With a long, shuddering gasp, Bennet came back to reality. She finally disentangled her hand from her panties; lazily, she lifted it up to her eyeline, looking with a dazed smile at the way her fingers glistened.
She put her fingers to her lips and licked tentatively; liking the way she tasted, she opened her mouth wide and slid them in, spending a few luxurious moments sucking them clean.
But moments were all she could spare. Time was tight and she had jobs to do. Pytki had not made her a slave for no reason. She was part of a grand strategy.
If you struck against the Spiral Path, you would be caught up in its puppet strings.
Bennet knew two more women needed to become puppets before they had a chance to cause trouble.
She shut down her laptop with a satisfying snap, re-buckled her pants, and left the room, walking with a purpose. She was Pytki's. That on its own meant most of C.A.L.I.B.R.E. no longer mattered; they were now just a means to an end. And as for the strike team…
…Well, they had been carefully chosen to fit Pytki’s plans. Plans given to her by the organisation that now owned her.
She feared Chen’s raw capability. Starting with Cooper was the obvious choice; there’d be two of them then, and even if Cooper was Science and Technology, not Ops, she’d still had more training than Bennet.
They absolutely needed Chen, Bennet reflected. Pytki's’s team would need to be able to handle the most elite operatives in C.A.L.I.B.R.E. if it was spotted ahead of schedule. Chen was their best chance of making that possible.
She found a new hiding place in one of the corridors, by a junction box. It wouldn’t last long but it didn’t have to; it would give her access to Langley’s data network. Forcing the box open took a strength she hadn’t realised was within her. But then, nothing had ever driven or motivated her before like the need to serve Pytki.
Like the pleasure that flooded her each time she took a step closer to achieving Pytki’s aims.
Bennet picked out the security data cable quickly and hooked it to her laptop. She started tabbing through cameras.
Colby, Chen, and Wilford were involved in their standoff. Perhaps Bennet might have learned more about Pytki’s Plan A if she’d stopped and tried to read lips, but she had other things to do. She tabbed on.
At length she found Cooper in a lab with Stone. The body language was clearly uneasy; Stone was obviously worried that Cooper’s former workplace might give her C.A.L.I.B.R.E. sympathies. Cooper was worried for her safety. Good. She could use that. Pytki would be pleased.
Bennet checked the feed for the room number and glanced at a map. Her new programming memorised the map in an instant; Bennet closed her laptop and tucked it back into her satchel. Then she let her conscious mind fade away, and her programming took over, walking her like an automaton through Langley, taking the correct turns for the shortest route to Cooper. It wasn’t stealthy, but it was fast, and Pytki required Cooper. If Bennet couldn’t deliver her, she would have failed.
The slimmest sliver of Bennet’s mind that was still aware was focused on the question of Stone. He was a clear threat to her goal, and would have to be removed. The biggest problem would be removing him without making Cooper just as suspicious.
But Stone was a field operative. It wasn’t likely Bennet would have the element of surprise on her side for long. In the past, she would have panicked, or been slow. She’d actually frozen up in the past, on several different occasions.
That was C.A.L.I.B.R.E. Bennet. Pytki Bennet was more ruthless. Pytki Bennet was a better Bennet.
Deputy Director Burrows tried to be on C.A.L.I.B.R.E. property as little as she could get away with, in perfect honesty. It was considered by many in the agency that she was slacking now she’d reached high rank. Very few considered that it might be a result of her field experiences, many years ago.
And only a couple of agents still active remembered the kind of things she’d run into. Only a couple of agents understood how she felt, knew what she’d gone through. Understood it didn’t make her a ‘part timer’ as a number of younger operatives seemed to think.
Burrows had a need, now, to be in control of her circumstances. It made her an effective Deputy Director and had stood her in good stead even in crises. It also meant that being in the office and not at home didn’t go well for her, and nor had long-term relationships back when she’d tried them. Not since that weird period of time when she’d been vaguely well known as Star Commando’s girlfriend, back before…
…well, before everything she tried not to think about.
Lately, though, her control had been shaken, and she was becoming uncomfortably aware of it. She had a handler now, and that was natural and reasonable and understandable. It just didn’t make any sense and didn’t match the table of organisation.
Also she remembered first meeting her handler at the bar she went to when she needed to remind herself she was in control of her own sexual gratification. While it might not be a terrible location to do a casual meet and debrief later in an agent-handler relationship, it should never had been a first encounter.
And, lastly, the burner phone her handler had provided her with was never more than six feet away. She’d tested this in a couple of different ways - trying to walk away from it, and throwing it across the room and feeling herself scurry to chase after it - and knew that the reason for this was in her, not in the phone. Which indicated…
…Well, Burrows had tried following that line of thought further than that once, and she’d blacked out as she did. For the time being she was leaving the logical conclusion unspoken in her brain, an assumed fact that she could work with and assess so long as she never addressed it directly.
She was, in fact, staring at the burner phone lying next to her official line, thinking about Bennet and Chen and why those names had been picked by a handler and given to her from one line to give to Colby on the other.
Deputy Director Burrows knew the typical limitations of a mental lock, and was carefully not thinking in any detail. So long as she kept her notions vague and foggy her brain shouldn’t give out on her. And Chen was certainly capable of keeping Bennet and anyone else safe.
Then the burner phone rang.
She jumped. She twitched. She winced inside. And she willed herself not to answer it.
Burrows watched her hand stretch out and pick up the phone. “Hello?” she asked despite herself.
“Deputy Director,” said her handler, his voice so smug it practically oozed. “Are you ready for a briefing?”
She willed herself to say no. To hang up. To do anything but say-
“Good. I’ll be at your place soon. We will brief in your bedroom. Leave the door unlocked and await me.” He rang off.
Deputy Director Burrows pocketed her burner phone and rose. She walked through to unlock her front door, then back to her bedroom, where she set the burner down beside the bed and started to undress.
The helplessness she felt, the inevitability of her actions, was everything she hated about mental control, and knowing that if her handler slipped, she would recover in time was no kind of defence.
She wondered how many instructions he would bother to give to make it even feel like a briefing. What really hurt was the sure knowledge that even if he gave nothing to disguise it, she would obey and her mind would treat it as one.
He could break the rules as much as he felt like, because the rules were now firmly part of how her body behaved.
Stone was closer to the door than Cooper. That thought was pretty much stuck in her head; the phrase house arrest kept looping through, not so much a thought as a panic chorus. Stone was going to be a real problem here.
The information was pretty clear. C.A.L.I.B.R.E. had, for whatever reason, decided to go to war with the regular Intelligence services. They were staging something between a really aggressive meeting and a full-scale raid.
And unfortunately, some kind of mole elements within the CIA had been activated - or had chosen this raid as a perfect opportunity to secure their own objectives. The Agency wasn’t sure which - but just in case, Stone was assigned to watch Cooper. She was believed to have C.A.L.I.B.R.E. sympathies, and while she’d have happily told anyone who’d listen that she didn’t - well, life wasn’t that simple.
Working for C.A.L.I.B.R.E. hadn’t interested her. Almost all of its operations involved superhumans or aliens; they dealt with parahuman abilities daily that could range from slightly increased reflexes through eyes that made ‘if looks could kill’ literal to psionic talents capable of all number of weird changes. Emily Cooper knew with every fibre of her being that she didn’t want to deal with that.
Her time working alongside them had, all the same, shown her a federal corporate culture that suited her working style much better. People like Bennet, the hacker she’d been paired with, had made her smile and laugh in a way the CIA didn’t have room for - and it was that same freedom that made them so effective.
She was still hoping there was some reason, some easily explained misunderstanding, which meant that the biggest threats here didn’t involve C.A.L.I.B.R.E. going rogue, when there was a sudden muffled thump as the door opened. Emily gave something between a scream and a squeal and looked up to see the thump had been the door impacting with Stone’s arm. He’d been right over by it, but it was open now, and slipping through it into the room was -
“Bennet!” she blurted. It was a moment or two later that the risk of extra noise dawned on her and she clapped both hands over her mouth, wide-eyed.
Bennet came closer, moving in a wide arc around Stone, her eyes on him, looking worried. “Cooper, are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” Emily promised, one hand brushing a lock of hair back behind her ear. Her usual nervous adjustment, as automatic as anything. “But - Bennet, C.A.L.I.B.R.E. is attacking Langley!”
Her voice only cracked a little on the revelation, which she felt was a pretty good attempt at composure, on the whole.
Bennet shook her head. “This isn’t an attack,” she said. “We’re chasing an old military intelligence team. Spooks planted by General Walters back before his courtmartial - assets he never had the right moment to activate in his coup. And from what we can tell, those assets have been CIA sleepers up until just this week.”
“You’re kidding me,” Stone said, but his voice said he believed - even if he didn’t want to. Bennet wrapped Emily in a hug, and Stone was coming closer. “How do you figure that?”
Bennet eased up on the hug. Arms still loosely round Emily, she looked her in the eye, her expression serious. “Trust me,” she whispered.
Then she spun back out from the hug and shot Stone twice in the chest.
Emily gasped and staggered back, instinctively distancing herself from the violence. She watched Stone stagger, drop to one knee. Without hesitation Bennet fired again, the third shot hitting him in the head. Death was inevitable.
“Bennet,” Emily hissed. “What did you do?”
“What I had so,” the hacker answered softly. “I’m only sorry I didn’t have a better chance to warn you.” Bennet crossed the room to the door and locked it. “I couldn’t risk tipping him off.”
Emily looked from her friend and colleague to the dead body on the floor. He’d had an opportunity already to kill her if he’d wanted to, and he hadn’t. Was Bennet really right?
“You mean - wait - how did you know he was on their side?” she asked.
Bennet looked back to her with a clear, innocent expression. Not just her face but her eyes were untroubled and honest when she said “Cooper, they’ve turned operatives at every level. Aside from you, the only people I trust came in on the Osprey.”
There was so much conviction in her voice, and she looked so innocent, that Emily just nodded and swallowed. “What do we do?” she asked. “And where’s the rest of your strike team?”
“They’re trying to keep a political prisoner on ice,” Bennet said. “I volunteered to extract you.” Emily opened her mouth to protest, but Bennet raised her voice and kept talking right over her. “Do you know how much technology the CIA have put together that could be lethal if Walters’ mole smuggles it out?”
Emily swallowed. It would make sense for Bennet to want an R&D operative who might know what secret weapons were on tap from the bad old days of the Majestic projects. Picking her was… logical, and even a compliment. But it scared the hell out of Cooper, especially considering talk of political prisoners. Only three were on ice at Langley, and the ice was literal. Cryogenic storage chambers where superhuman threats had been buried for decades.
And one of those prisoners had been taken down by one of Walters’ military intelligence teams, once, and passed over to the CIA. Did he regret that now? He’d never been captured after the whole thing with the Symphony coming back. But his powers…
They gave her the creeps.
“So… we’re sneaking back to the Osprey?”
“Not yet, it won’t be safe. But we’ve got to be ready to go. We need to find ourselves a safe place; I want you and me to get started working to break the next part of the plan,” Bennet told her urgently. “You and I are going to prepare for the future while Colby and Chen handle the current problem.” She paused. “And no disrespect, Cooper, but neither you nor I are best placed to help on this stage. So we’re going to rebuild.”
Emily felt overwhelmed, but the clear evidence of a plan helped. “So where are we going?”
“I think your room’s going to be the best place,” Bennet said. “C.A.L.I.B.R.E. and Walters are both looking for control of Langley’s operational floors, and the CIA are pushing back. We’ll have longer, safer, in your quarters.”
Emily nodded. “Let’s go,” she said, and Bennet unlocked the door.
Langley Central was a complex building with a byzantine layout. Emily had managed to get lost here more than once in the past, and Bennet had spent much less time here. At first, Emily had tried to lead, but Bennet kept taking turns without consulting her, and the scientist was forced to scramble to keep up. Did Bennet have a photographic memory?
Once they were off the operations floors Emily felt herself relax a little. Bennet’s point about the action staying in Ops seemed to be right on the money; everything was quieter up here, and even the atmosphere on the floors showed how still and quiet they were.
There would be searching later, of course, but by that time, hopefully she and Bennet would have some fortification in place. She had a couple of items in her room which might be useful, so long as there weren’t any metahumans on Walters’ side.
Karen would have been shocked if you’d told her she had anything in common with Deputy Director Burrows. While she was an experienced agent, she’d missed Burrows’ heyday. She had no idea what Burrows had done - legends like Chen had come along since to replace her in the agency gossip, and in any case people were always happier talking about unalloyed wins than messy failures - nor what had been done to her.
But at the same time Deputy Director Burrows was stripping down by her bedside, Karen was trying to get a handle on her own internal struggle.
Part of the problem was just that being controlled meant extra rules to follow. It limited what she could do to stop herself.
A bigger part was not knowing those rules. Some things could be done that would push the limits of control. Other things would simply be shut down, or might even make things worse. There was a cautionary tale in C.A.L.I.B.R.E. training about someone who’d found a way to make the pressure of control ease in their mind, and they’d done it all the time, only to realise too late that they were indoctrinating themself further.
Karen had spent the drive to date wondering if it was worth her while to push herself. She was almost at C.A.L.I.B.R.E. HQ when she decided on a course of action. She pulled off the road and onto a filling station forecourt, and breathed a sigh of relief when her wrists didn’t turn against her will and guide her back onto the road. She’d have to fill up soon, she realised. But first, keeping her eyes forward and up, she reached out to her side, snagged the drive she’d stolen, and moved it under her phone, where C.A.L.I.B.R.E.’s automated systems would detect the drive, scan for viruses, and copy the files.
Karen got out of the car to focus her attention on refuelling. There was still discomfort to it - after all, her handler had a plan to deal with corruption on C.A.L.I.B.R.E., and fighting against that was self-evidently a bad idea - but she didn’t feel the turmoil that had made her black out, and so long as she could keep what she’d done on the edge of her consciousness, she should be alright.
She was going to have to crack down on Carmen’s free will, she decided. If she could keep the superhuman in a slave mode she might be able to farm out more and more of what caused her such mental turmoil.
But she was going to have to be smarter than she had been so far…
“Your room is pretty much exactly what I expected,” Bennet said, standing in the centre of the open space and looking around. She had that gentle smile on her face that Emily always read as a signal not to take what she said too much to heart, and she let out her own embarrassment and reaction in a quiet laugh.
“Yes, well,” she said. “A room is somewhere you can be yourself. It’s where your personality gets to be on the outside, not the inside.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Bennet paused, then turned almost on her heel and fixed Emily with a powerful look. The scientist flushed deeper, worrying she’d said something wrong. “It’s OK, you know, Cooper,” Bennet continued. Her voice seemed to have almost completely changed; low now, soft, almost sultry, even the pace and the rhythm of her words different. “We’re safe. And we’re alone.”
That seemed like a strange thing to stress under the circumstances. “Uh - thank you, Bennet.”
Bennet was coming closer, moving with a confidence Emily wasn’t used to seeing - and she seemed so focused, too. Having another person approach her while fixing that much attention on her was unsettling; Emily could feel her spine tingle, and her scalp, too. What was this?
“We can take a break,” she said, and Emily shivered a little, somehow, at the way the ‘k’ sounded almost as its own tone at the end. That intensity, again, that passion, that feeling…
Emily’s thoughts hiccupped to a stop as she realised that, yes, there was passion there. There was feeling there. Bennet was… coming on to her.
How does she know? The plaintive cry didn’t leave her lips but it seemed to echo around her head all the louder for being unspoken. Emily squirmed, her lips parted but dry. Bennet took another step closer. Senses heightened by the potential for embarrassment or delight focused entirely on Bennet, and Emily’s cheeks burned.
“We - we shouldn’t,” was what she managed, and even to herself it didn’t seem terribly convincing, to say nothing of missing the final words. Bennet was close enough now that she could see the certainty in her eyes, study the colour of her lip gloss, and she shivered again.
Bennet raised a hand and put it to her cheek. “What about it, Cooper?” she asked with a glint in her eye. “I know you’re interested.” Her lips were brushing Emily’s. Bennet’s voice dropped so quiet that Emily had to strain to hear, barely breathing her words into not-quite-a-kiss. “I recognise the way you look…” That crisp ‘k’ again, that spoke to her somehow. The precision in the intensity of emotion.
Her lips parted again, but before she could speak, Bennet’s lips were against hers. Emily’s eyes went wide for a moment, but the side of herself she’d been suppressing since she first realised, hiding it from her parents and then, later, from CIA officials who might or might not have prejudices - well, she could no longer deny it when finally given this chance to embrace it.
Emily opened her mouth wide, moaning into the kiss, and Bennet’s hand slid over her shoulder, reaching up to the tight bun Cooper’ hair was always kept in, letting down her hair. Bennet’s fingers closed into a gentle fist around a handful of Emily’s hair and Emily’s body melted against hers. She’d hidden herself for too long, and now the wall had cracked even slightly it was crumbling. Emily’s head was spinning. All thoughts of her friends, her colleagues, at threat on the floor below had vanished.
A light pressure on Emily’s hair and Bennet broke the kiss, smiling into her eyes as she did. “Do you trust me, Cooper?” she asked softly, her hands coming to rest on Emily’s chest, just below her shoulders, her eyes flicking down to the blouse Cooper wore.
Emily’s mouth was already dry following the kiss. She was too worked up to think clearly. It was embarrassing, honestly. She hadn’t been ready for this, hadn’t prepared. And as always when she was unprepared she felt overwhelmed, any plans or even intent flying out of the window. Not daring to speak in case her voice cracked, she nodded instead. Bennet smiled this strange, possessive smile, and the heat rising through Emily was suddenly ten times as intense. Something about the delight there - that Bennet was so delighted with her - made everything more intense and more intimate.
“You probably shouldn’t,” Bennet said with a grin. Her hands slid inward from Emily’s shoulders, finding the buttons of her blouse. She took a step forward at the same time, forcing Cooper to fall back a step, then another, and now Emily found herself with her back to her old notice board as Bennet teased button after button open.
The hacker was taking her time, and kept stealing glances up to see Emily’s reactions. The heat in Emily’s cheeks was, she was now sure, a full flush.
Bennet’s hands abruptly shifted with the blouse half open, as if she’d suddenly realised there was something that needed doing first. She slid her hands down to Emily’s butt, where she squeezed - and then lifted and turned, depositing Emily flat on her back on the bed.
Bennet bent at the waist, chest coming up fast on Emily’s vision, one knee rising onto the bed, and began to crawl forward over the scientist. Emily was left wondering what a good reply would be as Bennet returned to unbuttoning her blouse. She’d never been good at witty comebacks. It could be a problem.
It suddenly occurred to Emily that the buttons at her blouse cuffs could get in the way, but by that point Bennet was already parting the blouse over her chest, exposing her body to view. Emily’s breath caught, but Bennet was already on to the next part of her plan, tugging the blouse down her arms and pulling it inside out. As Emily had suddenly realised, it caught at both wrists, almost forming a strange kind of restraint.
She flushed. “Sorry,” she said to Bennet, as if the other woman’s hurry were her own fault, but Bennet just grinned.
“Don’t be,” she replied. “I have plans.”
Bennet swept the main body of the blouse up, drawing Emily’s arms up with it, and looped it through the metal struts of the bed’s headboard. Emily pushed herself up a little off the bed with one shoulder, trying to balance herself better, and with a glint in her eye, Bennet took full advantage of that, reaching under her back to unsnap the bra catch. She quickly hooked a finger of her other hand between its cups and drew it up.
Emily’s jaw dropped. Bennet clearly knew what she wanted - to an almost impossible degree. And yet, the passion she was exuding filled her eyes and her face, but it didn’t extend to her body language, which somehow seemed ridiculously clinical now.
Her bra straps still encircled her arms and Bennet drew the bra up, too, pulling the blouse’s fabric through the loops to convert Emily’s clothing into quick but surprisingly effective restraints. Emily’s eyes widened. Bennet had just assumed the right to be not just her first female lover but her first bondage experience, and by acting as quickly as she had, she’d limited Emily’s choices.
But as eerie as her body language had been, when Bennet met her eyes and grinned, Emily instantly forgave her, her self-control suddenly gooey. That expression surely couldn’t be faked.
Bennet shifted position again, one thigh either side of Cooper’ hips, one hand bracing against the bed level with Cooper’ head. With the other she brushed her hair back behind her head before lowering herself, tantalisingly slowly, into a kiss with the restrained Cooper. Emily surprised herself with just how hungry for the kiss she found herself.
Her free hand trailed down Emily’s bare torso, coming to a halt at her belt. She grinned. “This is a big step, Cooper. I want you to know, by the time we’re done, you’ll be a changed woman.”
“Well, it’s good to know your ego is healthy,” Emily retorted tartly. She smiled in her turn, hoping to take any sting out of it. She gave an experimental tug at her makeshift restraints with one hand, and gasped a little. Somehow she’d ended up more tightly tied, and she was grateful for the stiff, starchy cuff helping to soften the pressure of the bra strap. Without that, she’d be expecting this to leave a mark… Of course, it still might.
Bennet unbuckled her belt and grinned - then pulled at the buckle, sending it skidding out from Emily’s belt loops fast. Cooper gasped again as the speed of the tug sent a pleasant stinging sensation across the small of her back. She wound one end of the belt around her hand and pulled it out tight with an audible snap.
Emily faltered. A whipping was usually to the back, not the chest… right? She opened her mouth to protest and Bennet rocked forward from her hips, thrusting a length of the belt into her mouth. She acted quickly from there, buckling it tight and tying a knot over the buckle, effectively gagging Cooper.
Bennet put a finger to her lips. “Remember, we musn’t be heard,” she said softly. She reached down beside the bed and grabbed her laptop bag. Hauling out the laptop, she dug out her earbuds as well and tucked them into place in Cooper’ ears.
By now Emily didn’t trust Bennet at all, but the other woman’s weight on her lower thighs had her legs pinned, her arms were trussed, and her mouth was firmly gagged. Bennet opened her laptop on Emily’s belly and hit a key, and static filled the earbuds.
Emily watched Bennet blow her a kiss and then sink down to be hidden by her laptop screen. She felt the shift at her waistband as Bennet popped her pants button open, felt fingers trace pressure down her mound as Bennet coaxed the zipper down. Meanwhile the static continued to fill her ears, like a radio that was almost but not quite tuned to a station; she could almost hear words in there. A woman’s voice. Soft. Gentle. Kind. Nothing more was clear through the distortion.
She jumped in her bonds, hips twitching, as Bennet planted a kiss on her wetness through her panties. Even through the earbuds, she could hear Bennet’s giggle of delight.
It was impossible to understand this woman. At intervals she was so clearly delighted in the effect she had on Emily that Cooper saw no way it could be fake. Yet her behaviour, her process, and whatever this thing with the earbuds was supposed to be…
Sinister. Unwelcome. Irresistible.
…where did that thought come from?
Cooper never got the chance to retrace the idea to its source, because that was when Bennet’s tongue probed against her panties, two quick, catlike flicks from the base of her slit to the tip, and everything about her self-control melted, just for a few seconds. She tried to draw in a deep breath to get herself back under control, but it wasn’t happening.
The hacker pulled Cooper’ panties down, her chest on Emily’s thighs, her weight over her captive’s legs. With Emily’s thighs only slightly parted, Bennet put her tongue to as much use as she could.
Cooper knew she should be trying to stop this. It felt too good, but what was happening in her ears and her head felt just a bit too much like what she’d read about brainwashing. Which was obviously wrong, and probably meant Bennet was trouble somehow. But she couldn’t throw the woman off. She couldn’t cry for help. And she couldn’t handle the pleasure.
She had no idea how deep the brainwashing in the room was going. No idea how much the messages in the static were already starting to affect her. And no idea that as Bennet worked to overwhelm her resistance with pleasure, the hacker’s eyes were on the video that programmed her in turn.
She tried to protest, making whatever sounds she could through the belt that gagged her, but the static seemed to be fading. Words were becoming clearer. And the strange thing was, the clearer they sounded, the more she agreed with them.
…and Bennet’s tongue was very skilled, and she seemed totally tuned into Emily’s reactions. Every time a breath caught or a muscle tensed in response to what she was doing, she picked up on it. Her pussy eating process was tuning to exactly what melted Cooper into a puddle fastest and most effectively.
That puddle was no longer purely Emily’s thoughts, either. The woman’s voice in the static dropped word or idea after word or idea into her mind, and in the gooey, helpless state she found herself, these moments of clarity and certainty became the points of solid confidence her mind started to re-form around.
C.A.L.I.B.R.E. was a foolish endeavour. The world wasn’t right. Only power could fix it. Pytki had the power. (Who was Pytki? The name was in her mind now, but she didn’t recognise it.) Pytki had the right goals. She should follow Pytki. She should follow Bennet. Bennet was her ranking officer in the Spiral Path. To follow Bennet was pleasure. To worship Bennet’s pussy or feet or ass with her tongue when ordered would be bliss. And to advance Pytki’s goals would be even better.
She lost track of how often she came, how long she’d been tied, even what the woman’s voice was telling her. None of that mattered any longer. Before too long her muffled protests had steadied into a simple rhythm.
Mm mmm-hmm. Mmm mmm mmm-hmm mmmf.
Cooper herself didn’t know what she was saying until Bennet untied the belt and removed the gag.
“Serve Pytki. Serve the Spiral Path. Serve Pytki. Serve the Spiral Path. Serve Pytki. Serve the Spiral Path.”
She smiled up at her converter. She owed Bennet… everything.
The hacker cut her blouse and helped her pull her hands free of the temporary restraints. “Get dressed,” she said simply. “We have to get Chen, and you have work to do for that.”
Cooper hurried to comply.
Like Burrows and Wainwright, Carmen had a headache. Unlike them, this one wasn’t down to fighting her programming, but instead was due to pushing herself in an area where she just didn’t have much skill.
On the one hand, she had a photograph and anybody could perform a reverse image search on Google. On the other, what she’d found was some social media with nothing particular to make it stand out except that it was in Russian; it was mostly selfies of the woman looking much happier than she did the one time Carmen had seen her for real.
There wasn’t anything public. No record of any villainous ID. Nothing of the sort.
She’d gone with what little she had, which was that the woman was Russian. C.A.L.I.B.R.E. was mostly active internally, so that narrowed things down more than it might have for the CIA; it focused on metahumans, which cut things down again from what the FBI might have.
Carmen’s headache came from a few hundred pages on a few dozen websites, all covering one or another time a Russian superhuman had showed up in the USA and not been dealt with by the costumes. There were nearly thirty big names who’d done it many times, but if you were willing to acknowledge that this might be someone obscure, there were probably a hundred Russian agents or criminals who had tried it once or twice. The notebook by the computer held a long list of names, and only a few had been crossed out.
Then the phone rang. Carmen jumped; her focus had been consumed by the laptop. Then she smiled.
She hit the button for speakerphone. “Who is this?”
“You should know that, I believe.”
“Yes. And I am speaking to Enmascarada Roja.”
Carmen’s lip twitched with amusement. Her mask was long lost to her, but that was still the way she thought of herself most often. You couldn’t survive in her line of work without a healthy ego. “You are. Do I have something to thank you for?”
“No. The gratitude you owe to another. But I have news for you, all the same.”
Carmen’s full attention was on the phone now. She didn’t hear the key in the front door.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. “What can you tell me?”
“The woman you wanted identified has no criminal record anywhere in the world,” Agudeza told her. “If she did, believe me, I would know. She is therefore either a new face or an agent of government.”
“She’s Russian,” Carmen said, feeling the need to contribute something.
“Yes. Based on what I have seen, she is not a government agent. Which tells me she is new. However, she has family connections.”
Carmen grabbed up the pen by the notebook. “Go on.”
“Her name is Pytki - Galina Pytki. Her brother was known as Commander Pytki. A relic of the cold war who turned into a would-be world dictator of his own.”
Carmen nodded, grateful for the feedback. Agudeza had a gift with technology and it was said she could talk to the Internet as a living entity, coax secrets from it, seduce it. Any information she provided was assured to be accurate. “Yes?”
“Commander Pytki was killed by operatives from C.A.L.I.B.R.E., nearly three years ago.”
Carmen felt a sinking feeling in her stomach, but Agudeza continued. “I mention this because I can tell you currently have some connection to them. Your location, in fact, places you in a home registered to the killer.”
There was a sudden extra silence in the room. Carmen looked up from scribbling down her notes and saw Karen Wainwright framed in the doorway to her office.
“That… tracks with what I needed to know,” Carmen said slowly.
“Yes. I will pass your gratitude to my man.” There was so much criticism and so much gloating in that simple sentence. But then - Manny had abandoned the brawn and gone over to the brains. Agudeza had won that. “In turn, please accept that I wish you luck.”
“Thank you,” Carmen said quietly. She cut the call, her eyes still locked on Karen’s. “I should exp-”
“Enmascarada, superslut,” Karen said. Carmen felt her mind swallowed into programmed patterns of obedience, felt her headache disappear with it as peace took her. But Karen’s tone had been tight and angry. A part of her braced against what might be coming.