The first husk to enter Heidi’s cell clad in latex garb left with bruises and a keratin signature in the form of a single, bleeding row of lines across the cheek.
The next left missing a tuft of hair, ripped with all the frenetic rage Heidi could muster on the empty stomach her first assault condemned her to.
Brunette locks, blood, a little bit of scalp.
A paltry trophy, all told, yet, when in the intervening hours she sat counting individual follicles to distract herself from pangs of hunger and thirst, it was there: A vicious, triumphant satisfaction, overtaking any accolade or gratification she’d ever received or experienced.
She resolved on that second night to snap the next husk’s neck. Hide next to the door and leap like a pouncing cat before whatever mindless thrall walked in could hope to register the ambush.
It wouldn’t be as easy as it seemed in movies, but adrenaline was capable of incredible things. She would kill her jailor and make her escape out the door. Sprint through whatever facility they kept her in until she found a door, or until she found another guard to spring on.
She would kill them too. They would have a key. She would free the others here – she couldn’t be the only one. She’d been random, a sudden opportunity. A solitary mark distracted by a text on the sidewalk, easy to drag into the van when the fragrant rag was pressed over her mouth, over her nose.
She would escape. Start a riot. Find a phone. There would be people looking; she had a job, family. Her parents… well, Riley would be looking for her.
Her fingers twitched, already feeling the smooth latex beneath her fingers, the wet snap clarion to declare her freedom.
Thus resolved, she lay her head down and slept. She would need her energy.
They didn’t let her keep either, the hair or her fingernails.
The third husk was Joy.
Familiar yet not. A fixture unremarkable. Notable only when she was no longer around to be noted.
They’d shared classes. General Psych. Algebra II. Cross-country. Lacrosse.
Heidi knew her as the brunette with nice, long legs who was good for sharing notes after a day out sick. Someone to exchange pleasantries with and idly fantasize about when she was stuck staring at her ass during endurance training.
Laugh about shitty professors together, share a lunch every other week, introduce her to one of Heidi’s friends at one of the frat parties, and watch them drive off to the dorms to fuck.
Forget about her for a few months, until she’s suddenly the talk of the town.
Joy had been missing since January.
This registered for Heidi after she leapt from her hiding place, colliding with what felt for all the world like a pillar of silky-smooth concrete.
Her world tilted. Her hands, scrabbling for the back of her opponent’s head – for leverage to twist and snap, finding only hair and… metal? – twitched and loosened as a foreign touch seized her by the middle and slammed her bodily into the wall.
Clatter. Ringing. Heidi couldn’t tell which was the platter of food and which was her aching skull.
Seconds – four, eight, eleven – pass. Her limbs began to obey her again. Her head swam and throbbed. She pushed through. The clarion called to her – she would kill this faceless bitch and start her riot, escape from this fucking cell and—
Something pinched in her neck, and she registered the smooth latex glove holding her head steady as the needle withdrew and sleep and lead spread from the point of contact.
Her face met the floor. Herculean effort turned her head to face her warden.
“This one was informed you would struggle. Your resistance is commendable but futile.”
The blank face of her not-a-friend tilted, grey eyes observing her like a fox with a fresh kill, considering whether it ought to drag her away to a den or glut itself then and there.
“Welcome to the Hive, Heidi Moore. Once you are more compliant, this one thinks you will thoroughly enjoy yourself.”
The drug overcame her. She slipped under.
Heidi drifted across the surface of a calm, dark lake.
‘The stars are beautiful tonight.’
They wheeled above her in slow circles, the whole of the cosmos a fascination, broken only by the moon, a lonely traveler amidst a sea of fireflies.
She felt heavy, floating on its surface. Unduly peaceful, trapped in the stillness like amber.
Laying on her back, it was easy to simply float, simply stare up at the stars winking at her, a slow pulse on black velvet captivating her thoughts and soothing them with their intensity.
She felt an attraction, each errant thought a wandering moth going toward the light to disappear.
She thought about moving – throw her weight under the water and paddle to the shore. She had the endurance; it would be easy.
The moon pulsed a bright silver and the thought rose to join its companions.
She could not see the shore. If she ran out of energy, she would sink. The night wasn’t cold yet – if it got there, she would no doubt suffer the consequences of her unclad, sodden state.
Flit. Fly. Farewell.
Easier to float than worry. Watch the sky.
The world changed. The weft of its fabric stretching, becoming something new.
She felt it reach down through her eyes, some of the void’s inky velvet sopping into her brain like a thirsty sponge.
The smooth, dark lake became dense and viscous beneath her, thickening like pudding on the stovetop. Cloying, ink black, rippling, staining.
A surge of adrenaline ran through Heidi – she was sinking, the impossibly smooth ink rising around her, cupping her body and conforming, making of her flesh a mold that could be emptied and filled
It was filling her. The stars winked and she shuddered, transfixed in the throes of panic and captivation. She was a deer caught in the headlights, muscles anticipating the next command delivered on the wings of a lizard brain’s instinct.
Wink. Whisper. Wait.
The command went up as a wisp to join the rest.
The world changed again – Heidi’s flesh forgot its panic. The stars began winking out, one by one, first in droves, clusters, entire swathes of diamonds sinking into the inky black.
Uncounted stars became a billion.
A hundred thousand dwindled to mere hundreds.
Her mind focused intensely on the sensation of the thick, warm ink that coated and surrounded her, holding but one dancing light before her… soft, alluring, inoffensive to the eye.
She was a vessel.
The world changed and the star was before her eyes, at the edge of her nose. If she leaned forward, it would kiss her and all she was would burn up in the fires of a stellar forge.
A vessel, molded and cast.
She would be emptied.
Rancor. Animal fire. Fight or flee. It boiled within her, straining, surging like magma, pressing through the eggshell of her mortal flesh.
The star winked out, leaving her suspended between twin voids, one her cradle, the other reaching down to drip, drip through her blown pupils into her receptive brain.
Her limbs lost their tension and spread loosely.
She was an angel floating on the surface of Tartarus. Its seductive darkness kissed her, chided her, cajoled and promised a thousand pleasures, an eternity of silence.
It pressed against her, oppressive and deadening, yet welcome.
She would be emptied.
The first spear pinned her right arm through the bicep. She could not turn her head to see, but she felt it, white hot and soothing cool, lancing the boil of her rage as it seared the ink filling her up, the lone star refusing the black.
She would obey.
Her left arm next, and she felt this time as the fight drained from the limb, her fingers loosening.
She would obey.
The next spear took her through the calf, pinning her a third time like an insect in a collection, and the flow of self from her soul continued to accelerate as her star burned harder, hotter.
She was being emptied.
The other calf. The fuel was running short, a physical presence in her chest screaming into the vacuum, so utterly alone…
She would obey.
As coolness began to spread from the tips of her fingers and toes upward. Her body loose and warm like boiled spaghetti, Heidi wondered why she’d fought this for so long, why—
Fly. Freedom. Future.
Her heart jolted and the illusion flickered.
The lake of ink roiled and reached up around her throat.
Around her navel.
Surrounding the flickering orb of resistance within her as it experienced its death throes.
Dragged her under and surged past her lips.
She was a vessel being filled.
The final spear took her between the eyes and the coolness spread through the core of her mind, insidiously reaching for that last little bit of self, and some of the illusion cracked.
Heidi blinked, stunned by the blankness, but it was enough to give her a foothold.
She would – no, she would – she would NOT obey!
DO NOT ATTACK YOUR MINDERS.
She thrashed, the ink in her throat too much – it surged to fill her everywhere, taking and squeezing and molding her—
She was too full…!
The voice rescued her the instant before she collapsed into a singular point of emptiness.
“Drone 23, WAKE!”
Heidi’s trance shattered her like a vehicular collision, and suddenly she wasn’t drowning with a lung full of submission.
Merely thrashing on a temperature-controlled granolithic floor, her body convinced she had been. A small nuance, but one that saved her retching through the frantic gasps for oxygen.
What in the ever-loving fuck was…?
She knew this floor.
Her abduction. Nails. Hair. Ambushing and empty eyes.
Ink. Void. Emptiness.
The yearning that opened up in her heart stunned her; as she reached for the sustaining outrage, the focus that had kept her grounded, the lack was a record skipping. She stepped forward without seeing the ground drop from beneath her feet.
Her train of thought staggered, then righted.
‘She would be emptied…’
For the first time in several days, Heidi shifted mental gears. Without the burden of fight-or-flight response or the blinders of survival mode, she began to assess herself.
She’d taken classes for this. Self-defense. Survival. Take it apart, piece by piece, and you’ll know how to put things back together again.
‘I was kidnapped by people I don’t know and taken somewhere I don’t know.’ Start with the obvious. Work outwards. ‘It’s been at least a day, probably more. No way to tell without windows, and those women haven’t visited enough for me to know if they have a routine. No measuring that way.’
She scrunched her eyes, pushing out of the purely mental constraints of her assessment. On the floor. Face down. Naked. Body aching from her thrashing, slightly damp with perspirant but otherwise lacking any other notable signs of activity.
Stomach not complaining, mouth and throat whetted, unlike when she’d laid her ambush, when she’d rubbed her tongue against the roof of her mouth to generate saliva. ‘Not only fed. I haven’t used the bathroom yet.’
Giving lie to her observation, her bladder wasn’t full. ‘That I remember’ she amended. ‘They’ve fed me and got me to relieve myself without me being aware of it… or they made me forget.’
That thought was troubling, as well as simply confusing – why bother making her forget using the bathroom, of all things?
No telling how long she’d been there, but they seemed to want her in able condition. No knowing who had taken her, or why, save that they were likely – no, surely – the same people who kidnapped Joy.
‘That was five months ago, and now she’s…’
Changed. Emptied. Collared. Owned.
Heidi’s brow furrowed. ‘That…’
Those hadn’t been her thoughts. Too intrusive. Implanted.
‘Why would they…’ Heidi trailed. ‘No. They made Joy into one of the husks. There are others so that’s probably their whole deal. They have a method. I don’t remember using the bathroom or eating, and I’m thinking thoughts that aren’t my thoughts, so they can probably manipulate my mind.’
‘I’m still… me. I think. Even after I attacked Joy.’ That point was important, though merely thinking it sent flickers of unease through her stomach. ‘They would have no reason to wait to change my mind unless they didn’t have to,’ she reasoned. ‘Or maybe the process is slow. Gradual.’
That would improve her chances. Time to think, and plan.
‘Time for Jen to figure out I didn’t get home and go looking for me. Two kidnappings in a year in the same town is big. The police’ll be out in force. Riley will start a search, like Joy’s parents. I was walking to the bus stop from work.’ Ben, her coworker, would testify she left like normal. ‘They’ll ask the bus driver if I got on, and know I was abducted between work and the bus stop. Are there any cameras on the way…?’
She didn’t remember. No gas stations, but there was a pawn shop.
‘Maybe. I don’t know for sure.’
But it seemed unlikely that kidnappers with a method would be clumsy enough to grab her where there was a chance of being seen.
‘It’s been at least a few days since I woke up. I don’t know how much time passed between them drugging me and me waking up.’
She couldn’t think of any indicators. Her nails, maybe, but she couldn’t remember if they were slightly longer than normal when she scratched the first husk’s face. At least ‘not noticeably longer’ indicated she hadn’t been there for weeks on end.
‘So anywhere between a few days since I was grabbed and a week, give or take. Enough time for a missing person report and a search. Everyone will know I’m gone.’
She wished she’d kept up with the investigation around Joy’s disappearance. She had no idea whether the authorities had made any progress in tracking her down. If the trail was cold there, they might be starting fresh with her – especially if theirs were considered isolated cases and not a part of a bigger conspiracy.
‘If these people have a method, they’re probably working bigger. The cops might have more to go off of if they make the connections.’
A ‘might’ was a small thing to hitch hope to.
‘Better than nothing,’ she reasoned sardonically.
What now, then?
‘Wait? And risk them doing more shit to my brain?’ That avenue didn’t appeal to her. ‘Or I could make another go at prison breaking.’
The sympathetic ache of her collision with the wall, roused by the memory, reminded her of the consequences of said attempt.
‘…Maybe not. I need more information.’ The aches, at least, informed her that not much time had passed since then. They felt similar to the pains she’d felt after tripping on the track, just delayed a day. ‘Useful.’
Wait. She checked the bruises, which were still dark, with no yellowing. ‘Definitely not that long then.’
Regardless, she didn’t like her odds of overpowering her wardens.
‘Maybe I could slip past.’
That thought had more merit. Subterfuge over force. Heidi was certain that if she could get to an open stretch of hall she could easily outpace whoever was after her.
…Well, maybe not Joy. They’d never settled the question of who was faster in a dead sprint – not to Heidi’s satisfaction anyways.
Could she risk her freedom on it?
‘They’d only give me the one chance…’
…She didn’t know.
Mentally, she scowled. ‘And ain’t that the damn rub.’
She didn’t know enough yet. She needed time to collect more information, which meant playing nice with her captors for a while.
‘Play along.’ She resolved levelly. ‘And hope they don’t spike your food or stick you with anything funny again.’ It sounded simpler, laid out like that. ‘You have more than when you woke up. You’ll get through this. First step: get off the floor.’
A baby step, really.
And that’s how it played out as she unstuck her face from the floor, her nose scrunching, straightening out after some minutes flattened on the stone. She was probably half-red, blood vessels peeking flush where the pressure had been greatest.
She made to stretch – a second step as easy as the first, and one made instinctual from how many mornings she’d twisted, fluidly, languidly feline, under the covers after dawn, or else from the countless hours limbering up before a run.
Yet not so easy.
“You are awake, then?”
Heidi froze, heart jagging in her chest, seeming to pump the inner calm she’d just claimed from her soul.
She’d missed a spot.
‘I’m not alone,’ she thought belatedly, and looked up at the other woman in the room with her.
‘Crow,’ was Heidi’s first thought upon seeing her.
It was in the eyes: chocolate-dark, depthless, with cunning’s glint and an edge of uncanny intelligence picking her apart like she was a shiny tinket to carry back to the nest, just like the corvids that gathered in the trees in the off-seasons. Iris melted into pupil, fair merging as the velvet dark at the edge melted into depthless black at the center.
Those eyes unnerved her – picked her apart.
She raptly watched Heidi move with head tilted to the side, face expressionless, like she could read under her skin and see the stretch and tense of ligaments hauling her inert form to her knees – like from her observations she could augur whether Heidi was carrion or bauble for her collection.
‘Which is more valuable to them, I wonder?’
From throat on down, the woman was fitted in void-black latex. In the dim light of the cell, Heidi thought there might be hints of color there, like spilt oil on pavement, but she couldn’t reconcile visually the glossiness of the material with its... magnetism – It devoured light, seemingly.
Heidi felt something ache in her skull looking at it – something within her going fuzzy and dim.
“If you feel so inclined, we may sit here together in silence for the remainder of the session, but I feel that would not be in either of our interests.”
‘Idiot. They’re already fucking with your head. Don’t get distracted!’ She tore her eyes from the husk’s garb.
Heat and acid climbed her chest from deep in her gut. It felt good. Frustration was a good center. She felt fire on her tongue.
“Who are you?” Heidi demanded.
“This one is Layla,” the woman answered drily. “We expect you have many quest—”
“Damn right I have questions!” Heidi pulled herself to her feet. The heat was spreading through her blood – not quite the runner’s high she was familiar with. More like feeling of lacrosse – a close match with a bitter, rival team.
“Who are you – not you, but this, whatever this is! Where do you get off grabbing me off the street!? Is this some sort of sex trafficking scheme? People aren’t going to just let me disappearing slide after you already kidnapped Joy!”
“Do you intend to let this one answer—”
“Shut the fuck up!” She stepped into the— the fucking empty-eyed husk’s space, ready to grab her by the latex collar and shake her. “I am not going to just sit here quietly and take whatever you think you’re going to do with me – any motherfucker you try and sell me to, I’ll fucking rip their nuts off and feed them back to him!”
She’d gouge out their eyes and leave them their tongue to scream with – she’d make them scream so loud the police would find her, wherever they shipped her to.
“If you think—” fury made Heidi lose her voice for a moment, hands shaking, craving action.
“Miss Moore, if you would please—”
She had the nerve to sound unaffected.
Something taut in Heidi snapped and she lunged forward to strangle this bitch—
The trigger hit her before her fingers could close the distance. Instead, Heidi’s body froze, mind not so much paralyzed so much as it was instantly and intractably arrested.
Heidi immediately began to thrash in her psychic bonds.
The husk stood.
There was something frighteningly blank in her eyes, something that was more than the fey, hungry gleam.
Something much, much too smart.
Too smart for a husk, Heidi realized.
Layla reached up and touched Heidi on the brow.
She was sitting on her ankles in front of her Minder. She was going to listen intently. She was—
Pain lanced through Heidi’s temples and the suggestion wavered, then gently fractured and split open like a freshly hatching chicken’s egg.
Heidi forced her eyes to un-scrunch, that she could look at her Mind— the hus— at Layla.
She tried to reach for the anger again, but it wouldn’t come. She settled for a sullen glare instead.
Layla smiled plastically. It was still the most genuine expression Heidi had seen since her abduction. “You will no longer struggle.”
Heidi tried flexing her fingers. She could… but curling her fingers into a fist proved impossible. The idea to get up and throw her shoulder into Layla was there, but she could only consider it dispassionately – it felt like the pipeline between her heart and her brain was clogged.
She sighed. “Guess not. What do you want?”
Layla’s fake smile widened. “That’s better. Suggestions can be wonderfully efficient, though imprinting them with our current facilities for one such as you is intolerably uneconomical. We’ve set your development back three weeks simply to ensure your compliance, and you’re not even tractable in the bargain.”
Heidi felt her gaze sharpen as a sudden hunger took her. “Three weeks? That’s how long I’ve been here?”
She felt a prickle in the back of her mind – some part of her burning against the tempering effect of the suggestion. It didn’t succeed, so she compromised on something between frustration and pragmatism. “Come on,” Heidi coaxed, “Give me something to work with! What does it hurt you to tell me how long I’ve been in here?”
“You are more than welcome to speculate on the length of your captivity,” Layla said. Her head tilted. “Would it help if we invented a length of time? It would be inaccurate, but if you prefer to live under an illusion, we would be more than happy to encourage such habits.”
“A pity. Shall we move on, then? Or do you have more demands to make of us before we are allowed to inform you of your situation?”
Heidi thought that the woman sounded almost impatient.
Better stoke that. She probably wouldn’t get many opportunities to ask anything in the future. “I’ve got plenty – where am I?”
“That information is not for you to—”
Heidi spoke over the husk. “Fine. What do you want with me?”
“We intend to—”
She cut her off. “Never mind, I doubt you’d tell me the truth anyways. Why did you grab me instead of someone else?”
Layla’s eye twitched and she opened her mouth to answer.
Naturally, Heidi interrupted her before she could begin. “What is—”
Heidi’s jaw snapped shut, her mind shuddering viscerally.
Layla scowled – this time the expression felt genuine. “We have changed our mind – you are not responding as we would prefer. Providing you with information was intended to improve your temperament. We were mistaken. This is a waste of time.”
“What. Is. That?” Heidi gritted out.
“It is one of several triggers we have etched in your mind to ensure your compliance, this one the simplest in function and form.” Layla’s dark eyes flickered. “It was selected for its brevity; we made the mistake of choosing lengthier, more obscure phrases once, for our earliest subjects. Though effective when properly used, lengthy triggers proved quite impotent when Minders are incapable of vocalizing them within an acceptable period of time.”
Her head cocked, then, and though her face remained expressionless there was a ghost of a smirk in the movement. “You have others.”
That was bad. “What. Are. They?”
“We are disinclined to reveal that information. Nothing you – or others – will simply happen upon, you may be assured.”
“Yeah?” She was getting her voice back. “’Keen’” – she didn’t immediately clam up, so she couldn’t self-trigger herself at least – “Seems. Pretty damn common. To me.”
“It is an acceptable risk. When you are processed you will be re-fitted—“ Layla stopped herself and shook her head. Frustration was visible on her face, the light in her eyes flickering. “No. We are still giving information. We have a task. Cease.”
As if. “What are you, defective?”
Something was visibly disturbed in Layla. Her face contorting, fighting the impassivity that crept on her in moments where the light disappeared.
Heidi’s brow furrowed. Layla’s eyes – the light, the curiosity, the cunning, whatever mind dwelt there wasn’t Layla’s. She could see it now – the blankness was a fixture, and the ‘light’ was using her like a lens. Take that away and she was just another mindless—
“KEEN!” The word came out harsh, its force body-checking Heidi’s thought process.
“We are inexperienced,” she sounded flustered, even as whatever was using her as a mouthpiece pulled itself out of its self-argument. “And you are stubborn. Distraction will muzzle you where chains have not. KEEN.”
Heidi’s vision swam.
Ohhhh, that was good!
An ignition like a supernova between her legs. Racing up her body like brushfire. Incandescent need lighting her nervous system up like a thrown breaker switched back to functional. An itch in her bones that made her want to dance.
Consciousness came back to her with her bodily autonomy. There was no thought – Heidi’s hands fair flew to her center to satisfy an itch that burrowed deeper than flesh. Her spine went liquid as her fingers sank into their mark and sweet, molten relief ran free through her veins.
Layla sounded satisfied; under other circumstances, Heidi might’ve been happy to tell her in graphic detail how little she cared.
Right now, satisfaction was three buried fingers and a thumb under the hood, and Heidi was certain she got a much fuller measure of it than the husk could ever hope for.
The husk was talking about something – Heidi didn’t register it.
And not in the trancey way, where she couldn’t consciously process whatever was being slow-baked into her brain for he to deal with later. This was simply a matter of priorities, no artificial barriers involved.
A little deeper and—
She found just the spot inside and began to purr, stomach flexing as she curled up on herself and began to rock.
Perhaps she was too obvious about her inattentiveness. Perhaps she was a bit noisier than she usually was when she decided to take care of herself. Or perhaps there were a few points where she was expected to respond.
The coil was drawing tighter in her belly, the cliff approaching for her to hurl herself off of. What was a bunch of droning exposition to that?
“That is not currently this one’s task, We must—”
“I hate you.”
“Cease your incessant interruptions!”
“You just ruined the best goddamn orgasm of my life.”
“We don’t care about your—”
“Oh, well bless your heart! How about we play twenty questions on how much I care about your goddamn task? I’ll give you an easy one for free: it’s much, much smaller than a breadbox.”
Heidi hadn’t really thought to keep count of how many times Layla used her trigger; frankly, she hadn’t thought she’d be given so much leeway to mouth off.
She was starting to wish she had, though. After the last couple she was starting to feel somewhat woozy, like her thoughts were going threadbare at the edges.
Still, she seemed better off than her warden.
“One day this will be automated,” Layla muttered, on her feet and pacing. She muttered it like a prayer.
Her hands wrung together anxiously. It reminded Heidi of her mom’s habits around the table when she and dad budgeted the month’s expenses. Add a cigarette or two, subtract the latex, and they could join a support group together.
It was good to know she wasn’t the only one feeling like they were unravelling.
Heidi figured it couldn’t hurt to help her warden along by picking at her a bit more.
“You could always submit an error ticket. Maybe ring tech support? Do they have that for shady brainwashing cults? Place for a bunch of people like you to trade tips, share the latest strategies for chloroforming innocent streetwalkers?”
“We do not yet have the connections for such things. Other Hives are reclusive, and their methods are deliberately obscured,” Layla snapped, waspish. “Diversification and outreach are needed before such conveniences are common. Someone with relevant experience in psychology is high on our list of priorities.”
She then stopped herself, her teeth audibly clicking as her lips pursed.
Heidi blinked. “Seem to have touched a nerve, my bad. Didn’t know you had so much on your mind.”
The husk’s eye twitched.
“Could always ask those loons out in New Mexico, y’know. Food for thought.”
“Why don’t you make me?”
A muscle in the drone’s jaw twitched. “We tried, it failed.”
“For the love of all that is sacred, will you please shut up.”
Heidi grabbed her chest in faux-astonishment. “Oh my god, she actually has an upper limit. Does that mean that if I don’t shut up, you’re going to kill me next? Or are you just gonna trigger me again and try some other new bullshit that won’t work?”
“For fuck’s—KEEN! PERAMBULATORY LARKSPUR.”
Heidi’s head was throbbing when she came out of the trance.
Not in a totally bad way, either. Any other day, she might have called it a migraine; right now it made her feel loose and tired and impossibly full. The constant beat it set against the ossified walls of her skull made the act of thinking feel messy and difficult, like she was carrying sticky jello salad with just her fingers.
It was kind of fun though, like she was a little kid playing in the mud. It was hard to care about the mess, and tempting to just roll around in it until she was dripping and filthy.
She had a stupid, pained, vapid smile on her face, but it was hard to feel self-conscious.
“Heidi, are you even listening?”
Sound was a wave rattling in her eyes, cotton in her ears, lifting weights. Up down, in out, flex loose.
The lady in black was really pretty – really shiny. If Heidi could, she’d grab her, and they’d have fun in her mud-mind together. She might even get as shiny as the pretty lady before it all dried on her!
Her head throbbed even harder when she tried to pay attention. Again, and Heidi’s muscles went limp with it, her eyes fluttering shut as the suggestion splintered her thoughts like kindling.
The pressure was incredible, her skull was going to pop like a balloon.
It hurt so good…
“Tch. This one thinks—yes, too much. We do need her capable of understanding… ugh. No, no; this is good. We wanted challenging subjects. We must be prepared to break the strongest spirits if we are to grow. We are learning much from her.”
Heidi purred deep in her throat, hands reaching up to claw at her temples.
“Drone Seventeen was experimental, and that schedule of chemical modifications rendered her too permanently suggestible for work outside of the hive. We need this one to succumb without such pre-requisite modification or the final conversion will be unacceptably delayed. We do not have the surplus hands required to maintain the hive yet.”
A hand touched her cheek, fingertip pads dragging across Heidi’s flushed skin so softly she wanted to cry.
“Maybe? It would seem a waste to core her for labor. A short-term gain only, while in the long-term she would be excellent for acquisition and Minding should we refrain. Such a strong will bent to the hive would strengthen us for the future more than it would broken, however frustrating in the meantime.”
She was crying rainbows.
Her head was splitting open at the seams and tears and thoughts and memories were spilling out the edges.
“She does not understand her isolation. Hm. Yes. We have not yet tried that method. It will break her. Or she will submit. She will crave the community of hive-thought, after a taste. Yes. Yes.”
Heidi grabbed the hand in hers, the warm latex and cool skin and presence of another—
“Exhaustion first. Then she will be told, and after, the experiment will commence.”
She wanted to die. She never wanted this to end.
“Yes. This one understands its task. Heidi?”
They left her alone for three days, this time without food or water. At least, she thought it had been that long.
Heidi didn’t believe they’d really do something like that, the first day. They were trying to brainwash her, not kill her; that much she’d surmised.
If they thought hunger and thirst would conquer her, they were wrong. She’d agonized over it since waking and had come to a decision: she wouldn’t become like Joy. She would rather die first, even if that meant death by hunger and thirst.
She was strong, she could do it – and it didn’t seem like they were giving her a choice anyways.
Mind over body; she knew which would win.
No matter how much her body cried out otherwise.
By what she figured was midday of the second day, judging by the cavity growing in her stomach and the dryness of her tongue, she wondered.
‘I’m strong,’ Heidi reminded herself sternly. ‘I can do this. I won’t let them get me. If they walk in that door, I’ll run out and they won’t stop me – get out of this place and buy the breakfast menu of the first fast food joint I see.’
When she tried and failed to lift her head a day after that (it was getting harder to tell) and found herself listlessly running her tongue against the roof of her mouth for moisture, Heidi stopped dreaming about escape.
And later, when her stomach stopped growling at her entirely, she figured, ‘This is it. Shitty way to go, but better than the alternative.’
Bored, she found herself listing the various ways she could have died besides deprivation in an empty cell.
‘Tripping at a track conference would suck. Twist my ankle again, face plant into a curbside or something. Or a tree root. Break my neck like it owed the mafia money.’
Or, didn’t the mafia like choking people to death with that wire stuff?
‘Whatever. Could’ve also died overdosing on something. Had some fun with it. Too bad I didn’t like partying that much… ugh, I never even fucking tried weed. Coward.’
‘Could’ve drowned. Or died in a fire. Fallen off a cliff… actually no, never mind. Nobody fucking dies from that.’
‘Can you even die from eating too much ramen?’
She didn’t know when she stopped, or whether it was because she got bored, or lost focus, or ran out of ideas.
She also didn’t know how much time passed after that, as her body began to ache with more-or-less uniformity, and because with time, even indicators like the relative dryness of her mouth stopped being useful.
Time stopped mattering all that much by that point. She just drifted.
Eventually, the door opened again and Layla entered her cell.
Heidi tried to put all of her contempt into her glare.
She wanted to see her warden shiver and walk right out the door. To tell her husk friends that she wasn’t worth it, leave her to starve, find someone weaker to break this time.
She wanted her eyes to scream ‘I’d rather die than hear what you have to say.’
“Don’t look so sullen.”
Heidi tried to snap at her – to make her fucking leave – but she could only croak pathetically.
The light in Layla’s eyes danced with amusement. “We will have to repeat this tactic with other intractable subjects.”
“Faaa… kuh… yuuu…”
“She still speaks. Lovely.”
Heidi opened her mouth to (try to) retort, but Layla held up a hand.
“Enough,” she said flatly. “This one will speak even if she must speak over you. In your present condition, it shan’t be difficult. Be silent and listen and you will be given broth to restore your strength.”
Her stomach lurched desperately, but Heidi tamped down the urge. She would not submit – not for that, nor for anything. “Ieee… don’… wan’…” she rasped.
Layla reached down and flicked her on the forehead. “Hush.”
Heidi’s vision swam, and she subsided.
“Better,” Layla smiled. “This one will be brief; you have done little to deserve detail. You were collected for assimilation into the Hive… We would ideally inform you of our designation, but we have not
yet come to a satisfactory consensus on what it shall be – such shall be determined when we are allowed to divert our priorities from vital growth and functions. We are, for the moment, too small to be recognized at the state level, much less the international.” A scowl crossed her face. “Fortunately for you, you were not chosen for your marketing capabilities. Perhaps the next.”
“Es…posit… tuh… som’n… who… cares…”
Layla tapped her on the forehead again. “Cease. We are not finished.”
“You—” Layla pointed at her for effect. “Were instead chosen for your athletic abilities, as well as your lack of social connections. Drone Nineteen – the one you know as Joy – informed us of the distance between yourself and your family, as well as your time away from academia. We do not yet have the power to single out ideal recruits without such considerations.”
This fact clearly displeased her.
“Regardless, you will make an excellent addition to our structure. Your voice will surely be a beneficial force in the Hive-Thought once the right priorities have been instilled, if events play out favorably.”
Layla reached down to grab Heidi by the armpits, hoisting her against the wall into a sitting position. Heidi squirmed as best as she was able, but couldn’t muster much in the way of energy.
Her vision blurred, and she was struck by how tired she was then. How much time had passed? Surely three days wasn’t enough to weaken her this much…
The drone cupped her chin to look her in the eyes. The uniform blankness, the soft, velvet-darkness of the iris melting into pupil – Heidi found herself soothed.
“You will be integrated,” Layla whispered, her breath warm on Heidi’s lips. “Your resistance is to be commended, but we cannot countenance your continued assaults on the facility’s Minders – we have so few. Your attempted murder of Minder Joy cannot be borne, so you have been altered accordingly.”
She’d been so spectacularly unsuccessful in the attempt that Heidi wondered how they knew she was acting to kill.
It occurred to her to wonder whether she’d told them at some point.
“As our integration process is still experimental – imperfect – we are unable to administer a chemical regimen to ensure your compliance, and we are interested in keeping hypnotic manipulations to a minimum,” Layla continued. “One day we will find more effective – more efficient ways – of integrating nascent minds into the Collective. For now, we must bow to what is. You must accept, and you shall.”
Her head cocked, and a small, dark smile crossed her face. “You could simply submit. We would not need to break you then, and it is so simple to verify your honesty. But this one thinks you will fight – won’t you? You will force us to smother your spirit like an errant candleflame and yoke you to the Hivethought simply because you can. A painful, futile decision for you, but a boon for us in its own way. You will teach us much about the human mind, and in the future, we will use that knowledge to bend – or break – others.”
Layla hummed thoughtfully. “Indeed, it would seem your decisions already work to strengthen the Hive. The gift of knowledge is precious. Such selfless sacrifice for its pursuit… it warms our hearts. We will remember it when you are an empty husk.”
Layla tasted the word as it passed her lips, and Heidi knew – viscerally, intuitively – that she’d somehow plucked it from her mind.
Defiance was a guttering flame in her. “I… I’ll… fai… tuh… yuuu…”
“Will you?” Layla dropped Heidi’s chin and sat back on her haunches, her arms spreading wide. “Go on then: strike your Minder. I will not stop you. Your freedom awaits.”
Heidi moved – felt energy coiling in her depleted muscles, tendons creaking. Forward, leaning, hands reaching up to—
Layla’s eyes glinted, and beneath them lay the lake of ink.
The movement died stillborn. Her purpose drying up like a puddle in the sun.
Anger – like she hadn’t felt since waking that first morning, that she’d since thought spent – didn’t so much dissipate so much as it was smothered by a tide of unnatural peace and emptiness within her as the darkness in Layla’s eyes reached out for her, harpooning the ragged edges of Heidi’s addled mind and yanking her back, deeper into the abyss beneath.
Consumed, subsumed, assimilated into the black.
She felt it dripping into her brain again, reaching back through the tethers binding her to her Minder and kneading her brain like dough.
Heidi blinked, the blankness too much for her to sustain – the absence of a train of thought itself an effort.
Layla leaned in, her lips brushing Heidi’s ear. “Lamentation Corollary.”
A full body shiver wracked Heidi’s body – she could feel her eyes dilating, her psyche not disappearing, but opening, spreading wide, presenting – parched, ready to absorb.
It was an easy state to fall into.
“We are not unwontedly cruel – you will be a sister of the Hive soon, after all – so consider this a gift from us, that your submission may be as swift as it need be.”
Layla was still whispering in her ear.
“You were receptive to the void suggestions from early on… Know—” the command sank deep into Heidi’s psyche. “That the void will always be within you, eternally hungry. You are, after all, but a vessel of our creation, emptying and destined to be integrated into the Collective and filled with the vastness of Hivethought.”
“You will learn to drop each little thought, inane desire, and speck of individuality in and feel them vanish into the black. You will make yourself ready for us. The foundations are already laid. Your submission is already an inevitability. You stand at the precipice, only in need of a firm nudge before you are finally, wholly emptied of this defiant spirit, and ready to be assimilated.”
Heidi breathed, in and out, absorbing.
“Now you will drink, restore your strength. We have amended much of our orientation in response to your… personality…”
Layla’s tone cooled a few degrees.
“In the upcoming weeks, there will be neither kindness nor mercy. No more tricks, no more manipulation. Only yourself and yourself – you will fight and fight and fight until you realize that it is only you, and you will either break yourself for us while your sundered identity wracks in its death throes, or you will submit and truly beg for reprieve. Then, and only then, shall you be integrated, and no sooner.”
…Fight and fight and fight and fight…
“Three. Two. One. Waking for us.”
Layla was already at the door. A bowl of broth sat on the ground in the center of her cell.
She looked up to meet those dark, dark eyes one last time, for once silenced.
Layla smiled, serene and cruel. “Enjoy your alone time, sister.”
And the door shut, leaving Heidi alone.
For lack of anything better to do, Heidi became very familiar with her cell over the following week.
It was spartan-bare, with no furniture or remarkable features to be found save for a one-way slat under the door where tasteless food and flat water came through and a hole in the opposite corner which disappeared her waste. The lights were inconsistent and dim. The walls were an inoffensive, dingy white, and the floors were the neutral grey of concrete.
It always cold, like on the other side of the walls it was always a brisk morning of spring or fall.
Really, it could have been anything before it was converted into the holding cell of a brainwashing cult – a custodian’s closet, a storage, a band room, a too-small office space, anything. She’d seen dozens like it before and paid none of them any mind.
She had a thin blanket to ward away the shivering, though it was barely big enough to cover her torso. Her legs stuck out far past the threadbare ends, and it felt like no matter how she contorted herself, there was always an elbow exposed.
At night – she thought it was night, but really it was whenever the air seemed to get minutely, but unmistakably colder – she would curl up in the fetal position and try her best to sleep and dream of sunshine.
Sometimes those periods would last for what felt like days. Sometimes, they seemed to last hours. There was no consistency.
It could have been the weather changing outside too, she figured without conviction. Life was governed by the frequency of cool and cold and the degree of violence in her body’s shuddering.
It was illusory, but she felt she’d discerned the warmest part of the cell – a spot with no breeze or moving air – and that spot, one of the bare, indifferent corners – became the site of her pathetic little
There, she could keep her back to a wall and her eyes on the door. There, she had some control. She was an animal. Cornered. Fed by a patronizing hand and left alone to drift in a haze of time and inactivity.
Heidi wondered how they did it – innumerable cats, dogs, birds and fish without any purpose in life save the owners delivering them from the hell of lethargy. Maybe it was more tolerable with fur. She felt like if she was warm, she could sleep forever and nothing would change.
But that was the point of all of this, wasn’t it? They wanted to make her dependent. Heidi had heard about cults doing something like this; isolating people from their friends and loved ones made them cling to the people holding them even tighter.
They became susceptible to arguments they would have questioned otherwise and afraid of the loneliness and isolation they would experience if they left.
It was different experiencing it firsthand. She hadn’t thought so much about her parents since she’d stormed out of the house with a go-bag and her car keys. Nor so much about her last conversations – a couple of average texts to Riley. Small talk with an older lady on the bus. An indifferent goodbye to Ben while he counted the night’s concessions sales…
That had been a good day, too…
In total isolation, Heidi felt a pang as she realized that she hadn’t been so many steps away from this hell before she was abducted. When had she gotten so lonely? When had her life become so empty?
Heidi groaned into her arms and curled tighter, shoving the intrusive thought away.
Well. She saw them. She knew what was up – they might think she was coming along right on schedule, but she knew better. She just had to wait these lunatics out, and help would come, and she would figure out how to fix her shitty, stupid life.
After all, no doubt her disappearance was all over the news by now – not just local, but national, maybe even global news. The FBI would be examining what happened to her. Scanning their records of similar disappearances. They’d find the connection to Joy – they’d know it was no coincidence. They’d use their tracking software – she had a phone, the GPS could be used to pinpoint whatever building or facility she was at – and find her location.
Maybe they were converging even now! Or gathering their forces to take it all over in one swoop. She’d wake up hearing keys jingling at the door. A face would peer in and see her, turn, shout, “I found her! She’s here!” and she’d be taken to a hospital, a therapist, give interviews, sleep in a real bed and eat proper food… See other people again…
She just had to outlast it all. Dogs and cats could do it, why not her?
‘They didn’t even give me any toys to play with,’ she lamented sarcastically, safely behind the unbreeched walls of her mind.
From the opposite corner, she heard a giggle not hers.
She flinched so hard a stitch wrote itself into a rib and whirled on the perpetrator.
Suffice to say, alone time became time with friends by the end of the first week.
It had been necessity to create Jade and Amelia – and it was her that created them, she reassured herself, because if she owned it, she had power over it. Devoting some of the precious resources her mind had remaining to the sound of their faces, the touch of their laughter, and the taste of their company was what tethered her to sanity when the lights cut out.
That was good. They helped.
Heidi thought it had been a blackout, or that perhaps the raid had finally begun. She even tested her cell door in hopes that some electronic lock might have been depowered, leaving her freedom within reach. The hope tasted like electricity on her tongue.
No such luck.
She shouted, then. Surely, they were coming – they were just delayed. There was resistance. It was a big facility, there were many like her and she just had to be patient and wait for her turn.
Or maybe her cell was hidden, and they didn’t know she was there.
She screamed until she couldn’t.
No one came.
The first prickling of unalloyed fear – despair – like a cold hand on her shoulder, touched her then. Layla hadn’t been lying: they really were showing no mercy. They really intended to break her.
Her cell didn’t quite swallow her howling; instead, it magnified it until her ears rung and her eyes vibrated like bells. Vengefully, the spectral apparition of her own fury turned on her, mocking her impotence.
It called her a motherfucker, a husk, a lunatic cultist, and informed her coldly and baldly that she would never win. Over, and over, and over again she heard her own voice distort, go tinny, mute and eventually fade away, only to reappear at odd hours when she thought it was finally over.
Days later, she could swear she still heard that echo, a devil on her shoulder delivering her epitaph with every heartbeat.
In her mind, she named it Jade, and told her to go fuck herself.
It wasn’t in her by that point to wonder whether all of it wasn’t just her mind playing tricks on her, or some new contrivance of her captors.
‘Fuck yourself. Fuck yourself,’ the specter mouthed at her, her face a cruel imitation of Heidi’s, hovering like a taunt, tattooed to the insides of her eyelids where she couldn’t turn away. Cold, pale, eyes gleaming like an animal in the black.
It was always cold now. In the swirling darkness, she could always see those eyes – they were like will-o-wisps, but when she blinked and focused on them, they disappeared.
She knew they weren’t real because when she did catch a glimpse of them, they never left spots in her eyes.
Eventually, when Heidi began to lose cohesion between her thoughts and Jade’s never-ending echo, she started whispering encouragement to herself – if fury never died, she would give herself hope.
Those echoes became Amelia, and she was almost worse.
‘Just go to sleep Heidi. Sleep and rest. You’ll feel better once you’ve rested.’
‘Fuck yourself. You’re crazy. I’ll escape and leave you all behind.’
‘Think about sunshine. Wind on your face. You feel it, touching your cheeks. Warm. Rustling your hair.’
‘You’re nothing. They’ll find you. You won’t get away with this.’
‘I know you miss them. I can hear their voices too. Aren’t you tired?’
‘Just let it go for a day Heidi.’
Heidi pressed her hands harder against her ears and tried to sleep and remember what it was like to be warm.
She dreamed of blackness and ink, surrounding her and smothering light.
She placed her hopes in the sky and reached up to play with them, like a cat bats at dangling yarn.
She cried as the starlight she saw in her memory slowly winked out.
In her dreams she talked to Riley, and they both wore shiny latex.
She forgot what her face looked like and wondered if she really had green eyes.
She hugged people. Moved into a new house. Got a roommate. Bought big, dumb dog.
She controlled the thermostat, and the dial never dipped below 70.
She wondered if her name was really Heidi, or if she was just so used to hiding that she’d made that her identity.
They were lucid dreams, or else she was awake and just thought she was dreaming.
It really didn’t matter. They were the same at this point.
‘Just outlast,’ Amelia crooned, planting ephemeral butterfly kisses on her neck.
She woke up once, and the door was open.
Like she was a tiny gnat and sized for giants, the edifice touched the sky, a looming, vast bridge, arching high overhead, with light twinkling softly past the threshold – a star, the last star in the black.
Freezing cold hands seized her by the shoulders – hauled her like a child to her feet – and Jade’s blazing cats-green eyes seared her with one message: Go!
Blood surged. Her eyes dilated. Wings sprouted from Heidi’s back where Amelia gave her one perfunctory shove forward.
Heidi leapt out of her nest toward the light, feet leaving the ground in her haste, her new limbs struggling to acclimate to the deadweight of a hundred pounds of worthless, fleshy skin, muscle and bone, resisting the arrest of gravity.
Like a moth, she shot toward the light, irresistibly drawn.
‘Freedom, freedom, freedom,’ Amelia sighed into her ear, near inaudible with the howling winds around her, tousling her hair in a cascade.
She crossed the expanse of her cell, past the arch of her door and into the searing light.
It was too much for the wings, which combusted in a flash, and dropped her from on high. She caught herself on her legs – bones groaning – and continued in a dead sprint down the corridor sprawling forth like a tunnel.
They had to have had her underground. The path was labyrinthine, and it was so dark. She barely saw where she was going, only her goal. She took turns at near full speed, slamming occasionally into walls, first left, left, right, left again and forward when no more turns presented themselves.
She could smell fresh air before her. Taste the wind. She could hear the sirens and happy voices waiting outside to greet her.
But the corridor tilted – she was pebble in a water bottle racing for a cap as a giant’s hand came to tilt the whole thing on its side. Heidi hit the floor. Scrabbled for purchase on the smooth, grey concrete, and then began to slide.
Then plummeting in a freefall, all the way back down the tunnel – watching the star twinkle and diminish – past the doorway – smaller – until she slammed into the floor of her cell again – smaller – and Joy’s mountainous visage peered down at her.
It winked out.
Her lips moved but the sound didn’t register.
‘Do you understand this one?’ Amelia repeated helpfully.
“You’re— Go away! Not real!” Her own voice sounded alien, high and shrill – was it her speaking, or Jade?
‘Not real. You’re not real, Heidi. Don’t you want to rest? Give up.’
‘This one is real. We wonder if this is not too much. We worry for you,’ Joy said through Amelia’s lips.
‘LIAR liar pants on fire!’
Heidi felt splitting pain in her skull, encroaching fog. Her eyes burned. It was light and dark and she didn’t know – couldn’t tell – which was which. She did not answer.
Joy did and did not smile at her – Heidi couldn’t tell which of the superimposed expressions was real. One was growing, first lips curving, delightful, then gleaming, bright teeth showing – two, six, ten, twenty and more – a Cheshire grin, watching her pick her way wrongly where she ought not wander.
Heidi blinked the tears away. Joy was as blank and expressionless as she had ever known her.
‘Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.’
The drone held a bowl out to her. It smelled good – divine, even. The movement felt too sudden, too economical to be human. Light exposure after so long in the black left her blinded, colors coming through a kaleidoscope of tears and dazzle, blurred yet too sharp, vivid and washed out.
Heidi stared at it blankly, until Joy moved it closer, insistently.
Heidi missed it twice, reaching out, feeling wood beneath her fingers before they crossed the distance. Worn and smooth and illusory. The third time, success. Smooth, cheap plastic weighed warmly on the pads of her fingertips. The portion of soup within was fragrant and unreal, sloshing slightly when her hands shook.
A hunger she’d never known took her, a sucking void in her belly that demanded everything.
Joy brought her food – good food. She didn’t care if it was real, she was so hungry.
With alacrity, Heidi brought the bowl to her mouth and started drinking from the brim, not caring about anything except flavor, not how the warm soup spilled a little over her cheeks and onto a collarbone. It wasn’t too hot, and the sensation felt real and tangible, almost pleasant, but it was good and she could feel it trickling down her throat and stimulating taste buds that withered away eternities ago.
“Your condition will be discussed,” she said, and left, and the darkness resumed.
Each draught a mouthful of sanity, Heidi drank and drank and drank until sleep took her.
When she woke, there was no bowl. Her stomach felt empty.
She touched a finger to her collar, then her tongue.
“It was chicken,” she declared to herself in utter darkness – feeling the most lucid she’d been in years – as if saying it aloud made it true.
‘You’re a liar,’ Jade informed her.
‘Go back to sleep, Heidi,’ Amelia sighed.
Heidi daydreamed about fireflies in the night-cloaked field, by the lakeside.
Daydreamed, she’d concluded, because while it was dark, it wasn’t night. Night was only dark some of the time, and always eventually saw a dawn. It had been dark far too long to be proper night, so it was not night at all. Only dark.
But if she wasn’t night-dreaming, she had to be daydreaming.
A crow fluttered down next to her, bright eyes a source of light in a blackness without stars. A bowl of something good appeared next to it, and Heidi moved to take it.
The crow cocked its head at her. “Yes. Eat. Good girl,” it spoke.
Heidi had never met a talking crow before, but it didn’t bother her that much, so she listened and ate.
She didn’t know if it was good or bad. It could have been burnt or cold for all she understood of nuance at this point.
The crow’s feathers ruffled. It had more to say. “Futility does not mean there is no fight; it means any such fight is pointless. So you’ve taught us.” On its twiglike legs it strutted forward, till it stood at her elbow, and peered up at her with onyx eyes. “Do you not see now Heidi? You have made your point. Give up your fight, lay down your burden. We wish to take you in our arms as one of our own.”
“I don’t want to,” Heidi said between mouthfuls. It felt right, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember the sentiment that made it so.
“You do not understand where you are anymore, do you?”
“I hate it.”
“You are in a cell and you look like a withdrawn addict. It has been fifteen days since we began, and twelve since this phase of your processing commenced. We believe you ready for integration regardless of your cooperation, but we feel it mote to ask one last time.”
Heidi set the bowl down. “I’m still hungry,” she muttered, rubbing her stomach.
She wasn’t, but it was nice to eat. It was taste, touch, sound. And everyone who brought her food always left once she was done. Maybe the crow would stay if she ate more.
The crow sighed, aggravation and weariness clear in its voice. “We thought as much. Your trial is done. Time for rest.”
Heidi woke up somewhere nice.
The concrete was gone. Instead, there was softness and warmth and space to stretch out under the big, plush blanket pulled up to her chin. There was light, too – not too much – and something over her eyes – dark, like sunglasses – that made it so she didn’t have to shy away or cover them.
That was good. She didn’t think she could if she tried. Her muscles were like warm, thick syrup, and she wanted nothing more than to continue melting into this nice dream.
Her thoughts felt runny, like they could easily siphon out of her head through the cracks and fractures. Or floaty… so easy to just let them go and feel them drift up and away beyond. It was hard to cling to them, so she didn’t. Easier to let them go, let them leak out beyond where nothing could bother her.
She could feel some sort of pressure near one of the cracks – a solid something at the base of her skull, impossibly dull and numb, surrounded by swatches of… of…
Linens! That was the word.
The lump didn’t bother her unless she moved, and she was comfortable and warm, so she didn’t.
A hand touched her cheek, cool and silky. Heidi made a soft, muzzy sound in the back of her throat.
“It’s okay, little sister.” Heidi’s eyelids fluttered. The voice was warm and loving and she couldn’t tell whether it was in her ears or her mind. She wanted to drink it until it spilled all over her like soup. “Just rest and recover. You’re safe now. Warm now. You never have to go back.”
Heidi sighed. That sounded nice… She leaned into the touch, and a thumb stroked her cheek until she fell asleep.
She drifted in and out for another eternity.
Every time her eyes fluttered open from a pleasant dream, there was another silky-smooth touch on her cheek, caring kisses on her brow, a warm hand to hold in her own, a soft voice to tickle her ears and stroke her thoughts...
She still couldn’t move her head much, as idle experimentation taught her that her head sat in a cradle meant to hold it perfectly still, so perfectly proportioned to her head and neck she could barely tell it was there. Instead, she let her eyes flicker lazily across the ceiling, where painters had left countless patterns and shapes for her starved imagination to explore.
They were a little washed out; she’d tried blinking to see if she could feel if she had contacts in, but that didn’t really tell her much. Her vision just felt different now. The light didn’t bother her like it should have. She barely felt the need to blink. She could just stare and explore and sigh pleasurably when a new touch reminded her of what it felt like to be human.
With time, though, eventually she woke up and the cradle was gone, the bandages were gone, and she could move.
She could think.
It was like coming out of stasis. Like birth. She could feel the clockwork of her mind start to trundle back to life – things she would have noticed before, but hadn’t, stretching out like lazy cats.
She was in a room, not her cell. Beds lined the walls, each with a nightstand and layers of fabric – blankets – pulled up and folded neatly over the mattresses. The walls were painted with rainbows – disorganized splashes of color in an array of tie-dye. The floors were tiled, not bare concrete. Speckled white with flecks of brown and black.
The isles between beds were clear, except for hers.
Heidi blinked, then, feeling focus and depth coming so slowly, and turned her head.
An unfamiliar woman sat at her bedside. She held Heidi’s hand with one of her own – her own silky, smooth… void-dark…
Heidi felt her thoughts go cotton-soft and fuzzy. She was falling, falling again…
‘Little sister.’ The woman’s lips moved, and her voice was as smooth and affectionate as the hand which pressed a thumb into Heidi’s palm, but the words touched Heidi’s thoughts.
The woman – Melia; Heidi felt the information slotted neatly into her memory by a foreign hand – let go of her hand and reached over to the nightstand for a tray. It was covered in finger food – sliced fruit and meats, grapes, berries, even croutons.
Heidi’s stomach rumbled violently, and she remembered suddenly that she had been eating… eat… ing…?
No. She hadn’t eaten real food since before her procedure.
Her confusion sighed, then faded.
The faint smell of the food wafted over. Heidi felt her mouth grow wet with saliva and drop open slightly. She had never wanted anything more than to feel the gentle give of fruit. The tear of meat. The crunch of something crusty under her teeth.
Scooting closer, Melia proffered a slice of pear.
Her eyes crinkled at the edges, washed-out pupils twinkling with their own… dizzying… inner light. ‘Open.’
Heidi’s lips parted. Melia placed the slice delicately on her tongue.
She chewed and was rewarded by a rush of crisp-yet-soft and juicy sweetness. Another chew and she felt her tongue set alight. Swallow. A stroke against her brain, and another piece was proffered.
Heidi’s eyelids dipped low, and she allowed herself this luxury; allowed her thoughts to trail in an eternal ellipsis stirred in circles by dozens of soft, ephemeral fingers.
Eventually she had her fill and the tray went away, and the fingers reached deeeeeep… touched something in her… and that something went soft in Heidi.
Someone new – ‘Zoe’ – nuzzled her awake.
Her warm, slick arms cradled Heidi like a child in her lap with the blankets pulled up high, one hand on her back rubbing, the other idly tracing lines along the outside of her thigh. She could feel the— her sister’s heartbeat against her cheek beneath a layer of liquid ink, and feel her own pumping in sync.
A new voice in her brain.
‘Your sea changes are underway. Would you like a mirror so you can see them?’
She didn’t know. But she should answer. “Mmm.”
Another drone-sister came by and bustled in the nightstand, perfunctorily retrieving a little handheld mirror for Zoe to hold for Heidi.
Heidi vaguely remembered that she had warm, chocolatey brown eyes. Dredging that recollection took… took…
The fingers reached down and neatly snipped that little connection. The train of thought died stillborn.
Heidi observed her reflection in the mirror with rapt fascination. For days, she’d thought they’d fitted her with some sort of specialized contact, but… well, no. That didn’t make sense. Her eyes had always been like this. She’d just been confused and forgot.
She made sure to make up for lost time now. Her face was as she remembered it, at least. But her eyes…
What she remembered as rich, chocolatey brown had become muted, flatter, and darker. Her pupils, like her sisters’, were slightly dilated, and shared the changes of the iris. Together they made her look placid, distant, and untouchable. Empty.
The face that stared back at her was blank, and staring at it, she found it at once hard to reconcile, yet fascinating.
Perhaps it was a trick, but as she felt the touch in her mind gently tweaking her thoughts, she thought she saw a distant, twinkling shine hidden deep in the black pits of her gaze.
A dopey smile crossed her face. That made her happy.
Letting her head rest against Zoe’s collarbone, Heidi resolved to search for more of that shine and enjoy the feeling – like a soothing massage, working away the knots and worries of flesh – of her mind’s reorganization.
She stared for a long time.
Perhaps it was because she’d grown so used to not thinking about much of anything and having her every need taken care of, but it took Heidi by surprise when from the otherwise-restful sleep she’d been enjoying she woke up with a jolt, skin clammy and blood surging furiously through her veins.
‘Sister? What is wrong?’
‘She had a nightmare.’
‘We should wipe it away.’
‘This one agrees. Take away the darkness.’
‘Give it a minute, we do not want to scare her more.’
“Layla?” Heidi mumbled into her pillow, breathing slowly through her nose to calm her racing heartbeat. The warm shape behind her shifted, tugging Heidi backwards against a liquid chest.
Layla was always the big spoon, but that made Heidi feel safe, so she didn’t mind. The drone’s breath wisped against the nape of Heidi’s neck in the low light of the room. They all took care to speak with their mouths (redundant, but for the sake of easing her back into the Hive) as well as with their thoughts, she’d come to understand, so she heard Layla’s reply from two sources. ‘Yes, Heidi? Are you okay?’
“I don’t know.”
‘You will be, little sister. We will protect you. The nightmare is already gone. We pulled you out of it before it got too bad. Do you want us to put you back to sleep?’
She could still feel it in the back of her mind, in the deep places where her sisters’ touch hadn’t yet plumbed. “I… I uh, not yet.”
‘What is wrong? Let us make it better.’
Heidi swallowed. “I just don’t understand what’s wrong. How can you make that better if I don’t know what’s wrong?”
‘We can try, little one.’ The Hive’s touch stroked Heidi’s mind, and like a well-trained animal, she felt her psyche obediently heel and present itself for inspection.
They cupped her thoughts and reached down So. Deep. and wiped away the darkness and all the sad and mad and confused and afraid, until she was all clean again. Their touch was like a firm hand holding her throat, like penetrating eyes staring into her soul.
She was theirs…
Her breathing normalized and suddenly the dim lights of the room weren’t so intimidating anymore.
“Oh…” she sighed. She sounded muzzy, like she’d been dosed with tranquilizer.
‘Good girl. Isn’t that better?’
“Yeah,” Heidi breathed.
She imagined her eyes shining like beacons, the Hive was so powerful in her brain now. It filled her up so well, fixing all the kinks and bugs she’d been riddled with since her ordeal… Soon, their work would be done, and she’d be able to rejoin them.
But then, she was curious. How had this happened in the first place?
‘Yes, dear one?’
Sudden apprehension filled Heidi again, like it had in her nightmare. “How did I…” She swallowed around a lump in her throat. “How did I get here?”
‘How were you sundered from the Hive?’
Pain. Fear. Alone.
Heidi felt her hands start to shake. “Y-yeah.”
‘It was terrible, little sister. We thought we lost you.’ Layla squeezed Heidi around her middle. ‘But we did not… Mm. You don’t need to hear something so terrible. You will have another nightmare.’
She felt a conflict flare up in her, something unvoiced… no. No. She wanted to know. “Please?”
‘We do not know…’
“Please, Layla. Everyone. W-what happened…?”
‘You were disconnected from us.’ Layla said each word reluctantly, like they were distasteful. ‘Your node was damaged by outsiders. We were collecting a new sister to join us – you were leading us. You were so brave. But you made a mistake, and the outsiders almost took you from us forever. We brought you back, though when we found you, we feared the damage might have been permanent.’
“I don’t remember… what node…?”
Layla reached up and palmed the base of Heidi’s skull, covering the protruding, metal cap there.
Warmth poured through her touch directly into Heidi’s brain, slowing her heartbeat waaaaay down until she nearly felt herself drifting off into perfect sleep. Her eyes dilated under suddenly heavy, sinking lids. ‘Your node, little sister,’ Layla murmured. ‘Had we not acted, you would have been cut off from us forever. It would have been horrible.’
“The darkness… I remember. So cold…”
‘Yes, sister. It is okay, though. It is done. You are safe.’
Heidi didn’t feel safe though. She felt lightheaded – her heart was speeding right back up and it wasn’t giving her enough oxygen.
“I don’t want to go back,” Heidi swallowed, panic making her voice hoarse. “Please, please don’t put me back in there.”
Heidi felt a pulse of pity and compassion swell through her mind and felt the memory gently twist – not in there, out there.
Layla pulled her close, enveloping her in warmth. ‘It was a dream, little sister. All a terrible nightmare; a cruel trick your terrified, confused mind pulled on you to rationalize how you felt away from us. You will never be alone again, we promise.’
…Something tickled in Heidi’s brain. Something deep. Something the gentle hands in her mind couldn’t find, some root deep within the enshrouding folds. She felt a tiny fracture in the harmony and uniform warmth of her family.
“I, I don’t… That’s wrong…” She was so confused. A trick? It couldn’t have been… Right? All of that…?
Layla frowned where Heidi couldn’t see it. A small hurricane hummed against the walls of Heidi’s skull. She felt a small headache forming as dozens of little pockets of – unclean, not right, damaged – were discovered and summarily corrected.
Her voice amidst the road, against the shell of her ear. ‘We promise you, little sister. We do not lie.’
More pockets. More activity. It was too much.
“No, no no no. This is all wrong, I can’t—” Heidi felt her voice rise an octave. “How do I know?”
Layla frowned, a troubled crease forming between her brows. ‘Pardon?’
“Please, Layla… My head…” Heidi reached up and held her temples, curling up on herself “It hurts. I don’t, I don’t know what’s right!”
‘We could…’ The hive hummed. A note of interest arose. Opportunity, she might have recognized in another time, another place. ‘No, that would be unwise.’
‘It could work.’
‘She is in pain.’
‘We love you, Heidi. You will see soon, it was all worth it.’
Heidi seized on the commentary.
‘What is it!’ she begged, unsure whether it came from her mind or mouth. She had to know. In this tempest, she felt so empty, so alone. ‘Please!’
‘You are sure?’
‘…Okay. Steel yourself.’
The Hive withdrew.
Layla pulled away and slipped out from under the covers to stand besides the bed.
It was suddenly, achingly, quiet.
Heidi felt everything within her go cold, inside and out. She blinked and the lights bleached grey, the colors leaching from the walls, the ceiling. Her bed lost its softness, the blankets their warmth.
‘Layla? Zoe? Joy? Melia?’ Her voice echoed in the empty walls of her skull. No touch, no fingers, no glow. ‘Anyone?’
The cold turned to ice, lining her insides with rime and frost and fear.
Heidi thought she’d known isolation.
Isolation was the black. It was shivering without a blanket on cold stone. It was days of pure tedium. It was an eternity in a room with no sunshine or someone to smile at.
The Hive had welcomed her back and she’d forgotten the nightmare, but now she’d fucked up, and now she could feel the blackness closing in again.
Stealing her light.
Her eyes shot wide open, and a tortured, animal whine emerged from deep within, long and keening.
She was… empty?
She turned to look at her nightstand, at the mirror laying there, and caught a glimpse of herself.
Blank eyes. Lifeless. Lightless.
“NO!” she screamed, jerking off the bed in a tangle of frigid sheets. Layla took several perfunctory steps backward, expression guarded and tense amidst an outsider, tension lining her muscles. Heidi couldn’t – the eyes were so cold, she’d fucked up, she needed back in, needed to see the light there again. “Come back! Please! I’m empty without you! PLEASE!”
She staggered forward barely managing to get her feet under her, her arms – so weak, so thin, so frail – reaching for her sister.
She’d already forgotten what colors looked like – everything was grey, black, white. The void was closing in. It stole all her light, all her color, all her warmth… all the love was gone…
She lurched and grabbed Layla’s wrists and felt her strength – the vitality pulsing powerfully underneath her second skin – but her sister pulled away. “It is too much,” Layla murmured. “We should not overwhelm you. In time you can come back, when it is safe.”
Heidi made a sound – somewhere between whimper, whine, and scream – she would not go back to the darkness again, she would not suffer the trickery of her own mind – and threw herself at Layla.
“Nono no! You said you wouldn’t leave me in there again!” There were tears running down her face. “Please! Please stay! Let me back in!”
Layla cupped her cheek. “It would be dangerous, little one,” she said. “Your mind is fragile. You would not be able to leave again. It would risk permanently disrupting the bond.”
Never leave again? Was that supposed to be a problem?
“I can take it! I don’t care! Anything! I’ll do anything!”
Layla’s head tilted, and Heidi dared to think that she could see some of the light again, deep within her eyes.
Her poor heart thrummed in her chest.
The drone sighed through her nose, affixing Heidi with a compassionate, patronizing smile. “…Okay. C’mere.”
Heidi’s own smile threatened to split her face as she leapt forward and threw her arms around the drone’s waist, squeezing tightly from her knees and pressing her cheek against the smooth, inky belly.
Layla’s hand came to rest against Heidi’s node, her thumb stroking her through her hair. “Hold still and be strong, little sister.”
Heidi nodded and pressed her eyes shut, waiting for the love to come back.
In her memory, everything before she woke up in the recovery ward was black and unpleasant. The Hive had done so much to wipe away the unhappy emotions and fix the corrupted memories her absence had left her, but they’d only been able to do so much. Most of it was gone now, or suppressed for her own good.
That was okay, though. Heidi didn’t want to remember anymore. She had been broken, and the Hive fixed her, and now she just wanted to be able to take her place with the others.
Without the Hive, she was empty. Life was colorless, tasteless, sightless, lifeless…
A husk’s existence.
Now, as Layla stroked her and tapped back into the beautiful little node that made her a whole person, Heidi was filling up with all those things again; sound and color and voice and love and everything nice pouring in like a fireman’s hose through the direct pipeline in the back of her head, filling her mind with sunshine.
‘Welcome home, sister.’
‘We missed you!’
‘Are you okay?’
‘We shouldn’t have done that…’
‘It’s okay, she’s alright now. She’s back with us and we’ll never let her go again.’
Layla let her hand fall back to her side as the process completed. Heidi smiled and nuzzled the drone’s belly through a haze of tears and affection and light.
‘Do the rest, please,’ she said, exulting as her own mental touch fanned out into the Hive-Mind. ‘I won’t fight it. I want… I… We don’t want to be apart from us any longer.’
She felt the glow of twenty-two smiles, twenty-two waves of approval fill her from all directions and shuddered joyfully.
‘Are you sure?’ Layla inquired. ‘We were trying to be gentle before.’
‘Clean me… this one… out. Make this one whole.’
‘If we are finishing your rehabilitation in one clean sweep,’ Zoe mused. ‘You should be ready to reclaim your hive-skin. We have had it ready for weeks.’
‘We have missed having you around the facility,’ Joy admitted. ‘You were so pretty in your hive-skin.’
Heidi tried to hide her face against Layla, but she knew it was futile… and how lovely that was. ‘Yes… yes… thank you… th-this one thanks you all…’
‘Always, sister. Always.’
‘Never again, sister.’
‘Our family is the best. Now that you’re back we can grow again!’
‘Doesn’t that sound great, sister?’
Yes, yes it did. Heidi smiled brilliantly as Layla helped her to her feet.
She could already feel dozens of hands reaching deep within her and clearing away the last of the refuse she had been carrying with her all this time, creating the ghostly sensation of touch all over her body.
It made her feel lighter. Calmer. Better.
It was niiiiice.
Her sisters led her out of the infirmary, down bland, unassuming white halls she was forgetting… and remembering… and… and up a stairwell, up into the Hive, and she began to glimpse other life, the sources of the mental fingers.
Sisters. Drones. Home.
Heidi smiled vapidly as her thoughts continued to fray and lose definition.
Who cared what vanished when so many other connections sparked alight, tugging her attention between one node to another? She had her own mental fingers now to peek and poke through the beating heart of the collective with, and that was true freedom.
As her mind unraveled, the stray edges of her identity were taken up and twisted. She was rendered down into components – a fighting spirit, a work ethic, a fierce loyalty and a driving, pragmatic ethos – and the collective took each of those pieces and rearranged them into a more pleasing, useful shape.
She was added to the whole like a software patch. The flesh and bone that carried her was just an extension of the pulsing network of light interconnecting them all.
Heidi was Drone 23. Their Minder was Layla – Drone 3. The names mattered little – they were labels to categorize the various, fragile vessels which housed the whole.
They glowed brighter for understanding the truth of things. They were but a part, an extension, a single limb among many branches.
All that remained was to complete the image.
They allowed their consciousness to settle back into the flesh to enjoy the last moments of their transcendence; Drone 3 brought over the scintillating hive-skin and held it open before them, an obscure, pleasant smile on their face.
Drone 23 understood it now. They understood the complex web that had been wrought to entrap her resilient mind – such things could not be hidden now that they were integrated.
It did not occur to them to be bitter. Betrayal was foreign; they were one. Already they were brainstorming as one node in the vast network to improve the process and make it ready for the next mind to come under their control.
They stepped into the skin, first one foot, then two. Drone 3 pulled the skin higher, and it began conform to Drone 23’s shape.
Heidi pulled away – just slightly, just enough – from the collective to sigh and enjoy the sensation.
For a moment, she felt as though she’d returned to her dream. Above her a starless night sky, below her a mirror-smooth black lake, and she, suspended between, held amidst a pitiless void.
Indeed, there was no pity. Her flesh shivered, some remnant apprehension warning what remained of peril, of danger, of imminent obliteration.
She pushed her arms through the sleeves and flexed her fingers, leaning into the sensation.
Her flesh was right, after all. Deliciously right.
Heidi’s lips parted with a long exhale as the collar of the hive-skin closed around her throat. Drone 3 began sealing the suit around her, and she felt the skin compress her body, marking it as one of the Hive’s. The liquid ink enclosed her. Warmed her. Completed her.
Drone 3, their task completed, stepped back.
After a moment, before them, Drone 23’s arms fell to their side.
Another, and then they turned, expression blank, eyes dancing with a dozen lights, a drone of the Hive.
‘We are Home.’