This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in Boston.
You heard about people pushing the boundaries of science or unearthing strange secrets in other cities, but Boston was pretty quiet for the police. Armed robberies, organised crime, and the usual drug offences - that was about what was expected.
It was 8pm on a cold February night, dark outside, but Sergeant Detective Christina Stoppel and her partner, Detective Eleanor Masters, were both wearing polarised sunglasses, perched in Christina’s case atop a blonde ponytail, in Eleanor’s case a red undercut. Polarised goggles also adorned the uniformed response teams heading to their location.
Nobody was sure, but the theory was that this would stop their target from being able to get inside their heads.
The investigation had started out as a missing persons, then a string of other cases were linked as related. From there, it had grown into a whole human trafficking case - which was where Christina and Eleanor had picked it up, working in Boston’s HTU, and until they turned up any proof the victims were being shipped out of state, it was still their case.
(Both of them, privately, suspected that plenty of the victims had been taken across state lines. Neither of them had even raised it with their partner. Neither wanted to have to let go after putting so many hours into it.)
But this still wasn’t supposed to happen in Boston. And by that, Christina meant the whole hypnotic mind control angle.
Nobody was completely sure whether this was a guy with some sort of powers or whether he was doing some kind of in-depth brainwashing. They had no eyewitnesses. They only even had one victim, and she hadn’t broken free of the ‘fluence yet.
What was known for sure, though, was that he’d given himself a name. The Thoughtsmith.
And that… that was not a typical behaviour for a Boston criminal.
Christina exhaled slowly, focused on her body, visualised each muscle group relaxing in turn. Anything, even hokey new-age psychology, to make sure she’d be on top of her game for the raid. She looked across to Ellie, who had her hand to her earpiece, nodding to herself as each backup team checked in.
Once the count was complete Ellie turned her attention to Christina. “We’re all in place.”
Christina nodded. “Let’s do this.” She raised her own radio to her lips. “We go in fifteen seconds.”
With the message sent, the two detectives started across the road to their target. Tactical teams readied themselves to cut off all other routes.
When you might be dealing with a super, you moved fast. You had to.
Shouting broken out from around the building as Christina and Ellie took the front door, guns and flashlights out. Immediately, commotion exploded from inside.
They headed up the stairs, knowing he’d essentially taken over the upper floors of the apartment building. As they did, they met a tidal wave of brainwashed humanity coming the other way. Mostly women, mostly sexpots, now wearing far too little. Christina stood her ground smoothly, shouldering her way through the crowd, and only when she paused on the landing did she realise Ellie was left behind.
She was solo now, and with anyone who might be powered that wasn’t recommended. The weight of the ballistic vest would usually be comforting, but - today - not so much.
A screaming powerhouse of a woman - muscular, well built, furious - was waiting on the second landing for the first of the invaders to arrive, which turned out to be Christina. She lunged forward, throwing a waist-high kick; Christina’s training kicked in and she brought both arms across to brace against the impact. A raking, clawing slash of her hands was ducked and Christina moved in close, throwing a forearm into her gut.
The advantage of your opposition being sent to fight you when they’d been stood in lingerie and heels to show off; they’ve got no padding and they have limited freedom of movement. All the breath went out of her opponent in one whump.
Yet somehow she kept fighting, clinging onto Christina by her belt and clawing upward.
Time was of the essence, and the woman’s mind wasn’t her own. Christina shifted position, got her opponent bundled off the ground, and slammed into a wall, releasing her grip. Then she plunged up the stairs.
In all the adrenaline, she hadn’t realised her sunglasses had been ripped free and were currently clutched in the woman’s hands.
She made it to the floor itself. This part of the building was quieter, but there was an expectant hum to it. She moved up to the big double-doors ahead, cracked them ajar, and took a glance through.
The target - this Thoughtsmith guy - was facing away from her. One of the Special Operations units, their helmets and polarised goggles missing, had another unit at gunpoint. Thoughtsmith was supervising as they systematically removed goggles from their hostages.
But he had his back to her. She had a chance. She pushed the door open with her shoulder and ran forward, low to the ground, hoping to reach him before he realised.
After all this, she wasn’t comfortable shooting him. If anyone knew how to release his victims from his control, it would be him.
The heavy double-door fell back into place with an audible slam when she was just five yards from him. As he started to whirl, she swore under her breath, deciding to cut her losses. She was bringing up her pistol when her eyes met his.
It was like being pushed into a swimming pool; a moment of shock then a complete change in how the world worked. Her muscles locked. She stood, frozen and helpless, and stared, feeling herself falling forward, lost helplessly.
For the first time Christina truly realised the difference between a human perp and a supervillain.
She was willing now to pull the trigger, to protect herself. But, now, she couldn’t. Like the other police in the room, she’d lost.
Except that, then, Ellie appeared out of seemingly nowhere from behind him. The butt of her pistol slammed down on the back of his head. His eye contact broken, Christina pushed herself to move again, to prove to herself she hadn’t already failed.
Meanwhile, Ellie was driving her knee into his gut, knocking the air out of him, stopping him from calling out to those he’d already enslaved. Not exactly approved use of force, but right now, Christina didn’t mind. She rushed forward and helped her partner silence him.
Three Months Later
“Put it out of your mind,” Christina had been told when she’d muttered about her head still feeling fuzzy sometimes when she thought about Thoughtsmith. “He’s behind bars and he’s neutralised, so it’s just a question of getting him through the trial and you never need to worry about it again.”
It wasn’t the most useful of advice, if only because forgetting things on command isn’t exactly a natural human trait. But during the day, at least, Christina did her best to forget the Thoughtsmith’s effects.
Sometimes she would wake at night, remembering how helpless she’d felt, and wonder why it was thrill that tingled through her, not fear. She’d become quite close with Sergeant Lane, a gruff Special Operations officer now in her forties, who shared that same wondering reaction. The two of them would occasionally speculate that - just maybe - everyone else who’d gone under had the same connection, that a thrill, a rush, a burst of endorphins was just how it felt to be helpless against the eyes of Thoughtsmith, but that nobody else was willing to admit to it.
They couldn’t know for sure, of course, but both of them felt like it might be. Christina certainly wanted that to be true. It would mean she didn’t have to feel guilty about it.
The trial had been expedited, accelerated, at least as much as it could. Christina and Lane had been given basic therapy, as had the other cops who’d met his eyes without protection. And some of the women they’d rescued had started to show signs of their old selves, too. Not all of the women - not all of them had ever been found. Some of them, most likely, never would be.
Christina was enjoying a day’s leave before the trial tomorrow. Technically that also fell on a leave day, meaning overtime payment to compensate.
Overtime, and the chance to finally put away someone who absolutely should not be out. Tomorrow would be a good day; she just had to get through today first.
“Morning, sergeant,” the gym’s receptionist said as Christina left the changing room. You knew you’d maybe started too early when the staff were mostly arriving while you were working out, and in place when you were done.
She was just leaving the gym - she’d always been pretty disciplined about her fitness, but after being almost-close-enough, she’d stepped up her levels - when a woman crossed the parking lot ahead of her.
And, honestly, that happened thousands of times per day, especially when she was out and about, but this time her senses went onto high alert. She’d seen that face before.
She stopped dead in her tracks as she thought. It took a long time to place her - because, she realised, that face was part of the memories she tried to avoid thinking about. And because her expression was different - and the situation was so different. A muscular beauty, a bombshell, she made perfect sense in the gym. She’d made no sense in context the last time Christina saw her, back in a time where there could be no reasonable context.
That was the woman who’d snatched away Christina’s polarised glasses. Her face no longer twisted in hatred, it was instead in more of a state of resting bitch face.
Christina couldn’t swear to it, but this had been one of the ones who got away. And now here she was, presenting herself for Christina to see the day before the trial.
It was obviously some kind of trap, and Christina didn’t intend to fall for it.
As she shifted direction, abandoning the route back to her own car to follow this bait, she was pulling out her phone, deciding who to call. Lane and Ellie would both understand. But she thought they were both on shift, and Lane wasn’t supposed to deploy unless on a case… it was going to have to be Ellie. She at least could go mobile easily.
The woman crossed the road and set off toward the heart of town. Christina quickened her pace, narrowly avoiding a Ford hatchback being driven by an elderly man with poor reaction times (or possibly poor spatial awareness) as she listened to the phone ring. C’mon, Ellie. Pick up. I don’t know how long I’ve got before this trap gets sprung.
A little ways up the road, the woman turned again, ducking into a smaller parking lot surrounded by chain link. It was just barely possible this was her standard route from the gym somewhere else, but the number of places that would make sense for was vanishingly small.
Christina followed, trying to stay far enough back that the woman might not be 100% sure she was followed, and listened to Ellie’s number ring out. As the voicemail message played, she decided to go with it. What did she have to lose?
“Ellie, it’s Christina. I’ve found one of Thoughtsmith’s people, or maybe they found me. Following them out of HardBurn parking lot, headed east into town right now. Call me when you get this. I’m suspicious.”
She rang off, then glanced down at the phone. She was still having to hustle to keep up with her quarry, and she knew that was going to make her stand out if anyone was watching her. Double the backup, then; she glanced down and started typing out a text to Sergeant Lane, just so she’d have a proportionate response on standby.
Mid-message she glanced up and swore. Her target was just rounding a corner up ahead. Tucking her phone away, Christina broke into a run, desperate to keep her in sight.
Maybe three blocks from the gym, the woman descended into the T. Swearing again, Christina raced after her, disappearing below the ground. She didn’t like leaving decent cell signal behind, but…
Official follow protocol required that you enter the train one carriage behind your target. It was, though, a running joke how often official follow protocol fell apart when the target almost missed the train herself. Christina gave it five breaths of literal breathing space before boarding. Doors hissed close right behind her.
The train had left the station when Christina’s heart stopped pounding so loud she was stunned by it. She took a few moments to steady herself and get her bearings, but what she saw did not reassure her nearly so much as she’d hoped.
Everyone in this carriage was a woman. And, realistically, the odds of that being a coincidence were zero.
She shrugged off her backpack and leant against the wall, feigning exhaustion. She prided herself on having a pretty good poker face, but she didn’t think that was going to matter here. She was the interloper. She’d walked into the trap, her call was waiting for response, and only the fact she knew it was a trap would matter.
The target turned around to face her, smiling a calculating, amused smile. Christina would have read it as cruel, but that would entirely have been reading what she expected to see into it.
Christina frowned. She didn’t have time to dig out her gun - so instead she yanked her bag up to hold it two-handed and fired it at the woman’s gut like a basketball pass, then brought her left elbow up to meet the face of the woman closing in from one side.
She pivoted with a kick to her next attacker, but her musclebound quarry, dumping her bag to the floor, closed in with an echo of the move Ellie had used to take down Thoughtsmith.
Her thigh slammed into Christina’s gut, driving all the air out of her in a single whoosh. As the detective’s body stopped responding to commands for a moment, the target pulled her away from her position braced against the wall and spun her out. Someone else grabbed her, hooking their arms under hers, clasping their hands behind her neck. A classic full nelson.
Shaking her head to clear it, wheezing as she sucked in breath, Christina had already lost her situational awareness. She had a dim sense of the rest of the carriage closing in, save for the two she’d taken down, but she didn’t have much.
The woman they’d baited the trap with put a hand on her chin, lifted her head a little. Her neck, caught in the hold, protested, but nobody was trying to cause her pain, just restrain her.
“Hi,” the woman said, her tone familiar, welcoming, friendly - inexplicably so in one who’d just taken her out with one well-placed shot. “I’m Marcie. You must be Sergeant Stoppel, right?”
Christina was still sucking breath back into her lungs, and didn’t want to waste any effort or energy in responding. She settled for a glare.
Marcie nodded to herself. “That’ll do. Open wide, now…”
She had a ball gag ready to hand - no, Christina realised, she actually didn’t. One of the others in the carriage had simply handed it to her. With no real option, the detective let herself be gagged.
She’d expected it to taste of rubber. Actually it had some vile chemical taint to it.
Marcie smiled. “You and me are going to sit down here, and you’re going to stay quiet and not cause a scene or I’ll have to order my friends to take care of witnesses. Okay?”
Grudgingly, she nodded. They sat together on a bench by the door, the woman restraining her sat behind them. Marcie wasn’t too worried about causing a scene at this point. Even in Boston, people would notice a woman in a wrestling hold and a ball gag.
Then Marcie was handed something, and she held it out in front of Christina, and the woman before her angled Christina’s head to look at it. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Open your eyes,” Marcie said, “or my friends will go into the next carriage and cause havoc.” It was said in the sweetest, friendliest tone. If Christina overheard the line on a TV show she’d assume the speaker and the person she was speaking to were the oldest of friends.
The chemical flavour on her gag was beginning to get to her. Her mouth had been tingling for some time, and as saliva filled her mouth and she swallowed it away, more and more of her began to tingle. Was she being dosed with something?
She opened her eyes, and in front of her she saw a slowly flickering spiral on some sort of circular, handheld screen. It was about an inch and a half wide, fitting perfectly into the palm of Marcie’s hand, and it had bits of a metal rim visible where a plastic casing had been cracked and broken.
And it was the most captivating thing she’d ever seen. Weirdly, irrationally, illogically fascinating. She couldn’t stop staring at it.
This wasn’t like the total body paralysis she’d experienced when she met Thoughtsmith’s eyes. It was more that… looking away was somehow psychologically impossible. She willed her eyes to close again, but they didn’t.
Sergeant Lane had done some reading on other mind controllers after their shared experience. There was someone up in Jersey, allegedly, a psychiatrist turned mob specialist, who’d built some eye fixators into his gloves. The symptoms of those gloves that Lane had described sounded very similar to how Christina felt right now. It wasn’t that she couldn’t think - she absolutely was - it was more that she couldn’t look away. Movement in general seemed like more hassle than it was worth.
Supposedly, the fixators had been developed for therapeutic work. Calming psychotics. Helping people put their anger in place. But one day, the psychiatrist had been called in for a consultation by a colleague. Something to do with marriage counselling. And a mafia boss had seen the potential after his marriage was (temporarily) fixed. Had made the guy an offer. And, for a time, he’d had his own tame costume.
Christina had a very vivid mental image of that psychiatrist being pinned down just as she was now. Of Marcie taking the fixator on his glove in her hand, and snapping the plastic casing that kept it flush against his palm.
She hoped she was right. One thing that guy had never managed to do was keep someone under control long term. According to Lane, that was the holy grail of the psychos in this field. Long term or permanent control.
She’d be free again. And once she was, asses would be kicked.
The more she looked, the stranger it seemed to her that her mind didn’t seem to be changing. No twisted priorities; she still wanted to get out of here and take them down. No urge to do what Marcie said. (And while she was on the topic, that was not a good name for someone who-)
“You’re going to sit quietly, not struggle, and just watch the pretty picture,” Marcie said, cutting across and into her thoughts. She then fell silent, waiting. Waiting for what?
“Uhh guuuh sss kuuh…” she heard emerge from around her gag as she attempted to parrot the words back. The woman behind her released her arms, which fell abruptly onto her thighs with a load clap.
But she didn’t feel like her mind had changed.
Another figure behind her wrapped a scarf around her neck, and up against her mouth, neatly hiding the gag from view. The subway train pulled into the next station, and several of the women who’d been in the carriage left. But not Marcie, and therefore not Christina.
“You took my Master from me,” Marcie said, once the train had settled down, then broke off as Christina started repeating the sentiment. “Don’t copy that. Don’t imprint on that. That’s bad behaviour. You’ve been a bad girl. Imprint that.” It was the first time Marcie hadn’t sounded friendly; the first time she was showing her actual emotions, not programmed ones.
Which would be less of a problem if her actual emotions weren’t the result of programming.
“Uhh buhh bah guhhh…”
She hated this. Hated that she was trapped. Hated that she was being changed. Hated that Ellie didn’t even know, that she hadn’t finished texting Lane, that she had no way out.
But most of all, she hated the guilt she was feeling now. She’d been a bad girl. Guilt and shame flooded her.
Marcie fell silent for a few moments. She was just about aware, in her narrowed peripheral vision, that Marcie was tapping her feet thoughtfully. Christina realised she was going to repeat and ‘imprint’ anything she was told now, so Marcie was probably being a bit more careful about how to phrase her next comment. Extra confirmation that Thoughtsmith used something different. Maybe he was psychic. Maybe there was some kind of genetic quirk, like for a lot of costumes out there. Turned out human DNA was a lot more flexible than they’d covered when Christina had been in school.
“You have a Master now. My Master. Thoughtsmith.” Christina could hear the capital letters. The importance. The weight.
“Uhh huhh Maa uh,” she began, tasting the capitals she was granting the title. She suddenly felt herself part of a wider picture, a cog in a machine, something for someone else to control. Maybe this would have had less of an impact if she hadn’t already felt his power. If she hadn’t occasionally found herself feeling the rush his conditioning gave, that this one was missing. If she hadn’t dwelt on it quite so much, talking with Lane, thinking about it. Maybe that hadn’t been a purge, that had been making her more vulnerable.
Marcie’s tone was back to friendly, but she was excited now, too. This was her first time putting someone else under the influence, then, even if she’d been the one maintaining his network, making these plans, getting ready to steal him back - wait.
If Marcie was still under his influence, when Christina knew full well the women they’d recovered had started to come round, then Thoughtsmith’s power would intensify over repeated uses, or if they continued to focus on it. This could be a new gang, a criminal underground bent on subjugation to an absentee Master - her absentee Master - made up of respectable-looking women. Hidden in plain sight. Probably working all over town.
She had to get this information to Ellie somehow.
“You’re going to show your service to him by helping set him free,” Marcie said. “You’ll do anything I say until then. Without question.” Marcie put her lips to Christina’s ear. “Willingly,” she whispered, her breath hot and excited by the idea.
As she parroted the answer through her gag, Christina tried to marshal her strength against it. Tried to stop it becoming true. She’d fought off the influence of the Thoughtsmith when Ellie arrested him… hadn’t she?
So she should be able to fight this off… but somehow, she didn’t. She was going to help Marcie. Obey her. Without question. Willingly.
At least she could be told to enjoy it.
“You’ll tell me anything I want to know,” Marcie said, after another long pause. Christina echoed her, dutifully, through the gag. Then Marcie fell silent, looking out of the window. After seeing something, she clicked the spiral off, then dropped it into Christina’s own hands. “Keep this safe for me, and don’t use it. Stand up and leave with me,” she instructed.
Christina did so, echoing her voice. Some of the passengers they walked past looked at her oddly for making those sounds, and for a moment she let her hopes surface, but each of them in turn looked away, uninterested.
Her hands stayed down clasped in front of her, tight around the spiral. She hadn’t been told to move them, and it hadn’t become necessary yet. She was trying to conserve her thinking, her independent action, so she’d be able to do something at the right time.