The Erotic Mind-Control Story Archive

Alterations: Joanna’s War

(mc / md / fd / mf / ff / ma)

Description: Joanna wakes up a convention for mind controllers with more than a little evidence that she’s been Altered, but no idea by whom, or when. Or why. .

This story features elements of mind control and explicit sexual activity. If you are not legally allowed access to such things, or you would find them distasteful or offensive, go away! Otherwise, please, read on.

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Chapter 3

She awoke in the recovery room with a vague sense of dread. Once more, there was water, and once more, the water was cool and refreshing. How long had she been there? How long had she been talking?

Wait. Why had she been talking? Who was she talking to? Was this part of Clear Mind?

And if she was talking to someone... She felt herself blush, and she squirmed a bit. She was being monitored. Of course she was. Which meant that every moan, every gasp, every brush of her fingers...

Monitored. Watched. Observed.

She chuckled, darkening a shade. “I hope it’s been a good show so far,” she said. “I’d take a bow, but I can’t seem to get up the will to stand.”

A pulse from the electrode on her forehead sent a wave of relaxation through her body. She pushed back against it, digging her nails into her palms.

“Not yet,” she said. “I’ll go back to the dream in a moment—I don’t think I could stop you if you forced me—”

Indeed, Thursday pressed on her mind, insistent. Waking up next to Darryl, the breakfast buffet at the hotel, A talk on designing games—in person, board, video—around Alteration. Joanna enjoyed the talk, especially the encouragement towards Alterists to seek out other artists; that couldn’t always be a one-way—

“—Nyaagh!” she shouted, “I have to assume that something happened in my match with Caden, or I wouldn’t be here in a recovery room, telling my life story...”

Wait, telling?

“I’m not just reliving it, I’m...”

Speaking it?

Not wonder her throat was getting so dry. She chuckled. “Oh, I hope I can trust whoever’s at the controls.” She looked around the empty room. “I suppose you could blank the memories again, but I think we’re getting close to the reason for this...” She waved her hand around the room, “... and I don’t think that anyone has the patience to do this again. I’m probably not supposed to know what Clear Mind is, right?”

She plunged into the memory of a rather standard lunch. Darryl heading off to visit friends. Wandering the main convention floor, the vendor’s hall. People offering training, equipment, a good deal of interesting stuff, but nothing she wanted to spend money on at the moment.

She lifted her feet and slammed them down on the soft mattress, which didn’t quite have the shock effect she was hoping for. “I’ve written papers on Clear Mind. I’ve been cited.” She paused. She had. She knew what Clear Mind was, if she could only—

—She was going back to the room alone. She walked towards the elevator, then remembered how she felt doing her pre-game stretches. Flabby.

The stairs, then. It was only four floors up to the room. She started to think about the schedule as she climbed; it was about half past three, the next talk was after supper break...

She was lost in reverie as she walked into the small space between stairs and hall, only to find that she wasn’t alone there.

Standing at the door was a tall, young, blond man with sharp green eyes.

“Caden,” she said with a nod, moving towards the door.

He didn’t budge. “You told the tranny,” he said emotionlessly, “as if that would matter.”

She tilted her head. “What?”

“You think it mattered that it knew my strat? You wasted your time, Anna.”

“You’re wasting yours. Excuse me, I want to go to my room.” Joanna felt a chill and a lump in the pit of her stomach. She was halfway in to the hallway now. And working through it in her head, she knew she’d walked in too far. He was too close. If she tried to run, he could reach her.

“What did you give him?” He crossed his arms, still blocking the door.

She sighed, conveying exasperation to hide her steadily growing fear, and crossed her own arms. “I don’t know what you’re...”

“Byers,” he interrupted, still icy calm. “What did you give him to throw the match, Joanna?”

“He didn’t. I didn’t. Do you mind?”

“Byers is a good Alterist. We’ve had a few matches. I’d’ve beat him easy, but he’s still better than a girl like you.” His face twitched. She was a decade older than him, at least, and still: girl. “Did you pay him off? What did you give him?”

She rolled her eyes, not entirely in show. “I’m telling you...”

“You maybe could beat Byers if you were lucky, but he didn’t even last twenty minutes.” He stepped forward, unreadablel. He was in arm’s reach.

“Look, I didn’t...”

A hand on her shoulder. A friendly gesture from a deeply unfriendly man. Joanna resisted the urge to flinch.

“It’s alright, Joanna,” he cooed, with a disgusting softness, “I won’t report you.”

She looked him in the eye. “Don’t touch me.”

“You don’t give me orders, Joanna.” He closed the distance, standing toe to toe with her, looking down and holding her gaze. “Let me guess, you want your shot at number one, is that it? Worried that you wouldn’t get to challenge the master, so you suck him off backstage and he takes a dive? Little prick didn’t even make it look good, Joanna. Loser’s probably never had his dick wet in his life. How long he last, huh? Two minutes? One?”

“Back off, Caden....”

“You swallow it? Bet you wouldn’t even clean your mouth after. Soldier boy know you like to sleep around? Or—oh, is that his thing? I figured he was a pussy, but a cuck too, huh?”

“Do. You. M—”

“You think knowing my technique helped the tranny? You think it’ll help you? When I give that pretty little brain of yours a safe place to run to, Joanna, you’ll run there, just like your tranny friend, just like that fat Asian chick.”

She tried to lean back. “I’m leaving.”

He ignored her, except to tighten his grip on her shoulder. She fought the urge to wince. “You’re not safe, Joanna, not when I’m in your mind. The Asian, I could see how much she wanted it. Needed it. And I just gave her what she wanted.” His voice was still cold, calm. “And you, I’ll keep you right on the edge of mindlessness. I’m not gonna drop you, not until I’m done. I’m gonna make you a puppet, and I’m gonna pull those strings. I’ll hold you there while I bury a program so far down it won’t get picked up in the logs or by the reset or by any of those shithead, pansy-ass judges.

“That soldier boy you’re playing with? Big wall of muscle with two whole brain cells between the ears? You’re gonna walk up to him after your loss, and you’ll be playing so sad, and you’ll just need him to comfort you. And then you’ll put that fancy med-setup of yours on his head and fry him stupid. You’ll do it to everybody you love, everybody you care about. You’ll mess them up, slow and sure, and God, Joanna, you’re gonna love doing it. You’re gonna love it, because I’m gonna tell you to love it. And you won’t have a choice. And when you’ve done it to him, you’ll walk out of your room, and down the hall, and you’ll knock on my door, and you’ll get on your knees like the good, submissive bitch you are. And then I’ll teach you how to treat a proper alpha.” He reached up and caressed her cheek in a mockery of gentleness. “And won’t that be so nice?”

Joaana’s knee moved, fast, hard, and direct.

Chief Warrant Officer (retired) Darryl Grier of the Canadian Forces, IT Defence division, knew how the world might treat his open and outspoken lover. And he knew that she could use a lesson or two in self-defence.

And so, Joanna knew how to move without telegraphing her attack.

Her knee came up between Caden’s legs, and, guided by his thighs, she made impact against his pubic bone. She felt the shock of the blow in her leg, the slight turn in her hip giving her a twinge across her thigh.

Caden made a surprised cough of a sound. His eyes went wide and he let go of her shoulder.

Her right hand sprung out, open-palmed, and the heel struck Caden in the solar plexus. She felt the sting of the blow vibrating up her arm.

The air burst from his lungs and he fell to his knees, gasping and choking for air.

Her left hand yanked a hunk of blond hair and forced him to look up at her, to look her in the eyes. “Listen here, you son of a bitch,” she said through clenched teeth. “You disgust me. You’re a heartless worm. Tomorrow, you’re going to know what it’s like to lose everything, and you’re going to lose it to me. I’m going to revel in it, you little shit. I’m going to wreck you and I’m going to enjoy. Every. Minute.“

Head held high, without turning back, Joanna strode to the door. “Bitch,” she heard him hiss through his teeth, “You’ll regret that, you’re gonna destroy everyone you—”

She shut the door with a slam.

She walked purposefully down the hall, waved her keycard at the room lock, opened the door, pulled it closed, and set the privacy lock. She turned on the light, she walked, unhurried, to the washroom.

She threw up.

Knelt down in front of the toilet, she emptied her stomach.

In the recovery room, flat on her back, she heaved. She tried to sit up. She flopped back down. “Son of a bitch!” she screamed.

She knew.

The human mind isn’t perfectly predictable. Alters sometimes go wrong, either through ineptitude, incaution, or just plain bad luck. For that reason, Alterists were trained in Fixes, methods for helping the brain return to normal, or at least as it was before the troubling Alteration.

Sometimes, though, an Alterist does something that requires a fix, something that’s not done in error, something that’s not the result of a lapse of judgment, something that’s not caused by simple misfortune. Sometimes, an Alterist might do something truly vile, and deliberately embed a harmful suggestion or Alteration.

This was what she’d studied. This was what Joanna had written her Master’s thesis on. She had somehow gathered volunteers who were willing to subject themselves to an evening of lying in bed in a trance, of having pieces of their lives erased, of experiencing their own memories again, telling her and her advisor those stories on camera, forcibly reshaping the corrupted parts of their minds into something close to normal again.

With fucking Clear Mind.

Clear Mind rolled back the memory. Made a subject relive it, in their heads and out loud. The mind skipped over those parts of the timeline where Alterations were performed, and a subject was relieved of any and all changes that happened within that time.

Her stomach heaved. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She bore down hard, dug her hands in, gripped the blanket. She wanted Darryl.

Oh God, she wanted Darryl.

Clothes off. Into the shower. Hot, hot, hot water. God, it was in her hair. Tears. Soap. Shampoo. Shudders. Holding herself tight as the stinging water blasted away the fear. Not the time for weakness. Weakness later. Planning now.

In the recovery room, without the benefit of of that shower to cleanse and focus her, fear pooled in the pit of Joanna’s stomach. Had Caden made good on his threats? If he did, had she made it to treatment in time? Was Darryl still Darryl? She knew a dozen ways to get around someone’s safeguards if they trusted her, and Darryl trusted her implicitly.

And so did Leigh. The past few days made that clear, if it hadn’t been before.

Had she broken them, as Caden threatened? Were they in recovery rooms now, too, being put back together? Could they ever trust her again? Would they? How could they? And how could she ever trust herself with them? Three words, and Darryl dropped in to trance, and it scarcely took more for Leigh.

A pulse of warmth. Panic subsided, pushed away by something else, not of her own mind. The electrode on her forehead. Joanna let herself relax. Nice, deep breaths. She gave a raised thumb to the empty room, hoping that whoever was controlling her levels was able to see it.

She just hoped she could trust whoever it was.

She put that thought aside and focused on her memory of the shower. She was developing a plan. A way to deal with Caden and his threats. Her mind moved a mile a minute, but this was a marathon, not a sprint.

Assets. Personnel. Knowledge. Strategy.

Assets. She had access to the same equipment Caden did, for the competition. There was no advantage to be gained there. It wasn’t like she could put her medical gear on Caden’s head.

Personnel, then.

Darryl and Leigh were wonderful, so wonderful. But after the match tomorrow, even at the match tomorrow, they were liabilities. If Caden could tap in to her fear of what she might do to them, he could force her on to her back foot, to constantly defend and monitor. And there was no stonewalling in Brainhack.

She had to do more than just keep from destroying her friends. She had to win, and she couldn’t do that if she was constantly watching herself for hidden suggestions. But Darryl and Leigh weren’t the only friends she had.

Knowledge. She knew Caden. She knew his mindset, his strategy. She knew his personality. Bully. Entitled. Domineering, arrogant and superior. Cruel for cruelty’s sake, meanness for pleasure.

She imagined that her knee had struck an erection. Of course she couldn’t be totally sure, but she very much suspected that Caden got off on threatening her, got off on the thought of annihilating her. That was usable intel. It gave her a line of attack, just like the one he had on her.


Joanna needed to free herself from the liability of her fears. She couldn’t eliminate it, but she could mitigate it. That’s step one, she thought. Take the bite out of Caden’s threats. She would need outside help. The best Alterist she could trust, and trust herself around, was Patti. The only problem with that idea was that Patti wasn’t officially certified. She made a mental note to make a couple phone calls as soon as she was done. She needed to set up a dinner date.

Once Caden’s best option for creating fear had been, if not shut down, then slowed somewhat, she needed a way to strike back. An arrogant mind probably couldn’t see any way it could be beaten. Useful. If he believed that his way was the only way to win, it gave her a powerful feint. Then it was just a matter of what to hide behind it.

What could she play on? Emotional state, sleep cycles, arousal, perception, adrenaline, motor control, senses... she listed off her options one by one, evaluating each as objectively as she could, developing a blueprint, a direction for herself, a loose course of action.

The warmth of the now-hour-long shower was starting to wear on her. Her skin had gone pink with the heat. Every available wall in the bathroom was covered in a fine sheen of condensation. She took a deep breath of the steamy air. She had to keep calm for just a while longer.

All business

Water off. Towel. Phone. Silenced since the panel that morning. Seventeen text messages waiting. One voicemail.

They would wait.

She looked up a number online. Dialed. Waited.

“Halloran’s Alterations, Grant Halloran speaking.”

“Mindsweeper. It’s Anna.”

“Anna!” His smile was evident in his voice. “What can I do for you?”

“Do you want to get that dinner you were going to ask me to?”

“I would love to,” he replied. “I close at seven.”

“Good. I need to discuss something with you. I need your help.”

“My help? Is it serious?

“Very.” Her tone of voice left no room for doubt. “I’ll see you at seven. If I’m lucky, I won’t be alone. I’ll explain more later.”

Salutations. Hanging up.


“Hey sweetie.” Darryl. “I can hear the shower running, but not my ringtone, so you must have forgot to take it off silent earlier.” She allowed herself a smile. “I left my key in the room, and since you’re not answering your texts, I’m going to assume that I’m stuck for now. I’m hanging with Leigh, I’ll let you know if I go anywhere else.”


Text messages.

Eight texts from Darryl. Having a good time. Back around four. Forgot my keycard. Where are you? Are you in the room? Did you forget to turn your ringer on? How’s everything? Leigh’s room number.

Four from Leigh. Congrats on the win. Hope to see you tonight. I have your soldier here tied up and looking lonely. Winking face. Room number.

partyDancer. Two messages. Thank you for your beautiful and supportive letter :) and, congratulations on your excellent battle. Joanna quickly replied, asking for her help with a serious matter and could she come to the room?

Then: spam.

An admirer who somehow got her number and wanted to... Okay, blocked.

More spam.

She flipped back to Leigh’s messages. Pics? she asked, because she had to do something while she waited, and there could only be so many text messages to check and send.

She sent a quick message to Darryl. Need to talk to you both later tonight, 8:30-ish, serious. Can’t drop off your key right now. Stick with Leigh, stay safe.

There was a blip on her phone, a selfie from Leigh in an oversized blue t-shirt, with Darryl in the background lying on her bed. Dressed the same as at lunch earlier, seemingly fast asleep. Joanna replied with a selfie of her own, wrapped in the bath towel.

Another blip.


Of course darling, is it about tomorrow’s match?

It was.


Is it just you, or are your tall soldier and cute girl there?

Just her. That was important right now, desperately so.


I’ll be up in twenty minutes, once I wake my gentleman caller.

No rush, she could take her time.

Another blip.


Ooh, hot! can I share with DS when he wake up? ♥ ♥


Of course but he has better ones ;)

She reminded herself what a danger she was to them, or would be. She pushed those thoughts away.


Ooh mind if I ask him for them? ♥


Nothing in there you haven’t seen ;)

This time Saturday you might both be blank-minded slaves while I’m busy sucking the cock of Caden Collier.

Oh God, Joanna thought in the recovery room, they might already be blank-minded slaves. It might be Caden on the other end of the treatment right now, programming her in ways she couldn’t imagine, couldn’t stop, not being this deep.

She took a deep breath before whoever was managing her emotional state could drown her in calm again. She wanted to know what was going on, and she couldn’t if she kept wallowing in her fears. She let herself dive back into the memories.

The teasing and fun helped her keep her calm. Gave her a feeling of normalcy. Allowed her to put those invasive thoughts aside. She dropped the towel and checked her equipment case. Tablet, keyboard, visor. Turned each on for a quick battery check. Perfect.

5:30. A message from Leigh. Another picture. Darryl still sleeping, Leigh’s shirt and bra were gone, and she bore a goofy grin.

5:32. Joanna sent back a selfie, this time without the towel.

5:34. Another message. Leigh sent her a wide-eyed stare emoji, a wink and a dozen hearts.

She might blast that girls beautiful mind inside out and make her a permanent fixture between her legs. Destroy the work of art that was SleepyLeigh. She shivered, looking at her equipment case. That was all that she needed to do it. That, and Leigh’s trust.

She closed her eyes, chased away the dark thought. Leigh wasn’t meant to be a slave, hers or anyone else’s, and there was nothing that Caden could do to change that.

5:37. Leigh’s nude selfie arrived. Darryl was still blissfully asleep. His loss.

Her eyes wandered over Leigh’s form, then closed, picturing her visor on that face, feeling her hands on those cheeks, fastening the band around that head, attaching the leads one by one through that hair. She sighed, happy thoughts emerging, untainted by the potential for harm, before closing the photo. She sent Leigh a message of approval and a “talk to you soon,”

Tired. She was tired. But now that she wasn’t ignoring it, she was also wound up. She could feel the stress in her belly, lurching there. She could name the causes: cortisol, adrenaline, vasopressin, a dozen other words. She started to pace. She threw on her a fresh bra and panties, and was looking through her drawer trying to decide on a skirt when she heard a knock.

“Joanna, darling?” came a friendly voice from the other side of the door.

“One second, Patti,” she called back. Her voice was shaking. She grabbed the first blouse and skirt she saw and threw them on as quick as she could. She opened the door and partyDancer strode in, made up beautifully as ever.

Joanna quickly closed the door and wrapped the older woman in a tight hug. The floodgates burst and the tears started to flow. Her body was shaking and she couldn’t stop it.

Without a word, Dancer guided her to the bed, sat her down on the edge, and held her close. Joanna didn’t stop crying.

Gradually, the story of Joanna meeting Caden emerged, inch by terrible inch. Dancer listened, nodded, made sympathetic gestures. She rubbed Joanna’s back throughout. She got Joanna a glass of water as she calmed down, and another as Joanna was explaining her thoughts. She was about to her a third, but at that moment Patti glanced to the bedside table.

“Joanna, darling,” she cut in, “I think we need to hold on to that thought. It’s half past six, and I believe you have committed to dinner.”

Joanna wiped tears from her eyes. “I... yeah. Yes, you’re right, Patti. We should...”

Dancer nodded. “Let me help you, dear. Your makeup is in a state, and a good deal of it is on my shoulder.” Despite herself, Joanna laughed at that. “I’m going to use the little girls’, you send a text to your gentleman and ask where we might order a deliciously awful burger to be delivered to his office. I am tired of this hotel fare.” She swept out of the room.

Joanna smiled at those memories, steeped as they were in the misery of the day. As much as she wished that it was a happier moment, it encouraged her to know that she had the support of such lovely people. She resolved to spend more time with Dancer, when she recovered. If she recovered.

They proceeded out of the hotel, into a nondescript office building, up the elevator to the third floor, and around the corner, to knock on one of many similar doors. Mindsweeper answered almost immediately.

“Anna,” he smiled, admitting the two women. “Good to see you.” He held his hand out to Dancer. “Grant Halloran. And you are?”

“Patricia Dansen.” She took Mindsweeper’s hand and gave it a gentle shake. “I watched your match with our Joanna, here. You’re very skilled.”

“Wait, so you’re...” He stared a little. Dancer gave a half-smile and nodded. “Well, I’ll be. I’m in the presence of Alteration royalty.” He chuckled.

Dancer flushed. “You are, darling,” she said with a wave of her hand, “but I’m not here for your adulation. Not today, anyway.” She put a hand on Joanna’s shoulder. “Have you ordered dinner? Because we need to talk about this young lady here.”

“It should be here in a moment or two,” Mindsweeper said. “Can I show you to a room?”

After he’d stepped out to fetch their meal, Joanna looked around the new white room, with chairs and a bed. It was almost exactly like the one in the present. Chairs by the door, framed diplomas on the wall, a comfortable single bed.

“Are you sure about this?” Dancer asked as they sat down.

Joanna shook her head. “Definitely not, but I have to do it.”

“I wish I could be more help.”

“You’re an amazing help, Patti. I couldn’t do this without you.”

“Do what?” Mindsweeper asked, carrying a bag of fast food into the recovery room. The smell was at once both divine and somehow slightly repulsive.

“Sit down, Grant, darling,” Patti replied. “We have a story for you.”

He did, and handed out the food, as Joanna started talking. About why she was there. About Caden, and their meeting. About what she needed to feel safe.

“I need to know that right after that match tomorrow, before I have a chance to mess with Darryl or Leigh or anybody, I can have treatment ready to deal with anything Caden’s done to me.” She took a deep breath, heaved a big sigh. “That means a Clear Mind treatment.”

Grant stopped chewing and his eyes widened. He gulped. “Okay, Anna, I can see a few problems with that.”

“You can?” she replied, stress giving her voice a bit of a sarcastic edge. “That’s great, because I can only see about a hundred.”

“Well, yes, there’s all of those, but... first of all,” he waved in the direction of the diplomas on the wall. “I don’t have the certification to run a high-level medical treatment. There are real doctors at the convention, why me?”

“Because you have a facility right here, and I want the treatment immediately after the match.” She bit her lip. “Again, before I can hurt anyone. You have level two certification, which means that you can do some treatments legally—“

“Sure, but nothing like that.”

“—but because you have those qualifications, I can authorize you, as your supervisor, to perform serious treatment.”

Grant coughed, choking on a bite of his burger. Dancer gave him a good whack on the back and he coughed again. “You want to supervise your own brain-melting medical treatment? Is that even legal?

“It’s... a grey area. Nothing specifically says that I can’t.“

Shit, she thought, looking back on the memory. Let’s hope the university doesn’t hear about this, or I’ll be in front of the disciplinary committee so fast...

Assuming, of course, that it was Grant managing her treatment now.

“Okay, so we can get past the, ‘Grant can’t legally do the procedure’ issue,” he said, nodding, “what about the, ‘Grant doesn’t feel capable of doing the procedure’ issue?“

“That’s why I’m here, Grant, darling,” Patti spoke up. “I’m not certified, so I can’t actually participate directly, but I can advise and assist.”

“With Patti looking over your shoulder, you can hardly go wrong,” Joanna continued, nodding. “I suspect she’s got more Alteration experience than the two of us put together,”

“Okay, alright,” Grant was nodding. “Maybe we could do this. There’s still one more problem.”

Joanna nodded along. “Equipment.”

“Mhmm. The stuff you used for your talks on the convention floor? The gear we’ve had for Brainhack? That’s what I’m using. It’s not powerful enough to handle Clear Mind, or any major Fixes.”

Joanna chuckled. “No, it’s not strong enough for that. You’ve been driving the family sedan. Good, reliable gear, for sure, just fine for the general-purpose user, or even for the local Alteration parlor.” She reached down beside her chair and picked up her black case, putting it on the table. It opened with a snap, and Joanna spun it so that Mindsweeper could see its contents. “Wouldn’t you just love to get behind the wheel of a Ferrari?”

He stared. “Shit. I could... seriously? You would let me...?”

She nodded.

He reached out and picked up the case.

“Just sign on the dotted line, Dr. Faustus,” she grinned. Patti chuckled.

Grant let out a single laugh, shaking his head. “I’m never going to have an opportunity like this again,” he said, looking at the visor.

“Probably not,” she agreed. “Unless you decide to take a few years and get your proper certification.”

He swallowed. She waited. He paled. She watched. Finally, he nodded, handing back the case.

“I’ll do it.”

“Fantastic. Let’s get you set up.” She powered up the tablet.

The three of them discussed the particulars, walked Grant through the procedures. Joanna authorized him, officially and on record, to use her equipment. Patti made sure she knew where she could find anything in the office that they might need.

Through it all, Joanna kept returning to a paper she’d published just before she’d met Darryl, a major research paper on the use of Alteration in giving legal testimony, one which had been used in several legal decisions. While standard Alteration procedures made for iffy recollections, Clear Mind was unique among treatments in that the subject’s word could be trusted. She would be—she was, she realized—giving testimony. Her treatment record would be sent to the university’s digital vault immediately after, signed and verified, and combined with the video and voice recordings that were being taken, it could be legally used at trial.

Patti and Grant walked her back to the hotel, to Leigh’s room, then the two headed off together to do some further research.

She knocked on the door. Leigh answered, gave her a hug. Darryl was stretched out on the bed; he sat up as she walked in.

“What’s going on, Jo?” Darryl asked. “’Stick with Leigh, stay safe’? Why didn’t you answer when I called?”

Darryl’s keycard came out of Joanna’s purse. “Because I forgot to grab my phone when I left with Patti.” She sat on the corner of the bed. Darryl scooched up beside her. She buried her face in his shoulder.

There weren’t any tears left, but there were sighs. At least three or four.

“What’s going on, Joanna?” Darryl asked again, his voice softer.

So she told them. She told them about Caden in the hallway. She told them about his threats. While they listened, she told them about her plans, the preparations for her treatment after the match, and why she absolutely had to stay away from them until she was deep in the Alteration trance.

She couldn’t read Leigh, but she could tell by the tension in Darryl’s body that he wasn’t happy. There was a quiet moment before, unmoving, he spoke up.

“So, after the match, you’re just... taking off?”

Joanna nodded.

“Because you’re worried about what you might do to me, to us.”

Joanna nodded again.

“And so you’re going to put yourself through this ridiculously stressful treatment because of something you might do.”

Joanna nodded a third time.

“And you don’t think I’ll be able to stop you?”

“Who knows when it’ll happen?”

“Then I just resist.”

“Glass drop, Darryl.”

His eyes slammed shut and he went limp, falling back on the bed. Leigh’s stare was wide.

“Up, up, sweetie.”

Darryl’s eyes fluttered.

“Are you honestly telling me that you could resist that? Or that from a happy place, I couldn’t make you do anything I wanted?”

He frowned, weaving slightly as he sat back up. “That’s not....”

“No, it’s not fair, Darryl, but you know what? The minute the suggestion kicks in, you’re dead. You can’t resist me, and I won’t be able to resist it, and it might happen at any moment. I would rather take this admittedly extreme step than forever wonder if this is the time I Alter you into becoming a drooling imbecile.”

He scowled, but said nothing. He didn’t touch Joanna.

“Okay, I get why the lug,” Leigh said, “but why can’t I just go with you to the clinic?”

Because he said I’d do it to everyone I love, she said to herself, and I love you, Leigh Douangmala. And with a few words, you’d be open and ready and trusting, just like Darryl was, and I could destroy you, too.

She didn’t give voice to that thought; instead, she said, “Because I don’t want Darryl—or you, or anyone connected to me—to be on their own during this. I trust the two of you to keep each other safe, alright?”

It was a plausible lie. One that made Leigh nod, anyway. And then grin and give an ironic little salute. “Always on duty, ma’am!”

Darryl rolled his eyes, but the carefully neutral expression cracked, just enough to let a smile light his eyes. Which was enough for Leigh to pounce.

“Grier and I will patrol the premises, Commander.” She stood at attention.

“Commanders are naval officers,” Darryl replied with another eyeroll, but it was clear that Leigh’s joy and optimism was beginning to break his dark mood.

“How am I supposed to know that?” she replied with an eyeroll of her own. “We didn’t all fly fighter jets, you know.”

Taking her cue from Leigh, Joanna flopped over, her head falling on Darryl’s lap. “This could be our last night on earth, Sarge.”

Darryl rolled his eyes. “You’re goofing around while you’re in danger, Joanna. You’re about to crash and reboot your brain to deal with it.”

“Only a week’s worth of it,” she replied. “Besides, I don’t want this to ruin our trip.”

“It would make mine to march over to his room and bash Caden’s smug face in.“

Joanna shook her head, sitting back up.. “No, that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. Besides, I already did some of that for you,” Joanna said. “When he stepped in close I kneed him in the balls.”

“You what?” Leigh asked loudly, giggling.

“Applied my patella at high velocity to his inguinal cavity?”

Leigh stared at her.

“Kneed him in the balls,” she explained, “And then slammed him in the solar plexus and pulled his hair.”

“All riiiiight!” Leigh jumped forward, arm raised. “High five, sister!“

Joanna’s responding hand slap was much less enthused. “It’s... not exactly my proudest moment.”

“Self-defense,” Darryl growled, putting an arm around her. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” she said. “I really just want to put it behind me and enjoy what’s left of the evening, and tomorrow before the match.”

Leigh sat down on the long edge of her bed, beside Joanna, and also wrapped her arms around her. “Can I help?”

Joanna smiled in the warmth. “Do you mind moving rooms? We have more chairs and a king-size.”

Darryl sighed, halfway between exasperation and anticipation. “Just... Jo, please tell me you know what you’re doing.”

She leaned over and kissed his nose. “I’m not going to lie to you, Darryl. I can’t do that. Just... trust me, please? I won’t ever be able to feel safe, doing work on you, if I don’t do this. Or doing work on anyone. I’ll always have to wonder.”

Holy shit, he really got to me, she thought from the recovery bed. I guess that an Alterist of his caliber must know his way around the psyche, but still... he really, really got to me.

Leigh pulled her close. “Of course I’ll go back with you guys. Whatever happens tomorrow, Anna, I gotta say, this has been the best week of my life.” She kissed the top of Joanna’s head. “I trust you.”

Lemon and strawberry. She breathed a huge, happy sigh, both in her memory and in recovery. The three of them made their way back to Darryl and Joanna’s room, to the large bed. Darryl opened his laptop and—

Joanna shook her head. “That’s beautiful, but I can’t watch it right now.” She brushed aside a tear. “I’m getting tired. I’m pushing through a week’s worth of emotions here, and a lot of highs and lows.”

And her match, she knew, would be the lowest low yet.

* * *

She was talking about the first time she’d seen Alteration gear. Part of a study. Twenty years old. Alteration gear wasn’t nearly so miniaturized then, especially the stuff used for research, so she’d sat at the grand piano on the stage with a truly incredible number of wires attached to her head, not to mention a bulky helmet, connected to a rather significant piece of computer equipment. She sat, calm, meditating, waiting for the go-ahead, occasionally looking up at the screen they’d set up for her that would display the information as it came. She was interested, even then, so long ago.

The first brainscan had finished, and she was given the nod. Bach’s Toccata in E Minor leapt from her fingers, bass tones ringing through the auditorium. That was what they wanted: a single, concise work, with short movements, in different styles, to see how the numbers would change as she went through the work. Not just her, of course; every willing piano student in the university had learned that work for the same reason.

The next year, she would sit on stage at the piano in front of an audience, the same rig attached to her head, a computer program generating the score in real-time that she would have to read and react to. The pet project of a composer/programmer, and she was the first performer. It was only after the concert, watching the video, that she found out that there had been no score at all beyond the first notes, no program behind it, that in fact she had been and was being Altered, the machine had been generating a hallucination of a score, that she had been tricked into improvising without any awareness of it. Which was, when she saw the agreement form she’d signed before she’d been Altered, exactly what she signed up for.

That summer, after graduating, she immediately started research into Alteration. It quickly became an obsession.

The memory came in to focus. She was giving an interview about how she got into Brainhacking, and Alteration in general. The convention had made the local news, and they were asking anyone with a good story to go in front of the camera. A lot of people had suggested that they speak to Joanna and Caden—thankfully, not at the same time.

She talked a bit about the history of Brainhacking, and her history with it—not a particularly entertaining story, not compared to her ‘How I got in to Altering’ story (“I tried it, I loved it, I kept doing it”)—and about what this tournament meant for the sport, about why she wanted to win. The truth, of course, she hid. It was just such an honor to be competing in the grand finals of the invitational, and she was just so happy and proud of what she could do for all the sponsors and people who believed in Brainhack, and so on.

The reporter asked about strategy. Joanna just smiled and shook her head. “You’ll have to wait until this evening to find out,” she replied, a sly smile on her face.

Any advice for budding Brainhackers? “Anyone can do it. If you’re interested, check out the forums online, become part of the community, get to know people. It’s how we all start out.”

The reporter wrapped up, thanked Joanna profusely, promised to be at the match. They couldn’t take footage there, the convention had already signed an exclusive deal with an online producer, but she was very interested in Alteration herself and was excited to see what a game looked like. The two of them chatted for a minute or two before her cameraman tapped her shoulder and mentioned that their next interview was ready.

She couldn’t remember the reporter’s name. She didn’t know if she had even remembered it then.

All of Friday felt like a mess in her mind. Every moment, it seemed, she was thinking about the match, about Caden, about Clear Mind and Grant and Patti and how it was all going to play out. Breakfast and lunch and the morning authors’ panel and the interview and the after-lunch cuddle session with Leigh all bombarded her at once, making it hard to keep anything straight.

Which, she reflected, was odd. This was the day so far to the present, it should have been fresh in her mind, her impressions of it should have been brightest. But everything from that morning on until the contest that evening was a blur of events and voices and emotions, a few minutes here and there existing as islands of clarity within a sea of noise.

She needed some order. She felt stiff, slow. Physically uncomfortable.

In the recovery room, Joanna began stretching, pushing aside the chaotic mess of her memory, flexing her fingers, playing familiar patterns on the mattress, on her thighs. She rolled her shoulders, arched her back until she felt muscles pop.

She heard a faint, sickeningly familiar voice outside the prep room door. “What are you doing here, soldier boy?” She ignored it, continuing her routine.

“I’m here to make sure no one bothers Anna,” Darryl replied calmly. Deep knee bends, neck rolls. Tiredness means weakness, and she could afford neither.

“Well fuck off, it’s for competitors only.” Tense, flex, release the toes. Tense, flex, release the toes. The same for the ankles, roll, roll. Tense and relax.

“I cleared it with the judges.” Never a hint of anything but quiet certainty, her Darryl. Knees and calves, stretch, relax.

“Fine, whatever.” The second voice muttered. She heard a door close as she shifted her weight from leg to leg, working out her hips. There was no further conversation. She paused with a bit of a frown as she twisted her hips and her belly shifted. Getting flabby. Too much sitting and staring at screens.

She got lost in her warmup routine, then, with no further distractions, until she heard a knock on the other door, and a voice telling Caden that it was two minutes to the match. Darryl did the same for her.

Shirt, on. Skirt, on. Sandals. Hair. Ready. Deep breath. Wait until Caden’s gone. Follow.

Wave to the crowd. Ignore the wolf whistles, wouldn’t touch those guys with a ten-foot pole anyway. Turn to Caden. Smirk. Rub the palm of her hand with her other thumb, as though it stung from where she’d hit him. Nod her head.

She didn’t even register whether or not he reacted. It didn’t matter, it wasn’t for him.

You’re about to find out, Caden, that a little knowledge is a very, very dangerous thing. She wasn’t sure if that thought came from the moment before getting in to the chair, or from the white-walled room, or from both. Didn’t really matter.

She put the headset on, felt it scanning her mind, her thought patterns, her brainwaves. Not that there was anything to feel; it was strictly taking input, providing no output, not yet, but she swore, every time she put the headset on, she could feel it working. Overactive imagination.

The same overactive imagination that worried about what she might do to Darryl and Leigh.

The consent forms popped up on the screen. She hesitated. Not because she had any concerns about what came next, no. She was hesitating strictly to piss off her opponent. In fact, she waited as long as possible, a confident smile on her face, to anger him as much as she could. Instead of a simple nod, she spoke in a calm, clear voice. “Yes. I accept.” There wasn’t the slightest quaver. She wanted Caden to know that she wasn’t scared, and to know that she was trying to drive him crazy.

She wished she felt that confidence now, lying on her back in a strange bed with an electrode on her forehead. She couldn’t be sure of the outcome of the battle. She didn’t know who was running her treatment. She didn’t know if this was before or after she had ruined her friends’ minds. Had she gone too far?

She didn’t know if her Clear Mind testimony was being given in her own defense.

As soon as she had affirmed her consent, there was a quick countdown, a roll of the shoulders, and a hand on the controls. And they were off.

She waited, watched as her opponent’s scans appeared one by one, feeling the start of his assault. She typed a bit, tabbed to a couple indicators, entered a quick program to start her probing assault, and felt her heart rate start to rise. She could name the causes: cortisol, adrenaline, vasopressin, a dozen others. Stress.

She stopped typing, and started breathing deep. If he wanted her to be scared, she was going to be calm. A few little words, command phrases, slipped from her fingers, but mainly, she breathed.

Then came the first wave of relaxation.

She bit down on her tongue. Hard.

If he wanted her to be calm, well...

Typing faster now, scanning the numbers, finding the cracks in the shell. Scattershot. Attack left, attack right, attack up the middle. Attack everything: calm, stress, perception, mobility, memory, thoughts, dreams, ideas. Narrow down the focus. And prepare for...

She was naked, astride Darryl, moving, fucking. A moan escaped her lips, and she couldn’t tell if it was real or imagined; well, whatever, she’d done worse in Brainhack matches than let out a live moan. Her field kit was attached to his head, the control in her hands. She looked down at the tablet as her body moved. She started to take apart the defenses. He trusted her, and she was going to use that trust to remove those parts of him that resisted her...

Breathe deep. Calm. It’s just a dream. It’s not important. Her hands worked again, the arena keyboard mapping to the tablet in her mind. She was narrowing options. Calm, sleep... useless. A little sexual thought of her own, sent his way, but he would ignore it, surely. It was a decoy, anyway. Kill him with kindness, then. Warm hugs, gentle caresses, praise, pride. The obedient coo of a proper slavegirl. The cheer of his entourage.

She blinked. The image of Darryl in her mind was replaced by an image of Caden. She was triumphant atop him, having lured him in with the promise of sex and sexuality, a woman’s only real virtues, and she had trapped him. She was dominating him, then, taking his mind, riding high on the physical and mental pleasures of conquest.

She bit down on her lip hard enough to draw blood.

Perceptions were mutable. Pain was... well, also mutable, but she doubted that he was expecting her to be self-injuring.

The shape of his attack was starting to have an effect; it was crystalizing, coalescing into music, music she so often felt when she was being Altered. Darryl’s brilliant Brahms, Grant’s devious Debussy, Aaron’s hackneyed Haydn... This was so different. Discordant, unpleasant, but sensible and structured. Ives, with multiple strains of out-of-tune instruments pressing on her. Webern, minimalistic amber shards of perfect form, with all its artistry in the construction of the sound leaving nothing for prettiness. Sayegh, cross-rhythms over cross-rhythms over cross-rhythms, chants and bells and trumpets in uneven multiples adding up to praise of Allah so brilliant that it hurt.

She examined a piece of the music, broken off from the whole, and laughed with delight at the stunning beauty of its construction, even as her hands worked controls and typed in her calm, leisurely pace. She knew that laugh had been aloud, she felt it in her gut. She only hoped that it was loud enough to be heard over her own melodies, whatever Caden was hearing in his own mind. For all the ugliness of its effect, the structure was astonishing.

There was no way that Caden was sending her joy deliberately, after all.

Winnowing down options of her own, she sought the right accompaniment to the melody she was weaving. The song was ready, it only needed its supporting voices. The melody crossed the wires with first one, then another, then another background, changing the form of the attack but not its substance, variations on the theme now as she saw the one weakness, the open line. Perception. Feint to his ego, attack his perception. Feint to his dominance, attack perception.

She worried, then, as she was only making perhaps one direct move for every five or six of...

The dissonant rattle deep in her soul shifted to one more simple, more alluring. A solo aria, a folk song, a child’s tune, a safe line, easy to follow, replete with calm and quiet for a mind that was quite honestly not built to handle these layers of complexity. She only needed to follow it to its end, and everything would be so clear that...

Her hands came off the keyboard—she realized then that through all that calm, she had been typing, continuing to challenge, continuing to fight—and she dug her nails into her palms. She would be calm when she wanted to be, not when he wanted her to.

She had barely managed to eke out a reply when the next wave hit, blast after blast of high-pitched, high-volume out-of-tune screeching. Her breathing peaked, her heart rate spiked, and she started to tremble uncontrollably.

Before she could get control of herself to respond, she felt like she’d been plunged deep in to cold waters, the sound resolving to a single, low, soft note, pulsing lightly in time with her slowing heartbeat. She shivered, but found her body relaxing, easing out of the looming discomfort. She could just stay there, acclimatize, and...

She was falling. Not in to trance, but as if out of an airplane. She could feel the acceleration, the wind pressing around her, hear the high-pitched shriek of violin and piccolo as she...

... floated gently on a cloud, softly carried downward towards the ground, her fingers tapping in practiced replies, her eyes registering the numbers. Idly she realized that Caden’s manoeuvres were coming no faster than they had been, but her perception of time had become warped, strained to the point of breaking.

Darryl’s brain was open to her manipulations. Strained to the point of breaking. But he trusted her. She wanted to show him something incredible, something amazing. This was the first step to making him fear and respect her. She would trick him into giving her access, then gently peel away everything that she loved about him, anything that could challenge her, until there was nothing left but an obedient mindless shell of a beta male, the true and deserved fate of all who bow to the naturally submissive female.

That serenity bubbled up again, seemingly from nowhere. It would be beautiful. Darryl, Leigh, on their knees, worshipping her, forced to have no choice but to love her.

... to have no choice but to love Caden.

... to have no choices.

... it would be so lovely. So beautiful. To have no choices. To simply exist, to wait for orders. It was sheer bliss to...

... Caden stood in front of her on the landing, hand digging in to her shoulder. He was taller, in this vision, than he had been when the oboes weren’t shrieking major sevenths at the top of their range. Taller, more commanding. He lifted a hand to strike and


... and...?

Her hands were raised in front of her face as though she was about to be attacked. She didn’t know how they got there. Her eyes were looking past the screens. She didn’t know when she’d unfocused them.

Her head hurt. Hurt. No matter how harmful Caden’s technique, that shouldn’t happen. Physical pain receptors weren’t accessible to this equipment.

She tentatively tapped at the keyboard. No response.

She wasn’t hearing the music. No dissonance. No children’s tunes. No wild monophonies. The strings, winds, trumpets, voices were silent.

She was shaking. Her emotions were a mess.

A seizure?

She shuddered.

Did I just have a seizure?

She blinked.

Did Caden Collier just overload my brain?

The headset was removed.

Hands helped her to her feet. Her legs wouldn’t hold her, they were shaking so hard.

Tears were streaming down her face. She wanted to scream, to shout, to tear at her skin.

She couldn’t control her voice or her hands well enough to manage either.

Two people were half-carrying her towards the exit. She kept trying to turn her head, to talk to them, to make sense of what was going on.

She looked up at the screen. Her numbers were all in red, the screens fixed at the moment when her mind had flashed over and shut down.

The off-the-rack basic tools they had been using couldn’t handle the break in awareness and shut down as a safety precaution.

She had never been brought down from her heightened emotional state.

Her body was flooded with warring emotions, filled with physical tensions.

She had never been brought down from her heightened emotional state.

She hadn’t been properly awakened by the machine.

Which meant that any suggestions Caden put in her mind remained.

He’d been in her head.

He was still inside her head.

Her stomach heaved at the thought. She hadn’t eaten since lunch. There was nothing to bring up.

Her supporters paused to let her recover as much as she could. They were in the hallway, outside the arena. There was a lot of noise from behind her.

Forcing someone into a shutdown was strictly against Brainhack rules. She could hear the arguments, the shouting in the room, as Caden’s people yelled about it being a forfeit, a sound was growing more and more distant, thankfully, as she was directed down the hall.

Grant was on her right, she recognized, leading her to the exit. Dancer on her left, keeping her upright. One of them was talking, low supportive tones, or maybe both of them were, taking turns. It didn’t matter.

The cool evening air turned her stomach. Or her stomach was already turning, and the cool air brought it to her attention.

Grant opened the door to the building and together they guided her into the elevator. She sat in the corner as the car rose.

“I’m s-s-s—....” she started. “I-i’m... I’m...” she couldn’t stop shaking enough to apologize.

“No words, darling, no words.” Dancer crouched next to her, stroked her hair. “You’ll be talking soon enough.”

Third floor. The walk down the hall felt like forever. Her legs had stopped shaking, but only because they didn’t have any strength left in them at all.

Grant unlocked his office and went to get her equipment. Dancer helped her to the recovery room and into the bed he’d prepared.

“You’re sure about this Joanna?”

Joanna nodded. “Uh huh.” Her voice was still trembling, her shoulders and feet still twitching. She couldn’t seem to get control over her body. “H-help me out... th-the skirt, Patti. P-please.”

Could Caden have seen what she was planning? What if some program in her head made her reject the treatment? What if he hadn’t known what her plans were, but he still put something in there that made her reject any attempts to help?

She reached up with shaking hands and tried to undo her bra, failed, and tried again. Grant returned as Dancer was helping her arrange herself.

“I-I-I—...” she began, caught her breath, and tried again. “I’m gonna b-be indecent, Grant. I’m s-sorry. R-really indecent. A-and I might ruin y-your bed.”

“The sheets and mattress are replaceable. I get the impression that you aren’t.” He smiled and opened her black case. “Before I lose my nerve, let’s get this done.”

She pulled her hair back shakily, ready to for the visor. The lights were glowing, already waiting as Mindsweeper brought it over to the bed, carefully placing it over Joanna’s eyes. Dancer tightened it from behind her, gently adjusting the band, aligning the speakers, passing the leads over her scalp one at a time to Grant, who fastened them slowly but ably.

Joanna closed her eyes, leaning her head back into Dancer’s hands as Grant flipped the send/receive switch. Dancer laid Joanna’s head down on the pillow.

Images appeared in her mind of putting the visor on Darryl, on Leigh, melting their minds just as Caden had threatened, just as he’d made her imagine, just as he’d planted inside her brain, and she sobbed loudly. Comforting hands rubbed her shoulders, a low deep voice soothed her ears. “It’s alright, darling, it’s alright. You’re safe now, you’re with friends.”

Grant was tapping on the tablet. “Alright. Phew. Okay. Let’s get this going.” He took a deep breath. “Video and audio equipment in place, active, recording. Alright.” He exhaled again, his breath, it seemed, nearly as shaky as hers. “Joanna Olesson, do you consent to being Altered?”

“Uh-huh...” she managed to squeak out.

She knew the next question. She was terrified of her answer, that it wouldn’t be her own.

“And do you consent to the Clear Mind treatment protocol?”

Images of Darryl and Leigh, brainless and broken, swam before her. One long, shuddering breath. “Yes,” she said, far more confidently than she felt.

Warmth flooded her mind. Her emotions began to settle. Her equipment had noticed that she hadn’t had the benefit of a proper awakening. It would be showing each abnormality to Grant, who would be quickly working, quickly restoring her to a normal, more receptive state.

The music began, shaky at first, running the length of her mind, too loud, then too quiet, then finally sorting themselves into the calm, airy, floating tones, refusing simple resolution, filling her aural sense with color and gesture, with vast auroras in the northern night sky.

She opened her eyes to allow in the sight, the lights in the visor that would overtake her thoughts. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and chuckled. “Of course...”

Grant’s voice. “What is it, Anna?”

“Music. Impressionists.” She smiled across the room to where he sat. “Dukas. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Grant’s confused and uncomprehending look through flickering coloured lights was the last thing she saw before...

Everything went bright white.

Everything went black.

* * *

Joanna bolted upright in bed. Not her own bed. She looked around. White walls, white roof. Cold. Antiseptic. She hated white. The bed was comfortable, as comfortable as someone else’s bed could be. Her visor was pulled down over her eyes, replacing the electrode that she had imagined there during her treatment. Mindsweeper sat across the room, watching, with partyDancer at his side. By the door, Darryl and Leigh started to rise, worried looks on their faces.

She raised a hand quickly to forestall any speech or movement, and beckoned Grant over, pointing to the tablet. Grant handed it to her.

One tap, shutting down the program. A dialog box opened.

A second tap and fingerprint scan, confirming her ownership of the tablet.

A third, connecting the tablet to the university’s private server.

One final tap, telling it to send the recordings of her treatment—audio, visual, and mindprint—to be sealed read-only records in the university’s secure database.

She sighed, closing her eyes. Tension fled her body and she lay back down. It was done.

“It’s over,” Grant said. “Finished.” He took the tablet from her, put it safely on a nearby table, and turned back. “It was an honor. Thank you.”

“Thank you, Grant,” she said, exhaustion making her quiet. “And you, Patti. And Darryl, Leigh, thank you, thank you all.“

And everyone was there, crowding around the bed. Tears flowed freely, and not just hers. Leigh gripped her hand with enough force to hurt. Darryl stood beside her, his hand around her shoulders. Patti and Grant on the other side of the bed, holding hands, looking exhausted.

She realized she was naked. No, not naked; her shirt was on, bound up around her neck. It was uncomfortable.

She realized that she had just spent the last—hour? hours? she couldn’t be sure—lying exposed in that bed as four people listened to her pouring out her soul, watched her hands dancing across her body... She suddenly felt shy, embarrassed, but there was nowhere to hide. She took a couple deep breaths, trying to regain control.

Her emotions weren’t raging, not as they had been a short time ago, and she wasn’t shaking. Mostly she felt tired.

Darryl kissed her forehead. “You’re an idiot,” he said, with a relieved grin.

Joanna closed her eyes. “I am. But I’m here. And I don’t feel the urge to mess with any of you.” She opened them again, her smile fading. “Did I beat him?”

Leigh giggled, a sound with a surprising amount of emotion behind it. “Like that’s the most important thing right now.”

“I just risked everything to win, Leigh,” Joanna replied, a hint of a smile dancing on her face. “I’d like to know if it worked.”

Darryl spoke up. “Once he was up and looking at the numbers, he challenged the results. He argued that you must have some undeclared medical condition that caused you to seize. He’s claiming he didn’t lose, but that you forfeited.”

“Mhmm,” Leigh continued, squeezing Joanna’s hand. “They gave him an hour to cool down while the judges checked his logs, then put him up in the chair and replayed it with him on the receiving end.”

“You really did have a seizure up there,” Dancer said. “I looked right at you as your numbers peaked. You were gone, darling. Ten seconds at least. So unless you’ve got epilepsy you’ve been hiding, then Caden triggered a shutdown in your brain.”

Joanna shook her head, then realized... “Replayed?” Past tense? “So... it’s done?”

Darryl nodded. “Your match went a little over thirty-three minutes.”

“Thirty-three-seventeen,” Leigh piped up excitedly.

“Point is, you put up with Caden’s shit for thirty-three minutes.” Darryl gave a wicked grin. “He couldn’t last twenty, taking his own medicine like that.”

“Didn’t even have a seizure, just noped right the fuck out!” Leigh cackled. “So you won! It’s official, you’re the best Brainhacker ever!”

Joanna laughed wearily. “Not gonna defend my title. I need a break from Brainhacking for awhile...” she shook her head against the pillow. “Probably literally. I just got forced out of a match and put myself through Clear Mind. I probably can’t Brainhack—or be Altered at all, really—for... Weeks? Months?” She shrugged. “I’ll need a proper doctor’s care for a while. Still. Better this way.“

“Alright then, dish, darling,” Dancer insisted. “We all watched the match, what were you doing up there? Things seemed quite odd. You were going slow and steady, barely touching him. I saw you go after his senses every so often, but it looked like you were just up there taking punches.”

Joanna tilted her head. “Patti, they’re just checking Caden’s logs, right? They’re not concerned with what I did?”

Dancer nodded. Darryl’s expression grew bleak at her question. “Joanna. What did you do?” he growled, concern bleeding in to anger.

“I pushed him,” she replied. “With the same thing you did to me, the first night we were here, Darryl. I muddled his perceptions. I physically resisted his emotional attacks to keep myself on an even keel, and worked to make him think that his numbers were mine. He saw almost no movement in my stats, because he was looking at his own.” She held up two fingers. “Two things about Caden Collier: he’s a bully, and he’s short on imagination. So, nothing pisses off a bully more than no reaction; having only one solid habit in the toolbox, I figured he’d go back to it over and over.”

Dancer laughed sharply and actually clapped with delight.

“Wait,” Leigh said, “you provoked him into giving you a grand mal seizure?”

Petit mal,” Joanna corrected. “An absence seizure is basically harmless.” She closed her eyes again. Exhaustion was setting in. Her bones ached. “Those machines haven’t got the power to do real physical harm. If I wanted to kill you with one of those, I’d have to push enough drugs that I might as well just kill you with the drugs.”

“Still can make you pretty fucked up,” Leigh answered.

“They sure can, in the wrong hands,” Joanna agreed, sighing. “And maybe he could’ve made good on his threats. I honestly don’t know. I’m just glad that I don’t have to find out.”

Darryl helped her sit up and handed her a glass of water. “Come on, sweetie. Let’s get you dressed and back to the hotel room, and we can discuss this at length.”

With his and Leigh’s help, Joanna turned to sit on the edge of the bed and pulled her shirt down. “My skirt, please, Patti?” she asked. “And can we get the visor off me?”

“I’ll go get the case,” Grant said, leaving the room. Patti retrieved the garment while Leigh and Darryl carefully detached the leads running across the top of her head and gently removed the headset. As Grant put Joanna’s equipment away, she, with more aid still, got to her feet and got her skirt on.

“I have to close up the shop, clean up a bit,” Grant said, “But I hope to see you all tomorrow?”

“Let me help,” Dancer offered.

Grant smiled. “Of course. You three head back, we’ll see you tomorrow. At the close of the con, if not before.”

“When they give me my award,” Joanna said, unable to keep a triumphant, weary grin from her face. She left Grant’s office much as she had come in, mostly unsupported by her own legs, held up by two friends.

* * *

A ping from her phone distracted Joanna from her sandwich. She put her lunch aside and opened the text message.


Hey he pleaded guilty!


Fuckin eh it’s all over then. :)

That was a relief. She wouldn’t have to testify, to have her Clear Mind records entered into evidence, to make her sex life public to a crowded courthouse. Bad enough that Caden and his lawyers had heard it.


assault and uttering threats, six months in jail, three years before he can touch Alter eq, lifetime ban from brainhack


(sigh) well it’s something.


it is! really the worst thing for him is that no one takes him serious any more cuz he lost to a gurl :p


Still pisses me off that if I had won the match normally they’d be saying it was fixed. Glad he challenged it. Glad he forced them.


dont let it bug you, white boys gonna white boy lol


you back in the game yet?


Clean bill of health as of yesterday. :) Doc says that my fix is done and there’s no sign of any abnormal patterns left from Clear Mind.


SWEET!!! ♥


Why you wanna brainhack?


haha well yeah but... a thing happened


What aren’t you telling me?


my job ended... cut a few dozen ppl including me


Oh no! Everything okay?


everything is amazing i got a good severance :)


saved up a bunch too and i wanna spend some of my money


wondering if you wanna get together over xmas break ;)


Already had some tentative plans... so...


You ever been to Calgary? Wanna drop in on Darryl w me?




Gotta say a huge thank you to you both for your help last summer :)


oh yea about that


sweeper sent me a clip from back then


you probably want me to delete it


but i kept a small bit

Joanna frowned as a movie file popped up on her phone. She opened it. It was three seconds long. The thumbnail was, as she expected, her naked body, shirt up around her neck, her own medical visor on her head. The title was just, “♥”

She tapped the play button, and her monotone, entranced voice jumped out of the speakers. “I love you, Leigh Douangmala.”

Her heart melted and her eyes teared up as she received another message.


hope u dont mind


when i feel sad i play it on loop


makes me happy

Joanna couldn’t mind. She had to fight back tears of happiness, in fact.

She looked at the clock; another 45 minutes on lunch break. She gave a happy little smile.




Jo? everything ok?


Everything’s perfect, SleepyLeigh


Oh and by the way...


why don’t you count to seven?

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