a prison, a body


by gargulec

Tags: #cw:sexual_assault #D/s #drones #pov:bottom #sub:female #transgender_characters #bondage #exhibitionism #sadomasochism
See spoiler tags : #robots #scifi

Helen sank into a ripped, battered sofa, bottle of a mango-flavoured hipster cola in her hand, and watched Rabbit sway with the music. With their short, platinum hair, pastel-splattered t-shirt, and sequined shorts, they looked like young Miley Cyrus, only a bit cheaper. They moved their body slowly to the tune, their eyes half-closed, a little smirk on their face, their many bracelets gleaming in the dim lights, and Helen just couldn’t look away. Everything about them was lovely and soft, and it made her feel more than a bit insecure about her own fashion choice of flannel and combat boots. By comparison, it had to come across as terribly bland.

The music flowed around them hazily, barely drowning out the sounds of hushed conversations and clinking glasses. What was the name of that opening act again? Cloud Somethings? Something Cloudy? She couldn’t quite recall. In any case, they were pretty mellow for who they fronted, but their keyboardist had the cutest pink scarf; had it not been for Rabbit, that was what Helen would be staring at.

People filed into the club slowly, coming in alone or in groups, then fanning about to find a place to sit or just busy the bar. A small crowd had gathered by the stage, but most people seemed content to just wait for the main act. It was a pretty typical night in the Ec(h)o club, and Helen was glad to be here. She probably shouldn’t have been—she still had a few transcripts to finish, and there was a non-zero chance she’d have to be on her feet tomorrow morning to help Bohdan with some bullshit task Anna conjured out of whole cloth. But getting to see Courage Disaster live was a rare treat, and Rabbit was right to insist. She felt herself relax to the music, the dregs of tension receding into the hidden places of her body. She needed this.

“Thank you,” the guitarist called from the stage, momentarily causing Helen to tear her eyes away from Rabbit. “I’m Stefan, this is Andrej,” he pointed at the dour-looking bassist, “Stjepan on drums and Anka on keys, and we’re the Rainy Clouds!”

Someone cheered; Rabbit clapped their hands above their head without looking, and Helen joined them half-heartedly.

“And now a song we’ve been working on lately...” Stefan called out, bringing the guitar up again.

Helen drank the last from her bottle, and lazily surveyed the place. It was nice being able to sit without her jacket on; apparently they finally managed to fix their infamous heating. But other than that, it was the same Ec(h)o she knew and loved.The same people tended the bar (although some of them changed hair color), the menu was the same drinks, the card terminal was still inexplicably busted. There was a new layer of stickers on the bathroom doors, and a bunch of fresh posters and fliers were strewn around, but they didn’t completely cover up some of her old favourites, like the one promoting the Doggerel tour from last year.

A few familiar faces flashed in the crowd; she waved, and even got a few of them to wave back. The usual suspects were all here. She didn’t expect that many people to be into what she suspected to be the best contemporary Welsh indie punk group, but apparently more people had gotten the message that it was the show to see than she anticipated. That, or maybe she was just assuming that everyone was as picky about shows as she had gotten over the years.

God, she had, hadn’t she? It was her first gig in weeks, maybe months. Rabbit was right, she had gotten boring lately, and only their sudden reappearance in the city—even if only for a week or two—could save Helen from the obsolescence fated for every crusty activist who’d once known what it was like to be cool.

The music stopped. Helen joined with the applause. Rainy Clouds vanished from the stage to tend to the merch, and people swarmed the bar to get their refills before the main act.

“Hey,” Rabbit gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Wanna grab a spot in front?” they asked, glancing back at the stage. “While there’s still room?”

“There will be moshing, you know,” Helen replied, standing up. “You sure you…,” she looked at Rabbit; they were a hand shorter than her at least, and built like a particularly ambitious feather.

“None of that crap,” they snorted, finishing their beer and dropping the bottle on a nearby table. “You don’t have to play my mother.”

She frowned; that was a weird comparison. Rabbit’s mother, if she remembered correctly, used to play for a string of thrash metal bands. She was the last person Helen had expected to try to stop their child from slam-dancing. Judging by the anecdotes she’d shared that one time Helen had been able to hear her talk, she might have even encouraged them.

“Right, right,” she nodded at them, allowing herself to be guided through the thickening crowd. Truth be told, she’d rather stay on the edges this time, slumped in a chair, chilling out. But Rabbit had a different idea, and disagreeing with them was never a safe proposition. So, they were going to take to the front.

The band was already on stage, bustling about, readying instruments, talking with the sound woman. It would be some time and several sound-checks before they started playing, but Rabbit was again right to stake the claim early. The venue was filling up quickly, and soon there would be no way to easily get to where they were standing. Helen checked her phone quickly—as expected, Hank had dropped her a message that he would be late. Knowing him, he’d arrive at the end of the set and insist that they stay for the afterparty. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad of an idea?

“I like his look,” Rabbit pointed at the drummer. He wore a flannel shirt, blood-red in the stage-lights. Not that different from what Helen had on herself. She blushed.

“Thought you didn’t care much for men,” she whispered back.

They shrugged and shot her a smile. “Dunno. It’s a good aesthetic.”

Personally, Helen was on the lookout for someone else. There she was—the bassist. There had been a time when she’d considered writing an entire ode to overly prim looking bassists in feminist punk bands. The lead, the vocalist—they would make themselves look loud and visible, but it was usually the bassist, the sensationally decently dressed bassist, sitting out of the spotlight and quietly focused on her work, that made Helen swoon. Of course, nothing came out of that idea; associating women with the bass had been a big no-no in her zine days. But the fondness remained.

The Courage Disaster’s bassist did not exactly fit the mould, but she did not disappoint either. She was a gaunt, towering beanpole of a woman; with her black lipstick and black mane of hair she could easily make it in any goth band on the planet. But the real attention-grabber was the long, tightly-laced pseudo-Victorian dress she wore.

“She’s not going to play in that, surely?” she asked Rabbit, who just shook their head.

Helen frowned. Was this some kind of a dare? Make it through her own set while looking like PJ Harvey from the cover photo of White Chalk? That felt like courting a disaster. Maybe her theory of the bassist as the unostentatious one required amending—but this was not a bad way to find out she had been wrong at all. Had it not been for the Rabbit on her shoulder, she’d be trying to draw that woman’s attention somehow.

The vocalist, her neon-blue mohawk shimmering with glitter, tapped the microphone. The cellar went dead silent in an instant.

“One!” she whispered with exaggerated enthusiasm, then paused. A bunch of laughs bloomed across the crowd. Someone whistled. Someone screamed.

“Okay,” she added after a second. “Two, three, FOUR!”

And then, there was noise.


Rabbit pressed the cold-pack to their right eye, the left one glaring with an unspoken “not even a fucking word”. Helen got the hint. She sat next to them, listening to the rolling applause. The flannel tied around her waist was soaked with sweat; her skin was sticky and stinky. The air forced its way into her lungs in pained gasps; she hadn’t gotten an elbow to the eye like Rabbit but would be walking home with a bunch of bruises on her own anyway.

The second round of applause rolled through the crowd; Helen raised her hands to add to it. Rabbit just slammed their free hand against their thigh.

“What a show,” they groaned in a pained tone of deepest appreciation, and Helen could only agree.

She looked at the stage, hoping for a second encore. Everyone else seemed to be on the second page; the clapping went on and on. As usual, they dragged it out until the ones of lesser faith gave up and turned to leave.

Finally, someone emerged from the back-stage. The bassist, clutching what appeared to be a badly beat-up acoustic guitar. Her makeup was running, but she somehow was still in that preposterous dress. How she had managed to make it through the set, Helen had no idea. Merely thinking about that was vaguely unsettling, like watching those yoga teachers stretch their bodies in ways that just shouldn’t be possible.

“Okay, so,” she said to the microphone; the clapping stopped. “Everyone else was too tired to stop me from grabbing this,” she punched the instrument, drawing a dull noise, “and you were too insistent to let people rest, so here’s me, and the Song for the Chicken Named Jenny!”

Helen couldn’t hold back a deep laugh; it hurt where she’d been bounced around by her ribs in the pit.

“Holy shit,” she blurted, barely resisting pulling Rabbit into a hug. “She’s covering Pat!”

“Who?” they asked, confused.

“Hush!” she put a finger to her lips as the first notes of the song went into the air. She grabbed a phone and started recording.

There was some awkwardness to the way the bassist played, and her singing voice was frankly not the best; she stumbled through the song punch-drunk on performing; there was a verse she completely improvised. Helen was surprised she could even tell; she hadn’t heard this piece in years. It was quite awful, to be honest, and very much perfect. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“That ought to shut you up,” the woman chuckled in the microphone, and vanished. Another round of applause boomed, more on principle than in appreciation, and Helen was the last one to stop clapping.

“God, I need to relisten to his stuff,” she muttered to herself, wiping her face.

“Seriously, who’s that?” Rabbit insisted.

“Punk Dylan I guess,” Helen replied with a broad smile. “Loved him as a teen. Never got to see him live.”

“Yeah, that explains everything,” Rabbit rolled their one exposed eye. Before they could bitch more, something else drew their attention. “Oh, Hank’s here!”

Helen turned around to see her friend approach from behind, bottle of a craft beer in his hand. Judging by how fresh he looked, he had just arrived.

“Hi gir…,” he opened his mouth, then bit his tongue, “folks,” he finished. “You had fun… oh shit, Rabbit, you okay?”

They sighed painfully, pressing the bag of ice tighter to their face.

“Never been better,” they replied. “You missed out.”

“I guess,” he replied, giving Helen a hug. He smelled of nicotine and something else, tart and salty. Probably his boyfriend. “Had other things to do.”

Helen chuckled like a complete idiot, patting him on the back.

“She seems in a good mood,” Hank pointed at her after wriggling out of the hug. The wry smile on his face showed that she wasn’t the only one. “For once. The show was that good?”

“Oh, absolutely,” she replied, still chuckling. “You want to stay, get drinks?”

“No, he just showed up with a beer to watch us leave,” Rabbit replied, before turning to Hank. “Sit. Haven’t seen you in forever.”

“Not my fault,” he smiled back, dropping into a chair freshly liberated by some metalhead-looking type. “But it’s good to see you. How’s life?”

“Amazing,” they snorted. “Helen, be a sweetheart and fetch me something from the bar, okay?” they asked, tapping their finger on their empty bottle.

She nodded, dragging herself up. She glanced at the merch desk—there were still a bunch of people around it, but the queue seemed to be slowly dispersing. Her wallet burned a hole in her pocket. She probably shouldn’t, should she? Ah, bullshit. She absolutely should. Plus, they deserved her money.

“Be back in a moment,” she declared.

‘A moment’ turned out to be a bit ambitious. It took her a good fifteen minutes to return to her friends with a beer in hand and a brand new shirt on her chest. Rabbit, bless their heart, noticed immediately and smiled as broadly as they could.

“That’s what took you so long,” they murmured, patting the sofa next to them to call Helen in. “So,” they continued, after Helen had seated herself, “Hank’s telling me you’ve had a lot on your mind lately. That’s why you didn’t want to come?”

She glared at Hank; he shot her a “I’m not apologizing” look. She glared harder, but for once, she didn’t have it in her to get properly angry, if only because she was just too pleasantly tired. The music still rang in her ears; it would for the next day at least.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” she sighed, thinking back to her search for the truth of Galatea. God, she had made it through the night without having it on her mind, and now it was back, troubling her again. “It’s… I don’t know, must we talk about it?”

Rabbit pursed their lips.

“No,” they declared haughtily and gave her a very meaningful look, only slightly weakened by not being able to use both eyes. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Helen bit her lip, then sighed again. She really didn’t want to have this conversation, but knowing Rabbit it was either having it now, or having a terrible argument and having it later. They were a persistent bastard.

“Fine,” she said. “Fine. It’s about Rowan. And… it’s a lot.”

“Night’s still young,” Rabbit observed, clinking bottles with Hank and taking a swing.

It took Helen some effort to find a good place to start. The first parts of the story—Rowan’s idea, their conversations, her decision—she recounted embarrassingly chaotically. But she found the thread eventually, and once she had it, the rest followed smoothly. Before she knew it, she was explaining the entire conspiracy to Rabbit, from messages to Aphrodite through the mystery of Galatea’s wealth to Mircea Leon’s uncertain fate. She took her time; the club emptied around them, but at some point Helen realized she didn’t quite care. It just felt good to get it all out again, and Rabbit heroically listened without a single interruption—other to add an occasional “holy shit” or “no way”—just sipping at their drink and sometimes nudging Hank so that he would try to be less obvious about being more interested in his phone rather than the story. Not that she minded—he knew most of it already.

As the final flourish for the story, Helen read one of those messages from Aphrodite about how Rowan's mental state was improving thanks to programming and soon she would be transferred to a “stage 2 training facility” and then, dramatically, turned on the app and boldly shoved the image of Rowan, speared in the tank, before Rabbit’s eyes.

They took the phone in their hand and stared at it for a moment, brow furrowing.

“That’s fucked up,” they muttered thoughtfully in the end, Helen nodding eagerly. “Also kinda hot,” they added, passing the phone back.

“What,” Hank gasped; Helen just blinked.

“What?” Rabbit shrugged. “Just stating the fact. I think it’s pretty hot.”

It felt like having the rug pulled from under her. She looked at Rabbit with shock on her face—it was not what they were supposed to be like. She opened her mouth to say something, but Hank beat her to it.

“You think that’s…” he blurted out. “You mean you would want to…” he paused, staring at Rabbit as if they were an alien.

“I mean,” they shook their head thoughtfully. “If it came without that entire stupid slavery thing? I guess? It looks like a load.”

“They are brainwashing her there!” Helen yelped.

“Yeah, but I can take that or leave that,” Rabbit looked away, annoyed or flustered, or maybe both. “Can you just—like, just by looking at it? It looks pretty hot. That’s the entire thing. You don’t have to do this entire ‘stop being problematic’...”

“No one’s saying that,” Hank retorted, raising his hands in a defensive gesture. “It’s just…”

“You’re thinking that, I know both of you,” Rabbit interrupted, voice raising a pitch. “You’re all judgemental bastards, you know that?”

“Rabbit, no, that’s…” Helen started.

“If you…” they replied, glaring, her black eye reinforcing the effect. “If you want to say that…”

“I just wanted to ask why!” she almost shouted, slamming her hands on the table. “Why? What’s so hot about that?”

For a moment, Rabbit was silent, head pecked, as if judging whether to respond.

“If you really want to know…” they drummed their fingers against the table.

“Yeah, I do,” Helen said solemnly. “I promise not to judge.”

“You two talk,” Hank cut in, voice embarrassed, climbing from his seat, “while I go find a bathroom.”

They both escorted him with their eyes to the door, Rabbit shrugging slightly.

“Okay,” they said. “Look, it’s—just the idea of being strapped immobile and then ‘experimented’ upon? That’s pretty cool. I like heavy bondage.”

“I thought that you preferred to keep things tame…” Helen murmured awkwardly, looking away. A few pleasant memories flashed before her eyes, and she blushed.

“Didn’t want to scare you,” Rabbit chuckled. “Look, so one thing that’s hot is the bondage, and the other—I mean, you say she’s been stuck there for days?”

Helen nodded shortly.

“That’s pretty wild, you know. I mean, if I could spend a day or two wired to a bed like that, just…” now it was their turn to blush. “Completely immobile and helpless, not knowing what’s going on around me, only that a friend of mine is watching?”

She couldn’t hold back a flinch at that. Was being watched a part of it, then? Just some kind of exhibitionism? What it made out of Rowan? She gulped.

“Absent that entire contract thing,” they continued, “I would totally give this a try, if I had someone to do it with.”

“Right,” Helen said, confused and unsettled. She really didn’t know what to make out of it at all. “You think that Rowan had it similar?” she asked sheepishly in the end.

“I mean,” Rabbit replied, sounding a bit frustrated, “according to what you say, she seems to be into this sort of stuff. You act like that’s some sort of a problem now?”

“I guess not,” she looked around at the emptying club, feeling increasingly lost. “I guess people have kinks like that, but… but is having them enough of a reason to just go and sell yourself? You know, she made a lot of noise about how it was to get money, surgery, the works, but if it was just a sex thing?”

“So what if it was?” Rabbit snapped back, face hardening. “You make it sound like a crime. Besides, how would I know? She’s your friend, you know better what makes her tick than I do.”

“There just had to be more to it, though!” Helen grunted, waving her hand as if to bat some unpleasant thought away. “No one sells themselves like chattel just because they are that…”

“You’re awfully resistant to the idea that your friend is just a big perv,” Rabbit spat out, voice rising another pitch. Their expression contorted unpleasantly. “For fuck’s sake, Helen, it isn’t that complicated! A third of the trans girls I know are like that and….”

“Oh you fucking don’t!” she boomed, anger swelling in her chest. “Don’t bring her gender into that!”

“Because?” Rabbit leaned in over the table, climbing on their arms to stare Helen straight in the face. “Afraid to face what the trans are like when they don’t have to fake it to the cis…”

It was then that Hank, mercifully, blundered his way back to their table

“Hey girls, what’s the comm—” he started cheerfully.

“People!” Rabbit roared, swiveling to face him. “One girl, one enby, get it in your fucking head!”

“Jesus, Rabbit, okay,” he stepped back, startled. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Just call a cab,” Rabbit, glowering at Helen angrily. “We’re leaving.”


Even in the middle of the night, the street near her apartment was busy. People shuffled back and forth, headed for the parties still running their course at the riverside nearby. She tipped the cabbie and quickly stepped on the pavement, wrapping her jacket tightly to ward off the night’s chill. The Courage Disaster’s set still reverberated in her ears, as did Rabbit’s shouting. And the night had been going so very well before.

She rubbed her head. Absolutely no rest for the wicked, it seemed.

“Hey prettttttty laaaaaady…” some tourist-looking man in his late thirties called after her in a drunken drawl. She shuddered and ignored him, only looking back after a moment to make sure he wasn’t following her.

Rowan had once mentioned to her that it would feel really validating to get cat-called sometimes. Intellectually, Helen could even understand that: she wanted to be seen as a woman, with everything that came with. Getting hit on by creepy men or honked at by assholes was apparently a part of the package. But, on a more guttural level, she just wanted to tell Rowan that she had no idea what she was talking about.

There were so many little things like that, tiny quirks and kinks to her person that Helen couldn’t really understand. They had known each other for years, and she liked to think they were close. Even before Rowan came out to her—they’d hit it off very quickly. She remembered that time when Rowan tried to hit on her, and Helen had to awkwardly explain that she was not into boys—shit, that memory had not aged well. Had either of them known that Rowan was trans, would Helen have reacted differently? Especially if Rowan then explained to her the sexual fantasies that, according to Rabbit, made her tick?

God, Rabbit. She knew they had a temper, but hadn’t expected them to explode the way they had. She would have to apologize later, if she could only figure out a way to do so without setting them off again. She had been so happy to see them after all those months, and maybe even…

Yeah, she had to apologize.

She climbed the stairwell to her apartment, trying to not make too much noise. First thing she did after entering and throwing off her jacket was to march to the bathroom and take a long, scalding shower.

What if Rabbit was right? What if Rowan had never shared anything substantial with her because she was just afraid of talking to a cis woman about that sort of stuff? She knew well enough how hard it could be to get the hets to get a clue sometimes, and….

Maybe she should have asked more, pried more. After all, Rowan saw things in some truly disturbing porn that Helen had never understood, and had even managed to make a compelling case for some of them. But then, the attempts at conversations about that sort of thing they’d had had not actually gone all that well, either. There was this argument they’d had around that documentary, the one where Rowan ended up messaging her the next morning to tell her that “she was not a monster because she liked InSex”—it was so much like what Rabbit had hissed into her face earlier tonight.

Helen cut the water and just stood in the cabin for a moment, steaming and thinking.

She just ended up dropping the matter with Rowan. But that was a mistake, wasn’t it? Maybe if she had gotten her to explain herself, maybe then her decision would have ended up making more sense. But that ship had sailed. There was no way to get her to talk now, to reveal what really went behind all those images that excited her. All that was left for Helen to do was watch her friend be erased by degrees, and think back to the past.


The plan hatched in her head in those strange moments before laying herself to bed and sleep. It was a long shot, and morally dubious, but then again, what part of her obsession wasn’t?

She decided to sleep on it.

In the morning, she decided to go through with it.


Before leaving, Rowan had entrusted her with keys to her apartment, just in case there was an urgent need to access her things. The contract that she had signed with Galatea stipulated that the corporation would cover Rowan’s rent—so that she would have somewhere to return after being released—but Helen just wanted to make sure that there would be someone else capable of supervising it in her absence. There was a world where what Helen was about to do could be swung as just that: supervision.

Rowan rented out a tiny pad in an unremarkable part of the city that was neither particularly new nor old. If it had a reputation for anything, it was for being a dreary dormitory so completely bereft of anything of note that even the people living it tended to forget its name. Or at least that’s how the joke went.

Helen climbed to the second floor, stopping at a familiar, beige-painted door. The key was already in her hand. She slid into the lock, the mechanism screeching and clicking the same it always did. She didn’t push at first, keeping her hand rested on the door handle and hesitating. What if she shouldn’t? She exhaled, and stepped inside, her stomach sinking.

She breathed in a mouthful of air thick with dust and stale heat. It was the dead stink of an abandoned, unused place. She flicked on the lights, and looked around. The anteroom was empty; Rowan’s jackets and boots that used to hang by the door had been stowed away in the cupboards, leaving behind a place that looked thoroughly cleared out. A thin layer of dust covered everything, staining her fingers light-gray no matter what she touched.

Out of habit, she removed her boots and stepped into the room that used to be Rowan’s life. Compared to it, she lived in a mansion. A narrow bed and a desk barely fit inside, and most of the free space was taken up by a tall shelf bending under the weight of books and notes filling it. It was the first time that Helen had gotten a good look at the floor; before it always had been covered with discarded clothes, books and papers. Now that the apartment no longer was a mess, it just looked dead.

Why was she even here again? To pick through the things of a friend who couldn’t even consent to that, to violate Rowan’s privacy a second time just so that she could find out—what exactly? What sort of porn Rowan watched? The idea that had seemed so very smart in the morning now just came across as stupid; everything about being in this apartment made Helen want toleave. She looked at the door behind her, clutching her bag closer. But then again, how was what she was about to do different from what she was already doing to Rowan? How was this worse from actually watching her be abused? It was not like she came in to steal anything, she just wanted to take a look. If there was a person left to apologize to in two years, she would do that.

She walked deeper in, looking around apprehensively. She wasn’t even sure what she was going to look for—a porn stash? Or maybe a secret diary, where Rowan wrote down all of her desires? She stepped towards the bookshelf first.

Most of the books arranged on it were academic—dozens of publications on gender, three thousand pages of Transgender Studies Reader, each individual volume large enough to serve as a bludgeon, some philosophy, some feminism. Helen recognized a few names and a few titles; she even owned a few of them herself. The rest, however, belonged to the sort of esoteric high academia that was Rowan’s kink, not hers.

The outliers were few. A thick volume on transgender self-help which, judging by the state of its spine, had never been opened. Rowan’s own copy of Macho Sluts. The complete collection of Galatea catalogues. A few sci-fi novels with spaceships on their covers, and a pastel-colored book titled Princess Ko, a cartoon girl in a frilly version of the french maid outfit winking from the cover. Helen turned it in her hands and read the blurb.

Prince Ko is the heir apparent to the Kingdom of Elsvir. But will he ever ascend to the Bramble Throne? Captured by a roving band of witches, he is instead made their servant and their maid. But what begins as an unwilling capture soon becomes something else entirely!

Judging by how bent the spine was, and the tattered, dirty edges of paper, this book had been read quite a number of times. By Rowan, or whoever donated it to “Kuszński Used Books Repository” from the price label in the back. Helen opened it, then flipped through the pages, stopping upon a full-color illustration of an effete boy blushing luminescent red as a number of cartoon witches danced around him, various pieces of (very frilly) women’s attire in their hands. There was something simply cute about it, and she couldn’t help but to smile. She put the book back on the shelf, but did not let her hand off it just yet. So very much like Rowan. Was that what she had really wanted? To be put in lace? Was this sexual? Or—or was it just one of those mysterious trans things? She pulled the book back out, and into her bag. She would return it before the contract was over.

However interesting it was, she felt like she had to find something more substantial than a children’s book. The shelf had nothing more of note, just notebooks—old university stuff, notes from when Rowan taught her own course, and two binders filled with fieldnotes from her PhD research.

She surveyed the rest of the room. What else was there to check on? Start digging through Rowan’s drawers and through her clothes? Maybe find if she actually acquired some of that Prince Ko getup? She chuckled awkwardly. Realistically, there was only one thing she could do—her eyes wandered to the black rectangle of a laptop gathering dust on Rowan’s desk.

“Right,” she mouthed, sitting down and plugging the charger in. She just hoped that Rowan hadn’t changed her password since the last time she used her machine.

Thankfully, she hadn’t. In seconds, the familiar wallpaper appeared on the screen: a view of some empty desert waste that Rowan had found serene. Helen stared at the screen for a time, still hesitating. At least the internet was offline; she imagined being suddenly bombarded with messages aimed at Rowan, from people who’d just seen her come online, and shuddered.

She still wanted to find some kind of Rowan’s secret, something that would confirm or invalidate Rabbit’s suspicions. Tentatively, she looked in My Documents. Thousands of text files filled the screen, with names ranging from “thesis chapter 3 draft 5 send tomorrow” through “delete this” all the way to “untitled (412)”. Helen opened a few of them at random - they were all just academic writing at various stages of completion. No secret diary there.

There was also the book folder, which, just as the name implied, contained about 20 gigabytes worth of literature. Mostly academic, and if there were any outliers there, then Helen wasn’t digging through the pile just to find them. Increasingly convinced that whatever she was doing was not only a violation of privacy, but also plain dumb, she started to browse through Rowan’s images.

They were mostly photos she took with her phone, of silly things she found about, or documents she wanted to have a copy. Helen tapped the arrow-key, quickly flicking through the entire collection, but there was nothing there.

Until she started coming across the images of Rowan in a dress.

It was her friend as she looked before she went into Galatea’s hands, standing in front of her bed, in that little black dress she bought for herself once, the one that didn’t look all that bad on her (even if it probably belonged on a teenager more than on a grown woman). She looked at the camera with an expression that tried to be confident, but came out more awkward. It was clear that she’d put in some effort in being presentable—you could barely see her beard shadow (only a few red lines where she cut herself shaving), and she’d even put on some makeup. It didn’t look all that bad, it really didn’t. Helen’s throat clenched.

There were a few more photos like that. Rowan in a dress, in her heels, trying to smile, trying to keep her shoulders pulled back or strike a pose. Against herself, Helen felt a kind of pity. But then, the next photo contained a new addition.

Rowan sat on the edge of the bed, still in her dress, still staring at the camera. But this time, she was not smiling—a large, red silicone ball lodged in her jaw made that impossible. A thick leather collar held her neck still. Next photo: she also gave herself a pair of cuffs. Next one: holding a leash in her teeth. Then one in front of the bathroom mirror, one hand hoisting the skirt up to let the camera catch the pink, silicone cage of a chastity belt squeezing her shaved genitals. More Rowan playing the tokens of femininity for her own tiltation and arousal. Rowan pornographing her own body. Was it really what her womanhood was for her? Get in a dress, get in bondage? Was it what she didn’t want the cises in her life to see?

Finding her friend’s porn folder wasn’t that difficult—she had it labelled “smut” and stuffed in Downloads. Helen opened it without thinking much about what was there to find, and the contents mostly fit in with her expectations. Movies by InSex, by Infernal Restraints, by BondageLife. Hardcore BDSM porn with women twisted into machinery or “trained” into obedience. There was a parallel between that and Galatea that was becoming increasingly obvious.

Helen half-expected to find sissy, and she kind of did, only not in video. Just drawings, and comics. A cartoon woman strapped to a gynecological chair, two electrodes glued to her forehead, a big screen behind displaying BIMBOIFICATION 95%! Another cartoon being shocked into obedience by an unseen man. An effete cartoon, his penis locked in a plastic cage, wearing a dress and a ballgag. A woman being fed by a tube and milked like a cow.

She flicked through it all with a growing sense of unease. Those were the prototypes of Galatea, only here rendered in poorly drawn cartoon styles. The pictures have accumulated on Rowan’s drive for years—it was what her imagination was after, after all. Women mindbroken, women treated like chattel…

She closed the laptop and turned away, feeling sick and disappointed. She wanted to find validation against her intuitions, some proof that no, it wasn’t just a weird sex thing, but everything here seemed to indicate that no, Rabbit was right, it was just what Rowan was into, and she had just never admited it to Helen. Maybe because she knew how she would have reacted, but still. It was the real Rowan, someone who had probably jacked off to all of this so many times…

Coming here was a mistake. Digging through it all a bigger one. She was better off not knowing, still thinking that Rowan was just… but no. It was deeply disturbing, and she couldn’t evade it anymore. It was what patriarchal men saw women as—chattel, it was what they…

“...wanted to be?” Helen murmured to herself. That one did not add up. It wasn’t that Rowan wanted to own sex slaves. It wasn’t that she came to visit a fuck farm to indulge in fantasies Galatea faciliated. No. She wanted to be that chattel. That was her womanhood. Helen felt ill, and confused.

Why? Why would anyone want that? What was the appeal? At some level, Helen could understand people who enjoyed having power over others, and there was this logic to patriarchy, the logic of strength and rule, that made sense. Men wanted to have women. Hell, she could even understand Rabbit’s explanation of what they found hot in being bound to a bed for a day. But to want to be enslaved like that—and not only fantasize about it, but go through—it still made no sense. It clearly made sense to Rowan, but to Helen...

She sat there for a while, chin resting on the chair’s back, staring dumbly at the wall over Rowan’s bed and the Pride flag still hanging there, slightly faded by now. It was what she had wanted, and knowing this for sure made it all the more difficult to stomach. Why would people act like that? What did they see in Galatea’s embrace? Rowan couldn’t be the only one who was like that. She thought back to Mircae Leon. An unhappy, kinky man selling his life’s work to Galatea, then disappearing. Maybe like Rowan? Maybe he was, after all, the key to this mystery?

So that was it.

The thought was cold, unpleasantly sobering. That was the great realization she had chased all the way to the most intimate part of her friend’s hard drive: that she was kinky and sad, and she had to figure out the fate of a different kinky and sad person to fully understand the extent to which that had affected Rowan’s choices. And to find that, she had to dig through her things without permission, spend an hour picking through her computer, and stare at photos meant to be private. Because she, a cis woman, was that interested in what really went through her trans friend’s head.

“Fuck,” she swore into the void.

Calling Rabbit wasn’t easy. Not because she didn’t have their number, or because they wouldn’t pick up, but rather because she couldn’t bring herself to press “dial” for at least five minutes, instead staring at the number displayed across her phone’s display in mute, tense anxiety. But she had to.

“Hi,” she whispered as soon as they picked up. “I’m sorry about last night. I acted shittily.”

There was this brief pause when Helen expected them to hang up or tell her to fuck off, or any other thing she knew Rabbit wouldn’t do, but was afraid of anyway.

“Go on,” she finally heard them speak, and breathed out in relief.

“You’re right,” she continued, speaking quietly, trying to hold her voice from breaking. “I’m really judgemental sometimes. And—and I don’t understand the things you get off sometimes. But it’s messed up that you have to feel ashamed because of that. Ashamed of what I… or people like me… will think.”

“Yeah,” Rabbit said finally, after a long, silent stretch. “It is. Be less of a bitch next time, though.”

“I’ll try,” Helen nodded. She didn’t want to hang up first, so they spent a few minutes without saying anything, phones pressed to their ears.

“There’s an exhibition at New Arts, opening Saturday,” Rabbit was the first one to break the silence, voice curt and matter of factly. “Wanna go with me?”

“Sure!” she replied, before even thinking that maybe she should not betray her enthusiasm that quickly. “It sounds great, it’s a date!”

She heard them chuckle at the other end of the line, and blushed once more. But that wasn’t that bad of a feeling, after all.

“So, anything else?” they asked.

“Actually,” Helen chewed on her lip, looking again at the laptop, and at the bookshelf. “Do you think that Rowan should know I’m watching her?”

“Jesus Christ, Helen,” Rabbit groaned. “You don’t listen, do you?”

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