Lillian glanced at Doc Webbel's bedside alarm clock. The glowing red numbers read "5:39." It was time to hit the road.
She eased off the bed, doing her best not to wake the good doctor, then looked back and smiled. Little Mouse probably wouldn't stir if I used the bed as a trampoline, she mused. Poor petite thing is tuckered out. Nonetheless, Lillian silently collected her scattered clothing, crept into the bathroom, and eased the door closed. She took a quick shower, toweled herself dry, then dressed. A second towel and Cynthia's brush set dealt with her hair. It was still a little damp, but it would dry in no time once she got her bike on the interstate, even under her helmet. She pulled her iPhone from her pocket, triggered an app labeled "Sally," then held it to her ear. "Hey, boss," she whispered. "I'm leaving in a couple of minutes."
"Should I send an ambulance for what's left of Dr. Webbel?" Sally's voice purred.
Lillian smiled as she opened another app and perused a copy of Cynthia's schedule for the day. "She'll be fine. A little sore, maybe, but no more than my tongue." The Professor's morning was free 'til lunch, but she had a class to teach in the early afternoon. There was a memo entry spanning the entire day that read "R-SE," whatever that meant, but only the one lecture and her student office hours were actually blocked out. "I'll review the specs for my next assignment a few miles down the road," Lillian told Sally, "at breakfast."
"That will be fine," Sally responded. "The priority remains routine."
"Okay, b'bye." Lillian pocketed the phone, then eased back into the bedroom.
Cynthia was still asleep, and, of course, still exactly as Lillian had left her after last night's final round of Boink-the-Professor. Hers arms were folded behind her back and bound in an elaborate, symmetrical, arm-pinning, shoulder-yoking, and wrist-lashing box-tie. The bondage wasn't all that tight, but Lillian had hitched and cinched the strands as she wove the overall pattern. None of the elements of the matrix would shift their relative positions, no matter how her Little Mouse struggled and squirmed, and the final, key knot was at the nape of the naked captive's neck. Cynthia was also frog-tied. That is, each of her ankles were lashed to their respective upper thighs. The arrangement allowed Lillian to spread Cynthia's knees and have easy access to her pussy. Also, for the final boink-fest, Lillian had plastered a wide strip of Elastoplast over the captive's pouting mouth. Cynthia had already used her tongue to entertain her house guest/kidnapper several times over the course of the weekend, and Lillian much preferred the sound of the Doc's desperate, gagged moans to the plaintive begging, pitiful whining, and/or outraged threats that would otherwise have passed her incredibly cute lips... until the prisoner collapsed in exhaustion.
Lillian smiled. There was just enough light for her dark-adapted eyes to savor the sight of Cynthia's tan, fit, petite body sprawled atop the tangled sheets, resting half on one side and totally limp in her inescapable bonds. The shape of her lips was clearly visible under the off-white rectangle of tape. Her short, tangled, auburn mop could use a shampoo, and her shining skin was well overdue for a long, hot shower. Lillian licked her lips. The salty taste of Cynthia's sweat-slick body was still a fresh memory. As she watched, the captive squirmed in her sleep, her eyes rolled under their closed lids, and she sighed a quiet moan through her tape-gag.
Sweet dreams, Doc, Lillian thought. The final orgasm count had been grossly lopsided in favor of the home team, but Lillian's needs had also been met. She roused herself from her reverie, quietly opened the nightstand drawer, pulled out a memo pad and pen, and scribbled a quick note:
Lillian checked that Cynthia's alarm was set for seven and that it was on. She then propped the memo pad next to the clock, where it could be read from the bed. She silently blew a kiss to the sleeping Professor, then tiptoed into the hall. She left the bedroom door open a crack with a shoe blocking the threshold, so it couldn't accidentally latch itself closed.
Your present is in the living room.
Hurry, or you'll be late for your
afternoon class. Catch you later!
She bounced down the stairs and into the living room, then reached into a thigh pocket and pulled out a pocketknife with a hot-pink, silk ribbon tied in a bow through its lanyard ring. It was a pilot's rescue knife. One end was a straight blade and a screwdriver/can-opener multi-tool. The other was a single specialized blade designed for cutting parachute shrouds. Lillian pressed the stud on the handle and the spring-loaded, hook-shaped blade unfolded with a snap. The release mechanism could be operated with ease, even if one had broken an arm while ejecting from a crippled aircraft—or happened to be caught in the tight, loving embrace of Lillian Steele's expertly applied rope bondage.
Lillian closed the blade, then walked to the far side of the living room and placed the knife on the floor, next to Cynthia's sofa. She didn't exactly hide it, but it was against the back of one of the front legs and would be at least mildly difficult to locate. The pink bow would help in the hunt, especially from floor level.
Lillian smiled, imagining Cynthia's eyes popping open when the alarm went off. Since she would be unable to turn it off, its rancorous buzz-buzz-buzz would sound until the clock's electronics timed out. Meanwhile, Cynthia would read her note—and no doubt start cursing through her gag like a sailor with Tourette's syndrome. She would know the word "present" referred to the rescue knife. Lillian had shown it to her earlier, demonstrated its use, and told her it was a gift.
She imagined Cynthia rolling off the bed and onto the floor. She would then have to squirm, shimmy, slither, and roll her way across the bedroom, through the door and into the hallway, down the stairs, along the first floor hallway, and into the living room. Once there, she'd have to find the knife, trigger the blade, and start cutting herself free. Lillian's educated guess was that her Little Mouse could be out of the ropes a little before eight, if she pushed herself. A frog-tie was a little more challenging than in a loose hogtie, squirming-wise. That was Lillian's experience, anyway. But even if Cynthia slacked off and took frequent rest breaks, she would easily make her afternoon lecture.
Suddenly, Lillian's iPhone buzzed, three short pulses in rapid succession. She pulled it from her pocket and answered. "Yeah, boss?"
"You're leaving her alone like that, bound and gagged?" Sally's tone was decidedly chilly.
"She'll be fine," Lillian chuckled. "I have experience with such things. Besides, you'll be watching her every squirm."
"If Dr. Webbel hasn't freed herself by eight-thirty, you're turning around and coming straight back. That's an order."
Lillian smiled. "Don't be a spoilsport. Nine-thirty."
"Nine o'clock sharp," Sally countered.
"Nine o'clock," Lillian agreed. "Tell me, boss, does Little Mouse know you have her place wired?"
"No, she doesn't," Sally huffed. "And don't tell her. Odds are she'd throw a tantrum."
"Mum's the word," Lillian chuckled. "Doc will wiggle her way to freedom. If I get a call from you around nine, I'll be very disappointed in her. B'bye."
"Good bye, Lillian."
Lillian pocketed her phone and made a quick check of the first floor, ensuring all the doors and windows were locked. She then let herself out and climbed onto her bike. It purred to life and she rolled away. She didn't gun the engine or in any way call attention to herself. Lillian didn't want to irritate Dr. Webbel-Wobble's neighbors, and her need-for-speed would be met once she reached the freeway.
It was a clear, bright morning, the promise of a sunny, don't-you-wish-you-didn't-have-to-work, spring day.
Rachel stopped at a Starbucks on her way to the lab. It was an indulgence. She had a perfectly good four-cup coffeemaker in the lab. Being the only human in the entire building, it was ridiculous to fire up the giant food service coffeemaker in the cafeteria. In any case, she'd decided to treat herself. Two months of hard work had gone into the preparations for "Smart Explorer", and for the next several days, Rachel knew she'd be living on coffee, soda, cans of chunky soup, Top Ramen noodles, crackers, and the occasional pizza or Chinese delivery. Starbucks runs would be out of the question.
The building's automated security system scanned the license plate of Rachel's Prius as she entered the lot and, as usual, the loading dock door rolled open. She parked in her usual slot, and as the door rolled down, Rachel sipped her venti-sized Pike Place Roast with low-fat milk and walked the length of the dock. As she passed a row of parked robot forklifts, she failed to notice the red lights glowing on their control consoles, or the slow swivel of their stereo video cameras. The lenses following her as she passed—like a rank of praying mantises tracking a prey insect. The rattle of the closing door covered the quiet hum of their motors. She bounced up the short flight of steps to the exit leading to the elevator.
She rode the elevator to the third floor, and as soon as she entered her lab/office she could tell something was wrong.
There were way too many lights flashing. She was used to the flicker of the screen-savers of the dozen or so monitors at various stations visible from the front door, as well as the minimal glow of the power and standby displays of the various racks of servers. Today, instead of randomly marching cartoon robots and a scattering of weakly glowing red and amber LEDs—every monitor was scrolling blocks of color in perfect unison, and the indicator panels of every server in sight were sparkling like Christmas trees!
The Smart Explorer simulation was already running! And it was running at a furious pace!
Rachel hurried to her desk, set down her coffee, tossed her purse on a chair, then shrugged out of her jacket and threw it over the back of the chair. She opened a drawer, pulled her "computer-geek glasses" from their case, and slipped them on. Away from work she usually didn't wear glasses. Her distance vision was nearly perfect, but she knew from bitter experience that a few hours of staring at the monitors would give her a headache if she didn't wear them.
She began tapping the keyboard of "Mission Control", the workstation designed to be her direct link to the "Smart Explorer" program. The rippling colors cleared, but on that monitor only. The remaining screens around the lab continued their strobing light-show. In point of fact, the colors were still on Rachel's monitor, but now they were confined to a single small window labeled "Target Acquisition." It was puzzling. The window was supposed to be displaying a processed summary of the simulated probes' meta-data streams as they scrolled into the session logs.
Target Acquisition ▒▒▒▒▒▒██████▒▒▒▒▒▒██████▒▒▒▒▒▒████
Rachel continued typing, trying to make sense of what had happened. The simulation had been running for hours, that much was clear; however, nothing made any sense. Most of the session monitoring routines wouldn't respond to her queries. Windows popped open—alphanumeric symbols scrolled by, too quickly to be read—then, just as quickly, the windows closed. Also, the resource allocation indicators were maxed out, which should have meant the session had crashed. Obviously, it hadn't.
Rachel tried again, taking an alternate route through the data coordination and synchronization routines. Abruptly, the Target Acquisition window flashed from blocks of color to scrolling characters Rachel recognized as four-digit hexadecimal numbers. Whatever it meant, it was a simple, recurring pattern.
Understanding could wait. She needed to know how Smart Explorer had been prematurely triggered and how it had progressed to its current totally frakked-up state. That meant stopping the simulation and checking the automated logs. She navigated to the appropriate window and entered the STOP_SESSION command. Nothing happened. She tried a similar tactic in the resource window. Again, nothing. She worked her way through every high-level process, trying everything she could think of that should cause an interrupt. Every effort met with the same result—or rather, with the same lack of result.
There was nothing for it but to manually power down the servers, one by one and in the correct sequence, in order to preserve the precious session logs.
She tried one last time to order a standard halt to the program. Again, nothing. She sighed, shook her head, and left the desk, heading deeper into the third floor. Almost as soon as she turned her back, the monitor flashed and the rapidly scrolling characters in the Target Acquisition window changed.
Unfortunately—although it probably would have made no significant difference in the events that were about to transpire—Rachel missed the new message.
Target Acquisition RACHELRACHELRACHELRACHELRACHELRACHEL
The critical servers were a mix of semi-obsolete "super-computers" of various manufacture. Rachel had no idea why the Salamandras corporation was letting a nobody post-doc like Rachel Haines play with such toys—they were still worth millions of dollars—but she certainly hadn't objected when Cynthia informed her they were waiting on the loading dock. They were now neatly racked in a glass-walled clean room in the center of the building.
Her mind on the complex task ahead, Rachel made her way through the maze of shelves, equipment racks, and work tables. She knew the architecture of the servers by heart, but there was no margin of error if she wanted to preserve all of the session log data. There was a red data binder on the rolling rack next to the clean room door. She'd use it to double-check the web of cable connections before she—
Rachel stopped. Something was wrong, something besides her pet project being out of control.
For one thing, every monitor of every computer she could see was displaying the same pattern of colored blocks as the monitors back in the main lab, even the tiny screens built into the specialized test modules at a nearby workbench. And Rachel could see the same flickering colors reflected off shiny surfaces up and down the aisles, far into the distance. None of this equipment had anything whatsoever to do with Smart Explorer. And yet, all were flashing the same synchronized pattern.
For another thing, a dozen or so robots were drawn up in a double row on either side of the path to the clean room. They were a motley collection and none of them even remotely resembled a human being. Every one outweighed Rachel by fifty or sixty pounds. Some rolled on rubber treads and some on balloon tires. All had video camera "eyes" and multiple articulated arms. Most of the arms ended in pincer-like manipulators but a few had human-like mechanical hands. They also had nothing to do with Smart Explorer, and Rachel didn't remember them being here when she checked the clean room servers on Friday.
Rachel was already in their midst. She took a step closer to the nearest 'bot. It was powered down, of course, with its arms folded against its riding mower sized "body." She leaned close and focused on its recessed control panel. It was nothing more than an on/off button, a battery charge indicator, a row of three USB ports, and a specialized port for connecting diagnostic computers. It was protected by a cover of clear plexiglass. Some sort of electronic component about the size of a walnut was plugged into one of the USB ports, but Rachel had no idea what it might be.
Suddenly, Rachel heard a whirring sound behind her back. She spun around and found that the robot on the opposite side of the aisle had come to life. The red light under the lenses of the pair of cameras on either side of its "head" were glowing red, and its two manipulator arms had shifted from the stowed to "ready" position.
Suddenly, all the robots were alive. The various manipulators unfolded and moved away from their bodies and their camera's all swiveled towards Rachel and whirred as their lens auto-focused on her startled face.
Rachel was surprised, but not frightened. This abruptly changed when the robot she'd just been examining grabbed her right wrist with a rubber-clad claw!
A second robot grabbed her right wrist and all the robots began rolling or trundling in her direction.
Rachel struggled to free herself. "Let me go—AHHH!" Something had touched the back of her neck and a jolt of electricity had coursed through her body!
Rachel went rigid—her eyes rolled up in her head—and she lost consciousness; however, before she could collapse to the floor or wrench her captured wrists, Rachel's clothing was gripped by a dozen claws, pincers, and mechanical hands. The robots held her limp body aloft, but her head lolled forward and her glasses clattered to the floor.
Guided by yet another robot, a padded gurney rolled forward from down one of the side aisles. A robot hand reached down and plucked Rachel's glasses from the floor, retrieving them before they could be crushed by rolling wheels or gliding treads. The hand deftly folded the glasses and set them down on an equipment shelf.
Rachel opened her eyes... and found herself staring at her own face.
She was on her back on some sort of padded surface. A video monitor was mounted on the ceiling—at least she assumed it was mounted on the ceiling—that there was a ceiling. Spotlights were shining in her face, but beyond and in all directions—darkness.
"Wh-what happened?" she asked the universe in general... and received no answer. Her clothing was rumpled but otherwise intact.
She felt strange... lethargic... but her head was clearing. There were robots, and they grabbed me, and—
Everything came flooding back! Rachel tried to sit up—and found she couldn't!
"Hey! Lemme go!"
She was on her back with her arms at her sides, on what appeared to be a padded table—no, a gurney. Her wrists and ankles were bound to the side-rails by neat bands of royal-blue, thick, rubberized wire, probably fiber-optic cable. She noted that each of the ten or twelve loops of cable that bound her wrists and half her forearms were individually hitched to the chrome rails. She pulled and tugged, to no avail.
"Who's out there?" she demanded. "Let me go, NOW!"
Whirring motors sounded and robot arms appeared from the darkness. The jaws of a pair of well-padded pincers clamped her head and pinned it against the padding.
"No! Let go!"
Seconds later, an alarmingly large ball of dark-pink foam held by a manipulator arm appeared from the darkness and approached her mouth.
"No! NRRRRF!" Strong, rubber-clad robotic pincers had pried her clinched jaws apart with gentle, relentless pressure, then had shoved the ball into her mouth. The foam filled every nook and cranny of her oral cavity. In an intricate dance of fluttering mechanical fingers and delicately twirling manipulators, the ball was held in place and a panel of some sort of adhesive film was stretched across her lower face. The first panel was followed by a second... and a third. Then, all of the various arms withdrew, including the large pincers that had held her head.
Rachel bucked and thrashed on the gurney, screaming through her highly effective gag.
Suddenly, she froze in place. Nostrils flaring and bosom heaving, her eyes were wide with fear. A new manipulator had appeared, silhouetted against the lights, and it terminated in a curved, scalpel-like blade!
The blade hovered above her gagged face... then slowly began to lower towards her helpless body.