Hands arranged her shirt. Hers? Someone else’s? Everything was mixed up, even her sense of self. Water, a glass. She felt like she’d been talking for some time. Or maybe moaning. Or both. The water was refreshing.
Her hands were shaking, uncertain. Her emotions were swimming. She had been down, deep. She tried to sit. Colors flashed before her eyes, bright sparks, greens and blues and reds, and she lay back down.
She wasn’t sure how long she had been out. A couple minutes, anyway. She took stock, breathing slow and steady. She pressed a hand to her forehead; electrode still in place. She wasn’t sure if that was good or not. She felt a brief urge to tear it off and then...
... she chuckled. The idea fled, but not its memory. She had felt the urge to tear it off, and then she didn’t. Someone was still manipulating her. Fixing her.
She hoped they were Fixing her, anyway. That thought sent a shudder through her, brought a memory back. Clear Mind. She filed it away, tried to keep it quiet. She would think about it later.
She was being drawn back in, returning to the memories. Whatever had pulled her away had been dealt with, she assumed, and it was deemed safe for her to go back...
Joanna was sitting in the hotel restaurant, Leigh beside her, and across from them was a middle-aged woman, every one of her long auburn locks in perfect arrangement, and, even at nine in the morning, dressed in a fabulous blue cocktail dress that brought out her dark eyes perfectly.
“Last night,” Joanna was saying as partyDancer dipped her toast in egg yolk, “I put Leigh back through her match with Caden, to get an idea of just what happened.”
Leigh nodded. “I felt so weird and just f—uhh, messed up afterwards...”
Dancer dabbed at her face with her napkin. “You can say ‘fuck’ around me, darling, I assure you I don’t mind,” she said in her rich, warm, deep voice. Comforting. Joanna had always found that voice comforting. Even in the recovery room, the memory of the velvety voice made the older woman feel close at hand. “Tell me, Anna, what did you discover?”
She swallowed a bit of pear. “Caden sent Leigh’s stress-readings up with a wave of fear, then gave her a nice, comfortable trance to hide in. When I had her running back through the emotionality of the event, she started dragging herself down.”
The older woman grimaced. “I had been wondering, watching your numbers, dear. It’s no wonder you felt terrible afterwards.”
Leigh nodded. “Mhmm, and apparently I started calling myself some awful names.”
“We all have our little insecurities, don’t we. And we’re much better at criticizing ourselves than we are at letting others do it for us.”
Joanna made a small noise of agreement. “Sure has made me wonder what mine are, what I’m going to have to deal with if I come up against him.”
“And now you’re warning me.” Dancer shook her head. “Horrid thing to deal with. What’s becoming of this little hobby of ours?”
“We just wanted you to be prepared, Patti. To walk on to the floor informed.”
“Then you simply must let me buy you your breakfasts. One does not stiff one’s informants.” She grinned.
Leigh’s phone made a noise and she hopped to her feet. “I’ll take you up on that, ’cause I think I’m gonna get going. There’s an early panel I wanna catch.” She offered a hand to partyDancer, who took it gracefully and unhurriedly. She pressed it to her lips, making the younger woman flush and giggle. “Pleasure to meet you, Dancer.”
“My friends call me ‘Patti,’ darling.”
“Patti, then.” Leigh gave a little wave and walked off towards the convention.
Joanna watched her go. “She’ll be walking on air all day,” she said. “Imagine, meeting partyDancer and being called a friend.”
Dancer laughed loud. “Joanna, darling, she’s with OhAnnaJ, what story could she tell of me to possibly compare?“
“Please, Patti, you’re a pioneer for Brainhacking, and for recreational Altering at large, too. One of the first people doing these things with any real presence.”
A snort in response. “Honey, I’m no pioneer, just a middle-aged domme with some fancy equipment.” Joanna couldn’t hold in a snicker at that. “You, though, Joanna, you’re the heroic one here.” She held up a hand to stop Joanna’s protests. “Listen to me, dear. You’re legitimate. You’re accredited. You’re well-known in academia, and you’re a presence online just as much as off. People see you as morally untouchable, hon, ethically pure, incorruptible. If I don’t win this thing, I can’t imagine anyone else who would be better for it. And better for the sport.”
“Okay, you’re exaggerating...”
“Am I?” She made an elaborate gesture with her hands. “Eight of us are playing, darling. Think about it. Who are GreenShinyOak, JonByers08, naagesh? They’re nobodies, outside of our little circle. Sure, they’re all excellent Brainhackers, and with Oak from the UK and naagesh from Punjab, they bring some lovely international flavor to the proceedings, but they haven’t got much of a profile outside their own lanes. Your opponent, Mindsweeper? Strictly local, the best in town, but he’s nobody outside the state. Even your lovely, exuberant little...” She paused and arched an eyebrow. Joanna blushed. ”Friend, there, sure she’s an up-and-comer, but who outside of the Brainhacking community has ever heard of SleepyLeigh? That leaves you, and me, and...“
“And Caden,” Joanna finished.
“And Caden. So what about him? If Caden wins, you know he’s going to use it as a huge publicity boost. He goes out into the world as the greatest Brainhacker, probably calls himself the greatest competitive Alterist in history, and he makes this sport the game that immature, impertinent assholes play to see who can dominate the other as quickly and as badly as possible. It’s already getting uglier out there for us girls, too, Joanna, and not just the ones like me. Caden’s winning would only make that worse, and you know it.“
Joanna nodded, replaying in her head that ugly voice from the day before. “Females shouldn’t be Alterists.”
“If it’s you,” Dancer continued, “you can show off the academic side. We play speed chess with the mind, darling, and that’s how Brainhack gets characterized. Legitimate, academic, intellectual, artistic.” Dancer smiled and put her hands down. “Just like you.“
Joanna rolled her eyes, but she did feel herself flushing as she smiled. “And if you win?”
“Then Brainhack is cultured, beautiful, and generally fabulous, of course,” Dancer replied without a hint of irony.
“I don’t think I will, though,” Dancer went on. “I’m getting too old for this game. Reaction times aren’t what they were, and all that. The protection that an older, more rigid mind can offer doesn’t quite make a fair trade. I’m fairly certain that Caden could beat me even without those dirty tricks.”
“I don’t think they’re tricks to him, Patti,” Joanna replied, shaking her head. “I think that’s just how he plays the game.”
Patti sat back and mused aloud, “Why do that to another person?”
Joanna could only shrug. “Probably doesn’t see us so much as ‘people.’”
“Honey, I’ve been dealing with people that don’t see me as a person since Peter became Patricia. What’s another twenty-something punk to me?”
“This one’s a brilliant Alterist. Brilliant and cruel,” Joanna pointed out, “and you probably have a lot of experience being scared.”
“I have a lot of experience dealing with it, too.”
“With it pushed straight in to your mind?”
“Nothing I can do about it now.” Dancer smiled with a shrug. “At least when it happens I’ll know why, which is something, anyway. Something important. That is, assuming the judges even put me through to the semis.”
Joanna was about to say something, paused, and started again. “... what?”
“naagesh white-flagged, close to the end of the match.” Dancer waved a hand. “He doesn’t like going deep enough to lose, so when he feels himself on that edge, he refuses suggestions, kicks the Alterist out, gets his nice little wakeup, and he’s fine, takes his loss as though he went down. But still the judges have to review the logs, make sure there was no foul play. That’s why there’s a day between the rounds, hon, that and to give our poor brains a break.”
“And if they find you did something wrong...”
“Then they’ll move him up and I’m out.” She shook her head. “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but in the heat of the moment... Well, it happens, there’s no shame in it. Not unless you make a habit of it, like that Collier boy.”
Joanna nodded. She’d lost a couple matches before, getting a bit too involved, pushing a bit too far, in her early days, before she’d better learned how to work within people’s physical limits.
Dancer threw back the last of her coffee with a grace that Joanna couldn’t hope to match. “Thank you for the warning, darling.”
Joanna bit in to the last apple in her fruit salad. “Thank you for breakfast.”
The older woman just smiled. “You’re welcome, darling. It’s nice to remember that you’re not alone up there, on that stage and in that chair. And I know you’ve been a tremendous help.” She rose and picked up her purse. “Good luck tomorrow. And good luck with your demo this afternoon.” She blew Joanna a kiss. “Safe travels, darling.”
Joanna blew a kiss back. “Safe travels, Patti.”
Joanna watched as the woman turned and walked off. She took a sip of her lukewarm coffee and checked her phone. Only two items to her attention, the clock—she had a little more than an hour before a panel she wanted to attend—and a text message from Darryl, which had sat waiting for seven minutes.
DarrylSargeant: I’m awake, I’m naked, and I’m not completely sure what happened last night.
She laughed, thinking back on it. She was in basically the same state, in the antiseptic room. She did still have her shirt on—her arms had come out of her sleeves and the fabric was mostly up around her neck, but it was still technically on—but of course she was missing decidedly more than just last night. She assumed. She watched as her fingers tapped out a reply.
OhAnnaJ: Should we take a little time and sort it out? ;)
Flirting, teasing, but not really feeling much beyond that. The previous night had been a lot. Fortunately, Darryl was feeling the same.
DarrylSargeant: I think what I need most is a long shower and a huge lunch, especially since we have that presentation.
She closed her eyes and let a little moan out. He had no idea what she’d done with him the night before, after Leigh had fallen asleep.
OhAnnaJ: I’m with ya big guy, be right there when my coffee’s done.
She’d had a shower earlier, of course, but not one with Darryl in it. One with Leigh in it. Mmm.
She shook herself free of those memories. They were wonderful, she would definitely cherish them, but they weren’t solving her mystery. At the moment, she was more curious and impatient than she was horny.
She thought forward to her talk, that afternoon. Always started the same way. “Before Alteration, there was hypnotism, not like hypnotism has stopped. In the professional sphere, and legally, Alteration is referred to as ‘augmented-reality hypnosis,’ no matter how inaccurate that label might actually be.”
She was standing in what on other days was the Brainhack arena, in front of a half-capacity crowd. Darryl was sitting beside her; behind her were three forward-facing chairs with Alteration rigs. “Regardless of appropriateness of nomenclature, we can apply techniques from one towards the other. Post-hypnotic suggestion, and post-Alteration suggestion, is a powerful thing, as,” here’s where it was different from other times, “my good friend DarrylSergeant is prepared to help show. Now...”
She took some time to describe hypnosis and suggestion, what is safe and good hypnotism and good post-hypnotic suggestion... Most of the people there would have already heard it multiple times in multiple variations from multiple speakers. Ten minutes she spent talking on safe Altering, on safe hypnotism, and on safe combinations of the two.
“And speaking of post-hypnotic suggestion, some of you might have noticed my friend Darryl here,” she continued, putting a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t react. “... who’s barely moved except to blink and breathe since we started this talk.”
The trigger she’d put in his head was working perfectly. He wasn’t even aware of the other people in the room. He may not have been aware of the room, for that matter.
“From the moment he sat down he’s been in a trance. He didn’t know it was coming, not consciously, and at the moment, he’s ignoring everything but his instructions, like a good soldier.” She grinned at the couple chuckles. “And in reality, doing this with a good subject isn’t difficult, either with hypnotism or Alteration. Before I go on, I’ve got about five minutes here for questions, so...”
There were always plenty of questions. She had to cut them off. “Alright, alright, there’ll be more time later, and I’ll be around to answer more after the talk. Darryl, up, sweetie.” She kissed his cheek; he turned quickly and kissed her back, deeply, waking into the suggestion, to the hoots and hollers of the crowd.
She paused for air. “I need volunteers!” she called. She gave Darryl a quick smooch as he came out of his trance before turning to the various raised hands.
From there it was straightforward. Three standard units on the floor, three volunteers, and with Darryl helping and the right setup of rigs, it was quick enough to get them down, even while she was discussing techniques and methodology. Bake at 375° for twenty minutes, she joked, and the audience laughed. Here’s a post-hypnotic subject I prepared earlier, she ad-libbed, smacking Darryl’s backside, and they laughed again. She was able to be light, fun, entertaining, since Darryl was carefully monitoring her three entranced volunteers. She wondered why she hadn’t had an assistant before this.
Three successful demonstrations. Four, since she joked about catching Darryl staring at the helplessly-dancing 19-year-old girl and dropped him again as “punishment.” Standing ovation. Con crowds are too easily dazzled, she thought to herself, but she still took the appreciation for what it was and happily raked in the applause. Twenty people sticking around to talk afterwards. The rush of it all was hard to keep track of, but with five minutes to spare before the next panel needed the room, she and Darryl ducked out into the quiet hallway.
“Brilliant as ever,” he said, leaning down to give her a kiss.
Leigh came around the corner and spotted the pair. “Are all your talks that fun?” she asked.
“They’ve never been that good,” Joanna replied. “For the first time, I had a fabulous assistant.”
Leigh grinned. “A cute one, too. Maybe next time it can be me.” She giggled, then paused. “Hey, we’ve been Altering for a while, did OhAnnaJ put any of those post-hypnotic suggestions in SleepyLeigh’s head?”
Joanna raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you count to seven and find out?”
“Huh?” Leigh said hesitantly, suspiciously. “Alriiiight, um. One, two, three...” she paused, numbers seemingly coming slowly to her. “Four... five... ... ah...” she paused again. “ah... s-i-i-i-i-x...” her gaze became glassy, fixed in the middle distance.
Joanna kissed her forehead. “Wake up and remember, SleepyLeigh.”
“Seven. Oh! Oh, that’s cool, so I just count to seven?”
“It’s triggered by me asking you to,” Joanna explained.
“Also, knowing Jo, you won’t remember it come the morning,” Darryl added.
“Come the morning?” Joanna giggled and tapped Leigh’s forehead. “You don’t remember it now!”
Leigh shook her head. “Don’t remember what?” Joanna and Darryl laughed. “No, really, guys, what did I miss?”
Joanna smiled and snapped her fingers. “Remember, SleepyLeigh.”
Leigh blinked. “Holy crap, that’s fun.”
The three of them had a long laugh at that.
“Soooo...” Leigh continued, catching her breath, “what’s up for you two for the evening?”
“I’m going to the stage show with a local friend,” Darryl replied. “It’s the Altered Shakespeare Company’s MacBeth tonight.”
“Nice!” Leigh nodded approvingly. “That’s a great one. I saw it on tour in the spring, didn’t want to pay for tickets again. What about you, Anna?”
“Got a match tomorrow afternoon, so I’m going to do some reading and resting. Search Alter forums, see what I can find out about JonByers08. I’m sure he’s doing his homework, I’d better do mine.”
Leigh slipped a bit closer. “Mind if I come watch?”
Joanna laughed at the girl’s audacity. “I’m sure you won’t be too much of a distraction.” She slipped her hand in Leigh’s. “Dinner?”
Dinner would be amazing, Joanna thought, staring at the ceiling. When was the last time she’d eaten? There had been some water, earlier, but she’d never got the coffee she’d requested. “Hey,” she said aloud, looking around the recovery room as best as she could, seeing no one. “Hey, if there’s someone with some food? Anything? Please?”
No response. She sighed.
She hoped that she didn’t have to be treated to the sight, smell and taste of her dinner that night. The memory of the fruit salad that morning had been crisp and fresh, but right now the only consideration on her mind was her growing hunger. She felt drained, tired, in need of energy.
And turned on.
Setting Darryl’s triggers up for the talk and watching him sit there for fifteen minutes with no concept of time passing; preparing the Alteration programs for the three volunteers; playing with Leigh in the hall... She could remember that warmth in the pit of her stomach, the dampness between her legs, while she watched her memory of walking off with Leigh to get some food. And in remembering them, she felt some of the same sensations returning.
She was getting distracted again. She took a deep breath, tried to focus. She prepared to review snippets of the rest of the evening, just flashes, trusting that her treatment and her gut would point out anything important.
Then she paused. Why would I think that? She pushed herself up a bit on her elbows, looked around the white room again. “Why would I be thinking that this treatment...“
There was a flood of warmth through her whole body. Joanna sighed happily.
A hand went to her breast and she moaned as she remembered a fun and flirtatious dinner. The other hand played lightly in the fuzz where her belly met her hips as she unlocked her hotel room door, Leigh with her—she remembered the look, the blank-eyed, vacant look on Leigh’s face. She’d triggered the young woman at the dinner table, and walked her in a trance the whole way to the room. Her fingers dipped down between her legs.
Despite Joanna’s assurance, Leigh proved a significant distraction. And so had Darryl, when he walked in to find Joanna and Leigh naked in bed, kissing and petting and cooing adorably to one another.
And thoughts of both of them were now distracting her from... from... Joanna let out a loud, low moan as her climax approached. She had lost track of something, but the growing fire between her thighs assured her that it wasn’t important.
Joanna opened her eyes. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but it still felt like she’d been out for a good few minutes. The familiar white room greeted her view, as did a familiar glow of satisfaction. Her hands rested on her stomach. She knew that she was smiling.
Joanna opened her eyes. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but it still felt like she’d been out for a good eight hours. The familiar hotel room greeted her view, as did a familiar glow of satisfaction. Her hands rested on her stomach. She knew that she was smiling.
She sighed, knowing some large part of the satisfaction was encouraged by the small electrode on her forehead and the efforts that her mysterious benefactor expended to manage her emotional and mental state.
She sighed, knowing some large part of the satisfaction was encouraged by the small Laotian Alterist pressed against her and the efforts she had expended last night to manage Joanna’s emotional and mental state.
A vague, dreamy memory floated back to her, that Darryl was going out, that he would meet them at partyDancer’s match before lunch. Another bubbled up, that Leigh was heading back to her room to clean up and change. And another, of her own cleaning and dressing ritual.
Joanna had a meeting of her own that morning, a professional contact, a friendly face, someone who wanted her to join his private team. Joanna Olesson, Alterist to the Stars. She laughed at the memory of it. Still no sale. She loved research too much, and shaping, sometimes literally, of young minds; she didn’t want to be the sort of Alterist that actors, musicians, and athletes kept on speed dial to deal with their personal or professional issues.
Although, she realized on reflection, that was a good amount of what she did on campus, to actors, musicians, and athletes in training.
Still, it was good to catch up. Business contacts were worth having, if nothing else as a source of financial support.
Joanna sat with her lukewarm coffee after her associate had left, thinking about Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, the one dedicated to his hypnotherapist. The one she’d played for her graduation recital, naturally. Her fingers idly tapped chords on the table, wondering if she had a better chance of getting that sort of dedication from her research post or from the private sector.
She checked her phone; it had been forgotten in silent mode, the alarm that was set useless under those conditions. Her eyes widened. She tossed back the last of her coffee, grabbed her bag, and rushed to the Brainhack room.
Darryl and Leigh had saved her a seat. It wasn’t a great seat, towards the middle of the room, off to the right. She had a clear view of one bank of monitors, but the other was angled away. She wondered briefly, giving the two of them a quick hug and a peck on the cheek each, why they’d chosen to sit there.
Then partyDancer was announced, just as Joanna was putting her bag down. She processed forth, a royal train of one decked out in a fabulous black gown, to recognition and adulation from the crowd.
From most of the crowd. Immediately in front of them sat a decidedly silent cadre of young men. One of them opened his mouth. Darryl let out a loud cough. The would-be speaker looked over his shoulder. Darryl, arms crossed, silently shook his head. His face was somewhere between deep pity and dark warning.
If that was why Darryl wanted to sit there, Joanna wasn’t going to argue.
Caden was announced and his cheering section in front of them erupted, but they were much less rowdy than they’d been Monday. Perhaps because someone from the con had said something, perhaps because of the large ex-soldier sitting behind them, perhaps both. The ugliness was at a minimum, which Joanna supposed meant they were on their best behavior.
The superior sneer was firmly fixed in place as the favourite walked on to the stage. He didn’t even look at his opponent, just acknowledged the crowd and moved to his chair.
Given run of the space, partyDancer allowed herself another flourish across the stage, taking a much longer walk to her station than was strictly necessary. Leigh gave her a cheer, and got a quick wave in response before she took her post. She took her time arranging her hair beneath the headset, aligning her dress just-so, and adjusting the angles of the keyboard and monitors.
Though he said nothing, Caden was growing visibly agitated with the wait. He drummed his fingers on his keyboard, squirmed, sneered. One of his crew shouted at Dancer to hurry it up.
“Be right with you, dear,” came a melodious baritone from the stage in reply, “I’ve just got this small matter of a Brainhacking game first.”
Laughter from the crowd did nothing to help Caden’s mood.
Finally Dancer was properly set, and her equipment active and showing normal ranges. “Ready when you are, darlings,” she said, looking out to the judges.
The referee started the countdown timer, and they were off.
It was only a moment before Joanna could see Dancer’s vitals start to spike. She watched as Caden’s attack took shape, pressing on Dancer’s fear and anger. She couldn’t see Caden’s numbers well enough to see what Patti was doing in response, so she kept an eye on the graphs she could see.
Just as Leigh had relived two nights before, Dancer’s numbers slipped ever upwards, showing agitation, anger, nerves, and then plunged down. There was nothing complicated about the approach, nothing elegant, nothing creative or fanciful. Moreover, it didn’t look like Caden was targeting any specific fear of Dancer’s, but rather just passing her terror, letting her own mind develop the shape of the fear.
So he didn’t tell Leigh that she was a slut, he just put the fear in her and her own mind dredged up that particular...
Dancer slumped forward in the chair, then sat up, typing furiously, her gaze angling back and forth between the monitors, her expression serious.
Joanna knew what she’d be going in with. Dancer had a way of undermining someone’s sense of self, to set them questioning, keeping them distracted with philosophical dilemmas while she worked around their defenses. She wasn’t certain just how well that would, or could, work with someone with the mindset of a Caden Collier, so self-assured and free of doubt.
It certainly didn’t seem to stop the fluctuation of Patti’s state, as over the next couple minutes her anger and fear mounted again before everything plunged, and again she slumped forward. She was a little slower to recover that time.
And slower still the next.
Joanna crossed her fingers, held her breath. She had thought that she was going to lose against Mindsweeper, too, so perhaps...
partyDancer slumped forward a fourth time, and then a fifth as she tried to sit back up again. Joanna looked at the clock. Twenty minutes. She glanced back at Patti’s numbers. They weren’t coming back up. She looked down at her friend on the stage. She wasn’t moving. She had managed to sit herself back in the chair, but she wasn’t typing, she wasn’t responding. Another drop in the numbers, and another.
It was difficult to tell from that distance, but Joanna swore she saw a glistening on Dancer’s cheek.
The clock read 21:27 when the bell rang. partyDancer had lost to Caden Collier. The young men in front of them let out a loud cheer. Joanna felt Leigh’s hand in hers, squeezing; she wasn’t sure when they’d started holding one another. Darryl’s hand found her back, between her shoulders, rubbing gently. She needed it.
If she could beat JonByers08, she would be facing Caden in that same chair. Going up against that.
As with last time, Caden was out of the chair first, although it took him near five minutes to come up and out of his trance. As he took the front of the stage, Dancer quietly got up and walked backstage.
By the time Joanna, Darryl, and Leigh had made it through the crowds and to the backstage door, partyDancer had already left. Joanna sighed and looked to her companions. “Let’s get lunch. I think I’m going to need a little extra prep time this afternoon.”
She sat in the dark of her room backstage, writing and rewriting a letter, frustrated at thumb-typing on her phone. The only computer equipment she’d brought was the specialized tablet for her Alteration visor, so it was this or borrow Darryl’s laptop, and she was fairly certain that Darryl and Leigh were using the laptop at that moment.
That thought filled her with warmth, as did the recovered memory of it, and not just sexual arousal.
She glanced at the time, reread the letter... It didn’t, it couldn’t express everything she wanted it to, but still she sent it. The act of sending it was more important than the content itself, she knew, and her time was running short.
Patti would appreciate the thought, and it was important to Joanna.
She glanced over at her skirt and blouse, lying on the nearby table, calculating how much time it would take to dress, checking her phone again. She still had to stretch out before her match, get herself in a Brainhacking mindset.
Fingers first. They saw the most abuse. Stretched and flexed. Back, shoulders. Tiredness meant weakness. Deep knee bends, neck rolls.
The memory triggered the reaction in the recovery room and, for the second time, she walked herself through each action. It felt good to move.
She thought, as she started from her feet and slowly, gently worked out every muscle from her toes up, about the upcoming match. Curiously, she could feel no emotional trace coming from the memory. JonByers08 wasn’t someone she knew, or someone she was even worried about. Watching his match with GreenShinyOak, she figured that he was more than competent, that he was a strong opener, and probably had a wide-ranging-then-fast-narrowing approach much like her own. She could handle that.
She frowned a bit as she twisted her hips and her belly shifted. Getting flabby. Too much sitting and staring at screens.
JonByers08 was a young man, maybe 25, with short brown hair and worried brown eyes. He had been called to the stage first, and waited there for OhAnnaJ to arrive so they could shake hands. Something about his grip, the look in his eyes, something felt off, not quite right.
“Looking forward to this,” he said, a little waver in his voice. “I’m a fan.” He gave a wan smile and flushed.
“I’m looking forward to it, too, Jon. Let’s have a good match.” She gave him a bright, friendly smile in return.
“Aaron,” he replied.
“Aaron. That’s my name.”
She nodded. “Aaron. I’m Joanna. Let’s do this.”
He managed to return her grin, with what looked like a small struggle, as the two of them turned towards the chairs and Alteration equipment.
It seemed like the attacks began as soon as the machine unlocked. She’d been right in her predictions: scattershot, like her own approach, testing, watching, seeing what reactions each input could cause. Well, why not follow?
He went for nerves, she aimed for nerves. He attacked along her visual cortex, she responded in kind. Aural, olfactory, language, twitch reflex... She was always one step behind him, following the pathways he tried to open in her; after all, if he was thinking about something, it might have been easier to keep his attention on...
He went back to her visual systems, an odd choice, given her lack of response the first time. Huh. And thinking about that, he tried another trick with her memory, which... well, she couldn’t quite understand, but he left the traces of the attack clear, so she knew where it had come from, where it had been targeted.
Still, despite the relative clumsiness of it, she was starting to feel the touch of his work, even as she pressed onward into his mind. There was that familiar categorization, that familiar coalescing of the attack. It was easier to process it as music, and easier to identify new directions and new strategies.
Haydn. That’s what he reminded her of. Competent, predictable, straightforward. Mozart, without the ingenuity. One of the sons of Bach. She could read the next measure of every strain long before it arrived. Except when she couldn’t, when the next measure didn’t make sense, but those moments weren’t pleasing at all.
When Darryl surprised while Altering, it locked in to the whole structure, worked within the whole pattern, it made sense in retrospect. But these? These were mistakes. Calling attention to themselves. Jerking her back to reality. The opposite of the intended effect, almost always.
This wasn’t how she wanted to win a match.
But she did win; OhAnnaJ triumphed over JonByers08 after eighteen minutes and forty-seven seconds, the shortest match of the six that lead up to the grand final. Largely unimpeded by Aaron’s fumbling suggestions, she had clear access to his vitals and had struck at every weak point she could spot.
There was no defensive game to be played, in Brainhack. The only way to protect yourself was to slow your opponent’s attacks: distract, divert, confuse, weaken, all were fair play, but there really wasn’t a way to stonewall for any meaningful length of time. And so it wasn’t hard, in the end, to put Aaron under.
JonByers08 looked embarrassed as he shook Anna’s hand; then, as she stepped forward again to thank the crowd, he vanished backstage.
He was gone before Joanna got there. Which was too bad, she had questions. She had a few from the recovery room, too, and what intrigued her most both in her past and in the present, was: did Aaron throw the match?
It had been too easy. This was an invitational tournament; someone must have thought him capable of standing with the likes of her, or Dancer, or Caden, for that matter. She’d had matches go that quickly, when she or her opponent were badly outmatched, but assuming a relatively equal level of skill, even a twenty-minute match would be considered unusually fast. Joanna’s duel against Mindsweeper went nearly half an hour.
So how, how did she beat someone supposedly on her level in such short order?
It circled back to the same question, over and over again. There were too many mistakes. There was too much sloppiness on display. Did Aaron throw the match?
Darryl met her as she left the prep area, and the two of them went to dinner. His hand in hers was warm comfort, as was the glass of wine and the conversation. She asked about Leigh. Darryl smiled and flushed some.
“I’m sorry that I haven’t been more involved online,” he said, “if Leigh’s the sort of person you’ve been playing with.”
It was Joanna’s turn to blush at that. “Leigh is... special, I think,” she said. “One in a million.”
“How lucky of me, to have two one-in-a-million women to play with.“
Joanna went as red as the wine.
“Decided if you’re gonna move up north and join me yet?” he asked, a sparkle in his eye. It had been an open question between them for years.
If there was something her soldier knew how to do, it was de-escalate a tense situation. “Decided to move south and join me? After all, I have a job.“
“I have a pension,” he replied. He looked far too young for it, but twenty years in the military starting straight out of school had given him a government stipend to live on.
“Your pension follows you wherever you go.” The beats were familiar. They’d had this discussion at least monthly since they met.
“And any university with an Alteration department would be happy to have you. It’s not like Calgary is the middle of nowhere.”
“I like my work where I am,” she replied, shaking her head. “Same argument at Christmas?”
He laughed. “Sounds like a plan.”
She smiled. “How was I? In the match, I mean.”
He shrugged. “Brilliant, as far as I could tell. Byers didn’t seem to hold up, not like he did against ShinyOak.”
“I don’t think my approach was that different...”
Darryl frowned. “Joanna, I know that tone. Something’s bothering you.”
She looked around. “Not here, later.”
He nodded, then opened his menu. Darryl had learned to be patient.
The conversation turned to lighter things, to dinner, to the convention, to the upcoming few days, to what to do on the extra day they’d both arranged for after the end of the convention, since it was cheaper to fly out on Monday than on Sunday.
They returned to their hotel room, took off their sandals.
“So,” Darryl said, unbuttoning his shirt, “what’s bothering you, Jo?”
She smiled at the act, while thinking about the match. “I think...” her smile vanished. “I think that Byers threw the match.”
His face darkened. “You fought a good fight, Joanna. But you’re right though, that he didn’t. He really looked off his game, maybe tired or distracted, but it didn’t seem deliberate to me.”
“Well, that’s good, anyway,” she replied, but still shook her head. “There just wasn’t any sense to it, Darryl. He kept attacking where I was strong, refusing to press advantages, making clear mistakes of ordering, of...”
Darryl swept her into his arms and kissed her forehead, silencing her. He helped her remove her blouse, folded it up nicely, and turned back to see her smiling.
Once a soldier... she grinned at the memory. She loved that about him. Endlessly neat, calm, organized, in thought as much as in action. Even as his own undershirt came off, it was almost automatically folded and set down away from the action.
It was near ritual. Her bra, removed, carefully folded, put aside. His pants, removed, carefully folded, put aside. Her skirt. His underwear. Her panties.
Their Altering gear was away, and neither of them showed any interest in retrieving it.
She smiled in the recovery room. It was sweet. Darryl was sweet. His touch made her shiver, press close to him. His kisses made her fly. His voice made her melt. And he was with her, and holding her, and close, and around her, and atop her, and inside,
And she was with him, and he with her, and both were clear-headed, and adoring, and moving, and loving one another, and her hands moved and teased and danced with the delight of the memory, and her back arched and her hips hungered, and her fingers dipped within and she could no longer hold herself back.
The thought came to her like a flash in the midst of her orgasm, as her fulfilled cries echoed in the empty recovery room, that Clear Mind often demanded release, especially if the memories being recovered were themselves erotic. And these memories were very, very erotic, she thought, as she gulped in air to find her equilibrium again, tears of happiness pooling in her eyes at the memory of shared words, shared dreams, shared love.
And finally, of shared sleep.