We were always loyal to lost causes, the professor said. Success for us is the death of the intellect and of the imagination. We were never loyal to the successful. We serve them.
– Ulysses, James Joyce
"Hold the door!"
Rachel reflexively thrust her hand out to block the elevator door from closing, scrounging through her memory for the name of the woman hurriedly hauling a large cardboard box into the small lift. She was dressed professionally: a powder blue button-up shirt, a charcoal pencil skirt, and a matching charcoal blazer. Her hair was a light brunette color just a smidge too dark to be blonde and pulled back into a neat ponytail. She flashed Rachel a pleased smile on dark red lips as she leaned back against the elevator wall; a look made all the more pleasant by her twinkling hazel eyes.
"What floor?" Rachel asked as the door began to close. Her eyes flicked downward just long enough to register the well-toned muscles of her legs beneath the pencil skirt. Glancing back up she could make out a similar muscularity hiding under the rest of the business attire. She wasn't exactly buff, plenty of her fellow mechanics sported larger muscles than this woman, but without the professional clothing Rachel would have guessed she at least moonlighted as a martial artist.
"I— oh! Same floor as you." There was a palpable excitement in her voice, bubbly and... Rachel chewed her lip. The other woman's tone was disconcertingly overeager. She glanced into her hazel eyes and felt a flutter in her stomach. Maybe she was reading too much into it. Maybe she was worried of saying or doing something stupid in front of the pretty business lady who lived on her floor and whose name she couldn't remember despite being sure that she'd seen her before and then that would be another bridge burnt because she'd be too mortified to ever speak to her again or too—
"I'm Joy, by the way" the businesswoman said, cutting Rachel's internal panicking short. She shifted the box around in her arms awkwardly and then let out a sigh. "I don't exactly have the hands for it but if you want my card..."
She let the words trail off as she nodded towards a stack of embossed business cards sitting snugly in the corner of the box she was holding. Rachel grinned as she took one and read it:
Dr. Joy East
Fair Play For Terra Committee
Fair Play For Terra Committee
Awwww shit. That’s where Rachel recognized her from. The woman had been passing out leaflets this afternoon outside the restaurant where her team had gone for lunch. Ludicrous tracts promising a restoration of Terran Independence via a series of hyper-complicated legal maneuvers through the Affini court system coupled with mass participation in a petitionary campaign. Utter rubbish. No, worse than utter rubbish: it was stirring the pot of their comfortable lives.
Rachel was no fan of the Affini occupation of Rydari; she'd helped to maintain rebel ships long after Terra itself had fallen. She’d rooted for the pluck and persistence of her race right up until the end, when the fleet of the plantlike aliens had parked one of their massive ships above Murphey’s Landing (as well as every other major city on Rydari) to announce their control over the planet. Without firing a shot they had somehow convinced the planetary defense ships and gunners to lay down their arms. Rachel had lost hope in the self-determination of the human race that day, and had begun learning how to live in occupied territory.
Fortunately it hadn’t been difficult to adjust. If she was being honest with herself her life had actually improved. Food, shelter, and entertainment had become free. Their new plant overlords had even given her a larger apartment than the cramped studio she’d been eeking by in when Rydari was independent. She had quit her job right after the occupation began; half because she’d been burnt out by the frantic pace Ms. Mottenshrieb had demanded in the waning days of their freedom and half in silent protest. Six months later she’d returned to the shipyard as the ennui of living with no other purpose than to eat and drink gripped her life. She’d found the workplace utterly changed.
She’d been allowed to set her own hours each week, with no minimum required. Safety protocols were no longer being ignored to churn out repairs and ship modules on a set schedule. Instead of patching battleships and installing weapons on cruisers, they’d started upgrading the fleet of short-range shuttles for cargo hauling and leisure travel. Affini engineers occasionally visited to drop hints and micro-lessons on how to improve certain modules to make them safer and more efficient. It had been frustrating at first, but they’d developed technologies in two years that it should have taken them a hundred to understand.
Of course the old pride of the rebellion chafed in her heart every once in a while. So did the memories of the people she’d lost as the rebellion was put down; friends and family lost in the harrowing unknown of war. But she'd picked up the pieces and moved on. Life was generally comfy these days for Rachel and her friends. They didn’t need was a crackpot ruining the near-idyllic life they’d been granted for the promise of a freedom they could never achieve.
“Oh.” Try as she might, Rachel couldn’t keep the disappointment out of her voice. “You’re with one of those advocacy groups.”
She looked pleadingly at the elevator’s display screen, the floor counter incrementing far too slowly for her taste. An uncomfortable feeling fluttered through her stomach.
“Just my day job,” Joy replied cheerily. If she had picked up on the derision in Rachel’s tone, she didn’t show it. “Besides someone has to advocate for us Terrans. Make sure we get a fair shake and all. What do you think of the design on the back of the card? I had it custom made.”
Rachel groaned internally. Apparently Joy was the type to obsess over the quality of her business cards; a true old-Terran, corporate stooge. Now wonder she thought she could litigate the Affini into leaving. Rachel flipped the business card over. A flurry of holographic lines swam before her eyes; greens and blues criss-crossing in incomprehensible patterns. Disoriented, she blinked rapidly as her legs wobbled out from under her. She steadied herself on the elevator railing, still blinking away visual echoes of zig-zagging lines.
“Wha–?” She gasped out as she tried to clear her head. She could hardly keep her eyes open. When had she gotten so tired?
“I really like those,” Joy continued unphased, pointing downwards, “Where did you get those shoes?”
Instinctively Rachel looked down and felt the vertigo intensify a hundred fold. She struggled to look back up at Joy, but found that her chin kept dipping downwards against her will. It should have terrified her, but she was too tired to be terrified.
“Oh my, you look a little under the weather. Do you live with anyone?”
“Noooo,” she sighed sleepily. Her sluggish brain warned her about revealing that information a few seconds too late.
“That could be very dangerous if you caught, say, Letarian sleeping sickness. You’d drift asleep and without anyone there to check on you, you’d never wake up.” Joy paused for a moment, pretending to think. “I am a doctor. I could make sure you’re healthy or at the very least sit with you until you have a friend come over.”
Rachel’s brow knitted in confusion. Something wasn’t right here. “I don’t…”
“I’ll walk you home, take your temperature, and make sure you’re right as rain!”
“Okay.” Rachel was too tired to argue. Just a quick check up and then Joy would leave her alone and let her sleep. And maybe she did have Letarian sleeping sickness or whatever, and Joy was a doctor.
With great ease Joy shifted the bulky box in her hands under one arm, the other stretching around Rachel’s shoulders to help support her sagging weight. The elevator dinged open and the two stumbled into the hall. Wearily, Rachel tugged them in the direction of her apartment, fumbling horribly with her keys when they got to the door. Her legs were dragging, near useless, as Joy lugged her the last ten feet towards the couch. She was half asleep when she was plopped down on its rough, grey cushions.
A clattering thwump made Rachel swivel her heavy head towards the coffee table where Joy had dropped the cardboard box. Through half-lidded eyes she watched the doctor rummage through its contents. The pungent scent of latex trickled into her nose before she watched Joy snap on a pair of surgical gloves. Next out of the box came a tangle of wires and attached apparatuses that vaguely resembled medical equipment. Rachel tried to will her legs to move, tried to roll and run, but all she could manage was a slight twitch of her shoulders.
"It's alright," Joy assured her, "It looks a lot scarier than it is. I had to cobble this together from scavenged parts, so there wasn't a lot of room for comforting aesthetics. See? This part just clips on the end of your finger like so and the cuff just wraps around your arm... just like that. No scarier than your standard checkup."
Rachel relaxed at Joy's explanation. She would be fine, the doctor was just here to help. Rhythmic beeps began to eek out of the box on the table and the cuff around her arm began to tighten. A cold hand slid a colder stethoscope head up through the torso-hole of her shirt. The doctor listened intently, her head bobbing as she counted internally.
"Okay, a little below normal but not dangerously so," Joy explained as the stethoscope retreated. She rummaged in the box again, carefully approaching Rachel's mouth with a tongue depressor a few seconds later. "Now open wide."
With great effort Rachel flopped her jaw open. Her tongue drooped absurdly past the barrier of her lips. Drool began to flow down its length.
Joy pressed the wooden stick hard against her tongue and slid the organ back into her mouth, depressing it so it was stuck behind her teeth. When the stick was removed a moment later, Rachel could feel something still stuck on her tongue. Something light and thin, like paper. She strained her eyes downward and tried to stick out her tongue again, needing to see what was stuck to it. The wooden popsicle stick was back in her mouth in an instant, pushing hard.
"No no, leave that there," Joy insisted as a latex glove wrapped around Rachel's jaw, forcing it closed. Joy slid the tongue depressor out from between Rachel's lips and then covered her mouth with the gloved hand. "That's a good girl. Just leave it there for a minute."
The tired terror stirred at the back of Rachel's brain. Joy had given her something. Joy had drugged her with something. She needed to get out right now. Push herself off the couch and run for the door. Run and find someplace safe. Run and—
Rachel giggled involuntarily, cutting the panicked thoughts short. A second later she giggled again. Her weariness started to fade right alongside her terror. She wriggled on the couch as feeling came back into her legs, enjoying the roughness of its cheap cushioning. Over the course of a minute she managed to inch her own hand up to her face, touching her cheek and becoming lost in the sensation of dragging her finger slowly along it. Every sense seemed to be routed through the front of her brain in a pleasurable ball of sensation. All other worries were rapidly fading away.
"Mhm," Joy nodded from beside her, "Looks like you're responding well. Now if you could just look here for a moment..."
A bright light grabbed her attention. Joy was holding a small device in her hand with an inch-diameter circular head.
"Very good. Now just follow the light with your eyes."
In a sweeping motion Joy moved the device leftward. Rachel felt her eyes move almost magnetically to follow it, another giggle escaping her throat as she did so. Then Joy's arm reversed course and Rachel's eyes followed again. Back and forth, back and forth. Rachel felt calm and happy as the pleasurable, giddy feeling continued to ooze through her head.
On the fifth pass Joy flicked something on the device and the light flickered to the edge of the device head and began to blink in a circle around its edge. Rachel's eyes began to spin as she followed it back and forth, nothing but happiness dancing through her empty mind. Her hands absent-mindedley sketched spirals on her clothed breasts as her thighs rubbed together through her slacks.
"Rachel," the doctor purred, "You're feeling much better, aren't you?"
"Uh-huh." Her voice was far more bubbly than usual.
"Very good. So long as you follow my advice you can keep feeling this good. Okay?"
"Okaaaaaaayyyyy," she giggled.
"That's a good girl. Now you keep yourself entertained while I make you some coffee. Play with the light, play with yourself; whatever makes you happiest."
With one hand Rachel reached under her shirt to delicately massage her nipple. With the other she took the light device from Joy and held it in front of her face. She followed the lights as her own hand moved them up and down, back and forth; giggling the whole time as her empty eyes followed along entranced.
Vaguely she heard a rush of water from her kitchen and then the click and whoosh of her electric kettle. The world was warmth and pleasure. Her skin vibrated to waves of color only she could see. She moaned blissfully as her finger closed around her nipple, the sensation echoing through every nerve in her body.
From beyond the shifting, hypnotizing lights she heard a melody humming through the air, punctuated occasionally by slamming cupboard doors. Her hips rolled to its uneven rhythm and her shoulders shimmied fluidly in a bizarre horizontal dance. Her arm sagged with the light device, each swing back and forth bringing it closer to her face as she stared upward at it. Beneath her shirt, her other hand switched to caress her other breast.
Sugar cane and coffee cups
Murmured words replaced the hummed melody, sung by the beautiful voice of a radiant angel.
Copper, steel, and cattle
The light was right in front of her face now. Her eyes were bulging out of her empty head, still trying to track them.
Forrest full of fire
She tapped herself on the forehead with the light device and let loose one final giggle. All her muscles relaxed at once and she felt herself sinking into the couch. Behind her closed eyes imagined versions of the lights still spun to the words of the song, luring her deeper and deeper into mindless bliss.
Where we propagate confusion
Primitive and loyal
She slipped away into blankness. Every inch of her skin was buzzing pleasurably. She didn't need to do anything but relax and enjoy it. It almost felt like dreaming, but she wasn't quite asleep. Everything just felt right and good and wonderful and—
"Rachel," the angelic voice called, "Listen to me."
A fingersnap caused her eyes to jolt open. Joy was standing beside her, holding a mug. "World's Okayest Mechanic" was scrawled on its side in a comic font.
"You need to drink this. Drink it to the last drop."
Rachel's leaden arm moved smoothly across her body, given strength and stability by the doctor's command. Her fingers curled through the handle of the mug, the warmth of the liquid radiating through the ceramic. Her eyes fluttered at the feeling of the too-hot beverage against the back of hand as she pressed it against the container. Normally it would have been uncomfortably painful, but in the moment it elicited a small moan.
"Careful," Joy warned, "It's still a little hot. Sip on it to start and don't burn yourself."
She brought the mug to her lips and pulled in a mouthful of brown liquid. The earthy bitterness of instant coffee masked another taste, something sweet and astringent. She swirled it around in her mouth before swallowing, enjoying the tastes as she visualized them. A cylinder unrolled into 2D in her mind's eye, colored brown and orange except on the lower right corner where it whispered into lime green. She took another sip. Her heart beat soared outward through her shoulders along nerves of wings she'd never had.
Over the next five minutes she drank the coffee as Joy watched her carefully, only turning to prod at the beeping machine within the box. Rachel was feeling different; better than she ever had before. Time itself seemed to be unfolding before her. She could see the echos of where she'd been in the previous week and where she would be over the next month; could feel the flow of each echo into the next. She imagined a star and knew what it tasted like. She jostled her left leg and heard the sonata of her muscles moving. She mouthed silent words between sips of coffee and the lights changed their scent.
"The good news is you don't have Letarian sleeping sickness," Joy informed her as she neared the end of her drink. Rachel nodded absently as she stared at the doctor, convinced she could see the flowing rivers of Joy's soul and the secrets of her life they bore on honied rafts in C-minor. "If I had to guess, I'd say you came into contact with Propleasial. A sudden weariness, a modicum of suggestibility, a touch of vertigo, and decreased cognitive processing. Absorbed through the skin it only lasts about ten or fifteen minutes. Of course if anyone finds that card, they won't have to guess. So..."
A blue latex glove wiggled into the pocket of Rachel's slacks, gingerly extracting Joy's business card. Rachel writhed and moaned at the other woman's incidental touch, eyes rolling upward in ecstasy. Joy chuckled at the reaction and placed the card into a small, plastic box that she immediately sealed.
"Now the Neoxaprene and Haldorfarin are going to last for a few hours, but they're much more enjoyable. Aren't they?"
"Yeah..." Rachel shivered as she answered. It felt right to answer as the doctor wanted.
"A feeling of general wellbeing that amps up to pure, mindless bliss. Increased sensation and the inability to feel pain. Synesthesia to the point where you experience senses you don't actually have. It's a pretty fun trip, all in all." Joy placed two fingers in front Rachel's face, red nails gleaming sinisterly in the light. "Suck."
Rachel's mouth instantly wrapped around her fingers, suckling dutifully. Each motion of her mouth to achieve her assigned task sent a surge of pleasure through her skull. She could taste the streams of energy pouring out of Joy's fingertips, the shimmering legato notes of nightshade.
"Good girl. Now put your hands in your pants; fuck yourself."
Rachel's hands were already there by the time her brain could turn sound into taste into meaning. She could hear how wet she was as her fingers slid along her lower lips. She could feel the scent billowing out of her open slacks.
"Very good. Taken separately Neoxaprene and Haldorfarin induce a moderate suggestibility. Taken together the effect compounds, rendering the subject almost completely open to reprogramming."
The words meant nothing to Rachel, they were just the background scent of the thrumming web of bliss she was currently riding. Her mind was melting into a puddle of pure joy as sparks flew outward from her kicking legs to travel along pathways of imaginary limbs.
Two finger snaps made her stop instantly.
"Enough of that, eyes on me." Rachel's vacant gaze honed in on Joy's amused face. Her hazel eyes glittered wickedly. "The good news is you're not sick. The better news is that we're going to get to work together. Doesn't that sound nice?"
"Yes," Rachel droned. A rush of reward surged through her mind.
"Now you, Rachel Gleeson, have been on my asset recruitment shortlist for a number of years. Parts smuggling, black market weapon module sales, a brother lost to the Affini menace; stars and bars you would have been perfect for an information position with us back when Terran Intelligence was still... well... cohesive."
Rachel felt the black scent of oil crawling up her leg. A nocturne of camphor wheezed in her heart, the dread of inconclusive loss.
"And yet you've lived such a quiet life on Rydari since the takeover. Or at least, so it seems. Tell me truthfully, have you been doing anything to undermine the Affini here? It's okay, you can trust me."
A crate of clinking components clad in shining gasoline fumes. An alleyway of butterscotch light melting around a burlap-rough figure shrouded in absinthe. Sugar cane revenge, coffee-bitter guilt.
"Yessss," Rachel hissed, eyes narrowed to see through Joy's head into the near past, "Last month. Decommissioned weapons modules."
"'Atta girl." Rachel wriggled and whimpered with delight at Joy's praise. "How would you like to do something more substantial? A slight shift in occupation. Hit 'em where it hurts, avenge your lost brother, and be a proud Terran patriot once more?"
Red scent of copper-blood gushing through her heart. Steel glint of Joy's words on her tongue. Mournful lowing taste of cattle tracks towards the slaughterhouse.
"Yesssss," Rachel's body twitched with excitement. She felt her head explode in slow motion, her soul radiating outward to fill the room. "Yes, please!"
"That's what I like hear. A good little Terran patriot ready to be used against the alien threat." Joy paused and grinned. "All you need to do now is say that you're mine."
Joy touched Rachel's cheek lovingly, possessively. Annotations of motive rippling through ink-black history. Desperate want, guilty need, hard-killed honor, human pride, effaced obstinance, impotent anger, regretful loss, mewling acceptance; all present now, side-by-side, thick trunks shaggy with brown in the coalescing sting of Vesuvian air. Along hums the Joyful spark, petrified forest filling with cadenzas of fire.
Her self was immolating. Transcending. Rachel, name, body, person; was only a subset of being: white cherrysweet propagation of windworn confusion. Attenuation of all time, place, thought and soul to a single point primitive jostled about by licorice forces along storm-tossed, sour arpeggios. She was more more more than Rachel. More than body. More than feeling. Ascendant, incandescent whiff of ozone under the blacksmith's hammer; melting mind remolded. Primitive-loyal weapon of Terran indevengence.
Joy watched her with fascination. Her twitching muscles, her maddened eyes, the incomprehensible words she was mouthing under her breath. The doctor raised a hand, thumb and middle finger touching.
"It's been too long since I've had this much fun. But I should stop you before you burn yourself out. Welcome to the occupation. Welcome to Terran Intelligence. Now sleep."
Time slowed as Rachel's consciousness boiled outwards, consuming all. Joy's eyes reflected her supernova rebirth; brine-green sulphur swirl swallowing Allegro di molto e con brio nerves disentangling on the chalky weft of the wind.
Then to the thunderous roar of snapping fingers Rachel's overactive brain collapsed into a deep, deep sleep.