With snow for flesh, with ice for heartI sit on high, an unguessed sphinxBegrudging acts that alter forms;I never laugh – and never weep.
– La Beaute, Charles Baudelaire as translated by Richard Howard
Rachel’s head was throbbing.
She must have overdone it last night. Too much booze in too short a time and before you know it the night turns fuzzy.
It was a pity too, she remembered she’d met someone and they’d hit it off really well. Someone cute who wore business attire that allowed just a hint of her lean muscles to peek through. Someone with beautiful hazel eyes that swallowed her thoughts and an angelic voice that bent her will.
Rachel shivered in bliss, allowing the half-remembered hold that the woman from the previous night had exhorted over her to sink back below the surface of conscious thought. She was pretty and Rachel wanted to see her again; was excited to see her again. That’s what she was allowed to remember.
Fuck. Her head was pounding. Coffee, that’s what she needed.
She rolled herself out of bed and trudged to the kitchen. A cabinet door was swung wide open, revealing a collection of mis-matched mugs. In the sink sat a brown-stained spoon and a mug labeled: “World’s Okayest Mechanic.” Had she been drinking coffee last night before bed? No wonder she didn’t sleep well.
Rachel grabbed the electric kettle by its handle and lifted it, meaning to refill it. To her surprise it was still half full, the water sloshing against the glass sides as she placed it back on its contact plate. She never left it half full; she could taste the stagnation in the water if it sat overnight. No one else believed her, but she could.
With a sigh she dumped the water down the drain and set a fresh pot to boil.
She opened the cupboard where she kept the non-perishables, her hand already reaching for the thin container of instant coffee. Her fingers closed around empty air. Squinting her eyes through waves of dulled pain she saw that it was on the wrong shelf. Odd. The brown grounds jiggled as she raised the container and opened it. The familiar, cheap, bitter scent of instant coffee wafted into her nostrils and churned her stomach.
This wouldn’t do.
Rachel switched the kettle off and tracked down her keys. They were half embedded in the couch, a place where she never would have left them. Or at least a place where her sober self never would have left them.
It was a pleasant day outside, the sun shining brightly overhead. Handfuls of people strolled leisurely along the pedestrian-only streets along with a few Affini. Rachel didn’t know why, but seeing their monstrous vines and wooden false-faces skulk along the once-traffic-choked lanes of her beloved Murphey’s Landing made her especially angry this morning. It felt like she’d finally woken up from a five-year-long dream to see how terrible the xeno menace was. She eyed a bark-covered Affini with particular suspicion as it helped a stumbling man back to his feet.
A merry twinkle heralded her entrance to the cafe a block away from her apartment. The ringing of the bell over the door subsided into the dull crackle of music playing through the speakers. The barista looked up from her seat behind the counter and Rachel remembered why she never came here. The barista was cute, sure: a round face, a soft, plump, pillowy body, a sweet and peaceful smile; but she was a floret. An Affini owned her: body and mind and soul; and together they ran this cafe with the Affini growing the beans and the floret perfecting blends and roasts. Horrible. The plant monster had drugged her and brainwashed her and shoved a little control chip into the base of her head to keep her docile and compliant.
The whole idea of submitting to one of the plant people in that way made Rachel’s skin crawl.
It was one thing to accept the situation they were in: a conquered people living under mostly-benevolent xeno-bureaucracy; but to be brought to heel and trained like a fucking dog was an entirely different matter. She still had a modicum of respect for the ones they had to break, but somehow she could just tell that the barista had been one of the many Terrans who had asked to be domesticated. Who would do that? Where was their pride? The Accord had been defeated, but that didn’t mean they all had to become groveling, feebleminded plantfuckers. People had died for their freedom and they were willingly crawling into bed with the enemy!
Better to take the benefits of Affini rule with a pout on your face, Rachel thought as she approached the counter, Then you can live pleasantly but never feel like you’ve given up. Like you haven’t quite yet failed.
A jaunty piano melody began pouring out of the speakers. Lilting, rinky-dink notes happily plunked through the cafe. It was a real ear worm. The sort of song she suspected she’d find herself humming all week in absent-minded moments.
“Hiya!” The barista greeted her with a warm smile and gleeful, empty eyes, “Whatcha want?”
“I was thinking–”
“Oh!” Her eyes widened with her grin, “You wouldn’t happen to be Rachel, would you?”
The piano music lazily slid up the scale in syncopated notes over the gentle brush of a snare drum. A high-tenor started singing fragile, ringing words:
< To cut down on my silhouette, my favorite foods are smoke and hearts. >
“Oh well your friend already ordered for you,” the barista stated cheerfully. Rachel followed the point of her finger to the woman sitting in the shadowiest corner of the building. The woman wearing a black pantsuit and appraising Rachel with commanding hazel eyes. The woman that stirred an uncomfortable mixture of bliss, dread, lust, and weakness in her.
The barista stood from her chair, green skirt swirling. “Two seconds!”
< My leftover frets forget stiletto-self vendettas. >
Rachel and Joy locked eyes, the latter grinning wickedly. With two fingers she motioned for Rachel to come over and her legs moved automatically at the signal. Her vision narrowed as the world around her melted away, each step feeling like she was walking a little more out of her own skin. Reminiscent echoes of pleasure shocked her system as her body stood expectantly at the edge of Joy’s table.
< While my cracking backbone lacks but backs up my false starts. >
“Sit,” Joy ordered and Rachel’s body scurried to obey. She kept wanting to look away, to run out of the cafe, but Joy’s twinkling eyes kept drawing her in. Worse yet, her mind was flowing down the familiar neural pathways it associated with Joy. It wasn’t nearly as strong as last night, but she could taste the sour roughness of the tabletop through her fingertips and see the orchid wisps of her soul vacuumed into the unblinking hazel eyes before her.
“Very good.” The clipped words of praise made Rachel whimper. Her nerves tingled. “My implanted suggestions are working wonders. Now when the barista comes over, you’re going to act like everything’s normal like my good little Terran Patriot.”
The last two words made her mind fog over in a haze of bliss. She was such a good Terran patriot. She was Joy’s Terran patriot. She was going to tell that weird, brainwashed floret that everything was normal.
< All nightmares start as dreams. >
A small coffee materialized between them, a flower drawn in the foam. Rachel tried to move her head to look at the floret barista to her right, but couldn’t bring herself to break eye contact with her handler. Her left arm twitched from the shoulder to the elbow, expending the energy she wanted to use to turn her head.
“Here’s your coffee!” The floret’s words tickled of lilacs and sunbeams, sweet and cloying and soft. “Everything good?”
Joy’s smile spread wider, her teeth marble pillars of a devouring temple. She broke her iron gaze with Rachel to face the floret. Rachel felt a semblance of sanity, and of terror, return to her thoughts.
“Lovely,” Joy cooed in honied words. The floret blushed. “Right Rachel?”
< And I hear my subconscious screaming. >
A whimper tremored in her throat as she looked at the floret. If she could just signal that she needed help then the cute barista could go tell her owner and they’d save her from Joy’s machinations. The giant plant alien would take Joy in custody and she’d be free from her mental enthrallment. She could go back to living a normal, content life on Rydari.
But that wouldn’t be right. She was a Terran, stars damn it! Where was her pride?! Begging an Affini and their feebleminded floret to save her? No! She was going to get back at the occupiers. She was going to make them pay for what they did to Terra, to Rydari, to her, to Martin. She was a proud Terran Patriot! She was Joy’s Terran Patriot!
“Everything’s…” Rachel’s eyes fluttered as she felt the self-reinforcing bliss of her trigger cascade through her veins. She grinned widely. “Everything’s lovely.”
< They say that beauty’s just skin deep. >
“Great! I love to see others so happy!” The floret squirmed with delight before spinning on her heel with a verdant swish of her skirt and gliding back to the counter on rippling rosey notes.
Rachel stared at the back of her neck as she giddily slid away. She’d heard that the implant the Affini put in their people puppets grew over time; coiling, sour green vines snaking through their servile bodies to make their control irrevocable. Through the almondy, warping air she was sure she could see them as the floret moved, tensioning tendrils just beneath the salty skin pulling on sighing muscles and pushing on piano-ivory bones. A marionette of a person, not a sulphuric ounce of freedom left in them.
It made her skin crawl so much that it unrolled for a surreal second.
< So naturally please show me >
“Rachel.” Joy’s voice caused Rachel’s free, patriotic head to snap back into eye contact with her. The intelligence agent’s hair framed her face in sundowning gold, streaks of burnished light waving legato through cinnamon. “You hesitated.”
“Wha–?” Rachel’s mind was remotely sampling the sugary indigo mists rolling out of Joy’s mouth when she blinked and shook her head. Her thoughts were screeching down five sparking tracks at once, “I hesitated? Hesitate–”
Her brown eyes, furious and terrified, glared at Joy. She could remember, dreamlike, their encounter in the elevator the previous day. The drugs and medical exam. Snatches of whispered words weaving a gossamer web of control through her mind.
“What are you doing to me?” Her voice was whisper quiet despite her rage. A part of her was still trying to switch back to the hyper-surreality of servility, craving the sensation. She worried if she raised her voice it would find a way to tease scents and tastes and tingling touches from the sounds and send her spiraling down again.
“It’s okay” Joy offered an upward-turned palm to Rachel, laying it in the center of the table between them. Rachel found herself reaching automatically to grasp it, desiring the comfort of contact. It took all her resolve to pull back at the last second. Joy sighed. “I’m doing this for your own good. Please remember that when it comes to the Affini, turnabout is fair play.”
The last four words smashed like bricks into Rachel’s mind, all trains of thought colliding and collapsing. Her shoulders slumped and her jaw went slack as the world swiveled around her into stillness. Gone were the overpowering sensations and synesthesia of manic obedience. Gone were the cafe and the cute, brainwashed floret and the coffee with the flowery foam.
Gone was Rachel the Rightly Furious. Gone was Rachel the Complacent Mechanic. Gone was Rachel the Terran Patriot. She was in the void world of Rachel the Asset. Rachel the Object. A void world where senses existed only to observe and obey a single person.
The world was filled with Joy.
“Now Rachel, I’m going to need a little bit of input from you here. So when I snap my fingers you’re going to wake up, but only about ten percent. Still perfectly obedient but able to remember details about your life when asked. Okay?”
She could feel consciousness return, dim and wan, her every thought waiting entirely on her handler’s words. Her head nodded slowly as she became sentient again, the images and sounds around her becoming understandable, contextualizable. She was on her bed, naked, with Joy sitting beside her.
“Are you allergic to pine and/or tree nuts?”
“Have you smoked or used any tobacco products in the last year?”
“How about any Carniff Weed?”
“That’s my good little Terran Patriot.”
She squirmed as much as her sluggish body would allow.
“Two decades ago Zyrtaxin was being hailed as a wonder drug in the space of stroke recovery,” the doctor explained cheerily to her impassive patient as she rummaged through her purse, “It greatly increased neuroplasticity and the ability to reroute and reform the brain. Some studies were claiming a ninety percent decrease in recovery time; patients who should have taken months to re-learn how to walk or speak were strolling and talking in a few weeks. I, of course, was interested in other applications of the drug.”
With a satisfied “Ah!” she pulled out a bottle of pills and rattled them between her fingers. Rachel’s dull mind just barely registered the remnants of a peeled off label. Two lines, one above the other, reading: ast iol.
“Given to someone right before or during a suggestible frame of mind it can help deepen the suggestion’s hold over the subject, ingraining it deeper into their brain. Used such and with the proper brainwashing techniques, it forges new pathways of irresistible compliance. Easy, quick sleeper agents, that was my dream. But nothing comes without a cost.”
Joy popped the bottle open, spewing an unpleasant smokey odor into the air. She continued her musings as she rolled a globby, rough-cut, yellowed square into her gloved hand.
“The initial lawsuits complained about the reversal of progress soon after patients discontinued use of the medication. Alas, the new neurological pathways formed would only stay accessible so long as the drug was present in their brain chemistry. A pity for them and an increased expense to creating mindlessly loyal thralls as they’d need to be constantly dosed with the drug, but by itself not a nail in the coffin. The larger problem was that extended use of Zyrtaxin caused hallucinations, psychosis, and a whole smattering of non-ideal mental states for covert infiltration. I thought we could get around that problem by only dosing at training time and then right before asset activation, but it seemed the new pathways atrophied quickly if off the drugs for more than a few days.”
Joy held the pill between two gloved fingers and looked at it appreciatively.
“Good thing our timeline here is only about a week. Open wide.”
Rachel’s jaw dutifully dropped and the doctor slid the pill onto her proffered tongue. It tasted bitter and burnt. Joy pushed a glass of water into Rachel’s idle hand.
“Wash that down.”
“I’m sorry about the taste. For obvious reasons they stopped producing Zyrtaxin after being slammed with dozens of lawsuits, but it’s not hard to synthesize yourself with some chemical knowhow and access to first aid supplies and gardening supplies. Unfortunately the homemade result tends to have a rancidness in its taste and odor.”
Rachel stared blankly at her through a mental fog. With a sigh, Joy grabbed Rachel’s wrist and began to count her heartbeats. After a minute, Joy looked her directly in the eye. Her lips quivered hesitantly.
“Rachel…” Rachel’s head nodded slightly at hearing her name, “Say you forgive me.”
“I forgive you mistress,” she responded automatically. Joy grinned.
“Good good. That’s a good Terran Patriot.”
As Rachel shuddered in conditioned pleasure she began to hear the warped notes of a plunking piano. It was the song from the cafe earlier, only every note was reverberating a thousand times slower. Ivory keys depressing and swinging felted hammers to twang on stretched strings except, she was realizing, the strings weren’t piano wire any longer but her neurons. Every note went twitching through her body on electric impulses. The warbling tenor was back, the bone-brittle voice soaring through her veins and shattering her thoughts. Her mind felt like it was boiling out of the top of her skull as the song sped up to reach intelligible speed.
< So naturally please show me >
“Alright Rachel, you should be feeling the effects of the drug now. Is your mind nice and open for me?”
“Yes mistress,” She stared wide-eyed at her handler, “I can hear the song of my soul.”
Joy frowned and scrunched up her face. She snapped off a latex glove and felt Rachel’s forehead with the back of her bare hand.
“You shouldn’t be hearing music,” she muttered worriedly, “Early onset of hallucinations could mean contamination during the synthesis process or… wait..”
< Your bones bones bones. Let me see your bones. >
“Are you hearing or seeing anything other than the song?”
“Just you mistress.”
“And how are you feeling otherwise?”
“Good mistress. Like my head is exploding with joy.”
“It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it? One you’ll learn to love.”
“Yes mistress. I’ll learn to love it.”
< Well I don't wanna know if the feeling follows home. >
“Ahhh,” Joy breathed a sigh of relief that flowed into a chuckle, “You wouldn’t happen to know if you have a mutation to the OCM5 gene on your fifteenth chromosome?”
Rachel blinked her heavy eyelids. “I don’t…”
“Or maybe it’s the OCM3 gene on your thirteenth,” Joy mumbled to herself, “Genetics was never my strong suit. Either way, you’re one of the lucky few to get that side effect from Zyrtaxin. You can thank your parents for that.”
“Thanks parents,” Rachel monotoned.
“What music are you hearing, I wonder?”
<Bones bones bones. Hell we’re all alone>
“Bones bones bones,” she droned.
“Morbid,” Joy grinned and shook her head, “Reminds me of someone else I know. But that’s exactly what we’re going to change about you little patriot. We’re going to build you a whole new self and then drape your old skin over top of it so no one else knows.”
“A whole new self…” Rachel whispered with a shiver.
“Metaphorically, of course.” Joy checked her watch with a cruel sneer. “Now let’s begin; we don’t have much time.”
<If I come home baby will you show me your bones?>
“Ahhh! Yes! I will take my meds every night before bed!”
Rachel the Terran Patriot was twisting under her covers, hands clawing at the sheets as instructions were pumped into her pliable mind by a set of headphones she didn’t remember owning. Her vacant eyes were open and unfocused, blurrily panning over the darkened ceiling of her bedroom. In her mind the piano plunked alongside Joy’s recorded words, each becoming associated with and therefore reinforced by the other, as if the bone-white keys were hammering each of Joy’s commands into the core of her being.
<Lumps in throats and petticoats>
“Every night I will put on the headphones. Every night I will start the recording. Every night I will make sure it’s on loop.”
Her back arched and her legs kicked wildly at the memory of Joy’s touch between her legs. That smirking, teasing look the doctor had given her as she touched and teased her helpless, mindless husk of a body. The kiss on the forehead that had felt like a trepanning, the whispered words that preceded the kiss: Every time you obey me, you’ll feel this good.
“I repeat her words and they become true,” Rachel whimpered, one of her hands clutching her breast, “I repeat her words and they become me.”
<Your baby teeth would pray for you>
“Fuck! Ooooo… I love being under her control. I need to be under her control.” She squeaked as pleasure overrode her vocal cords for a second. She made a hasty effort to catch back up with recording. “I wanted this. I want this. I did this to myself. Every night I do this to myself.”
Joy owned her: body, mind, and soul. Joy had drugged her and brainwashed her and woven words under her skin to keep her docile and compliant. The whole idea of submitting to her mistress and handler made Rachel’s skin crawl with delight.
<A selfish book is always open>
“I obey Joy to save Terra. I obey Joy to save my brother.”
Rachel visualized herself kneeling beside the doctor as the Affini retreated from Terra. Joy was dressed as powerfully as always in her well-fitted suit and her clinical hands were twining through Rachel’s hair. With an upward tug the doctor made her look at an approaching figure she hadn’t seen in years. Her brother, Martin, was in his Cosmic Navy uniform, looking the same as the day he shipped out. Joy had found him and brought him home. All she had to do was obey.
“I am a tool of Terran Intelligence. I exist to fight the Affini. I exist to serve Joy.”
< And some of the best liars only want the truth >
Rachel was happy to accept the situation she was in: a conquered person living under a questionably-benevolent intelligence agent’s thrall who had brought her to heel and trained her like a fucking dog. She still had a modicum of respect for herself for initially needing to be broken with drugs and mesmerism, but now she had been twisted into willingly wanting to be brainwashed. It was her primary pride. The Accord had been defeated, but she wasn’t going to become a groveling, feebleminded plantfucker. Patriots had died for her freedom and she was going to willingly crawl across her bed in fits of pleasure for the one chance Terra had left!
“I love Joy. I desire her. I want to please her. I want to serve her. I want to protect her. I love Joy.”
<All love starts as a scheme>
She let her hand dip between her legs now in ecstatic expectation. The loop was almost to its closing.
“I am only a vessel of Joy’s will. I will pretend to be Rachel during the day. I will pretend to be Rachel when Joy needs me to. At all other times I am a vessel of her will.”
Rachel’s eyes were already straining in their sockets as she awaited the final command. She could feel the emptiness inside of her where Joy’s words interlocked to form a new skeleton of being. Implanted, subcutaneous words that made her flex and move like the person puppet she was. Joyous smokey words snaking through her servile body to make Joy’s control over her irrevocable. She could feel them move within her, pulling on her weak muscles and pushing on her piano-key bones. Just a marionette of a person with nothing but the freedom of patriotic obedience left in her.
“I will cum and drop deeper unless two hours have passed.”
Every muscle in her body tightened as electric bliss scorched through it. Her mouth opened wide and screamed as her drugged neural pathways associated the pleasure with Joy’s commands. The recording allowed her fifteen seconds of silence before the loop started again.
<So wake me up I’m tired of sleeping>
“I will take my meds every night before bed,” Rachel droned as her body collapsed back on top of her soaked sheets. A dull pleasure was beginning to tease at her again.
Rachel shuddered as she walked towards the woman handing out leaflets on the corner. She had been on her way back from lunch when she spotted her: dark suit, light brown hair, a firm figure. It wasn’t just that she was good looking, no there was a deeper attraction at play. Despite not giving a damn what the Fair Play for Terra committee was, Rachel found herself approaching the activist whose name she was pretending to forget but whose image was burnt into her soul. Their eyes locked and Rachel felt a strong weakness overtake her; the world became fuzzy and then she was utterly lost.
Joy motioned her closer and thrust a paper into Rachel’s hands. She began to glance down at the words but Joy’s lips were suddenly inches from her ear, whispering: “Take your meds once you’re back at work, then read it. My good little Terran Patriot.”
A week ago Rachel would have been embarrassed by the mewling vocalization that slipped over her vocal cords, but now she lacked that capacity. Why would anyone be embarrassed for receiving such high praise from the soon-to-be savior of the Terran Accord? Who wouldn’t shiver at the godlike touch of the most beautiful woman in the universe?
Her legs moved her unthinking body back to the fleet yards and into the locker room. She opened her locker and pulled out the pills Joy had given her two days before. After a short detour for a cup of water, she downed the pill and waited for the music. She didn’t have to wait long.
< They say that beauty’s just skin deep >
The music pressed on her ivory bones; a jaunty plunky song hammered out on the wires of her nerves. Rachel looked at the paper:
Do each step before reading the next. Love, Joy.
Her heart fluttered wildly as she felt her mind expanding. The facade of Rachel the Complacent Mechanic was ripped away to reveal the underlying musculature that was Rachel the Terran Patriot. She was ready to do as instructed.
< So obviously please show me your >
Step 1: Bring the crate by SE exit into workshop.
With an uncanny grin she floated along the corridors of the fleet yard’s interior until she came to the south east exit. Each step rang with divine purpose. Her elbow nudged open the door and she scanned the alleyway, quickly finding the crate. She propped open the door with a nearby wrench and scurried outdoors. Parts clanked and rattled within as she picked up the crate and hauled it inside. She turned back around halfway down the hall to make sure the door had closed behind her before continuing on her mission.
Just outside the workshop a fellow mechanic bumped into her. The parts clattered in the crate.
“Hey Rachel, whatcha got there?”
“Oh uhhh…” She felt the grin slip as a pang of terror overtook her. If she screwed this up then Joy might never speak to her again. She’d be abandoned, alone; just an empty vessel with no great purpose. The Terran Patriot searched rapidly for a lie they hoped would fool the Affini collaborator in front of them. “Ummm… Just some spare parts from a salvage operation. Thought we could use them.”
Rachel held her breath. Her heart thudded to non-existent music as she waited to see if this crafty servant of the alien menace, an engineer she had once foolishly thought of as a coworker and friend, judged her lie. She readied herself to fight if needed. Nothing was more important than following the instructions on the paper.
“Oh cool. Let me know if you need any help.”
She breathed an inward sigh of relief.
“I will. Thanks!”
Fifteen more steps and she was in the workshop. She dropped the rattling chest on a workbench and read the next instruction.
< Bones, bones, bones. Let me see your bones >
Step 2: Swap parts in crate with salvaged weapon components.
Rachel ripped the lid off of the crate and looked inside. Twenty bits and pieces of burnt out ship weapons lay along the bottom. Some of the parts were corroded beyond recognition but a few were still identifiable: a compact plasma accelerator, an ionizing coil for a forty caliber gun, half of an early aiming system for a torpedo tube; the slim pickings of a ship graveyard.
She looked at the workstation fifty feet away where a rack held similar parts. Parts she had helped strip off of old cruisers, some of which had been civilian shuttles before the war, in an effort to retrofit them towards more peaceful uses. The still functional bits of gun batteries and artillery systems that she and her coworkers had ripped out of gleaming bodies and replaced with safety-oriented stabilizers, weather diagnostic systems, and cloud seeders. Her stomach churned with anger.
They’d been repurposing former Cosmic Navy ships for domestic service; literally domesticating them. And she’d helped them.
< Well I don’t want to know if the feeling follows home >
Furiously Rachel ran to the rack and scooped up an armful of decommissioned parts. All these metal teeth and claws they’d ripped from the old warbirds to replace with the Affini approved technology of docility; it sickened her. She’d save them from being broken down further and recycled into shock absorbers for interplanetary ferries. She’d give them to Joy and she’d find a way to rebuild the chromium terrors that once patrolled the skies using only the meagerest pile of their bones. And this time it would be different: the Accord would win.
Rachel smiled at the thought as she rushed the parts back to the crate. With the sweep of her arm she dropped them across the workbench and began reloading the crook of her arm with the far more broken parts in the crate. In only two trips she managed to unload the crate fully and bring over another two loads of decommissioned, but still functional, weapons parts. A minute later they were in the crate and she slammed the lid home with a thwack of her hands.
She wiped the sweat from her brow and pulled out Joy’s paper again.
< Bones bones bones. Hell we’re all alone >
Step 3: Replace the crate where you found it. (Make sure lid is secure)
As soon as the paper was back in her pocket, her hands were hauling the crate off the workbench again. She kept a vigilant eye out for anybody else along the way to the exit, but only had to briefly duck into a side office for a few seconds as a few of her coworkers walked down the hall. Otherwise she was unobstructed in returning the crate to the alleyway.
Rachel carefully pounded the corners of the crate’s lid to make sure it was fully in place. She didn’t want to disappoint her mistress, she was a good Terran Patriot and wanted to prove it. After a final jiggle to triple check the sturdiness of the lid she fished her instructions out of her pocket. Only one line remained:
Step 4: Go back to work as normal. Forget this happened. Destroy these instructions.
She slipped back inside the door to fleet yard, her hand already crumpling the paper. Her brain rippled with static as her mind fuzzed over. The Terran Patriot was redonning the disguise of the Complacent Mechanic, slipping into her skin and getting ready to play the role of an innocent. She stumbled into the bathroom and threw the paper dead center into one of the toilets. As it flushed she watched it spiral once, twice, and then was subsumed by water and whisked away through the building’s pipes. Her memory mirrored the fate of the paper: first getting soggy, then losing its cohesion, and finally being flushed away where she’d never think about it again.
Rachel found herself suddenly staring at a toilet twenty minutes after she’d started walking back to work. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember anything of the interim time. She blinked, shrugged her shoulders, and went to the sink to wash her hands. Her lips quietly moved to the words of a song only she could hear.
< If I come home baby will you show me your bones >
“Do you always stay out this late on Thursdays?”
Rachel shivered at the familiar, sinister radiance of the voice. Turning on her heel she found Joy leaning against the hallway wall just on the other side of the closing elevator doors. She opened her mouth to answer, but her words fled as she looked into the doctor’s angry hazel eyes.
“Take one of your pills and let’s get going,” Joy grumbled, her knuckle repetitively pressing the call button for the elevator, “We’re going to be late.”
Wordlessly Rachel obeyed. She swallowed the pill without water, the bitter and burnt taste of revelation exciting her already, and waited for the music. It was all she lived for now, her true being. When she wasn’t on the Zyrtaxin the world felt dead and hollow, the repetitive drudergy of a lonely life. It was when the surge of clarity shrieked soaring through her spine on flitting grace notes hammered on long decayed piano wire that she could feel her true self unfold. The self that was connected imperceptibly to the fates of Rydari and Terra, to herself and Martin, to Joy and the Accord. The self that could hear the angelic, inviolable voice that would fill the deserted void of space with Terran supremacy once more.
The elevator arrived with a happy ding. Together they stepped inside.
< All nightmares start as dreams >
Joy moved swiftly and silently out of the building, leaving a trail of determination and purpose that only Rachel could see; beautiful crimson and obsidian streaks against the muted colors of the conquered world. They drifted down backstreets to a utility shed near one of the parks, the flora itching and twitching along the ground. Spectral trails of peppermint and tar wound away from Joy’s arms as she tinkered with the lock, popping it open after an eternity of a minute. Rachel wriggled happily as her handler’s hand took her own and pulled her inside, shutting the door behind them.
“You know how to fire a gun, right?”
< All love starts as a scheme >
Sulfur in the air, the jerk of her hand at the kickback, the roar of thunder. It was long ago but Rachel thought she could remember for Joy.
“Yes mistress, point and shoot”
“Good. Take this in case we encounter any weeds tonight.” The gun was light in her hand, the smooth sleek metal of resistance. “The bullets are coated with an experimental herbicide. They should drop an Affini just as easily as a human.”
< Give me all your LSD >
Joy pulled at the belt loops of Rachel’s pants and the brainwashed asset mindlessly began reaching to unzip them. A hand quickly swatted their hands away.
“No no, I’m just putting your holster on. Hold still for a second.”
Rachel held perfectly still. In the stillness of obedience was all the pleasure she really needed.
“Alright. Grab the crate and follow me.”
She grabbed the familiar box that Joy pointed to, its coarse top bristling with the scent of sawdust and oil. Joy was already barreling out of the shed, checking her watch as she hurriedly motioned for Rachel to follow. Rachel tried her best to move quickly, but her feet were walking on the uneven suck of sour sallow sand. She stumbled out of the shed onto the grass and found her footing did not improve; the simple plants of the park seemed to be in the dastardly service of the Affini, making her steps heavy and awkward. Joy locked the shed again and flashed her a worried look.
“You’re not starting to hallucinate, are you?”
< So I can feel my mind unweave again >
“I don’t know mistress it feels more like… like the first time you drugged me. The ones where I could see through time, feel through space…”
Joy rubbed a hand against her forehead, eyes closing in frustration.
“Fuck, just like the Condor,” She bit her lip and nodded to herself, “Okay, let’s get you through the night and I’ll think of something. Follow me and keep quiet.”
With slower and more careful steps Joy led them down shady streets and winding alleys until they arrived at a yet-to-be-rennovated, abandoned munitions factory. A lone figure waited there for them, shrouded in a heavy jacket and hood. Joy waved a hand as they approached.
“You’re late,” the figure finished. Its voice was gruff and deep, gravel coated with dirt and salt.
“My apologies, my associate here was delayed getting off work,” Joy replied with a flashy smile and a gesture towards Rachel. The figure hunched forward slightly, appraising the mechanic.
“I’ve worked with you before, haven’t I?”
< They say that beauty’s just skin deep >
Rachel stayed silent as she’d been previously instructed, smothering the urge to answer. She felt good, she was doing as she’d been told.
“You can tell him,” Joy hissed.
“Yeah,” Rachel blurted out, her mouth suddenly working. Spilling secrets simply because her handler had ordered her too. The night shimmered in divine bliss. “I’ve given you parts before.”
“Hmph. Weren’t late the last couple times,” the figure grumbled. Rachel could see the sweet bitter hatred of their common foe dripping out of their jacket. “But beggars can’t be picky. Thanks for your support for the cause.”
He began approaching them, shadowy arms stretching out to take the crate. The air was ripe with must and mold, the smell of the tomb and its numbing cold.
“One moment,” Joy interjected, sticking out her hand. “I’d like to set up an appointment with your boss.”
< So Ana stands and rends the rancid meat from her >
The figure stopped. Its coat flapped forward along its expected trajectory before snapping back onto its body.
“Nah, can’t do that,” A creaking chuckle of naphthalene, a noxious note of condescension, “Chain of command and plausible deniability and all that. You wanna pass along parts, you deal with me.”
“I’m OCNI,” Joy insisted in powerful syllables that split the sky with light. Rachel quivered at the four-lettered name of God; incense on the tongue and tongues of fire in the senses. The diune deity that had molded her into a tool for free Terrans; Joy, its physical manifestation, differentiable but still one and the same as the organization she served and that in turn served her. “The Iron Lady knows me, we’ve done dealings in the past. Let her know Joy East wants to help her.”
Gleefully Rachel watched the incandescent words burrow into the darkness under the hood, rattling the being beneath; warping it as Joy had warped her to serve her needs.
“I’ll pass it along.” The voiddark arms floated towards Rachel again, the figure moving out of time to catch up to them. Suddenly it was before her, its humanly disguised hands gripping the handles next to her own. Its skin looked cream pale and achingly calloused at first glance; but she could see the earthy darkness seeping out from under its nails, could feel the deeper thud of its plasmic nerves crunching along the weathered bones.
< Bones, bones, bones; let me see your bones >
It tugged on the crate and Rachel tugged back. She hadn’t been ordered to let it go yet.
“What the fuck? Are you going to give it to me or…” Syrupy anger trickled out from beneath the hood.
“Rachel,” the divine sighed, “Let him have it.”
She released it instantly, the weight falling away. The hood lifted upward and the face beneath stared at her, a mask of flesh loosely stretched over its animating force. There was a similarity floating under its skin akin to the shining words Joy had placed within her; the taste of sweet bubbling quinine to pair with Rachel’s shivering gin. Different but pointing towards the same goal, chemicals that once mixed would react explosively. Rachel knew all Joy needed was the chance to meet this Iron Lady, and the Affini would blink out of existence.
< Well I don’t wanna know if the feeling follows home >
“Stars above, what’s wrong with her?” The iron will said through its hooded flesh puppet. The strands of piano wire that conveyed sounds between them twanged verdantly, wetly.
“A long day at work. Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of her.” Joy’s words glowed warmly through Rachel’s deteriorating being. Colors crisped and curled to the plunking keys in her head. “Just make sure the Iron Lady gets my message.”
The hooded shade nodded and lugged the crate through a broken window in the vacant factory. Rachel saw the shards of glass still stuck in the frame as a thousand eyes, blinking as he passed them by.
“Let’s go Rachel, we need to discuss your big plans for tomorrow.”
The voice of radiance wavered in the way lesser beings would express concern or guilt. Rachel didn’t wonder at what, such things were out of her hands. All she needed to do was follow and obey.
Joy led them back through the nocturnal streets, carefully picking side alleys and circuitous paths to take them back towards the shed where they’d picked up the crate. Rachel knew intuitively that walking where the ground was lit by pale, melodic moonlight would get them to their destination faster and took every opportunity to do so. She could see the city breathe around them, buildings inhaling and exhaling candy corn fireflies that flew to the whispering stars to be renewed. It astounded her; electrified her consciousness with beauty and purpose. Why had she never seen these wonders before?
< Bones, bones, bones; hell we’re all alone >
In the midst of an empty alley between two closed bars, Joy stopped. Her peach-sweet beautiful face grimaced vinegarly as one of her etudinal hands swept through her copper hair.
“Rachel, tell me how bad it is. Are you still hallucinating?”
“No Mistress, I can see the world as it really is. The pounding lifeblood of location, the soul inherent to all things, the watchful stars getting closer…” Her eyes saw them a half-mile away, dots of white descending on the city.
“Yeah, yeah. Right.” An unusual hesitance slowed Joy’s voice, extending it in time, making it taste all the sweeter and glow all the brightier to Rachel’s listening mind. “Tomorrow you’re going to go to the Domestication Office on Klenson Ave. You’re going to bring your gun along and shoot as fast as you can at Affini at the front desk. You’ll be brave and loyal like a good Terran Patriot.”
Rachel shivered in glee at the words as her mind played out the scene. She’d float in; the doors opening at her approach when they recognized her new-found ability to speak to them in their hidden language. Time would slow as she slipped through it, placing her in front of the menacing plant before it could react. She’d fire once and it would explode into herbaceous mist, a roiling cloud of shattered being. Then she’d side step into the next dimension to the left and fire again, killing it there too. They couldn’t stop her. And then she’d keep firing until every Affini was gone, blown to atoms in an entanglement of life and causality her expanded mind understood but couldn’t describe. Then they’d all be free and Martin would be back and Joy would be pleased with her most perfect disciple. It was bliss just thinking about it.
< If I come home, baby, will you show your. >
“Yesssss,” she hissed as Joy imbued her with new purpose, “Yes Mistress. I’ll destroy them.”
“Good. Hand over your pills.” Joys hand was flat, palm up, between them but it was tremoring with inevitable silken victory. Rachel wrenched them from her pocket, the bone-like rattle they made shaking the stars even closer. A small cluster of white dots squeezed into the alleyway a quarter mile ahead of them.
“The stars, they’re getting closer.” Rachel mumbled as Joy took the pill bottle and poured out a single Zyrtaxin into the lid. Gingerly she dumped the pill into Rachel’s pocket.
“Tomorrow before you go to the Domestication Office, take the pill in your pocket. When you do you’ll remember this was all your idea. You’ve always wanted to hurt the Affini for what they did to Terra… and what they did to Martin.”
“Martin…” A painful flash of crimson through her bones. Smooth jet black memorial, polished rock among chalky turgid air. Lost rich laughter sucked into a cruel coffee-dark void of uncertainty. “You’ll find Martin?”
< Bones, bones, bones; let me see your bones >
“Yeah. You do this and I’ll fi–” Joy stopped to wipe something from her eye. She looked at it, disgusted, for a handful of seconds before angrily continuing “Fuck! Fuck this used to be so much easier. Stars damn it, yes I’ll do whatever I can to find him.”
Rachel, and the brick around her, breathed a heavy sigh of delighted relief. The night air groaned pleasantly in violet and the welcoming stars multiplied as they moved closer.
“Martin… Terra… Safe…” she murmured dreamily.
“That’s right,” Joy looked exhausted as she nodded, “All safe, all because of you. It was all your idea and you’ve never heard of Joy East. You have to forget me to protect me. Remember that, remember to forget me.”
“I’ll remember Mistress.” An odd feeling rolled in her stomach, the jolting ecstasy of knowing she’d follow those orders perfectly curdling in a sea of briny sorrow. She didn’t want to forget her all-powerful handler, but she needed to in order to fulfill her duty. She was a tool of Terran Intelligence. She was a Terran Patriot.
< If I come home baby will you show me your bones? >
“I’m sorry,” Joy whispered, placing a shaky hand on Rachel’s cheek. The touch made Rachel whine and writhe as every neuron rejoiced in the touch of their programmed goddess. “I didn’t mean for it to happen like this. I should have run your genetics first, looked for the markers. You deserve better, but I keep falling back on old habits and lost causes.”
She tumbled into Rachel’s arm in a ramshackle embrace. Rachel felt the staccato sniffling through her neck, the salty trickle of saline slurping through her skin. She couldn’t understand why her Mistress was so upset when the world was flowing through them all, binding them together through space and time. Every brick and flagstone and clump of grass and shaft of light were applauding the two of them and their plans to save everyone. Even the stars had descended from their perch in the heavens to shamble along the alleyways of humankind and bow down before the goddess Joy.
“Don’t be sad Mistress Joy,” Rachel droned dreamily, “For the stars are almost here to fill our hearts with light.”
“No,” mumbled Joy as she pulled herself back, looking painfully into Rachel’s wide eyes, “That’s just a rare reaction to Zyrtaxin due to a particular genetic mutation that causes rapid neurological instability. I’m so sorry. The stars are right where they’ve always been they aren’t–”
Joy froze as she swiveled her head to look where Rachel’s eyes had been fixedly staring. Indeed there were a hundred dots of dim white light barely a block away moving towards them. The centermost ones were surrounded by a halo of indigo swords, the rest with various shapes of other night-dimmed colors.
“Rachel,” Joy whispered urgently, “You need to run.”
The Terran Patriot was off like a shot, feet pounding heavily as she ran directly towards the shifting lights. They were a part of her, after all; just as she was part of every living thing. And she’d join them and twist through the night as they rippled beneath her skin and ride them to the Domestication Office the next day where–
“No! No! Rachel!” Joy’s shouting caused her to skid to a halt. “That’s an Affini!”
Rachel’s brain rippled in fear and anger, synapses firing wildly as she took in the threat before her. The stars weren’t stars, they were the gleaming round stones of an Affini’s eyes. Around each one, petals curled outwards of at least five different colors and styles. Her sworn enemy was bearing down on her, and more importantly, on Joy. She was a tool created to protect Terra and protect Joy. Her hand snapped the gun from her holster.
“Pardon us little petal but–” The creature’s gentle humming voice was filled with sinister kindness.
“Die you fucking weed!” Rachel screamed as she pointed her weapon at the nearest eyestalks and opened fire. She managed to squeeze off three shots before the gun went clattering from her hands. A hefty vine with azure, fan-like blossoms smacked into her arm and then coiled around her wrist. A second later ten more were wrapped around her, cocooning her kicking form.
Jagged flowers pricked her skin and her head went woozy. The imagined piano outro in her head slowed and slurred as her mind dulled. She was so tired, so sleepy. Her muscles relaxed against her will and her eyelids fluttered closed. She’d failed Joy. She’d failed Terra. She’d failed Martin. All that was left to do was die in the arms of this terrible beast.
Her last conscious memory was the Affini’s voice, harshly sneering:
“Well well, look who we finally caught up with.”