As the experiment came to a close, Irina felt a strange, extra tension across her forehead. She got this very occasionally, usually at the tail end of a lecture by Professor Higgins. His accent was so far from the ones she’d learned English with that trying to work out what he meant was always a struggle, and sometimes she just had to fill in obscure words from context.
There hadn’t been anything in the experiment’s description suggesting linguistics, and all she remembered was some interesting music and pretty graphics. So perhaps it was something else; perhaps this had just pushed her brain the way trying to follow academic discussion in her third language did.
Which also didn’t make much sense to her - it had seemed very relaxed the whole way through - but she was now wondering if the strange look that the short fat postgrad helping run the experiment had given her might have been some concern over her accent and not, as she’d originally assumed, him being disturbingly titillated.
She’d been uncomfortable enough under his gaze that she’d actually felt stained by it. As she sat down at the screen she’d been thinking about a shower. Something to wash away the feeling of his eyes on her. In fact, she’d briefly started to imagine the music from the experiment as something she might have been listening to before…
The thought hung unfinished for a few minutes as Irina made the trek across campus, a little more slowly than perhaps was needed, but then she did still have that tension in her head. It wasn’t quite a headache, but it was an uncomfortable presence. If Irina had noticed that the tension intensified as she remembered the point she’d stopped paying attention to the experiment, she might have been concerned; likewise if she’d noticed that the tension eased when she let go of that half complete thought.
But she noticed neither of those things, preoccupied as she was with the vague awareness that she was feeling moody and foul. Instead she let herself back into her dorm, got out her private coffee supplies, brewed a cup, and, before sitting down to enjoy it and clear her head, grabbed a towel and a bathrobe and slipped out of her room toward the dorm floor’s shower block.
She knew she’d feel better when she was clean; she always did. And besides, there was something about the moment, after letting the first little bit of the warm water run into her hair, when she tipped her head back and the hair - and the hot water within - ran down her back. It was the smallest of things, but it was a small pleasure, and those always stood out…
Jolene was mentally rehearsing her anecdotes about the experiment - more specifically, about the two experimenters - as she left the venue. She’d be deploying her comments to her friends with the kind of spite that is also, somehow, gleefully witty.
There was something in their favour that they were researching specifically on women, going some way to redress the balance from the many, many studies which treated men as the default. Yet she couldn’t imagine them as ideologically pure; the shorter one was definitely sexist, and the other had clear chauvinist leanings. In particular, he definitely seemed to believe he was better than the women volunteering as test subjects.
Better than some of them he may have been - Jolene would be hard pressed to defend Erica Carrow under almost any circumstances, so great was her personal distaste - but there was no disguising that his confidence had spilled over into an arrogance. She hadn’t had a chance to speak with him, but would have been confident that he’d have said he was doing a favour for women by making sure they formed the basis of the experiment.
Both of them also gave the distinct impression of being very smug that they knew something their subjects didn’t, but Jolene felt this part of their behaviour to be completely reasonable. For one thing, they very likely did; nobody carries out an official experiment unless they believe they have a hypothesis worth testing. Jolene was fairly sure the taller one at least would concede she knew more than them of molecular chemistry, that being her own field of focus.
And they had, at least, refrained from mansplaining any of their process. Whether that would still be the case by the follow-up appointments, Jolene wasn’t sure - but she didn’t think so.
Even when she was letting her sharp wit fly at the expense of others, Jolene made a point to ground her statements in truth. She still remembered the painful way her cheeks had burned when, as a much younger person, she’d let exaggeration become outright untruth to get the perfect zinger - and been called on it. Being the butt of the joke hadn’t gone down well with a woman who already had to field Dolly Parton jokes all day.
(Although she would insist, if the question came up, that Jolene had done nothing wrong, and that if Dolly couldn’t keep her man, that was on the man, not her. Besides, the Dolly of the song had been reduced down to a housewife and nothing more, an accessory that came with the unnamed man’s action figure - and that was no kind of life whatsoever.)
The smile on her lips was light, almost whimsical, as she made it back out into the bright sunshine outside the experiment venue. She’d get a coffee, she decided, and dawdle before her next lecture; then she’d find her friends, and start the process of telling stories about all this all over again.
That evening, Jenni started to wonder what exactly had gotten into her lover. Usually very gentle, very methodical, and deeply concerned with consent - wanting not just to get approval to repeat a new variation in their lovemaking but to re-discuss it as if they were negotiating afresh - Harmony was, that night, much more excited than usual.
Which Jenni regarded as an all-round positive, of course, but it came with a much more experimental attitude including some things she was sure they’d mutually agreed were terrible.
And sure, to impress a girl you’re interested in, sometimes you’ll say things you might not mean but which echo what they think - but Jenni remembered that she’d been the one doing that in this case. Harmony had been flat-out disgusted by the idea of women allowing photos of themselves when they were half-nude or less (models and sex workers excepted, of course) and had spoken about it at length; Jenni, who had privately quite enjoyed the idea of sending her lover a spicy nude or two while they were separated, had composed her face carefully and agreed.
When Harmony, her other hand busy, three fingers deep inside Jenni, had reached out suddenly and picked up her cell phone, it had been a bit of a shock, and Jenni had almost raised her voice in protest before deciding that discussion could more usefully be had once they were snuggling in the afterglow.
The photos had subsequently turned out to be of both women, and if anything Harmony’s face was clearer and more recognisable than Jenni’s - let’s face it, nobody’s at their most identifiable in the moments immediately before orgasm.
Jenni wasn’t exactly upset about any of this - there was some good stuff in those photos, and Harmony was willing to send her a copy - but it definitely had her wondering what was actually happening.
But it was very out of character.
The following morning she woke up before dawn with a sinking feeling like a cold stone in her stomach. Over the course of her night’s sleep, her mind had been working, churning away through the available information, eliminating every theory that couldn’t account for the facts.
Harmony was trying to distract her, and it had all started after that phone call. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t work.
She glanced across to the slumbering form of the woman next to her, bit her lip, and tried to summon up the certainty and the cold anger needed to do what needed to be done.
Irina’s evening was much better. After her shower, she was feeling much more kindly disposed to just about everyone, even that revolting fat gnome from the experiment. Having a chance to get properly clean and, when she realised nobody else was likely to grab an early shower, a chance to play around with the shower nozzle (not something she’d expected to want, let alone do, but she found herself abruptly much more worked up than made any sense or was in any way typical.
She cut her time with the shower nozzle short, hurried back to her room, and confirmed her roommate was still out, before delving into the suitcase under her bed to find the little black zippered bag. Inside was the one toy she’d brought to college, a small bullet vibrator, and the charger for the supply of rechargable batteries that went with it.
Irina didn’t really consider her sex drive to be a major factor informing her life decisions, but that was no ordinary evening, and a quick scratch of the itch hadn’t cut it - so something bigger and better was needed.
She found, though, that her drive was running so deep that it was no easy matter to feel sated. After cumming the first time, she almost felt less satisfied than before. She shifted position so she could brace her hips against the wall and one foot against the wardrobe and tried again.
Again and again, over and over, she applied the toy and her fingers and got to work, and eventually, having lost count of the number of attempts she’d made, panting heavily and gasping for air, she sagged back on her bed, eyes closed, to rest and recover. In the afterglow she was now enjoying, she finally had the relief she needed, and that tension across her head had gone completely now, never quite a headache, disappearing sometime in the middle of her pleasure.
She was just starting to feel properly herself again when her cellphone rang.
She nearly fell out of her bed stretching to reach her bag, hanging from the back of her desk chair, but she got it and retreated back under the covers. She was going to have to move soon, of course, in case her roommate got back, but right now being under the duvet naked was a positive.
Not a number she recognised, either; she almost didn’t answer, but the ever-present worry it might be connected somehow to her visa meant she had to check. “Hello?”
“Irina,” he said, “are you aroused?”
Her breath caught, then came out in a hiss that was also agreement. “Yesss…” She felt herself flush.
The voice was distorted, like some schtick out of a bad thriller. Irina was too overwhelmed by the signals her body was sending her to draw any conclusions, and in moments, her world was dropping away from under her. Irina moaned in delighted lust as her head spun, clear thought - already difficult with her arousal - whirling away out of her head.
“Are you still listening?”
“Are you alone?”
“Do you have a laptop?”
“Alright. Open up a browser on your phone.”
Irina’s body moved slowly, actions seemingly dulled as her thoughts had been, but all the same, her motion was smooth and straightforward. The phone drifted away from her ear, and reflexively she tapped the speaker icon.
“Alright. Open up Paypal.”
Irina complied with the directives she was given, less because she had to, more because with the arousal her body felt, she couldn’t wait for the call to be over. She’d do anything she had to which would get her get back to her pleasure. Before too long she’d sent $5 to an account listed in her records only as Aroused.
“Good girl. Roll onto your back.”
“Keep your phone held in front of you.”
The phone screen suddenly had visuals from the call, and Irina stared into the same abstract, distracting, heady visuals that had captivated her during the experiment, as the music began to play.
Her other hand groped blindly under her duvet to find her bullet, heedless of the risk her roommate might return.
Jenni was surprised to find the call Harmony had received the previous day had not been from a number she had saved. She realised only as she looked at it that she’d just expected another name there; Latoya, maybe, or Belinda, or maybe just an initial or a surname. A string of digits with UNKNOWN NUMBER next to them didn’t fit into her guesses. Surely this was someone Harmony knew? She’d acted like it…
Were they so paranoid they wouldn’t add each other’s numbers? She scrolled through the phone’s call history, even checked its texts. None in either.
Maybe they’d been using other chat programs to talk - but if they had, why call on the phone? Every chat app has a voice option of some kind…
She looked back at Harmony’s sleeping form, trying to make a decision. No. Not trying to make a decision. Trying to summon up the inner strength she’d need to carry it through.
As quietly and gently as possible, she slipped out of bed and collected her robe. Pulling it on, she glanced over her shoulder to Harmony, who had shifted position slightly after her sleeping support left the bed, and was beginning to gently snore.
Which gave Jenni a moment to slip out of the bedroom, taking the phone with her, and wander down to the kitchen, which was never occupied that early in the morning. It still smelled faintly of fried pancake, burned pancake, and spilled pancake batter, which told Jenni with confidence that Ella had been out to drink, had come back home, and had attempted to stave off a hangover with some three a.m. drunken cooking.
She checked the time; not much later than five a.m. Which was fine. Whoever this woman was who’d been calling her Harmony when she shouldn’t have had cost Jenni a good night’s sleep, so as far as Jenni was concerned, the bitch could deal with the moment of absolute panic when they got a call out of the blue. It was only a shame she couldn’t set the name they’d see on the call as Dad so they’d think for a moment their mum was in hospital.
She hit Redial and folded her free arm, standing by the big window the dorm kitchen had, looking out over one of the university’s small quads, one floor up from anyone who might pass by - nobody at the moment, of course; experience told her some physics students and the porters would be moving within the next hour.
She didn’t notice at first that one of her feet was tapping impatiently.
It wasn’t the buzz of the phone vibrating on his bedside table that woke Joey. He was so used to hearing that he no longer registered it. It was the ringtone. Who used their phone as a phone? He could have slept through WhatsApp or Discord, but the phone’s own ringtone was almost alien. He came awake with a start, but the phone had rung four more times before he realised what was happening and pulled his wits together enough to answer it.
“Hello?” he demanded.
Hearing a man’s voice threw Jenni entirely. That wasn’t - maybe it was work. Except if it was work, what the hell was she hiding?
Was her girlfriend involved in some sort of crime at work? Was she embezzling money?
A very petty part of Jenni pointed out that if she was, Harmony should definitely be paying a little more toward their food shopping.
Silence ticked by, second by second, as she tried to find her mental footing again. A fragment of advice from her father floated through her head: When you’re not sure how the conversation is going, the best thing you can do is get the other person off balance.
“Who the hell is this?”
Jenni could hear the intake of breath on the other side. She felt like she could hear the man’s brain stall out, and her mouth set into a sharp smile, proud and vengeful, as she looked out on the empty quad.
There were another few moments of quiet before the voice returned. “Who wants to know?”
“The girlfriend of the woman you’ve been sneaking around with,” Jenni offered. She wondered why there was another pause; that should be plenty of information for him, surely? But when he did speak, there was a lot more confidence in his voice.
“You’re going to have to be a lot more specific, love.”
Jenni felt control of the situation slipping through her fingers - and she’d been doing so well. Time to get back on the offensive, she decided.
“Harmony Vitale,” she said. “Mean anything to you?”
“Oh. Right. Her.”
“Jesus Christ, how many people are you screwing around with?” she burst out, and it seemed to strike a chord.
“That’s kind of complicated. Do you want the answer to that, or…” His tone shifted somehow; Jenni couldn’t read what had changed into his voice but the amusement of earlier was completely gone, with something else rising in its place. “Do you want to know what’s going on?”
Jenni’s glower had become almost a snarl. “Oh, mister, you’d better be prepared to spill your guts,” she declared. “This isn’t going to go well for you if you don’t. Where the hell are you?”
“Wait,” the man said. “Hang on just one second, OK? Are you asking for a fight?”
The conversation had become a battle of its own, see-sawing wildly as they vied for advantage over the other. Jenni knew she had to push this hard - he knew what she wanted, and so long as they were in stalemate, that wasn’t any use to her.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” she said. “Harmony is mine. Got that?”
“I’m not saying she isn’t,” the man said, and suddenly he was back to calm. “Look. You’re pretty much on the right track, but can I just show you something? I’ll switch on video at my end, you put me on speaker, you’ll soon see what’s going on.”
“If this is going to be you showing me your dick, you’ll walk with a limp for the rest of your life.”
That got a laugh, a strangled, nervous one but a laugh nonetheless. “Just trust me for twenty seconds,” he said, “and you can go back to having whatever opinion you want afterwards, OK?”
Jenni took the phone from her ear, hit the Speaker control, and said “Go ahead, but I’m going to hold you to that twenty seconds.”
The screen offered video feed, and Jenni accepted. Moments later there was a blaze of colour, a starburst of shapes and images that kept changing and shifting, almost strobing through the rainbow as it did. With it came upbeat music, electronica with a baseline she could feel vibrate through the hand holding the phone more than she heard it.
Jenni opened her mouth to ask what was going on, but before she could, there was a sudden shimmering pulse within the colour strobe and rather than form a word her mouth simply hung open. She didn’t just feel the vibration of the base; she could feel the shimmering, shifting colours that poured into her eyes as if they were pushing into her head from the front, a strangely soothing mess of tingling and prickling.
The tingles spread like treacle through her head, scattering thoughts and words until before long Jenni’s mind was conscious only of how pretty the patterns were and other questions - everything she’d asked, Harmony’s secret, and the rest - was gone somehow, fraying remnants of a drive and independence the tingles were massaging and teasing apart as they spread.
It felt so good; her snarl had gone to a dreamy smile. As the second wave of the programming hit, the music different, the screen showing patterns which fizzed first into other parts of the brain, she felt herself more aroused, more and more aroused and, as Harmony had done while sat at a computer screen little more than twelve hours earlier, her free hand moved to stroke herself.
Her robe fell open and she stood, gazing into the screen, one leg half-turned from the other, raised up on tiptoe so her hand could access her wet, needy pussy, in front of the large bay window of her kitchen, where she remained until some time after the quad began to fill up with university workers scurrying to get things done.
Many of them lingered near her window, gazing up with admiration, puzzlement, or prudish judgement.
Jolene had almost forgotten the experiment when a reminder from her calendar popped up that the follow-up appointment would be happening soon. She considered simply not going for a little while - why expose herself to that little worm again? - but the more she thought about it, the more she felt she should see it through to the end. She might even get some more good stories about that.
Although the last story had been hard to tell, thinking about it. She’d kept thinking: This is a man given authority over you. Telling the story with that thought circling in her mind had made her feel impossibly guilty.
Doubly impossible because, whenever she actually thought about it, she recognised that the idea should make her angry, which should give her glee in any story that belittled him. Her own little private vengeance, something she could do for herself.
And yet that just wasn’t how she felt. Instead, as she thought of either of the organisers, she found herself smiling a little, warm inside. Here were two men who’d come along and, if only for the afternoon of the experiment, they’d assumed authority over her life. Told her what to do, where to sit, and (she couldn’t shake this idea somehow) what to think.
Which should be an insult. Obviously it should. It just didn’t really feel like one unless she thought about it carefully.
Jolene had dealt with this sort of thing before, of course - all her life, really, but she’d properly started noticing it in her teens, and she’d trained herself not to let go of the reins just because a male wanted to take them. There had to be a reason to concede they knew better. And since she’d started doing that, her technique when someone tried was to slap it down, overrule it, and then forget about it - or tolerate it, as she had for the experiment, then forget about it.
Somehow, though, since leaving the venue those weeks ago, the idea of how thoroughly she’d had to surrender her own intent to theirs through the experiment had rested in the back of her mind like a glow. She’d found the same with the few male lecturers on her courses; she was at uni to be educated, and had always given them her attention, but it had been grudging much of the time. Now it seemed so natural, and she found the glow of satisfaction that she’d sat quietly, listened carefully, and took dilligent notes stayed with her.
Not that she’d needed the notes, honestly. It seemed like she had better recall now for her male lecturers than the female team, including Professor Dooley, who had been one of the motivating factors in her choice of university and one of her long-term heroes.
It was when Jolene caught herself applying make-up - more than just a bit of foundation and some concealer - to head out just to the experiment that it occurred to her that her behaviour had been changing over time. She looked down at the long, flowing skirt she was wearing, one of three she’d bought on impulse in the sales a week or two ago when she’d realised she didn’t have any. Was that a change, too?
It had led to her wearing her heels more often, too, and she’d found herself happier while they were on.
Yes, she decided. Those two fine gentlemen had definitely modified her behaviour. Their experiment was a success.
She sat down again, picked up a pen, and started noting down the symptoms she’d observed, ready to present to them when she arrived for her follow-up. She was sure they’d be delighted.
At no time did it occur to her that the stated purpose of the experiment had been to study recall, not behaviour.