the swimming, spinning graphic were diminished from across the room, but it was still enough. Harper could already feel her strength being sapped. The idea of closing her eyes or averting her gaze suddenly seemed as impossible as the idea of swimming up a waterfall. She’d been full of fire, ready to fight or flee at any moment, but now submission and defeat felt inevitable. An all-too-familiar coldness was starting to take root in her mind, slowly reactivating the programs and subroutines Harper so longed to be free of. Was this the end? It was starting to feel like it. Obedience was pleasure. Resistance was impossible. She was a-
“No!” Harper cried. She wasn’t willing to let this be the end. Not after how far she’d come. Mustering all of her will, she managed to tear her gaze off of the spiral. The instant she did, she broke into a sprint. She was still feeling dizzy from the spiral, but she could remember the path to the door, even with her head down. It wasn’t far. Just a few seconds. All she had to do was make sure Jae was safe too. In what felt like only an instant, Harper was across the room and next to the workbench, at which Jae was still standing.
“Come on!” Harper yelled, grabbing Jae’s hand. She started pulling towards the door. She could feel Jae responding and starting to follow her, sluggish but still responsive. Now there was only the professor in the way. She was between them and freedom, but she wasn’t blocking the door. All Harper needed to do was shove her aside. She had the pictures on her phone. The nightmare was almost over.
Fueled by another surge of adrenaline, Harper brushed past Professor Elbourne with ease. She was tall and slight; easy to throw off balance. The professor didn’t even try to resist or hold her back. Harper raised her head. The door was right in front of her. Just a few more paces. She was there. She was free. She was free.
That hopeful thought died in Harper’s mind as she felt an iron grip on her shoulder, holding her back. Harper wheeled. It wasn’t the professor. It was Jae.
“Jae… why?” Harper asked, but she already knew. The look on Jae’s face told her everything. It was a look she knew all too well, from all the times she’d seen it on Lori’s face. It was the look of a hypnotized, brainwashed drone. It took Harper a long moment to recover and try to pull away, but she found she couldn’t. Jae was suddenly inhumanly strong and impassive. Harper’s own strength started to fade, replaced with a soporific sense of despair.
“Thank you, drone,” Professor Elbourne said, setting her glasses back on neatly after Harper had knocked them askew. She turned to look at Harper. Her smile was cold. “I told you, Miss Williams. You really shouldn’t have come here.”
Harper’s mouth opened and closed uselessly. She had no more words of defiance.
“Drone, subdue this girl,” Professor Elbourne commanded, already turning away.
“Command accepted,” Jae intoned. Their voice, now robotic and without emotion, felt like a death knell. “Beta-6193.”
Everything went black.