a prison, a body

ix. helen. the one who got away

by gargulec

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

When the news broke that one of the NGOs she cooperated with had been, against all odds, awarded funding for their project, Helen found herself celebrating for reasons beyond just having an income for the next twelve months. The amount of work she was going to have to put into it was enormous already on paper, and she had enough experience with how those things tended to go to know that in practice it would be twice that at the very least. Mere fieldwork and initial data processing would render free time nearly absent from the next few months of her life, and as much as she hated that idea, it at least provided a hope that she would finally wean herself off Rowan. Of thinking about her and, more importantly, of watching her be gradually disassembled.

Over the past week, the Galatea-provided application had run constantly in the background of her laptop and her phone. Whatever it was that made her look at it time after time, she couldn’t tell—maybe some kind of morbid curiosity bordering on self-harm. Every time she saw the naked body of her friend, whether incarcerated in its little glass cage, or being subjected to another round of horrifying exploitation, she felt her stomach revolt. It made her think back to that old docummentary she saw, the one about that rapist hardcore porn producer, the one called Graphic Sexual Horror. But while its aesthetic was all septic and rusted, a serial-killer’s backroom, what Rowan was trapped in looked like an Apple Store of violation. The chic, high-tech way to get any dignity stripped out of the body. She could never watch it for longer than a few moments at a time.

But when she had to look away, there was also the text. Pages upon pages of reports, event logs, operating schedules. Detailed records of Rowan’s performance, hundreds of pages of sexual data, information on when her cell was being filled with sleeping gas because she refused to sleep at curfew—all in itself a disturbing account of an absurdly strict disciplinary regime. But there was more—there was always more. She could also read, in detail, about the brainwashing schemes scheduled for her friend, and even though half of their meanings were obscured behind codewords she did not understand, she’d gleaned enough to realize that what Galatea wanted was to make Rowan completely willing to suffer whatever they had planned for her. Occasionally she made the mistake of looking at the list of “enhancements” the corporation intended to stuff into Rowan’s body; she was quietly thankful that she did not understand what most of them were supposed to be, even if it did set her imagination into horrifying excesses.

It’s monstrous, what you are doing, she wrote one night, and sent it to that Aphrodite person. She was angry, after two beers, and really didn’t care if they cut her access for that. In fact, she almost hoped that they would. The previous half-an-hour she spent watching a figure sealed in white plastic methodically bruise and welt the back of Rowan with a series of whips and then—somewhat amusedly—report a “minimal to negative arousal”.

The response from the Galatea representative arrived not long after—she really had to be glued to her computer, it seemed. It was, of course, a single line of text: Then why do you watch?

Helen typed in a response instantly: Because you let me, but then hesitated before clicking “send” and, finally, threw it into the digital garbage bin. The question Aphrodite had asked, as much as she hated it, was a good one.

Every time she looked away from the application, she came out feeling dirty. She was participating in an invasion of privacy, she was watching something awful and repellant. Even if Rowan had consented to all of that, it didn’t matter. She had promised herself to stop more than once, and each time the promise never held.

So why did she keep watching it?

Every day, the application sent a report to her inbox—a kind of a digest. It contained an event log, the most important aspects of Rowan’s “performance” and, morbidly, a “general appraisal of object’s condition”—a paragraph where her overall mental and physical state was described. Out of seven reports she had read, all but one described Rowan as being in a “positive mental state” and “responding well to stimuli”. Helen couldn’t believe any of it. No one could do well in a situation like Rowan’s. No one.

Obsessively, she kept re-reading that one report where it was stated that the object experienced mental stress of uncertain origin (potential causes: idleness, bodily dysphoria, first-wave regret, chronic mood swings?), causing lack of focus, restlessness and troubles sleeping. Pacifying agent administered to the holding pod at 2230 hours...

Uncertain origins. She gripped onto that idea that there was something wrong with Rowan, that the horror of her position was getting to her, that soon it would completely take her. So she had to watch, had to catch Galatea lying. Even if there was something perverse in opening the application and realizing that, somewhere in the back of her head, she expected or maybe even wanted to see Rowan miserable and broken. She’d realized that yesterday, and it had been enough to make her feel completely wretched for the rest of the day.

And so, the idea that she would have so much work that she could barely find time to think, let alone watch, Rowan, was a welcome reprieve.

Besides, the project would bring with itself its own set of petty frustrations, small annoyances and general issues which, she had hoped, would successfully occupy her mind enough to leave no room in it for endless considerations of Galatea’s working.

She did not have to wait long for those frustrations; in fact they started before the work proper, on the light rail train line 51, where alongside Hank she drove to meet their first interviewee. Within fifteen minutes of boarding, he was already having that conversation with her. All over again.

“I still think this project is,” he said, looking out of the tram’s window, “low-key problematic. If you know what I mean.”

She squeezed the hand-hold and rolled her eyes. Not like he could see her doing that, and not like anyone else in the train cared at all for their disagreement.

“We’ve talked about,” she sighed, without any hope it would dissuade him.

“Yeah, bu—Helen, we’re a pro-labour org, and this is not—this is not about labour. It’s…,” he paused. “It’s about the exploiters.”

“They are the victims of the system just the same.”

“The fact that they’ve lost everything doesn’t make up for their complicity in the exploitation of the labour force back when they were in power,” he continued. “It still feels sleezy to give them so much attention that…”

The tram’s PA system croaked to life. A vaguely feminine electronic voice crackled the name of the next stop:


The train ground to a halt. Helen slammed the door button.

“Come,” she called, shoving Hank out into the cool, morning air and following after him.

A few people stumbled out of the tram behind them, a few more jumped in. The machine chimed and rushed back onto its route, quiet like a whisper. The fact that the city had extended its light train tracks all the way to this part of the city kept baffling her. Compared to the hyper-modern, sleek tram, the area around the Park felt like it had been taken out of a different century. At least partially because it was. The grim, ungainly blocks of flats that surrounded this little green space had not seen a renovation in decades; the faded pastel paint that covered some of them recalled that brief period where everyone thought that it would be enough to paint the city bright yellow and green to erase the signs of the previous system. But, pastel or not, they continued on, obstinate.

From the tram stop, Helen could see inside the Park; the birches and poplars that were supposed to shield it from the rumble of the street were still leafless after winter. The bronze rocket of the Nuke peeked from between those bare branches. Technically, it was supposed to be a monument to Gagarin, but no one called it that. It was the Nuke, a giant metal missile on a pedestal, aimed threateningly at the sky. Unlike so many other monuments of the type, it had evaded the frenzy of the desovietization. Sure, there was always some talk about finally redeveloping the Cosmonaut’s Park into something more representational than a few diseased trees, battered benches and a giant bronze Nuke, but it never went anywhere. All the better, Helen thought. The city was gentrified enough as it was.

“Look,” Hank continued. “I think that we should be focusing on workers. That was our mission statement, that is what our work is all about and…”

“Hank,” Helen grunted, glancing at her phone. They still had fifteen minutes before the appointment. Still, they had better get going. She turned away from the Nuke and headed down-street, towards the clumping of the flats. “Hank, this is literally the first time we’ll be working with anyone else but the most narrowly understood workers, and…”

“Once a blooddrinker, always a blooddrinker,” he said, shrugging his slender shoulders. There was something in that gesture that made Helen think back to that time when she’d introduced Rowan to him, and they’d spent an evening talking about dresses. Apparently, Rowan was dejected that he looked better in them than she did, though Helen honestly couldn’t tell the difference. But…

...but why the fuck was she thinking about her again?

“Henraszewski is living in his mother’s old flat in the fucking Northern Heights,” she spat, more annoyed than she wanted to be. “Just process that. Northern Heights!”

“He was a CEO!”

“Well, now he’s no one!”

She didn’t realize she was shouting. Her voice echoed down the empty street; the few passerbys around all turned and stared. She looked down, embarrassed.

“Are you okay, Helen?” Hank asked, coming closer. “You seem really tense for some reason.”

“Bad week, m’kay?” she mumbled. “Can you just drop this thing? Bring it to Anna, if you really want to. Let’s just get the interview done, please?”

“Sssure,” he responded. She didn’t have to look up at him to know the false, compassionate smile he was putting on. She liked him a ton, but he could never really hide being worried, no matter how much he tried. “Sure, let’s go talk with Henraszewski. Who knows? Maybe he won’t even be an ass…”


“Fine, fine,” he sighed. “Let’s go.”


When Helen imagined Anton Henraszewski, she thought of a hunched, soft-spoken older man, skin sagging and eyes marked by profound loss; the sort of a person she associated with welfare homes and documentaries about social destitution. After all, he had lost everything, and it was a sizable everything to the boot. How much his fall must have hurt, she couldn’t even begin to imagine.

To her surprise, the Anton that greeted them at the door of his tiny flat looked not that differently from the man she had seen in the old press photographs. Sure, he had aged a little, his red hair thinned and greyed out, and his sweater and jeans had very little to do with perfectly tailored Italian suits he used to wear, but he was still recognizable as the man who once headed the most promising start-up in the country. Hell, even his apartment, tiny as it was, looked like a miniaturized version of a hyper-modern living space of a tech executive. The materials were all cheap IKEA, and the electronics that filled the shelves top of the line for the end of the last decade, but it still carried this air of expert minimalism and technological superiority that had been all the rage years ago.

If his loss showed somewhere, it was in his mannerisms. Before the interview, she watched old footage of him, interviews where he wouldn’t allow anyone but him to speak, his press conferences where he would, without a hint of a doubt, declare the future of his enterprise as glorious. She even watched some material from the early days of the decline, where he still allowed no one to doubt that everything would work out for him and his accomplices. But now?

But now, the man sitting across the table from them, with a small glass of dark-red tea, was quiet. He moved carefully and slowly, spoke little, and it took a good twenty minutes of Hank working him with praise and gratitude to get him to open up. But even when the dam finally broke and he started to talk about the rise and fall of his fortune, of DigitEX systems against the backdrop of the startup goldrush, no hint of old energy showed through. There was regret, obviously, and quite a bit of pain—especially as he reached the part where his old “friends” ousted him from power and did their best to bury him in debt. But, above else, what dominated his tone was a faint sense of amusement.

“You would make silly money out of the stupidest things,” he said, smiling wryly. “You could tell people you were selling them a scam, slap on a few hot buzzwords, and they would still buy it. They would still invest in you. Even though everyone knew it was bullshit.”

“Why?” Hank asked. “Was there ever a rationale?”

“Everyone thought themselves the next Uber,” he shrugged back. “The next big thing. The risk wasn’t really losing money—the people who financed it had more of it than they could ever really lose. The risk was being late to the next disruption, of being behind the curve. Everyone wanted to be on the front-pages, everyone wanted to have a cult on Twitter. So they would throw their dollars and their euros at anything that looked remotely promising, and a lot of things that didn’t.”

“But the bubble had to burst,” Helen said quietly. “Eventually.”

“And that’s why everyone kept pumping it,” Anton laughed softly. “Aren’t you socialists? You, of all people, should understand. Everybody knew it wasn’t sustainable, so the job was to squeeze it out as much as possible before it all went bust. It was a feeding frenzy, and we lived for it! What else were you supposed to do? Take your absurd riches and walk away, when you knew you could go double down or nothing?”

“No one ever folded?”

“No one,” he nodded, sorrow again creeping into his voice. “Well, there was one. The man who ran Pygmalion, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it?”

Both of them shook their heads.

“Unsurprising. It was never really huge. They came in at the tail end of the machine learning craze, but still managed to get in some sweet VC. And then, one day, the guy in charge of it… what was his name…,” he frowned. “Alzheimmer, I guess. I’ll remember later. Anyway one day that guy just - sold off all of his assets and left. Vanished into thin air.”

“Graft?” suggested Hank.

“Caught a whiff of the coming crash?” proposed Helen.

“Insider trading?”

“Yeah, none of that,” Anton chuckled again. “I mean, that’s what we all thought. Hell, it kicked off a small panic. But it came long before the crash, and as far as anyone could tell, there was nothing illegal about it. Nothing shady. He just decided, one fine morning, to leave it all behind. So yeah, one of us folded. I envy the bastard, not gonna lie.”

A thought occurred to Helen, and then a question that she felt like she should ask. But before she could form it, Hank cut in with one of his own.

“Do you wish you did the same?”

Whatever it was, Hank’s words had knocked it from her head, leaving behind only a nagging sense of something being off.

Henraszewski gave him a long, slightly amused look.

“Have you not been paying attention?” he said finally with a grin. “It’s not about ‘did’, it’s about ‘could’. And I couldn’t have done that. Look, even as the ground came alight under my feet and it was obvious it was the end, I still thought I could hustle my way out of it all. Make out like a bandit. But…” the smile faded. “You probably think we were some kind of parasites, no?”

Hank did not say anything; he looked away, anxiously fixing his glasses. Once again, Anton laughed, but this time without a slightest hint of joy.

“I’ve read your press. I’ve looked over your Twitter. I actually followed a lot of lefty stuff back in the day. So yeah, you don’t have to hide it. You all thought that we were some kind of parasitic species, a blight on society, or, I don’t know, Elders of the Silicon Valley. And you know what?”

Hank looked back at him, and opened his mouth to speak. But, for one moment, the man Helen had seen on the old footage was back. Henraszewsk stared Hank down as if he were no one, and then erupted with a guttural, furious growl.

“I wish we’d been any of that! But what we really were was a bunch of morons!” he thumped the table, making his glass of tea jump up. Helen looked up at the recorder rattling about the glass surface and winced, thinking about what it would do to the quality of the recording. “And the one injustice about it all is that not everyone ended up like me!”

The silence that followed was heavy, intimidating. Hank squinted, as if looking for an opportunity to argue, but for once no words of indignation came out of his mouth.

“We all had it coming,” Anton finished, his voice once more quiet and tired. “We really fucking did.”


Back at her apartment, she spent the rest of the day hunched over the computer, headphones on her head, transcribing the interview. The onerous work went surprisingly quickly, for once, so she moved onto trying to arrange all the interviews for the rest of the week. The issue wasn’t tracking down those involved in the DigitEX collapse. It was enough to comb through a few of the innumerable archival articles about it to compose a long list of people who were varyingly responsible for and affected by it. The actual difficulty was in contacting then and convincing them to agree to talk about it. Unlike Hermaszewski, a lot of them still had quite a bit left to lose. They tended to react allergically to a suggestion of being interviewed, especially by people from an organisation which had the word “justice” in its name. One of them even threatened legal action before hanging up. Gradually, however, she managed to sweet-talk a few into an interview and even arranged a preliminary schedule for the next few days. Knowing life, it wouldn’t hold, but it was still something.

By the time she was finished with all that, the night was well underway. A message on her phone reminded her of the standing invitation from one of her exes to get out for drinks; she checked the time. It wasn’t yet late enough for that to be impossible. She hesitated, stopped to think.

She brought up the Galatea application window without really thinking about it. It wasn’t a conscious thing—just a reflex developed over the past week, to check on Rowan when she had nothing else to do. She tensed immediately, and the question of whether to go out was displaced by the slightly nauseating realization that she was doing it again.

For once, the image the live-feed provided was not stomach-churning. Rowan was back in that glass cell they'd held her in, wrapped in the ridiculous transparent blanket and apparently soundly asleep, her back turned to the camera. Through those coverings, Helen could recognize blurred, reddish marks where her friend’s body was still healing from “impact play testing”. As far as she could tell, the bruises and welts were fading quickly.

With the familiar, noxious frustration welling up in the pit of her stomach, she glanced at the phone again. The invitation felt even more tempting than before. But no, she really shouldn’t. She had a meeting early tomorrow, and knowing Dani, it would not end at “a few drinks”. It never really did. She turned off the application and slammed the laptop shut. Half a day! She’d managed to get through half of a day without thinking about this Galatea nonsense!

The gratuitous approach of the corporation was increasingly getting on her nerves. It felt stupid, pointless. She knew enough about the realities of modern sex work to realize that this was not how any of it was supposed look. All those prisons, all that surveillance, muzzled showers, all of it had no actual purpose that Helen could discern. Why hold people like Rowan in glass cages? Why monitor their behaviour not just with casual workplace discipline, but with nozzles dispensing mind-altering drugs? The costs of this system had to, by far, outweigh any actual benefits it might have. The only idea that seemed to make sense was that it was about cruelty. That cruelty, and power, were the entire point.

But still, if they wanted to…

“Fuck,” she muttered, lifting herself up from the computer. “I’m not thinking about it now. Cut me a bloody break.”

She did her best to push the thoughts aside. She was tired, she needed to wash herself and go to sleep, not spend another night pondering the exact reasons why Galatea did what they did, or why it seemed like Rowan was actually enjoying herself. If she really was, and it wasn’t a psy-op meant to give a horribly exploitative corporation some good PR from one of the “lefties”. Not like it was going to work. Literally nothing that Helen had seen…

“Stop,” she mumbled, shuffling towards the bathroom, to try to scrub away those impossible thoughts along with the day’s sweat.

Henraszewski, she decided as she put herself to bed and wrapped the blanket tightly about her body, was right. The people running those corporations understood only excess. There was no rational reason behind anything they did. It was greed, and if not for power, then for something else. Greed to possess, to rule, to… just greed. There was no point in giving it too much thought; there was no explanation other than the unrestrained need of men to possess more and more, the same need that was ruining the society and the planet. This was all that Galatea and its horrors represented. Of all the people that Henraszewski knew, only one had had the presence of mind to call it quits. But what had it earned him? Who remembered the name Pygmalion now?


Helen sprung up from her bed, hand jolting towards the phone and dialing Henraszewski’s number before she even had time to think about the hour. He picked up before she had a moment to reconsider.


“Uh…,” she wheezed into the microphone, feeling like an idiot, “Mr. Henraszewski, I’m so sorry to call you at this hour. It’s Helen Hu, I was that woman who…”

“Yeah, yeah, that mannish one. I remember,” he replied, his voice warm. “It’s no big issue, Miss Hu, I sleep late, and so few people call me nowadays that it is a pleasant diversion. What brings you to me? Have I made that good of an impression on you?” he asked. There was a trace of flirtatious hope to those words that made Helen shiver. “How can an old man help you?”

“I…,” she bit her lip, but there was no point in holding back now that she had actually had him on the line. Even if, on the second thought, it seemed just plain dumb. “I wanted to ask about Pygmalion. It’s a really weird question, but… ugh,” she stopped talking for a moment, trying to get her thoughts in order. Now that the initial rush of the hunch had passed, she felt a bit idiotic about the question she was about to ask.

“Are you all right, Miss Hu? You sound so very stressed.”

“Yes!” she hissed, annoyed. “Okay, I just wanted to ask if there was any relationship between Pygmalion and Galatea Corporation!”

There was a brief pause on the other side, followed by a husky chuckle.

“What clued you in?” Anton laughed. “The company that bought Pygmalion assets? They’re Galatea today. I guess they like their mythology.”

Helen gasped. It felt like finding a loose thread in some grand conspiracy, unveiling a dark secret, it felt dangerous or important. Or maybe that was just Rowan’s situation driving her insane.

“Do you… do you remember the name of that man, the one you’ve mentioned? The one who…”

“Oh, him?” Anton sighed. “I could look around. I’m sure I’ll remember it. Maybe we could meet over a cup of coffee to share those stories, talk a bit, get to know each other better. What do you say… Miss Hu?”

What Helen wanted to say was you creep. But…

“I would be very thankful, Mr Hermaszewski,” she murmured into the phone. “Until then, good night.”

She dropped back onto her pillow, and sighed. There really was no getting out of this all.

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