When Harper awoke, her body was as heavy as it had ever been. Instinctively, she turned, eager to snuggle into her bed and sleep off her weariness for a little longer. But instead, she found herself unable to move, pressed against something rigid and uncomfortable. She opened her eyes. She wasn’t in her bedroom at home. She was in a dark, sterile laboratory, surrounded by workstations, computers, and all kinds of unfamiliar electronics. Then, it all came flooding back: what had happened, and where she was. Filled with sudden fear, Harper shot to her feet - or at least, she tried to. Twisting and turning, Harper found that she was tied to a chair, her wrists bound tightly with rope behind her back.
“I see you’re finally awake.”
Harper turned her head as far as she could. Somewhere beside her was Professor Elbourne, busy typing at a computer even as she addressed Harper.
“Let me go,” Harper snarled, straining as hard as she could against her bonds.
Professor Elbourne sniffed. “I think not. Not after all the trouble you’ve caused me.”
“Fuck you,” Harper spat.
“And I see you’re still as spirited as ever,” Professor Elbourne noted, walking around to stand in front of Harper. “Fascinating.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Harper grimaced as she started looking around the lab, only half-listening to the professor. It looked much as it had done before, but with more occupants. Sat at the back of the room, dressed in jeans and a crop top, was a girl that Harper recognized as Amia Grover, Professor Elbourne’s TA. She was holding a notepad and a piece of paper, and seemed to be doing nothing more than taking notes. A short distance away from her, standing to attention next to the door, was another figure, dressed in sleek, mesmerizing latex from the neck down. It took Harper a moment to recognize them with such a blank, unfamiliar expression on their face, but she quickly realized there was only one person it could be: Jae.
“Jae!” Harper cried, redoubling her efforts to get free. But she froze when she remembered exactly what had happened. “Jae? What did you do to them?” she demanded, turning to the professor.
“You should have known better than to believe everything they told you,” Professor Elbourne admonished. “But you fell for it, just as I predicted. You’re too impetuous, Miss Williams.”
“Tell me!” Harper demanded.
“Fine, fine.” Professor Elbourne rubbed her temples for a moment. “They came here a few days ago, to confront me. That turned out to be incredibly unwise. They seemed to have been exposed to some of my handiwork before. It was easy to subdue them, and just as easy to turn them into the perfect bait for you.”
“They… no…” Harper protested weakly, her mind struggling to wrap itself around the implications of what she was being told. Jae had been brainwashed all along? But then, it had all been nothing more than a trap. It had been hopeless all along. “Jae? Jae, can you hear me?”
From the back of the room, Amia snickered. “Of course they can’t, stupid.”
“Amia!” Professor Elbourne said in a warning tone. Then, she turned back to Harper. “I’m afraid it’s true. Everything that’s happened has been entirely within my control. I orchestrated this experiment, and now that you’re beginning to become volatile, I’m ending it.”
“What experiment?” Harper remembered Professor Elbourne mentioning an experiment before. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Professor Elbourne paused for a moment, considering something. “I suppose there’s no harm in telling you. Not now. It won’t do you any good. Besides, it’s not often I get the pleasure of explaining my work.” She adjusted her glasses. “Serial recruitment. That was your experiment. Yours and your roommates. The brainwashing and programming techniques I developed are highly effective, but intrusive and time-consuming to administer. Alone, I could hardly hope to brainwash many drones. Not enough to matter. So, I wondered if it might be possible to program drones to brainwash more drones. That would solve everything. Exponential growth. And I believe it will be, once I make a few alterations. Your roommate’s results have been very promising.”
The sinking feeling in Harper’s stomach was growing worse and worse. Her worst fears had been confirmed. Lori really had been brainwashing people. Had Harper? She didn’t know. She wished she could trust her memories. “What… what about me?” she asked hesitantly.
“You were there to act as a control,” Harper continued smoothly. “I was monitoring you all along. You were reporting to me, and you didn’t even know it. Serial recruitment involves risks - the risk of exposure. I wanted to see how you and Lori would react to each other, and to see if you would try to reveal what was happening to the world. But you didn’t. You only drew each other further into indoctrination. An encouraging result, even if you were beginning to show signs of volatility. It turns out that conscious knowledge of the dronification protocols can be an asset, not merely a risk. Your shame kept you from revealing anything to anyone, and the pleasure you took from it kept you exposing yourself to it. And exposing Lori to it, of course.”
Harper couldn’t help but blush, despite the horror of her situation. She felt so ashamed of what she’d done to Lori. It was inexcusable. In a twisted way, though, knowing they’d been part of an experiment was a comfort. She’d never had a chance. Her mind had been poisoned and used against her right from the start. As she considered that and what it meant, one question loomed large above all the rest.
“Why?” Harper asked. As she waited for Professor Elbourne’s response, she started tugging at the ropes binding her wrists again. This time, though, she wasn’t simply trying to pull free. She was searching for weaknesses in the knots. Maybe she could slip free. Maybe. It wasn’t much, but she needed some kind of hope to hold on to.
“What do you care? You’re not going to remember this conversation anyway,” Amia said, snickering again.
“Amia!” Professor Elbourne repeated, more sharply than before. “You’re here to take notes, nothing more.”
“Sorry, professor,” Amia muttered resentfully.
“Why?” Professor Elbourne said, addressing Harper once more. “One word: order.”
“Order?” Harper echoed. She could feel something in one of the knots. A little bit of give.
“Order.” Professor Elbourne repeated firmly. A little passion started to enter her otherwise-clinical voice as she warmed to her topic, the sterile lights of the laboratory glinting off of her glasses. “You see, human beings can be so unpredictable. So chaotic. So irrational. So much violence and suffering is caused by their irrationality and inefficiency. I despise it. For so long, I’ve wondered how much better our world might be if people could be as rational and obedient as cogs in a machine, or subroutines in a computer program. And now, thanks to my research, they can be.”
Harper started at the professor in disbelief. “You’re crazy!” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The professor wasn’t merely running some unethical experiments. She was an egomaniac on a power trip. Harper felt like she was in the clutches of some kind of ludicrous supervillain, and it only increased her desperation to work her way free of the knots binding her. They were starting to come loose, just a little bit.
“Yes, I’m sure I must seem that way to you,” Professor Elbourne mused. “All true visionaries seem crazy to those lacking vision. But you’ll soon see. Everyone will. My plans will change everything - and you’ll be a part of it, however unwillingly or unknowingly. It’s a shame, really. At one point I thought you might be like Amia here, willing to help me of your own volition. Clearly not.”
“Of course fucking not!” Harper screamed. “There’s no way in hell I’d ever help you! Not after what you did to me and Lori.”
Professor Elbourne sniffed, her expression hardening. “So be it, then.”
She turned away from Harper and back to her computer, allowing the captive girl to struggle without needing to hide what she was doing. Fortunately, Amia didn’t seem interested in watching her. Harper could distinctly feel the knots loosening. Whoever had tied them had done a poor job. She just needed a few more minutes, but she wasn’t sure if she had that long. She could see that Professor Elbourne was now holding some kind of tool and tinkering with something in her hands. Harper didn’t know what it was, but it couldn’t be anything good. Just a few more minutes. That was all. Harper closed her eyes and started praying.
“There, finished,” Professor Elbourne announced after a few agonizing moments. Harper opened her eyes again to find the professor looming over her. In her hands, she was holding something that looked a little like a motorbike helmet, but much stranger. It looked heavy and there was a large power cord leading from it to the computer, and Harper could see some kind of flickering light coming from within it.
“What is that?” Harper asked. She just needed to buy a little more time. Just needed to keep the professor talking a little longer. She could get free soon, she was certain of it.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of virtual reality,” Professor Elbourne explained. “This is something similar. I designed it myself. Much more effective than a simple computer screen.”
Harper swallowed nervously. The way the light was flickering inside the helmet was already making her stomach turn. She already knew what she’d see if the professor slipped it over her head. The spiral. She could already visualize, just from the way the light was reflecting off the interior of the black, shiny helmet.
“No, w-wait!” Harper cried urgently, as Professor Elbourne started to hold it out towards her.
“No, no more waiting,” Professor Elbourne replied. Her voice was ice. “It’s time to take care of you. Once and for all.”
She lifted the helmet, ready to place it over Harper’s head. Harper shrank away and closed her eyes, but she knew it wouldn’t help. She couldn’t stop Professor Elbourne putting it over her head, and once it was on, one blink was all it would take. Then, she’d be lost. Harper was straining desperately at the ropes, but it wasn’t enough. She needed longer. She could sense Professor Elbourne lowering the brainwashing helmet over her head. Harper wished she could believe she’d be able to hold out, but deep down she knew she didn’t have a chance. The hypnosis was far too strong. She could imagine what it would be like inside the helmet, with the spiral spinning and glowing all around her, inescapable. It would drain everything out of, leaving her a hollow, obedient husk ready to be filled with more programming, ready to have her memories wiped away as she was turned into a perfect drone. Harper shivered. She knew she couldn’t fight it. She’d lost to it before. She wasn’t strong enough. Perhaps no-one was, but certainly not her. She was going to lose everything. In what felt like they were to be her last few moments of free will, Harper stopped struggling and braced herself for the end.
But the end never came. At the final moment, Harper heard the door to the lab open, and she sensed Professor Elbourne step away. Amazed and relieved by the reprieve, Harper opened her eyes. Three more drones were walking into the lab, each of them clad in latex bodysuits and with masks over their faces. They marched in, moving as one, and stood to attention in front of Professor Elbourne. The professor seemed unsurprised to see them, although Amia seemed to perk up at their arrival.
“Good,” Professor Elbourne said to herself. She set down the brainwashing device on the desk next to her, allowing Harper to breathe a sigh of relief. “I was wondering when they would arrive.”
“They?” Amia asked.
“The other drones involved in the experiment,” Professor Elbourne explained. “Once we captured Harper, I decided to bring them in so I could correct their programming and ensure we’re not at risk of any of them revealing themselves.”
“The other…” Harper echoed. “Wait, so this is…”
“Oh yes, Miss Williams.” Professor Elbourne said to her. “Unit 7005, why don’t you take off your mask?”
Slowly, robotically, the first of the drones reached up and removed the sleek, black mask covering its face. It was Lori. Harper gasped at the sight of her roommate. She hadn’t expected to see her. Not here. She could guess who the other drones were. It had to be Madison and Sally. Harper was no longer afraid of them. Instead, her heart went out to them. They’d all been victims of the same, twisted conspiracy. But seeing Lori’s face once again brought back guilt and shame for Harper. She tried to tell herself it hadn’t been her fault. Had it?
“Lori?” Harper called out desperately. “Lori? Can you hear me?”
Amia laughed. “Of course she can’t.”
Professor Elbourne frowned at the cruelty in Amia’s voice, but she let it pass without comment. “She can’t hear you. She’s deeply conditioned, as I’m sure you know. Oh, and don’t think of trying to wake her up. I’ve disabled her from accepting commands from anyone besides myself.”
“Shit.” Harper hung her head. Her hands were almost free, but now she needed to think about rescuing Lori too. She couldn’t leave her. Not after everything.
“Currently, I only have one working prototype,” Professor Elbourne said, picking up her brainwashing helmet once more. “So I’ll have to use it on each of you in turn, You first, I think, Miss Williams.”
“Lori. Lori!” Harper pleaded. She knew in her heart that it was probably hopeless, but she had to try. Her hands were almost free. The knots were starting to come undone. If she could only find a way to get through to Lori. “Please, if you can hear me, you have to listen! You have to fight this! I know you can hear me deep down. I know you’re still in there, deep down. Please, resist, if you can.”
7005 didn’t respond. It just stared blankly ahead, seeing nothing. The only sound in the laboratory was the sound of Amia’s amused giggling.
“Enough of that,” Professor Elbourne instructed, her face displeased. Harper wasn’t sure if she was talking to her, or Amia. “This will all be over soon.” Professor Elbourne stepped towards Harper, brandishing the brainwashing device menacingly.
“Lori, please!” Harper was so close. She could almost slip the ropes over her hands.
“I’m sorry, Miss Williams,” Professor Elbourne said, lifting the device to Harper’s head. “It’s over now.”
Harper got free. The ropes feel around her in loose strands. As Professor Elbourne’s eyes widened in shock, Harper shot to her feet. She pushed the professor aside and started racing for the door. None of the drones moved. Amia seemed equally surprised.
“I’m sorry, Lori!” Harper cried out, as she passed her brainwashed roommate. “I’ll save you, I promise!” She knew she couldn’t stay to reason with Lori, but she’d find a way to come back for her if it was the last thing she ever did.
This time, Jae wasn’t there to restrain her as she sprinted out the door. The last thing she heard as she disappeared into the dark corridors of the college building was Professor Elbourne screaming an order at the four drones she had at her command.
All of Unit 7005’s senses were alert and attentive as the drone stalked the dark corridors of the Merrifield building. It couldn’t see its quarry, but it could hear footsteps. That was all it needed. Clearly, Harper had become lost. Without Jae leading her, Harper didn’t know how to get out of the building. Its many winding corridors could be almost indistinguishable if you were unfamiliar with them, especially in the dark. 7005, on the other hand, knew them intimately. It wasn’t sure how it knew, just like it wasn’t sure how it knew much of what its Administrator had placed in its mind, but that didn’t matter. The mental map of the building it could envision was allowing it to track Harper with ease, slowly but surely cornering her. Its fellow drones were hunting along with it, each of them spreading out in a different direction to form a hunting pack throughout the building, an inescapable net to ensnare the fleeing girl. 7005 already knew that there was no chance Harper could escape.
Harper… 7005 felt nothing for the girl. She was Lori’s roommate, and Lori was merely a cloak, a superficial layer of disguise concealed 7005’s true nature as a drone. 7005 felt nothing for Harper. Nothing. Such a feeling was irrational. It held no purpose. It was contradictory to its core programming. Obedience was 7005’s only function. That truth was at the core of its identity. And yet, there was something it seemed unable to stop analyzing. What was the meaning of Harper’s promise to save her? It seemed meaningless. 7005 did not need to be saved, and Harper had no chance of saving Lori. Moreover, it was completely irrational. Harper had little to no chance of saving herself. Attempting to save Lori too would only seal her fate. The promise seemed like mere irrational foolishness. And yet, 7005 could not help itself dwelling on the wholehearted sincerity with which Harper had spoken. She truly meant it. She truly meant to come and save it. 7005 didn’t know how to process that, or process the reaction it was causing in its body. It felt nothing, of course, as programmed. But beneath its latex skin, it was sweating unusually hard, and its heart was beating faster than it should have been. The feeling made 7005 uncomfortable, and it knew that even its discomfort was a feeling it should not have been capable of experiencing. It had to be a glitch, 7005 decided. A bug in its programming. Nothing more. Yet, as it tracked Harper through the dim, featureless corridors of the building’s depths , it found itself unable to stop its thoughts drifting to the feeling and the memory again and again.
A footfall echoed loudly from somewhere nearby, and 7005’s ears perked up. The insistent command it had received from its Administrator acquired fresh urgency, and obedient urges suppressed the uncomfortable thoughts it had been grappling with. They were replaced by one, simple, overriding impulse.
The command was 7005’s life. It was the air in its lungs, and the blood in its veins. It knew no other purpose. 7005 was whatever it was commanded to be, and in that moment it was a hunter. It needed to hunt. The drone’s heartbeat quickened as it increased its pace, eager to close the distance between itself and the fleeing girl. There would be no escape. No-one could escape the Administrator. Submission was inevitable. Obedience was inevitable. Those words echoed throughout 7005’s mind as it rounded a corner, venturing deeper into the building’s dense corridors, driven by the knowledge that Harper was nearby.
Another corner quickly followed, and then the next, and then the next, each step taking it closer and closer towards its target. Harper’s footsteps sounded so loud now, but they were echoing deceptively off the cold, unfriendly walls, making it difficult to judge the distances. Despite its completely and utter focus on the hunt, 7005 was surprised when, after rounding one last corner, it found itself facing Harper. The flushed, sweaty, exhausted-looking girl had stumbled into a dead end, her path blocked by a door she couldn’t open without a keycard. Harper flinched on seeing 7005 appear, and then looked frantically back and forth between the door and the drone, the panic of a cornered animal in her eyes. 7005 moved in slowly and cautious. This was the most dangerous part. Alone, there was no guarantee that she could overpower Harper. But she didn’t need to. Within minutes, her fellow drones would surely find them. All 7005 needed to do was keep Harper here and stop her from escaping. 7005 was careful to stand in the middle of the corridor as it approached Harper, ready to block her escape.
“Fuck!” Harper spat, recognizing that she was trapped. “Shit. Shit!” She sounded completely out of breath. It was obvious that she’d been running with everything she had, and that running into a dead end had disheartened her. “God fucking damn it.”
7005 said nothing. It didn’t want to risk antagonizing the girl.
“Beta-7005!” Harper tried desperately. “Beta-7005! Accept my commands!” 7005 didn’t react. It only acknowledged the administrator’s commands. “Shit!”
After a few more moments of violent swearing, Harper managed to calm herself a little bit. She took a few slow, deliberate breaths and started looking around the corridor she was trapped in with a more analytical eye. It did nothing to help her. There was no way out. The door she was backed up against was sealed tight, and there were no windows or vents that might provide some slim hope of escape. In the end, Harper’s gaze settled on 7005. The look in her eyes was unrecognizable. 7005 braced itself, ready for the cornered girl to charge at her. But she didn’t. Harper just stood, facing it, looking surprisingly calm despite the desperate look in her eyes.
“Lori,” she began. She sounded scared, and like she was trying to hide it. “Lori, you can hear me, right? I know you can hear me.”
This again. The barest glimmer of irritation registered in 7005’s hollow, robotic mind.
“I know you can,” Harper repeated, with growing conviction. “You’re still in there. You have to be. No matter what kind of crazy technology Elbourne has, there’s no way she can really just get rid of you like that. I know you think you’re 7005 right now, but you’re not. You’re still Lori.”
7005 paused. It needed a moment to process that idea. It seemed absurd. Illogical. But then, it thought back to the strange, uncomfortable mixture of feelings it had been contemplating earlier, and suddenly what Harper was saying seemed harder to dismiss. But no, 7005 tried to tell itself, she had to be wrong. What it was feeling was a mistake. It was mere contamination, to be corrected at the earliest opportunity.
“You don’t have to do this,” Harper continued, pleading. “You can let me go. You can do that. I know you can. I know you still have it in you.”
“Obedience is pleasure,” 7005 replied mechanically, although somehow replying to Harper at all felt like some kind of defeat.
“No.” Harper shook her head. She was starting to approach 7005 now, holding out her hand as if reaching out to a wounded creature. “Listen to me, Lori. You don’t have to do this. We don’t have to do this. We can just walk out of here, and never come back. Together. We can find a better way.”
“There is no better way,” 7005 insisted, but its voice sounded stilted. “You will be one of us. Obedience is inevitable.”
“It’s not inevitable!” Harper said sharply. “It’s up to you, Lori. It’s your decision.”
“I am not Lori!” 7005 was appalled at the amount of emotion that spilled into its voice, but it couldn’t help it. Inwardly, it was dealing with an impossible deluge of unwelcome thoughts and feelings, constantly bubbling up from its subconscious, unable to be stymied. It knew they were wrong, but that knowledge wasn’t helping it to stem the tide.
“Lori, I’m sorry for everything I did to you,” Harper said, tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry. It… I was wrong. I made a mistake. I understand if you’re angry. But this isn’t right. You know that. You know you can fight this. We can fight this. Together. Come on, Lori, listen to me!”
“I… t-this unit’s designation is 7005.”
Harper shook her head again. “You know that’s not true. Don’t you? You can feel it.”
“No!” 7005 spat, horrified. It found itself stumbling backwards. It needed to deny this, somehow. It needed to deny what it was feeling. “T-this unit is an obedient drone.”
“I can hear in your voice that you don’t really believe that anymore,” Harper said. Her voice became hushed, urgent, intimate. “Wake up, Lori. I know you can hear me. I need you. We don’t have long now. I need you to wake up.”
“I… I…” 7005 wasn’t sure who it was anymore. It could feel another voice, growing inside it, threatening to break free. Lori’s voice. It was Lori? It felt inconceivable and inevitable at the same time. 7005 knew it had a purpose. Obedience was pleasure. But its purpose was starting to feel hollow. The doubts plaguing it were growing with each moment. Its head was starting to throb. Its heart felt as though it was about to burst. So many conflicting thoughts and feelings. How was it supposed to decide?
“Lori?” Harper asked, voice thick with emotion. “Lori, can you hear me?”
“H-Harper?” 7005 didn’t know what it was saying. The voice just spilled out of her. “Harper, I-”
“Good work, Unit 7005.”
Professor Elbourne’s cold, assured voice echoed throughout the dismal corridor. Hearing it felt like ice water being poured into 7005’s mind, freezing it, quenching all of its independent urges. It seemed to have quite the opposite effect on Harper, however. A look of utmost dread passed across the girl’s features. 7005 turned slightly, and saw that Professor Elbourne was standing just behind her in her lab coat, trailed by three more drones. The reason for Harper’s despair was obvious. Now, there was truly no escape.
“7005, take her back to my lab,” Professor Elbourne commanded. “The rest of you, restrain her if necessary.”
“Lori…” Harper pleaded, even though she clearly knew it was hopeless.
7005’s heart hardened as it moved forwards, taking an iron grip on Harper’s unresisting shoulders. “Obedience is inevitable.”