Joanna bolted upright in bed. Not her own bed. Smaller. A single. Raised up off the ground, she was almost three feet from the tiled floor. She looked around. White walls, white tile, white roof. Cold. Antiseptic. She hated white. The bed was comfortable, even in its unfamiliarity, but little more than that, the bare minimum of comfort. She was lying on top of the sheet; there was no blanket, but there were two comfortable pillows. There was something stuck on her forehead that was annoying her, but she really didn't feel like removing it.
She knew what that meant.
She'd been Altered.
She checked herself, not that that would help. If she'd been Altered well, she wouldn't really know that anything was different, if her Alterist didn't want her to. She was wearing white panties and a light blue t-shirt, and wasn’t sure if either belonged to her. Her bra was gone, or she hadn't been wearing one.
None of this answered the pressing question: why was she in a recovery room?
Hold on, a recovery room…
So she'd been Altered, and was being Altered again.
Where was she? Besides in a recovery room.
There was a hole in her memory. Probably because it'd been blanked. She didn't know how much was gone, how big that hole was. Of course she didn't. She couldn't.
By design, there was nothing around to tell her the date or time, and if there was, she still wouldn't have known when the hole began.
Okay, okay, no need to panic. And she wasn't panicking, anyway. Just... curious.
Last memory. Last clear memory. One last grad student in the chair, a simple, routine change, part of a study... what was it? Did it matter? Did it have anything to do with... this?
No, that's ridiculous. She was accredited, had a research license. She wouldn't have made enemies from her work. She was a legitimate Alterist.
By day, anyway. She enjoyed the more recreational aspects of Altering when she wasn't on the job. In fact, she had been in a bit of a rush with the grad student because she was heading to a recreational Altering convention.
And then she remembered getting on the plane.
So she must be at the convention.
Or maybe not? She couldn’t remember getting on a flight back, but maybe she'd forgotten that, too? No, she thought, the convention felt right. Even with no clear memory, there was still a clear sense of satisfaction at getting the right answer.
That was important. She could trust herself to know when she remembered something correctly.
That solved, she looked around the room again, but more to think than to search. Although, oddly, this didn't look like a recovery room at any convention she'd been to, with multiple beds and the bustle of guests and alterists running about. More like a bed in a commercial parlor, secluded, alone, comfortable.
Realization struck. If she was still at the con, then Darryl was here.
Her heart fluttered at the thought. Darryl. She saw him too seldom.
Her breath caught. Was she in recovery because of something Darryl did?
Did Darryl fuck with her?
She hadn't been panicking before, still wasn't, but she sure was starting to breathe quickly.
He wouldn't. No way. Fuck, he couldn't.
No. No, she refused to believe it. Her hands gripped the sheet. No, no, no. Besides, he knew her too well, knew her mind inside and out, her strengths and weaknesses. If he'd done it...
If he'd done it, she wouldn't be in here, wouldn't be in recovery. He'd have her with him, wherever he was. If he done this, she wouldn't have a chance to recover.
The thought sent chills down her spine, ones which she had to admit weren't entirely unpleasant. Her fingers relaxed a moment and she wiggled her toes. She exhaled.
She was turned on.
Not entirely unusual, she'd been Altered, twice at least, and that was some of the fun of Altering. Her hand twitched. Her toes curled, and she shivered again.
She wanted to take off the shirt. She wanted to slip off the panties.
She wanted Darryl. Oh God, she wanted Darryl. Her hands twitched.
She closed her eyes. Seeing him in the airport. A hug. A kiss. Another kiss. Declarations of adoration, statements of how much they’d missed each other. Driving to the hotel. Darryl's laptop.
Okay, so she wasn't blocked from remembering, just blanked. Standard Fixing procedure for some cases, some treatments: give the patient a chance to relive the events in a controlled environment. That would be what the electrode-like thing on her forehead was for, to keep her calm, regulated, keep an eye on her vitals. She wasn't familiar with the equipment (maybe she had been before the procedure?) but the concepts were easy enough to follow.
Back in her memory, after the plane touched down, after the cab ride, after the check-in, she had barely been able to keep her clothes on long enough to slip on his headset. Then there was that beautiful, blissful feeling that goes with Darryl’s work. Music filled her mind, her sight, her heart. He knew her so well, knew her weaknesses, played her like a harp, made her senses sing. Her breathing slowed, noticeably. His fingers typed, and she could hear the words he was spinning into her mind, briefly, like a motif in the middle of a massive symphony, heard momentarily and, if captured, remembered long enough to recognize hearing them again, and if not—
She felt like she wasn't catching even a quarter of what he was putting in to her mind. That thought, the thought of barely understanding, was wonderful and amazing and then... gone.
She was thinking about missing ... something. And the missing was gone. And the music started to fade, and it, too, was gone, and the light faded, and was gone, and then she knew what she had seen, and heard, but there was a cold block, a wall of ice, between the experience and the knowledge of it. She knew, because she knew; but she couldn't recall anything attached to the knowledge.
In her memory, she pulled off the headset and looked at Darryl. He grinned smugly, asking, "What do you think?"
A smile crept up on her. "I've missed you so much," she said, and her hands started to undo her blouse buttons. "And I want to put you so far under you don't wake up until next month."
"Oh, but we have dinner plans," he replied.
Her body stopped its motion.
"We have dinner plans," she heard her voice say. Her hands then continued taking off her blouse. Her agency had vanished. She was still stripping, but even though she had intentionally started to do so, she was not continuing through anything but automatic action.
Her expression blank, her eyes unfocused, she removed her top, then undid her grey skirt and slid it down to the floor. She shook her head, coming out of the momentary trance, then raised an eyebrow. "Not like I wasn't going to get out of those anyway," she said, picking up the headset and taking a step towards him.
"Of couse you were, that's what made the suggestion take so easy. So what do you plan to do with that?" he asked, raising an eyebrow in kind.
"I thought I'd put it on you and run a few programs of my own," she replied, a bit of a growl in her voice, as she slipped the device on her own head.
He turned the laptop towards her. "Oh really?" Numbers and graphs on the screen showed an active and Altered mind.
The word spoken in the recovery room, not in her memory.
She paused a moment in her recollection, thinking about the image in her head. The numbers and graphs had shown showed an active but Altered mind, for sure, because the headset was on her head. But when she thought back to what she'd seen on the screen, she was certain, absolutely certain, that she was reading Darryl's numbers.
Which was why she’d activated the device.
The shock of recognition ran through her, in the memory, and in the recovery room, her hands slipped under her waistband. In her memory, she froze, hand over the spacebar. She heard Darryl's voice before it was drowned in melody and harmony and the glorious natural skill of his music, directing her to believe that he was on the receiving end, and she started to type.
She broke free of the thought, and moaned, gathering her composure and stopping the movement of her hands before they could go further than teasing. She knew that that wasn't the issue. That wouldn't have been the cause. She would have been careful with Darryl, and would have been careful with herself as a result.
Still, something told her that Darryl was connected to her need for recovery. Something in there was important.
And oh God, that night had been so fucking hot. She did eventually get the headset on him, after she had answered the room-service knock in her underwear, after she'd had dinner in the nude ("Dinner plans" indeed), after she'd... her hands were twitching again. She put that thought aside, there would be time for that later.
No, it wasn't that. That wouldn't have needed a Fix. She pulled her shirt back down.
The convention. She was at the convention. Must have been something else. It wouldn't have just been Darryl that had had a go at her mind. That was the point of the convention after all. And the competition.
Her eyes widened. The competition. She had come for the Brainhackers competition. Maybe the first-ever organized, sponsored, legitimate Brainhackers competition.
Her first game was the Monday evening after she arrived. The rules stated that she couldn't have any Alteration done within 24 hours of a match, but she wanted to be completely fresh, and so she wasn't Altered at all on Sunday. She and Darryl went to a couple talks, walked among the vendors, met friends, chatted with people... convention stuff. And long-distance couple stuff: catching up, stealing kisses, fantasizing and adoring and wishing and...
Given her reaction to her memories of the day she'd landed, she deliberately avoided thinking about Sunday night. She had a mystery to solve and didn't need the distraction. Darryl was doubtless going to feature prominently in her memories of the convention, which meant that there were going to be a lot of those moments coming back to her.
Monday morning, Darryl woke her up with some lovely cunnilingus, as she had programmed him to do the night before. She recalled the feeling of his hands on her sides, gripping her hips, his tongue working along her...
Pull the shirt down. Carry on. Think, and try to think clearly.
Her match was last on the schedule for the day. Because of the time required between matches and the week-long duration of the con, there were only eight competitors in the invitational competition, bringing together some of the biggest names in the Brainhack community (the ones who were available, anyway). She and Darryl had a pleasant breakfast together with another couple they knew, and went to catch the first and second rounds.
Brainhack wasn't Darryl's thing at all. He was more interested in the friendly, and more-than-friendly, applications of Alteration. And while his work was divine, it wasn't highly trained; he would be the first to admit his casual-user status. Darryl had a gift, not an education.
Joanna, though? She loved the competitive aspect, the edge of danger, the battle. It was fun, it was relatively safe, and it was challenging. Above all else, it was challenging. She loved Darryl, loved Altering him, but it wasn't difficult in any way. He slipped into a trance almost the second the gear went on his head, sometimes before she even started her programs.
This was something different. Something that tested her skill, her self-control, her creativity, her rapidity of thought and action. This was... well, it was Brainhacking.
The arena—the lecture theatre, really—sat two hundred or so people, and it was already packed. Joanna and Darryl took a seat at the back just before the doors closed.
Two comfortable chairs sat back-to-back on the stage, with generic Alter equipment set up for the competitors, along with computer terminals and monitors—the same that Joanna had trained on before customizing her own gear. There were also two big monitor banks mounted overhead for the audience to read the vital stats of the competitors and see some semblance of their moves in the game.
Joanna looked around the room. There was a buzz, a low-level hum of excitement from the usual sort of people at a convention of Alterists and Alter enthusiasts. A few people were wearing things they probably wouldn't have normally, or not wearing things they probably should have been, if they were out in public anywhere else, but largely the crowd looked normal. Maybe they skewed a bit towards the nerdy and fetishy, but a comfortably normal crowd all the same.
She overheard a few people placing friendly bets. Caden Collier was apparently the heavy favourite, over SleepyLeigh. Leigh was a good friend, as close as she might get to someone she'd only ever met online. Joanna had helped her with a bunch of little technical issues here and there in getting her personal setup running; the woman wasn't a pro, but she was at least a step beyond Darryl's level of skill, and she wasn't the pushover he was in the trance department. The two of them had traded Alters, non-competitively, many times, and had coached and critiqued each other's Brainhack technique. She was a creative and imaginative spirit, lots of fun to work on and work with.
But Caden... Caden was among the worst of the community. He'd had a couple years of formal training, then washed out, probably because of his attitude. He wasn't licensed, but he played himself off as just as good or better. The problem was, though, that he was good. Maybe not as good as he thought—it probably wasn't possible to be that good—but better than most. maybe truly the best. Given his popularity in the Brainhackers community, there was no way that he couldn't be invited, and knowing his interest in personal promotion, there was no way that he wouldn't have come. His natural skill and confidence mixed with his training to make a potent brew, one which also made him an excellent competitor; his attitude and views made that brew toxic. He had a following, too, his own circle, from preaching a biological-truth, alpha-male gospel that appealed strongly to a certain segment of the Alterations fanbase.
It was too bad that all that skill, training, and that powerful, natural instinct were so often directed towards personal pleasure and gain, and used with such little regard for his subject. Joanna had never dealt with him directly, not before this, but she'd consulted on a couple Fixes of his work, and she knew that he could be incautious, brash, dangerous.
Caden. Something about her condition had something to do with him, she could feel it. She made a mental note and went back to thinking her way through the memories. It was too bad that it wasn't as straightforward as, 'Caden did it,' but nothing is ever that simple.
Leigh came out first, all nervous smiles and barely-contained energy, a bubbly, chubby girl of Asian extraction, dark hair and dark eyes and warm, broad movement. She waved to the crowd, and a small crew near the front cheered. She gave a little nod to the judges and referees and another wave before taking a deep breath and standing to the side.
That was the first time that Joanna had laid eyes on her friend. She'd seen profile pictures and a couple cute thank-you shots of her in her Altering gear (and sometimes little else), but until that moment SleepyLeigh had really only been a more-than-friendly voice and an extensive block of text logs to her.
Leigh was also connected to her state. She could feel it. She would have to follow through with that thread, too. She only hoped her friend hadn't done something to hurt her, negligently or—
Intentional harm from SleepyLeigh? Impossible.
She dismissed that line of inquiry as quickly as it had emerged. Unless she had been completely taken in and massively misjudged Leigh's character, no deliberate harm would have come from that corner. That didn't rule out accident, of course, or negligence, but Joanna refused to consider maliciousness.
She allowed her attention to drift back to her memories.
Caden stood in the doorway, waiting. Even from where Joanna was sitting in the back, she could see the sneer. This battle was already his, and he knew it. Tall, blond, broad-shouldered, arrogant, severe, he practically marched towards the stage, and the minute he set foot on the floor a group of very loud men started to holler their support. Joanna heard some truly ugly language from them, and crossed her arms both in the memory and in the recovery room. Darryl had put a hand on her shoulder then; she wished for his hand now, as she recalled the slurs.
Joanna was an Alterist online, both in professional and recreational settings, and publicly known in each. She had been called all sorts of names, told all sorts of things. Misogyny was nothing new to her, but the racism, subtle and deniable as it was, turned her stomach. And regardless of the content of the insults, it was just wrong to treat someone like that, anyone at all.
In retrospect, Leigh really didn't stand a chance. She had lost before she even made it to the chair. In her memory, even at the distance they were sitting, Joanna could see it clearly on the girl's face, how the smile in her eyes faded a little with each barb, how she gamely pushed through pretending not to hear. Even if she had won, this moment would have bothered her, stayed with her. Hurt her. She hadn't been on the public stage very often, and hadn't been exposed to that sort of vitriol in real time. It could be very different hearing it from someone who shares breathing space with you than it was reading it in a cold chat log.
In the recovery room, Joanna resolved to give her a hug, if she had the chance.
Watching the battle was both fascinating and confusing. Joanna knew that any random, untrained observer would be totally lost, looking at the players’ vitals, charts, and graphs on the big screens, as lost as she got herself when trying to parse information from the football statistics Darryl was so fond of. The investment of time required to learn the intricacies of the game was Brainhacking’s biggest barrier to entry. This crowd, however, amateurs and professionals alike, were watching closely as the two contestants, now in their trances, typed furiously, manipulating numbers by manipulating thoughts and feelings, each trying to make the other's mind give way and allow them entry.
"He's vicious," Darryl said softly, watching Leigh's heart rate spike, then plummet. "What's he doing, Jo, any idea?"
She knew. She knew all too well. He was terrifying her. He was scaring her, and providing comfort to relax and slow her with the same programming he used to barrage her. She couldn't take her eyes off Leigh's readouts while they jumped and plunged endlessly. If I win, I'm going to have to face him, she thought in the crowd. He's going through to the finals. His technique was too good, and he was too fast and too self-assured, easily shrugging off his opponent’s assaults, which were coming slower and slower, and soon, not at all.
Leigh's eyes were closed, her hands were frozen above the keyboard, the brainwave monitors were showing her in a state of near-total trance. Caden continued to type, wrenching her mind open even wider to his suggestions. He pushed harder, faster now that he was free of her attacks, deepening her somnolent state as her hands drifted mechanically down to her sides and her body slumped forward. It was over. One of the referees pressed the decision button. A loud bell sound rang out over the speakers, and Caden's cheering squad took to shouting again, forceful enough to drown out any polite applause the rest of the crowd might have given him.
It took less than a minute for Caden to wake from his light trance and take a dramatic bow to the cheers from his rudely adoring audience, and the polite, muted applause from everyone else. Leigh barely moved a muscle for ten. By then, the only people left in the room were the judges, the monitoring staff, Leigh's little cheering section (who gave her a round of supportive clapping before starting to dissipate), and Joanna and Darryl, who had walked down to the front.
The competitor's head turned. "I know that voice," she said with a dazed grin. "OhAnnaJ. And you must be DarrylSergeant." She hopped down from the stage and extended a hand, which Joanna pulled into a friendly hug.
Well, check that off the list. Not that she would mind giving her another. She felt herself flushing a bit at the memory of the small, soft girl in her arms, the lemony aroma of her body-wash or shampoo, the—
Distraction again. Keep focused.
"Good run up there," Darryl lied gamely. All three of them knew it wasn’t even close. "How are you feeling?"
"Honestly, DS?" she replied, using his initials like she and Joanna would in text chat. "Fucked up. Really rough." She heaved a grim little sigh. "I bet you guys wanna stay and watch the next match, but I could sure use a coffee."
"We'll go with you," Joanna offered. Much as she wanted to see partyDancer and naagesh competing, her friend wanted her company, and Dancer really didn't need Joanna there to form a cheering section. If anyone other than Caden Collier would arrive with an entourage, it would be partyDancer, grand dame of recreational Alterations going back nearly as long as Joanna had been alive.
Coffee. Coffee sounded really good. "If anyone's listening, I could use something to drink," she called in to the white-walled room. Nothing was keeping her from getting out of the bed, she supposed, or going out the door and finding something.
Huh. Right. The door. She stretched—how long had she been lying down?—but then she decided that the door wasn't worth trying, so she didn't bother sitting up.
That had to be the Alter talking. Still, knowing that didn't make her want to sit up.
She started thinking back to coffee with Leigh. Poor girl. There's no way that Caden's technique wouldn't have some lasting emotional effects, although both Joanna and Darryl knew better than to say as much. She did find some solace in the loss, though.
"This way," Leigh said with a bit of an ironic grin, "I can sample some Alters while I'm here, not just save myself for competition." She gave the tall ex-soldier a broad wink.
Darryl, for his part, hid any reaction he might have had behind a coffee cup.
Joanna felt a thoughtful look swim past her lips. "You know, Leigh..." she frowned a bit, trying to think of the best way to ask. "If you don't mind, I could crack open that scrambled egg a bit, and see just what Caden was up to."
Leigh jumped a bit in surprise. "You mean you'd..." she stammered. "I don't know. Do you think that he'll go through to the finals?"
"naagesh and partyDancer are up there now. Both are good, but they're not Caden good, not like that," she answered. "I wish I’d gotten seeded against you, Leigh. Would’ve been all kinds of fun."
She nodded. "I guess this would be the closest we could get to that..." The younger girl flushed a little at the idea. "We can have a friendly game when this convention's done."
Joanna smiled. Their schedules never worked out quite right, but they'd been discussing a friendly Brainhack game for months. "Why don't you and Darryl hang out for a while this evening? I like some alone-time for my match prep, and then after I'm done, win or lose, I can put my portable on you."
The cheerful girl beamed. "If you'd be okay with that, Darryl?"
"I don't see why not." He acted casual, but years of connection meant that Joanna could recognize his own excitement at the possibilities.
Coffee and arrangements concluded with an exchange of contact information and vague plans. Leigh had friends to meet for lunch, Joanna wanted to look around at some of the displays meant for more serious practitioners, and Darryl wandered off on his own to do a little shopping. The three of them promised to meet up for the third match, in the early afternoon.
Nothing much caught her eye among the displays, the academics, the professionals. Textbooks, how-tos for more complex techniques, insurance sales, high-level demo equipment, business and advertising strategies, nothing all that new or exciting. Still, Joanna relished the time to chat with a couple colleagues who were running their own practices, doing the good work. She kept clear of many of the entrepreneurial aspects of Alteration by working mainly in research, but it was still good to stay connected.
The constant din of chatter was a little lower in the professionals' hall—most people at the con were hobbyists, after all—so she could recall something jumping out at her from the sea of sound while she was standing at a random booth: Caden Collier, strutting down the middle of the room, regaling one of his hangers-on. "Nah, I wouldn't ever let her mess with me. Females shouldn't be Alterists." Words spoken a little too loudly, drawing a little too much attention.
A few heads turned with disapproval, and more than a few pretended to ignore him. Joanna winced, in the recovery room. That voice, so cruel, so callous, so rough.
"It's just basic biology," Caden continued, being pointedly ignored by the rest of the crowd as his sycophant nodded along. "Girls do okay when they're Altering other girls, but the best Alterists are men. Females just don't have the right mindset. They're at their best when they submit to us, after all, and..." at this point, thankfully, the two moved out of earshot.
The man Joanna had been talking to, before that living embodiment of casual hatred wandered by, shook his head. "Christ, I thought MRAs went outta style a decade ago."
"The fight never ends, friend," she replied with a sigh. "What's he doing down here, anyway? I thought he was strictly sport and rec."
"He comes to all the cons, talks specs like sales reps are programmers or engineers, then laughs at us when we can't keep up. I think he does it to blow off steam. It's odd, though, normally he's here where it's more crowded so he can make a bigger show of it." He rolls his eyes. "Beat the shit out of him in the competition for me, would you?"
She nodded. "I’ll try my best. Assuming he and I go through to the finals."
The man gave her a disbelieving smile. "Beat the shit out of him," he repeated.
She’d puttered about for a while longer, but her heart wasn't really into looking or conversing, not any more. She was growing focused on the competition. She went back to the lecture hall and snagged three seats together, biding her time on her phone until Darryl and Leigh showed up.
They arrived within moments of one another. She greeted each with a warm hug, caught up with their adventures, put Caden Collier from her mind, and settled in to watch GreenShinyOak meet JonByers08 on the proverbial field of battle.
It was a good match, she remembered, but JonByers08 got the upper hand after about seventeen minutes and never let loose, wrapping up his opponent more and more.
Judging by GreenShinyOak's numbers, it wasn't a bad way to go. He certainly looked like he was enjoying it.
Joanna frowned, wondering why she could recollect so little about that fight. It certainly had been a skillful display. Perhaps she had been preoccupied with her own upcoming match. Perhaps it simply had nothing to do with her present condition.
More small talk. Leigh left with Darryl. Joanna had an hour to herself, and that hour required focus. Darryl was not good for focus.
She'd done Brainhack many times, both online and in local competitions, and she had her routine. She went to the backstage area, where GreenShinyOak was just leaving what would become Joanna’s prep room. She gave him a friendly and condolent smile, he traded some best wishes in exchange.
Safely inside the confines of the small room, she locked the door and stripped down to her underwear. She wanted to build herself up, piece by piece, and that meant starting with her body. She always started with the body.
It wasn't just a routine, there was a certain meditative quality to it. Before she settled in to do any Alteration, for work or pleasure, she liked to have a good stretch, try to keep her own risk of injury to a minimum. With a difficult case, she may be watching screens, typing, and speaking, for hours, unable to take a proper break, so she had to be in the best condition she could to withstand the rigours of her work; even thought Brainhack matches were usually only between twenty minutes and half an hour, the intensity of the work required could be brutal, and the physical stresses were much the same.
Fingers first. They saw the most abuse. Stretched and flexed. Back, shoulders. Tiredness meant weakness. Deep knee bends, neck rolls. There was a serene calm in her actions, as she started from her feet and slowly, gently, worked out every muscle, from her toes up, pausing to give a bit of a frown as she twisted her hips and her belly shifted. Getting flabby. Too much sitting and staring at screens.
She found herself mirroring the routine in her convalescent's bed. If nothing else, it felt good to work out all the stiff spots. She'd been thinking for a while, not really moving much, and while she didn't go through her whole routine—difficult to do without standing, and she couldn't even muster the will to sit up—even the truncated version was nice.
She wanted to think about her match. Maybe that was why she was in here, in recovery. Something happened at this match. A tall, thin, black-haired man calling himself Mindsweeper was announced as her opponent, then OhAnnaJ was called to the stage, earning a 'whoop!' from SleepyLeigh and DarrylSergeant up in the crowd. She gave a little wave of acknowledgement to the excited audience before settling in to the chair and putting on the pre-fab gear. She'd seen this setup a hundred times, for a while had one like it in her bedroom, and Darryl had just had a portable version on her head the other day: a clear, high-quality, back-and-mid-lit printed plastic visor for visual effects, hanging from a thick white apparatus that looked like somewhat a bicycle helmet, where the high-frequency electromagnetic pulse generators and high-fidelity speakers were hidden, all held on the head by a cloth chin-strap with a standard hat-buckle and attached to the computer bank by a standard four-wire cable.
All that remained was to give approving nods to the safety agreements and waivers flashing on her screen, and the assent to be Altered.
She'd always been all business when it came to Brainhack. It was more fun that way. She grinned as the first lights glittered before her eyes, and her fingers started to dance.
She thought out her moves the way she might have written a melody; at each step, try what's worked before, or try something new. Create. Expand. Develop, and return to the familiar. The specialized keyboard, having much more than just letters and numbers, wasn't the sort she was used to using any more, but the muscle memory came back to her quickly, and a quick eye and sharp hand helped to fill in the gaps.
She felt the first wave of warmth travelling south from her head as Mindsweeper started his own Alter procedures. Her fingers continued to type as she examined the shape of his attack, its contours, its vectors. One of the greatest challenges of Brainhack was managing your opponent's attack without letting your own offensive slip, and knowing how Mindsweeper was approaching the battle would be an important advantage.
As it did, as it always did, her undergraduate degree in music asserted itself and she started to experience the ebb and flow of the programming as vague concepts of tune and harmony and structure. She tried to make sense of the Alteration of her mind in terms that she was most familiar with. Thoughts of Darryl came to her, of his towering, hypnotic constructions, his Brahms and Bruckner and Shostakovich, melody stretched across minutes, hidden and turned and twisted back on itself. This wasn't Darryl, of course, and the approach was different, less tailored to her interests. More vague, more impressionistic. Debussy, Dukas, Respighi, other composers’ names popping in and out of her mind as snatches of feeling felt like whispers of sound. colors, scenes, light. Less direction, more imagery; less structure, more emotionality.
It would probably have been supremely effective on almost anyone, and she did feel a great deal of its attraction, despite her preference for a more classically-structured aesthetic. Beautiful swirls of color kept her looking aside, slowing her typing, engaging her hearing. Her hands worked a little program on their own. Her approach was adaptive, improvisatory—scattershot, if she was honest. Testing all directions, seeing which get a reaction and which don't, and paring away those less-useful options in favour of the winners. She started to make a list of strengths and weaknesses in Mindsweeper's defenses, even as he continued pushing his vague, indistinct assault, pressing on all aspects of her mind at once in a whirl of color and music. Every note said 'sleep,' every chord sung of want.
The music drew her in, soothed her, like an aimless lullaby whispered into her head by the concept of song itself. She searched the music for a pattern, for repetition, for reason behind the rhyme, but that searching just led her deeper in to the sound, looking for something crystalline to coalesce around, something which kept evading her, seemingly slipping further away the more she looked for it.
Which she wasn't supposed to be doing. She was supposed to be Altering, not engaging in music appreciation.
But the colors were so lovely... In the recovery room, she sighed at the thought of those colors, of those sounds. Sighed, and shivered. The memory felt very close, as if Mindsweeper were Brainhacking with her at that moment. Distraction, she knew, but what a wonderful distraction. She could indulge a bit as she continued to remember.
With all the distractions so far, she was already extremely horny.
The shirt came up easily enough, and one peaked nipple kept one hand busy as the other slipped under the waistband of her panties. God, she was wet.
Maybe that was why she was here. Something Mindsweeper did to her. Maybe that's why the thought of his aetherial music made her so hot. She moaned. She had lost that match, hadn't she? The way she was feeling, both in the blank white room and in the memory of the chair, there was nothing left to do but sink. Certainly the music was beautiful, even without that core that she was searching for, and by the time she once more realized that she was supposed to be competing, the colors were starting to blur and block her view of Mindsweeper’s vitals.
Just as she was reaching a fever pitch, typing wildly, her mind selecting the direction of her approach and her hands executing it almost without conscious input, surrounded by music and light and sense and sensation, a bell sounded, cutting through the music, signalling the end to the match, and a subtle change in the programming. She hadn't really registered it, but the device was bringing her back up, back out of the trance. Her hands left the keyboard, free now to slip under her shirt and between her legs and press. She moaned. She felt good. So good. If she had lost, she was going to enjoy it. Maybe give the crowd a show, she didn't kn...
No, no, she scolded herself as she curled a finger inside. Now that was just plain fantasy. She had more self control than to masturbate in front of a crowd, even under the effects of an Alter. Living and reliving were already mixing together in her mind. And now fantasy had intruded, as her hands worked faster, harder, her back arching in the bed, need for physical release overcoming need for mental satisfaction.
She almost petulantly accepted the inevitability of it, sliding her panties down just enough to free her hand's motion, tracing her fingers around her clit, sending waves of tension and pleasure through her legs and belly and back and her hand on her breast clenched and she let out a moan. So close now. She closed her eyes and shuddered, just a moment... away...
A long, low, satisfying sigh as the first wave of climax washed over, and over, and over her. She let herself rest, let herself relax into the memory, of standing up before the crowd, embarrassed about the loss, but feeling so good about the fight, of turning to her opponent and offering her hand, seeing him confusedly taking hers. Hearing her name called.
She took a deep breath, regaining control. And she did the same in her memory. Her name. OhAnnaJ. She looked at the judge. He looked back, smiled, pointed subtly behind her. She looked up at the big screen. There were her last measured vitals, at the time of the bell, near swamped. And there were Mindsweeper's, in bright red, clearly under, brain activity showing deep trance.
She had won.
She had won.
All those beautiful soft shades of harmony-without-structure which had been so inviting were simply not inviting enough, or hadn’t worked fast enough, anyway. Another minute, maybe thirty seconds, and she'd have been gone.
She turned back to the crowd, listening to the cheers and laughter at her disbelieving stare.
She shared her smile with Mindsweeper. "Close match," she said, opening her arms to offer him a hug, which he accepted with a laugh, prompting more cheers from the audience.
This is how it's meant to be. This is how the game is supposed to be played, she thought, giving her opponent a squeeze. Two people just having fun with each other's minds.
Mindsweeper walked backstage with her. "You are amazing, Anna," he said. "If you aren't, you ought to go pro."
She laughed. "I am, but thank you. You are too, I suspect."
He grinned. "Guilty. I have a little studio next to the convention center, rec and simple therapy only. I'm a con sponsor, actually. Thought it would be fun to try Brainhacking with the best, so I entered the local tournament, won my way to an invite." He shrugged. "I think I did pretty good."
"You did," she answered, standing at the door of her dressing room. "I really thought you had me there."
He chuckled. "I thought I had you there, too. And then I was gone." A consequence of her scattershot approach. Once she found a weakness, there was no turning back, not for her, not for her opponent.
He paused. She paused.
"You want to ask me to dinner," she said, "but you know that I'm here with someone."
"You want to accept," he replied, "but... sorry, I can't think of a good reason for you not to."
They both laughed. She smiled kindly, then, impulsively, kissed his cheek. "You were wonderful," she said as he blushed. "I can't take you up on dinner tonight, but maybe I'll drop by your studio while I'm here. Do you have a card?"
He shook his head. "Not on me. And I didn't get a vendor pass. But look me up. 'Halloran's Alterations.' Not exactly a creative name."
"Hey, you have a studio of your own. That's something. I'm attached to a university."
His eyes widened. "So you're really legit? Got the degree, the medical certificate?"
She nodded. "An M.A. and a class-one license. And you still nearly beat me, which goes to show what all that training's actually worth in the real world."
"Work and pleasure are two different things, Anna, as I'm sure you're well aware." He gave a broad wink. "And I think, on that note, we ought to part company. I'm sure your dinner date is waiting."
"Dates," she said, slipping back to her dressing room with a chuckle.
In the closed-off space, she leaned against the door with a happy sigh. Two days at the con, and things had been going just as they ought to, the unfortunate presence of Caden Collier aside. She slipped a hand down her—
But this time, she knew at least that it was a real memory. That was a little too much like her to be just her fantasy talking.
She touched for a moment, then reminded herself that she had promises to keep. SleepyLeigh was waiting on her.
Her walk back to the hotel room was interrupted only by a quick stop to grab a fresh, hot pretzel, which she polished off on the way, more because she wanted something in her stomach than anything else. She waved her keycard at the lock, knocked lightly out of habit, and walked in to Darryl and Leigh sitting at the small table, chatting cheerfully, with two medium pizza boxes sitting between them. Both of them turned as she came in.
"Hail the mighty conqueror," Darryl said, rising to give her a hug. Leigh gave some light applause and a wordless cheer.
Joanna snuggled into the embrace with a soft, happy hum. "Really thought I wasn't coming away with that one," she said into her lover's chest.
"Yeah, we were watching that!" Leigh exclaimed as Darryl released her. "He just had you on a steady pull down from the start, but I guess you saw a weakness there or something and he went from 'okay' to 'gone' just like that." The shorter woman snapped her fingers and giggled. "You'll have to show me how you do that sometime."
Joanna grinned and grabbed a piece of pizza. "Yeah. 'Sometime.' Darryl, get your gear, and I'll get mine. I want an instant replay on a different match first." She tore into the pizza in her hand; despite the pretzel, she was still quite hungry.
Leigh practically jumped to her feet. "Right. Right! You want to see what Caden did to me."
"Mhmm, and what you tried on him, which is why I want Darryl to get his gear out." The tallest occupant of the room was already setting his laptop on the table as Joanna went to her luggage. She opened it and pulled out a small black solid-sided case, holding three items: a 7" tablet in a flat blue shell, a folding keyboard obviously meant to go with it, and a clear glass visor with a black elastic band and several wires dangling from it.
Leigh stared. "Oh shit, Anna, that's... That's serious stuff, isn't it? Medical grade?"
Joanna nodded. "My old portable kit, for field work. My newest stuff's at the office. And for that matter, my newest stuff belongs to the school, and there's no way they'd let me take it for this." She pulled out the visor with a certain degree of reverence and care.
"Anything... different with this one?"
Joanna shook her head as she drew out the tablet. "You don't have to do anything different. Just me. The work it does is a little closer, a little deeper, and can override a little more resistance, but it's still limited by what you're willing to accept." She reached for her pizza. "It's still not mind control," she said around the final bites.
The ping of Darryl logging in to his laptop caught their attention. "Alright, so. What's the plan?" he asked.
"I'm going to put her back through the match. She's going to do to you what she did to Caden. We’ll be playing back her memories of it, both with her head and with her fingers." Joanna turned on her tablet, wiping her hands on a napkin. "Consider this my research for the final match, assuming that I can handle JonByers08."
"Oh, you can handle him," Leigh grinned. "So you want me sitting—"
"Just where you were a moment ago." Joanna did a little checking of the tablet, then tapped the Alter application. Microfilaments in the glass of the visor lit up with colors, confirming the connection and instantly grabbing the other woman's attention. Joanna looked at her and laughed. "Sit! You’re gonna see it from the other side in a second."
Leigh flushed, sitting down. "Wow. I... I've never had any real, med-grade work done."
Joanna looked back to the tablet. "This still isn't going to be med-grade work, it's just the tool I have."
Darryl coughed, turning his computer to face Leigh. Joanna gave him a quick, grateful smile before going back to making some adjustments on the tablet. "This isn't very specialized, I'm afraid," he said apologetically. "Standard keyboard, just the one peripheral for you to use..."
Joanna tuned him out to get her own setup done. His explanation would only take a couple moments, and she could practically feel Leigh's excitement and impatience radiating from her. The increasingly deep color in her cheeks was also plainly obvious.
It had the potential to be a very good night.
She picked up the visor, straightening the dangling wires and making sure none of them were tangled as Darryl finished the explanation of his gear and slipped his own headset on. She looked at Leigh. "You ready for this?"
"I think I was born ready," she said in a husky voice.
"Before I put this on you, and before you start messing with Darryl, we ought to acknowledge the possibilities here..."
"We're all fetishists, I think," Darryl added, "And we're about to engage in some serious mind control."
Leigh nodded. "So do you two want me to take off my top now, or...?" she giggled.
"All on the same page, then," Joanna concluded. "Good." She approached the roundish girl, who sat up straight, hands in her lap.
Joanna, in the recovery room, reflected on one of her favourite parts of the process. Not that the actual Altering was anything less than hot, of course, but remembering kneeling down next to her seated friend, looking her in the eye, knowing what was surely to come, and what was likely to follow... Her hands twitched again, and she took a ragged gasp of a breath. It wasn't just because it packed more nicely that she'd brought her old field kit.
Joanna gently brushed black hair from Leigh's face, sweeping it back, her hands caressing the other girl's ruddy cheeks. The visor, now with only a faint glow around the edge to show that it was active and waiting, was carefully placed over Leigh's eyes. The act of tightening it to her face, binding her hair to her head, brought them cheek to cheek. She felt the younger Alterist's warm breath on her ear as she carefully adjusted the equipment, making sure the speakers hidden in the band were properly aligned. Seven leads running from the elastic needed to be properly attached to their moorings in the top of the glass segment, so with practiced hands, Joanna carefully threaded each one across the sides and top of her subject's head, her fingers tracing seven lines through soft hair, along Leigh's scalp, to clip each of them in its place. Finally, one last check of all the elements, each lead in turn, the band, the power switch, the wireless send/receive, taking her time, letting her touches linger. She met Leigh’s eyes through microfilament-laced glass and her hands fell on her friend's arms.
She leaned in and the two of them shared a kiss, light and tender, lips meeting lips. Lemon-scented bodywash and strawberry-flavored chapstick filled her senses as she squeezed the younger Alterist's wrists. The two of them gazed into each other's eyes, a silent promise passing between them. I will care for you, Joanna's look said, as clearly as any words might, and dark eyes sent back their trust and their confidence in that trust.
Joanna's hands twitched, retracing those leads through soft dark hair, feeling the soft and warm skin of her friend's wrists. Her bare hips bucked at the memory of that single, beautiful kiss. She moaned, low and loud. Lemon and strawberry filled her memories. Focus. Concentrate. There would be even hotter memories to come, she knew, and if she gave in now, she wouldn't have anything left to properly appreciate those. Deep breaths. Calm. This was important. Significant. She didn't know how she could tell, but she knew it was, and she knew that she had to pay attention.
Her hands twitched. She hoped that she hadn't been so busy having sex that it would fill the entirety of her recovering memory.
Hey, her memory replied, it's not like you're getting laid that often the rest of the year.
It was true. Her recovered memories of her and Darryl's first two nights together at the con represented more sex than she'd had since the time he'd visited her the Christmas before. Work, study, research and writing just took up so much time. And more than ever, she felt that the students, even the graduate students, that she spent all her time around were from a completely different generation, and yet she still wasn't old enough to properly socialize with most of the faculty.
She gave another moan and willed the memory forward.
She sat on the corner of the bed and tapped the tablet, which lit up with information. She started typing. "It's testing, now, to make sure everything's in place. Darryl, are you ready?" Her eyes drifted over the significant bulge in his pants, up his still-sculpted chest, to meet his eyes behind the backlit, printed plastic of his own Alter headset.
He gave her a confident smile and a short nod. "Hit me."
Her eyes were fixed on Darryl as she heard Leigh hit the spacebar. The glow from behind the visor lit his face. His smile became fixed and his breathing slowed.
Leigh stared at the screen. "Shit, he wasn't kidding about dropping," she said, head moving as she scanned his vitals. "I've never seen anyone go so—" colored lights lit the glass before her eyes, and soft pulses of white noise bubbled in her ears. Joanna watched her flush as a warmth passed through her head. "Huh?" was all that SleepyLeigh could manage before her own eyes went distant and glassy.
"That's because you've never seen me work with good equipment," Joanna giggled. The difference between her personal high-grade gear and the consumer-level generics they had on the competition floor was the difference between Galway's gold flute and her six-year-old niece's plastic recorder.
You arrogant little... she cursed past self, shivering at the memory of the entranced girl. Like the device hadn't spent the last five minutes reading and priming her. You're no Galway. Probably that kind of hubris that landed you here.
She turned away from the tablet, all business. "Alright, Leigh, if you can hear me, nod now." There was a slight pause, and then a nod. Perfect. "Leigh, I'm going to use the Alter device to help you go back to this morning, to feel what you felt in your to your competition with Caden, do you understand?"
"Good. As close as you can recall, you're going to use Darryl's equipment to do to Darryl what you were doing to Caden. Still with me?"
"Good. During that competition, Caden did some ugly things, some unpleasant things, and it might make you feel strange, or wrong, or scared. But it's alright, you're here with me, and you're here with Darryl. You can't hurt Darryl, and nothing Caden did this morning can hurt you, that's all in the past. Do you understand?"
Joanna held her breath.
"Good, Leigh. So good. Alright, now here's the tricky part." Her hand fell softly on her friend's knee. "While you're reliving the competition, I need you to talk to me. To let me hear in a calm, clear voice, just what you're trying to do, and just what you're feeling. Can you do that for me now, Leigh? Tell me what you're feeling, and doing, in a calm, clear voice?"
And a calm, clear voice, coming from the young Alterist’s lips. "So good, relaxed... more turned on than I've been in a long time."
Joanna smiled at that.
"Good, sweetie. Almost there. Almost there." She rubbed the young woman's thigh. "Just two things more. If you feel like I'm pushing past your safe place, just ask me to stop, alright?"
"Good, and finally, in the back of your mind, always, remember that if you're feeling up for it after, the three of us are gonna have a lot of fun."
With a final pat on the knee, Joanna turned back to the bed, taking a moment to prop herself up against the wall with the keyboard on her lap and the tablet out in front of her, where she could both reach it and keep an eye on Leigh's vitals. Business before pleasure. She started to type, casting Leigh's mind back to this morning. "It's time," she said, looking at her subject. "Start the competition now, SleepyLeigh."
"I'm smiling because I have to, but I'm pissed at Caden's crew, and angry at myself for letting them get under my skin," Leigh said, in a calm, clear voice, just as she'd been instructed. Her fingers danced across the keys of Darryl's laptop. "I know he likes women, so I decide to take a sexual angle to my induction."
Darryl gasped. His hands twitched. In memory and in recovery, Joanna smiled at the familiarity of the movement.
The only problem was that just about anything that would interest Darryl would probably be way too tame for Caden.
"I can see pretty quick that it's not doing the— I'm a slut."
Hold it, what?
"That's what they say," Leigh went on. "That's what everyone says. Slut. Whore."
Joanna blanched, snapping her head to the monitor, watching Leigh's stress and fear levels rise. The words sounded so wrong. Not just because of the strawberry-scented lips they were coming out of, but also for the calm, dazed eeriness in SleepyLeigh’s tone. Joanna was normally a sucker for that tone, on anyone, at just about any time.
But saying those things?
It made her gut churn, just as it did in her memories.
"I'm changing tactics now," Leigh informed her, fingers flying across Darryl’s laptop, "I have to get him to cool off. I'm triggering his sleep cycles"
Darryl slumped forward in his chair, a silly smile on his face, while Joanna watched Leigh’s numbers beginning to spike again.
"No one likes a slut," she said, only a little stress in her calm, clear voice. "No one respects a whore."
No. No way. He wouldn't. Even for Caden, this was low.
"I can hear them yelling at me. I have to get away. I have to calm down."
Fucker. Fuck fuck fuck.
"I'm getting scared. I don't want this." Strange words to hear in such a relaxed tone.
Well no shit. I wouldn't want that either. Looking at the numbers, Joanna couldn't argue its effectiveness, but ethically it was ugly. It was no wonder that Leigh felt so awful after the match.
And then the numbers started to drop. "I can just think of other things. Breathe deep. Calm down. I should push him deeper. Calm down, keep going. I am a slut. That doesn't matter. I can be a calm slut."
Nope. Joanna was pulling the plug on this. Together with her observations from the match itself, she knew more than enough. Leigh didn't need to be put through it again. She pressed a key, to pause the mind of her subject.
Leigh's monologuing stopped short. "Oh, Leigh, honey, you're not a slut. You're a beautiful, strong woman and you deserve better than this," she said, mostly to herself. The girl could scarcely even hear, but Joanna needed the affirmations to block out the ugliness. She started typing quickly, bringing her subject up, up and out of the trance state.
The colors in the visor started to fade, its light seeming to travel into Leigh's eyes as she regained a more normal state of consciousness. The girl weaved in her spot, her even breath becoming more rapid, more excited, and she flushed, realizing that she was coming out of a trance.
"Okay, wow, that's..." Leigh swallowed, blinking rapidly. Joanna could see the wash of emotions trying to resolve themselves in the younger woman's body. "Did you find out what you needed to know? How long was I out?" She looked over at Darryl, who was leaned back is his chair, happily oblivious. Very happily oblivious, and very obviously so. "Wow, guess I know what I'm doing, huh." She giggled.
"Yes, five minutes, and yes," Joanna replied. She moved back to the edge of the bed. "Do you want to know?"
Without hesitation, Leigh nodded.
Joanna explained it to her.
Listening, Leigh's face fell. "Oh God. Oh, God, he's up against partyDancer next. He’s gonna wreck her with that. She can’t handle that. Can she?"
"Leigh, no one’s equipped for that. It's monstrous." She sighed. "He doesn't break any rules with it, though. There's no lingering aftereffect, not from the Alteration itself. It's not dangerous, in that sense. You could maybe stretch it to say that having his buddies tormenting you constitutes outside interference and is illegal, as opposed to just shitty behavior." She frowned. "I'm definitely going to warn Patti, though."
Was that what had happened to her? Caden pushed some buttons, scared her terribly, and sent her to the recovery room? Ridiculous. Like she'd said... however long ago that moment in the hotel room was. The technique wasn't dangerous, there was nothing that would linger after the wakening procedures. It was just the garbage tactics of a garbage person. It would make someone miserable, and to feel, well, like Leigh said, fucked up for a while, but it wouldn't need the Clear Mind protocol.
She stopped her recollection. Clear Mind? What was that? Where had that come from? What did it mean? It sounded familiar, like something she ought to—
Warmth from the thing on her forehead. Someone manipulating a control, somewhere. Clear Mind fell away, as the memory came flooding back, insistent.
Leigh looked over at Darryl. "So... what do we do about that?" She pointed between his legs.
"I suppose we should wake him up..."
"Aww, before we've our fun?"
"After what you were just—?"
"Anna." Leigh cut her off again. "When am I gonna get this chance again? You've got med-grade gear on me, and it's awesome. Darryl's just waiting for us to make a move. What Caden did is ugly, but it's done, and it's not hanging on me. But you know what is hanging on me?" Her hand found Joanna's and held it, just as her eyes held Joanna's gaze. "That kiss. I liked it. I want another."
Joanna swallowed. That look and those words were hard to resist. As disturbed as she was by Caden's cruelty, it was impossible to—
Leigh stood and put her hands on Joanna's shoulders. Leaned in close. "You gonna stop me, Anna?"
Flashes of lemon filled Joanna's thoughts in the white room. She sighed happily at that, and at the tastes of strawberry that followed. She closed her eyes with a warm shiver and let herself flow back into the returning memory.
After twenty seconds or so, they paused for air. Joanna leaned towards the tablet and keyboard. "Should I try a different program?"
"Oh fuck yes, please," Leigh sighed happily. "I'm in the mood for something nice after—" Leigh froze mid-sentence with a smile on her face, hands on the bed, her cleavage on display, lights glittering in the glass visor.
Joanna's finger lifted from the pause button on the tablet. In the recovery room, she felt herself grin, just as she remembered doing.
"Leigh, sweetie," Joanna said, stroking the entranced girl's arm. "I know you can hear me. You have someone to take care of. Darryl's been so good, so very patient. He needs release. And for that, he needs to be naked. And so do you, honey." The flush on that cute round face deepened a shade as her sleeping mind absorbed the information. "So you're going to program him for that. For you both."
Tapping on the keyboard. Lights flashed before Leigh’s eyes. Joanna looked at her long-distance lover and her online play-pal with a touch of envy; since she’d moved on in the competition, she couldn't be Altered before a match without forfeiting. She’d just have to live vicariously.
As Leigh sat back down at the table, Joanna quickly pulled off her shirt and bra, putting her palms to her small breasts in a very pleasing way.
As Darryl started to move, she shed her jeans and panties and slipped a finger inside, touching and teasing.
As Darryl stood, she was writhing on the bed, moaning.
As Darryl removed his headset, he looked straight at her, and she back at him.
As Darryl pulled off his shirt, revealing his wonderfully sculpted torso, he watched his naked lover touch herself, but his eyes kept drifting towards Leigh.
As Leigh stood, Joanna moaned. "Dar, she... mmm... doesn't know... can't tell I'm here..."
Joanna's hands danced across her chest while she reminisced. Leigh had been made incapable of perceiving her presence.
She moaned, watching in her mind as her DarrylSergeant dropped his pants and revealed his thick, hard cock, before turning away from Joanna and reaching for Leigh's waist. The med-grade gear sat much closer to the head than Darryl's, so he was able to pull Leigh's black t-shirt straight over her head without disturbing it.
Joanna's first orgasm of the evening hit as Darryl undid Leigh's bra to reveal her large breasts, nipples erect with anticipation. Joanna watched, slowly cooling off, as he pulled away the long skirt and panties before burying her in a tight embrace and a deep kiss, their bodies moving together towards the king-sized bed.
Joanna, in the present, tried to resist the urges brought on by that memory. There was perhaps something important, some clue to her situation... but then Darryl flopped on the bed and helped the entranced woman up, and as she remembered them starting to fuck, Joanna couldn't hold back any longer. Her fingers were between her legs. She watched the memory of watching her friends make love, both deep under her control. Her back arched. The hotel room rang with the first delicate gasps of Leigh's orgasm. The recovery room echoed back the sound in Joanna's warm cries.
But when Leigh lay down on top of Darryl, Joanna once more activated her Alteration gear, and two sets of eyes turned towards her, illuminated by the glow of Leigh’s visor, as she dropped hard, as Darryl moaned, and...
She forcibly stopped the memory there, asserting herself from the recovery room. Too much more of that and she wouldn't have the energy to figure out what was going on. A few deep breaths, calming herself. After the sex, she thought to herself reluctantly. What happened after the sex?
Joanna had lazily kissed Darryl's shoulder as the two of them lay face-to-face. It was late. Leigh was wrapped around him from behind, her feet aligned with his, legs tangling with his, her head nuzzled into his back, an arm around his belly, an arm which Joanna's fingers were gently stroking. The visor she’d been wearing was sitting on the table next to Darryl's laptop and headset.
Joanna smiled at the memory. She could feel the texture of the younger Alterist's smooth skin, the warmth of Darryl's body, the restfulness of the moment. She held onto that sensation, that gentleness, basked in it, let the memory pause as she tried to catch her breath.
"I think she's all tuckered out, poor thing," Darryl said with a smile. "She's had a long day."
"An emotional roller-coaster of one," Joanna agreed. "I'd feel bad trying to get her back to her own room."
"I don't mind her staying there."
"You wouldn't." Joanna kissed his shoulder again. "You just want her here in the morning..."
"Like you don't," he chuckled and squeezed her bottom.
"Well, she is a better conversationalist than you..."
His hand darted back to cut her off with a light spank. She giggled.
"She's worn out," he said, "and we ought to get some rest too. You have that talk tomorrow."
"We have that talk tomorrow," she corrected.
Post-Alteration Suggestion and You. She'd given the talk a few times, here and there, but this was the first time she would have Darryl with her on the stage.
"You sure you still want me up there with you? I'm not the world's best performer."
"It's not for your public speaking skills, sweetie," she smiled. "It's so you can handle the volunteers. And..." she trailed off with a grin.
She grinned in the recovery room, too. She had been planning this moment for a while.
She looked him in the eye, gave him an innocent little smile.
"Jo? What is it?"
"Glass drop, Darryl."
His eyes flashed in recognition for a half second, before they slammed shut. Already relaxed, his body slackened as he dropped deep in to trance for her.
In the recovery room, her hands twitched.
She slipped into a very familiar tone and cadence. "You might not remember, Darryl, but we talked a lot about this leading up to the convention..." Recalling her own voice, her own hypnotic patter, low and smooth, so quiet that she didn't wake Leigh, gave her the shivers. She found it hard to concentrate on the words when she was so taken by that tone.
She felt herself, already entranced by Alteration, slipping deeper, as the rest of her memory of that night became a muddled, sleepy blur.
Hands arranged her shirt. Hers? Someone else's? Everything was mixed up, even her sense of self. A glass. Water. She felt like she'd been talking for some time. Or maybe moaning. Or both. The water was refreshing.
Her hands were shaking, uncertain. Her emotions were swimming. She had been down, deep. She tried to sit up. colors flashed before her eyes, bright sparks, greens and blues and reds, and she lay back down.
She wasn't sure how long she had been out. A couple minutes, anyway. She took stock, breathing slow and steady. She pressed a hand to her forehead; electrode still in place. She wasn't sure if that was good or not. She felt a brief urge to tear it off and then—
—she chuckled. The idea fled, but not its memory. She had felt the urge to tear it off, and then she didn't. Someone was still manipulating her. Fixing her.
She hoped they were Fixing her, anyway. That thought sent a shudder through her, brought a memory back. Clear Mind. She filed it away, tried to keep it quiet. She would think about it later.
She was being drawn back in, returning to the memories. Whatever had pulled her away had been dealt with, she assumed, and it was deemed safe for her to return...
Joanna was sitting in the hotel restaurant, Leigh beside her, and across from them was a middle-aged woman, every one of her long auburn locks in perfect arrangement, and, even at nine in the morning, dressed in a fabulous blue cocktail dress that brought out her dark eyes perfectly.
"Last night," Joanna was saying as partyDancer delicately dipped her toast in egg yolk, "I put Leigh back through her match with Caden, to get an idea of just what happened."
Leigh nodded. "I felt so weird and just f—uhh, messed up afterwards..."
Dancer dabbed at her face with her napkin. "You can say 'fuck' around me, darling, I assure you I don't mind," she said in her rich, warm, deep voice. Comforting. Joanna had always found that voice comforting. Even in the recovery room, the memory of the velvety voice made the older woman feel close at hand. "Tell me, Anna, what did you discover?"
She swallowed a bit of pear. "Caden sent Leigh's stress-readings up with a wave of fear, then gave her a nice, comfortable trance to hide in. When I had her running back through the emotionality of the event, she started dragging herself down."
The older woman grimaced. "I had been wondering, watching your numbers, dear. It's no wonder you felt terrible afterwards."
Leigh nodded. "Mhmm, I started calling myself some awful names."
partyDancer pursed her lips. "We all have our little insecurities, don't we. And we're much better at criticizing ourselves than we are at letting others do it for us."
Joanna made a small noise of agreement. "Sure has made me wonder what mine are, what I'm going to have to deal with if I come up against him."
"And now you're warning me." Dancer shook her head. "Horrid thing to deal with. What's becoming of this little hobby of ours?"
"We just wanted you to be prepared, Patti. To walk on to the floor informed."
"Then you simply must let me buy you your breakfasts. One does not stiff one's informants." She grinned.
Leigh's phone made a noise and she hopped to her feet. "I'll take you up on that, 'cause I think I'm gonna get going. There's an early panel I wanna catch." She offered a hand to partyDancer, who took it gracefully and unhurriedly. She pressed it to her lips, making the younger woman flush and giggle. "Pleasure to meet you, Dancer."
"My friends call me 'Patti,' darling."
"Patti, then." Leigh gave a little wave and walked off towards the convention.
Joanna watched her go. "She'll be walking on air all day," she said. "Imagine, meeting partyDancer and being called a friend."
Dancer laughed loud, turning a few heads. "Joanna, darling, she's with OhAnnaJ, what story could she tell of me to possibly compare?"
"Please, Patti, you're a pioneer for Brainhacking, and for recreational Altering at large, too. One of the first people doing these things with any real presence."
A snort in response. "Honey, I'm no pioneer, just a middle-aged domme with some fancy equipment." Joanna couldn't hold in a snicker at that. "You, though, Joanna, you're the heroic one here." She held up a hand to stop Joanna's protests. "Listen to me, dear. You're legitimate. You're accredited. You're well-known in academia, and you’re a presence online just as much as off. People see you as morally untouchable, hon, ethically pure, incorruptible. If I don't win this thing, I can't imagine anyone else who would be better for it. And better for the sport."
"Okay, you're exaggerating—"
"Am I?" She made an elaborate gesture with her hands. "Eight of us are playing, darling. Think about it. Who are GreenShinyOak, JonByers08, naagesh? They're nobodies, outside of our little circle. Sure, they're all excellent Brainhackers, and with Oak from the UK and naagesh from Punjab, they bring some lovely international flavor to the proceedings, but they haven't got much of a profile outside their own lanes. Your opponent, Mindsweeper? Strictly local, the best in town, but he's nobody outside the state. Even your lovely, exuberant little..." She paused and arched an eyebrow. Joanna blushed. "Friend, there, sure she's an up-and-comer, but who outside of the Brainhacking community has ever heard of SleepyLeigh? That leaves you, and me, and..." she waited for Joanna to finish.
"And Caden. So what about him? If Caden wins, you know he'll use it as a publicity tool. He goes out into the world as the greatest Brainhacker, probably calls himself the greatest competitive Alterist in history, and he makes this sport the game that immature, impertinent assholes play to see who can dominate the other as quickly and as brutally as possible. It's already getting uglier out there for us girls, too, Joanna, and not just the ones like me. Caden’s winning would only make that worse, and you know it."
Joanna nodded, replaying in her head that ugly voice from the day before. Females shouldn't be Alterists.
"If it’s you," Dancer continued, "you can show off the academic side. We play speed chess with the mind, darling, and that's how Brainhack gets characterized. Legitimate, academic, intellectual, artistic." Dancer smiled and put her hands down. "Just like you."
Joanna rolled her eyes, but she did feel herself flushing as she smiled genuinely. "And if you win?"
"Then Brainhack is cultured, beautiful, and generally fabulous, of course," Dancer replied without a hint of irony.
"I don't think I will, though," Dancer went on. "I'm getting too old for this game. Reaction times aren't what they were, and all that. The protection that an older, more rigid mind can offer doesn't quite make a fair trade. I'm fairly certain that Caden could beat me even without those dirty tricks."
"I don't think they're tricks to him, Patti," Joanna replied, shaking her head. "I think that's just how he plays the game."
Patti sat back and mused aloud, "Why do that to another person?"
Joanna could only shrug. "Probably doesn't see us so much as 'people.'"
"Honey, I've been dealing with people that don't see me as a person since Peter became Patricia. What's another twenty-something punk to me?"
"This one's a brilliant Alterist. Brilliant and cruel," Joanna pointed out, "and you probably have a lot of experience being scared."
"I have a lot of experience dealing with it, too."
"With it pushed straight in to your mind?"
"Nothing I can do about it now." Dancer smiled with a shrug. "At least when it happens I'll know why, which is something. Something important. That is, assuming the judges even put me through to the semis."
Joanna was about to say something, paused, and started again. "... what?"
"Oh, yes, you weren't there, naagesh white-flagged, close to the end of the match." Dancer waved a hand. "We've played before, so I know he doesn't like going deep enough to lose; when he feels himself on that edge, he refuses suggestions, kicks the Alterist out, gets his nice little wakeup, and he's fine, takes his loss as though he went down. But still the judges have to review the logs, make sure there was no foul play. That's why there's a day between the rounds, hon, that and to give our poor brains a break."
"And if they find you did something wrong—"
"Then they'll move him up and I'm out." She shook her head. "I don't think I did anything wrong, but in the heat of the moment... Well, it happens, there's no shame in it. Not unless you make a habit of it, like that Collier boy."
Joanna nodded. She'd lost a couple matches before, getting a bit too involved, pushing a bit too far, in her early days, before she'd better learned how to work within people's physical limits.
Dancer threw back the last of her coffee with a grace that Joanna couldn't hope to match. "Thank you for the warning, darling."
Joanna bit in to the last apple in her fruit salad. "Thank you for breakfast."
The older woman just smiled. "You're welcome, darling. It's nice to remember that you're not alone up there, on that stage and in that chair. And I know you've been a tremendous help." She rose and picked up her purse. "Good luck tomorrow. And good luck with your demo this afternoon." She blew Joanna a friendly kiss. "Safe travels, darling."
Joanna mirrored the gesture. "Safe travels, Patti."
Joanna watched as the woman turned and walked off. She took a sip of her lukewarm coffee and checked her phone. Only two items to her attention, the clock—she had a little more than an hour before a panel she wanted to attend—and a text message from Darryl, which had sat waiting for seven minutes.
DarrylSargeant: I'm awake, I'm naked, and I'm not completely sure what happened last night.
She laughed, thinking back on it. She was in basically the same state, in the antiseptic room. She did still have her shirt on—her arms had come out of her sleeves and the fabric was mostly up around her neck, but it was still technically on—but of course she was missing decidedly more than just last night. She assumed. She watched as her fingers tapped out a reply.
OhAnnaJ: Should we take a little time and sort it out? ;)
Flirting, teasing, but not really feeling much beyond that. The previous night had been a lot. Fortunately, Darryl was feeling the same.
DarrylSargeant: I think what I need most is a long shower and a huge lunch, especially since we have that presentation.
She closed her eyes and let a little moan out. He had no idea what she'd done with him the night before, after Leigh had fallen asleep.
OhAnnaJ: I'm with ya big guy, be right there when my coffee's done.
She'd had a shower earlier, of course, but not one with Darryl in it. One with Leigh in it. A lovely time in its own right.
She shook herself free of those memories. They were wonderful, she would definitely cherish them, but they weren't solving her mystery. At the moment, she was more curious and impatient than she was horny.
She thought forward to her talk, that afternoon. Always started the same way. "Before Alteration, there was hypnotism, not like hypnotism has stopped. In fact, in the professional sphere, and legally in most jurisdictions, Alteration is considered to be an extended form of hypnosis."
She was standing in what on other days was the Brainhack arena, in front of a half-capacity crowd, which still meant about a hundred people. Darryl was sitting beside her; behind her were three forward-facing chairs with Alteration rigs. "We can fairly easily apply techniques from one towards the other. Post-hypnotic suggestion, and post-Alteration suggestion, is a powerful thing, as," and here was where her talk was different from other times she'd given it, "my good friend DarrylSergeant is prepared to help show. Now..."
She took some time to describe hypnosis and suggestion, what is safe and good hypnotism and good post-hypnotic suggestion... Most of the people there would have already heard it multiple times in multiple variations from multiple speakers. Still, she spent ten minutes speaking on safe Altering, on safe hypnotism without special gear, and on safe combinations of the two. It was good form, good practice, and it was expected of her; every talk she gave might be someone's first, after all.
"And speaking of post-hypnotic suggestion, some of you might have noticed my friend Darryl here," she continued, putting a hand on his shoulder. He didn't react. "... who's barely moved except to blink and breathe since we started this talk."
The trigger she'd put in his head was working perfectly. He wasn't even aware of the other people in the room. He may not have been aware of the room, for that matter.
"From the moment he sat down he's been in a trance. He didn't know it was coming, not consciously, and at the moment, he's ignoring everything but his instructions, like a good soldier." She grinned at the couple chuckles. "And in reality, doing this with a good subject isn't difficult, either with hypnotism or Alteration. Before I go on, I've got about five minutes here for questions, so..."
There were always plenty of questions. She had to cut them off. "Alright, alright, there’ll be more time later, and I'll be around to answer more after the talk. Darryl, up, sweetie." She kissed his cheek; he turned quickly and kissed her back, deeply, waking into the suggestion, to the hoots and hollers of the crowd.
She paused for air. "I need volunteers!" she called. She gave Darryl a quick smooch as he came out of his trance before turning to the various raised hands.
From there it was straightforward. Three standard units on the floor, three volunteers, and with Darryl helping and the right setup of rigs, it was quick enough to get them down, even while she was discussing techniques and methodology. Bake at 375° for twenty minutes, she joked, and the audience laughed. Here's a post-hypnotic subject I prepared earlier, she ad-libbed, smacking Darryl's backside, and they laughed again. She was able to be light, fun, entertaining, since Darryl was carefully monitoring her three entranced volunteers. She wondered why she hadn't had an assistant before this.
Three successful demonstrations. Four, since she joked about catching Darryl staring at the helplessly-dancing 19-year-old girl and dropped him again as 'punishment.' Standing ovation. Con crowds are too easily dazzled, she thought to herself, but she still took the appreciation for what it was and happily raked in the applause. Twenty people sticking around to talk afterwards. The rush of it all was hard to keep track of, but with five minutes to spare before the next panel needed the room, she and Darryl ducked out into the quiet hallway.
"Brilliant as ever," he said, leaning down to give her a kiss.
Leigh, who had been sitting in the back, came around the corner and waved to the pair. "Are all your talks that fun?" she asked.
"They've never been that good," Joanna replied. "For the first time, I had a fabulous assistant."
Leigh grinned. "A cute one, too. Maybe next time it can be me." She giggled, then paused. "Hey, we've been Altering for a while, did OhAnnaJ put any of those post-hypnotic suggestions in SleepyLeigh's head?"
Joanna raised an eyebrow. "Why don't you count to seven and find out?"
"Huh?" Leigh said hesitantly, suspiciously. "Alriiiight, um. One, two, three..." she paused, numbers seemingly coming slowly to her. "Four... five... ... ah..." she paused again, weaving on her feet. "ah... s-i-i-i-i-x..." Her gaze became glassy, fixed in the middle distance.
Joanna kissed her forehead. "Wake up and remember, SleepyLeigh."
"Seven. Oh! Oh, that's cool, so I just count to seven?"
"It's triggered by me asking you to," Joanna explained.
"Also, knowing Jo, you won't remember it come the morning," Darryl added.
"Come the morning?" Joanna giggled and tapped Leigh's forehead. "You don't remember it now!"
Leigh shook her head. "Don't remember what?"
Joanna and Darryl laughed.
"No, really, guys, what did I miss?" Leigh looked confused, but more curious than distressed.
Joanna smiled and snapped her fingers. "Remember, SleepyLeigh."
Leigh blinked. Her smile widened into a broad grin. "Holy crap, that's fun."
The three of them had a long laugh at that.
"Soooo..." Leigh continued, catching her breath, "what's up for you two for the evening?"
"I'm going to the stage show with a local friend," Darryl replied. "It's the Altered Shakespeare Company's MacBeth tonight."
"Nice!" Leigh nodded approvingly. "That’s a great one. I saw it on tour in the spring, didn't want to pay for tickets again. What about you, Anna?"
"Got a match tomorrow afternoon, so I'm going to do some reading and resting. Search Alter forums, see what I can find out about JonByers08. I'm sure he's doing his homework, I'd better do mine."
Leigh leaned a bit closer. "Mind if I come watch?"
Joanna laughed at the girl's audacity. "I'm sure you won't be too much of a distraction." She slipped her hand in Leigh's. "Dinner?"
Dinner would be amazing, Joanna thought, staring at the white ceiling. When was the last time she'd eaten? There had been some water, earlier, but she'd never got the coffee she'd requested. "Hey," she said aloud, looking around the recovery room as best as she could, seeing no one. "Hey, if there's someone with some food? Anything? Please?"
No response. She sighed. It was probably against protocol or something. She could choke. She could have a reaction. Some distressing memory could make her throw up. Food might ruin the whole procedure.
She hoped that she didn't have to be treated to the sight, smell and taste of her dinner that night. The memory of the fruit salad that morning had been crisp and fresh, but right now food only brought to mind her growing hunger. She felt drained, tired, in need of energy.
And turned on, despite that.
Setting Darryl's triggers up for the talk and watching him sit there for fifteen minutes with no concept of time passing; preparing the Alteration programs for the three volunteers; playing with Leigh in the hall... She could remember that warmth in the pit of her stomach, the dampness between her legs, while she watched her memory of walking off with Leigh to get some food. And in remembering them, she felt some of the same sensations returning.
She was getting distracted again. She took a deep breath, tried to focus. She prepared to review snippets of the rest of the evening, just flashes, trusting that her treatment and her gut would point out anything important.
Then she paused. Why would I think that? She pushed herself up a bit on her elbows, looked around the white room again. "Why would I be thinking that this treatment—"
There was a flood of warmth through her whole body. Joanna sighed happily.
A hand went to her breast and she moaned as she remembered a fun and flirtatious dinner. The other hand played lightly in the fuzz where her belly met her hips as she unlocked her hotel room door, Leigh with her—she remembered the look, the blank-eyed, vacant look on Leigh's face. She'd triggered the young woman at the dinner table, listened to her counting only make it as far as six, and walked her in a trance the whole way to the room. Her fingers dipped down between her legs.
Despite Joanna's assurance, Leigh proved a significant distraction. And so had Darryl, when he walked in to find Joanna and Leigh naked in bed, kissing and petting and cooing adorably to one another.
And thoughts of both of them were now distracting her from... from... Joanna let out a loud, low moan as her climax approached. She had lost track of something, but the growing fire between her thighs assured her that it wasn't important.
Joanna opened her eyes. She didn't remember falling asleep, but it still felt like she'd been out for a good few minutes. The familiar white room greeted her view, as did a familiar glow of satisfaction. Her hands rested on her stomach. She knew that she was smiling.
Joanna opened her eyes. She didn't remember falling asleep, but it still felt like she'd been out for a good eight hours. The familiar hotel room greeted her view, as did a familiar glow of satisfaction. Her hands rested on her stomach. She knew that she was smiling.
She sighed, knowing some large part of the satisfaction was encouraged by the small electrode on her forehead and the efforts that her mysterious benefactor expended to manage her emotional and mental state.
She sighed, knowing some large part of the satisfaction was encouraged by the small Laotian Alterist pressed against her and the efforts she had expended last night to manage Joanna's emotional and mental state.
A vague, dreamy memory floated back to her, that Darryl was going out, that he would meet them at partyDancer's match before lunch. Another bubbled up, that Leigh was heading back to her room to clean up and change. And another, of her own cleaning and dressing ritual.
Joanna had a meeting of her own that morning, a professional contact, a friendly face, someone who wanted her to join his private team. Joanna Olesson, Alterist to the Stars. She laughed at the memory of it. Still no sale. She loved research too much, and shaping, sometimes literally, of young minds; she didn't want to be the sort of Alterist that actors, musicians, and athletes kept on speed dial to deal with every little personal or professional issue.
Although, she realized on reflection, that was a good amount of what she did on campus, to actors, musicians, and athletes in training.
Still, it was good to catch up. Business contacts were worth having, if nothing else as a source of financial support.
Joanna sat with her lukewarm coffee after her associate had left, thinking about Rachmaninov's second piano concerto, the one dedicated to his hypnotherapist. The one she'd played for her graduation recital, naturally. Her fingers idly tapped chords on the table, wondering if she had a better chance of getting that sort of dedication from her research post or from the private sector.
She checked her phone; it had been forgotten in silent mode, the alarm that was set useless under those conditions. Her eyes widened. She tossed back the last of her coffee, grabbed her bag, and rushed to the Brainhack room.
Darryl and Leigh had saved her a seat. It wasn't a great seat, towards the middle of the room, off to the right. She had a clear view of one bank of monitors, but the other was angled away, making it a challenge to see properly. She wondered briefly, giving the two of them a quick hug and a peck on the cheek each, why they'd chosen to sit there.
Then partyDancer was announced, just as Joanna was putting her bag down. She processed forth, a royal train of one decked out in a fabulous black gown, to recognition and adulation from the crowd.
From most of the crowd. Immediately in front of them sat a decidedly silent cadre of young men. One of them opened his mouth. Darryl cleared his throat loudly. The would-be speaker looked over his shoulder. Darryl, arms crossed, silently shook his head. His expression was somewhere between deep pity and dark warning.
If that was why Darryl wanted to sit there, Joanna wasn't going to argue.
Caden was announced and his cheering section in front of them erupted, but they were much less rowdy than they'd been Monday. Perhaps because someone from the con had said something, perhaps because of the large ex-soldier sitting behind them, perhaps both. The ugliness was at a minimum, which Joanna supposed meant they were on their best behavior.
The superior sneer was firmly fixed in place as the favourite walked on to the stage. He didn't even look at his opponent, just acknowledged the crowd and moved to his chair.
Given run of the space, partyDancer allowed herself another flourish across the stage, taking a much longer walk to her station than was strictly necessary. Leigh gave her a cheer, and got a quick wave in response before she took her post. She took her time arranging her hair beneath the headset, aligning her dress just-so, and adjusting the angles of the keyboard and monitors.
Though he said nothing, Caden was growing visibly agitated with the wait. He drummed his fingers on his keyboard, squirmed, sneered. One of his crew shouted at Dancer to hurry it up.
"Be right with you, dear," came a melodious baritone from the stage in reply, "I've just got this small matter of a Brainhacking game first."
Laughter from the crowd did nothing to help Caden's mood.
Finally Dancer was properly set, and her equipment active and showing normal ranges. "Ready when you are, darlings," she said, looking out to the judges.
The referee started the countdown timer, and they were off.
It was only a moment before Joanna could see Dancer's vitals start to spike. She watched as Caden's attack took shape, pressing on Dancer's fear and anger. She couldn't see Caden's numbers well enough to see what Patti was doing in response, so she kept an eye on the graphs she could see.
Just as Leigh had relived two nights before, Dancer's numbers slipped ever upwards, showing agitation, anger, nerves, and then plunged down. There was nothing complicated about the approach, nothing elegant, nothing creative or fanciful. Moreover, it didn't look like Caden was targeting any specific fear of Dancer's, but rather just passing her terror, letting her own mind develop the shape of the experience.
So he didn't tell Leigh that she was a slut, he just put the fear in her and her own mind dredged up that particular—
Dancer slumped forward in the chair, then sat up, typing furiously, her gaze angling back and forth between the monitors, her expression serious.
Joanna knew what she'd be going in with. Dancer had a way of undermining someone's sense of self, to set them questioning, keeping them distracted with philosophical dilemmas while she worked around their defenses. She wasn't certain just how well that would, or could, work with someone with the mindset of a Caden Collier, so self-assured and free of doubt.
It certainly didn’t seem to stop the fluctuation of Patti's state, as over the next couple minutes her anger and fear mounted again before everything plunged, and again she slumped forward. She was a little slower to recover that time.
And slower still the next.
Joanna crossed her fingers, held her breath. She had thought that she was going to lose against Mindsweeper, too, so perhaps...
partyDancer slumped forward a fourth time, and then a fifth as she tried to sit back up again. Joanna looked at the clock. Twenty minutes. She glanced back at Patti's numbers. They weren't coming back up. She looked down at her friend on the stage. She wasn't moving. She had managed to sit herself back in the chair, but she wasn't typing, she wasn't responding. Another drop in the numbers, and another.
It was difficult to tell from that distance, but Joanna swore she saw a glistening on Dancer's cheek.
The clock read 23:27 when the bell rang. partyDancer had lost to Caden Collier. The young men in front of them let out a loud cheer. Joanna felt Leigh's hand in hers, squeezing; she wasn't sure when they'd started holding one another. Darryl's hand found her back, between her shoulders, rubbing gently. She needed it.
If she could beat JonByers08, she would be facing Caden in that same chair. Going up against that.
As with last time, Caden was out of the chair first, although it took him near five minutes to come up and out of his trance. As he took the front of the stage, Dancer quietly got up and walked off, head held high but calling no attention to herself. By the time Joanna, Darryl, and Leigh had made it through the crowds and to the backstage door, partyDancer had already left.
Joanna sighed and looked to her companions. "Let's get lunch. I think I'm going to need a little extra prep time this afternoon."
Joanna sat in the dark of her room backstage, writing and rewriting a letter, frustrated at having to thumb-type on her phone. The only computer equipment she'd brought was the specialized tablet for her Alteration visor, so it was this or borrow Darryl's laptop, and she was fairly certain that Darryl and Leigh were using the laptop at that moment.
That thought filled her with warmth, as did the recovered memory of it, and not just sexual arousal.
Joanna glanced at the time. She had come down to the stage early to have a quiet place to write, and still had nearly spent too long working. She reread the letter... It didn't, it couldn't express everything she wanted it to, but still she sent it. The act of sending it was more important than the content itself, she knew, and her time was running short.
Patti would appreciate the thought, and it was important to Joanna.
She glanced over at her skirt and blouse, lying on the nearby table, calculating how much time it would take to dress, checking her phone again. She still had to stretch out before her match, get herself in a Brainhacking mindset.
Fingers first. They saw the most abuse. Stretched and flexed. Back, shoulders. Tiredness meant weakness. Deep knee bends, neck rolls.
The memory triggered the reaction in the recovery room and, for the second time, she walked herself through each action. It felt good to move.
She thought, as she started from her feet and slowly, gently worked out every muscle from her toes up, about the upcoming match. Curiously, she could feel no emotional trace coming from the memory. JonByers08 wasn't someone she knew, or someone she was even worried about. Watching his match with GreenShinyOak, she figured that he was more than competent, that he was a strong opener, and probably had a wide-ranging-then-fast-narrowing approach much like her own. She could handle that.
She frowned a bit as she twisted her hips and her belly shifted. Getting flabby. Too much sitting and staring at screens.
JonByers08 was a young man, maybe 25, with short brown hair and worried brown eyes. He had been called to the stage first, and waited there for OhAnnaJ to arrive so they could shake hands. Something about his grip, the look in his eyes, something felt off, not quite right.
"Looking forward to this," he said, a little waver in his voice. "I'm a fan." He gave a wan smile and flushed.
"I'm looking forward to it, too, Jon. Let's have a good match." She gave him a bright, friendly smile in return.
"Aaron," he replied.
"Aaron. That's my name."
She nodded. "Aaron. I'm Joanna. Let's do this."
He managed to return her grin, with what looked like a small struggle, as the two of them turned towards the chairs and Alteration equipment.
It seemed like the attacks began as soon as the machine unlocked. She’d been right in her predictions: scattershot, like her own approach, testing, watching, seeing what reactions each input could cause. Well, why not follow?
He went for nerves, she aimed for nerves. He attacked along her visual cortex, she responded in kind. Aural, olfactory, language, twitch reflex... She was always one step behind him, following the pathways he tried to open in her; after all, if he was thinking about something, it might have been easier to keep his attention on—
He went back to her visual systems, an odd choice, given her lack of response the first time. Huh. Had she missed something? And thinking about that, he tried another trick with her memory, which... well, she couldn't quite understand, but he left the traces of the attack clear, so she knew where it had come from, where it had been targeted, which defeated a lot of the purpose of attacking memory.
Still, despite the relative clumsiness of it, she was starting to feel the touch of his work, even as she pressed onward into his mind. There was that familiar categorization, that familiar coalescing of the attack. It was easier to process it as music, and easier to identify new directions and new strategies.
Haydn. That's what he reminded her of. Competent, predictable, straightforward. Mozart, without the ingenuity. One of the sons of Bach. She could read the next measure of every strain long before it arrived. Except when she couldn't, when the next measure didn't make sense, but those moments weren't pleasing at all.
When Darryl surprised while Altering, it locked in to the whole structure, worked within the whole pattern, it made sense in retrospect. But these? These were mistakes. Calling attention to themselves. Jerking her back to reality. The opposite of the apparently intended effect, almost always.
This wasn't how she wanted to win a match.
But she did win; OhAnnaJ triumphed over JonByers08 after eighteen minutes and forty-seven seconds, the shortest match of the six that lead up to the grand final. Largely unimpeded by Aaron's fumbling suggestions, she had clear access to his vitals and had struck at every weak point she could spot.
There was no defensive game to be played, in Brainhack. The only way to protect yourself was to slow your opponent's attacks: distract, divert, confuse, weaken, all were fair play, but there really wasn't a way to stonewall for any meaningful length of time. And so it wasn't hard, in the end, to put Aaron under, since he hadn't been taking any effective steps to stop her.
JonByers08 looked embarrassed as he shook Anna's hand; then, as she stepped forward again to thank the crowd, he vanished backstage.
He was gone before Joanna got there. Which was too bad, she had questions. She had a few from the recovery room, too, and what intrigued her most both in her past and in the present, was: did Aaron throw the match?
It had been too easy. This was an invitational tournament; someone must have thought him capable of standing with the likes of her, or Dancer, or Caden, for that matter. She'd had games go that quickly, when she or her opponent were badly outmatched, but assuming a relatively equal level of skill, even a twenty-minute match would be considered unusually fast. Joanna's duel against Mindsweeper went nearly half an hour, and all the others were at least twenty-two minutes long.
So how, how did she beat someone supposedly on her level in such short order?
It circled back to the same question, over and over again. There were too many mistakes. There was too much sloppiness on display. Did Aaron throw the match?
Darryl met her as she left the prep area, and the two of them went to dinner. His hand in hers was warm comfort, as was the glass of wine and the conversation. She asked about Leigh. Darryl smiled and flushed some.
"I'm sorry that I haven't been more involved online," he said, "if Leigh's the sort of person you've been playing with."
It was Joanna's turn to blush at that. "Leigh is... special, I think," she said. "One in a million."
"How lucky of me, to have two one-in-a-million women to play with."
Joanna went as red as the wine.
"Decided if you're gonna move up north and join me yet?" he asked, a sparkle in his eye. It had been an open question between them for years.
If there was something her soldier knew how to do, it was de-escalate a tense situation. "Decided to move south and join me? After all, I have a job."
"I have a pension," he replied. He looked far too young for it, but twenty years in the military starting straight out of school had given him a government stipend to live on.
"Your pension follows you wherever you go." The beats were familiar. They'd had this discussion at least monthly since they first met.
"And any university with an Alteration department would be happy to have you. It's not like Calgary is the middle of nowhere."
"I like my work where I am," she replied, shaking her head. "Same argument at Christmas?"
He laughed. "Sounds like a plan."
She smiled. "How was I? In the match, I mean."
He shrugged. "Brilliant, as far as I could tell. Byers didn't seem to hold up, not like he did against ShinyOak."
"I don't think my approach was that different..."
Darryl frowned. "Joanna, I know that tone. Something's bothering you."
She looked around. "Not here, later."
He nodded, then opened his menu. Darryl had learned to be patient.
The conversation turned to lighter things, to dinner, to the convention, to the upcoming few days, to what to do on the extra day they'd both arranged for after the end of the convention, since it was cheaper to fly out on Monday than on Sunday.
They returned to their hotel room, took off their sandals.
"So," Darryl said, unbuttoning his shirt, "what's bothering you, Jo?"
She smiled at the act, while thinking about the match. "I think..." her smile vanished. "I think that Byers threw the match."
His face darkened. "You fought a good fight, Joanna. But you're right though, that he didn't. He really looked off his game, maybe tired or distracted, but it didn't seem deliberate to me."
"Well, that's good, anyway," she replied, but still shook her head. "There just wasn't any sense to it, Darryl. He kept attacking where I was strong, refusing to press advantages, making clear mistakes of ordering, of—"
Darryl swept her into his arms and kissed her forehead, silencing her. He helped her remove her blouse, folded it up nicely, and turned back to see her smiling.
Once a soldier... she grinned at the memory. She loved that about him. Endlessly neat, calm, organized, in thought as much as in action. Even as his own undershirt came off, it was almost automatically folded and set down away from the action.
It was near ritual. Her bra, removed, carefully folded, put aside. His pants, removed, carefully folded, put aside. Her skirt. His underwear. Her panties.
Their Altering gear was away, and neither of them showed any interest in retrieving it.
She smiled in the recovery room. It was sweet. Darryl was sweet. His touch made her shiver, press close to him. His kisses made her fly. His voice made her melt. And he was with her, and holding her, and close, and around her, and atop her, and inside,
And she was with him, and he with her, and both were clear-headed, and adoring, and moving, and loving one another, and her hands moved and teased and danced with the delight of the memory, and her back arched and her hips hungered, and her fingers dipped within and she could no longer hold herself back.
The thought came to her like a flash in the midst of her orgasm, as her fulfilled cries echoed in the empty recovery room, that Clear Mind often demanded release, especially if the memories being recovered were themselves erotic. And these memories were very, very erotic, she thought, as she gulped in air to find her equilibrium again, tears of happiness pooling in her eyes at the memory of shared words, shared dreams, shared love.
And finally, of shared sleep.
She awoke in the recovery room with a vague sense of dread. Once more, there was water, and once more, the water was cool and refreshing. How long had she been there? How long had she been talking?
Wait. Why had she been talking? Who was she talking to? Was this part of Clear Mind?
And if she was talking to someone... She felt herself blush, and she squirmed a bit. She was being monitored. Of course she was. Which meant that every moan, every gasp, every brush of her fingers...
Monitored. Watched. Observed.
She chuckled, darkening a shade. "I hope it's been a good show so far," she said. "I'd take a bow, but I can't seem to get up the will to stand."
A pulse from the electrode on her forehead sent a wave of relaxation through her body. She pushed back against it, digging her nails into her palms.
"Not yet," she said. "I'll go back to the dream in a moment—I don't think I could stop you if you forced me—"
Indeed, Thursday pressed on her mind, insistent. Waking up next to Darryl, the breakfast buffet at the hotel, A talk on designing games—in person, board, video—around Alteration. Joanna enjoyed the talk, especially the encouragement towards Alterists to seek out other artists; that couldn't always be a one-way—
"—Nyaagh!" she shouted, "I have to assume that something happened in my match with Caden, or I wouldn't be here in a recovery room, telling my life story—"
"I'm not just reliving it, I'm..."
Not wonder her throat was getting so dry. She chuckled. "Oh, I hope I can trust whoever's at the controls." She looked around the empty room. "I suppose you could blank the memories again, but I think we're getting close to the reason for this..." She waved her hand around the room, "... and I don't think that anyone has the patience to do this again. I'm probably not supposed to know what Clear Mind is, right?"
She plunged into the memory of a rather standard lunch. Darryl heading off to visit friends. Wandering the main convention floor, the vendor's hall. People offering training, equipment, a good deal of interesting stuff, but nothing she wanted to spend money on at the moment.
She lifted her feet and slammed them down on the soft mattress, which didn't quite have the shock effect she was hoping for. "I've written papers on Clear Mind. I've been cited." She paused. She had. She knew what Clear Mind was, if she could only—
—She was going back to the room alone. She walked towards the elevator, then remembered how she felt doing her pre-game stretches. Flabby.
The stairs, then. It was only four floors up to the room. She started to think about the schedule as she climbed; it was about half past three, the next talk was after supper break...
She was lost in reverie as she walked into the small space between stairs and hall, only to find that she wasn't alone there.
Standing at the door was a tall, young, blond man with sharp green eyes.
"Caden," she said with a nod, moving towards the door.
He didn't budge. "You told the tranny," he said emotionlessly, "as if that would matter."
She tilted her head. "What?"
"You think it mattered that it knew my strat? You wasted your time, Anna."
"You're wasting yours. Excuse me, I want to go to my room." Joanna felt a chill and a lump in the pit of her stomach. She was halfway in to the space now. Working through it in her head, she knew she’d walked in too far. He was too close. If she tried to run, he could reach her.
"What did you give him?" He crossed his arms, still blocking the door.
She sighed, conveying exasperation to hide her steadily growing fear, and crossed her own arms. "I don't know what you're..."
"Byers," he interrupted, still icy calm. "What did you give him to throw the match, Joanna?"
"He didn't. I didn't. Do you mind?"
"Byers is a good Alterist. We've had a few matches. I'd've beat him easy, but he's still better than a girl like you." His face twitched. She was a decade older than him, at least, and still: girl. "Did you pay him off? What did you give him?"
She rolled her eyes, not entirely in show. "I'm telling you..."
"You maybe could beat Byers if you were lucky, but he didn’t even last twenty minutes." He stepped forward, unreadable. He was in arm's reach.
"Look, I didn't..."
A hand on her shoulder. A friendly gesture from a deeply unfriendly man. Joanna resisted the urge to flinch.
"It's alright, Joanna," he cooed, with a disgusting softness, "I won't report you."
She looked him in the eye. "Don't touch me."
"You don't give me orders, Joanna." He closed the distance, standing toe to toe with her, looking down and holding her gaze. "Let me guess, you want your shot at number one, is that it? Worried that you wouldn't get to challenge the master, so you suck him off backstage and he takes a dive? Little prick didn't even make it look good, Joanna. Loser's probably never had his dick wet in his life. How long he last, huh? Two minutes? One?"
"Back off, Caden...."
"You swallow it? Bet you wouldn't even clean your mouth after. Soldier boy know you like to sleep around? Or—oh, is that his thing? I figured he was a pussy, but a cuck too, huh?"
"Do. You. M—"
"You think knowing my technique helped the tranny? You think it'll help you? When I give that pretty little brain of yours a safe place to run to, Joanna, you'll run there, just like your tranny friend, just like that fat Asian chick."
She tried to lean back. "I'm leaving."
He ignored her, except to tighten his grip on her shoulder. She fought the urge to wince. "You’re not safe, Joanna, not when I’m in your mind. The Asian, I could see how much she wanted it. Needed it. And I just gave her what she wanted." His voice was still cold, calm. "And you, I'll keep you right on the edge of mindlessness. I’m not gonna drop you, not until I'm done. I’m gonna make you a puppet, and I’m gonna pull those strings. I'll hold you there while I bury a program so far down it won't get picked up in the logs or by the reset or by any of those shithead, pansy-ass judges.
"That soldier boy you're playing with? Big wall of muscle with two whole brain cells between the ears? You're gonna walk up to him after your loss, and you’ll be playing so sad, and you’ll just need him to comfort you. And then you’ll put that fancy med-setup of yours on his head and fry him stupid. You'll do it to everybody you love, everybody you care about. You'll mess them up, slow and sure, and God, Joanna, you’re gonna love doing it. You’re gonna love it, because I’m gonna tell you to love it. And you won’t have a choice. And when you've done it to him, you'll walk out of your room, and down the hall, and you'll knock on my door, and you'll get on your knees like the good, submissive bitch you are. And then I'll teach you how to treat a proper alpha." He reached up and caressed her cheek in a mockery of gentleness. "And won’t that be so nice?"
Joaana's knee moved, fast, hard, and direct.
Chief Warrant Officer (retired) Darryl Grier of the Canadian Forces, IT Defence division, knew how the world might treat his open and outspoken lover. And he knew that she could use a lesson or two in self-defence.
And so, Joanna knew how to move without telegraphing her attack.
Her knee came up between Caden's legs, and, guided by his thighs, she made impact against his pubic bone. She felt the shock of the blow in her leg, the slight turn in her hip giving her a twinge across her thigh.
Caden made a surprised cough of a sound. His eyes went wide and he let go of her shoulder.
Her right hand sprung out, open-palmed, and the heel struck Caden in the solar plexus. She felt the sting of the blow vibrating up her arm.
The air burst from his lungs and he fell to his knees, gasping and choking for air.
Her left hand yanked a hunk of blond hair and forced him to look up at her, to look her in the eyes. "Listen here, you son of a bitch," she said through clenched teeth. "You disgust me. You're a heartless worm. Tomorrow, you're going to know what it’s like to lose everything, and you're going to lose it to me. I'm going to revel in it, you little shit. I'm going to wreck you and I'm going to enjoy. Every. Minute."
Head held high, without turning back, Joanna strode to the door. "Bitch," she heard him hiss, not having the breath to yell, "You’ll regret that, you’re gonna destroy everyone you—"
She shut the door with a slam.
She walked purposefully down the hall, waved her keycard at the room lock, opened the door, pulled it closed, and set the privacy lock. She turned on the light, she walked, unhurried, to the washroom.
She threw up.
Knelt down in front of the toilet, she emptied her stomach.
In the recovery room, flat on her back, she heaved. She tried to sit up. She flopped back down. "Son of a bitch!" she screamed.
The human mind isn't perfectly predictable. Alters sometimes go wrong, either through ineptitude, incaution, or just plain bad luck. For that reason, Alterists were trained in Fixes, methods for helping the brain return to normal, or at least as it was before the troubling Alteration.
Sometimes, though, an Alterist does something that requires a Fix, something that's not done in error, something that's not the result of a lapse of judgment, something that's not caused by simple misfortune. Sometimes, an Alterist might do something truly vile, and deliberately embed a harmful suggestion or Alteration.
This was what she'd studied. This was what Joanna had written her Master's thesis on, what she'd argued about in front of the ethics board for three hours on a Wednesday afternoon. She had somehow gathered volunteers who were willing to subject themselves to an evening of lying in bed in a trance, of having mild damage done, of having pieces of their lives erased, of experiencing their own memories again, telling her and her advisor those stories on camera, forcibly reshaping corrupted parts of their minds into something close to normal again.
With fucking Clear Mind.
Clear Mind rolled back the memory. Made a subject relive it, in their heads and out loud. Memories of Alteration, the details, the emotions, are relived without the brain-changing effects, and a subject was relieved of any and all Alter modifications that happened within that time. It wasn't easy on anyone, but it was complete.
Her stomach heaved again. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She bore down hard, dug her hands in, gripped the blanket. She wanted Darryl.
Oh God, she wanted Darryl.
Clothes off. Into the shower. Hot, hot, hot water. God, it was in her hair. Tears. Soap. Shampoo. Shudders. Holding herself tight as the stinging water blasted away the fear.
In the recovery room, without the benefit of of that shower to cleanse and focus her, fear pooled in the pit of Joanna's stomach. Had Caden made good on his threats? If he did, had she made it to treatment in time? Was Darryl still Darryl? She knew a dozen ways to get around someone's safeguards if they trusted her, and Darryl trusted her implicitly.
And so did Leigh. The past few days made that clear, if it hadn't been before.
Had she broken them, as Caden threatened? Were they in recovery rooms now, too, being put back together? Could they ever trust her again? Would they? How could they? And how could she ever trust herself with them? Three words, and Darryl dropped in to trance, and it scarcely took more for Leigh.
A pulse of warmth. Panic subsided, pushed away by something else, not of her own mind. The electrode on her forehead. Joanna let it happen, let herself relax, didn't fight it, but didn't fight the panic either. Nice, deep breaths. Slow and easy. She'd helped dozens of students through panic attacks. She was the subject now, the patient. Let the machine do its work, focus on the moment.
Calm now, she gave a raised thumb to the empty room, ready to return to the memory, hoping that whoever was controlling her levels was able to see it.
She just hoped she could trust whoever it was.
She put that thought aside and focused on her memory of the shower. It was not the time for weakness. Weakness later. Planning now. She needed a blueprint, a way to deal with Caden and his threats. Her mind moved a mile a minute, but this was a marathon, not a sprint.
She needed to assess four things. Assets. Personnel. Knowledge. Strategy.
Assets. She had access to the same equipment Caden did, for the competition. There was no advantage to be gained there. It wasn't like she could put her medical gear on Caden's head. Any advantage would have to come from somewhere other than the equipment.
Darryl and Leigh were wonderful, so wonderful. But after the match tomorrow, even at the match tomorrow, they were liabilities. If Caden could tap in to her fear of what she might do to them, he could force her on to her back foot, to constantly defend and monitor. And there was no stonewalling in Brainhack.
She had to do more than just keep from destroying her friends. She had to win, and she couldn't do that if she was constantly watching herself for hidden suggestions.
But Darryl and Leigh weren't the only friends she had. She put a mental pin in that thought.
Knowledge. She knew Caden. She knew his mindset, his strategy. She knew his personality. Bully. Entitled. Domineering, arrogant and superior. Cruel for cruelty's sake, meanness for pleasure.
She imagined that her knee had struck an erection. Of course she couldn't be totally sure, but she very much suspected that Caden got off on threatening her, got off on the thought of annihilating her. That was usable intel. It gave her a line of attack, just like the one he had on her.
Joanna needed to free herself from the liability of her fears. She couldn't eliminate it, but she could mitigate it. That's step one, she thought. Take the bite out of Caden's threats. She would need outside help. The best Alterist she could trust, and trust herself around, was Patti. The only problem with that idea was that Patti wasn't officially certified, not for any medical procedures. She made another mental note to make a couple phone calls as soon as she was done. She needed to set up a dinner date.
Once Caden's best option for creating fear had been, if not shut down, then minimized, she needed a way to strike back. An arrogant mind probably couldn't see any way it could be beaten. Useful. If he believed that his way was the only way to win, it gave her a powerful feint. Then it was just a matter of what to hide behind it.
What could she play on? Emotional state, sleep cycles, arousal, perception, adrenaline, motor control, memory... she listed off her options one by one, evaluating each as objectively as she could, developing a map, a direction for herself, a loose course of action.
The warmth of the now-hour-long shower was starting to wear on her. Her skin had gone pink with the heat. Every available surface in the bathroom was covered in a fine sheen of condensation. She took a deep breath of the steamy air. She had to keep calm for just a while longer.
Water off. Towel. Phone. Silenced since the panel that morning. Seventeen text messages waiting. One voicemail.
They would wait.
She looked up a number online. Dialed. Waited.
"Halloran's Alterations, Grant Halloran speaking."
"Mindsweeper. It's Anna."
"Anna!" His smile was evident in his voice. "What can I do for you?"
"Do you want to get that dinner you were going to ask me to?"
"I would love to," he replied. "I close at seven."
"Good. I need to discuss something with you. I need your help."
His tone shifted instantly. "My help? Is it serious?
"Very." Her tone of voice left no room for doubt. "I'll see you at seven. If I'm lucky, I won't be alone. I'll explain more later."
Salutations. Hanging up.
"Hey sweetie." Darryl. "I can hear the shower running, but not my ringtone, so you must have forgot to take the phone off silent earlier." She allowed herself a smile. He knew her too well. "I left my key in the room, and since you're not answering your texts, I'm going to assume that I'm stuck for now. I'm hanging with Leigh, I'll let you know if I go anywhere else."
Eight texts from Darryl. Having a good time. Back around four. Forgot my keycard. Where are you? Are you in the room? Did you forget to turn your ringer on? How's everything? Leigh's room number.
Four from Leigh. Congrats on the win. Hope to see you tonight. I have your soldier here tied up and looking lonely. Winking face. Room number.
partyDancer. Two messages. Thank you for your beautiful and supportive letter :) and, congratulations on your excellent battle. Joanna quickly replied, asking for her help with a serious matter and could she come to the room?
An admirer who somehow got her number and wanted to... Okay, blocked.
She flipped back to Leigh's messages. Pics? she asked, because she had to do something while she waited, and there could only be so many text messages to check and send.
She sent a quick message to Darryl. Need to talk to you both later tonight, 8:30-ish, serious. Can't drop off your key right now. Stick with Leigh, stay safe.
There was a blip on her phone, a selfie from Leigh in an oversized blue t-shirt, with Darryl in the background lying on her bed. Dressed the same as at lunch earlier, seemingly fast asleep. Joanna replied with a selfie of her own, wrapped in the bath towel.
partyDancer: Of course darling, is it about tomorrow's match?
partyDancer: Is it just you, or are your tall soldier and cute girl there?
Just her. That was important right now, desperately so.
partyDancer: I'll be up in twenty minutes, once I wake my gentleman caller.
No rush, she could take her time.
SleepyLeigh: Ooh, hot! can I share with DS when he wake up? <3 <3
OhAnnaJ: Of course but he has better ones ;)
She reminded herself what a danger she was to them, or would be.
SleepyLeigh: Ooh mind if I ask him for them? <3
OhAnnaJ: Nothing in there you haven't seen ;)
This time Saturday you might both be blank-minded slaves while I'm busy sucking the cock of Caden Collier.
Oh God, Joanna thought in the recovery room, they might already be blank-minded slaves. It might be Caden on the other end of the treatment right now, programming her in ways she couldn't imagine, couldn't stop, not being this deep. Did he have heavy-duty equipment with him? Was he certified to use it? Or was her treatment being performed by a fan or a friend of his, a doctor at the convention who might revel in the chance to complete Caden's threats?
What she didn't know pulled at the edges of her psyche, threatening to send her into another panic attack. She took a slow breath before whoever was managing her emotional state could drown her in calm again. She wanted to know what was going on, and she couldn't if she kept wallowing in her fears. She let herself dive back into the memories.
The teasing and fun helped her keep her on balance. Gave her a feeling of normalcy. Allowed her to put those invasive thoughts aside. She dropped the towel and checked her equipment case. Tablet, keyboard, visor. Turned each on for a quick battery check. Perfect.
5:30. A message from Leigh. Another picture. Darryl still sleeping, Leigh's shirt and bra were gone, and she bore a goofy grin.
5:32. Joanna sent back a selfie, this time without the towel.
5:34. Another message. Leigh sent her a wide-eyed stare emoji, a wink and a dozen hearts.
She might blast that girls beautiful mind inside out and make her a permanent fixture between her legs. Destroy the work of art that was SleepyLeigh. She shivered, looking at her equipment case. That was all that she needed to do it. That, and Leigh's trust.
She closed her eyes, chased away the dark thought. Leigh wasn't meant to be a slave, hers or anyone else's, and there was nothing that Caden could do to change that.
5:37. Leigh's nude selfie arrived. Darryl was still blissfully asleep. His loss.
Her eyes wandered over Leigh's form, then closed, picturing her visor on that face, feeling her hands on those cheeks, fastening the band around that head, attaching the leads one by one through that hair. She sighed, happy thoughts emerging, untainted by the potential for harm, before closing the photo. She sent Leigh a message of approval and a "talk to you soon,"
Tired. She was tired. But now that she wasn't ignoring it, she was also wound up. She could feel the stress in her belly, lurching there. She could name the causes: cortisol, adrenaline, vasopressin, a dozen other words, but naming them didn't control them, didn't diminish them. She started to pace. She threw on her a fresh bra and panties, and was looking through her drawer trying to decide on a skirt when she heard a knock.
"Joanna, darling?" came a friendly voice from the other side of the door.
"One second, Patti," she called back. Her voice was shaking, she could hear it. She grabbed the first blouse and skirt she saw and threw them on as quick as she could. She opened the door and partyDancer strode in, made up beautifully as ever in a light blue pantsuit.
Joanna quickly closed the door and wrapped the older woman in a tight hug. The floodgates burst and the tears started to flow. Her body was shaking and she couldn't stop it.
Without a word, Dancer guided her to the bed, sat her down on the edge, and held her close. Joanna didn't stop crying.
Gradually, the story of Joanna meeting Caden emerged, inch by terrible inch. Dancer listened, nodded, made sympathetic gestures. She rubbed Joanna's back throughout. She got Joanna a glass of water as she calmed down, and another as Joanna was explaining her thoughts. She was about to her a third, but at that moment Patti glanced to the bedside table.
"Joanna, darling," she cut in, "I think we need to hold on to that thought. It's half past six, and I believe you have committed to dinner."
Joanna wiped tears from her eyes. "I... yeah. Yes, you're right, Patti. We should..."
Dancer nodded. "Let me help you, dear. Your makeup is in a state, and a good deal of it is on my shoulder." Despite herself, Joanna laughed at that. "I'm going to use the little girls', you send a text to your gentleman and ask where we might order a deliciously awful burger to be delivered to his office. I am tired of this hotel fare." She swept out of the room.
Joanna smiled at those memories, steeped as they were in the misery of the day. As much as she wished that it was a happier moment, it encouraged her to know that she had the support of such lovely people. She resolved to spend more time with Dancer, when she recovered. If she recovered.
They proceeded out of the hotel, into a nondescript office building, up the elevator to the third floor, and around the corner, to knock on one of many similar doors. Mindsweeper answered almost immediately.
"Anna," he smiled, admitting the two women. "Good to see you." He held his hand out to Dancer. "Grant Halloran. And you are?"
"Patricia Dansen." She took Mindsweeper's hand and gave it a gentle shake. "I watched your match with our Joanna, here. You're very skilled."
"Wait, so you're..." He stared a little. Dancer gave a half-smile and nodded. "Well, I'll be. I'm in the presence of Alteration royalty." He chuckled.
Dancer flushed. "You are, darling," she said with a wave of her hand, "but I'm not here for your adulation. Not today, anyway." She put a hand on Joanna's shoulder. "Have you ordered dinner? Because we need to talk about this young lady here."
"It should be here in a moment or two," Mindsweeper said. "Can I show you to a room?"
After he’d stepped out to fetch their meal, Joanna looked around the white room, which was almost exactly like the one she was presently undergoing treatment in. Chairs by the door, framed diplomas on the wall, a comfortable single bed.
"Are you sure about this?" Dancer asked as they sat down.
Joanna shook her head. "Definitely not, but I have to do it."
"I wish I could be more help."
"You're an amazing help, Patti. I couldn't do this without you."
"Do what?" Mindsweeper asked, carrying a bag of fast food into the recovery room. The smell was at once both divine and somehow slightly repulsive.
"Sit down, Grant, darling," Patti replied. "We have a story for you."
He did, and handed out the food, as Joanna started talking. About why she was there. About Caden, and their meeting. About what she needed to feel safe.
"I need to know that right after that match tomorrow, before I have a chance to mess with Darryl or Leigh or anybody, I can have something ready to deal with anything Caden's done to me." She took a deep breath, heaved a big sigh. "That means a Clear Mind treatment."
Grant stopped chewing and his eyes widened. He gulped. "Okay, Anna, I can see a few problems with that."
"You can?" she replied, stress giving her voice a sarcastic edge. "That's great, because I can only see about a hundred."
"Well, yes, there's all of those, but... first of all," he waved in the direction of the diplomas on the wall. "I don't have the certification to run a high-level medical treatment. There are real doctors at the convention, why me?"
"Because you have a facility right here, and I want the treatment immediately after the match." She bit her lip. "Again, before I can hurt anyone. You have level two certification, which means that you can do some medical procedures legally—"
"Sure, but nothing like that."
"—but because you have those qualifications, I can authorize you, as your supervisor, to perform deeper protocols."
Grant coughed, choking on a bite of his burger. Dancer gave him a good whack on the back and he coughed again. "You want to supervise your own brain-melting medical treatment? Is that even legal?"
"It's... a grey area. Nothing specifically says that I can't."
Shit, she thought, looking back on the memory. Let's hope the university doesn't hear about this, or I'll be in front of the disciplinary committee so fast...
Assuming, of course, that it was Grant managing her treatment now.
"Okay, so we can get past the, 'Grant can't legally do the procedure' issue," he said, nodding, "what about the, 'Grant doesn't feel capable of doing the procedure' issue?"
"That's why I'm here, Grant, darling," Patti spoke up. "I'm not certified, so I can't actually participate directly, but I can advise and assist."
"With Patti looking over your shoulder, you can hardly go wrong," Joanna continued, nodding. "I suspect she's got more Alteration experience than the two of us put together,"
"Okay, alright," Grant was nodding. "Maybe we could do this. There's still one more problem."
Joanna nodded along. "Equipment."
"Mhmm. The stuff you used for your talks on the convention floor? The gear we've had for Brainhack? That's what I'm using. It's not powerful enough to handle Clear Mind, or really any major Fixes."
"No, it's not strong enough for that." Joanna chuckled. "You've been driving the family sedan. Good, reliable gear, for sure, just fine for the general-purpose user, or even for the local Alteration parlor." She reached down beside her chair and picked up her black case, putting it on the table. It opened with a snap, and Joanna spun it so that Mindsweeper could see its contents. "Wouldn't you just love to get behind the wheel of a Ferrari?"
He stared. "Shit. I could... seriously? You would let me...?"
He reached out and picked up the case.
"Just sign on the dotted line, Dr. Faustus," she grinned. Patti chuckled.
Grant let out a single laugh, shaking his head. "I'm never going to have an opportunity like this again," he said, looking at the visor.
"Probably not," she agreed. "Unless you decide to take a few years and get your proper certification."
He swallowed. She waited. He paled. She watched. Finally, he nodded, handing back the case.
"I'll do it."
"Fantastic. Let's get you set up." She powered up the tablet.
The three of them discussed the particulars, walked Grant through the procedures. Joanna authorized him, officially and on record, to use her equipment. Patti made sure she knew where she could find anything in the office that they might need. After an hour or so, Patti and Grant walked her back to the hotel, to Leigh's room, then the two headed off together to do some further research.
She pointed them to a paper she'd published just before she'd met Darryl, on the use of Alteration on a witness, one which had been used in several legal decisions. While standard Alteration procedures made for iffy recollections, Clear Mind was nearly unique among treatments in that the subject's word could be trusted, at least as far as their memory could be, as if procedures are followed, the Alterist has little to no control of what is said. She would be—she was, she realized—essentially giving testimony. Her treatment record would be sent to the university's digital vault immediately after, signed and verified, and combined with the video and voice recordings that were being taken, it could be legally used at trial.
Which meant that, if procedures were being followed, she could trust the memories she was experiencing to be real, or at least to be just as she remembered them. It was also why her memory of the protocol had to be blanked out, which was what she'd needed them to know; if she knew she was going to be saying everything out loud to whoever was responsible for her treatment, she might be reluctant to remember certain private or embarrassing details aloud, and would fight or refuse. At this point, it no longer mattered what she knew, she had full-on masturbated in front of whoever was there; there was literally nothing left to hide. If she had done something grossly illegal, well, let it come out. If she'd destroyed Darryl's mind, at least there would be a record of exactly how she'd done it, which would leave some hope for repair.
She knocked on the door. Leigh answered, gave her a hug. Darryl was stretched out on the bed; he sat up as she walked in.
"What's going on, Jo?" Darryl asked. "'Stick with Leigh, stay safe'? Why didn't you answer when I called?"
Darryl’s keycard came out of Joanna’s purse. "Because I forgot to grab my phone when I left with Patti." She sat on the corner of the bed. Darryl scooched up beside her. She buried her face in his shoulder.
There weren't any tears left, but there were sighs. At least three or four.
"What's going on, Joanna?" Darryl asked again, his voice softer.
So she told them. She told them about Caden in the hallway. She told them about his threats. While they listened, she told them about her plans, the preparations for her treatment after the match, and why she absolutely had to stay away from them until she was deep in the Alteration trance.
She couldn't read Leigh, but she could tell by the tension in Darryl's body that he wasn't happy. There was a quiet moment before, unmoving, he spoke up.
"So, after the match, you're just... taking off?"
"Because you're worried about what you might do to me, to us."
Joanna nodded again.
"And so you're going to put yourself through this ridiculously stressful treatment because of something you might do."
Joanna nodded a third time.
"And you don't think I'll be able to stop you?"
"Who knows when it'll happen?"
"Then I just resist."
"Glass drop, Darryl."
His eyes slammed shut and he went limp, falling back on the bed. Leigh's stare was wide.
"Up, up, sweetie."
Darryl's eyes fluttered.
"Are you honestly telling me that you could resist that? Or that from a happy place, I couldn't make you do anything I want?"
He frowned, weaving slightly as he sat back up. "That's not...."
"No, it's not fair, Darryl, but you know what? The minute the suggestion kicks in, you're dead. You can't resist me, and I won't be able to resist it, and it might happen at any moment. I would rather take this admittedly extreme step than forever wonder if this is the time I Alter you into becoming a drooling imbecile."
He scowled, but said nothing. He didn't touch Joanna.
"Okay, I get why the lug," Leigh said, "but why can't I just go with you to the clinic?"
Because he said I'd do it to everyone I love, she said to herself, and I love you, Leigh Douangmala. And with a few words, you'd be open and ready and trusting, just like Darryl was, and I could destroy you, too.
She didn't give voice to that thought; instead, she said, "Because I don't want Darryl—or you, or anyone connected to me—to be on their own during this. I trust the two of you to keep each other safe, alright?"
It was a plausible lie. One that made Leigh nod, anyway. And then grin and give an ironic little salute. "Always on duty, ma'am!"
Darryl rolled his eyes, but the carefully neutral expression cracked, just enough to let a smile light his eyes. Which was enough for Leigh to pounce.
"Grier and I will patrol the premises, Commander." She stood at attention.
"Commanders are naval officers," Darryl replied with another eyeroll, but it was clear that Leigh's joy and optimism was beginning to break his dark mood.
"How am I supposed to know that?" she replied with an eyeroll of her own. "We didn't all fly fighter jets, you know."
Taking her cue from Leigh, Joanna flopped over, her head falling on Darryl's lap. "This could be our last night on earth, Sarge."
Darryl sighed. "You're goofing around while you're in danger, Joanna. You're about to crash and reboot your brain to deal with it."
"Only a week's worth of it," she replied. "Besides, I don't want this to ruin our trip."
"It would make mine to march over to his room and bash Caden's smug face in."
Joanna shook her head, sitting back up.. "No, that's absolutely the wrong thing to do. Besides, I already did some of that for you," Joanna said. "When he stepped in close I kneed him in the balls."
"You what?" Leigh asked loudly, giggling.
"Applied my patella at high velocity to his inguinal cavity?"
Leigh stared at her.
"Kneed him in the balls," she explained, "And then slammed him in the solar plexus and pulled his hair."
"All riiiiight!" Leigh jumped forward, arm raised. "High five, sister!"
Joanna's responding hand slap was much less enthused. "It's... not exactly my proudest moment."
"Self-defense," Darryl growled, putting an arm around her. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," she said. "I really just want to put it behind me and enjoy what's left of the evening, and tomorrow before the match."
Leigh sat down on the long edge of her bed, beside Joanna, and also wrapped her arms around her. "Can I help?"
Joanna smiled in the warmth. "Do you mind moving rooms? We have more chairs and a king-size."
Darryl sighed, halfway between exasperation and anticipation. "Just... Jo, please tell me you know what you're doing."
She leaned over and kissed his nose. "I'm not going to lie to you, Darryl. I can’t do that. Just... trust me, please? I won't ever be able to feel safe, doing work on you, if I don't do this. Or doing work on anyone. I'll always have to wonder."
Holy shit, he really got to me, she thought from the recovery bed. I guess that an Alterist of his caliber must know his way around the psyche, but still... he really, really got to me.
Leigh pulled her close. "Of course I'll go back with you guys. Whatever happens tomorrow, Anna, I gotta say, this has been the best week of my life." She kissed the top of Joanna's head. "I trust you."
Lemon and strawberry. She breathed a huge, happy sigh, both in her memory and in recovery. The three of them made their way back to Darryl and Joanna's room, to the large bed. Darryl opened his laptop and—
Joanna shook her head. "That's beautiful, but I can't watch it right now." She brushed aside a tear. "I'm getting tired. I'm pushing through a week's worth of emotions here, and a lot of highs and lows."
And her match, she knew, would be the lowest low yet.
"So let's just skip right along, okay?"
She was talking about the first time she'd seen Alteration gear. Part of a study. Twenty years old. The equipment wasn't nearly so miniaturized then, especially the stuff used for research, so she'd sat at the grand piano on the stage with a truly incredible number of wires attached to her head, not to mention a bulky helmet, connected to a rather significant computer. She sat, calm, meditating, waiting for the go-ahead, occasionally looking up at the screen they'd set up for her that would display the information as it came. She was interested, even then, so long ago.
The first brainscan had finished, and she was given the nod. Bach's Toccata in E Minor leapt from her fingers, bass tones ringing through the auditorium. That was what they wanted: a single, concise work, with short movements, in different styles, to see how the numbers would change as she went through the work. Not just her, of course; every willing piano student in the university had learned that work for the same reason.
The next year, she would sit on stage at the piano in front of an audience, the same rig attached to her head, a computer program generating the score in real-time that she would have to read and react to. The pet project of a composer/programmer, and she was the first performer. It was only after the concert, watching the video, that she found out that there had been no score at all beyond the first notes, no program behind it, that in fact she had been and was being Altered, the machine had been generating a hallucination of a score, that she had been tricked into improvising without any awareness of it. Which was, when she saw the agreement form she'd signed before she'd been Altered, exactly what she signed up for.
That summer, after graduating, she immediately started research into Alteration. It quickly became an obsession.
The memory came in to focus. She was giving an interview about how she got into Brainhacking, and Alteration in general. The convention had made the local news, and they were asking anyone with a good story to go in front of the camera. A lot of people had suggested that they speak to Joanna and Caden—thankfully, not at the same time.
She talked a bit about the history of Brainhacking, and her history with it—not a particularly entertaining story, not compared to her 'How I got in to Altering’ story ("I tried it, I loved it, I kept doing it")—and about what this tournament meant for the sport, about why she wanted to win. The truth, of course, she hid. It was just such an honor to be competing in the grand finals of the invitational, and she was just so happy and proud of what she could do for all the sponsors and people who believed in Brainhack, and so on.
The reporter asked about strategy. Joanna just smiled and shook her head. "You'll have to wait until this evening to find out," she replied, a sly smile on her face.
Any advice for budding Brainhackers? "Anyone can do it. If you're interested, watch a few 'how-to' vids, check out the forums online, become part of the community, get to know people. It's how we all start out."
The reporter wrapped up, thanked Joanna profusely, promised to be at the match. They couldn't take footage there, the convention had already signed an exclusive deal with an online producer, but she was very interested in Alteration herself and was excited to see what a game looked like. The two of them chatted for a minute or two before her cameraman tapped her shoulder and mentioned that their next interview was ready.
She couldn't remember the reporter's name. She didn't know if she had even remembered it then.
All of Friday felt like a mess in her mind. Every moment, it seemed, she was thinking about the match, about Caden, about Clear Mind and Grant and Patti and how it was all going to play out. Breakfast and lunch and the morning authors' panel and the interview and the after-lunch cuddle session with Leigh all bombarded her at once, making it hard to keep anything straight.
Which, she reflected, was odd. This was the day so far to the present, it should have been fresh in her mind, her impressions of it should have been brightest, clearest, easiest to parse. But everything from that morning on until the contest that evening was a blur of events and voices and emotions, a few minutes here and there existing as islands of clarity within a sea of noise.
She needed some order. She felt stiff, slow. Physically uncomfortable.
In the recovery room, Joanna began stretching, pushing aside the chaotic mess of her memory, flexing her fingers, playing familiar patterns on the mattress, on her thighs. She rolled her shoulders, arched her back until she felt muscles pop.
She heard a faint, sickeningly familiar voice outside the prep room door. "What are you doing here, soldier boy?" She ignored it, continuing her routine.
"I'm here to make sure no one bothers Anna," Darryl replied calmly. Deep knee bends, neck rolls. Tiredness means weakness, and she could afford neither.
"Well fuck off, it's for competitors only." Tense, flex, release the toes. Tense, flex, release the toes. The same for the ankles, roll, roll. Tense and relax.
"I cleared it with the judges." Never a hint of anything but quiet certainty, her Darryl. Knees and calves, stretch, relax.
"Fine, whatever." The second voice muttered. She heard a door close as she shifted her weight from leg to leg, working out her hips. There was no further conversation. She paused with a bit of a frown as she twisted her hips and her belly shifted. Getting flabby. Too much sitting and staring at screens.
She got lost in her warmup routine, then, with no further distractions, until she heard a knock on the other door, and a voice telling Caden that it was two minutes to the match. Darryl did the same for her.
Shirt, on. Skirt, on. Sandals. Hair. Ready. Deep breath. Wait until Caden's gone. Follow.
Wave to the crowd. Ignore the wolf whistles, wouldn't touch those guys with a ten-foot pole anyway. Turn to Caden. Smirk. Rub the palm of her hand with her other thumb, as though it stung from where she'd hit him. Nod her head.
She didn't even register whether or not he reacted. It didn't matter, it wasn't for him.
You're about to find out, Caden, that a little knowledge is a very, very dangerous thing. She wasn't sure if that thought came from the moment before getting in to the chair, or from the white-walled room, or from both. Didn't really matter.
She put the headset on, felt it scanning her mind, her thought patterns, her brainwaves. Not that there was anything to feel; it was strictly taking input, providing no output, not yet, but she swore, every time she put the headset on, she could feel it working. Overactive imagination.
The same overactive imagination that worried about what she might do to Darryl and Leigh.
The consent forms popped up on the screen. She hesitated. Not because she had any concerns about what came next, no. She was hesitating strictly to piss off her opponent. In fact, she waited as long as possible, a confident smile on her face, to anger him as much as she could. Instead of a simple nod, she spoke in a calm, clear voice. "Yes. I accept." There wasn't the slightest quaver. She wanted Caden to know that she wasn't scared, and to know that she was trying to drive him crazy.
She wished she felt that confidence now, lying on her back in a strange bed with an electrode on her forehead. She couldn't be sure of the outcome of the battle. She didn't know who was running her treatment. She didn't know if this was before or after she had ruined her friends' minds. Had she gone too far?
She didn't know if her Clear Mind testimony was being given in her own defense.
As soon as she had affirmed her consent, there was a quick countdown, a roll of the shoulders, and a hand on the controls. And they were off.
She waited, watched as her opponent's scans appeared one by one, feeling the start of his assault. She typed a bit, tabbed to a couple indicators, entered a quick program to start her probing assault, and felt her heart rate start to rise. She could name the causes: cortisol, adrenaline, vasopressin, a dozen others. Stress.
She stopped typing, and started breathing deep. If he wanted her to be scared, she was going to be calm. A few little words, command phrases, slipped from her fingers idly, but mainly, she breathed.
Then came the first wave of relaxation.
She bit down on her tongue. Hard.
If he wanted her to be calm, well...
Typing faster now, scanning the numbers, finding the cracks in the shell. Scattershot. Attack left, attack right, attack up the middle. Attack everything: calm, stress, perception, mobility, memory, thoughts, dreams, ideas. Narrow down the focus. And prepare for—
She was naked, astride Darryl, moving, fucking. A moan escaped her lips, and she couldn't tell if it was real or imagined; well, whatever, she'd done worse in Brainhack matches than let out a live moan. Her field kit was attached to his head, the control in her hands. She looked down at the tablet as her body moved. She started to take apart the defenses. He trusted her, and she was going to use that trust to remove those parts of him that resisted her...
Breathe deep. Calm. It's just a dream. It's not important. Her hands worked again, the arena keyboard mapping to the tablet in her mind. She was narrowing options. Calm, sleep... useless. A little sexual thought of her own, sent his way, but he would ignore it, surely. It was a decoy, anyway. Kill him with kindness, then. Warm hugs, gentle caresses, praise, pride. The obedient coo of a proper slavegirl. The cheer of his entourage.
She blinked. The image of Darryl in her mind was replaced by an image of Caden. She was triumphant atop him, having lured him in with the promise of sex and sexuality, a woman's only real virtues, and she had trapped him. She was dominating him, then, taking his mind, riding high on the physical and mental pleasures of conquest.
She bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. She could taste it.
Perceptions were mutable. Pain was... well, also mutable, but she doubted that he was expecting her to be self-injuring.
The shape of his attack was starting to have an effect; it was crystalizing, coalescing into music, music she so often felt when she was being Altered. Darryl's brilliant Brahms, Grant's devious Debussy, Aaron's hackneyed Haydn... This was so different. Discordant, unpleasant, but sensible and structured. Ives, with multiple strains of out-of-tune instruments pressing on her. Webern, minimalistic amber shards of perfect form, with all its artistry in the construction of the sound leaving nothing for prettiness. Sayegh, cross-rhythms over cross-rhythms over cross-rhythms, chants and bells and trumpets in uneven multiples adding up to praise of Allah so brilliant that it hurt.
She examined a piece of the music, broken off from the whole, and laughed with delight at the stunning beauty of its construction, even as her hands worked controls and typed in her calm, leisurely pace. She knew that laugh had been aloud, she felt it in her gut. She only hoped that it was loud enough to be heard over her own melodies, whatever Caden was hearing in his own mind. For all the ugliness of its effect, the structure was astonishing.
It was safe to feel. There was no way that Caden was sending her joy deliberately, after all.
Winnowing down options of her own, she sought the right accompaniment to the melody she was weaving. The song was ready, it only needed its supporting voices. The melody crossed the wires with first one, then another, then another background, changing the form of the attack but not its substance, variations on the theme now as she saw the one weakness, the open line. Perception. Feint to his ego, attack his perception. Feint to his dominance, attack perception.
She worried, then, as she was only making perhaps one direct move for every five or six of—
The dissonant rattle deep in her soul shifted to one more simple, more alluring. A solo aria, a folk song, a child's tune, a safe line, easy to follow, replete with calm and quiet for a mind that was not built to handle these layers of complexity. She only needed to follow it to its end, and everything would be so clear that—
Her hands came off the keyboard—she realized then that through all that calm, she had been typing, continuing to challenge, continuing to fight—and she dug her nails into her palms. She would be calm when she wanted to be, not when he wanted her to be.
She had barely managed to eke out a reply when the next wave hit, blast after blast of high-pitched, high-volume out-of-tune screeching. Her breathing peaked, her heart rate spiked, and she started to tremble uncontrollably.
Before she could get control of herself to respond, she felt like she'd been plunged deep in to cold waters, the sound resolving to a single, low, soft note, pulsing lightly in time with her slowing heartbeat. She shivered, but found her body relaxing, easing out of the looming discomfort. She could just stay there, acclimatize, and—
She was falling. Not in to trance, but as if out of an airplane. She could feel the acceleration, the wind pressing around her, hear the high-pitched shriek of violin and piccolo as she—
—floated gently on a cloud, softly carried downward towards the ground, her fingers tapping in practiced replies, her eyes registering the numbers. Idly she realized that Caden's manoeuvres were coming no faster than they had been, but her awareness of time had become warped, strained to the point of breaking.
Darryl's brain was open to her manipulations. Strained to the point of breaking. But he trusted her. She wanted to show him something incredible, something amazing. This was the first step to making him fear and respect her. She would trick him into giving her access, then gently peel away everything that she loved about him, anything that could challenge her, until there was nothing left but an obedient mindless shell of a beta male, the true and deserved fate of all who bow to the naturally submissive female.
That serenity bubbled up again, seemingly from nowhere. It would be beautiful. Darryl, Leigh, on their knees, worshipping her, forced to have no choice but to love her.
... to have no choice but to love Caden.
... to have no choices.
... it would be so lovely. So beautiful. To have no choices. To simply exist, to wait for orders. It was sheer bliss to...
... Caden stood in front of her on the landing, hand digging in to her shoulder. He was taller, in this vision, than he had been when the oboes weren't shrieking major sevenths at the top of their range. She was kneeling, submitting. He was taller, more commanding. She awaited his action. He lifted a hand to strike and
Her hands were raised in front of her face as though she was about to be attacked. She didn't know how they got there. Her eyes were looking past the screens. She didn't know when she'd unfocused them.
Her head hurt. Hurt. No matter how harmful Caden's technique, that shouldn't happen. Physical pain receptors weren't accessible to this equipment.
She tentatively tapped at the keyboard. No response.
She wasn't hearing the music. No dissonance. No children's tunes. No wild monophonies. The strings, winds, trumpets, voices were silent.
She was shaking. Her emotions were a mess.
Did I just have a seizure?
Did Caden Collier just overload my brain?
The headset was removed.
Hands helped her to her feet. Her legs wouldn't hold her, they were shaking so hard.
Tears were streaming down her face. She wanted to scream, to shout, to tear at her skin.
She couldn't control her voice or her hands well enough to manage any of that.
Two people were half-carrying her towards the exit. She kept trying to turn her head, to talk to them, to make sense of what was going on.
She looked up at the screen. Her numbers were all in red, the screens fixed at the moment when her mind had flashed over.
The off-the-rack basic tools they had been using couldn't handle the break in awareness and shut down as a safety precaution.
She had never been brought down from her heightened emotional state.
Her body was flooded with warring emotions, filled with physical tensions.
She had never been brought down from her heightened emotional state.
She hadn't been properly awakened by the machine.
Which meant that any suggestions Caden put in her mind remained.
He’d been in her head.
He was still inside her head.
Her stomach heaved at the thought. She hadn't eaten since lunch. There was nothing to bring up.
Her supporters paused to let her recover as much as she could. They were in the hallway, outside the arena. There was a lot of noise from behind her.
Forcing someone into a shutdown was strictly against Brainhack rules. She could hear the arguments, the shouting in the room, as Caden's people yelled about it being a forfeit, a sound was growing more and more distant, thankfully, as she was directed down the hall.
Grant was on her right, she recognized, leading her to the exit. Dancer on her left, keeping her upright. One of them was talking, low supportive tones, or maybe both of them were, taking turns. It didn't matter.
The cool evening air turned her stomach. Or her stomach was already turning, and the cool air brought it to her attention.
Grant opened the door to the building and together they guided her into the elevator. She sat in the corner as the car rose.
"I'm s-s-s-...." she started. "I-i'm... I'm..." she couldn't stop shaking enough to apologize.
"No words, darling, no words." Dancer crouched next to her, stroked her hair. "You'll be talking soon enough."
Third floor. The walk down the hall felt like forever. Her legs had stopped shaking, but only because they didn't have any strength left in them at all.
Grant unlocked his office and went to get her equipment. Dancer helped her to the recovery room and into the bed he'd prepared.
"You're sure about this Joanna?"
Joanna nodded. "Uh huh." Her voice was still trembling, her shoulders and feet still twitching. She couldn't seem to get control over her body. "H-help me out... th-the skirt, Patti. P-please."
Could Caden have seen what she was planning? What if some program in her head made her reject the treatment? What if he hadn't known what her plans were, but he still put something in there that made her reject any attempts to help?
She reached up with shaking hands and tried to undo her bra, failed, and tried again. Grant returned as Dancer was helping her arrange herself.
"I-I-I-..." she began, caught her breath, and tried again. "I'm gonna b-be indecent, Grant. I'm s-sorry. R-really indecent. A-and I might ruin y-your bed."
"The sheets and mattress are replaceable. I get the impression that you aren't." He smiled and opened her black case. "Before I lose my nerve, let's get this done."
She pulled her hair back shakily, ready to for the visor. The lights were glowing, already waiting as Mindsweeper brought it over to the bed, carefully placing it over Joanna's eyes. Dancer tightened it from behind her, gently adjusting the band, aligning the speakers, passing the leads over her scalp one at a time to Grant, who fastened them slowly but ably.
Joanna closed her eyes, leaning her head back into Dancer's hands as Grant flipped the send/receive switch. Dancer laid Joanna's head down on the pillow.
Images appeared in her mind of putting the visor on Darryl, on Leigh, melting their minds just as Caden had threatened, just as he’d made her imagine, just as he’d planted inside her brain, and she sobbed loudly. Comforting hands rubbed her shoulders, a low deep voice soothed her ears. "It's alright, darling, it's alright. You're safe now, you're with friends."
Grant was tapping on the tablet. "Alright. Phew. Okay. Let's get this going." He took a deep breath. "Video and audio equipment in place, active, recording. Alright." He exhaled again, his breath, it seemed, nearly as shaky as hers. "Joanna Olesson, do you consent to being Altered?"
"Uh-huh..." she managed to squeak out.
She knew the next question. She was terrified of her answer, that it wouldn't be her own.
"And do you consent to the Clear Mind treatment protocol?"
Images of Darryl and Leigh, broken and brainless, swam before her. One long, shuddering breath. "Yes," she said, far more confidently than she felt.
Warmth flooded her mind. Her emotions began to settle. Her equipment had noticed that she hadn't had the benefit of a proper awakening. It would be showing each abnormality to Grant, who would be quickly working, quickly restoring her to a normal, more receptive state.
The music began, shaky at first, running the length of her mind, too loud, then too quiet, then finally sorting themselves into the calm, airy, floating tones, refusing simple resolution, filling her aural sense with color and gesture, with vast auroras in the northern night sky.
She opened her eyes to allow in the sight, the lights in the visor that would overtake her thoughts. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and chuckled. "Of course..."
Grant’s voice. "What is it, Anna?"
"Music. Impressionists." She smiled across the room to where he sat. "Dukas. The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
Grant's confused and uncomprehending look through flickering colored lights was the last thing she saw before...
Everything went bright white.
Everything went black.
Joanna bolted upright in bed. Not her own bed. She looked around. White walls, white roof. Cold. Antiseptic. She hated white. The bed was comfortable, as comfortable as someone else's bed could be. Her visor was pulled down over her eyes, replacing the electrode that she had imagined there during her treatment. Mindsweeper sat halfway across the room, watching, with partyDancer at his side, a near-empty pitcher of water by her feet. By the door, Darryl and Leigh started to rise, worried looks on their faces.
She raised a hand quickly to forestall any speech or movement, and beckoned Grant over, pointing to the tablet. Grant handed it to her.
One tap, shutting down the program. A dialog box opened.
A second tap and fingerprint scan, confirming her ownership of the tablet.
A third, connecting the tablet to the university's private server.
One final tap, telling it to send the recordings of her treatment—audio, visual, and mindprint—to be sealed as read-only records in the university's secure database.
She sighed, closing her eyes. The final tensions fled her body and she lay back down. It was done.
"It's over," Grant said. "Finished." He took the tablet from her, put it safely on a nearby table, and turned back. "It was an honor. Thank you."
"Thank you, Grant," she said, exhaustion and a raw throat making her quiet. "And you, Patti. And Darryl, Leigh, thank you, thank you all."
And everyone was there, crowding around the bed. Tears flowed freely, and not just hers. Leigh gripped her hand with enough force to hurt. Darryl stood beside her, his hand around her shoulders. Patti and Grant on the other side of the bed, holding hands, looking exhausted.
She realized she was naked. No, not naked; her shirt was on, bound up around her neck. It was uncomfortable.
She realized that she had just spent the last—hour? hours? she couldn't be sure—lying exposed in that bed as four people listened to her pouring out her soul, watched her hands dancing across her body... She suddenly felt shy, embarrassed, but there was nowhere to hide. She took a couple deep breaths, trying to regain control.
Her emotions weren't raging, not as they had been a short time ago, and she wasn't shaking. Mostly she felt tired.
Darryl kissed her forehead. "You're an idiot," he said, with a relieved grin.
Joanna closed her eyes. "I am. But I'm here. And I don't feel the urge to mess with any of you." She opened them again, her smile fading. "Did I beat him?"
Leigh giggled, a sound with a surprising amount of emotion behind it. "Like that's the most important thing right now."
"I just risked everything to win, Leigh," Joanna replied, a hint of a smile dancing on her face. "I'd like to know if it worked."
Darryl spoke up. "Once he was up and looking at the numbers, he challenged the results. He argued that you must have some undeclared medical condition that caused you to seize. He's claiming he didn't lose, but that you forfeited."
"Mhmm," Leigh continued, squeezing Joanna's hand. "They gave him an hour to cool down while the judges checked his logs, then put him up in the chair and replayed it with him on the receiving end."
"You really did have a seizure up there," Dancer said. "I looked right at you as your numbers peaked. You were gone, darling. Ten seconds at least. So unless you've got epilepsy you've been hiding, then Caden triggered a shutdown in your brain."
Joanna shook her head, then realized... "Replayed?" Past tense? "So... it's done?"
Darryl nodded. "Your match went a little over thirty-three minutes."
"Thirty-three-seventeen," Leigh piped up excitedly.
"Point is, you put up with Caden's shit for thirty-three minutes." Darryl gave a wicked grin. "He couldn't last twenty, taking his own medicine like that."
"Didn't even have a seizure, just noped right the fuck out!" Leigh cackled. "So you won! It's official, you're the best Brainhacker ever!"
Joanna laughed wearily. "Not gonna defend my title. I need a break from Brainhacking for awhile..." she shook her head against the pillow. "Probably literally. I just got forced out of a match and put myself through Clear Mind. I probably can't Brainhack—or be Altered at all, really—for... Weeks? Months?" She shrugged. "I'll need a proper doctor's care for a while. Still. Better this way."
"Alright then, dish, darling," Dancer insisted. "We all watched the match, what were you doing up there? Things seemed quite odd. You were going slow and steady, barely touching him. I saw you go after his senses every so often, but it looked like you were just up there taking punches like Ali on the ropes."
Joanna tilted her head. "Patti, they're just checking Caden's logs, right? They're not concerned with what I did?"
Dancer nodded. Darryl's expression grew bleak at her question. "Joanna. What did you do?" he growled, concern bleeding in to anger.
"I pushed him," she replied. "With the same thing you did to me, the first night we were here, Darryl. I muddled his perceptions. I physically resisted his emotional attacks to keep myself on an even keel, and worked to make him think that his numbers were mine. He saw almost no movement in my stats, because he was looking at his own." She held up two fingers. "Two things about Caden Collier: he's a bully, and he's short on imagination. Nothing pisses off a bully more than no reaction; having only one solid habit in the toolbox, I figured he'd go back to it over and over."
Dancer laughed sharply and actually clapped with delight.
"Wait," Leigh said, "you provoked him into giving you a grand mal seizure?"
"Petit mal," Joanna corrected. "An absence seizure is basically harmless." She closed her eyes again. Exhaustion was setting in. Her bones ached. "Those machines haven't got the power to do real physical harm. If I wanted to kill you with one of those, I'd have to push enough drugs that I might as well just kill you with the drugs."
Darryl's frown grew deeper. "You didn't look unharmed."
"Still can make you pretty fucked up," Leigh answered.
"They sure can, in the wrong hands," Joanna agreed, sighing. "And maybe he could’ve made good on his threats. I honestly don't know. I'm just glad that I don't have to find out."
Darryl helped her sit up and handed her a glass of water. "Come on, sweetie. Let's get you dressed and back to the hotel room, and we can discuss this at length."
With his and Leigh's help, Joanna turned to sit on the edge of the bed and pulled her shirt down. "My skirt, please, Patti?" she asked. "And can we get the visor off me?"
"I'll go get the case," Grant said, leaving the room. Patti retrieved the garment while Leigh and Darryl carefully detached the delicate leads running across the top of her head and gently removed the headset. As Grant put Joanna's equipment away, she, with more aid still, got to her feet and got her skirt on.
"I have to close up the shop, clean up a bit," Grant said, "But I hope to see you all tomorrow?"
"Let me help," Dancer offered.
Grant smiled. "Of course. You three head back, we'll see you at the close of the con, if not before."
"When they give me my award," Joanna said, unable to keep a triumphant, weary grin from her face. She left Grant's office much as she had come in, mostly unsupported by her own legs, held up by two friends.
A ping from her phone distracted Joanna from her sandwich. She put her lunch aside and opened the text message.
SleepyLeigh: Hey he pleaded guilty!
OhAnnaJ: Fuckin eh it's all over then. :)
That was a relief. She wouldn't have to testify, to have her Clear Mind records entered into public evidence, to make her sex life and her hobbies known to a crowded courthouse.
It had been half a year since then, but it felt like a lifetime. The return to normalcy had been painfully slow. She'd spent a great deal of time in the chair herself, under the supervision of one of her colleagues at the college, dealing with lingering effects of Caden's abuse and the Clear Mind treatment. She'd also had to be deposed twice by lawyers, once for the prosecution, once for Caden's defense, in which she'd had to verify the complex and somewhat embarrassing details of the recordings, as well as being called on by the convention's legal team to make sure they weren't going to be held liable and having multiple meetings with the university's own attorneys to make sure that her capacity to work wasn't hindered in any legal sense. All that and keeping up with Darryl's worries for her health, her own busy work schedule, the abusive emails and social media posts that she, her department, and the head of the university kept getting that had only really stopped a few weeks ago... She was glad it was nearly winter break.
Caden's guilty plea was the final piece outstanding in a big, very trying puzzle that she'd pieced together over the past few months. Having it finished meant that at last she could fully put everything about the tournament behind her.
Another message pinged onto her phone.
SleepyLeigh: assault and uttering threats, six months in jail, three years before he can touch Alter eq, lifetime ban from brainhack
OhAnnaJ: (sigh) well it's something.
SleepyLeigh: it is! really the worst thing for him is that no one takes him serious any more cuz he lost to a gurl :p
OhAnnaJ: Still pisses me off that if I had won the match normally they'd be saying it was fixed. Glad he challenged it. Glad he forced them.
SleepyLeigh: dont let it bug you, white boys gonna white boy lol
SleepyLeigh: you back in the game yet?
OhAnnaJ: Clean bill of health as of yesterday. :) Doc says that my fix is done and there's no sign of any abnormal patterns left from Clear Mind.
SleepyLeigh: SWEET!!! <3
Joanna could almost hear the heart at the end of that exclamation.
OhAnnaJ: Why you wanna brainhack?
SleepyLeigh: haha well yeah! you promised me a game at the con!
There was a pause in the chat. Joanna took a bite of her sandwich, then decided to press a bit.
OhAnnaJ: What aren't you telling me?
SleepyLeigh: my contract ended... cut a few dozen ppl including me
OhAnnaJ: Oh no! Everything okay?
SleepyLeigh: everything is amazing i got a good severance :)
SleepyLeigh: saved up a bunch too and i wanna spend some of my money
SleepyLeigh: wondering if you wanna get together over xmas break ;)
OhAnnaJ: Already had some tentative plans... so...
OhAnnaJ: You ever been to Calgary? Wanna drop in on Darryl w me?
SleepyLeigh: OMG YES I HAVE A PASSPORT I WILL MEET YOU THERE <3 <3 <3
OhAnnaJ: Gotta say a huge thank you to you both for your help last summer :)
SleepyLeigh: oh yea about that
SleepyLeigh: sweeper sent me a clip from back then
SleepyLeigh: you probably want me to delete it
SleepyLeigh: but i kept a small bit
Joanna frowned as a movie file popped up on her phone. She opened it. It was three seconds long. The thumbnail was, as she expected, her naked body, shirt up around her neck, her own medical visor on her head. The title was just, "<3"
She tapped the play button, and her monotone, entranced voice jumped out of the speakers. "I love you, Leigh Douangmala."
Her heart melted and her eyes teared up as she received another message.
SleepyLeigh: hope u dont mind
SleepyLeigh: when i feel sad i play it on loop
SleepyLeigh: makes me happy
Joanna couldn’t mind. She looked at the clock; another 45 minutes on lunch break. She smiled a happy little smile, got up to get her coat. She felt like taking a little walk in the cool winter air, where she could be alone.
SleepyLeigh: Anna? Jo? everything ok?
OhAnnaJ: Everything's perfect, SleepyLeigh
OhAnnaJ: Oh and by the way...
OhAnnaJ: why don't you count to seven?