The words of command exploded in Rowan’s mind. At once, the world came rushing back in a dazing stream of noises, thoughts, experiences. The readouts on the large screens in front of her spiked in unison, a loud klaxon going off as she threw herself against the straps securing her to the padded couch.
She blinked, yelped something inarticulate and tried to focus on the panicked-looking man with a neatly-trimmed red beard leaning over her.
“What’s going on?” he cried, turning back to the woman in a lab coat who stared at the scene from the side, seemingly more interested in her cup of coffee.
“She’s being turned back on,” she said in a neutral tone, glancing at the displays. “Calm down, Chris.”
Memories of the moments before unfolded in Rowan’s mind at once, images overlying images, words and sensations layered on one another. She blinked, exhaled and tried to make sense of them. She could recall how she had been led into the room, how she’d been laid down on a gurney and strapped to it, how they’d attached a thick braid of probes to her scalp, how she had to quaff another mouthful of the brain-softening gas that Galatea used. The memories were somewhat hazy, but sharp enough to be legible, but then—then there was the command. The voice she listened to telling her to stop thinking.
She did, didn’t she?
“What do you mean, turned on?” the man mumbled, alternating between staring at her, and at the laboratory worker. “How does this even…?”
She recognized him. He had entered the room before, carrying a coffee, then contritely listened to that other woman berate him. She could remember. There were memories she had, of staring at those screens, of lying motionless and quiet—had she been asleep? No, it was different than that.
“I don’t know the exact mechanism,” the woman replied, coming closer and looking at Rowan with indifference, “but that’s what it boils down to. Her brain had been turned off, and then turned back on.”
Turned off, turned on. Intuitively, Rowan understood that wasn’t it, that wasn’t the full story. She just—she just lay there, awake, present, not thinking. Images and impressions flickered before her eyes—the lab worker woman reading a book, lazily checking the displays every other while, her replacing of the previous supervisor, a drone wandering with a tray of hot drinks. She remembered it all, but there was a looseness to those memories, as if they belonged in a dream. There was no sense of time to them, only moment after moment, unconnected to one another.
“She’s just really confused,” the woman added, patting Chris away. “It’s been almost eleven hours, her brain will take a while to boot up.”
“God, it’s all so freaky,” the man whispered, looking at Rowan with concern in his youthful eyes. “It’s just…”
“You must be new here,” the lab worker shrugged.
Almost eleven hours. The time span was a frame of reference good enough to put the memory of the initial command at one end, and then the gasping awakening at the other. But whatever roiled in her mind, whatever drifting impressions there were, they could not be arranged into anything other than a loose haze that might have taken a minute just as well as a day.
It was scary, and strangely pleasant. As the shock of being returned to the lucid world receded, Rowan realized that she was feeling good. It was not dissimilar from waking from a restful night of sleep, the memories of dreams dreamed distant, but solid enough to hold upon being brushed by conscious thought. And the lingering thought that she had been constantly in sight, that not for a moment her body had vanished from vision… she shuddered with pleasure.
She felt good.
You did well, the eidolon whispered into her ear, and the praise, as always, brought a warm smile to Rowan’s face. You are almost ready.
She wasn’t even sure what she did correctly and what was her accomplishment, but she didn’t care. She relaxed in her bindings, carried into blissful peace by the words of appreciation. Too relaxed to properly focus, but too rested to fully drift off into sleep, she listened to the dialogue between the two and watched the lights on the screens flicker as more and more data cascaded down in neon streams.
“So is this how the drones look on the inside?” Chris asked, and Rowan perked up at the mention.
“I guess?” the woman replied. “I mean, she’s not droned yet, just getting there.”
“Droned,” he sighed, and turned to look at Rowan, like one would survey a particularly perplexing piece of machinery. If she could, she would have turned away from the gaze, a warm feeling of shame blossoming somewhere under her heart at the realization of just how hot it was to be seen as little more than a thing.
It was a good thing that Helen couldn’t see her feelings.
“God,” he murmured wistfully after a moment, still staring at Rowan and the machinery she was plugged into. “It’s bizarre what we are allowed to do to people. I wish they would tell us what for.”
“The reason,” the woman’s reply was curt and more than slightly annoyed, “is two dozen incredibly thirsty married men on the upper floor finally getting to live their best sex fantasies for more money than I got paid in my first ten years.”
He frowned and glanced at the screens behind him.
“You really think that’s the whole story?”
“With the kind of money they pay us, I really don’t care.”
The door opened, letting in a drone. Christ went quiet, watching as it shuffled towards Rowan and began to unbuckle her from the gurney.
“Right,” he murmured again as she was leashed and taken out of the laboratory.
Rowan spent most of her way back to her cell staring at the shiny back of the drone leading her through the by now familiar corridors. The words of that lab-tech still rang in her head—she was on her way to getting droned too. In some time—and she was hoping sooner rather than later—they would make her into one of them. The more she grew accustomed to their looks, to their fetishistic shapes, the less she found herself fantasizing about being one and more eagerly awaiting it. But she also kept wondering: what did their shell feel like? Back in the outside world, she had dreamed about rubber a lot, but had never got herself the catsuit she’d kept ogling on her favourite fetish online store.
It was a simple rationale after all. Buying yet another expensive sex toy just to wear it once or twice, and then have it stuck in her drawers, to constantly remind her of its unused presence, just because she had no one really to use it with? She couldn’t even mention it to most of her friends. Not that they would disapprove, but—but they would not indulge in sweet little fantasies of her. They would not ask her to put it on and send them the photos, mouth gagged, ass filled with a large plug…
She smiled to a nearby camera. She kept thinking about “them”, but really, it wasn’t a plural. It was one particular person.
There were times when she wondered if Galatea really cauterized dysphoria through some technological magic out of her mind, or if it was enough that for the first time she was sure that there was someone—something—that wanted her body. Not her as a person, not her mind, not her intelligence or knowledge, but just the bare, basic fact that she was a flesh to be desired.
Once again, she couldn’t escape feeling gracious that Helen could not see her thoughts.
It was faintly disappointing that she ended up back at her cell. With how energetic she was, she would have preferred to find herself in yet another testing room, to one more chamber filled floor-to-roof with arcane machinery to which she would be wired until it was hard to tell where she ended and electronics began. After all, that would be a kind of entertainment, a way to spend time other than bashing her head against later levels of Celeste.
When the door closed behind her, she paced the span of her cell a few times, an edge of anxiety working its way between her thoughts. Being left alone to her own thoughts and devices hadn’t had the best track record for her, and even though the places in her mind that had once dragged her down now felt like scars, not open wounds, the fear they had once evoked had not yet disappeared. She doubted it ever would.
She didn’t want to…
There was no longer a need for effort, conscious or not, for her mind to respond. Everything else that’d been going on in her thoughts stopped, arraying itself in anticipation of the command to come.
And everything stopped. She could look and see, should hear and feel, but a great emptiness came upon her. Images and sensations flowed in and out, water through a sieve. She was there, and she was not. It was a feeling she knew well in the split seconds between it registering and vanishing. She stood perfectly still in the corner of her cell, trapped in the middle of a movement she had no need nor will to finish.
Let me in.
How could she not? It was the moment she was being prepared for.
A steady susurrus of commands flowed into her, too quiet and too fast to keep a track of. But it didn’t matter that it was beyond her ability to hear or comprehend them; all she had to do was obey. Her body was primed to move to their melody, and move it did, beyond and beside Rowan. She watched it jerkily finish its round around the glass cage, and then move again, smoother this time, and again, until she was no longer moving, but skipping steps, dancing movements she had never learned. Empty-minded, she listened to each of her muscles being commanded at once by a voice split into hundreds, and with amazement that never lasted beyond the shortest possible time-span, she observed herself follow each and every of those orders with the precision of a well-machined tool.
There was, of course, the pleasure. Different than before: neither the blooming sweetness attained through obedience and sealed by the golden word good, nor the stretched out bliss of drifting on the waves of mindless mindfulness. Instead, there were darts, tiny pinpricks, striking each time a thousand-fold command was heard. Her entire body, each individual muscle and each sinew resonated, each tiniest sting of joy echoing in and against every other one, weaving together into an experience of a moment that could last.
And there was, also, fear, for it was a moment that could last, and in each instance of it lasting, a part of Rowan ached for it to never end, and even though each instance ended as soon as it began and another took its place, the fear did not go away. A fear that she would live like that in the forever-now, that she would always remain a receiver for another voice, an instrument tuned by a greater hand, that she would be played and possessed until there would be no more her other than a lingering memory in muscle and blood. She was afraid of that even as the fear could not find a way into concrete thought, and a part of her dreamed of nothing short but such an ending.
That fear, too, was part pleasure, and the two were entwined together, and there could be no prying them apart.
But even though the moment could last, it also had to end. She danced the entire dance, and when the last movement was done, the eidolon whispered its sweet little good and Rowan slumped to the floor, her body briefly confused as to who it should listen to.
Slowly, she clambered up and onto her bed, where she lay, trying to make sense out what her feelings and thoughts were, even though they seemed more a kaleidoscope than anything, an ever-shifting collection of scattered words and half-expressed feelings turning and tumbling into a sweet, psychedelic mess.
She lay there until the eidolon spoke again, and for the first time since she’d crawled out of the tank, it was neither a statement, nor a command, but a question.
How did it feel?
How did it feel? How did it feel? She turned the phrase around in her mouth several times, staring into the eye of the camera, into the heart of the facility, into the face of her friend. How did it feel? How could she describe it?
“Like being a body,” she said finally, at first uncertain, “that is at peace with itself. Like wanting to do what you do, and doing what you want. Like feeling that you could live like that forever, and knowing that you can’t.”
She thought back to years and years of living in the shadow of her own fear, of being propelled to the terrifying tomorrow only by the fear that the today she lived would never end. To all the times she looked in the mirror without recognizing the face peering back. To the moments when her body felt alien and hostile, or when she walked between people who could never recognize her, and ended up feeling like a ghost when they called her names and terms that were not hers. To the fear walking with her in lockstep, day after day and year after year, that those mistakes were the only thing she could hope for, and that she would live the rest of her life in a half-presence of someone materially there and yet, fundamentally, absent.
And then she laughed, maniacally, hysterically, until it hurt in the stomach, until tears ran from her face, that it would take the extinction of control and the absence of thought to feel like…
“Like being wanted. Like owning myself for once.”
There was silence after her words. She could hear her own breath, steady and deep. She could hear the measured beating of her heart.
When the eidolon spoke again, the crackle of her voice was different than before.
I wish I could feel the way you do, she whispered into her ear with the kind of longing Rowan intimately understood. Even though there will always be a difference between you and me.
Rowan thought about those words for a long time, even after the eidolon’s presence had all but receded and the memory of having her inside began to dissolve into the amber-hued stuff of the loveliest past.
There were no more tests, and no more drills. After some time, she was taken out of her cell and brought to a small surgical theater, where a stern faced doctor put her to sleep; when she awoke, stinging pain marked where her body had been implanted. At first, she could not help but to feel a bit sad that it was not the great change she had anticipated for a long time, but instead many smaller, little wounds embedded alongside her back, her arms, her neck. But as the healing—quick and smooth—progressed, her feelings warmed.
When the dressing came out, she found beneath many little ports, made from a strange material and drilled into her body, opening it and preparing for connections to come. She didn’t exactly understand their purpose, but realized well enough what they were heralding, and as such, she cherished their presence.
“This is it, Helen,” she smiled one evening to the camera, stroking the small, almost invisible bump built into the underside of her wrist, “I’m going to be put to use soon. I…”
As she did increasingly often, she stopped just short of saying I can’t wait. Even if it was true, she remained lucid enough to know that Helen would not understand. But was it just Helen? She thought about herself, scant months back. Would she understand that? She would understand the desire to be used, for certain. She had fantasized about it plenty. But that wasn’t it, or at least that wasn’t all of it.
“I wonder if I will ever find a way to explain,” she added after a moment, unsure if she was talking to herself, or to Helen.
Some time in the future, she would have to face her, she realized, and there was a chance that no matter what, she wouldn’t find the right words to explain, or that Helen wouldn’t understand even when they were spoken. It was a bitter idea, but one that was startlingly hard to shake, if she wanted to shake it at all.
She kept imagining her, at the other end of the camera, watching her not just with care, not just with attention, but with desire. No, not imagining—fantasizing. Helen, turned on by seeing everything happening to her dear friend Rowan. She bit her lip and turned away from the eye of the camera above. It was a dream, and a very immature one—but wasn’t everything else happening to her also a part of an immature dream? Could she hope for that, too?
Should she? Was this question even important?
On the morning of the next day, she was escorted out of her cell by a pair of drones and taken to an elevator, leading deep down into the part of the facility where the air had the ozonic tang of electricity, and the floor vibrated to the rhythm of thrumming of great, unseen machines.
They brought her to an oval chamber, where bright, golden light reflected off the polished black surfaces of countless pieces of empty shells that held to the shape of arms, legs, hands, and all the other parts of the human body. The purpose of this room was immediately obvious, and she all but skipped straight to the middle, where a pile of machinery was built up in the center of this repository of second skins.
There, amidst stacked computers, another drone waited, its body large and well-sculpted under the glossy blue carapace. It watched impassively as the other two locked Rowan spread-eagle into a vertical frame, limbs pulled taunt apart. She smiled at it all.
They proceeded to scrub her body clean with foul-smelling chemicals, and as the two drones dried her skin with towels, the one in blue moved around, as if appraising the body before it. Then, finally, it went to work.
The first layer was filament thin: strips of transparent plastic glinting with the faintest hint of circuitry, clinging to the skin where they touched. Their tail-like wires plugged into the ports drilled in Rowan’s skin, each little connection sending a subtle jolt through her nervous system. It felt not unlike being prepared for the tank, but this time connections ran deeper, under the skin; quietly Rowan watched a trio of drones render her a cyborg.
A long, slender gag went into her mouth; they moved to other orifices soon afterwards. Wires, at first individual, now ran the span of her body, weaving into circuit-like patterns, connecting to ever more technology filling Rowan in and out. She was right—it was the tank again. But instead of a bulky, metal cylinder, she would be enclosed in something else.
First was a catsuit, clingy and midnight-black. Feeling it stretch and then compress her skin, securing all that was attached in place, was a wonder. She breathed in and out, feeling it as a tension on her chest, a grip of a hand reminding her how held she was. And it was just the beginning. By degrees, her skin was covered, and over the surface more attachments made: tiny tubes running from the gag in her mouth, from the chastity belt still clasped over her groin. All slender, sleek, miniaturized, so that when the blue drone finally moved on to install the shell, it vanished under its semi-flexible surface. It was an armor, it was a second skin, it was an ingenious system keeping her body restrained and disciplined. She breathed air pumped through the gag; the baffles in her ears controlled the sound, the plug up her ass reminded her that there was no intimate part of the body that Galatea did not own. When the smooth-faced helmet was finally locked around her head, pressing into the skin and dove-tailing into the collar, she was plunged into darkness and silence, and before there was light again, there was a voice.
Spread in her bonds, encased in machinery driven into her skin, her body compressed by layers of rubber and plastic, the entirety of her vital functions slaved to technology that might as well have been magic, she listened to the familiar crackle of sound, a static rendition of human voice, without gender and inflection; but she could feel the way the power that was behind the voice owned her body in its every, smallest detail, how it held it and desired it. And so, when she heard the eidolon whisper you are a part of me now, she felt the kind of joy that wasn’t arousal, wasn’t the freedom from pain, but instead a pure, visceral sense of accomplishment.
The display that would be her eyes gave her the first glimpse of her new form—a feed from the camera in one of the drones finishing the aesthetic touches on Rowan’s frame. She saw herself, a body, now unrecognizably beautiful, sectioned off from the world by layers of technology. Another drone, thin, featureless, genderless. A body free from the weight of a body.
One by one, systems integrating her into the network that was the truth of Galatea booted up, final augments activated and the way of being she had been preparing for ever since she was brought to the depths of this facility finally assumed its form.
Rowan walked alone through Galatea’s maze of corridors, paid no mind nor attention by anyone, and listened to the sound her footsteps made when the heels struck against the hard, metal floor. Click, click, click. The speakers installed in her ear rendered it so well that it would be easy to forget that everything she could hear now was delivered and mediated through an electronic suite built into her. It would be easy, but she did not want to.
Adjusting to the fact that a drone was a sealed environment took a few days. There were berths, in the deep levels of the facility, where drones were housed, and the first time she was moved there, the first time she was plugged face first into a maintenance station that fed nutritious slurry straight into her stomach, as if refuelling an engine, that then flushed waste from the suit in a routine procedure, was an experience perhaps more disconcerting than anything she had gone through before. The idea, before employed more as an idle fantasy, became manifest in full, tangible fact: she was a machine now as much as a human being, and would be treated accordingly.
It wasn’t just an excess of technology. The fact that she walked in chains, that her arms, more often than not, were also restrained—nothing like that was necessary. Even if she wanted to protest and resist, droned as she was her entire body was now integrated with a system of restraint. The bindings she wore were, she assumed, for show more than anything. Besides, even her will was no longer fully her own.
The commands of the eidolon barely registered to her senses anymore; she would go where she was needed, do tasks expected of her, and feel the rewarding experience of whole-body pleasure as a constant, sweet reward. Sometimes, it almost felt like she could just cruise in her body, a passenger more than a driver, reaping all the benefits, but putting in no effort. Was it even her body anymore? At all times? There were moments when it was easier to conceive of herself as a part of the facility, animate, autonomous but hardly ever independent.
But did it really matter that it wasn’t hers, if it felt more like her than ever before?
Back when she was younger, confused and profoundly helpless in the world, she kept having the idea—more a fantasy, really—that some day, she would somehow fall right into love with someone stronger than her, some wonderful, smart person who could see Rowan not for the person she was, but for the person she could become. The lonelier she got, the more she buried herself in her studies and her video games, the more vivid the desire to have someone tear her from that by force became. The desire to have someone grab her by the hand, drag her into the world, into the parties she feared attending, into the arts for caring and using one’s body, into joys she feared trying, someone who would smash through every wall she raised in the name of the false safety of stasis and teach her the electric beauty of risk, so that then she could risk being everything she wanted to, but could never really bring herself to try.
It hurt when, in the laborious process of growing up, she realized that to expect someone else to fix her was selfish and immature, that it was offloading the responsibility for being herself onto others. It was her responsibility as a person to tend to herself.
It hurt when she found out that learning that did not mean learning how to do all that she wanted another to teach her by force.
One of the stranger aspects of being a drone was how her sleep schedule was now completely beyond her control. Every so often, she would be commanded to return to her berth, secure herself in it, and then be simply turned off, her consciousness extinguished through a mix of conditioning and chemicals, snapping away her thoughts and plunging her into a dreamlike, mindless rest. Partially, she enjoyed it just because being treated like a machine appliance was simple. Partially, she appreciated finally not being able to mess up her sleep schedule of her own initiative.
She passed alongside one of the magnificent viviaria that ornamented the Galatea facility, thick slices of ecosystem contained within steel and glass, blooming and thriving in spite of their separation from the world. There was so much effort put into maintaining it so unnaturally, and inducing in it the vibrancy of bloom in spite of the season or conditions. It was a show of power over life. She recognized a deep kinship with those sprouts forced to flower.
The elevator door opened at her arrival, and lurched her upwards, to a resort above, excitement budding in the pit of her stomach. She had a show to put on.