You call this thinking, but it’s walking.
Not even that, it’s only rocking,
Or weaving like a stabled horse:From force to matter and back to force,
From form to content and back to form,
From norm to crazy and back to norm,
From bound to free and back to bound,
From sound to sense and back to sound.So back and forth. It almost scares
A man the way things come in pairs.
— To a Thinker, Robert Frost
“ ... with Fergus now?”
A feminine voice trickled out the half-open door of an Alterra University classroom, melodically enjoying every syllable of the poem it was reading. Artificer confirmed the room number, room 205, and peeked her head in.
“And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade”
Artificer met eyes with the woman reciting the poem, presumably the same woman she was here to see. At the very least she dressed like a professor of symbology. Slightly flared gray slacks, a creme colored, long-sleeved, high-cut top, and a snazzy navy cardigan distinguished her from the college students in much more casual attire listening to her. Green eyes flashed upward above the door, no doubt to check the time.
“And dance upon the…” she said as she swung her head back towards her class, “I’m sorry class, it looks like we’re out of time for today. Fortunately ‘Who Goes With Fergus’ is fairly short, so please take a look at it before Friday so we can compare it to Yeat’s later works.”
Half the class was already pushing out the door, streaming past Artificer into the hall. She had been wise enough to come in plain clothes, likely being mistaken for some sort of administrative assistant or perhaps a graduate student. She took advantage of a break in the mob of departing college youths to approach the professor.
“Well technically I’m just an adjunct.” She looked up from the notes she was cramming back into a pocketed binder, “but yes. You must be the person from the League?”
“Artificer,” she responded in acknowledgment, extending a hand.
Kinbote awkwardly shuffled her binder from her right hand to left to return the handshake. No sooner had their palms touched than the three-ring monstrosity crashed to the ground, cover splaying wide, papers shooting across the floor. Professor Kinbote sighed as she knelt down to pick them up. Artificer quickly followed suit.
“So what...” Kinbote started as she snatched up a clump of papers, pausing to stuff a handful of them into a pocket of the binder, “What can the Department of Cryptic Linguistics do for the League of Superheroines? Did someone write a nasty letter to the mayor?”
“Not quite.” Artificer cracked a small smile as she handed a disorganized stack of papers to her, “There’s a case involving what we believe to be a large number of interconnected symbols and we were hoping for some sort of information or guidance on them.” She squinted a single eye at the professor, “Is there actually a Department of non-Cryptic Linguistics?”
“Oh no, that’s just an inside joke,” Kinbote stood as the last of her papers found their homes again in her binder, white points poking out here-and-there, “Although I guess you could say the non-cryptic departments consist of all the professors with offices on the first and second floors.”
“Whereas your office is?”
“In the back corner of the basement,” she sighed, “where they store all the quacks.” She motioned Artificer out into the hallway and led her to a dimly-lit set of stairs.
“So who else makes up the, uh, Department of Cryptic Linguistics?” Artificer’s voice echoed in the stairwell as they descended. The lighting shifted as she descended: the bulbs becoming brighter and yellower but somehow feeling darker and dirtier as they neared the bottom.
“Well Barton was our post-modernist deconstructionist until he was forced to take a leave of absence a few months ago,” she explained as they rounded the corner of the first set of stairs, “Fennig does comparative mythology, Harwick does anthropology of cultural rituals and rites, and Trelain does… honestly I’m not really sure. He’s an odd duck with a lot of side-projects. The perks of tenure I guess.” She tapped her fingers on her cheekbones with one hand as she opened the basement door with the other, “Oh and Professor Umbra who was our previous–”
Kinbote scrunched up her face as she ushered Artificer through the door.
“Is our other resident symbologist,” she amended, closing the door behind them. The yellow fluorescent of the basement lights flooded the tan-tiled hallways, the glow making everything look washed-out and sickly. The liminal space was stifling with expected emptiness, silently questioning the temerity of the two who now dared to break its peaceful stillness. A shiver ran down Artificer’s spine as Professor Kinbote continued her train of thought, her voice quieter than before. “We all hope she returns to us soon.”
“Another leave of absence?” Artificer noticed that without intending it she had lowered her voice too, her question almost a whisper. She knew it was just to match the professor’s drop in volume, but there was an eerie feeling of relief that accompanied it. As if speaking above the dull hum of the lights might awaken an awful presence.
“Oh, no.” Kinbote let the simplicity of the answer hang in the air for a few seconds, leaving Artificer’s mind to start churning through possibilities. None of them were very pleasant. With a dulled click of her heels, the professor stopped in front of a door covered in papers and pictures. With a long, still finger she pointed at Professor’s Umbra’s nameplate. “She disappeared on an expedition a little under a year ago. I was initially hired just to cover her classes until they found her and then supposed move upstairs to the English department proper, but…”
She shrugged, the motion of her shoulder blades turning into a shiver halfway through the gesture.
“Well, they never found her.” The professor’s green eyes flashed with terror before she offered up a nervous smile, “Haven’t found her. Yet. We’re all trying to stay positive.”
Artificer poured over the notes and pictures on the missing professor’s door. The pictures showed a woman in her early-thirties shaking hands and posing with students. She was a little tall and slightly chubby with a pleasant face that looked somewhat familiar. The notes and letters were pleas for her safe return, a few testaments to how much she’d influenced student’s lives, an odd profession of love, and a single short quote above the nameplate that all the other notes and pictures had taken care to avoid.
The dooms of men are in god’s hidden place. – Trelain
Artificer tapped the isolated scrap of paper and raised a questioning eyebrow to professor Kinbote.
“Oh that’s just something Professor Trelain always says,” she explained, “It’s from one of Yeats’s poems.”
“Another inside joke?”
“Sometimes. I guess. But... often more of a fatalistic rejoinder to unfortunate situations. He theorizes that as we delve deeper into our understanding of the world around us: wandering into ruins, pushing the limits on mathematics, sciences, anthropology, and even our understanding of language and symbols; we will find both rapturous wonders and the makings of our own damnation.”
Kinbote fixed her with a solemn stare. “His niece went missing late last year on an expedition in South America. I think it eases his mind to think she was whisked away by angry fae or dead gods in a grand conspiracy of supernatural misfortune rather than as the victim of a cave-in or a wild animal attack. It’s a narrative that places her fate, and Professor Umbra’s, as a result of their successes rather than as a reminder of the world’s chaos and our own frailty. If they found one of his prophesied dooms it gives their disappearances meaning; you understand?”
Artificer gave her a puzzled look before looking back at the scrap of paper.
“So he’s the connecting point between two sets of disappearances? That seems awfully suspicious, don’t you think?”
“Oh no, he wouldn't. He couldn't. He was here when his niece disappeared. And he was questioned after Professor Umbra’s disappearance and cleared; all the faculty were.”
Artificer nodded and stepped back, the stultifying air of the empty hallway muffling the clunk of her bootheels. The folder she’d brought of the Crimson Codex photos felt uncomfortably heavy in her hands.
“Hm. Well I hope she turns up soon and if we can ever help…”
“I thought you already were,” Kinbote cocked her head, “A nice young woman with tattoos of eyes all over her arms checks in once or twice a month. Panoptes?”
“Panopta,” Artificer corrected her. This was a frequent problem with the information siloing of the different superheroine squads: anything that wasn’t major, need-to-share information rarely made it between the various groups. “She’s on Beta Squad; different division. If she’s covering it though, then you’re in good hands.”
She tapped the folder of pictures in her hand, a slight tremble rippling through the manilla cardstock.
“I probably should focus on the reason I’m here. Where’s your office?”
Professor Kinbote waved her arm down the hall and began walking once more, the click-clacks of her heels echoing far less that Artificer would have expected. The superheroine followed close behind her, the fifty feet from Umbra’s office to hers feeling longer than it should. Like it was stretching through a hidden patch of eternity.
Claire’s house, if one could call it that, appeared to be a refurbished auto-repair station with the garage doors insulated and welded shut. Summer bit her lip as she rechecked the address her old college friend had sent her via text, confirming yet again that she was at the right place. Her knee-length skirt swayed listlessly in the spring breeze as she stared at the oddly familiar steel double doors. A memory half-formed in her mind of the interior layout: a lab packed full of machinery, a hallway wide enough to accommodate a couch and TV, a chair with heavy restraints, an olive skinned woman droning out instructions as latex-and-metal panties fucked her mindless–
Her right eye and left arm twitched synchronously as her brain tried to make connections back to Claire, tried to remember what a villain named Rewire had done to her.
I love Claire, a voice droned in her head. It was her own voice but steely, monotone, and insistent. Its words interrupted her other thoughts, driving them away.
Claire would never harm me. Claire loves me. I am not suspicious of Claire. We are happy together. I should forget my concerns. I love Claire.
“I love Claire,” Summer whispered to the empty air, a forced smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she marched towards the door. Her head swam with fuzzy feelings. It felt so nice to love and be loved by a person who she could implicitly trust, who would never harm her.
The ditzy smile spread higher and wider as she knocked on the door. She swayed happily as she waited for her love interest to open the door, feeling the hem of the skirt bounce off alternating knees. She couldn’t remember why she’d been so nervous. Claire loved her and she loved Claire. They were happy together. She didn’t need to worry.
The red door swung open with a squeak, the smell of iron shavings stinging her nose. Claire was in a black tank-top and tattered blue jeans, grease smudges dotting her arms and face. Faint music wafted out of the building: a familiar, ominous melody Summer couldn’t quite put the name to.
“You find the place okay?” Claire asked, an amused knowingness hiding behind her words.
“Yep! I had to double check it wasn’t a mechanic’s shop, but other than that…” Summer let the words hang as she felt her heart beat faster. Everything about Claire was so perfect: her cute pixie cut, her pale red lips, the little bit of a tummy she kept beneath her two sizable breasts, the fleshy ass. She felt her thighs clench as she envisioned them kissing, fondling, fucking.
“Yeah I was able to get it on the cheap when the old CarZone went out of business,” she explained as the organ in the music pulsed threateningly in the background, “Was a bit of pain to get rezoned, but I was able to pull a few favors. Come on in.”
Summer walked past Claire, her outstretched arm holding the door open, and into a foyer decorated with sculptures and contraptions of twisted metal. Two of the walls were crammed with metal shelves of different shapes and sizes housing stacks of technical manuals and misplaced tools. In the corners of the room, wall-mounted speakers crackled out three more creepy organ chords before a forlorn voice began singing over a a stuttering rhythm section:
[ You’ll see him in your nightmares, you’ll see him in your dreams ]
Claire swooped by her and placed a hand around her waist, leading her deeper into the building. She pushed a door open in the hallway to reveal a room with a small toilet and sink.
“First stop on the tour, the guest bathroom. Featuring a toilet, sink, and mostly-working locks!” Claire seemed amused with herself, and Summer couldn’t help but giggle in response. It felt uncharacteristic of herself, but also really good. It was nice to be around someone who she could let loose with. Someone who would just let her be herself.
The speakers continued down the hallway, the crackling music still reaching her ears.
[ He’ll appear out of nowhere but he ain't what he seems ]
A few more steps down the hallway and she pushed another door open. What once was an office now hosted a queen-sized bed, a dresser, and a small TV. The sheets were crumpled to one side in the unmade bed, allowing Summer to see the glint of a metal ring attached to a rubber strap snaking its way towards the foot of the bed. Claire noticed her staring at it and seemed to panic, her hung-open mouth searching for something to say. Summer felt her heart skip a beat; Claire’s panic over her ill-hidden kink stuff just made her hotter.
[ You’ll see him in your head and on the TV screen ]
“When do I get to use your bed and its… attachments?” Summer whispered sexily to her lover.
Claire reddened as she grinned.
“Later tonight if we’re lucky,” she replied breathily, turning them both around to continue walking down the hallway. As they turned they faced each other and Claire leaned in and kissed Summer, the superheroine melting blissfully into it. There was a lightness in both their steps as they went deeper into the building.
[ Hey buddy I’m warning you to turn it off ]
Another set of double doors sat just around the right-angle bend in the hallway. Claire fished a set of keys out of her pockets and searched for a specific one. With a slick click and a jiggle in the deadbolt she unlocked their way forward, pushing the solid-white door inwards. Summer started to wonder why she kept a deadbolted door inside of her house before remembering she didn’t need to worry. This was Claire. Claire loved her. Claire would never harm her.
The next room screamed it’s familiarity into her eyeballs, a horrified part of her begging her to recognize it. Warning signs flashed through her mind as phantasmal memories flickered back to life of two other brainwashed women: one fucking herself senseless on the couch and the other kneeling on the floor as clunky headphones reprogrammed her mind. Claire clicked the lock shut behind them.
[ He's a ghost, he's a god, he's a man, he's a guru ]
Summer’s eye twitched again and her body shivered as a droning voice inserted itself into her train of thoughts.
You love Claire. Her house is very nice. Claire loves you. She would never do you any harm.
Summer looked at the heavy-duty door on the other side of the room. She could already visualize the lab beyond, where a superheroine named Cinder had been brainwashed into an obedient fembot just days ago. She could feel the cold metal contacts on Claire's gloves zapping her temples, the memories of being reprogrammed and remolded. Her muscles tensed and spasmed as the onset of a headache started splitting through her mind.
You are happy with Claire. You like it here. What you think are memories are really just fantasies.
She swooned and stumbled forward a step as her eyelids fluttered. Claire was at her side immediately, providing a supporting arm around her waist and holding her hand. The voice was right. She liked it here, it was actually a pretty cool house. It was actually a shame that Claire hadn’t brainwashed her, it would be so fucking hot if she did. Maybe after this little tour was over Summer could convince her to do some roleplay…
“Are you alright?” she asked, the concern in her voice just barely masking something else… Guilt? Disappointment?
“I’m— I’m— I’m,” Summer stammered, her mind whirling for a moment more. Her eyelids fluttered again before slamming open, a wide grin on her face. Her mind felt fuzzier than ever before, a heady mix of arousal and giddiness. She turned to face Claire and forcefully placed a kiss on her lips.
[ You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan ]
She didn’t stop until Claire forced her off. Both of them were panting, wanting to fuck each other senseless in Claire's den.
“I’m okay, I swear,” she gasped between heavy breaths, “It’s just your place is so cool and, well, I’m a little horny. Maybe we can take our tour back to the bedroom for a more in-depth look?”
“We will, I promise,” Claire said, grimacing, “But we’ve got one more room to see before we can do that.”
She gestured with a shaking hand towards the heavy-door leading to the lab that Summer knew lay beyond it. Knew, but also didn’t know because she was a good brainwashed fembot who forgot things she was ordered to forget. Warmth flared between her legs. Claire guided them both to the door and jangled two more keys into their holes, unlocking each bolt with a sharp click. Summer shuddered in equal parts dread and excitement.
[ Designed and directed by his red right hand ]
The lab was just as she didn’t remember it: tables of mechanical devices, chairs covered in restraint devices, scorch marks from the futile attempt Cinder had made to escape Claire’s loving clutches, and the two other women her villainess girlfriend had brainwashed that night. For a moment it almost felt like home.
There were some differences though, and the cognitive load of incorporating them began to stress her mind again. Most obviously, one of the restraining chairs had a fifth woman in it, one that Summer had never seen before. The brunette’s brown eyes pleaded with her for help as she wriggled in her bonds and mumbled through her gag.
The other change was easily missable if not for the fact that the powder-blue umbrellas clashed heavily with the black rubber, green circuits, and silver sterile steel that the rest of Claire’s lab so proudly displayed. Four of the umbrellas sat on a desk beside Alisha, the bank manager giving Summer a dopey smile as she played with herself. Emily, the security-guard-turned-drone, kneeled once again on the floor, eyes staring blankly into nothingness as two wireless earbuds flooded her mind with instructions the vibrator between her legs ensured she would obey.
“Mmmff!” The lady gagged in the chair screamed at Summer, “MMMMMFFFF!”
Summer’s head lolled to the side as something within her fought to take control. She and Emily and Alisha were all lost causes, obedient thralls to their electric mistress, but this woman could still be saved. She was— She was supposed to be a superheroine dammit!
You love Claire, her drone-voice reminded her, smothering the superheroine persona as much as it dared without a direct order from its mistress, This woman means nothing to you. Claire loves you. You trust her judgment.
“I…” she said blankly as she looked at the bound woman. It was true that she loved Claire and trusted her judgment, but maybe she needed to talk to her about this. Even though the woman meant nothing to her, it didn’t mean she didn’t deserve protection. She looked so scared and afraid. And what if Claire was making a mistake? Didn’t everyone make a mistake from time to time, even those with impeccable judgment? She was only human.
YOU LOVE CLAIRE, her drone-self screamed, forcefully eradicating all other thoughts. Summer went stiff, hands splaying outward at her sides as it continued, YOU OBEY HER. CLAIRE LOVES YOU. SHE IS NOT ONLY HUMAN, SHE IS YOUR MISTRESS. YOU ARE HAPPY TOGETHER. YOU ARE HER FEMBOT. YOU LOVE CLAIRE. YOU LOVE CLAIRE. YOU LOVE CLAIRE!
“I love Claire,” she moaned as she turned about to face the villainess herself. She needed to serve her so badly, needed to be commanded like a good fembot. Her blank eyes stared at her mistress in awe and adoration as her mouth whispered automatically. “I love Claire. I love Mistress Claire.”
“I know you do sweetheart,” the villainess assured her, hands sliding through her blonde hair to caress her scalp, “But our date today has a group component first before our alone time. I’m certain we’ll all have a lot more fun this way, and in the end you’ll thank me.”
“I love Mistress Claire,” she responded, her voice wavering on the edge of silence. Claire planted a kiss in the center of her forehead as blue sparks poured out of her hand and into Summer’s head. Familiar circuits and programming pleasurably surged to life and Summerbot was ready to serve.