Raptus Ex Machina
Taken by the Machine

by Van © 2023

Chapter 3

Dramatis Personæ


Two stories beneath Dr. Lydia Aelios' ultramodern mansion, Dr. Edwina Bliss ran around the subterranean running track, naked, her upper body bound with translucent natural rubber tubing, a shock-collar locked around her neck, and doing her very best to keep up with the mini-bot with the shining red light that was her guide and taskmaster.

Periods of sprinting alternated with periods of running until Edwina Bliss was reduced to what an objective observer might characterize as a hot, exhausted mess.  She was sweating like the proverbial horse and the control track system's biometric sensors confirmed that her heart was pounding and her breath coming in rapid pants; however, she was well short of actual distress.

Up in Lydia's office, the display on one of her side-monitors noted that all the physiological goals of Edwina's exercise session had been met, and on the giant projection screen the mini-bot's red light shifted from flashing to a steady glow as it slowly decelerated to a rapid walking pace... as did a nearly spent Edwina.

"Commence cool-down walk," the system's synthetic voice droned from speakers down on the running track and up in Lydia's office.  The walk continued for several minutes... until the system decided the test subject's heart and breathing rates had lowered to the appropriate levels.  Of course, without actual blood chemistry data the determinations were only estimates, but it had been monitoring the subject's exercise for months, so its conclusions were made with a high degree of confidence.  In the future, there would be monthly diagnostic assessments on the treadmill with a breathing mask and the most sophisticated non-intrusive sensors available, and with each session the system would refine the reliability of its more "casual" appraisals.

Lydia continued watching as the mini-bot led Edwina back to the running track's elevator—meaning the one running down to the lower levels and not the one leading up to the mansion.  The naked, collared, sweaty, and exhausted scientist meekly padded after the red light, her hair a damp, tangled mess with several strands plastered to her shining face.

Lydia frowned.  That hair might be something of a problem, she mused.  Lydia's Primary Target had magnificent hair that would be worth the effort required to keep neat, clean, and glossy.  Truth be told, it would be fun to play with.  Also, the expert system dedicated to involuntary hairdressing and maintenance needed testing like all the other Primary Target Management systems.  However...  Lydia's smile took a wicked twist.  The 'new' hair manipulation technology was only an extension of the system she already use to deal with my own hair, so deleting it from Edwina's testing program and concentrating on more important elements might make sense... and after all, she is being punished.  So, Lydia pondered, does Edwina really need all that hair?

Still smiling, Lydia leaned forward and began typing on her desktop's virtual keyboard, making additional revisions of Edwina's in-processing agenda... then frowned and paused.  No, full testing of all systems is the best course.  I can always play cruel, entertaining games at Edwina's expense later.  She rapidly deleted the new changes.  Also, what I have in store for poor Edwina is already plenty cruel and entertaining.

Meanwhile, down below, Edwina's mini-bot guide had delivered her to a tiled chamber that was clearly an ultramodern bathroom... or some sort of chamber dedicated to personal hygiene.  There was a stainless steel toilet (with no lid), and a shower stall in the form of a vertical, five-foot diameter, floor-to-ceiling cylinder of clear glass or acrylic.  The stall had a sliding door, its interior was lined by a cage-like lattice of narrow, stainless steel pipes, and the floor was essentially one large circular drain.

"Urinate in the commode," the synthetic voice intoned.  The order was for Edwina, of course, who shook her damp, dirty, tangled hair from her face and stared at the toilet.  "Urinate in the commode," the voice reiterated.  "Disobedience will be punished."

Edwina's sweaty features settled into an angry frown, clearly visible on the giant projection screen in Lydia's office.  Lydia's smile broadened.  Edwina seemed to have processed her initial terror and was seeking an avenue to assert herself... only there was none.  Perhaps you should have thought of that before you decided to spy on your superior, Lydia thought.

Down in the subterranean "bathroom," it would seem Edwina had decided that discretion and an empty bladder were the better parts of pointless defiance.  Still frowning, she padded to the commode, sat, (and still frowning) made use of the facility.  Seconds after the tinkling noise ceased... the curved door of the clear "shower cylinder" slid open.

"Enter the shower."

Edwina stared at the open cylinder for about three seconds... then stood, heaved a silent sigh, and padded inside.  The door slid closed, there was a quiet gurgling noise... followed by a hiss... and suddenly streams of cold water sprayed from countless micro-emitters lining the internal pipe lattice!  Edwina was instantly drenched and continued being bombarded by a steady torrent from every direction!  Thankfully, the water quickly became warm and the constant patter against her skin was more invigorating than distressful.  She turned her body in a slow spin... even though that was hardly necessary for full coverage.  She also squirmed and twisted against her natural rubber upper-body-bonds, as well as turning, raising, and lowering her head to let the water course through her hair.

The shower lasted for more than a minute... then abruptly ceased.  A second or two of more gurgling followed... then an unidirectional blast of warm air replaced the warm water.  The shower cylinder had become a giant blow-dryer.  The dry wind blew for something more that a minute, time enough to completely dry Edwina's skin and cause her hair to flutter and eventually change from wet to damp... then the windstorm ceased and the door slid open.

Across the room a small, chest-height panel opened and a stainless steel sink-like bowl slid into the space.

"Drink," the voice ordered as a vertical jet of water gushed upwards and fell back into the basin.

Edwina resumed frowning, padded to the water-fountain, and drank her fill... then took a step back and shook her moist, tousled hair from her face.

Suddenly, the red light atop the mini-bot (Edwina's running guide that had been waiting patiently near the chamber door flashed several times... then took on a steady red glow.

"Follow the red light," the voice ordered, the chamber door slid open, and the mini-bot rolled across the threshold at a normal walking pace.  Edwina hurried to catch up and padded in the mini-bot's wake.

They passed more closed doors and numerous innocuous wiring-panels and pipe-junctions.  As always, there were no signs or labels in English or any other human language; however, the panel covers and automated valves all bore QR labels, like her collar.  Presumably, it was so the optical sensors of wandering maintenance robots could confirm their locations.  As for Edwina, she wasn't even sure what level she was on, much less her location on that particular level's floor plan.

I just hope we aren't headed back to the running track, Edwina silently sighed.  I don't think I can take any more exercise.  Her leg muscles and bare feet were increasingly sore.  She needed rest.

A door whisked open on the right side of the corridor, the mini-bot made a lazy turn, and crossed the threshold.   Edwina followed... and found herself in a circular chamber about fifteen-feet across with a domed ceiling.  Everything, floor, walls, and ceiling, were covered with hexagonal padded panels, each about eighteen-inches across and clad with a latex-like material in a milky, institutional off-white.

Edwina heard a whining noise behind her and turned to find the chamber door simultaneously whisking closed and several hexagonal padded sliding back in place to cover its location.  She heard another whining noise and turned to find a single panel near the floor had opened and her mini-robot guide was disappearing down the dark tunnel beyond.  The hatch snapped closed... and Edwina was alone in the strange padded room... naked, her upper body bound with a web of translucent amber tubing, the shock-collar still locked around her neck, and her damp hair a tousled mess.

The only light was from an array of tiny LED lights spread across the dome, all located at the points where three of the ceiling tiles met.  Fortunately, the illumination wasn't excessively bright.  Unfortunately, there wasn't really anything for Edwina to look at, other then the uniform off-white hex-pads and what she could see of her own body.

Suddenly, all around the vertical walls of Edwina's new prison, panels snapped open to the left, right, up, or down and more than a dozen robot arms rapidly extended into the chamber and in her direction!  It was the same coordinated robotic dance that had happened in the chamber with the robotic bed/chair all over again!  Edwina was lifted into the air, as before, and her struggles easily controlled as her legs were pulled together and more of the same rubber tube binding her upper body was deployed to bind them tightly together.  The end result was Edwina Bliss elaborately bound down the entire length of her body!

A loop of tubing captured each of her big toes, with additional loops binding her feet, ankles, and about every six-inches all the way up to her hips—and all were cinched between her legs.  And somehow, her new rubber leg bonds were connected to her old rubber upper-body bonds.  She felt a length of tubing cleaving her butt-cheeks, but none passing all the way between her legs.  As she twisted in the robot arms' relentless grip, she could feel all of the tubing, old and new, flexing and sliding together, but none of it pinched her skin.  The stretched amber material was essentially friction-less, relying on its arrangement pattern to maintain uniform tension and form an inescapable web.  Edwina decided that her bonds probably weren't natural rubber after all, but some new synthetic material.  How or where the ends were joined together she had no idea.  There were no knots or clamps anywhere she could see, and she could feel none where she couldn't.

Apparently satisfied with Edwina's enhanced helplessness, the robot arms held her in a semi-reclined position in mid air with four arms holding her head and neck rigidly immobile.  Meanwhile she heard additional mechanical whining noises behind her back... then things started happening to her hair!  She could see none of the details, of course, but could definitely feel the activity as combs gently slid through her now more-or-less dry hair... then it was gathered back in a tight ponytail.  The "hair care tools," whatever their design, were surprisingly gentle.  Her hair repeatedly tugged against her scalp as they performed their functions, but never to the point of pain.  Eventually, she realized her long tresses were being plaited into a single tight braid.  Somehow, the end of the braid was secured, then the manipulators holding her head released their firm but gentle padded grips and the arms retracted.  She could feel the braid sway as she shook her head.

At least it's no longer a tousled bird's nest, she reflected, deciding that was a good thing.  A minor thing compared to her enhanced bondage, but a good thing nonetheless.

Then, the remaining robot arm lowered her to the padded floor... released their padded grips, retracted into their alcoves, and the hexagonal wall-panels snapped shut in a rapid series of dull thuds.

Edwina was now lying on her back in what amounted to a rather unconventional padded cell, bound down the entire length of her naked body by uniformly stretched amber-yellow tubing.  Her constant companion the shock-collar-choker was still around her neck, and her hair was now plaited in a tight single braid.  At least the system was leaving her alone... for now.  She heaved a silent sigh (careful not to provoke the hateful collar).

The walls were featureless.  There were the hexagonal pads, of course, but they were all identical, including the pads cladding the dome and floor.  She knew that behind the pads there were a multitude of robot arms poised to pounce, at least one human-size door, and at least one mini-bot-size tunnel entrance.  And even if she was completely free, prying apart the pads and finding the door would probably be impossible... and would earn her punishment from her collar.  She was in her padded cell to stay... until released by Lydia and/or the system.  And unless it was her imagination, the LEDs overhead were taking on a reddish hue and starting to dim.

No, she decided, it was true.  In about two minutes... only a very feeble ruby glow held back the darkness.

Edwina twisted, squirmed, and rolled on the padded floor, testing her bizarre rubber web-cocoon of bondage.  She very much felt like crying... but what was the point in that?  It was best to remain brave.


Up in the mansion, Lydia lounged in her throne-like office chair and watched Edwina's feeble efforts to escape.  Granted, the captive's "struggles" were probably just comfort motion, but Lydia liked to think of the highly entertaining wiggling and squirming as evidence of her test-subject's desperation and despair.  The system had processed and enhanced the gigantic image being projected on the wall/screen, compensating for the poor lighting down below, so Lydia had no difficulty watching Edwina test the exotic polymer tubing of her elaborate bondage.

Lydia was proud of her innovation of a "practical" application of rubber-tubing as a binding material.  She knew from experience and her extensive research that the use of natural rubber tubing to restrain a damsel was hardly original; however, conventional rubber tubing, the kind traditionally used in laboratories to supply Bunsen burners with flammable gas, was problematic as a bondage medium.  She liked the way it looked, stretched around and/or across a damsel's body, but it could pinch and rub against the skin and cause unintentional discomfort.  Worse yet, it didn't always hold a reliable knot.  Dr. Lydia Aelios, however, had solved all of those problems... after a fashion.

First of all, she'd found the proper material for the task.  That is, she'd searched until she found a polymer that when uniformly stretched just the right amount during application made for aesthetically pleasing bondage without the usual unintentional painful and/or damaging side effects.  Hideously expensive to synthesize and of limited value for any use other than bondage?  Yes, but she liked the way it looked... and the way she imagined it would look on the Primary Target.

Second of all, and just as important, she'd found a particularly elegant way to program the manipulators of her robots to maintain the optimum tension while they applied the tubing pattern.  Actually, it was her engineering expert systems that had solved the problem, but her code had gone into developing the subroutines that improved the machine learning sub-systems... so she was perfectly willing to take full credit.  Anyway, while a human rigger would find her miracle polymer tubing just as difficult to work with as conventional natural rubber, her robots could handle the stuff with ease, meaning superhuman ease.

Lydia continued watching Edwina's occasional squirms in her dimly-lit subterranean padded cell.  Yes, it was a job well done.  The "rubber tubing trial" was an unqualified success... or would be when a few more hours had passed and the protocol had run its full course.  And then, after a programmed twenty-four hour period of totally unrestrained rest... it would be on to the next test for the unfortunate Dr. Bliss.

Lydia glanced at the side monitor detailing summarizing Edwina's full agenda.  Just as she remembered, "leather" was next in the queue.

Just then, the monitor dedicated to Lydia's Master Schedule quietly and melodically chimed and opened a new window.  It flashed red three times... then shrunk to icon-size and migrated to the display's upper left corner where it would be out of the way but readily available when she decided to give it her full attention.

The ongoing "Dr. Bliss Languishing Show" on the projection screen remained unchanged... and was highly unlikely to significantly change anytime soon... so Lydia clicked on the newly arrived high priority item and began to read.  Her smile widened.  One of the possible opening scenarios for her Special Project had clicked into place.  That is, the overall success probability of one of the "traps" she'd crafted to ensnare her Primary Target had passed the 87% mark.  The preliminary events required for that particular option to be feasible had all happened!  The universe was cooperating!

Lydia leaned forward and reconfigured her work space.  Elements of the Special Project scenario in question unfolded like the petals of a multidimensional origami flower to dominate several monitors, and they included several decision trees that required her attention for the plan to proceed.  As she made her choices and the decision trees began shedding branches... then disappearing altogether... the success probability passed 93% and continued to climb!

Down below in her padded cell... naked, bound in an elaborate web of Lydia's special synthetic tubing from her big toes to her shoulders, and with her neck locked in the hateful obedience collar... Edwina languished.  Her tight single-braid flopped on the smooth floor as she squirmed on the semi-soft padding.  It looked like it was going to be a long night... assuming, of course, that it actually was night.


Amy Rutberg as...
Amy Rutberg
Alice Lindgren
"Alice Lindgren" was famous, but in all probability her name was familiar to no more than a couple of hundred-thousand consumers.  With respect to her face, many more so.  That said, she was certainly no super-star.

For twenty years she'd been building a respectable acting career, mostly with guest starring roles on TV series, and in the process had earned herself a solid Q-score.  What she needed, of course, was either a starring role in a hit TV series or a breakthrough movie role, but she was respected by her peers, her work garnered critical praise, and she had long since achieved more than basic financial security... but she wasn't a star... yet.

Fortunately, all of that was about to change!  Big time!

Lucasfilm and Disney were looking to start a major science fiction film franchise... and Alice had scored a lead role in the first film of a planned trilogy!  She'd already met with the producers and signed a contract!  Preproduction was grinding away with principal photography set to start in about six months.  Alice was scheduled to start an intensive physical training program in ten days.  She'd been a gifted athlete all her life and was already in exceptionally good shape, but her character would be dodging computer generated monsters and battling mercenary bad guys in several action sssequences, so she needed to take her fitness and theatrical fighting skills to a new level.

Secrecy was paramount with this sort of project.  Potentially, many millions of dollars were on the line for the studios and their partners, including several of the leading special effects companies, and not just with respect to the budget for the proposed trilogy, but for all of the participants other projects as well.  Rising and falling stock prices were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Not only was Alice sworn to secrecy, but Disney had moved her into a luxury condominium bungalow in a gated community in the Hollywood Hills to keep the press and paparazzi at bay.  Also, they'd "confiscated" her iPhone and given her a new one with enhanced hacking protection.

They had every reason to think that a healthy level of paranoia was appropriate.  Inevitably, rumors that something new was happening with the popular franchise in question had already leaked, and Alice's name had been mentioned.  It was only normal she should lay low and minimize her exposure.

The script for the first film in the trilogy had already been through several re-writes before Alice was signed, but the latest word from the production office was that the "first serious draft" of an actual screenplay was just about finished and her personal hard-copy would be couriered to her bungalow as soon as it was finished and approved.  If all went as planned, that would be sometime tomorrow.

In the meanwhile, Alice relaxed in her luxurious "undisclosed location."  She took a long run through the neighborhood without leaving the confines of the gated community.  That required several laps inside the perimeter fence before she decided she'd accumulated sufficient mileage.  The run was followed by a light lunch, a swim in the bungalow's endless lap-pool, then a long bask in the dry sauna off the bungalow's home gym.  ("Bungalow" was a bit of an affectation.  The studio-provided safe house was actually a minor mansion with all the latest amenities.)

Alice hadn't bothered changing into a suit for her swim, nor had she'd bothered getting dressed following the sauna and subsequent shower.  She dried and brushed out her longish blond hair, then turned to face the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door, beamed her best smile, and struck a pose.  Her skin was smooth and flawless, her muscles and curves firm and perfectly defined, and she had an all-over tan, the product of carefully regulated tanning bed exposure when nude sunbathing was impractical.  Yes, without a doubt, Alice Lindgren was looking good, and would look even better after the studio mandated training routine kicked in.  And just to be clear, Alice wasn't vain.  Her gazing in the mirror had been a professional assessment.  An actress needs to be aware of exactly how she looks... and Alice was well aware that she looked hot.

Alice decided on a brief nap before preparing dinner, climbed into the bungalow bedroom's California King bed, pulled the silky top-sheet over her tan, firm, shapely body, closed her stunning blue eyes... and dozed off.


Oh by the way, in accordance with Special Project protocols, Lydia's expert systems had been monitoring all aspects of Alice's life for several months and had discovered her recruitment for the forthcoming film trilogy almost in real time.  As was to be expected, the studios were attempting to shroud all aspects of the endeavor with extraordinary security, but mostly for purposes of information control.  The physical security of the actors, executives, and key creative personnel was important, of course, but the studio's principal focus was on preventing the leak of plot summaries, script pages, storyboard images, concept art, and other production materials—anything that would constitute a "spoiler."  That was the reason Alice Lindgren was sequestered in a luxurious gated community on the studios' dime for this critical stage of the process.  Enhanced personal security for Alice was, at best, a positive side effect of the studios' "infosec" countermeasures.

Lydia's family of AIs crunched the numbers, ran multiple simulations, and came to the conclusion that Alice's isolation was actually an opportunity.  Such was often the case in operations analysis.  Optimal solutions can be counter-intuitive and "common sense" is of limited value. 

The Disney didn't own the gated community where they'd sequestered Alice, but had leased the bungalow that was their star's "safe haven."  In point of fact, many corporations rented bungalows in the community as luxurious housing for visiting VIPs or to hold clandestine meetings for sensitive negotiations.  So, nobody at the management office so much as raised an eyebrow when ΛLIOS ÇYBRTRONICS leased an unoccupied unit about a block from Alice's address, and as soon as Lydia gave the green light and the scenario went active, a sealed shipping container of "household goods" was delivered to the newly leased bungalow and parked in the driveway.  Supposedly, it was there pending the arrival of the new occupants.  Everything was perfectly innocent.

Or so it seemed.

Shortly after midnight on the night of the shipping container's delivery, a small panel silently slid open on the side facing away from the street and a robot about the size of a small footlocker rolled through the opening on silent all-terrain treads.  It took a turn around the container, trundled down the driveway to the street, then turned in the direction of Alice's bungalow and continued on.  It was a curious design, something resembling an oversized model of some sort of futuristic military vehicle, only with articulated arms folded against its sides.  Its exterior was roughly textured, randomly mottled in a dozen dark earth tones, and festooned with leafy twigs and branches.  It resembled nothing as much as a small shrub out for a stroll.  The robot was, indeed, well-camouflaged, but it might as well have been painted international-orange.  There was no one on the streets or sidewalks to see it.  Also, the community's security systems had been hacked hours before and the robot was being actively edited from the video feeds of all the surveillance cameras as soon as the data stream reached the security office, but before the displays in front of the incredibly bored security guard on duty were refreshed.  Electronically, the robot was invisible.

When the "tank-bot" was halfway to Alice's Bungalow, another door opened on the container back in the driveway, this time on the roof, and a quad-copter drone lifted into the air.  It was camouflaged in several ghostly shades of gray, and as it hummed across the night sky it made roughly twice as much noise as a gliding owl.  That is, it would be nearly inaudible to a hypothetical observer.  But once again, there was no one on the sidewalks to see or hear it, and the hacked cameras were focused on the streets and sidewalks, not the sky.  The drone made its way to Alice's roof and landed just as the tank-bot was trundling up the driveway.

It was actually a drone carrier.  That is, it was an efficient transport for twenty micro-drone surveillance bugs, each more-or-less a cross between a very large mosquito and a dragonfly.  They buzzed away from their "mother-ship" and began seeking a way into the bungalow.   Eventually, one located a damaged screen over a roof vent, and they were in.  Soon, every important space not already covered by the bungalow's hacked security system was under constant scrutiny.  Over the course of the next hour the carrier-drone made two more trips, ferrying additional micro-drones of various designs.  All were small enough to easily fit through the roof vent.

The micro-drones found hiding places up in the bungalow's exposed rafters or under items of furniture and changed color to match their immediate surroundings.  Simultaneously, the carrier-drone returned to its container home base and the tank-bot retreated to a dense planting in a corner of Alice's bungalow's backyard and nestled into the bushes.  And then, the waiting began.

All of that had happened two days prior to Alice deciding to take her afternoon nap.  She was now sprawled on the huge bed, under the tangle of the high thread-count sheets, and was fast asleep.

The robots not dedicated to surveillance sprang into action.

The tank-bot carefully and silently relocated itself against the side of the bungalow in the proximity of the bedroom but out of sight from the windows.  It extended a specialized arm up towards the rafters.  Meanwhile, four of the specialized micro-bots delivered by the drone had joined into a single mini-bot roughly the size and form of a tarantula and they/it scuttled down the side of the bungalow from the vent opening, seized the end of a thin, flexible tube of transparent vinyl extruding from the end of the tank-bot's arm, and carried it up the wall and through the vent.  Tubing continued playing out and disappearing into the bungalow for about two minutes.

Inside the bungalow, the end of the vinyl tube emerged from the heating register closest to the bed and was seized by the "mandibles" of a mosquito/dragonfly micro-bot.  As more tubing played out it was seized and supported by a identical hovering bots about every half meter.  Soon, the very end of the tube was hovering a few centimeters from Alice's nostrils.  The combined and highly sophisticated sensors of all the surveillance-micro-bots in the bedroom had already determined with a high degree of certainty that Alice was in stage-three sleep and she gave no reaction to either the faint whine of the "mosquitos'" wings or the gentle pulses of odorless gas being emitted by the tube whenever she inhaled.

The gas mixture was a potent anesthetic and soporific and included a mild euphoric... so Alice quickly transitioned into REM sleep... then very deep REM sleep that was more-or-less a shallow coma.

A second mosquito/dragonfly-bot joined the first and they gingerly landed on Alice's face... then gently grasped the sides of her nostrils and held the end of the tube in the optimal position for her to intake a measured dose of gas with every breath.  The remaining hovering bots gathered in a group and clutched a convenient patch of bed's exposed top-sheet and the tube, keeping its weight from pulling against the grip of the bots administering the gas.

Slowly... the sun set and the bedroom grew dark.  Alice remained unmoving and unconscious, sprawled on her back with her limbs akimbo and her long blond curls a tousled mass.

A few minutes after midnight a dark gray panel truck bearing the logo of a national delivery service backed into the driveway of Alice's bungalow.  It was an autonomous vehicle (no driver), had entered the gated community via an unmanned maintenance entrance, and was invisible, meaning it had been digitally erased from community's security monitor feeds, like the tank-robot.  The truck's back doors opened, a ramp extended, and two medium "capture-bots" emerged, both identical in appearance to the models that had captured Edwina Bliss back in Lydia's mansion.  They were followed by a single rectangular robot roughly the size and shape of a coffin on wheels.

The lead capture-bot let itself in the front door and the others followed it to the bedroom.  Once there, the lid of the rectangular bot opened and it revealed itself to be a "sarcophagus-bot."  Its interior was lined with black, medium-density foam in the shape of a human female lying on her back with her legs together and arms at their sides.  Actually, the padded cavity was the precise size and shape of Alice Lindgren lying on her back with her legs together and her arms at her sides.  It was custom made.

The multiple capture-bots arms extended, grasped Alice's arms and legs, and arranged them at her sides.  They then lifted her from the bed and lowered her into the sarcophagus-bot.  Next, they secured wide, thick, black nylon straps over her ankles, below and above her knees, her thighs, wrists, waist, and arms, and her upper body, below and above her breasts.  As the arms withdrew, the straps automatically tightened until Alice's flesh bulged, ever so slightly, then locked in place with a series of audible clicks.

The mosquito/dragonfly-bots had participated in the process by carefully making sure the vinyl tube delivering the sleeping gas was out of the way of the capture-bots' arms.  Once Alice was secure, the mosquito-bots released their hold on Alice's nostrils, then controlled the tube as it retracted back into the heating register... and was gone.  The mosquito/dragonfly-bots flitted from the bedroom and the capture and sarcophagus-bots continued the process of preparing Alice for travel.

The place of the vinyl tube was taken by a breathing-mask/gag with an integrated mouth-filling plug and a strap that tightened across Alice's forehead.  At the same time, a catheter inserted itself into her urethra while a rubber probe entered her anus and expanded to make an effective plug.   Without a doubt, Alice would have resisted vigorously while being restrained and vociferously objected, but she remained unconscious throughout the entire "experience."  Finally, the lid slowly closed on the blond actress' naked, bound, gagged, and helpless form... and sealed itself with an authoritative thunk followed by a quiet hiss.  Then, the sarcophagus-bot rolled from the bedroom and returned to the panel truck.

Back in the bedroom, the capture-bots proved themselves to also be competent maid-bots by quickly and neatly making the bed.  There was now no sign that Alice had taken her nap.  The capture-bots returned to the panel truck, as did all of the other mini and micro-bots that had been deployed throughout the bungalow, including the camouflaged tank-bot from the backyard.  The rear doors closed, the truck's electric motor purred to life, and it departed with its precious cargo and her many captors.

Back at the second bungalow, the one Lydia's expert systems had rented as a forward base, a second autonomous truck appeared, auto-loaded the container in the driveway, then followed the panel truck through the maintenance gate.  Like the panel truck, it had been digitally erased from the community security service records, as was the opening and closing of the gate.

There was now no trace whatsoever that anything unusual had happened at either bungalow.  Before departing, the micro-bots had even used super-glue to repair the damaged screen of the roof vent they'd used to gain access to Alice's bungalow.

Around nine AM the next morning a bonded courier arrived at Alice's bungalow to deliver the promised draft script.  He rang the bell and waited... but there was no answer.  He rang the bell again and waited.  Finally, after a third attempt, he pulled out his phone, notified his supervisor of the delivery failure, and was instructed to return to the office with the unsigned-for script.

Repeated attempts to contact Alice were made over the next several hours.  Finally, a team from Disney's security office arrived at the bungalow, rang the bell and waited.  Eventually they let themselves in.  Alice's clothing and luggage were in the bedroom closet.  Dirty clothes and used towels were awaiting pickup by the laundry service.  Dirty dishes were stacked in the dishwasher, which was just shy of a full load.  Ripe fruit was in a bowl on the kitchen counter.  The refrigerator was stocked with the prepackaged ingredients of gourmet meals waiting to be cooked.  The kitchen trash was minimal and "fresh," meaning not totally rotted and buzzing with tiny flies.  Finally, the luxury sedan the studio had rented for Alice's use was parked in the bungalow's garage.

The police were called and a formal investigation started.  Unfortunately, the LAPD detectives who caught the case found they quite literally had nothing to work with.

Alice Lindgren had disappeared without a trace, as if she'd simply... evaporated.



Chapter 2
Chapter 4