“Harper, I need to tell you something!” said Jae, looking wild-eyed and sleep-deprived. “It’s about Lori. It’s… it’s gonna sound crazy, I know, but I really need you to listen to me.”
Harper experienced a sharp sinking feeling in her stomach. Before Jae opened their mouth, Harper knew exactly what they were about to say.
“I think Lori is part of some kind of… brainwashing conspiracy.”
Harper could do nothing more than let her head fall into her hands. Already, she could feel a headache coming on. How had it come to this? What had Lori done? She knew she’d have to find out, although she wished she could simply cherish her ignorance. Clearly whatever it was wasn’t good. It was late in the evening, and Harper had already resigned herself to another long, lonely night. Lori had been spending most of her time out with her other friends lately. In a way, Harper was grateful for that; it meant less distraction - and less temptation - while she pursued her frantic investigation into Professor Elbourne and the possible explanations for the madness her life had become. At the same time, though, loneliness was taking its toll. Harper hadn’t made much effort to connect with her other friends. None of them could understand what she was going through. And being alone all the time, trying to understand what felt totally inexplicable, was making her feel like she was losing her mind.
That didn’t mean Jae’s arrival was welcome, however. Harper had met them once or twice before, and they’d gotten on just fine. But they were hardly friends, and the last thing Harper had ever expected was for Jae to turn up at her apartment late at night, wide-eyed and frantic. In their messy, rain-drenched state, Harper had barely recognized them, despite their dyed blue hair and ethereally androgynous appearance. As if she needed another headache. As they sat opposite each other in her room, Harper was already struggling to imagine what she might possibly be able to say to allay whatever suspicions Jae might have.
“What… what exactly did you see?” Harper asked, trying to keep her voice neutral. She needed to know what Jae knew, before she could get started on damage control.
“It’s kind of hard to… wait.” Jae squinted at Harper pointedly, before their eyes widened in shock. “You knew! You knew, didn’t you?”
Harper swore under her breath. Apparently her poker face was slipping, and Jae was more perceptive than Lori. She quickly decided there was probably no point trying to lie. “I… did. Yes.”
Jae went very quiet for a long moment, and completely still. “You’re gonna tell me everything, right now,” they demanded finally.
Harper took a deep breath, and launched into her tale. She told Jae about the very first day, when she’d discovered Lori - or rather, 7005 - at their apartment. She told Jae how they’d figured out the codeword that activated Lori’s brainwashing. She told Jae about the latex bodysuit hidden under Lori’s bed. She told them about their efforts to understand what was going on, and told them about the brainwashing file they’d found on Lori’s computer. She didn’t, however, tell Jae about any of the ways she’d taken advantage of Lori’s brainwashing. Harper told herself there was no need to reveal any of that quite yet. Besides, she reasoned, it would probably just make them panic. Better to just keep it her little secret. Yes, that was for the best. She also didn’t tell Jae that she, herself, was clearly a victim of the same brainwashing. That was out of an entirely different sense of shame. She had no reason to hold that back from Jae, but she just couldn’t bring herself to say it. Most of the time, Harper tried to pretend that discovery was nothing more than a bad dream. It was almost the only way she could cope.
Jae listened to her story without a single interruption. The look on their face kept passing through different shades of horror and amazement, but Harper could tell they utterly believed every word. The fact that they accepted such an unbelievable tale so quickly, however true it was, only made Harper more curious to figure out what they had seen. “I don’t even know what to say to that,” Jae breathed, once Harper was finally done.
“Yeah.” Harper smiled ruefully. “It’s a lot.”
“That’s really all you did?” Jae exploded at her, without warning.
“What?” Harper blurted out, surprised.
“You’ve known about this for, what, weeks?” Jae was clearly seething, and Harper realized she’d misjudged their mood. “And you’ve done… what? Nothing! How could you just let this happen? How could you just sit on your hands and wait, with this… this stuff in Lori’s head? Brainwashing her, controlling her… influencing her… making her weak and mindless…”
Jae trailed off, the anger seeming to drain from their face. Harper stared at them. What was going on? But then, just as quickly, Jae seemed to snap out of the stupor.
“You… you should have done something,” they finished lamely.
“We did,” Harper replied awkwardly, thrown off by Jae’s strange behavior. “We, um, experimented a little. Trying to, y’know, figure out how it worked and stuff.”
“That’s it?” Jae demanded.
“Well, what the hell were we supposed to do?” Harper shot back, exasperated. “What are you supposed to do, with something like this? Who could we tell? No-one would believe us! And we have no idea who’s responsible, or how we can fight back. What would you have done?”
“I… suppose,” Jae begrudgingly allowed, although they didn’t look entirely placated. “But what about that professor you mentioned? You really haven’t gone after her?”
Harper found herself struggling to come up with an excuse. She hoped she was managing to hide the guilt she felt over how much she’d dragged her feet when she’d been enjoying playing with Lori and 7005. “We… we were just scared, OK? We didn’t know what could happen. We didn’t know what she might be able to do - and that’s assuming she’s even the one who did this to Lori. Are you really gonna blame us for that?”
Jae went quiet for a long moment. “I guess not,” they finally conceded.
“Thank you,” Harper said.
“But,” Jae quickly continued, “we need to do something. Now. Or soon, at least. We can’t let this go on any longer.”
Something in her tone made Harper feel uneasy. “Jae, what did you see?”
“It was at Maddy’s place,” Jae began. They sounded truly scared, and Harper couldn’t help but feel a little of that same fear as she listened. “A few days ago. I showed up late, and I saw… something. Through the window. I don’t know what, exactly. But I think… I think Lori was doing something to Madison. Harper, I think she was brainwashing her.”
“No!” Harper trembled.
“Lori was in that… that bodysuit,” Jae continued. “And she had Madison staring at something - at some spiral. On her TV. I think Madison was trying to fight it but… but I don’t think it was working. Lori was… touching her. Forcing her, something, I don’t know. Harper, she was brainwashing Madison. I know it.”
“That… no. No, no, no.” Harper just kept shaking her head over and over and over again. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“I think she’s got Sally too.” Jae’s voice was trembling, but they managed to keep going. “They’ve all been spending a lot of time together. Lori and Sally, before, and now all three of them. But they keep messaging me too. There’s something… not right about them. I don’t know what it is. But they’re different. They keep inviting me over. They’re all so eager. They’re insisting we sit down and watch a movie together. Just like the night Lori got Madison. I’m afraid that one day they’ll just show up, and I’ll end up sitting down with them and staring into that… that spiral… watching… helpless… no escape… as it…”
Again, Jae trailed off. Their eyes were distant and unfocused. A truly disturbing possibility occurred to Harper. “Jae? Jae?”
Hearing their name aloud seemed to jolt Jae back into their right mind. “What?”
“Did…” Harper’s mouth was dry. “Did you look at the spiral? That night that you saw them.”
“What?” Jae seemed shocked by what Harper was suggested. Almost excessively shocked. “No! Fuck no! I mean, yeah, I looked at it for a moment. I saw them, after all. I saw what they were doing. But I didn’t… no. I didn’t get brainwashed. I’m here, aren’t I? I’m talking to you about fighting this… whatever this is.”
“That’s true,” Harper conceded. “But… Jae, are you absolutely sure that’s what you saw? Maybe it was a video game. Maybe… maybe it was a weird movie. I don’t know. It could have been something like that.”
“No. No it couldn’t,” Jae countered. “I know what I saw, Harper. It wasn’t a movie.”
“But…” Harper realized she didn’t know what she was trying to say. She just didn’t want to accept what Jae was telling her. She wasn’t sure she couldn’t handle that. If it was just Lori, or just the two of them, then it was like some kind of strange dream. It could be ignored. But if more and more people were being brainwashed, then it was something much, much scarier altogether.
“Harper!” Jae said sharply. “I. Know. What. I. Saw.”
“Yeah… yeah, OK,” Harper murmured. Now she understood why Jae had been so scared. Harper could feel herself starting to slip into panic too. Horrible thoughts were starting to occur to her. If Lori was brainwashing other people, that could explain how Harper had been affected. That theory answered far too many questions for Harper to dismiss out of hand. “So… fuck. What are we going to do?”
It was at that moment that Harper heard the front door to her apartment open and shut. Only one other person had a key. It was Lori.
Jae went still and looked up attentively, like a frightened deer. “Is that her?”
Harper nodded. Her mind was blank. She didn’t know what she was going to do, or say. She didn’t know what Jae was going to do. She was losing control. Her breaths became shallow and quick. Harper tensed even more as she heard footsteps from outside her door. She wished she could make everything stop, or at least pause so she could think, but in what felt like little more than an instant, the door to her room began to swing open.
“Hey Harper,” Lori said, without any regard for the strange, icy atmosphere in the room. She set down a backpack she was carrying. It looked heavy, like it had something bulky in it. “I wanted to talk to you about- oh, Jae, hi! What are you doing here? It’s so good to-”
“Get away from me!” Jae hissed. As Lori moved to cross the room and offer them a hug, Jae bolted to their feet and backed away like a wounded animal.
“Jae?” Lori’s expression of happiness swiftly melted away, and was replaced by concern. “W-what’s going on?”
“Drop the act,” Jae snarled. “I know… I know what you are!”
Lori’s eyes went wide. She looked at Harper, confusion on her face. “Y-you told her?”
“No!” Harper replied, raising her hands defensively. “No, I swear.”
“Then how?” Lori looked so worried that Harper’s heart went out to her, but she couldn’t forget what Jae had just told her.
“They…” Harper swallowed uncomfortably. She didn’t quite know how to put it into words. “They saw something.”
“Oh.” Lori paused awkwardly, then turned to Jae. “What did you see?”
Jae’s hands were balled into fists and they didn’t seem inclined to answer, so Harper reluctantly spoke up. “They say they saw you - 7005 - doing… um… well…”
“Fucking brainwashing Madison!” Jae spat.
“What?” Lori’s lip was trembling. “That’s ridiculous!”
“I saw it!” Jae insisted. They’d turned even more pale then they had been when they’d first arrived. “I saw you showing her that… that thing! That spiral!”
“What?” Lori repeated. “We were just watching a movie, that’s all.”
“It wasn’t just a movie!” Jae continued angrily. “It was doing something to her! And you… you were in that latex, and you were… touching her.”
Lori did the last thing Harper expected. She giggled. It was a nervous sound, but full of disbelief. “That’s just ridiculous, Jae! What are you talking about?”
Jae just stared at her.
“Lori,” Harper put in, trying to keep her voice diplomatic. “Are you saying that never happened?”
“Of course it never happened!” Lori answered at once.
“But,” Harper swiftly continued, before Jae could say anything, “how can you be sure? Lori, you could have done it when you were 7005. You wouldn’t even remember.”
“No. No way.” Lori shook her head emphatically. “If I’d been 7005, I wouldn’t remember anything much. It’d all be kinda hazy. It’d feel unremarkable. Instead, I remember having a great time watching a movie with Madison. And more to the point, she remembers it too! We talked about it afterwards.”
“Well… OK.” Harper had to admit she didn’t have a good answer to that. But something about Lori’s reaction was rubbing her the wrong way.
“No, it’s not OK!” Jae insisted. They were shaking. They looked like they were about to explode. “I know what I saw, for fuck’s sake!”
“Are you sure you didn’t just… have a bad dream?” Lori shrugged.
“Now, hold on, Lori!” Harper jumped in. “Jae knew about the latex bodysuit! How can you explain that?”
Lori frowned at her. “You’re really taking this seriously? Don’t you believe me?”
Harper didn’t know what to say to that. “I… just think we need to talk about it, at least. I mean, if you’re really b-brainwashing more people.”
“Well, I don’t know, Harper!” Lori threw up her hands. “Maybe Jae saw you in the latex!”
Harper shot to her feet. “No! That’s-”
“Wait, what?” Jae interrupted. They looked back and forth between Lori and Harper, looking more scared than ever.
“Oh, you didn’t tell them, huh?” Lori laughed derisively. “Of course not.”
“Tell me what?”
“Harper’s the same as me,” Lori told her, as Harper watched helplessly, open-mouthed. “It’s both of us.”
“You…” Jae began, horrified. “You’re one of them?”
“No,” Harper responded instinctively, then reconsidered. “Well, yes, but-”
“You lied to me!” Jae shrieked.
“No!” Harper pleaded, even though she could tell Jae wasn’t really hearing her anymore. “I wasn’t… I was just…”
“Fuck!” Jae yelled. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Jae bolted. They broke into a sprint, headed straight for the door. Lori quickly stepped aside, allowing them past and out into the hall. Harper wanted to grab their arm, stop them, explain, but she froze. Within seconds, Harper heard the front door to the apartment open and then slam shut. Jae was gone. Harper collapsed onto the bed. “Shit.”
“Do you think we should go after them?” Lori asked.
Harper looked up at her. “What the fuck, Lori?”
“What?” Lori sounded offended. “I’m just worried about Jae, is all!”
“Not that,” Harper snapped. “Everything! Why were you being like that?”
“Like what?” Lori just shrugged. “I love Jae, but they were being ridiculous.”
“How can you say that?” Harper had figured out what was bothering her about Lori’s reaction, and it was sending chills down her spine. Lori didn’t seem nearly as concerned as she should be. It was like her roommate wanted to completely blow this all off. “Did you even hear what she said? You could have been brainwashing people!”
“But I know I wasn’t!” Lori insisted dismissively. “So there’s nothing to talk about.”
“No.” Harper shook her head. She was starting to feel nauseous. “No, there definitely is. C’mon, Lori! She knew about the latex! The spiral she described is exactly like the one we found on your computer! There’s something going on here. And… and I don’t get why you’re not scared about this.” All Harper’s worries started pouring out. “About any of this. You don’t seem worried anymore. You don’t seem to care about helping me investigate. I’m just… I don’t know, Lori.”
“Harper.” Lori suddenly turned serious. “What are you saying?”
Harper licked her uncomfortably dry lips. “I… think we need to start telling people about this?”
“But we agreed not to.”
“I know that!” Harper snapped. “But it’s already out. Jae knows. Who knows who they’re gonna tell? And it’s not like we’re getting anything done on our own. We need to go to someone, Lori. I don’t know who. But someone. Maybe a journalist, I don’t know.”
“Harper, no.” Lori shook her head. She was staring intently at Harper, but she still didn’t look scared. There was a strange look in her eyes. “I don’t agree to that.”
Harper paused, and took a deep breath. “I don’t think I need your agreement anymore, Lori. This isn’t just about you, remember? I’m tired of knowing I’ve probably got this… this brainwashing in my head. I’m… I’m gonna tell someone. Whether you like it or not.”
At that moment, Lori changed. It was subtle, expressed in a hundred tiny transformations all over her body. Her back stiffened. Her posture tensed. Her expression slackened, and became unreadable. She swayed for a moment, like she was blowing in the wind, and then became completely still. Her eyes were cold. Chills ran down Harper’s spine. Most people wouldn’t have noticed any difference, but Harper did. She’d seen this transformation dozens of times before. She wasn’t dealing with Lori anymore. This was 7005.
“W-what?” Harper breathed. She hadn’t said the activation word. No-one had. “B-but I didn’t-”
“This unit was activated by emergency subroutine Sigma-C,” 7005 intoned blankly. It seemed to look at Harper without seeing her.
“What does that mean?” Harper was almost afraid to ask.
“Exposure of this unit’s status is not permitted,” 7005 droned. “The exposure of other unit’s status is not permitted.”
Harper just blinked. She couldn’t understand. What did this mean?
“Experiment has passed beyond acceptable parameters,” 7005 continued. “Control measures must be taken to ensure subjects do not breach confidentiality.
“Wait,” Harper said, alarmed. “Experiment? What experiment?” Her horrified, sinking feeling was growing worse with each passing second.
“Diagnosis: subject has acquired unexpected information about the experiment,” 7005 continued blankly, heedless to Harper’s questions and protests. “Information will lead subject to breach confidentiality. Erasure of information is necessary to preserve acceptable experimental parameters.”
“E-erasure of information? What-”
7005 moved. It moved faster than Harper was ready for. Before, as always, the drone had been completely still, but all of a sudden it was moving swiftly and with purpose. Lori wasn’t athletic, but 7005 was able to cross the distance between then in the space of a single breath. It wasn’t until it was far too late that Harper realized 7005 was coming straight at her. Fueled by a sudden burst of adrenaline, Harper threw herself aside. But 7005 didn’t seem the slightest bit thrown off guard by Harper’s dodge, and was right on top of her in just another moment. Harper didn’t know what was happening. Was she going to have to fight Lori, her roommate? Was it even still Lori? She raised her hands to defend herself, but with her head filled with a flurry of disorienting, uncertain thoughts, her movement were frantic and uncoordinated. Moreover, 7005 moved with a precision and skill that was utterly alien to Harper’s roommate. She easily turned Harper’s flailing aside, grabbed her wrist, stepped past her, and before she knew what had happened Harper’s whole world was turned upside-down. In one swift motion, 7005 forced her to the floor and twisted her arm up behind her back. Harper tried to raise herself, but before she could, 7005 knelt on top of her, the drone’s knee pressing uncomfortably into Harper’s back. Harper squirmed and writhed as much as she could, straining her muscles until she ached, but there was no use. She couldn’t move. She was completely under 7005’s control.
“What the fuck,” she protested. She wanted to scream, but she didn’t have enough air in her lungs to muster anything more than weak groaning. She wasn’t in pain, but she was so dizzy that the room was spinning around her. What the hell had happened? When had 7005 become some kind of martial arts master? Everything that had happened since Jae had shown up had felt like a bad dream.
7005 ignored her. Instead, without relaxing the pressure it was keeping on Harper’s arm, it stretched out and managed to grab one of the straps of the bag Lori had brought in earlier. The drone hauled it towards itself, unzipped it, and reached inside to pull something out. Harper twisted and turned, but no matter what she did, she couldn’t see what it was until 7005 set it down on the floor next to her head. It was some kind of helmet. At first, Harper thought it was something like one of the creepy, faceless drone helmets that 7005 had been wearing, but she quickly noticed that it was of a more rigid construction, and had several wires running across its surface. Harper soon realized what it was: it was some kind of VR headset.
“No, no!” Harper shrieked, as she realized what it was going to be used for. She was racking her brain for any way out as quickly as her panic would allow, but there was nothing. “Beta-7005! Beta-7005!”
The activation code had no effect. Setting the backpack aside, 7005 picked up the headset and reached forward menacingly, holding it directly over Harper. Harper started flailing madly, determined to make the drone’s task as hard as possible, but in the end she was unable to stop 7005 forcing it onto her head. She tried to reach up and rip it off, but one of her arms was still being held firm by the remorseless drone and the other could only weakly pull at the headset’s strap until 7005 tightened it so hard there was no chance of Harper being able to get it free on her own. Once it was firmly in place, 7005 reached around to Harper’s face and flipped the headset screen down to cover her eyes.
Harper was plunged into darkness. The headset fit snugly, preventing even a glimmer of light from getting in. Harper knew what was going to happen next. She knew, and all she could do was plead uselessly with the emotionless drone holding her down. “Please, please, I’m begging you, please…”
She trailed off. She felt 7005 touch something on the bulky processing unit attached to the back of the headset, like the drone had flipped a switch. After that, she could faintly hear an electronic hum around her head. The headset had been turned on. Harper redoubled her struggling, knowing she might have mere seconds left before her free will was stolen from her. Sure enough, seconds later, the screen that dominated her whole version came to life.
Spirals everywhere. Harper couldn’t tell if there was one, or many. They all seemed to flow into each other, and endless dance of shapes and curves that made sure that wherever she looked, her gaze was remorselessly drawn into an infinite vortex. Harper tried to turn her head, to look away, but it was all around her. She was swimming, alone and helpless, in a void full of spirals. The effect was instant. The spirals were like a smothering presence on Harper’s mind. It had already been so hard for her to think clearly. Now, it was impossible. Everything was scrambled. The spirals kept changing, winding this way and that, their edges bristling with static. Harper’s thoughts blurred together, melded together, dissolving and becoming static until she wasn’t sure if the spirals were still just on the screen or if they were inside her.
“Help… help…” she pleaded, her voice rapidly weakening. She wasn’t sure who she was calling for. Already, her room, the place she actually was, was fading away. It didn’t feel real anymore. Nothing felt real except the spirals. Harper knew she couldn’t beat them. She knew she was weak. The only hope she had left was to try and fight her way free. But her muscles, too, were weakening. 7005’s unexpected strength was remorseless, machine-like, overpowering. Harper’s body was already feeling sluggish. The pain and discomfort were fading fast, until she felt nothing. Nothing at all. Between 7005 restraining her body and the VR spirals constricting her mind, she was more powerless than she’d ever been before. Her straining, her struggling, felt more and more futile. She pushed her muscles until they were screaming, but then they turned numb, like they’d been doused with ice-cold water. Sweat was dripping from her body, but her exertion was doing nothing but tiring her out and making her weaker. More vulnerable. More pliable. She couldn’t stop looking at the spirals. She couldn’t even close her eyes. She was held, transfixed, as they took her mind away. It was like she could hear a thousand tiny voices, all of which were ordering her to succumb. All of them were filled with power, and as much as she wanted to, she couldn’t seem to disobey. On some level deeper than her conscious mind, she was already trained. Her struggles became weaker and weaker, as a singular realization dawned on her: there was no hope.
“Subject is under control.” Harper heard 7005’s voice as she slipped into trance. It sounded so far away. “Beginning memory erasure.”