Joanna bolted upright in bed. Not her own bed. She looked around. White walls, white floor, white roof. Cold. Antiseptic. She hated white. The bed was comfortable, as comfortable as someone else’s bed could be. There was something stuck on her forehead that was annoying her, but she really didn’t feel like removing it.
She knew what that meant.
She’d been Altered.
She checked herself, not that that would help. If she’d been Altered well, she wouldn’t know that anything was different. She was lying on top of the covers, in her panties and a light blue t-shirt. Wasn’t sure if either belonged to her. Bra was gone, or she hadn’t been wearing one.
So the only question was, why was she in a recovery room?
Hold on, a recovery room…
So she’d been Altered, then Altered again. Fixed.
Where was she? Besides in a recovery room.
There was a hole in her memory. Probably because it’d been blanked. She didn’t know how much was gone, how big that hole was. Of course she didn’t. She couldn’t. By design, there was nothing around to tell her the date or time.
Okay, okay, no need to panic. And she wasn’t panicking, anyway. Just... curious.
Even if she’d had a clock, she wouldn’t have been able to tell. She couldn’t remember when or where the hole in her head began… or could she?
Last memory. Last clear memory. One last grad student in the chair, a simple, routine change, part of a study... what was it? Did it matter? Did it have anything to do with... this?
No, that’s ridiculous. She was accredited, had a research license. She wouldn’t have made enemies from her work. She was a legitimate Alterist.
By day, anyway. She enjoyed the more recreational aspects of Altering when she wasn’t on the job. In fact, she had been in a bit of a rush with the grad student because she was heading to an Altering convention.
And then she remembered getting on the plane.
So she must be at the convention.
Or maybe not? She couldn’t remember getting on a flight back, but maybe she’d forgotten that, too? No, she thought, the convention felt right. Even with no clear memory, there was still a clear sense of satisfaction at getting the right answer.
That solved, she looked around the room again, but more to think than to search. Although, oddly, this didn’t look like a recovery room at any convention she’d been to.
Realization struck. If she was at the con, then Darryl was here.
Her heart fluttered at the thought. Darryl. She saw him too seldom.
Her breath caught. Was she in recovery because of something Darryl did?
Did Darryl fuck with her?
She hadn’t been panicking before, still wasn’t, but she sure was starting to breathe quickly.
He wouldn’t. No way. Fuck, he couldn’t.
No. No, she refused to believe it. Her hands gripped the blanket. No no no. Besides, he knew her too well, knew her mind inside and out, her strengths and weaknesses.
If he’d done it, she wouldn’t be in here.
The thought sent chills down her spine, ones which she had to admit weren’t entirely unpleasant. Her fingers relaxed a moment and she wiggled her toes. She exhaled.
She was turned on.
Not entirely unusual, she’d been Altered, twice at least, and that was some of the fun of Altering. Her hand twitched. Her toes curled, and she shivered again.
She wanted to take off the shirt. She wanted to slip off the panties.
She wanted Darryl. Oh God, she wanted Darryl. Her hands twitched.
She closed her eyes. Seeing him in the airport. A hug. A kiss. Another kiss. Declarations of adoration, statements of how much they’d missed each other. Driving to the hotel. Darryl’s laptop.
Okay, so she wasn’t blocked from remembering, just blanked. Standard Fixing procedure for some cases, some treatments: give the patient a chance to relive the events in a controlled environment. That would be what the electrode-like thing on her forehead was for, to keep her calm, regulated, keep an eye on her vitals. She wasn’t familiar with the equipment (or maybe she was before?) but the concepts were easy enough to follow.
Back in her memory, she was barely able to keep her clothes on long enough to slip on the headset. Then there was that beautiful, blissful feeling that goes with Darryl’s work. Music filled her mind, her sight, her heart. He knew her so well, knew her weaknesses, played her like a harp, made her senses sing. Her breathing slowed, noticeably. His fingers typed, and she could hear the words he was spinning into her mind, briefly, like a motif in the middle of a massive symphony, heard momentarily and, if captured, remembered long enough to recognize hearing them again, and if not...
She felt like she wasn’t catching even a quarter of what he was putting in to her mind. That thought, the thought of barely understanding, was wonderful and amazing and then... gone.
She was thinking about ... something. And it was gone. And the music started to fade, and it, too, was gone, and the light faded, and was gone, and then she knew what she had seen, and heard, but there was a cold block, a wall of ice, between the experience and the knowledge of it. She knew, because she knew; but she couldn’t recall anything attached to the knowledge.
In her memory, she pulled off the headset and looked at Darryl. He grinned smugly, asking, “What do you think?”
A smile crept up on her. “I’ve missed you so much,” she said, and her hands started to undo her blouse buttons. “And I want to put you so far under you don’t wake up until next week.”
“Oh, but we have dinner plans,” he replied, and her body stopped its motion.
“We have dinner plans,” she heard her voice say. Her hands then continued taking off her blouse. Her agency had vanished. She was still stripping, but even though she had intentionally started to do so, she was not continuing with anything but automatic action.
Her expression blank, her eyes unfocused, she removed her top, then undid her grey skirt and slid it down to the floor. She shook her head, coming out of the momentary trance, then raised an eyebrow. “Not like I wasn’t going to get out of those anyway,” she said, picking up the headset and taking a step towards him.
“What do you plan to do with that?” he asked, raising an eyebrow in kind.
“I thought I’d put it on you and run a few programs of my own,” she replied, a bit of a growl in her voice, as she slipped the device on her own head.
He turned the laptop towards her. “Oh really?” Numbers and graphs on the screen showed an active and Altered mind.
She paused a moment in her recollection, thinking about the image in her head. The numbers and graphs had shown showed an active but Altered mind, for sure, because the headset was on her head. But when she thought back to what she’d seen on the screen, she was certain, absolutely certain, that she was reading Darryl’s numbers.
Which was why she’d activated the device.
The shock of recognition ran through her, in the memory, and in the recovery room, her hands slipped under her waistband. In her memory, she froze, hand over the spacebar. She heard Darryl’s voice before it was drowned in melody and harmony and the glorious natural skill of his music, directing her to believe that he was on the receiving end, and she started to type.
She broke free of the thought, and moaned, gathering her composure and stopping the movement of her hands before they could go further than teasing. She knew that that wasn’t the issue. That wouldn’t have been the cause. She would have been careful with Darryl, and would have been careful with herself as a result.
Still, something told her that Darryl was connected to her need for recovery. Something in there was important.
And oh God, that night had been so fucking hot. She did eventually get the headset on him, after she had answered the room-service knock in her underwear, after she’d had dinner in the nude (“Dinner plans” indeed), after she’d... her hands were twitching again. She put that thought aside, there would be time for that later.
No, it wasn’t that. That wouldn’t have needed a Fix. She pulled her shirt back down.
The convention. She was at the convention. Must have been something else. It wouldn’t have just been Darryl that had had a go at her mind. That was the point of the convention after all. And the competition.
Her eyes widened. The competition. She had come for the Brainhackers competition. The first-ever organized, sponsored, legitimate Brainhackers competition.
Her first game was the Monday evening after she arrived. The rules stated that she couldn’t have any Alteration done within 24 hours of a match, but she wanted to be completely fresh, and so she wasn’t Altered at all on Sunday. She and Darryl went to a couple talks, walked among the vendors, met friends, chatted with people... convention stuff. And long-distance couple stuff: catching up, stealing kisses, fantasizing and adoring and wishing and...
Given her reaction to her memories of the day she’d landed, she deliberately avoided thinking about Sunday night. She had a mystery to solve and didn’t need that much distraction.
Monday morning, Darryl woke her up with some lovely cunnilingus, as she had programmed him to do the night before. She recalled the feeling of his hands on her sides, gripping her hips, his tongue working along her...
Distraction. Pull the shirt down. Carry on.
Her match was last on the schedule for the day. There were only eight competitors in the invitational competition, bringing in the biggest names in Brainhack (the ones who were available, anyway). She and Darryl had a pleasant breakfast together with another couple they knew, and went to catch the first and second rounds.
Brainhack wasn’t Darryl’s thing at all. He was more interested in the friendly, and more-than-friendly, applications of Alteration. And while his work was divine, it wasn’t highly trained; he would be the first to admit his casual-user status. Darryl had a gift, not an education.
Joanna, though? She loved the competitive aspect, the edge of danger, the battle. It was fun, it was relatively safe, and it was challenging. Above all else, it was challenging. She loved Darryl, loved Altering him, but it wasn’t difficult in any way. He slipped into a trance almost the second the gear went on his head, sometimes before she even started her programs.
This was something different. Something that tested her skill, her self-control, her creativity. This was... well it was Brainhacking.
The arena—the lecture room, really—sat two hundred or so people, and it was already packed. Joanna and Darryl took a seat at the back just before the doors closed.
Two comfortable chairs sat back-to-back on the stage, with generic Alter equipment set up for the competitors, along with computer terminals and monitors—the same stuff Joanna had trained on before customizing her own gear. There were also two big monitor banks mounted overhead for the audience to read the vital stats of the competitors and see some semblance of their moves in the game.
Joanna looked around the room. There was a buzz, a low-level hum of excitement from the usual sort of people at a convention of Alterists and Alter enthusiasts. A few people were wearing things they probably wouldn’t have normally, or not wearing things they probably should have been, if they were out in public anywhere else, but largely the crowd looked normal. Maybe they skewed a bit towards the nerdy and fetishy, but a comfortably normal crowd all the same.
She heard a few people placing friendly bets. Caden Collier was apparently the heavy favourite, over SleepyLeigh. Leigh was a good friend, as close as she might get to someone she’d only ever met online. Joanna had helped her with a bunch of little technical issues here and there in getting her personal setup running; the woman wasn’t a pro, but she was at least a step beyond Darryl’s level of skill, and she wasn’t the pushover he was in the trance department. The two of them had traded Alters, non-competitively, many times. She was a creative and imaginative spirit, lots of fun to work on and work with.
But Caden... Caden was among the worst of the community. He had a couple years of formal training, then washed out, probably because of his attitude. He wasn’t licensed, but he played himself off as just as good. The problem was, though, that he was good. Maybe not as good as he thought, but better than most. Given his popularity in the Brainhackers community, there was no way that he couldn’t be invited, and knowing his interest in personal promotion, there was no way that he wouldn’t have come. His natural skill and confidence mixed with his training to make a potent brew, one which also made him an excellent competitor; his attitude and views made that brew toxic. He had a following, too, his own circle, from preaching a biological-truth, alpha-male gospel that appealed strongly to a certain segment of the Alterations fanbase.
It was too bad that all that skill, training, and that powerful, natural instinct were so often directed towards personal pleasure and gain, and used with such little regard for his subject. Joanna had never dealt with him directly, but she’d consulted on a couple Fixes of his work, and she knew that he was dangerous.
Caden. Something about her condition had something to do with him, she could feel it. She made a mental note and went back to thinking her way through the memories. Too bad it wasn’t as straightforward as, ‘Caden did it,’ but such things were never that simple.
Leigh came out first, all nervous smiles and barely-contained energy, a bubbly, chubby girl of some Asian extraction, dark hair and dark eyes and warm, broad movement. She waved to the crowd, and a small crew near the front cheered. She gave a little nod to the judges and referees and another wave before taking a deep breath and standing to the side.
That was the first time she’d laid eyes on her friend. She’d seen profile pictures and a couple cute thank-you shots of her in her Altering gear (and sometimes little else), but until that moment SleepyLeigh had really only been a voice and a block of text logs to her.
Leigh was also connected to her state. She could feel it. She would have to follow through with that thread, too. She only hoped her friend hadn’t done something to hurt her, negligently or... No. Intentional harm from SleepyLeigh? Impossible. Right?
Caden stood in the doorway, waiting. Even from where Joanna was sitting in the back, she could see the sneer. This battle was his, and he knew it. Tall, broad-shouldered, arrogant, severe, he practically marched towards the stage, and the minute he set foot on the floor a group of very loud men started to holler their support. Joanna heard some truly ugly language from them, and crossed her arms both in the memory and in the recovery room. Darryl had put a hand on her shoulder then; she wished for his hand now, as she recalled the slurs.
Joanna was an Alterist online, both in professional and recreational settings. She had been called all sorts of names, told all sorts of things. Misogyny was nothing new to her, unpleasant as it was, but the racism turned her stomach.
In retrospect, Leigh really didn’t stand a chance. She had lost before she even made it to the chair. In her memory, Joanna could see it clearly on the girl’s face, how the smile in her eyes faded a little with each barb. Even if she had won, this moment would have bothered her, stayed with her. Hurt her. Joanna, in the recovery room, resolved to give her a hug if she had the chance.
Watching the battle was both fascinating and confusing. Joanna knew that any random, untrained observer would be totally lost, looking at the players’ vitals, charts, and graphs on the big screens, as lost as she got herself when trying to parse information off a sports scoreboard. The overhead required for a casual spectator was Brainhacking’s biggest barrier to entry. This crowd, however, amateurs and professionals alike, were watching closely as the two contestants, now deep in their trances, typed furiously, manipulating the numbers by manipulating their thoughts, each trying to make the other’s mind give way.
“He’s vicious,” Darryl said, watching Leigh’s heart rate spike, then plummet. “What’s he doing, Jo, any idea?”
She knew. She knew all too well. He was terrifying her. He was scaring her, and providing comfort to relax and slow her with the same programming he used to barrage her. She couldn’t take her eyes off Leigh’s readout while it jumped and plunged endlessly. If I win, I’m going to have to face him, she thought in the crowd. He’s going through to the finals. His technique was too good, and he was too fast, constantly shrugging off his opponent’s assaults, which were coming slower and slower, and soon, not at all.
Leigh’s eyes were closed, her hands were frozen above the keyboard, the brainwave monitors were showing her in a state of near-total trance. Caden continued to type, wrenching her mind open even wider to his suggestions. He pushed harder, even faster now that he was free of her attacks, deepening her somnolent state as her hands drifted mechanically down to her sides and her body slumped forward. It was over. One of the referees pressed the decision button. A loud bell rang in the room, and Caden’s cheering squad took to shouting again, forceful enough to drown out any applause the rest of the crowd might have given him.
It took less than a minute for Caden to wake from his trance and take a dramatic bow to the cheers from his rudely adoring audience, and the polite, muted applause from everyone else. Leigh didn’t move a muscle for ten. By then, the only people left in the room were the judges, the monitoring staff, Leigh’s little cheering section (who gave her a round of supportive clapping before starting to dissipate), and Joanna and Darryl, who had walked down to the front.
The competitor’s head turned. “I know that voice,” she said with a dazed grin. “OhAnnaJ. And you must be DarrylSergeant.” She extended a hand, which Joanna pulled into a friendly hug.
Well, check that off the list. Not that she would mind giving her another. She felt herself flushing a bit at the memory of the small, soft girl in her arms, the lemony aroma of her body-wash or shampoo, the...
Distraction. Keep focused.
“Good run up there,” Darryl lied gamely. All three of them knew it wasn’t even close. “How are you feeling?”
“Honestly, DS? Fucked up. Really rough.” She heaved a grim little sigh. “I bet you guys wanna stay and watch the next match, but I could sure use a coffee.”
“We’ll go with you,” Joanna offered. Much as she wanted to see partyDancer and naagesh competing, her friend wanted her company, and Dancer really didn’t need Joanna there to form a cheering section.
Coffee. Coffee sounded really good. “If anyone’s listening, I could use something to drink,” she called in to the white-walled room. Nothing was keeping her from getting out of the bed, she supposed, or going out the door and finding something.
Huh. Right. The door. She stretched—how long had she been lying down?—but then she decided that the door wasn’t worth trying, so she didn’t bother sitting up.
That had to be the Alter talking. Still, knowing that didn’t make her want to sit up.
Coffee with Leigh. Poor girl. There’s no way that Caden’s technique wouldn’t have some lasting emotional effect, not that either she or Darryl said as much. She did find some solace in the loss, though.
“This way,” Leigh said with a bit of an ironic grin, “I can sample some Alters while I’m here, not just save myself for competition.” She gave the tall ex-soldier a broad wink.
Darryl, for his part, hid any reaction he might have had behind a coffee cup.
Joanna felt a thoughtful look swim past her lips. “You know, Leigh...” she frowned a bit, trying to think of the best way to ask. “If you don’t mind, I could crack open that scrambled egg a bit, and see just what Caden’s been up to.”
Leigh jumped a bit in surprise. “You mean you’d...” she stammered. “I don’t know. Do you think that he’ll go through to the finals?”
“naagesh and partyDancer are up there now. Both are good, but they’re not Caden good, not like that,” she answered. “I wish I’d gotten seeded against you, Leigh. Would’ve been all kinds of fun.”
She nodded. “I guess this would be the closest we could get to that...” The younger girl flushed a little at the idea. “We can have a friendly game when this convention’s done.”
Joanna smiled. “Why don’t you and Darryl hang out for a while this evening? I like some alone-time for my match prep, and then after I’m done, win or lose, I can put my portable on you.”
The cheerful girl beamed. “If you’d be okay with that, Darryl?”
“I don’t see why not.” He acted casual, but Joanna could recognize his own excitement at the possibilities.
Coffee and arrangements concluded with an exchange of phone numbers and vague plans. Leigh had friends to meet for lunch, Joanna wanted to look around at some of the displays meant for more serious practitioners, and Darryl wandered off on his own to do a little shopping. The three of them would meet up for the third match, in the early afternoon.
Nothing much caught her eye among the displays, the academics, the professionals. Textbooks, how-tos for more complex techniques, insurance sales, high-level demo equipment, business and advertising strategies, nothing all that new or exciting. Still, Joanna relished the time to chat with a couple colleagues who were running their own practices, doing the good work. She kept clear of many of the entrepreneurial aspects of Alteration by working mainly in research, but it was still good to stay connected.
The constant din of chatter was a little lower in the professionals’ hall—most people at the con were hobbyists, after all—so she could recall something jumping out at her from the sea of sound while she was standing at a random booth.
Caden Collier, strutting down the middle of the room, regaling to one of his hangers-on. “Nah, I wouldn’t ever let her mess with me. Females shouldn’t be Alterists.”
A few heads turned with disapproval, and more than a few pretended to ignore him. Joanna winced, in the recovery room. That voice, so cruel, so callous, so rough.
“It’s just basic biology,” Caden continued, being pointedly ignored by the rest of the crowd as his sycophant nodded along. “Girls do okay when they’re Altering other girls, but the best Alterists are men. Females just don’t have the right mindset. They’re at their best when they submit to us, after all, and...” at this point, thankfully, the two moved out of earshot.
The man she’d been talking to, before that living embodiment of casual hatred wandered by, shook his head. “Christ, I thought MRAs went outta style a decade ago. Beat the shit out of him in the competition for me, would you?”
She nodded. “I’ll try my best. Assuming he and I go through to the finals.”
The man gave her a disbelieving smile. “Beat the shit out of him,” he repeated.
She’d puttered about for a while longer, but her heart wasn’t really into looking or conversing, not any more. She was growing focused on the competition. She went back to the lecture hall and snagged three seats together, biding her time on her phone until Darryl and Leigh showed up.
They arrived within moments of one another. She greeted each with a warm hug, caught up with their adventures, and settled in to watch GreenShinyOak meet JonByers08 on the proverbial field of battle.
It was a good match, she remembered, but JonByers08 got the upper hand after about fifteen minutes and never let loose, wrapping up his opponent more and more.
Judging by GreenShinyOak’s numbers, it wasn’t a bad way to go. He certainly looked like he was enjoying it.
Joanna frowned, wondering why she could recollect so little about that fight. It certainly had been a skillful display. Perhaps she had been preoccupied with her own upcoming match. Perhaps it simply had nothing to do with her present condition.
More small talk. Leigh left with Darryl. Joanna had an hour to herself, and that hour required focus. Darryl was wonderful, but not good for focus.
She’d done Brainhack many times online and in local competitions, and she had her routine. She went to the backstage area, where GreenShinyOak was just leaving what would become Joanna’s prep room. She gave him a friendly and condolent smile, he traded some best wishes in exchange.
Safely inside the confines of the small room, she locked the door and stripped down to her underwear. She wanted to build herself up, piece by piece, and that meant starting with her body. She always started with the body.
Fingers first. They saw the most abuse. Stretched and flexed. Back, shoulders. Tiredness meant weakness. Deep knee bends, neck rolls. There was a meditative calm in her actions, as she started from her feet and slowly, gently, worked out every muscle, from her toes up, pausing to give a bit of a frown as she twisted her hips and her belly shifted. Getting flabby. Too much sitting and staring at screens.
She found herself mirroring the routine in her convalescent’s bed. If nothing else, it felt good to work out all the stiff spots. She’d been thinking for a while, not really moving much, and while she didn’t go through her whole routine—difficult to do without standing, and she couldn’t even muster the will to sit up—even the truncated version was nice.
She wanted to think about her match. Maybe that was why she was in here, in recovery. Something happened at this match. A tall, thin, black-haired man calling himself Mindsweeper was announced as her opponent, then OhAnnaJ was called to the stage, earning a ‘whoop!’ from SleepyLeigh and DarrylSergeant up in the crowd. She gave a little wave of acknowledgement to the excited audience before settling in to the chair and putting on the pre-fab gear. She’d seen this setup a hundred times, for a while had one like it in her bedroom, and Darryl had just had one on her head the other day: a clear, high-quality, back-and-mid-lit printed plastic visor for visual effects, hanging from a thick white apparatus that looked like somewhat a bicycle helmet, where the high-frequency electromagnetic pulse generators and high-fidelity speakers were hidden, all held on the head by a cloth strap with a standard hat-buckle and attached to the computer bank by a standard four-wire cable.
All that remained was to give approving nods to the safety agreements and waivers flashing on her screen, and the assent to be Altered.
She’d always been all business when it came to Brainhack. It was more fun that way. She grinned as the first lights glittered before her eyes, and her fingers started to dance.
She thought out her moves the way she might have written a melody; at each step, try what’s worked before, or try something new. Create. Expand. Develop, and return to the familiar. The specialized keyboard, having much more than just letters and numbers, wasn’t the sort she was used to using any more, but the muscle memory came back to her quickly, and a quick eye and sharp hand helped to fill in the gaps.
She felt the first wave of warmth travelling south from her head as Mindsweeper started his own Alter procedures. Her fingers continued to type as she examined the shape of his attack, its contours, its vectors. One of the greatest challenges of Brainhack was managing your opponent’s attack without letting your own offensive slip, and knowing how Mindsweeper was approaching the battle would be an important advantage.
As it did, as it always did, her undergraduate degree in music asserted itself and she started to experience the ebb and flow of the programming as vague concepts of tune and harmony and structure. She tried to make sense of the Alteration of her mind in terms that she was most familiar with. Thoughts of Darryl came to her, of his towering, hypnotic constructions, his Brahms and Bruckner and Shostakovich, melody stretched across minutes, hidden and turned and twisted back on itself. This wasn’t Darryl, of course, and the approach was different, less tailored to her interests. More vague, more impressionistic. Debussy, Dukas, Respighi, other composers’ names popping in and out of her mind as snatches of feeling felt like whispers of sound. Colours, scenes, light. Less direction, more imagery; less structure, more emotionality.
It would probably have been supremely effective on almost anyone else, and she did feel a great deal of its attraction. Beautiful swirls of colour kept her looking aside, slowing her typing, engaging her hearing. Her hands worked a little program on their own. Her approach was adaptive, improvisatory—scattershot, if she was honest. Testing all directions, seeing which get a reaction and which don’t, and paring away those less-useful options in favour of the winners. She started to make a list of Mindsweeper’s strengths and weaknesses in his defenses, even as it seemed he continue pushing his vague, indistinct, assault, pressing on all aspects of her mind at once in a whirl of colour and music. Every note said ‘sleep,’ every chord sung of want.
The music drew her in, soothed her, like an aimless lullaby whispered into her head by the concept of song itself. She searched the music for a pattern, for repetition, for reason behind the rhyme, but that searching just led her deeper in to the sound, looking for something crystalline to coalesce around, something which kept evading her, seemingly slipping further away the more she looked for it.
Which she wasn’t supposed to be doing. She was supposed to be Altering, not engaging in music appreciation.
But the colours were so lovely... In the recovery room, she sighed at the thought of those colours, of those sounds. Sighed, and shivered. Distraction, she knew, but what a wonderful distraction. She could indulge a bit as she continued to remember.
Besides, with all the distractions so far, she was already extremely horny.
The shirt came up easily enough, and one peaked nipple kept one hand busy as the other slipped under the waistband of her panties. God, she was wet.
Maybe that was why she was here. Something Mindsweeper did to her. Maybe that’s why the thought of his aetherial music made her so hot. She moaned. She had lost that match, hadn’t she? The way she was feeling, both in the blank white room and in the memory of the chair, there was nothing left to do but sink. Certainly the music was beautiful, even without that core that she was searching for, and by the time she once more realized that she was supposed to be competing, the colours were starting to blur and block her view of Mindsweeper’s vitals.
Just as she was reaching a fever pitch, typing wildly, her mind selecting the direction of her approach and her hands executing it almost without conscious input, surrounded by music and light and sense and sensation, a bell sounded, cutting through the music, signalling the end to the match, and a subtle change in the programming. She hadn’t really registered it, but the device was bringing her back up, back out of the trance. Her hands left the keyboard, free now to slip under her shirt and between her legs and press. She moaned. She felt good. So good. If she had lost, she was going to enjoy it. Maybe give the crowd a show, she didn’t kn...
No, no, she scolded herself as she curled a finger inside. Now that was just plain fantasy. She had more self control than to masturbate in front of a crowd, even under the effects of an Alter. Living and reliving were mixing together in her mind. And now fantasy, as her hands worked faster, harder, her back arching in the bed, need for physical release overcoming need for mental satisfaction.
She almost petulantly accepted the inevitability of it, sliding her panties down just enough to free her hand’s motion, tracing her fingers around her clit, sending waves of tension and pleasure through her legs and belly and back and her hand on her breast clenched and she let out a moan. So close now. She closed her eyes and shuddered, just a moment... away...
A long, low, satisfying sigh as the first wave of climax washed over, and over, and over her. She let herself rest, let herself relax into the memory, of standing up before the crowd, embarrassed about the loss, but feeling so good about the fight, of turning to her opponent and offering her hand, seeing him confusedly taking hers. Hearing her name called.
She took a deep breath, regaining control. And she did the same in her memory. Her name. OhAnnaJ. She looked at the judge. He looked back. She looked up at the big screen. There were her last measured vitals, at the time of the bell, near swamped. And there were Mindsweeper’s, in bright red, clearly under, brain activity showing deep trance.
She had won.
She had won.
All those beautiful soft shades of harmony-without-structure which had been so inviting were simply not inviting enough, or hadn’t worked fast enough, anyway. Another minute, maybe thirty seconds, and she’d have been gone.
She turned back to the crowd, listening to the cheers and laughter at her disbelieving stare.
She shared her smile with Mindsweeper. “Close match,” she said, opening her arms to offer him a hug, which he accepted with a laugh, prompting more cheers from the audience.
This is how it’s meant to be. This is how the game is supposed to be played, she thought, giving her opponent a squeeze. Two people just having fun with each other’s minds.
Mindsweeper walked backstage with her. “You are amazing, Anna,” he said. “If you aren’t, you ought to go pro.”
She laughed. “I am, but thank you. You are too, I suspect.”
He grinned. “Guilty. I have a little studio next to the convention center, rec and simple therapy only. I’m a con sponsor, actually. Thought it would be fun to try Brainhacking with the best, so I entered the local tournament, won my way to an invite.” He shrugged. “I think I did pretty good.”
“You did,” she answered, standing at the door of her dressing room. “I really thought you had me there.”
He chuckled. “I thought I had you there, too. And then I was gone.” A consequence of her scattershot approach. Once she found a weakness, there was no turning back, not for her, not for her opponent.
He paused. She paused.
“You want to ask me to dinner,” she said, “but you know that I’m here with someone.”
“You want to accept,” he replied, “but... sorry, I can’t think of a good reason for you not to.”
They both laughed. She smiled kindly, then, impulsively, kissed his cheek. “You were wonderful,” she said as he blushed. “I can’t take you up on dinner tonight, but maybe I’ll drop by your studio while I’m here. Do you have a card?”
He shook his head. “Not on me. And I didn’t get a vendor pass. But look me up. ‘Halloran’s Alterations.’ Not exactly a creative name.”
“Hey, you have a studio of your own. That’s something. I’m attached to a university.”
His eyes widened. “So you’re really legit? Got the degree, the medical certificate?”
She nodded. “An M.A. and a class-one license. And you still nearly beat me, which goes to show what all that training’s actually worth in the real world.”
“Work and pleasure are two different things, Anna, as I’m sure you’re well aware.” He gave a broad wink. “And I think, on that note, we ought to part company. I’m sure your dinner date is waiting.”
“Dates,” she said, slipping back to her dressing room with a chuckle.
In the closed-off space, she leaned against the door with a happy sigh. Two days at the con, and things had been going just as they ought to, the unfortunate presence of Caden Collier aside. She slipped a hand down her...
Distraction. But this time, she knew at least that it was a real memory. That was a little too much like her to be just her fantasy talking.
She touched for a moment, then reminded herself that she had promises to keep. SleepyLeigh was waiting on her.
Her walk back to the hotel room was interrupted only by a quick stop to grab a fresh, hot pretzel, which she polished off on the way. She knocked lightly on the door, more out of habit than anything, and walked in to Darryl and Leigh sitting at the small table, two medium pizza boxes sitting between them, chatting cheerfully. Both of them turned as she came in.
“Hail the mighty conqueror,” Darryl said, rising to give her a hug. Leigh gave some light applause and a wordless cheer.
Joanna snuggled into the embrace with a soft, happy hum. “Really thought I wasn’t coming away with that one,” she said into her lover’s chest.
“Yeah, we were watching that!” Leigh exclaimed as Darryl released her. “He just had you on a steady pull down from the start, but I guess you saw a weakness there or something and he went from ‘okay’ to ‘gone’ just like that.” The shorter woman snapped her fingers and giggled. “You’ll have to show me how you do that sometime.”
Joanna grinned and grabbed a piece of pizza. “Yeah. ‘Sometime.’ Darryl, get your gear, and I’ll get mine. I want an instant replay on a different match first.” She tore into the pizza in her hand; despite the snack she’d had earlier, she was still quite hungry.
Leigh practically jumped to her feet. “Right. Right! You want to see what Caden did to me.”
“Mhmm, and what you tried on him, which is why I want Darryl to get his gear out.” The tall one was already setting his laptop on the table as Joanna went to her suitcase. She opened it and pulled out a small solid-sided case, holding three items: a 7″ tablet in a flat blue case, a folding keyboard obviously meant to go with it, and a clear glass visor with a black elastic band and several wires dangling from it.
Leigh stared. “Oh shit, Anna, that’s... That’s serious stuff, isn’t it? Medical grade?”
Joanna nodded. “My old portable kit, for field work. My newest stuff’s at the office. And for that matter, my newest stuff belongs to the school, and there’s no way they’d let me take it for this.” She pulled out the visor with a certain degree of reverence and care.
The ping of Darryl logging in to his laptop caught their attention. “Alright, so. What’s the plan?” he asked.
“I’m going to put her back through the match. She’s going to do to you what she did to Caden. We’ll be playing back her memories of it, both with her head and with her fingers.” Joanna turned on her tablet, wiping her hands on a napkin. “Consider this my research for the final match, assuming that I can handle JonByers08.”
“Oh, you can handle him,” Leigh grinned. “So you want me sitting...”
“Just where you where a moment ago.” Joanna did a little checking of the tablet, then tapped the Alter application. Microfilaments in the glass of the visor lit up with colors, confirming the connection and instantly grabbing the other woman’s attention. Joanna looked at her and laughed. “Sit! You’re gonna see it from the other side in a second..”
Leigh flushed, sitting down. “Wow. I... I’ve never had any real, med-grade work done.”
Joanna looked back to the tablet. “This still isn’t going to be med-grade work, it’s just the tool I have.”
Darryl coughed, turning his computer to face Leigh. Joanna gave him a quick, grateful smile before going back to making some adjustments on the tablet. “This isn’t very specialized, I’m afraid,” he said apologetically. “Standard keyboard, just the one peripheral for you to use...”
Joanna tuned him out to get her own setup done. His explanation would only take a couple moments, and she could practically feel Leigh’s excitement and impatience. The increasingly deep colour in her cheeks was also plainly obvious.
It had the potential to be a very good night.
She picked up the visor, straightening the dangling wires as Darryl finished the explanation of his gear and slipped his headset on. She looked at Leigh. “You ready for this?”
“I think I was born ready,” she said in a husky voice.
“Before I put this on you, and before you start messing with Darryl, we ought to acknowledge the possibilities here...”
“We’re all fetishists, I think,” Darryl added, “And we’re about to engage in some serious mind control.”
Leigh nodded. “So do you two want me to take off my top now, or...” she giggled.
“All on the same page, then,” Joanna concluded. “Good.” She approached the roundish girl, who sat up straight, hands in her lap.
Joanna, in the recovery room, reflected on one of her favourite parts of the process. Not that the actual Altering was anything less than hot, of course, but remembering kneeling down next to her seated friend, looking her in the eye, knowing what was surely to come, and what was likely to follow... Her hands twitched again, and she took a ragged gasp of a breath.
She gently brushed black hair from Leigh’s face, sweeping it back, her hands caressing the other girl’s cheeks. The visor, now with only a faint glow around the edge to show that it was active and waiting, was carefully placed over Leigh’s eyes. The act of tightening it to her face, binding her hair to her head, brought them cheek to cheek. She felt the younger Alterist’s warm breath on her ear as she carefully adjusted the equipment, making sure the speakers hidden in the band were properly aligned. Seven leads running from the elastic needed to be properly attached to their moorings in the top of the glass segment, so with practiced hands, Joanna carefully threaded each one across the sides and top of her subject’s head, her fingers tracing seven lines through soft hair, along her scalp, to clip each of them in its place. Finally, one last check of all the elements, each lead in turn, the band, the power switch, the wireless send/receive, taking her time, letting her touch linger. She met Leigh’s eyes through microfilament-laced glass and her hands fell on her friend’s arms.
She leaned in and the two of them shared a kiss, light and tender, lips meeting lips. Lemon-scented bodywash and strawberry-flavored chapstick filled her senses as she squeezed the younger Alterist’s wrists. She learned back, the two of them gazing in each other’s eyes, a silent promise passing between them. I will care for you, Joanna’s look said, as clearly as any words might, and dark eyes sent back their trust and their confidence in that trust.
Her hands twitched, retracing those leads through soft dark hair, feeling the soft and warm skin of her friend’s wrists. Her bare hips bucked at the memory of that single, beautiful kiss. She moaned, low and loud. Lemon and strawberry filled her memories. Focus. Concentrate. There would be even hotter memories to come, she knew, and if she gave in now, she wouldn’t have anything left to properly appreciate those. Deep breaths. Calm. This was important. Significant. She didn’t know how she could tell, but she knew it was.
Her hands twitched. She hoped that she hadn’t been so busy having sex that it would fill the entirety of her recovering memory.
Hey, her memory replied, it’s not like you’re getting laid that often the rest of the year.
It was true. Her recovered memories of her and Darryl’s first two nights together at the con represented more sex than she’d had since the time he’d visited her last Christmas. Work, study, research and writing just took up so much time.
She gave another moan and willed the memory forward.
She sat on the corner of the bed and tapped the tablet, which lit up with information. She started typing. “It’s testing, now, to make sure everything’s in place. Darryl, are you ready?” Her eyes drifted over the significant bulge in his pants, up his still-sculpted chest, to meet his eyes behind the backlit, printed plastic of his own Alter headset.
He gave her a smile and a nod. “Hit me.”
Her eyes were fixed on Darryl as she heard Leigh hit the spacebar. The glow from behind the visor lit his face. His smile became fixed and his breathing slowed.
Leigh stared at the screen. “Shit, he wasn’t kidding about dropping,” she said, head moving as she scanned his vitals. “I’ve never seen anyone go so...” Colored lights lit the glass before her eyes, and soft pulses of white noise bubbled in her ears. Joanna watched her flush as a warmth passed through her head. “Huh?” was all that SleepyLeigh could manage before her eyes went distant and glassy.
“That’s because you’ve never seen me work with good equipment,” Joanna giggled. The difference between her personal high-grade gear and the consumer-level generics they had on the competition floor was the difference between Galway’s gold flute and her six-year-old niece’s plastic recorder.
You arrogant little... she said to her past self, shivering at the memory of the entranced girl. Like the device hadn’t spent the last five minutes reading and priming her. You’re no Galway. Probably that kind of hubris that landed you here.
She turned away from the tablet, all business. “Alright, Leigh, if you can hear me, nod now.” There was a slight pause, and then a nod. Perfect. “Leigh, I’m going to use the Alter device to help you go back to this morning, to feel what you felt in your to your competition with Caden, do you understand?”
“Good. As close as you can recall, you’re going to use Darryl’s equipment to do to Darryl what you were doing to Caden. Still with me?”
“Good. During that competition, Caden did some ugly things, some unpleasant things, and it might make you feel strange, or wrong, or scared. But it’s alright, you’re here with me, and you’re here with Darryl. You can’t hurt Darryl, and nothing Caden did this morning can hurt you, do you understand?”
Joanna held her breath.
“Good, Leigh. So good. Alright, now here’s the tricky part.” Her hand fell softly on her friend’s knee. “While you’re reliving the competition, I need you to talk to me. To let me hear in a calm, clear voice, just what you’re trying to do, and just what you’re feeling. Can you do that for me now, Leigh? Tell me what you’re feeling, and doing, in a calm, clear voice?”
And a calm, clear voice, coming from the young Alterist’s lips. “So good, relaxed... more turned on than I’ve been in a long time.”
“Good, sweetie. Almost there. Almost there.” She rubbed the young woman’s thigh. “Just two things more. If you feel like I’m pushing past your safe place, just ask me to stop, alright?”
“Good, and finally, in the back of your mind, always, remember that if you’re feeling up for it after, the three of us are gonna have a lot of fun.”
With a final pat on the knee, Joanna turned back to the bed, taking a moment to prop herself up against the wall with the keyboard on her lap and the tablet out in front of her, where she could both reach it and keep an eye on Leigh’s vitals. Business before pleasure. She started to type, casting Leigh’s mind back to this morning. “It’s time,” she said, looking at her subject. “Start the competition now, SleepyLeigh.”
“I’m smiling, but I’m pissed at Caden’s crew, and angry at myself for letting them get under my skin,” Leigh said, in a calm, clear voice, just as she’d been instructed. Her fingers danced across the keys of Darryl’s laptop. “I know he likes women, so I decide to take a sexual angle to my induction.”
Darryl gasped. His hands twitched. In memory and in recovery, Joanna smiled at the familiarity of the movement.
The only problem was that just about anything that would interest Darryl would probably be way too tame for Caden.
“I can see pretty quick that it’s not doing the... I’m a slut.”
Hold it, what?
“That’s what they say,” Leigh went on. “That’s what everyone says. Slut. Whore.”
Joanna blanched, snapping her head to the monitor, watching Leigh’s stress and fear levels rise. The words sounded so wrong. Not just because of the strawberry-scented lips they were coming out of, but also for the calm, dazed eeriness in SleepyLeigh’s tone. Joanna was normally a sucker for that tone, on anyone, at just about any time.
Here it made her gut churn, just as it did in her memories.
“I’m changing tactics now,” Leigh informed her, fingers flying across Darryl’s laptop, “I have to get him to cool off. I’m triggering his sleep cycles”
Darryl slumped forward in his chair, a silly smile on his face, while Joanna watched Leigh’s numbers beginning to spike again.
“No one likes a slut,” she said, stress in her voice. “No one respects a whore.”
No. No way. He wouldn’t. Even for Caden, this was low.
“I can hear them yelling at me. I have to get away. I have to calm down..”
Fucker. Fuck fuck fuck.
“I’m getting scared. I don’t want this.”
Well no shit. I wouldn’t want that either. Looking at the numbers, Joanna couldn’t argue its effectiveness, but ethically it was ugly. It was no wonder that Leigh felt so awful after the match.
And then the numbers started to drop.“I can just think of other things. Breathe deep. Calm down. I should push him deeper. Calm down, keep going. I am a slut.”
Nope. Joanna was pulling the plug on this. Together with her observations from the match itself, she knew more than enough. Leigh didn’t need to be put through it again. She pressed a key, to pause the mind of her subject.
Leigh’s monologuing stopped short. “Oh, Leigh, honey, you’re not a slut. You’re a beautiful, strong woman and you deserve better than this,” she said, mostly to herself. The girl could scarcely even hear, but Joanna needed the affirmations to block out the ugliness. She started typing quickly, bringing her subject up, up and out of the trance state.
The colors in the visor started to fade, its light seeming to pass travel into Leigh’s eyes as she regained a normal state of consciousness. The girl weaved in her spot, her even breath becoming more rapid, more excited, and she flushed, realizing that she was coming out of a trance.
“Okay, wow, that’s...” Leigh swallowed, blinking rapidly. “Did you find out what you needed to know? How long was I out?” She looked over at Darryl, who was leaned back is his chair, happily oblivious. Very happily oblivious, and very obviously so. “Wow, guess I know what I’m doing, huh.” She giggled.
“Yes, five minutes, and yes,” Joanna replied. She moved back to the edge of the bed. “Do you want to know?”
Without hesitation, Leigh nodded. Joanna told her, and her face fell. “Oh God. Oh, God, he’s up against partyDancer next. He’s gonna wreck her with that. She can’t handle that. Can she?”
“Leigh, no one’s equipped for that. It’s monstrous.” She sighed. “He doesn’t break any rules with it, though. There’s no lingering aftereffect, not from the Alteration itself. It’s not dangerous, in that sense. You could maybe stretch it to say that having his buddies tormenting you constitutes outside interference and is illegal, as opposed to just shitty behavior.” She shrugged. “I’m definitely going to warn Patti, though.”
Was that what happened to her? Caden pushed some buttons, scared her terribly, and sent her to the recovery room? Ridiculous. Like she’d said... however long ago that moment in the hotel room was. It wasn’t dangerous, there was nothing lingering. It was just the garbage tactics of a garbage person. It would make someone miserable, and to feel, well, like Leigh said, fucked up for a while, but it wouldn’t need a Clear Mind Protocol.
She stopped. Clear Mind? What was that? Where had that come from? What did it mean? It sounded familiar, like something she ought to...
Warmth from the thing on her forehead. Someone manipulating a control, somewhere. Clear mind fell away, as the memory came flooding back, insistent.
Leigh looked over at Darryl. “So... what do we do about that?”
“I suppose we should wake him up...”
“Aww, before we’ve our fun?”
“After what you were just...?”
“Anna.” Leigh cut her off again. “When am I gonna get this chance again? You’ve got med-grade gear on me, and it’s awesome. Darryl’s just waiting for us to make a move. What Caden did is ugly, but it’s done, and it’s not hanging on me. But you know what is hanging on me?” Her hand found Joanna’s and held it, just as her eyes held Joanna’s gaze. “That kiss. I liked it. I want another.”
Joanna swallowed. That look and those words were hard to resist. As disturbed as she was by Caden’s cruelty, it was impossible to...
Leigh stood and put her hands on Joanna’s shoulders. Leaned in close. “You gonna stop me, Anna?”
Flashes of lemon filled Joanna’s thoughts in the white room. She sighed happily at that, and at the tastes of strawberry that followed. She closed her eyes with a warm shiver and let herself flow back into the returning memory.
After twenty seconds or so, they paused for air. Joanna leaned towards the tablet and keyboard. “Should I try a different program?”
“Oh fuck yes, please,” Leigh sighed happily. “I’m in the mood for something nice after—” Leigh froze mid-sentence with a smile on her face, hands on the bed, her cleavage on display, lights glittering in the glass visor.
Joanna’s finger lifted from the pause button on the tablet. She felt herself grin, just as she remembered doing.
“Leigh, sweetie,” Joanna said, stroking the entranced girl’s arm. “I know you can hear me. You have someone to take care of. Darryl’s been so good, so very patient. He needs release. And for that, he needs to be naked. And so do you, honey.” The flush on that cute round face deepened a shade as her sleeping mind absorbed the information. “So you’re going to program him for that. For you both.”
Tapping on the keyboard. Lights flashed before Leigh’s eyes. Joanna looked at her long-distance lover and her online play-pal with a touch of envy; since she’d moved on in the competition, she couldn’t be Altered before a match without forfeiting. She’d just have to watch.
As Leigh sat back down at the table, Joanna quickly pulled off her shirt and bra, putting her palms to her small breasts in a very pleasing way.
As Darryl started to move, she shed her jeans and panties and slipped a finger inside, touching and teasing.
As Darryl stood, she was writhing on the bed, moaning.
As Darryl removed the headset, as he looked to her.
As Darryl pulled off his shirt, revealing his wonderfully sculpted torso, as he watched his naked lover touch herself, as his eyes kept drifting towards Leigh.
As Leigh stood, Joanna moaned. “Dar, she... mmm... doesn’t know... can’t tell I’m here...”
Joanna’s hands danced across her chest while she reminisced. Leigh had been made incapable of perceiving her presence.
She moaned, watching in her mind as her DarrylSergeant dropped his pants and revealed his thick, hard cock, before turning away from Joanna and reaching for Leigh’s waist. The med-grade headset sat much closer to the head than Darryl’s, so he was able to pull Leigh’s black t-shirt straight over her head without disturbing its programming.
Joanna’s first orgasm of the evening hit as Darryl undid Leigh’s bra to reveal her large breasts, nipples erect with anticipation. Joanna watched, slowly cooling off, as he pulled away the long skirt and panties before burying her in a tight embrace and a deep kiss, their bodies moving together towards the king-sized bed.
Joanna, in the present, tried to resist the urges brought on by that memory. There was perhaps something important, some clue to her situation... but then Darryl flopped on the bed and helped the entranced woman up, and as she remembered them starting to fuck, Joanna couldn’t hold back any longer. Her fingers were between her legs. She watched the memory of watching her friends make love, deep under her control. Her back arched. The hotel room rang with the first delicate gasps of Leigh’s orgasm. The recovery room echoed back the sound in Joanna’s warm cries.
But when Leigh lay down on top of Darryl, Joanna once more activated her Alteration gear, and two sets of eyes turned towards her, illuminated by the glow of Leigh’s visor, as she dropped hard, as Darryl moaned, and...
She forcibly stopped the memory there. Too much more of that and she wouldn’t have the energy to figure out what was going on. A few deep breaths, calming herself. After the sex, she thought to herself reluctantly. What happened after the sex?
Joanna had lazily kissed Darryl’s shoulder as the two of them lay face-to-face. It was late. Leigh was wrapped around him from behind, her feet aligned with his, legs tangling with his, her head nuzzled into his back, an arm around his belly, an arm which Joanna’s fingers were gently stroking. The visor she’d been wearing was sitting on the table next to Darryl’s laptop and headset.
Joanna smiled at the memory. She could feel the texture of the younger Alterist’s smooth skin, the warmth of Darryl’s body, the restfulness of the moment. She held onto that sensation, that gentleness, basked in it, let the memory pause as she tried to catch her breath.
“I think she’s all tuckered out, poor thing,” Darryl said with a smile. “She’s had a long day.”
“An emotional roller-coaster of one,” Joanna agreed. “I’d feel bad trying to get her back to her own room.”
“I don’t mind her staying there.”
“You wouldn’t.” Joanna kissed his shoulder again. “You just want her here in the morning...”
“Like you don’t,” he chuckled and squeezed her bottom.
“Well, she is a better conversationalist than you...“
His hand darted back to cut her off with a light spank. She giggled.
“She’s worn out,” he said, “and we ought to get some rest too. You have that talk tomorrow.”
“We have that talk tomorrow,” she replied.
Post-Alteration Suggestion and You. She’d given the talk a few times, here and there, but this was the first time she would have Darryl with her.
“You sure you still want me up there with you? I’m not the world’s best performer.”
“It’s not for your public speaking skills, sweetie,” she smiled. “It’s so you can handle the volunteers. And...” she trailed off with a grin.
She grinned in the recovery room, too. She had been planning this moment for a while.
She looked him in the eye, gave him an innocent little smile.
“Jo? What is it?”
“Glass drop, Darryl.”
His eyes flashed in recognition for a half second, before they slammed shut. Already relaxed, his body slackened as he dropped deep in to trance for her.
In the recovery room, her hands twitched.
“You might not remember, Darryl, but we talked a lot about this leading up to the convention...” Hearing her own voice, her own hypnotic patter, low and smooth, so quiet that she didn’t wake Leigh, gave her the shivers. She found it hard to concentrate on the words when she was so taken by that tone.
She felt herself, already entranced by Alteration, slipping deeper, as the rest of her memory of that night became a muddled, sleepy blur.* * *