It took hours to find a way to trade the NPR currency in a way that would let her sleep at night, but eventually Cass found an archivist who was willing to trade his personally issued credit for them. He said that with time he would be able to work through the entire chain for each chit, track down purchases made with it, and maybe find more of the people who had supported the fascist state over its short history. Then Cass found a museum that would trade the archivist’s personal credit for some of the city’s work-hours, which she was then able to trade with an education co-operative for shares in their organization, and on and on like that through a half-dozen negotiated exchanges before she finally had something that she could exchange for scrip. Quite few of those trades had come at a loss, technically, but it was the best she could do without devoting weeks to the effort. It was something for the Schroeders, at least. With what she had managed, they could get a few small luxuries. Tomorrow she would call them and transfer the funds; hopefully they would get some comfort for all her hard work.
Finally finished, she let her mind come back to her body, and took a deep breath, leaning back in her chair, needing a moment to ground herself. She likened it to coming off a fair ride that spins around and around and around, the way that the rest of the world didn’t feel right afterwards, the way everything kept being…off. Staring out the office window for a moment, she admired the beautiful starry sky. She’d read once, in history class, that there was a time when people had let there be so much air pollution and ambient light that you couldn’t see the stars. How they ever let themselves live without the wonder of the galaxy overhead, Cass would never understand. She stretched, stood carefully, tested her balance and was pleased that she wasn't falling over. Not even the least bit nauseated. The odd machine automatically folded itself back into its case as she closed the terminal.
She stretched one more time, and then headed down the hall, down the stairs, down towards the entrance of the building. There was a surprising amount of people there, a crowd of half a dozen, and they all sounded very upset. People were all yelling at Ferro, a cacophony of noise that made it impossible to determine what, exactly, had upset them. Had she been less tired, Cass might have looked into it, or maybe even offered zim some organizational help, but as it was, she just wanted to get home to Sammy.
Exhausted, Cass got into her car and told it to take her home, and the gentle swaying of the vehicle caused her to fall asleep almost immediately, the trip passing in the span of a short blink. She groggily left her vehicle and managed somehow to walk inside without help. She kicked off her shoes, hearing them rebound off the wall. She noticed her console by the door had a half dozen new calls. You’re all going to have to wait until tomorrow, she thought. Cass had honestly expected to see Sammy kneeling in the entrance, waiting for her, but it was absurdly late, and she didn’t begrudge her slave deciding to get a proper sleep. Already it was easy to see how much cleaner her home was. The hallway was entirely clear of boxes, pictures had been neatly hung up, and things were overall much tidier, items were neatly organized on shelves instead of the loose collections from when she had just put things down where there was space.. Sammy had clearly been working hard while Cass had been away. My girl deserves a reward…Maybe I should try out that orgasm trigger on her, I want to hear her scream.
Cass went into the bathroom, to wash her face clean of the exhaustion, and drink a few cups of water. Bed was calling her, but before resting she wanted to see her good girl. Softly, she opened the door to her slave’s bedroom, and peeked inside.
“Sammy?” Cass whispered. The bed was empty, pristine, the corners of the sheets folded in under the mattress. It clearly hadn’t been disturbed. She’s probably in my bed. Her lips curled into a smile. She was too tired for any lusty fun tonight, but having her girl in her arms would be a lovely way to fall asleep after such a long day. She opened her own bedroom door, and for a moment, the sight didn’t make sense. Her bed was empty too. It wasn’t even made, her bedroom floor was still decorated with familiar piles of dirty clothing.
“Sammy?” Cass called through the house. The silence in response was disturbing. Cass felt her heart begin to race. “Sammy!” Cass yelled, pacing through her house. The living room and kitchen were equally lacking in Sammy. Panic started to push through the exhaustion, Sammy wasn’t chipped. She could have gone anywhere. Did I do something wrong? Did she run back to Richard? Cass wondered to herself, checking the slave's room a third time.
The console was ringing again. Maybe it was Sammy. Maybe she got lost somehow, and found a terminal and Cass' contact number. Cass ran to the console, and tapped on the ‘answer’ control without even bothering to check who was calling.
“Sammy?” she asked, the concern making her louder than she meant to be.
“Uh, no, this is…Anderson..and… that answers my question”.
Anderson’s voice went silent over the phone.
“Anderson, what question?”
“I was going to ask if Red and Blue were there," Anderson replied slowly.
“Why would your maids be at my house?”
Another pause. “You should come back to the office.”
Cass’ panic had filled her with adrenaline. Whatever tiredness she had felt was gone now. She grabbed the first clothes she could from her floor (a sweater she usually reserved for camping, and a pair of pajama pants) and threw them on. Anderson had news that he wanted to deliver in person. That couldn't be good.
She told her car to go as fast as it could, and even then, she felt impatient, vibrating in her chair, her leg bouncing. She noticed that there was a reporter in front of the building, talking with Argon, a post-human who worked in Slave Social Services. Her car pulled into the parking lot, and Cass took off, barely waiting for it to stop before running into the building. The crowd was still there, but the tone was much more dire. Nobody was shouting, a few people were crying, holding each other. Anderson was a part of it, being held by Ferro.
It was Ferro who spotted her approach. Ze let go of Anderson with a nod and met her halfway to the crowd so that they could speak more easily.
“What’s going on?” Cass asked.
Ferro looked uncomfortable. “A bus of slaves went missing.”
Horror swelled in the pit of Cass' stomach. “What do you mean… Missing?”
Ferro bit the inside of zir cheek. “Vanished off the grid. We have no idea how.” Ferro rested zir arms on Cass’ shoulders for a moment. “You should sit down, I’ll bring you some coffee, okay?”
Cass nodded, and sat on one of the benches in the entryway. Ferro headed away, back into the crowd. A minute later, A heavyset individual, wearing a pressed dark blue uniform, worked their way out of the crowd, and walked towards her.
“Excuse me, are you Cassandra Lewis?”
Cass nodded, not trusting her voice.
“I’m Investigator Brinkley, he, him," the large individual continued. "I work with Restorative Justice. I’ve been appointed to look into the abductions.” He held out his hand, and from a tiny metal ball cradled in it, a hologram projected his certification.
“Okay?” Cass said. She still held out some faint hope that this had nothing to do with her.
“Do you recognize this individual?”
The projection changed to a security camera photo of Sammy getting onto the bus.
Cass felt like she had been dipped in ice. “Y-yes. That’s my slave. That’s my Sammy”.
Brinkley knelt down to be at eye level with Cass. “Cassandra, I’m very sorry to have to tell you this, but your slave is among the missing.”
Cass stared at him for a moment, feeling a warm wetness running down her face, and then she needed to be somewhere, anywhere else. Cass started running, she pushed past Ferro, who called out to her, but Cass didn’t stop, running up the stairs, down the hall, to her office. It was her space. It was her retreat.
But her feelings came with her.
She slammed the door behind her, marched to her desk, dropping into the seat, and screamed into her hands. She collapsed onto the desk, sobbing into her arms, snot and tears marking up the wood. Cass had always thought out loud; hearing her thoughts helped her to know if what she was thinking even made sense. Being this tired, and this emotional, her feelings came out as a desperate babbling. “Sammy, my Sammy, I’m so so sorry, I promised, I promised I would, I would keep you safe, and I’d be the best Mistress and then I have you for barely a day and if I had just remembered my own terminal you wouldn’t have been on that stupid fucking bus I’m so sorry…”
She felt a hand on her back and jumped in surprise, kicking her legs to push her chair away from whoever had invaded her space. It was Anderson. His eyes were red, but his breathing was normal.
“Woah, woah, woah, it’s okay, it’s just me. I’m sorry,” he said, his hands raised.
“Wh-what do you want?” Cass sniffled.
He took a seat opposite her and revealed he had brought some alcohol with him. He produced two glasses and poured the libation, offering her one. For a few minutes, they drank in silence as Cass tried to get her emotions under control.
“It’s not your fault, Lewis,” Anderson chanced. “I won’t pretend this isn’t awful, but it’s not your fault, and it will be okay. One day.”
Cass nodded, trying to get a grip on some of the hope Anderson was expressing. “Yeah. They’re gonna find her, and then it’ll be okay.”
Anderson swallowed his entire shot. “Cass," he began with a sigh, "you know how this goes. Unless the abductor calls with a ransom demand... you should probably start preparing yourself for the... the possibility that we’ll never see our property again.”
The thought of losing Sammy was too much. Cass lost the last of her ability to hold back her grief, and started to shake, sobbing again.
Anderson tried to comfort her, pouring himself another drink. “Hey, hey, I get it, I was pretty upset when my first slave decided it wanted to be a person again. I know, this isn’t exactly the same, but... the point is, you never quite get over losing your first one. It’s like when a pet dies, you know?”
Cass stood up, and threw her glass across the room, it shattered against the wall. “Sammy isn’t a fucking animal!” she shouted, loud enough to hurt even her own ears.
Anderson looked at her with something like pity. “You’ll move on. You only had her for, what a day?”
Cass didn’t have any more fury to express, and just sobbed, collapsing back into her chair.
Anderson finished his shot and pushed the bottle over to her. Cass took it and downed a mouthful, still in tears. Anderson walked over to the other side of the desk and put his hands on her shoulders. “Come on, let’s get you home, okay?”
Cass nodded, rising, and followed Anderson out of the building in a daze. He led her back to her car and held the door open for her, avoiding eye contact the entire time.
She didn’t really remember getting home, or falling asleep in Sammy’s bed.
A noise, a chime, cut through Cass' sleep. Then another. Her heartbeat was pulsing in her head. The familiar chime, the door chime, rang a third time, then a fourth. Cass staggered out of bed on the sixth chime, still wearing the sweater and pyjama pants from the night before, getting to the door before the tenth.
She opened her door to a person in a dark blue, well fitting suit, with shimmering implanted eyes.
“Hello, I’m from Febos News, I understand you owned one of the slaves that was abducted, would you like to give—“
Cass slammed the door in the reporter’s face, and made her way back to Sammy’s room, tumbling back into uneasy sleep. The door chimed again, three or four times. She didn't get up for it.
For the next few days, Cass barely took care of herself. It was the longest she had gone without doing some kind of work since she finished school. She’d always been driven, if she saw something she wanted, she would work until she got it. But now, she just couldn’t bring herself to care about doing anything. One of her bed pillows smelled like Sammy, and she took it everywhere with her, holding it close, sometimes kissing it, imagining it was her precious girl, back in her arms. Just getting out of bed hurt, because she would see the closed door to Sammy’s room, and every time, her heart would break again. Every time she went to the kitchen to try to print out something to eat, she remembered Sammy, naked except for the collar, cooking for her. She tried to distract herself with entertainment on the net, but all she could see was the empty spot in front of her couch, where her girl was supposed to be. Her stomach growled, but she just couldn’t bring herself to care.
A chime cut through Cass' despair, not the familiar and constantly ignored irritant of the door, but the emergency contact indicator from her communications console. Cass bolted from her bed, desperate for any news about her lost slave. The holographic display lit up, projecting a vaguely familiar face.
“Cassandra Lewis? This is Investigator Brinkley, she, her.”
Cass was annoyed at the introduction, feeling the investigator was wasting time. She knew this, she could see the investigator's head floating in front of her. There was only one thing she cared about.
“Did you find Sammy?”
Cass’s heart sank, and she stifled a gasping sob back.
“But," Brinkley continued, "we do finally have some information on the case for you. Is now a good time?”
The investigator's words cut through the bleakness of the previous days.“Yes! Please, tell me what you learned!” Cass shouted, energized.
“First, I have a question. Do you recognize this man?”
A flat image was projected beside Brinkley’s face, it looked like a security camera still, featuring a dark-skinned person, very muscular.
Cass studied the image, then shook her head. “No. Not at all. Why?”
“This is the individual we believe to be responsible for the mass abduction.”
It took every bit of willpower Cass had left not to scream demands at the investigator, knowing that every question she had was wasted effort. Brinkley would give her what information she could.
"This person was the only individual on the bus who didn't generate a missing slave report. We forwarded his image to everyone we could think of, and got a hit from the DCA. Ennay, he, him. Former soldier with non-con chipping, putting him under the NPR's control. He’s been inactive since the fall. A gardener, or at least he was until a bit over a week ago. Hasn't been seen since. The DCA denies any official involvement, of course." Brinkley sighed. "I can at least report, Miss Lewis, that we have a face, which gives us a chance of finding him, and hopefully his victims.
Cass looked at the face of the man who had stolen her precious Sammy away. "That's... that's it? That's all you called to tell me?"
“I wish I had more for you, Lewis. If you have no connection to this person, we'll have to keep digging. I'll be in touch as soon as I know any more.”
Brinkley’s face vanished, but the image she had sent to Cass remained. The console was waiting for confirmation to preserve the picture. Cass stared at the face of the man who apparently took her Sammy.
Days' worth of despair and bleakness exploded into pure white-hot rage.
“GIVE HER BACK!”
Her fingers curled into fists and she threw a punch through the hologram. The display misread the gesture and shut down. Cass collapsed onto the ground, and punched the floor until her hand bled.
“Please," she wept, helplessly. "Please, just give her back...”
There was a knock at the door.
Cass started out of her stupor. It was late in the evening. Despite trying not to let her hopes get the better of her, she rushed to the door, silently begging the universe for Sammy to be standing just outside.
Instead, it was Anderson, wearing an argyle sweater, grey slacks, and a pained expression, a new maid following behind him. Based on the color of her hair, eyes, and accessories, Cass guessed this new one was named ‘Green.’
“What?” Cass asked, deflating, her voice hollow, croaking with pain from crying and screaming through the day.
“I thought maybe you could use some help, and some company.”
Cass sighed, and turned back inside. Anderson accepted that as enough of an invitation, and he walked in, the maid shutting the door behind him.
“Green, find the kitchen and make Cass a bowl of chicken soup.”
“Yes, Master,” Green said, with a cheerful voice.
Cass didn’t want food. “I’m fine.”
Anderson frowned. “Cass, you clearly haven’t showered in days.”
Cass made a noncommittal grunt, and shuffled into the living room, collapsing on the couch, curling into a ball. Anderson sat down beside her, and his weight made it easy to just rest against him. Another human’s touch was... nice. For a few minutes, they sat there in silence, Cass listening to Anderson’s breathing, as he looked down at her, uncertain about what to do.
Green brought Cass a bowl, filled with soup. It smelled incredible. Cass still didn’t feel like eating, but with the two of them watching, it felt rude not to at least swallow some. Cass brought the bowl to her mouth, and sipped at some of the broth. As soon as it hit her stomach, she needed more, and she started gulping down the entire bowl, not even bothering to chew the solid bits. It filled her with warmth, and for the first time in days, Cass felt like a person again, if only slightly.
“Thank you, Green,” she said. The maid bowed politely.
Anderson smiled faintly. “See, maybe if you just get another slave, even just foster one in case they find yours later. It could at least help you get through this tough time?”
Cass’ mouth hung open. Anderson was suggesting just... replacing Sammy, like she was a piece of furniture. Fury, the only emotion other than despair that she seemed to be capable of feeling right now, boiled up within her. She stopped leaning into Anderson, and looked at him, her face contorted with her anger, “What about Red and Blue!? Don’t you care?!”
Anderson sighed, and a tear ran down from his right eye, “Of course I care, Lewis.” He rubbed his eyes, wiping away the tear. “Red and Blue were fantastic maids, and wonderful companions.“
“Then how could you just replace them?! Abandon them?! What are you thinking?”
Anderson shrugged, sighing again. “Best case scenario, they find our property, and I have three.” She couldn't tell if he was trying to make a joke.
Cass opened and closed her mouth a few times. “Just... just go away. You don’t get it.”
“You’re right, I really don’t.” He got up to leave. He looked down at Cass with pity, like he wanted to say something else, but decided against it. Instead, he walked to the door, Green obediently following behind him. Cass heard the door close softly behind them.
As Cass was considering getting up off the couch to lock the door, her console started ringing. The display said “Emergency Protocols: Caller Information Blocked”
Cass wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a blocked call at home. That was a privilege usually reserved for foreign state officials. She waved at the console, telling it to answer. The console responded with an odd, painful, startling noise, a garbled screech, making Cass wonder for a moment if her earlier violent outburst at the kidnapper's hologram had somehow damaged the device.
The projector showed blocks of multicolored static, before the image started to clear, slowly resolving into a vaguely head-shaped blob. Features started to emerge: hair, ears, eyes, a mouth and nose. As the resolution cleared, time felt like it was slowing, as each detail became more and more of an impossible picture, so much that Cass had to wonder if her mind had finally snapped and she was simply imagining patterns in the static.
The only thing she wanted to see in the whole world appeared.
And even garbled by distortion, the only sound in the world that she wanted to hear emerged from the speakers, making her eyes water and her heart leap.
“Can you hear me, Ma’am?”