Donna Jimenez had only been on shift for about ten minutes when the first of them showed up.
Of course, at that point she didn’t know there was a ‘them’. There was just this tall, leggy blonde, with hips to die for, a slim, slender belly, and more curves piled on top (even if Donna was 90% sure those were the result of surgery), who had apparently decided to fly in the tallest wedge heels permitted.
She had barely any carry-on luggage – a small purse and a pair of noise-cancelling wireless headphones for her phone.
That might have been why Donna flagged her; if she was honest with herself, though, it might also just have been quiet jealousy. But Donna tried not to be honest with herself if there was ever any other option.
She’d been an idealist, once. She joined the TSA because she believed that it shouldn’t just be white men making these decisions. But working in such a place, for so long, becomes a burden of assumptions, roles, and guesswork. Your thinking gradually shifts to fit the company line, perhaps especially if you hope it won’t.
Either way, Donna pulled the woman over for a more thorough check. Even after her flight, the blonde had a smile. When she turned it on Donna, she felt momentarily as if she was the only person in the world.
With that body and that smile this bitch clearly had it made. Donna could feel the envy build like she was back in high school. Those who nearly had it all felt the sting of those who did much more.
“What brings you to Chicago?” Donna asked, trying to stay professional as she opened the woman’s passport. British, apparently.
“Pleasure,” she said, and the tone was confiding, we-women-together. It left absolutely no question that she had someone in mind to take her to bed. Donna glanced up from her papers, giving the woman a quick look.
After all, most people didn’t switch continents for a fuck. But the blonde just smiled sunnily back. “And your visa is for the full six months?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I’ve got much to learn and plenty to do.”
There was something about the way she said that which felt rehearsed. Donna rolled her eyes, the ability to do that in front of the public being one of the biggest benefits of her job.
She briefly considered escalating her check further out of pettiness, but couldn’t justify it even to herself. Plus, that smile seemed like it might stick no matter how far Donna pushed it.
“So,” she asked, largely to avoid an awkward silence as she finished her paperwork. “Where are you based? Staying with someone?”
“Oh, yes,” the blonde replied again. “New Buffalo. I’ve got the actual address somewhere. My M – well, he recently came into some money, and he’s bought a bigger place. So I’m going to stay.”
That wasn’t nearly so rehearsed. Donna felt like she was getting a sense of the genuine woman.
“Well,” she said briskly, her mouth a thin line, frustrated that this woman’s body was clearly getting her a sugar-daddied free ride, “you have a nice trip. Welcome to America.”
“Thank you so much!” The blonde beamed sunnily. “I have a feeling I’m going to like it here.”
Donna rolled her eyes again as the woman moved on.
The next one arrived maybe half an hour after Donna was back at her post, disembarking a different flight. Donna was still smarting over the frustration she felt that someone else was getting a much easier time of it. She’d have denied that she was looking for someone to take her frustration out on, even to herself.
That didn’t change the facts. Again, Donna tried not to be honest with herself.
The woman looked very different – short, Latina, on the plump side of curvy, and clearly all natural, except for the vibrant pink tips at the end of her long dark curls. She was wearing flats, though she had tall wedges in one hand, with her purse in the other and a pair of noise-cancelling wireless headphones tucked onto her arm behind the wedges.
Maybe it was the headphones, or the lack of other carry-on luggage, but something about her said to Donna that she was like the blonde. And it galled Donna more to see someone who looked much more like her (alright, yes, in slightly better shape, but her job description didn’t exactly allow much exercise during the day and who wants to go to the gym afterwards?) doing the same thing.
She became Donna’s next choice in her own informal profiling, and also smiled as she was taken aside for private inspection.
“What brings you to Chicago?” Donna asked by rote.
“Pleasure,” she said cheerfully. The accent sounded California somewhere. Not a big city, but plenty of sun, probably pretty comfortable. Wine country maybe.
Donna smiled perfunctorily. “There’re plenty of opportunities.”
“Yep,” she said. “I’ve got much to learn and plenty to do.”
Donna shot her a look. The phrase had the same rehearsed quality as the previous time she’d heard it and the echo really stood out. But there was no trace of anything in the woman’s expression, nothing to say ‘someone is pranking you’, and the two women only really had little carry-on luggage, gorgeous looks, and a smiley demeanour in common.
She handed the paperwork across. “Enjoy your stay. What hotel have you booked?”
“None,” she replied. “A friend in New Buffalo wants to fill this big old house he just bought. And here I am to be one of the lucky fillers.”
Donna watched after the woman until she was out of sight, turning the words over in her mind. It didn’t make any sense – none whatsoever – but it felt like they were connected.
The rest of the morning proceeded pretty normally. Donna caught up on paperwork, got some coffee, and talked herself out of weird suspicions that couldn’t make sense. She even got to joking with her colleagues about the big new Netflix movie.
She hadn’t watched it yet, but she’d seen the trailer. Her confident prediction it would be a disaster matched to the opinions of the TSA staff who’d see in.
But it sounded at least like a funny disaster, and a funny disaster could easily be a moment where the team came together.
Anything to make people feel like they were connected in this world. It wasn’t like there was a sense of purpose, most days.
Just before lunch she spotted two more beauties walking together. One was tall, leggy, with long, straight brunette hair, makeup a touch overdone, her figure highlighted in faux-leathers, long tight trousers and a jacket that was obviously fitted to her, the zip done up, looking for all the world like a Bond villain’s henchwoman.
The other was a busty redhead, three or four inches shorter (and seeming even more so, wearing trainers), who favoured leggings, heels, and a vibrant pink T-shirt under a blue denim jacket.
Neither had much in the way of hand luggage; a purse and a pair of wireless, noise-cancelling headphones for their phone.
Something like a warning signal, something primal, stiffened Donna’s spine and got her full attention focused on them.
A pattern was starting to develop.
Pulling both of them would be impossible. She had to settle for one, and she chose the brunette. There was something a little more satisfying about someone who towered over Donna having to follow meekly as she led them aside.
That was ruined, mind you, when she turned around and saw the same cheerful, unfazed smile. She told herself it was just being disconcerted. That she wasn’t disappointed none of them had been uneasy, but that them looking uneasy was so standard, she wasn’t sure how to handle this level of trust.
They had to be hiding something. No part of this made any sense if they weren’t trying to sneak something past her.
She put her through the scanners. Nothing, and the woman’s smile at Donna’s visible frustration was sympathetic – which was far worse than triumph.
“Why are you in Chicago?” Donna asked, abandoning the rote words in rising irritation.
“Pleasure,” the woman said. For a native German, her accent was only just still there. This woman was drop-dead gorgeous and casually bilingual. Donna could feel a hot nexus of anger start to ball up behind her right temple, and knew a headache was on its way.
“I’m afraid I’m going to need to search you, ma’am,” Donna said bluntly.
“That’s alright. You have your job.” She set the purse and the headphones down. Out of sheer curiosity, Donna started with them.
But she knew the moment she picked up the purse that it was too light for her to be carrying anything significant. You had to have a certain amount of visible, legal stuff in a purse. Even if you sewed your product into the lining, there’d always be a minimum.
The purse contained her phone, a small roll of dollar bills, and a single house key.
Which was ridiculously little anyway. She set the contents out in a line and picked up the headphones.
Donna would maybe concede at this point that she might have been a little angry. Just a little, nothing major. So it must have been poorly made, or when it turned out the earpads didn’t unscrew, they wouldn’t have cracked and broken.
There was nothing hidden inside. She was, genuinely, a little embarrassed as she looked up to apologise to the German. Her rueful smile was met by more warmth, more sympathy.
“It’s OK,” she said, the accent still a muted grace note to nearly flawless English. “I don’t need them anymore, not now I’m here.” Donna was watching her face this time, so she saw the shift as she uttered the next sentence, the almost imperceptible dulling of the excited light in her eyes, the brief slackening of her smiling features. “I’ve got much to learn and plenty to do.”
Donna was still and silent for a long while.
When she finally moved again, it was to wordlessly pick up the box of gloves and withdraw a pair.
The German watched her snap the first glove into place, still smiling, and nodded. “OK,” she said. She started shedding her clothes.
She never lost her smile.
The redhead had waited for her friend, Donna found out. Both of them were still happy, and that seemed like not only it didn’t make sense – it kind of felt like it couldn’t.
She was steaming. Her colleagues went from joking with her to giving her a wide berth, all in the course of one day.
Her concentration had lapsed on other issues, other questions. She was seeing the smiles in her minds eye.
None of them had looked fake. And there was no indication they were smuggling. No indication they were anything other than happy.
But who’s happy when they’re flying? If they are, who’s happy when the TSA pull them out of the queue?
So when the plump, top-heavy black woman came down the corridor with a purse, a pair of noise-cancelling wireless headphones, and a smile, just half an hour before her shift ended, Donna decided that enough was enough.
She pulled one more aside.
Once they were in private, though, she decided to take another tack. She shut the door behind them and turned to face the woman. “Are you here for pleasure?”
She nodded. She had the same smile as the others, but there was more caution in her eyes. The others honestly hadn’t seemed to care, but – Donna suddenly realised – this woman would never be able to be completely unworried by figures in uniform.
“Have you got a lot to learn?”
The woman nodded. For the second time Donna saw eyes fog and expression blur as someone said “Yes, I’ve got much to learn and plenty to do.”
“Uh-huh. And you’re headed to a big house in New Buffalo?”
The smile and the light in her eyes were back, but as Donna asked the question, they were suddenly shaded with surprise.
“Yes. How did you know?”
Donna put her hands on her hips. She dipped her head so she could more easily glower up at the woman in the room with her. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
The woman blinked several times. There was still the edge of a smile – in her eyes, in her dimples – but the mouth itself, and her furrowed brow, showed how confused she was. Donna had managed to get through to her.
She couldn’t help feeling satisfied with that.
“I can’t help you unless you can be more specific,” the woman said after a long pause.
“You’re…” Donna groped for the words to explain. “You’re not the first person like you to come in today. You’ve all got plenty to learn and much to do-“
“Much to learn and plenty to do.”
“Whatever! But you’re all going to the same place, you’re all travelling light, you’ve all got these… grins… like you know something the rest of the world doesn’t. And we’re outside looking in and – well, you’re not leaving this room until I know what’s going on. Until I understand.”
Silence fell again. Donna stared the woman down, looking for any sign of… what?
“I don’t think I can make you understand,” the woman said. “But I could point you in the right direction.”
“Right now, I’ll take it.”
The woman hesitated. “I’d need your phone.”
“It starts with an app. Your own phone, not a business phone.”
The smile – well, the sympathetic expression centred on it – said that was meant to be reassuring, but Donna wasn’t convinced.
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know. It didn’t to me, either, about three months ago. And now here I am, flying in from Portland, leaving my old life behind.”
“What happens if this goes wrong?”
“It won’t,” she said simply. Donna watched her eyes, looking for any sign of lying. All that came across was openness and honesty.
“Why can’t I just download the phone myself?”
“You have to have a referral,” she said. “I’ll scan the QR on my phone with yours. That’ll get you in. Then you just need to wait until you’ve finished work, and I just need to explain. But that’ll be fine.” The smile grew. “I’ve already referred a couple of friends.”
Donna’s mouth was open, but no sound came out. After a long moment, she tried “Let’s say I go along with this. What should I expect?”
“Mm. That’s tricky. But the first thing? Peace.”
There was another silence. The woman seemed to consider her utterances to be enough on their own, and Donna didn’t know how to take them.
“Like you’ve never known. Other things come later, but that’s what I found. And that’s why I’m here.”
“This sounds like a cult.”
She laughed. “No, no gods here.”
Donna was silent again for a while. The woman simply smiled and waited.
Eventually, Donna pulled her phone from her back pocket, unlocked it, and passed it across. She could always decide to test this if she had the app, but she might lose her opportunity.
The woman unlocked her own phone and called up an app without looking at the screen, reflexes clearly burned into memory. Donna briefly heard tinny sounds emerging from the headphones resting on one table, but then the app was away from the menu and onto a QR screen.
With a beep, Donna’s phone started downloading the file, and the woman handed it back.
“So why are you all coming through today?” she asked.
“Not all of us,” the woman said. “Just the ones who are ready. He’s got room, you see, and we’ve got-“
“Plenty to do,” Donna cut her off. “Alright. You can go now. Have fun. Just remember, people who look too happy to be real are plenty suspicious in airports.”
“That’s a good tip,” she said, her eyes twinkling with amusement. “I’ll remember it. Enjoy your peace – oh, that’s a thought. You might want headphones. Wireless ones are easier to manage.”
“If this turns out to be some kind of yoga trainer…”
The woman laughed, and was gone. Donna sat in the room for another minute, thinking quietly, before she got ready to get back on line.
Back home, and Donna dumped her bag on the armchair nearest the door and made straight for the showers. She always did this after work; stripping off her uniform and taking a shower drew a line under the day. It made for a clear dividing line between the TSA agent she carefully didn’t think about enough to despise and Donna Jimenez, actual person.
Out of the shower, she towelled down briskly and pulled her loose check pyjamas on, going from buttoned-up and brisk to baggy and relaxed, then headed back out into the living room.
She glanced at her bag for a moment but picked up the TV remote, flipping through channels until she was greeted with the canned laughter of a sitcom.
The remote dropped back onto the sofa cushion as Donna passed into the kitchen. She opened the fridge door and, as she did every day, stood there for a moment, her eyes closed, feeling the chill of its cold air against her, before collecting a beer bottle and heading back to the sofa.
Then she settled down to half-watch the show and drink until she felt ready to face the evening.
This evening, though, it wasn’t working. The whole point of this ritual was that it was easy to discard when she was ready to move on, but that meant it wasn’t holding enough focus. By about ten minutes in, less than half the bottle gone, the number of times she’d glanced back at her bag had registered with her.
“Fuck’s sake,” she muttered, getting up and walking over. She dug her phone out of her bag and took another swig, then paused and looked around.
There were some wireless earbuds around somewhere; her sister had given them to her for a birthday. Donna had thanked her and privately wondered how anyone was meant to use something you could lose that easily.
But she’d charged the case, she was pretty sure. And the case charged the buds, or something like that?
She went in search. In the background, Sheldon whined on nasally, unnoticed, unimportant.
She eventually found the buds by one side of her bedside table, where she must have put them one day and knocked them off without noticing maybe weeks later.
Which, she told herself again, proved her point.
She took another swig from the bottle and wandered back into the living room, fumbling the buds out of their case and putting them to her ears.
Then, getting even more irritated, she had to actually link them up to her phone to get a signal.
Nothing was done for you these days. You got up, showered, drove an hour through traffic to your shitty job, worked hours at your shitty job, came home, and you couldn’t even play around on your phone without setting up a bunch of stuff first.
Technology was supposed to make lives easier. In Donna’s opinion, it just added another straw to the load she was already carrying.
It was amazing how just a little thing, after the day from hell, could move her almost to tears.
Finally, it all seemed ready. She flopped back onto her sofa, took her beer in one hand, and started the app with the other.
Immediately her earbuds sprang to life. A low, powerful tone seemed to vibrate through her more than be heard, pulse after pulse.
The screen went black. Letters printed themselves across it in vibrant green.
Just as Donna was starting to notice that the low vibration seemed somehow soothing, the last repetition of the word flooded out to fill the screen in a welcoming green, then went white. A small black circle dropped down the screen, almost too fast to track, in sync with the pulses sounding in her ears.
Her scalp was tingling. She kept coming back to that, often mid-thought.
She was definitely losing her train of awareness.
A man’s voice spoke over the pulses of vibration. He pitched his own tone low, but it was clear and distinct from the steady throb. “For this to work well, you can’t look away,” he said. The circle dropping down the screen, and the pulses, slowed slightly, but somehow Donna didn’t find it easier to track.
She was trying, but she kept coming back to the sensation in her head.
“Do you want this to work?” the man asked. Donna felt her lips part, was confident she’d said ‘yes’, but hadn’t heard it over what was happening in her ears. She registered that for only a moment before trying to follow the black circle again.
It didn’t just feel like the sonics were somehow massaging her brain now. It felt as if bubbles were forming, rising up through her brain, somehow catching thoughts inside them, and rising to the top, where thoughts became tingles.
The woman had said she would find peace first. She was right.
“That’s good,” the man said. Donna wasn’t sure what was good. The black circle turned green, the same welcoming, friendly green as before, and slowed again. So did the pulses.
They even sounded different now. Like they were echoing through her mind now it was quieter.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” the man said. It was kind of hard to keep her own thoughts going, so Donna was happy to take his word for it.
And instantly it felt like a weight she hadn’t realised she was carrying left her shoulders. She sighed.
The green circle dropped again, but this time it stopped in the centre of the screen. Some of the white around it crept into it in broad, swirling lines, which began to spin.
The low tone rose, sharpened, became the weighty tick of a mechanism, clicking every half revolution of the circle.
“I want you to let go,” the man said. “Everything’s going to be fine. You can’t look away. And you aren’t thinking. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she breathed, barely even thinking about the question.
There was a pause, and the man’s voice repeated. “Do you understand?”
She tried another “Yes,” a little louder this time. The white background to the spinning circle deepened slowly into a soft yellow.
“That’s good. We’re going to spend a few minutes making use of that, and afterwards, you’ll feel so good. But first, you need to let go. You can’t look away. You aren’t thinking. You shouldn’t decide what you do. You’ll let go. You’ll let the app decide.”
Donna let go. She didn’t know why, but even if she’d noticed, she wouldn’t have asked.
There was a short pause, and then the circle moved to the top right of the screen, still spinning. The yellow background melted into a feed from her phone; close up, not quite a headshot, an unflattering angle. Donna noticed none of that, changed none of that.
Lines appeared on the screen, seeking the outlines of her figure in the image. After changing a few times, they recognised a face, and disappeared.
“Prop the phone up somewhere you have room to stand,” the man said.
Donna leaned forward and set her beer bottle down on the coffee table. She rested her phone against it.
After a moment, she took the implication. She stood, too.
The lines appeared again, but she was half out of the camera.
“Line yourself up with the screen,” the voice told Donna. She did so, this time aware of the lines homing in on her figure. She heard the digitised shutter click her phone made to tell her it had successfully taken a photo.
“Standing on the spot, turn 90 degrees to your left.”
Donna pivoted as asked. Another shutter click sounded.
She now faced away from her phone. Heard another click. Realised she was doing this just because she’d been told to.
And realised that if she kept doing what she was told, her thoughts didn’t need to start up.
She could stay at peace.
If she’d been thinking, she might have noticed that most of her was hidden in baggy pyjamas; that getting her to stand indicated an interest in the shape of her body, not her face.
It might have occurred to her that this had to be some sort of automatic advancement based on sensors, not a person reviewing the images.
As it was, it didn’t even occur to her that photos were being taken and transmitted.
“Return to your seat,” the voice said. Donna started to turn back and sit down. Before she even reached a seated position, the voice said simply “For our records, state your full name.”
“Donna Mercedes Jimenez,” she said as she folded back into the sofa. Her eyes fell back onto the screen, where her outline had disappeared, the whirling circle being the only thing of importance in view.
The pitch of the vibration in her ears and through her head changed. The circle changed colour; a light, welcoming pastel pink. A wave of euphoria washed through Donna. Her jaw slackened into a lazy smile.
This was better than peace. This was bliss.
“You are at the start of a long path,” the man said. “People walking this path begin with much to learn and plenty to do.” There was a pause. “You will walk this path until you are told to stop.”
Donna wasn’t thinking. She almost certainly would have found that ominous if she had been. But it was just a fact; she could almost feel this fact settling into the fertile soil of her mind, a seed that would grow new thoughts.
“Soon, I will review your case. You will be told when to be ready for contact, and you will make yourself available.”
Another seed dropped into place. The smile got broader and dopier. She was beginning to realise this euphoria wasn’t just bliss as it awoke the pleasure centres across her nerves. Her body was waking up, feeling an arousal and a desire Donna had thought was gone from her life, something she’d fleetingly dismissed when worried about it as a way only teens and early twenties felt.
Long repressed like the rest of her life, it was flowering now. The earbuds gave this app a direct route to her most primal instincts. Her rage was blunted, her frustration gone, her arousal suddenly the strongest sensation in her almost empty mind.
“You want to be fully available for me,” the man continued. “You want to walk your new path until you’re ready for my collection.”
The arousal was tying itself somehow to his voice. To the shadowy image of this man forming in her mind. Donna was horny now, desperate, and needy for only a recording of this man.
For the real thing? She would do anything he asked.
“You want to suit my needs. Exercise, diet, self-improvement, cosmetic surgery… whatever is required to suit my needs, you will do.”
The circle changed colour again, a deep, driving crimson. Donna’s hands began to move of their own accord. They popped open the buttons of her pyjama shirt, slid into the waistband of her pyjama pants.
She had a need, and it was not one she could satisfy until she had walked the path. But she had taken her first step, and without understanding how, she had been told she deserved a reward and what that reward would be.
The man continued to talk. Donna heard none of it as she frantically coaxed her body toward orgasm, her hands working eagerly and needily, her body desperate to cum, not just because of her rising libido but also because she knew the man wanted it.
Whatever he said continued to fall into her empty mind, seeds settling where they would grow and blossom, and where her new thoughts would be shaped by what had been planted.
Donna tried to arch her back for better effect, but couldn’t tear her eyes from the circle. She twisted her body to the side, gaze still locked on her phone. Lifted her legs onto the sofa. Slid herself, humping the air for a moment, to the side, falling onto her side, hands still stroking and teasing as she got closer and closer to what she needed.
Now she could go through any contortion she wanted and the circle would still be in view. That seemed to free her. And freedom felt so good. She could finally catch up to what he had done. Maybe she could hear his words again.
That seemed like a good thing to do. His words were really important, after all. His words had put her on the path.
She soon realised, though, that she couldn’t actually cum. Not right now. Instead, as she stared at the circle, she felt like it was stopping her. Like she was somehow controlled by the app.
Donna Jimenez did not feel frustration. Donna Jimenez couldn’t. She knew peace now, and peace was now all she had. She grabbed a cushion and put the edge between her legs, tight against her, began to hump away against it. Her hand, slick with her own wetness, came up so both could fondle her breasts.
If the show she was putting on was recorded, the idea would never occur to her. But even if it did, Donna Jimenez would be puzzled if you asked her whether or not she was comfortable with that.
Any result of the app was proof she was walking the path correctly. Any result of the app clearly proved she was doing as she should. And she felt so wonderfully at peace.
She lost track of time, there on that sofa, before the circle vanished and every nerve on her body screamed out with orgasm at once. Donna passed out.
She woke up long afterward, her beer flat and stale, in a pool of her own juices, earbuds still in place. But she didn’t feel embarrassed, or frustrated.
She just got up, picked up her phone, and went to bed, setting the earbuds on the side.
As she did, she saw a phone notification waiting. A message from the man whose voice she now wanted to cum to every time.
You’ve made a good start. Be nude before tomorrow’s session. I need to see what I’m working with.
Those were the words in her head as Donna went to sleep.
Donna woke up with a smile on her lips, got out of bed with her alarm clock, showered, and drove to work, getting there early.
She was still smiling as she talked with her colleagues, as she worked through the passengers of the day, even as she resolved a dispute with a traveller who absolutely did not want to be pulled aside and played the Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am card. (Donna hadn’t. Nor would she have cared.)
The peace she felt didn’t go away, didn’t even weaken, through the day. The path she had begun to walk worked, and she was happy she would not stop walking it unless she was told to.
Donna Jimenez had got much to learn, and plenty to do.