Ciara grimaced, pinching the last wire into place within the stripped paneling of the wall. Their last objective—planting a bug deep within the hardware running through the isolated hall—was completed with minutes to spare before the power reactivated. She felt far from satisfied.
Too much rode on her ability to finish her task and get both herself and her helpless sister out of the facility. With the last of the scheduled outages behind them, there would be no more opportunities to hack into the Hive infrastructure without drawing attention to themselves. There was only escape, evading the drones… keeping Yseult within her sight and away from the drones that could carry her off and make her one of them.
Yseult had become Ciara’s responsibility, she resolved. It was like their childhood years where her wayward sister was quick to take the lead in exploring the fields around their home. Yseult was the first to jump the creek and run through the waist-high (shoulder-high to their child-selves) grasses, and the first to trip on a stone or catch a toe in a rabbit hole. When she tumbled, Ciara was likewise first to be at her side to pull her up and check for the bruises that always appeared, and first to scold her sister for not looking where she was going.
Her sister would look up at her, pretty blue eyes blinking with astonishment—why was Ciara so worried? She was just fine!
Bitterly, Ciara reflected that the lesson hadn’t sunk in, and the consequences were far worse now. Her sister maintained the same puppy-lost look she’d had then, but it lacked the same cuteness her childhood innocence carried. Her blue eyes showed nothing, glassed in trance as they were.
It was hard not to hold Yseult tight to her when she saw her so helpless. It was wrong for her to be so simple—so compliant—when at all times she was the star of the morning sky, bright amidst faded lights.
Ciara forced her thoughts out of their slump as she navigated halls she faintly remembered from the debriefing. toward what she thought might be an exit. Too often they’d been forced to change directions to avoid patrols.
Yseult’s eyes haunted her. Glassy, like polished marbles, they bored into Ciara’s back. Like a parent feeling the judgement of their child when they knew they were in the wrong. Ciara grimaced and marched on with one hand firmly clinging to her charge.
This wasn’t fair, she thought, and it wasn’t her fault. She was in charge though, so it was her mess to clean.
Two, three times she was forced to change directions when she heard the approaching click of patrolling drones. The floor plan was not complicated, but the blank walls and symmetrical layout created the illusion of one’s being turned around, and the exits were all monitored closely. Getting in was easier than escape.
Lock-step emerged from down the hall behind her. The rhythmic beat masked numbers effectively, but Ciara knew that drones always patrolled in pairs.
She resolved to duck into the next room they came across. She needed to gather their bearings and formulate a plan, rather than tread water like they were.
Yseult docilely followed her. She should be asking questions. Should be watching Ciara’s back and giving her the comfort that she so desperately craved.
‘Stop it. Focus.’
They came upon a large set of doors which slid open for them. Ciara dragged Yseult inside and promptly gaped at the unusual sight that greeted her.
The walls were white—as usual. A single slave stood with perfect posture at a panel on the other end of the narrow room; what her task was Ciara had no idea. Lining the walls were cylindrical pods. Each hummed quietly and efficiently.
Metal doors barely more than shoulder-wide, with tiny windows on the front faced the center of the room. Ciara walked forward—leaving Yseult to stand vacantly near the entrance—and peered within one. The pod was full of a strange, ethereal green fluid, with a lone occupant.
Her face was set in peaceful repose, as if experiencing a pleasant dream. Though Ciara could tell she was fair-skinned, with dark hair, the woman’s body was tinged green by the fluid. She looked like how her childhood stories described the fey, or even a dryad.
How could she breath through the stuff? There were no oxygen masks protecting her from suffocation, and yet Ciara could clearly see the woman’s chest rise and fall with each breath.
She pressed a hand to the door, felt they were cool and smooth rather than warm as she expected.
What was the purpose of this room? These pods? Why hadn’t Lily informed them of this?
Ciara turned to the only source of answers she was likely to get. The slave had not deigned to acknowledge their presence thus far, so enraptured by her task was she.
“Slave,” Ciara croaked—her voice was harsh from stress and dryness. She swallowed compulsively, trying to wet it, suddenly wanting a drink desperately. It had been a long time since their last meal.
The slave twitched but did not otherwise betray her recognition.
“What is the purpose of this room? What is your task?” She asked.
Dull monotone answered her. Ciara was shocked to hear her own native Irish accent in this slave. “This is one of Philae’s many rejuvenation chambers, where occupants come to restore their bodies to the prime of their youth. my task is to monitor the status of each incumbent slave and ensure they emerge prepared to minister to our Mistress’ desires.”
“How is this possible?” Ciara demanded.
“i do not know. The process was developed years ago by slavers on Earth. Mistress Pines brought the technology here.”
“Do you know where I could find—“ Ciara began, her mind racing with the implications of carrying away knowledge of how to replicate a rejuvenation process. How this hadn’t already become Interplanetary news was completely beyond her.
Unfortunately, the doors slid open to admit two black-clad drones.
Her heart skipped a beat as their blank, dark eyes locked on her. They dismissed Yseult as a threat—‘small mercies,’ she thought—but each had withdrawn their dark batons and held them in a tight grip.
Ciara wished she’d kept her taser—it was too obvious to carry, and there were no places to conceal it within her uniform—but set her feet in a defensive stance. The two drones no longer moved in tandem; instead they each approached with predatory grace, slightly spreading out to each side of the narrowed room, prepared to pinch her between them should she try to dive past, and more than able to block her should she try to force her way past one of them.
The right one moved first—baton swinging downwards in an overhead strike. Ciara threw her arm up at an angle to let the baton slide down the incline of her forearm—deflecting it safely away from her—and slammed her knee into the drone’s gut.
Its’ breath left in an audible ‘whoosh’—Ciara spun to face the other drone and was immediately forced to duck to the side to avoid its baton. It crashed into the bony part of her shoulder; Ciara felt her arm go numb from shock and stumbled backwards.
It advanced. Ciara looked into its emotionless, steel grey eyes. They held no pity—no recognition of her as anything more than an obstacle to be removed. The first drone was struggling to rise to its feet, breath ragged and pained. She had only seconds before it was back on her.
She lunged at her immediate adversary, intending to wrestle the baton away from it. Her odds would drastically improve with a weapon.
It fought back with shocking strength. Its grip on the baton was strong as iron; the other hand grabbed the junction between Ciara’s shoulder and neck and squeezed horrifically hard—the muscles underneath those fingers howled their protest and Ciara yelped alongside them, drawing her arm back to strike the drone in the solar plexus.
It pulled her close and drove its knee into her torso, just below the ribs. Like the other drone, Ciara’s breath left her in an instant and she crumpled to her knees, agony streaking through her body like a lance. Everything hurt. She couldn’t breathe. Her vision swam.
She felt the drone drag her off to one of the pods as she recovered. Her body was limp as a rag; it must have been easy for it. The room was otherwise quiet, save for her painful attempts at catching her breath and the quiet hum of the pods.
A door opened—she hadn’t realized that not all the pods were occupied.
She struggled as two hands like iron clamps lifted her below the shoulders. A sudden, undeniable force clouted her on the temple and her vision went white.
Her head lolled, she couldn’t think. The rest of her went entirely limp. Her vision swam with black spots—she hadn’t managed to recover her breath and now she couldn’t remember how to try.
She had never desired air more fervently than in that moment.
She wanted to take a breath.
She needed to fucking breath…!
Her vision darkened as her wits slowly returned. She opened her mouth—she couldn’t remember how to breath!
Her arms struggled vainly against the hands pressing them to a flat, inclined bed within the pod. They were strapped in perfunctorily, and she couldn’t move them more than half a centimeter in any direction. The same happened for her waist and legs.
Her lips opened and shut dumbly. Her chest flexed. Impotent.
Her thoughts faded.
She couldn’t remember how to breath.
She couldn’t remember how to think.
She couldn’t remember
It was like dry kindling set alight as her chest finally heaved in a surge of oxygen. Her vision came into vivid focus; suddenly the blank white walls seemed more garish and beautiful than had previously seemed possible. The haze over her thoughts receded. Ciara remembered her name.
She relished in the sensation of breathing in and out, of tasting sweet, sweet oxygen. The metallic clank of the door shutting on her seemed inconsequential compared to the satisfaction of such basic, primal desire.
With oxygen returned thought. From thought came memory. She was Ciara Ward. Her sister was Yseult Ward. She worked for Lilith Yew. She was in the Hive on a mission with Yseult. They were in terrible danger.
She searched through the tiny window of the pod for her sister. The drones were speaking to her. Ciara’s resistance had already been forgotten.
They were leading her away.
Ciara screamed, thrashing against her bonds.
The machine hummed. Something was happening.
They were taking away Yseult. She couldn’t let them. She couldn’t live with herself if she let something happened when Yseult was her responsibility and failing her meant her sister might never escape this fucking nuthouse…!
It was like she was breathless again. Worse. Being able to think made it so much worse. They would do things to Yseult. Slather her in oil until her mind dripped from her sandals. Strap her in one of their mind machines and break her will. Erase her. Unmake her. Make her something new and wrong and not-Yseult.
Ciara could breathe but her reason for breathing was being taken away and she couldn’t do anything about it.
The machine hummed louder—she felt something wet cover her feet and realized that the pod was filling with the green liquid she had seen before. Ciara indulged her need to scream her frustration.
She howled in all three of her mastered languages. Cursed in five others she was passing familiar with. Begged in a strange mix-mash of gibberish and emotion and barely-articulated pleas that she knew nobody could hear and that anybody who even tried would almost certainly not care.
The liquid rose to her knees. Her thighs. It was getting faster. Her skin tingled underneath it—not in the trance-glaze way the oil elicited, but as if being exposed to cool water and warm sunlight. Her skin breathed in the liquid in the same way she breathed her precious oxygen.
Yseult was gone. Out the door with the drones. She hadn’t even put up a fight. Just followed them out like a docile, helpless slave.
Ciara was crying. The liquid was up to her chest. She had failed.
‘I’m sorry Yseult. I’m sorry Lily. Eve, Saira, Kate. I’m so sorry…’
The liquid rose past her lips. Ciara took a deep breath—her last? Surely, they wouldn’t drown prime conversion material, would they?
Past her nose and eyes, above her head. She was completely submerged. Everything was so much quieter now. Her lungs quickly started to burn, begging her for more air. They remembered the agony of starvation; she remembered the haze of desperation. It was too vivid; too recent.
Her body betrayed her and released the dead carbon dioxide building up within her lungs. Unable to stop the instinctive gasp for another breath, the green liquid flowed down her windpipe and into her lungs. For a second, Ciara felt what it was like to drown.
She was so scared, for so many reasons. Her chest hurt. She was in shock. She couldn’t breathe again. Yseult was gone. She had failed.
So so scared.
Her thoughts darkened. A light haze descended over her mind, clouding the realization that she was not dead. A defense mechanism of the mind. Her chest moved in the instinctive motions of life, defying logic by taking in the mysterious green fluid.
As her mind darkened, something within her loosened. She retreated deep within herself—a small bright core named Ciara deep within the recesses of her being. That part of her slept, while the rest of her accepted the green fluid that made her feel so light and healthy. Her body sang with it.
The parts of her that were not asleep felt the misty euphoria the green fluid elicited and floated on top of it.
Was there music? It was so vague, and she was so tired…They had removed her earbuds, removed the uniform she had stolen. It wasn’t important. The humming was louder—simple machine humming like that of a refrigerator. She was being stored. Preserved.
Exhaustion claimed her. Ciara slept.* * *
Blearily, Kate opened her eyes as cool fingers slipped underneath her headphones and pulled them off her head. It was difficult for her to focus; the room was blurry and indistinct. Her head echoed with the music that captivated her soul; every other thought seemed wan and unimportant compared to it.
She felt a lazy haze nesting in her limbs. She felt replete with it—was content to let it keep hold of her while she let her mind doze and let others do the thinking.
Obedience is pleasure.
Kate’s breath hitched, the mantra concrete Truth in her mind flaring into prominence. Like a star going supernova, its heat and incredible light seared away the mist of her lassitude. It dissolved like dew in the morning sun.
I must listen to my controller.
Who was her controller? Kate was incredibly confused. She had been listening to the music. Had given up herself to her conditioning. The slave had properly incapacitated her and introduced her to the music that captivated her soul.
Internally, Kate groaned. The mission. The part of her that had struggled before reared its head and tore into the new part of Kate that exulted in its submission to the Hive and to Obedience. Their clash produced a painful throbbing in her head.
Gentle hands cupped her chin and tilted her head upwards. Kate tried to focus on the person examining her, but her eyes refused to focus themselves. Everything was a blur—the figure was clad in white, she could see, and had whitish-blonde hair, but Kate couldn’t tell if she was pretty or stern or anything besides.
‘i-I need to focus,’ she thought, real-Kate wrestling down the nascent part of her that encouraged her to settle down and let others do the thinking. It was young and weak; though it never stopped testing her command of her thoughts, she could fight it back now that the trance-haze was gone.
Kate closed her eyes, rolling them around to try and clear some of the blurriness. The oil and the music—the beautiful music—had dilated them, but time had passed, and the oil had been cleaned off her. She could still feel it in her blood, and the skin where it had been slathered tingled pleasantly, but its absence gave her new resolve.
The hand withdrew, and Kate was proud of herself that she didn’t let her chin drop back down to her chest.
“What is your name?”
Kate’s eyes flickered open. She could see better than before—not perfectly, but it was an improvement. The figure examining her was clad in the white uniform of the Hive’s controller-slaves. Her hair was silvery-blonde, and she had chocolate brown eyes. Her cheekbones were phenomenal, and her narrow jaw gave her face a thin, elfish look.
She looked like how starlight would look as a person. Kate loved watching the Martian sky—it had no atmosphere or light pollution to obscure the celestial marvels like on Earth. Seeing this woman who looked so much like the beautiful objects she loved floored her. She stared at her for a long moment, drinking her in.
It didn’t occur to Kate to be disturbed by those chocolate-brown eyes, which were wide, emotionless, and glassy.
“What is your name?”
Kate blinked at the controller, and the obedient-Kate complained within her head.
I must listen to my controller.
It was Truth, but Real-Kate didn’t want to meekly submit to her interrogation, nor was she about to concede ground to the other-her in her mind.
‘She isn’t my controller,’ Kate snapped mentally at herself, feeling that part of her subside reluctantly.
After a moment, she opened her mouth to reply all the same. It would be rude to ignore the question, and Kate didn’t know what the controller wanted in the first place.
“I’m Kate,” she answered, licking her dry lips. “Kate Davis.”
Giving the woman her name wouldn’t hurt her. The Hive didn’t care about names, and hardly needed to guess where the infiltration team originated from.
“What is your purpose within the Hive?”
The Truth flared again, and the conflict between the two Kates erupted again. They warred with each other. Real-Kate bitterly resisting the newly-ingrained urge to tell all to the controller, and Obedient-Kate furiously trying to take over.
The pain in her head localized to her temples, throbbing in waves across her skull.
Kate didn’t want to betray her mission to the Star-woman. Didn’t want to betray Lilith, or Saira or Yseult or Ciara or even Eve. They had put their trust and faith in her to be strong. Real-Kate drew on those convictions and forced obedient-Kate into temporary submission.
“I’m an investigative journalist,” Kate lied, permitting no trace of her internal struggle to show on her face or in the tone of her voice. She laced it instead with scorn. There were innumerable cases of journalists trying to gain the scoop of the century by infiltrating the impenetrable slave compounds on Earth—her cover would be nothing new. “I wanted a story on the only Hive colony on Mars.”
The Star-woman didn’t betray anything on her face. Instead, she reached up to stroke the part of Kate’s throat that had been slathered with oil.
Kate mewled involuntarily, her core clenching as numbing pleasure radiated from the spot. It felt like those soft fingers were stroking the hyper-sensitive lips of her core, the oil having electrified the spot into its own erogenous zone.
“What is your purpose within the Hive?”
Obedient-Kate seized the initiative and broke free of Real-Kate’s grasp. The two fought each other again. Those fingers distracted her. They gave her obedient self a new weapon to fight her defiance.
“I-I’m an investigative journalist,” Kate whimpered, shivering. She felt transported back to her capture, where her bravado had first been forcibly ripped away from her. “I just wanted a story.”
Oh, why did she have to trail her nails down Kate’s jugular? Kate’s eyes drifted shut. She felt like prey; helpless and trapped. The feeling was yet more ammunition for her submissive self.
Her limbs were still hopelessly unresponsive to her commands. She noted that her arms were no longer tied above her head. Her hands sat motionless in her lap, and though she was able to twitch her fingers slightly anything beyond that was impossible.
The controller tried again—twice more—each time stroking that oh-so-sensitive spot with heartrending tenderness. Both times Kate lied with trembling lips. Real-Kate couldn’t dominate Obedient-Kate any more. The two circled, rival predators contesting territory.
Finally, the controller abandoned her line of questioning. Kate felt mild disappointment as the elfin woman stood and walked away. The skin on her throat felt alive and electrified. The controller did not leave the room, though, instead electing to recruit the other slave woman to a new task.
Thrill. They were walking back towards her and Kate felt a thrill run through her. It was so hard to push back against the questions already. The Truths within her commanded her to obey. And it was so so tempting to obey. Obedient-Kate hungered for it even as Real-Kate resisted.
The two halves of Kate’s soul knew that the controller and the technician-slave would give her obedient self more weapons to use against her defiance. Beleaguered, Real-Kate hunkered down to resist the growing part of her that wanted to answer the questions and feel the reward-pleasure the music promised.
The beautiful, beautiful music.
“slave, you will disrobe the intruder,” the controller said to the technician-slave.
Her traitorous limbs refused her call as the slave pulled off her stolen uniform. The floor and the cabinet she rested against felt cold on her flushed skin. Kate felt her nipples harden into stiff peaks as her breasts were bared to the cool air.
Doubt gnawed at her as she saw the dark spot on the panties the slave rolled down her legs. She remembered nothing but the Truths from her time wearing the headphones. Evidently, she had missed out on a pleasant experience.
Her arms were drawn above her head by the cord once more. She was able to move her fingers by then, but that availed her little.
Kate’s breathing sped up as the controller ordered the slave between her legs. Her fear was ambrosia to her obedient self.
She looked at the white-clad woman. Her chocolate-brown eyes were dispassionate as she asked Kate again what her purpose was in the Hive.
She wanted to answer so badly. Part of her resisted it. She lied again.
The technician-slave bent down, and Kate threw her head back as a soft, warm tongue licked along her dewy slit. A rosy tinge blossomed on her cheeks, and she closed her eyes.
Kate focused on an image of Saira. Saira reading a book in the mess hall, in the dormitories. Always looking tranquil and in control. She always knew where she was going, and what to do. Kate wanted those qualities badly right then, as the slave started exploring her crevice at the command of the controller.
Obedient-Kate called up an image of Saira in her scarlet slave uniform, conjured the image of her standing with Saira as a sister and lover, with eyes as wide and empty as the beautiful Star-woman. Kate flinched, biting back a moan. It felt so good.
The music played in the background. It was so hard to resist letting its gentle melody soothe her struggles.
The controller asked her again. Kate lied. She remembered Saira and Eve and the Ward sisters greeting her with open arms when she first arrived in Copernico. Saira with her soft-spoken candor. Eve with her eyes sparkling with intelligence and playful teasing. The Ward sisters goofing it up, offering her a pint of ‘some of the good stuff.’
They had none of the sort but played it off by looking at each other in mock consternation. One accused the other of snitching the bottle, and the two wrestled over it to the hooting laughter of the three others.
Kate resisted bitterly. She lied again, even though the slave’s soft lips were wrapped around her clit and suckling gently. The music began to build in her mind—giving new strength to her obedient self.
She remembered her joy when Lilith Yew—The Lilith Yew—offered her a position as one of her top operatives in the most important facility operating on the red planet. Her pride and the skyrocketing sense of self-worth that had been wallowing in the dumps after the dead end her life on Earth had become.
She fought, lost ground all the same. The music blunted her struggles. The chemicals still running through her veins diluted her reason and weakened her resolve. Her mind was still blurry from trance. The Truths were used as keen-edged blades against the defiant real-Kate that slowly gave ground to the Obedient-Kate that oppressed it.
When the controller asked again, Kate bit her lips to keep silent. Truth—not the lie she’d given—ached to burst free. Her thighs trembled around the slave’s head as her core pulsated.
Her memories were being corrupted. She saw Saira reading in her uniform, eyes hooded with trance-glaze. Eve walked toward the music to be converted as she must, leading the others behind her. The Ward sisters strode together toward slavery with the same sense of inevitability that Kate’s obedient self wielded like a dagger.
Lilith Yew reigned like a queen in her mind. It was difficult for Kate to see the Hive overcome her. It always felt false; fabricated. Kate was weak where Lilith was strong, young and rash where Lilith had experience and the wisdom to take the right action where it was needed. Those memories and feelings were attacked; made to fade and covered in fuzzy haze so that she couldn’t hold onto them.
A soft hand cupped her throat. Kate opened her eyes as fingertips tenderly stroked along her jugular. Her vision was blurry again, but she clearly saw chocolate-brown orbs boring into hers relentlessly.
The music crescendoed within Kate’s mind.
Kate screamed as she came undone—high pitched and agonized as something within her snapped like a taut wire and curled back within itself. Her legs crossed behind the slave’s head, trapping her mouth against her spasming core. The press of the controller’s hand against her vulnerable throat sent a thrill of fire down Kate’s spine—she threw her head back and reveled in her release even as a rapidly vanishing part of her despaired.
It was relief beyond any she’d experienced. The sundered halves of her soul came together in brilliant fusion. Their reunion was like the ease of a muscle shivering with exhaustion.
When Kate finally opened her eyes once more, they were not glassy in the trance of the slave, but there was something absent that had been there before. She did not miss it.
The technician-slave withdrew, chin glistening, and returned to its work station. The hand was withdrawn from Kate’s throat and her own arms were loosed from the wire binding them.
“What is your purpose within the Hive?”
There was no resistance this time.
“I’m from Copernico,” Kate said, mouth dry. Her body was still shivering with stimulation. “Lilith Yew sent me and four others to sabotage communications inside the Hive.”
“Where are the other four intruders?”
She was betraying her friends. Part of her reveled in it. The rest said nothing.
“Two are on this floor, the other two I don’t know.”
The controller asked her a few more questions—why she wanted the headsets and where they were to rendezvous. Kate answered with total honesty. She felt hollowed out; it was easy to rely on the Truths to guide her actions now.
When the controller ordered her to stand, Kate stood. Her body buzzed with reward-pleasure for listening. Obeying. Nothing so delicious as her interrogation, nor what would come later when the response was conditioned deep into her body and mind, but still delightful.
She dressed in the blue uniform and took the thoughtcontrol headsets they offered her. The one she claimed was fully functional; music and sweet commands streamed directly into her mind once she adjusted it to cup the shells of her ears.
The Truths had already prepared her to open herself to the stream coming from thoughtcontrol and surrendering to it was sweet bliss. The parts of her that were not yet enslaved sighed—like a flat wind on a quiet day—and she longed to feel them smooth over in proper conditioning.
The controller gave her orders. “I will sabotage my companions and subvert them to the Hive by any means necessary,” Kate replied.
Kate pictured Saira and Eve, scarlet and white uniforms looking undeniably right on their toned bodies and smiled dreamily.
Her resistance was defeated; scattered to isolated crevices within her mind where the music could not reach. The obedient part of Kate that now dominated her felt their residual influence as she departed to complete her mission—but couldn’t care less. She had surrendered, and it felt so right to obey her controller.
Kate marched off, sandals clicking to the unending rhythm of the Hive’s music.* * *
Lily followed Evelyn deep into the Hive. They had already taken an elevator down to one of the lower levels—a requirement if Lily wanted to fulfill her intentions within the facility before time ran out.
She noticed no power-outages to indicate her agents’ presence, something that bothered her. It was perfectly possible that they had already completed their mission, but she doubted it.
Evelyn’s controller status allowed them to bypass the notice of the patrolling drones. They were content to allow them to walk by with nary a glance. Lily nevertheless kept her taser close at hand.
They passed through several corridors, but eventually, Evelyn stopped to face a particular pair of large doors, which slid open to reveal a room filled with cylindrical, humming pods. One of Lily’s orders had been for Evelyn to take her to the source of Hive Philae’s ability to restore vitality to its inhabitants—Olivia had been in her early thirties before her disappearance, and yet looked barely out of her teens when Lily visited her in her cell.
Technology to restore the appearance of youth existed on Earth, but it was largely superficial, and nothing to the extent Olivia displayed.
She strode past Evelyn to look within the pods. Some were empty, others filled with green liquid and serene, youthful looking faces. What were the liquid’s properties? She had never seen its like before.
Lily was about to march up to the slave working diligently at the console at the end of the room when the doors slid open again. Three figures strode in confidently; one woman clad in a lilac uniform, flanked by two drones. The sight of her face pierced Lily’s heart like an icy dagger.
Lily could only stare in naked shock, her mind frozen in abject horror.
Her agent’s face betrayed no emotion as she beheld Lily, at odds with her memories of the woman from before. Yseult always had a smile for her—for anyone who took the time to engage her in conversation. Instead, blue eyes stared through her, wide and blanker than Lily had ever expected to behold in such a free spirit.
The drones were not so passive, their eyes locking on her instantly.
They drew their batons and stalked forward. Adrenaline flooding her system, Lily snarled and lunged at them first, shock igniting into fury in an instant. Her heart pounded and sound like a roaring waterfall filled her ears.
She smacked a baton off its course toward her skull and drove her taser savagely into the drone’s ribs, riposting to drive her heel into the other drone’s ribcage. She felt bone collapse underneath her feet and the drone staggered backwards with an undeniably human cry.
Its blank, black eyes briefly showed emotion—shock. Lily didn’t give it another moment to regain its bearings and delivered a sharp punch to its temple. The drone dropped like a dead bumblebee.
Her breathing was harsh. Fury and agony blended within her chest. She had failed. She had failed. This was her fault.
The drone stunned by her taser weakly began to rise. With a hoarse cry, Lily dispatched it with an identical clout to the temple. Then she fell to her knees. Despair clenched around her heart in a painful vice.
She had failed.
Were her other agents already subverted to the Hive? Was she too late? Why had she been so stupid?
Yseult stood patiently. Without a controller, she was directionless. Evelyn was content to stand in her own place and wait for Lily to command her. The slave at the console hadn’t even turned around to witness the skirmish.
Lily belatedly realized she was crying. Her forehead rested against the softly humming machine. Her skin felt flushed against the cool metal. Her tears traced wet tracks down her cheeks, into the collar of her exosuit.
Her eyes clenched shut as she wrapped her arms around herself, desperately hugging her arms to her chest to keep the violent tempest within her chest from bursting free. It felt nothing like the hugs she would get from Solana or Saira—comforting and filled with respect and care. It felt lonely and afraid and guilty.
She had failed. Evelyn had a new slave-sister and Lily had no idea what to do now. Another soul lost to the forces it so desperately fought against. Had Yseult fought?
Were the others fighting, even then?
Of course, they were, she berated herself. If they drew breath—if they hadn’t been captured and put through the conditioning process that turned even the best into slaves, they would be fighting. They were strong. She owed them better than doubt.
She owed them so much more than succumbing to her grief and her pain.
She drew in a painful sob and pulled herself to her feet. There was a chance that the others were still fighting—still struggling to fulfill the mission Lily had given to them. She had failed Yseult, she would not fail the others while she still had the chance.
She had to be responsible. She owed everyone relying on her that.
‘If you want something done right, do it yourself.’
Wasn’t ‘doing it herself’ the reason this mess had occurred in in the first place? Because of her pride, and her decisions?
Yseult glassily stared at her. Lily felt judged, despite knowing how empty that mind was. Evelyn stood quietly off to one side, obedient and infinitely patient. Her eyes watched some point on a horizon far beyond the limits of fallible human sight.
Lily inhaled and marched up to Yseult. She didn’t know what to say, and when she opened her mouth, she found herself at a loss for words. What could she say? She had failed Yseult and the slave standing before her was the result.
She swallowed. Tried again. “Yseult,” she said. Yseult didn’t blink.
“Yseult, talk to me,” Lily said, firmer.
“Hello, Lady Yew,” Yseult replied.
That damn title again. It had been flattering coming from Olivia. From Yseult it felt wrong to not be addressed as ‘Director.’
“Are you alright, Yseult?” The words were like ash on her tongue. She knew the answer and hated it.
“i am better than alright, Lady Yew.”
Lily cringed anyways. She could feel the emptiness like a tangible presence. Of course, Yseult was alright—she was probably basking in the infinite bliss of her conditioning by then if there was enough of her left to recognize that pleasure in the first place.
“What happened?” She found herself asking.
“Ciara and i were stealing uniforms to blend in when i got some oil on my wrist. i fell into a deep trance, and when Ciara led me here to hide she was knocked unconscious by security and interned within the rejuvenation chambers. i was taken to be conditioned,” Yseult explained in a monotone.
The last sentence was said with the same undercurrent of blissful worship that Olivia used whenever Lily interrogated her on her experiences within the Hive. The void in Lily’s gut opened just a little wider to hear it. Yseult was already too deep within Pines’ machination for Lily to feasibly rehabilitate her.
She would always remember the bliss of obedience, of surrendering her will to another and shedding the responsibilities weighing her down.
Lily hated the part of her that envied her. She wanted so badly to not feel the pain of failing the people she was supposed to protect. Like Yseult.
‘I’m stronger than this,’ Lily berated herself. ‘Get it together and stop moping, Yew. You’re not helping yourself or anyone else with pity-parties.’
She focused on Yseult’s words. Ciara was in one of the pods?
“Which pod is she in?” Lily demanded.
Yseult pointed. Lily strode over and saw Ciara’s face set in the same calm expression as the others. It shimmered underneath the green liquid.
Did Lily have the right to pull her out?
The thought was sudden and jarring. Lily was surprised at herself for thinking it.
She had failed Yseult by putting her in a situation where she was not equipped to come out safe and whole. She had tried her best to prepare all her agents for every trick that Pines could pull within her own personal domain, but it hadn’t been enough. That was on Lily alone.
Yseult would never function properly in society after this. Lily could pull her out. More than that, she could easily order Yseult to follow her outside and Yseult would do it happily. The urge to return to the mindless obedience that Pines’ Hive—any other slave facility—promised would forever hang over her though. Lily knew stronger people who, exposed to even the earliest conditioning, would happily sell their souls in exchange for that mindless, happy existence.
Ciara, stuck within the pod and exposed to the subliminals pulsing throughout the facility as well as whatever chemicals permeated that green fluid, might be slightly better off without proper conditioning, but she would never be the same without Yseult. She would wind up a bitter, twisted woman avidly pursuing the destruction of slave facilities. Lily had seen so many good people ruined by that fruitless obsession, and it was too easy to see Ciara fall into the same trap others before her had.
The two sisters were simply too close. Pulling Yseult away from the Hive would ruin her. Pulling Ciara away from Yseult would ruin her in turn.
Lily pressed her brow to the pod’s window, contemplating her decision. Neither woman was in any condition to make such a vital decision—they were effectively Lily’s responsibility. She would decide how the rest of their lives played out with this choice.
Internally, Lily quailed. She had already failed them, why did she have to choose for them again?
Did she have the right?
Could she really leave them here for Pines?
She didn’t know.
Not knowing hurt. Like someone had taken the dagger in her heart and was twisting it slowly.
Lily took a deep breath, holding it inside until her head swam. Evelyn and Yseult waited patiently for Lily to make her decision. She wished they would tell her something. Give her advice. Tell her their thoughts. Anything.
She released the breath and made up her mind. Lily marched over to the slave working the console.
“Slave, ready the woman within pod thirteen for withdrawal. She is required elsewhere within the Hive,” Lily ordered, weary. She didn’t have it in her to be angry, or sad, or morose. She felt wrung out, like a damp rag.
The slave went to work instantly. Ciara’s pod hummed louder as the mechanisms within it began to drain the fluid away. Lily walked over to stand by the door. Through the window, Lily could see Ciara drip from everywhere. A strange mask came down from the top of the pod and closed itself over Ciara’s mouth and nose—a gentle sucking sound emerged from the pod, and Lily imagined it was draining the woman’s lungs of the strange green fluid, so she could breathe the outside air again.
Then the door opened with a soft hiss.
Ciara lay against a flat, inclined bed. Unlike the other pods’ inhabitants, she wore a dripping green uniform that clung to her body, though she lacked the collar that every properly conditioned slave wore around their throats.
Lily blinked and looked at Yseult—she didn’t have a collar yet. Perhaps it was specially presented by Pines? She knew that the rate of slave acquisition was slow enough to certainly make that a possibility.
Lily reached within and carefully released Ciara from her restraints. The woman slumped downwards as she released the final clasp. Lily caught her and gently bore her out of the pod. The green fluid tingled against her skin.
Lily had a moment of panic as it touched her, expecting to fall into a trance. She hadn’t thought to check in with the controller to see if it had those properties.
A minute passed with Ciara cradled in her arms, but aside from a feeling of invigoration in the places the fluid touched, Lily felt confident that it would not put her under.
It had already worked wonders on Ciara, who resembled some of the pictures she and Yseult had shown Lily back in Copernico of their younger years. She didn’t have the barely-out-of-her-teens look that all the other slaves possessed, but she seemed years younger than before.
Impulsively, Lily pushed a few errant locks of hair away from Ciara’s face, tucking them behind an ear. She shifted the woman—really, she looked nearly a girl now—in her arms to a more comfortable position.
Could she leave her here for Pines? Could she truly take her away?
Ciara stirred. Lily felt her gut drop as blue eyes flickered open, so lost and confused and filled with the childish bewilderment of one awakened from a particularly vivid dream.
“Ciara,” Lily crooned softly, tasting bitter ash on her tongue. The maternal instinct reared its head again, pushing down her bitterness and her self-doubt. She had to be strong for Ciara.
The girl’s pupils contracted, looking over at her in amazement. She looked as though she had never seen another person before. Had the liquid wiped her memories?
“D-Director?” Ciara mumbled, confusion in her eyes.
A pang of disappointment paired with relief entered the mire of emotions gathered in Lily’s chest. She cursed herself for briefly hoping that Ciara wouldn’t even remember Yseult after her dip—it would have made her decision so much easier. The relief was the honest side of her; she liked Ciara and would have mourned her had her memories been destroyed.
Like she mourned Yseult now.
“It’s me, Ciara,” Lily murmured to the girl, stroking her hair. She looked so young, so vulnerable. Looked as though she could have just graduated high school. Lily felt the urge to protect Ciara strongly in her gut.
“Where am I?”
She sounded lost. Lily cradled her closely, shielding Yseult from her view.
“You were on a mission for me and ran into a spot of trouble,” Lily told her gently. “I followed you all and found you here. You’re safe now.”
Ciara blinked, slowly processing that statement. It appeared that her dip in the rejuvenation chamber had dimmed her mind—Lily imagined temporarily; a result of the semi-hibernation state it placed its occupants in. Waking from that would be like awakening after a long, deep slumber on a lazy Saturday; slow and unhurried.
Lily swallowed. That was a dangerous question. “She’s okay. She got in some trouble but she’s okay now.”
Ciara shifted in her arms, suddenly seeming agitated. “No,” the girl said muzzily. “They were taking her away. I was stuck and couldn’t help her…She’s in trouble…!”
Lily stroked Ciara as the girl squirmed in her arms, shushing her soothingly. “She’s alright now,” she reassured her. “I took care of it.”
Ciara was having none of it, struggling weakly to get away from her. She muttered under her breath about responsibility and protecting and not failing again. Lily held her tight and ached in sympathetic agony as she contemplated the same problems. She was more than a match for the sleepy girl.
“She’s okay Ciara, you can just relax and go back to sleep,” she promised the girl.
Ciara stopped moving and looked Lily in the eyes, dazed but more alert than she’d been previous. Lily schooled her expression into one of maternal affection, not wanting the girl to pick up on her anxiety, and waited.
It was enough for Ciara. She finally relaxed into Lily’s arms and rested her head against Lily’s arm. “Tha’s good,” she mumbled. “Couldn’t live without Yseult. Don’t wanna live without her.”
Lily compulsively pulled Ciara closer to her. “Is that right?” she asked casually, trying to ignore the way her voice had risen slightly in pitch.
“Mhmm. I never wanna be separated from Yseult. Not for anything!” Ciara declared resolutely into Lily’s chest.
Lily let the conversation end as her agent slumped into her arms, her breathing slow and even as she indulged in the languor and euphoria of the rejuvenation treatment.
Back to square one. What to do with her agents now?
Whatever the decision, Ciara had made one thing clear: Lily had no right to separate the two. She would either bring them both with her or leave them both behind.
Picking between the two options pained Lily horribly, especially as she knew the clock was ticking. Precious seconds spent here might cost the other three agents hiding within the facility their freedom and their minds.
It hurt more to see that struggle in Ciara’s eyes. The girl took her duty to her sister seriously. It had obviously cost her a lot to be subdued in the way she had, and to have to watch Yseult be led away to a fate that both sisters had so obviously dreaded.
There was heartfelt love between the sisters, Lily knew.
It was that love that made Lily’s choice for her, though her own heart twisted to realize it. She had a duty to ensure the sisters’ happiness. She had made similar choices before and likely would again later.
“Ciara, wake up and listen to me,” Lily said, closing her eyes.* * *
Ciara blearily opened her eyes to listen to the Director. She had a very pretty voice. Ciara felt safe and comfortable in the Director’s arms; she was happy to obey and let her speak.
The music pulsed through the facility around her. She had only been able to hear it faintly within the pod—a thready, ambient sound that wove its way elegantly into her thoughts and emotions. She thought it sounded very pretty too.
“Yseult is here with me—she’s going to take you somewhere safe where you can go back to sleep for a long while,” Lily said, opening her vibrant green eyes.
Ciara loved the sound of that. She craned her neck out to try and find her sister. She wanted to see that she was really alright like Lily had said. She wanted to see for herself, just to make sure.
“I’m going to give her instructions on what to do—you can just relax and follow along. I’ll take care of everything, alright?”
Ciara nodded, and Lily propped her against her pod. Ciara felt deprived of her warm arms and whined quietly.
She let it go, though, and reclined against the pod. There was Yseult! Her sister looked statuesque in her lilac-colored uniform. Ciara couldn’t properly see her sister’s eyes with her own eyesight so blurry from sleep, but she saw Yseult turn her head to look at her when Lily pointed her finger at Ciara. That made her happy.
She felt the urge to sit up and go to her sister, to really see if she was alright and unchanged from whatever the drones had led her away to experience. Yseult was her responsibility. A nagging part of Ciara’s mind urged her on, nervously recalling hazy memories of what usually happened to slaves when they were being converted.
Lily knelt back beside her, evidently taking note of her anxiety. She cupped Ciara’s cheek gently.
“Just relax, Ciara. I’ll take care of everything. No more worrying,” Lily said to her. Her voice held a sense of finality that confused her. After a moment, she let the emotion go and obeyed.
Ciara felt her muscles loosen; released a soft breath of air from between her lips. Lily would take care of things. She could surrender the lead; Yseult would be fine. She would be fine.
The music danced in her ears. She could feel it whispering through her mind, tangling her thoughts in a briar of temptation and silence. A part of her knew it was softening her mind; she felt suggestible and calm and wonderfully relaxed.
Lily would take care of things. It didn’t matter what the music did to her; Ciara didn’t have to fight it anymore. She surrendered to it.
Ciara found herself standing motionless, eyes staring far beyond the walls of the Hive, somewhere she could not see. It didn’t matter. The music and Lily had the answers.
Lily was speaking to Yseult—probably instructions on how to fight the programming. Telling her to take up the struggle that Ciara didn’t need to anymore.
The other controller returned. Ciara hadn’t noticed she’d left. Time seemed to pass by so quickly now that she didn’t need to worry. It never seemed to affect the music, which swayed and whirled through her mind in a soft, lulling cadence.
Ciara stared into the controller’s wide-set brown eyes as she stepped forward. Lily had ordered her to do something. Ciara obeyed when the controller told her to bare her throat, and her core clenched with reward-pleasure at the prompting of the music.
Something slick and oily was applied to her throat by lovely soft fingers. Ciara smiled dreamily. She could feel her thoughts slipping away into the soft, rolling fog that filled her mind. Her breathing, slow and even, synchronized with the controller’s. She was so close to her that her soft breathing caressed Ciara’s slick throat; it was so easy to fall in line with everything else.
The music softly playing through her empty mind became Lily’s lilting voice, caring and responsible. It was so easy for Ciara to surrender to that voice; to that music. She was soft and pliant and docile and finally didn’t have to call the shots any more.
Her sister was safe. Ciara smiled dreamily again. Her face had gone slack with the application of the oil, but she liked smiling.
Lily spoke to her. Ordered her to listen.
“Ciara, I’ve given Yseult instructions on what to do,” the Director told her. “She will take you where you need to go; you won’t need to be separated from her.”
Something eased in Ciara’s mind. She would be with Yseult. That was wonderful.
“Just follow her instructions and let her take care of things.”
Then Lily and the unfamiliar slave were gone, and Ciara was following Yseult down the hallway. Ciara drifted in a fuzzy cloud of euphoria. Her body tingled with reward-pleasure as she obeyed Lily’s orders and followed Yseult and let her take the lead that Ciara didn’t need to anymore.
Yseult guided Ciara into a long room filled with enclosed terminals. Dozens upon dozens of slaves were inside; two to a terminal. One lay back on a chair, bodies slack with surrender, while the other knelt between that slave’s spread thighs. A screen hovered above the faces of the reclining slaves. Ciara could see the reflection of impossibly complex color patterns on their slack faces.
Their eyes shone like kaleidoscopes, wide and glassy.
Yseult turned into an empty terminal. Ciara followed, laying down on the oh-so-comfortable chair within. Her sister lifted her legs into their proper place and secured them. The soft-but-firm straps calmed Ciara as she let her limbs relax. Another thing she needn’t worry about.
Another strap went around her hips; another her forehead; two more around her wrists and a final strap across her chest along her breastbone. All throughout Ciara smiled dreamily and let her body relax into the comforting hold of the chair.
Yseult spent some time fiddling with a pair of headphones. She ejected something—a chip?—and reinserted another similar device before leaning over Ciara to settle them snugly around her ears.
The music diminished into a distant murmur, but Ciara still heard it entwined with her thoughts. Her thoughts were the music. There was only the music and Lily’s orders. Lily knew what she was doing; she would make sure that Ciara and Yseult were safe and happy.
A black screen descended over Ciara’s field of view. It moved slightly as Yseult adjusted it, and Ciara met the eyes of her reflection.
Her blue eyes stared without recognition at the slave lying on the chair, strapped in tightly. She marveled at the blank, staring orbs in her twin’s face. They were like marbles, if marbles could blink occasionally. The pupils, wide and encroaching far into the irises, sucked at Ciara’s consciousness like black holes.
Ciara found she could not look away. Their gravity was too strong. Yseult was doing something in the background, but she couldn’t turn her head to look.
Then sound poured into her ears, clear and refreshing as fresh spring water. Ciara’s mind absorbed the sounds as one parched unto dying. The screen flickered to life. Her pupils became spirals, the black void in their center turning and lengthening and deepening.
She could not look away. The words in her ears sank into her mind. Lily’s voice instructed her to listen and obey.
“I listen and obey,” Ciara found her lips uttering. Her eyes longed to flutter shut as the reward-pleasure stroked her sensitive heat like a tongue.
She longed to see what her sister was doing now. The other controller-slaves took positions between the laying-slaves’ thighs, but Ciara could not look away to check. Her eyes were trapped in the spirals, free falling into the black voids at their center.
She could only sink deeper, could only
“Listen and obey.”
It was so easy to be
“Relaxed. Docile. Pliant.”
Some distant, echoing part of Ciara’s mind struggled through the fog. It was turned around and confused, just like Ciara herself. This didn’t bother her because
“I listen and obey.”
When she listened, she needn’t be confused. Lily would take care of things. She would make sure that Yseult and
“I am safe and happy.”
The part of Ciara that yelled through the fog heard her pleas returned by music and silence. It was alone in Ciara’s mind. There was only music and emptiness and obedience.
“Obedience is pleasure,” Ciara intoned blissfully, her first release washing over her like the tide. The words were delicious. They rolled off her tongue with mindless ease, filling her body with sweet honey.
Obedience dripped over her mind like warm syrup. Down her sensitive body. The tongue at her core lapped it up and gave it back to her in soft, insistent friction every time she spoke. Every time she complied. Obeyed.
“Obedience is pleasure.”
The rebellious part of her mind pleaded desperately with her. It urged her to look away from the spiral. Ciara couldn’t, wouldn’t look away. The slave in the screen, reflected at her, was beautiful. Ciara wanted her.
Lily told her she would be safe. She must listen to Lily. To Yseult. Yseult knew what to do now.
“I am safe and happy.”
She was safe and happy and Yseult knew what to do. Ciara told Lily that she couldn’t live without her sister, and Lily believed her. Yseult knew that
“O-obedience is p—pleaaasure!”
And that Truth was burned into her mind with the music and the silence. Yseult was a slave. This Truth was clear to the slave in the screen. The blue eyes shining with color, they looked like kaleidoscopes and knew that the Truths being burned into the mind behind them were inescapable and permanent.
Lily knew. Ciara rejoiced. She would not be parted from her sister because Lily was wise and beautiful and wonderful enough to reveal these Truths to her.
For Lily, for Yseult, Ciara would be
“Docile. Compliant. Controlled. I am relaxed. I obey. Obedience is pleasure.”
Rebellious-Ciara pounded against the fog. Found nothing solid to hit. She screamed threats and begged and reasoned. Found nobody to listen. Wept and cried and drowned in her despair. Found nobody to pity her.
As Ciara sank deeper into the spirals, merged with the slave in the chair, Rebellious-Ciara diminished until the fog consumed her. No.
Rebellious-Ciara cocked her head in that empty landscape. Heard the music sweetly singing its song of hope and love and peace. Rebellious-Ciara flickered out like a cold ember; vibrant orange smoothed over and became a part of the fog.
Something in Ciara eased. There was nothing now save her and
and the warm, slick tongue between her legs, dipping deep into her heat and flickering over her engorged clit with deft skill. Every stroke burned Lily’s Truths deeper into her mind; fixed Lily’s words deeper into her thoughts; made Lily’s words her thoughts entirely; ensured she knew that
“Obedience is pleasure.”
Minutes passed. The mantra continued. Ciara mouthed along obediently, knowing her soft mind was absorbing the Truth that it needed to understand to be safe and happy. There was no struggle, because she was
“Docile. Compliant. Obedient.”
She was relaxed.
Time stopped existing and thought ceased to be. When soft hands lifted the headphones from her ears, she failed to recognize the rise in the volume of the music. How could she? It played through her every thought now—there was no change for her smoothed mind to register.
her controller loosened the straps holding her to the table. They were unneeded but would be used every time she returned to this place nonetheless.
Taking the hand offered to pull herself up from the chair, she found herself swaying slightly. her head was light, and her body sang.
The slave in the mirror stared back at her as she faced her controller. Wide, empty blue eyes stared into wide, empty blue eyes. Lips exactly like her own moved; their words penetrated her senses.
“you are a slave.”
“i am a slave,” ciara repeated. Agreed, easily. It was Truth.
“you will obey Mistress.”
Mistress. ciara trembled as climax shook her body. Beautiful, wise, sublime Mistress! Did yseult understand the Truth that reigned like a queen within ciara’s mind? Mistress! Mistress! ciara whimpered in helpless pleasure as her knees turned to honey and she pitched forward.
her controller cradled her in her arms, stroking her hair with tender affection as ciara rode her release and revelation. Tears rolled down her face, sliding smoothly down her youthful skin. yseult cared nothing for her nudity or the thick musk of ciara’s sex filling the air.
her mouth shone with slickness; ciara knew now what her preslave-self failed to recognize—her sister was the vessel of her revelation, had made her into her perfect self.
Profound gratitude rippled through ciara’s soul, and she pulled yseult down by the back of her neck to crash their lips together. her controller-sister accepted the assault with grace. her lips rolled against ciara’s with skill and care. ciara sang; her mind filled with the music and Lily’s Truths, her body with the Truth that yseult had so wonderfully etched it with.
They separated, glassy eyes still filled with myriad emotions and new-found revelation meeting the wide, glassy stare of their controller.
One day her gaze would be identical, ciara realized with a jolt. yseult had not the privilege of such profound revelation as had been her gift from Lily; she was made a slave by the same method as all others.
ciara would smooth over with each repetition of conditioning; the emotions clouding her now would drain away from her until she was as perfect as her twin. This realization filled her with profound joy.
“Lady Yew ordered me to give you additional programming.”
ciara waited. she would listen. her emotions; roiling after her conditioning, finally began to settle as her programming took over. she would listen.
“you are my sister. you are a slave. These Truths do not contradict each other. you will always remember me, as i will always remember you.”
ciara dutifully repeated the words, feeling them settle snugly into her mind.
“i love you, as you love me. We will be safe, and happy, and free of pain and sorrow. Lady Yew will take care of everything now.”
ciara shivered. Beautiful words! Beautiful speaker! she repeated, listened.
“you and i will perform our duties within the Hive as directed by Mistress. i will now bring you to collect your uniform.”
yseult helped her to her feet, and ciara stood at attention. They were sisters, but yseult was now her controller. she would obey, as good slaves must. she was obedient. Compliant. Obedience was pleasure.
her controlled turned away and began marching. ciara followed, feeling the last of her emotions fade away into music and fog. her body still sang, but such sensations were easily ignored now that she was amidst her Purpose.
ciara had never been so free, so happy.* * *
The tear tracks dried on Lily’s face as she followed Evelyn toward their next destination, reflecting her resolve. She had made the decision that seemed best to her mind. Ciara deserved to be relieved of her burden; the burden that Lily carried on her own shoulders.
If it wasn’t a perfect decision, it was the one that seemed best to her. She would not turn back.
Lily would see her own purpose through to the end, wherever that may lead.
Her heart still hurt, though. Something long and insidious had wrapped itself around her heart, bringing with it the pain of briar thorns and thistles. She ignored it as best as she could.
The Ward sisters’ footsteps dwindled behind her, and Lily allowed a brief thought a moment to express itself before she let it disappear.
‘I’m sorry.’* * *
Saira meditated while she and Eve waited for Kate’s return.
The activity soothed her nerves, rubbed raw by the tension of waiting for their youngest member to complete the task they’d given her. Being the youngest of the group, Kate often found herself the subject of Saira’s concerns while they were on missions. This was only the third they’d taken part in together.
The two prior missions were minor operations. Busting the crime ring distributing hallucinogenic tonics to Copernico residents had been simple. There were few places to hide in the facility, and almost all of them were known to the espionage bureau. The perpetrators hadn’t even fought upon their discovery. The second had been even simpler: the duo had been sent to the neighboring Newton facility several dozen miles to the east to retrieve Olivia Moore.
Could she be blamed for developing a protective streak when it came to her younger associate? Saira didn’t think so, though she made sure Kate was unaware of her subtle hovering. Often, it was as simple as just settling down with a book in the places she knew Kate would be on a particular day.
Kate wasn’t nearby for her to keep an eye on, though, so Saira meditated. Time passed faster, and she’d found that letting her anxieties slip away even while mid-mission was more productive than constant stress.
At least, if someone was there to keep an eye out, as her companion was.
“She’s taking a long time,” Eve murmured.
“She’ll be fine,” Saira replied quietly, keeping her eyes closed. Eve worried too much.
“I don’t like it.”
Saira let her irritation go as soon as it appeared. Eve’s neurotic concern over Kate’s performance ground on the entire team. They loved her as the pseudo-sister they all were to each other, but they all felt the tension that emerged when Eve brought up some minor criticism to needle Kate with over the evening meal.
It grated on Kate the most, of course. Her life prior to joining the bureau had primed her to expect failure and condemnation and worse at every corner.
Her parents had cheated her of an education. Her aspirations had come to nothing after years of effort and fruitless hope. Saira knew, too, what the pale scar over her ribcage meant, despite Kate’s efforts to put its origins well-behind her. And the slight deformity of her nose. Or the scar crossing her lip from when the abusive fucker she’d dated for too long had lost his temper. The others were ignorant, but Saira saw clearly what they didn’t.
Well, perhaps Lilith knew; she was intelligent enough to pick up on the signs. Kate might have even told her about it as a part of her interview prior to being accepted into the bureau. She didn’t indicate it, and Saira appreciated her tact.
Eve’s concern came from care, though. Saira forgave her for it; too much caution wasn’t enough in situations like these, where mistakes cost people their futures and their freedom. She just wished their leader would tone it down a little.
Saira heard the light click of footsteps—solitary. The drones were inhumanly precise, but her ears were sharp enough to pick up on the slight difference in tempo the patrolling pairs created. They’d not seen any slaves travel alone, so that meant…
“No need to worry, she’s right here,” Saira replied, opening her eyes.
She flexed her calves slightly, unfolding them from their crossed position to a crouch. Kate turned the corner in the precise manner of the Hive’s slaves. Saira applauded her mentally for her presentation.
“What took you so long?” Eve hissed impatiently as Kate joined them in the alcove where Saira had suggested they hide.
Kate scowled at the white-clad woman, her eyes flat with scorn. “You’re welcome,” she said acridly. “A pair of drones decided to check the room I found the headsets in. They didn’t leave for a while.”
She handed Eve her headset—a little roughly, if Saira was being honest—and then Saira hers. Saira smiled at her consolingly. Eve was Eve; Saira knew that Kate understood why their leader acted the way she did and trusted her to let go of the bitterness in time.
Perhaps this mission would suffice to cure Eve’s need to monitor Kate’s performance. One could always be optimistic about such things.
The tiny devices cupped their ears snugly. Tiny, soft little plugs meant to settle deep into their ear canals pressed insistently against the plugs Lilith had provided them with for the mission. They were obviously supposed to flood their minds with dangerously seductive subliminal messages and instructions. She was happy that Lilith’s were so effective; lesser hardware might have succumbed or let the sound leak in.
Eve took hers and grudgingly lowered her eyes. “Sorry, just worried about you,” she said to Kate, extending an olive branch.
Saira saw Kate’s eyes—they were colored with a strange mural of emotions—soften, and her friend accepted the apology with good grace.
Eve turned away to scan their surroundings and Saira grabbed Kate’s hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. Kate returned the favor, meeting her eyes with her own orbs filled with their confusing array of emotions. Saira couldn’t read her nearly as well as she could normally.
‘You did well,’ she mouthed silently.
‘Thanks, I was scared,’ Kate mouthed back.
Saira squeezed her hand again, trying to impart the same security she sought to bring to the novice of their team in better times. It partially worked; she saw pain and fear in Kate’s striking grey eyes, but it was tempered by affection and gratitude.
Eve turned back to them, looking at their clasped hands. Then back at their faces.
Evidently, she hadn’t anything worth commenting on there, and they let go quickly enough anyways. “The coast is clear, we should start moving to the elevators,” she said.
She always sounded so professional.
Saira reflected on Eve as they marched in time to each other’s steps toward the industrial elevator they’d ridden before.
While she personally found the woman’s controlling personality to be grating, Saira would never deny Eve’s leadership abilities. Her impatience for frivolity and near-obsessive desire to hold herself to a high standard might have made her infuriating if she didn’t tone it down with a genuinely touching charisma and fierce loyalty to her peers. On-mission with her, Saira gracefully yielded to her decisions, knowing that behind every choice lay solid reasoning and contingencies.
She was at times harsh during training, and stern when she perceived someone slacking off, but they all knew that such bite came from an intense need for everything to go right, and for everyone to emerge unscathed from anything they were thrown at. Every eventuality was accounted for was Eve’s guiding philosophy.
Saira could appreciate that. She was happy to help her friend tone down the rougher edges of her personality if it meant that Eve would keep her sharp eyes on the lookout for her in turn.
Kate had yet to fully accept Eve’s authority. Like a rebellious foal she rejected the bridle, she loathed yielding herself to someone who hadn’t yet earned her respect. Lilith had done so with ease, winning over her youngest agent as the shining light redeeming her life from the hole it had dimmed to.
In time Eve would learn more of Lilith’s wisdom, Saira hoped. She was young yet—barely a year older than Saira herself—and three older than Kate’s twenty-two years. She had time to come to understand how to win the hearts of her people as well as their loyalty.
They were forced to find a different route after discovering that the industrial elevator was now guarded by a pair of armed drones. Their batons were held tightly in their gloved hands.
This worried the trio; heightened security hardly boded well for an active infiltration mission. Saira worried over the fate of the Ward sisters.
Eve pulled her mind from that dark avenue. They would find the normal elevator and attempt to blend in.
They didn’t have much of a choice, being three floors below the surface level. It was make it onto that elevator or test the security of the trapped stairwell.
The large, open room that housed the elevators was packed with slaves carrying out different tasks when they marched inside. Eve marched a few steps ahead of them, the three silently agreeing that—her being the leader aside—her white uniform marked her as the controller. Her following Saira or Kate might be marked as unusual by observers.
Multiple groups waited in an orderly fashion to enter the two elevators heading up. One group had a single opening.
Eve gestured with her hand at her side—simple code they had etched into their memories to ease communication in exactly this kind of situation.
Need Haste. Going ahead. Follow Soon. Top floor.
Their leader couldn’t turn to look back at them—making any replies moot—and so immediately marched forward to claim her spot in the elevator. She gave the two of them a weak, barely-there smile as the smooth white doors slid shut.
Saira let out a pent-up breath. They had to wait, then, and hope that no guard questioned the purpose of two random slaves standing in line with no controller. It was somewhat remarkable that they hadn’t done so when Eve had walked forward without them.
She saw blue-colored movement out of the corner of her eye—what was Kate doing?
“I’m sorry Saira.”
She blinked—head turning by instinct to look at her younger companion—and crumpled to the ground. Kate had a mean punch. Saira’s head rang from its force, her temple sending sharp, lancing agony through her skull.
Saira tried to rise to her feet. Tried to push away Kate as she drew Saira’s arms behind her back and forced her into a kneeling position. Clicking footsteps approached the two—a flat, emotionless voice saying something that Saira’s disoriented mind couldn’t translate into meaning.
Why Kate? She had no reason to betray her to the Hive. No loyalties save to Copernico and Lilith—the woman who brought Kate out of the poverty of her circumstances and gave her a renewed purpose. No reason to betray Saira, who had always supported her with utmost care.
As a black shape knelt before her and pressed a thin, cold needle into Saira’s bicep, her mind cleared enough to piece together what had happened.
Kate’s delay was long enough to be excused by her hiding from a few drones, but it was also long enough for her to have been captured and subverted to the Hive’s desires. Saira had read reports of people succumbing in far less time, and Pines’ operation was hardly one of the more inferior of its kind. She had the resources and influence to relocate to Mars, after all.
Kate’s eyes hadn’t been pained and fearful because of stress—it was the Kate that Saira had nurtured trying to pass along a secret message the rest of her had been conditioned to suppress. A message that Saira, who prided herself on her ability to read people, had misread to the most disastrous result she could think of.
Whatever they had dosed her with quickly spread out through her bloodstream. Saira felt her muscles relax against her will. Not enough to incapacitate her or force her to go limp, but enough to render any struggle she made a forgone conclusion.
Kate held her hand as the process continued, rubbing her thumbs up and down the soft skin of her palm. The gesture was tender and exactly what Saira would do for Kate when she woke up sweaty and exhausted from nightmares after a long day of training, late at night when anybody else would be too cranky to give it a thought.
“It’ll be alright Saira,” her friend reassured her. “You’ll love it here. The music is so beautiful and obeying them is so wonderful. I’m already so happy to obey them. You will be too.”
Well yes, she would, wouldn’t she? The irony of her situation wasn’t lost on her as the drones took her by her underarms and lifted her to her feet. She was a regular fly in the amber, now.
The concoction spread to her head. A wave of dizziness and lethargy overtook Saira’s senses, though her mind remained mostly intact. Not one of their trance-drugs then.
Nevertheless, her muscles and her head felt thick and melty, like a wax doll she might have played with as a child. She and her siblings would oft leave them out in the sun on a hot day when they wanted to reshape them. Wax would run in viscous droplets down crudely formed limbs, kneaded by immature hands.
A lithely muscled arm slipped underneath her arm, throwing it over a familiar set of shoulders. Saira weakly turned her head to look at Kate, who supported her tottering body with her own. Kate’s eyes swam with fervent joy, though she could see the hint of guilt hiding within the stormy irises.
That would go away in time.
“So, you’ll be taking me in, then?” she mumbled out with a thick tongue.
Kate squeezed her shoulders in a side-hug. Strangely, it comforted Saira. At least if her friend was about to betray her to her worst nightmare, she would be kind about it.
It wasn’t as if it was Kate’s fault. The Hive had taken better skilled and more informed agents before them, probably would after. Her friend had fallen victim to the myriad traps layering this hellhole. Saira wouldn’t, couldn’t blame her for it. The Kate she knew didn’t deserve it.
The slave-to-be replied in the affirmative, slipping her arm beneath Saira’s knees and lifting her into a bridal-carry. They began walking down one of the blank white halls running through the facility, flanked by the two drones. Saira tuned out of reality as they walked, sending silent prayers up to whatever deity was listening.
She didn’t ask for salvation or rescue; wasting her final free thoughts on such seemed like a waste. Instead, she begged forgiveness for her friend. She asked that Kate not be made to suffer for falling victim to the Hive’s insidious influence. She was only human.
She asked for Eve to make it out alright, and for Lilith to not tear her heart out for grief for her lost agents. She asked for the Ward sisters to be alright, and for Kate’s turning to be the source of the increased security rather than their capture.
She asked for her family to move on and be happy when they learned of her fate. Most people on Earth knew that slaves were seldom unhappy with their lots, and simply treated someone’s enslavement as their death. It was easier to confront than the reality of their continued existence and gave a sense of finality to something that was anything but.
Saira asked for many things as she was carried to her fate.
The drones turned around to flank the wide double doors they stopped at, evidently content to watch the exit while Kate did whatever they wanted her to.
Saira closed her eyes and bowed her head as her friend carried her inside.* * *
“Do you remember anything from your old life?”
The question was impulsive and naïve, but Lily could hardly have cared less in that moment as she knelt beside the drone knocked unconscious moments prior. A pervasive ache had settled inside her breast, reflecting the bleeding heart within.
She quirked an eyebrow and looked at the slave. Her brown eyes regarded her emptily, but Lily knew that something had to be going on behind those orbs. The Hive trained its slaves for compliance and total obedience, but its controllers and drones displayed enough intelligence to keep even her on her guard.
Perhaps it was all calculative; mental processes designed to best service the Hive rather than follow any set personality. That was still more than a blank slate.
“Tell me about what you remember.”
Evelyn hesitated, but wasn’t about to disobey a direct command. Her eyes went a bit mistier than normal as she delved into the atrophied memories she’d buried deep.
“i had a mother, and a father. i do not remember what they were like, but i know they loved me. we lived somewhere on a vast plain…the Midwest. i remember raising crops and livestock. Cattle and pigs and chickens. Eggs and cereal for breakfast each morning.”
Lily pocketed a vial of oil she’d scavenged from the drone’s belt. It might come in handy later. They carried little that was useful for an intruder overall, sadly.
“When i grew into adolescence, my mother became very overprotective of me. i remember her watching me always. i remember feeling as though i could never find a moment of true solitude; a moment truly mine. i stole moments of peace on summer nights when the clouds in the sky parted to reveal the stars. i searched them for the constellations i read about in books. i would sit and listen deep into the night, until the moon began to fade with the dawn’s light. The crickets and bullfrogs would fill the night air with sound. i always loved to watch the arm of the Milky Way.”
Lily found another vial on the other drone. Pawing through the rest of its pockets produced nothing else.
“When i reached adulthood, my friends from school took me to the city to celebrate. i drank alcohol. More than i should have. i remember stepping outside for fresh air, seeing the night sky obscured by the city’s lights and smog. Something knocked me unconscious, and i woke up inside my first Mistress’ conversion pods. There were lights and sounds…” Evelyn trailed off.
Lily waited for several long seconds while the slave drifted, and then prompted her: “And then?”
Brown eyes focused back on her, as much as they were able. There was pain in Evelyn’s tone; barely there, so faint that Lily could barely discern it.
“The lights stole my memories from me, but i came to love them all the same. There was no more stress or pain or worry or sorrow after i was conditioned. i came to love my first Mistress more than i had ever loved anyone before in the whole world. She was my Polaris; every road to her my Milky Way path. Her pleasure lit my mind like the glittering firmament on high.”
That didn’t sound like it would bring the pain Lily saw in Evelyn’s eyes. She wondered whether the girl had taken a course in poetry or literature before her enslavement; Evelyn was an excellent storyteller. The richness of her descriptions took Lily by surprise.
“What happened?” Lily prompted gently, guessing but not knowing what the girl’s answer would be.
“My first Mistress sold me to pay off debts to Isis Pines, my current Mistress,” Evelyn said quietly. There was a faint quaver there. That of a deserted lover.
The protective urge that had been plaguing her throughout the night flared once more. Lily stood and embraced Evelyn, holding her close. Surrounded by her warm arms and in the throes of her long-buried memories, Evelyn seemed to wilt against Lily. She did not cry, but she held her arms stiffly at her side and bowed her head.
Lily rocked her back and forth, cursing the crass practices of the world’s slaveholders. They were despicable in the first place for robbing people of their identities and free will, but it was even worse when they didn’t give their victims the dignity of humane treatment.
Lily had met several slaveholders in her time. At least some of them cared for the people they’d bent to their will and didn’t treat them like chattel. A precious few even avoided the practice of enslavement altogether, instead electing to take in those who had been rescued from abusive owners and provide them with an environment that catered to their conditioning.
It wasn’t a perfect system by any means, but their ilk were given far better treatment by the various governments of the world. Evelyn deserved someone better than her original Mistress, or even Isis Pines.
A soft breath puffed onto Lily’s collar, and Evelyn pulled back slightly. Lily released her from her embrace, and the vulnerable girl was quickly replaced by the slave with glassy eyes. The pain vanished, replaced by emptiness and the subtle calculation hidden deep within.
Lily’s heart panged. Evelyn deserved better, just like Ciara and Yseult. Just like Kate and all the other people she and those like her worked to protect.
Her resolve hardened, bolstered by that knowledge. Lily drew herself back up to her full posture and gestured to the hall they’d been travelling down before they’d been accosted by the drones. “Lead on, Evelyn.”
“i obey, Lady Yew.”