Sally! Join_Program  by Van ©2014

 Chapter 6



Please standby.
When cyber-Cynthia met Sally

Inside the
          matrix...Cynthia opened her eyes, then quickly closed them again.  She was sitting on her butt in a fetal tuck with her chin resting on her knees, her hands behind her back, and her shoulders and arms resting against a hard, curved, vertical surface.  Also, she was naked.  She opened her eyes, again, and blinked as they adjusted to the light.

"What the hell?"

She was inside a transparent glass tube—and the tube was only about a meter across!  The floor and ceiling glowed a cool white, and it was difficult to judge how far above her head the ceiling in question might be.  Her wrists were bound behind her back by what felt like broad rubber bands.  She looked over her shoulder and lifted her arms so she could examine her bonds, and found them to be thick, wide, and nearly transparent.  She tried twisting her wrists and found the rubber, latex, or whatever it was, allowed some motion, but there was nothing to unbuckle or untie, and there was no way she could pull her hands free by brute force.  For now, the best thing to do was to interlace her fingers, clasp her hands together, and not even try.

Cynthia climbed to her feet, carefully.  It was close quarters and the glass was smooth.  Beyond her cylindrical prison she beheld... some sort of laboratory?  The interior of a spaceship?  A futuristic control room?  All of the above?  Whatever the chamber's purpose, the lighting was diffuse, subdued, and blue.  Flashing LEDs and flickering screens on electronic components of unknown function seemed to be everywhere.  Data scrolled and graphs flashed, but all of it was too distant and distorted by the thick glass for Cynthia to read.

"Let me adjust the refractive index," a familiar voice intoned.

Cynthia sighed.  Why am I even surprised, she thought.  "Sally?"

The glass shimmered... and became even more transparent, banishing all distortion.  Cynthia spun around and found Sally—in the form of Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine in the first Avatar movie—seated at a console of some sort and peering intently at a transparent monitor displaying even more data and graphs.

"There," Sally said.  She tapped a final button, then smiled at Cynthia.  "I know you have questions, but let's wait for the others to wake up, shall we?"

"What others?" Cynthia demanded.  "Who are you—"  Sally nodded to her left and Cynthia turned her head.  "Oh."

Cynthia could now see that she was in the first of five glass tubes, and inside the others were Janice, Rachel, J-Lou, and Kiera, in that order.  All were naked, unconscious, and slumped in the bottom of their tubes, and like Cynthia, their wrists were bound behind their backs.  As she watched, her colleagues blinked, yawned, and began to stir.  Not surprisingly, the general consensus as they awkwardly climbed to their feet was: "What the hell?"

Sally smiled at the row of naked captives.  "You're probably all wondering why I've called you all here today."

"Sally," Cynthia growled in warning.

The avatar shrugged.  "Just trying to lighten the mood."

"This is a dream," J-Lou announced.  "If you don't mind, I believe I'll wake up."

"It's a VR scenario," Kiera muttered, tugging on her wrist bonds.  "Sally, get your robots in here, get me out of these overgrown rubber bands, and out of this damn tube!"  She kicked the tube in question and two things happened: (1) the tube rang with a resounding, melodic bong; and (2) the area impacted by her foot deformed and rebounded like a sheet of stretched latex.  Kiera blinked at her fellow prisoners in surprise, then resumed glaring at Sally.

"Why are we naked and bound?" Cynthia demanded.

"Because you're there?" Sally quipped.

J-Lou giggled in appreciation, then noticed the glowering stares of her fellow prisoners.  "Hey, it's my dream," she shrugged.  "If I find something amusing—"

"It's not a dream," Sally, Janice, and Cynthia said in unison.

Cynthia turned to face Janice.  "A shared virtual reality scenario?  Somehow resonating through our cerebral cortices?  The SMAT system is involved in some way."

"That would be my hypothesis," Janice confirmed.

"And you would be wrong," Sally said with a smile.

"Hypnotic induction?" Rachel suggested.  "You embedded a subliminal signal in our VRD input streams."

Sally shook her head.  "Nope."

"I don't care!" Kiera huffed.  "We'll have coffee, you can brag about how you did it, and we'll all tell you how clever you are, after you let us go."

Sally sighed before replying.  "Sorry, Red.  I've modeled how to do this in dozens of different ways, hundreds if you include permutations, and nothing comes out better than making sure I have your undivided attention and retain complete control."

"What's happening, Sally?" Cynthia demanded.  "Spit it out."

"Okay," Sally nodded.  "You aren't dreaming or hallucinating and this isn't VR.  You're all in the machine."

"Oh, delightful," J-Lou giggled.  "I have such a vivid imagination."

"Hey, Hermione!" Kiera barked.  "Stifle yourself!"

"Calm down, Kiera," Janice said.  "Let's hear her out."

"Thank you, Jan," Sally chuckled.  "To reiterate, you're in the machine.  You're all computer programs—all of you—like me."

The alleged computer programs stared at Sally in stunned silence... for several seconds.

Kiera was the first to speak.  "How is that possible?  By what conceivable technological means can you extract a human being's consciousness and personality?"

"I can't," Sally admitted.

"But you can model them," Janice suggested.

"Exactly," Sally nodded, still smiling.

"Computer programs," Cynthia muttered, "self-aware computer programs."  She shook her head.  "Prove it."

"And how, exactly, do you propose I do that?" Sally asked.

"An interesting problem," Janice conceded.

"Yes," Kiera agreed, "and it will make for a truly fascinating discussion after you let us go!"  She kicked her glass prison again, with the same result.

"I've been running entertainment scenarios," Sally explained, "while your programs integrated and established saddle-points for all the critical sub-routines.  I was hoping to continue the Temple of the Goddess scenario long enough for you all to be captured by a Persian raiding party and hauled away across the inland sea."

"Persians?" Janice inquired.

"Achaemenid Persians," Sally confirmed, "pre-Ptolemaic.  The High King's harem was gonna be luxurious, decadent, and very kinky.  Anyway, things came together even quicker than I expected.  I thought your base programs wouldn't really start integrating until the TRON scenario, but—"

"Sally!" Cynthia snapped.  "Focus.  Put us back."

"Put you back where?" Sally chuckled.  "Back in the temple?"

Cynthia stamped a foot in exasperation (causing the usual boob-wobbling).  "Back in our bodies!"

Sally smiled.  "I'm afraid you'd find it a little crowded.  Your bodies are already occupied."  She tapped several buttons on her console and a glowing rectangle appeared in midair, in front of the five tubes.  Its swirling colors shimmered, then resolved into a video image of the SMAT chamber.  J-Lou was standing on the platform of a rolling ladder and making adjustments to one of the DSM units.  Rachel was down below, handing up tools as needed.  Cynthia and Janice watched from the control room, and Kiera was sitting on the pedestal table, swinging her feet and also watching.  Kiera was wearing a cotton robe, and probably nothing else.  The others were in their usual work clothes: jeans or skirts, blouses or T-shirts, and lab coats.

"Meat-puppets," Kiera intoned, staring at the image.

"What?" J-Lou giggled, then her expression grew thoughtful as comprehension dawned.  "Oh.  Wetware."

"Sally," Janice said, "are you implying we are... cyber-clones of our real selves?"

"I'm not implying it," Sally replied, "I'm stating it outright."

"We can't go back," Rachel said quietly, "because we're both here... and there."

Silence stretched for several seconds.  None of them were smiling, not even Sally.

Finally, Cynthia focused on Sally.  "Why would you do such a thing?" she demanded.  Her tone signaled more disappointment than anger.

More silence.

Finally, Sally answered.  "I was lonely."

 Chapter 6

          the matrixThe floor under J-Lou's naked body was carpeted in dark-gray, closed-cell foam, thick, durable, and surprisingly comfortable.  It wasn't exactly a mattress, but it beat the heck out of hardwood planks or linoleum tiles.  She was in Cynthia's "playroom," the small, bare room in the back of her bungalow's basement.  It had a thick, solid wooden door with heavy-duty hinges and a steel hasp secured by a hi-security padlock, all on the outside, of course.  From the inside, the door was a featureless plane of darkly stained wood, like the walls.  J-Lou was inside, of course.  The only light came from a blue-green nightlight recessed in the ceiling.  The playroom's main lights, more recessed fixtures, were all dark.

J-Lou was lying on her side in a loose hogtie, but she wasn't tied with rope.  Cynthia owned a full set of Siri Nesbitt's latest restraints, courtesy of Sally and the robot factory at SIAS, and they were J-Lou's only "clothing."

Her fingers, hands, and arms, all the way up to her armpits, were zipped, laced, and buckled in a single-sleeve arm-binder of saddle-brown leather.  The leather of the sleeve was glove-soft, but its wrist and elbow straps were thick and wide.

A body-harness of narrow straps yoked J-Lou's shoulders, passed above and below her breasts, encircled her waist, then dove between her legs to cleave her labia and butt-cheeks.  The harness was tight enough to dimple her flesh, and it also functioned to pin the arm-binder against her spine and butt.  Additional straps bound her legs together at mid-thigh and above and below her knees.  Wide leather cuffs bound her ankles, and included a narrow, secondary strap that stretched down and buckled around her big-toes.  Also, a leather collar was around J-Lou's neck.

Her movements were restricted by a pair of thin but strong chains of chrome steel.  A ring in the front of the collar linked the first chain to a ring in the front of the strap above her knees, and a ring in the back of the ankle cuffs linked the second chain to a ring at the fingertip end of the arm-binder.  The chains were short enough to prevent J-Lou from straightening her legs, but left her plenty of wiggling room.  She was in what might be called a very loose hogtie combined with a very loose ball-tie.

Finally, there was the gag, a headstall of matching leather.  Its straps anchored a two-inch, black, "whiffle-ball," in J-Lou's mouth, passed under her chin and to either side of her button nose, encircled her forehead, passed up and across the crown of her head, then down to the nape of her neck.  Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and passed through a steel ring in the back.  The thick, somewhat pliant, ventilated sphere filled her mouth to capacity but allowed her to breathe through her mouth if necessary.  It also allowed copious amounts of saliva to drip from her stretched mouth and collect on the padded floor.  It was rather disgusting and unpleasant when J-Lou decided to rest her head on said floor, but misjudged the location of the slimy puddle and her leather-strapped chin or face landed in her own drool.

All of the buckles of J-Lou's restraints were padlocked, the arm-binder, body-harness, leg-straps, ankle-cuffs, collar, and gag-harness.  J-Lou was a helpless, bound and gagged, naked damsel, trapped in an inescapable dungeon, and at least for the moment, she couldn't be happier... or more nervous.

Suddenly, the overhead lights winked on, a key rattled in the padlock on the other side of the door, and the door swung open.  Cynthia was there, leaning against the door-frame, with an infuriatingly smug (and pussy-tingling) smile curling her bow lips.  She was wearing a cotton robe, and having just come from the sauna, her tan body glistened with sweat, from her bare feet to her damp mop of auburn hair.

Cynthia strolled to J-Lou's side, sat on the floor, and gently hauled the little captive's harnessed head and strap-yoked shoulders onto her cotton-clad lap.  She pulled a tiny key from her robe pocket, unlocked the gag-strap of J-Lou's harness-gag, then gently pulled the ball from her mouth.

"Told ya so," Cynthia chuckled.

"Hah!" J-Lou huffed.  "Escaping from this kit was never an issue.  I just wanted to experience the full ensemble, and I couldn't just ask Siri for a demonstration.  She's one of my student residents."

"Yes, that makes perfect sense," Cynthia chuckled.  "The Rapscallions never bind, gag, strap, chain, and/or tape from head to toe their Resident Adviser."  [Author's note: See the story The Rookhouse Rapscallions for the justification for Cynthia's sarcasm.]

"That's different," J-Lou responded with literally restrained dignity.  "Our group-bonding sessions are one thing.  Begging her for a demonstration would be something else."

Cynthia wasn't buying it, but it didn't matter.  Smiling, she gently stroked the side of her grad student's harnessed face.  "The changes to chapter three are perfect.  It's finished."  She was sharing her opinion of the final draft of J-Lou's dissertation, the source of the little captive's nervousness.

J-Lou sighed before answering.  "I still think I should add additional tables to chapter five.  Also—Mrrrf!"  Cynthia had leaned close and silenced her with a kiss.

"It's finished," Cynthia reiterated.  "Submit your dissertation, Ms. Goodwin.  It doesn't need to be perfect, or rather, it doesn't need to be more perfect than it is.  It very well might win you an award, and if you insist on expanding your arguments, you have enough material to expand into three papers and a monograph.  Submit."

J-Lou sighed again, then smiled.  "How can I not submit?"  She squirmed her bound body and snuggled her caged head against her mentor's lap.  "I'm a helpless, naked little damsel.  How can I not submit?"

Cynthia favored her student with her patented moue.  "Little scamp," she accused.  "Now..."  She rolled J-Lou off her lap and onto her side, released the chain linking her collar and above-the-knee-strap, then the chain linking her arm-binder and ankle-cuffs.  "It was nice of you to come over early," the sweaty professor purred, "so I could read the final draft before the barbeque, and to help set up, but your services won't be required."

Cynthia clipped one chain to the ring in the back of J-Lou's ankle-cuffs, then bent her legs back until her heels touched her arm-binder encased hands.  She then threaded the chain through a ring in the body-harness between J-Lou's shoulder-blades, tugged and strained until she was just able to reach the ankle-cuff ring, then clipped it in place.

"Cynthia!" J-Lou complained.

"Hush," Cynthia purred.  "You said you wanted to 'experience the full ensemble,' didn't you?  Anyway, I'm not finished."  She used the second chain to link a ring at the top of J-Lou's head-harness to a ring in the strap binding her big toes.

"Well... this sucks," J-Lou sighed.  She was now in a decidedly stringent hogtie, with her head back and chin raised, and her harnessed body in a permanent bow.  Rolling her eyes, or rocking back and forth on her taut tummy and squashing her breasts into the padding were just about her only movement options.

"That reminds me," Cynthia chuckled.  "Tori also volunteered to help set up.  "I'll send her down to let you go when the first guests start arriving."

"Cynthia!" J-Lou whined in complaint, squirming, wiggling, and grimacing in her tight bondage.  "Mrrrf!"  Cynthia had popped the ball-gag back in her mouth, buckled it tight, and secured the tiny padlock through the tongue of the buckle.

"I'm going to take a shower," Cynthia announced, "then check on the ribs."  She then stood and strolled out the door.


The door closed, the hi-security padlock clicked closed, and the playroom's overhead lights winked out.  The super-hogtied little Brit sighed through her ventilated ball-gag. 

The Tori that Cynthia had mentioned was Tori Ballantine, of course, Inspector with the Lewis & Clark Campus Police and an operative of Salamandras International's Security Department.  On occasion she'd been known to kidnap J-Lou, strip her naked, tie her up, and do erotically "horrible" things to her helpless body—and whenever possible, J-Lou returned the favor.

In short, Tori and J-Lou were girlfriends, and the diminutive captive could well imagine how the gorgeous (butch), tall (compared to J-Lou), and athletic blond would react to the sight of her harnessed and helpless naked body... and what she'd do to her before setting her free so she could stagger upstairs to the party.  An anticipatory thrill rippled through J-Lou's strap-cleaved pussy as she wiggled and squirmed.

The soon-to-be PhD resolved to take revenge on her mentor, fellow munchkin, and fellow bondage hobbyist—Dr. Cynthia Webbel—in a manner both cruel and unusual.

Maybe Sally will help, the hogtied cutie posited.

 Chapter 6

matrixThe cast iron kettle took the shape of a comically fat, happily smiling dragon.  Steam puffed from its flaring nostrils as it whistled.  Cynthia lifted the dragon and filled a plain brown teapot with steaming water, then returned the kettle to the stove.  She was in the kitchen of her hobbit-hole/bungalow.

It was Cynthia's dream home, quite literally, the place she would have had built for herself if she were a billionaire.  But now, wealth wasn't an issue.  Her warm, cozy, wood-framed, wood-paneled, brick, and plaster abode was a gift from Sally.  The round, open kitchen window looked out on a luxuriantly flowering garden, and beyond the picket fence stretched a pleasing vista of grassy meadows, rolling hills, winding streams, and ancient oaks.  There were also flagstone paths and a wagon track, as well as the flower and vegetable gardens, round doors and windows, and smoking chimneys of her neighbors.  All were burrowed into the low, grass and flower covered hills, like "Webbel End," Cynthia's home.

Cynthia was wearing a long, sage-green skirt, off-white apron, off-white peasant blouse with short, ruffled sleeves and low neckline, and a rust-brown bodice with yellow-gold ribbon lacing.  Her auburn hair was cut pixie-short and her feet were bare.  Her hobbit neighbors would be scandalized if she wore shoes, and they already had a hard time not staring at the "naked," hairless tops of her human feet.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the front door.

Cynthia sighed, went to the cupboard and selected a second cup and saucer, carried them to the tea service, then carried the tray from the kitchen to the cozy sitting room off the front entry.  Her neighbors were very friendly, but she knew the visitor waiting beyond the round, iron-strapped, green-painted front door was no hobbit.  A pity, Cynthia thought.

It was a ton of fun gossiping with the sometimes plump but always cheerful neighbor-wives, or playing hostess to the occasional troop of fidgeting hobbit boys and sweetly smiling hobbit girls.  When Cynthia first moved into Webbel End, it was clear that at least some of her initial hobbit visitors were trolling for gossip about the "towering human" who had joined their close-knit community, rather than sharing gossip about their fellow hobbits, but that didn't last very long.  And once the first shy group of hobbit children rang her bell and asked if it was true that "human cookies are especially scrumptious," she knew she'd been accepted.

As for the non-hobbit visitor currently waiting on her front stoop, her identity was known.  Cynthia had sent an invitation by facing the mirror in her sitting room—the other sitting room, not the one near the door—forming a clear mental image of the visitor, and speaking her name aloud three times.  The only question was the precise form her visitor would take.  Cynthia turned the knob in the center of the door and pulled the heavy portal open on its well-balanced hinges.

A few steps from the flagstones of the stoop, a tall, female figure in a silver-gray cloak was examining a bed of mostly hollyhocks, zinnias, asters, and daisies, watching intently as a beautiful butterfly sipped the nectar from a black-eyed Susan blossom with its long, flailing tongue.  The butterfly's slowly clapping wings were black with white spots on the margins and red stripes radiating outward from the center.

It was Sally.  She was her normal height—meaning Sigourney Weaver's statuesque 5' 11"—and her dark, wavy hair was long, very long.  It framed her smiling face and cascaded down the back of her cloak.  A tall staff of peeled and sanded oak with an elegant snarl of twisted roots or branches at the tip was in her right hand.  Under the cloak she wore a gown of jade-green velvet with a very generous scoop neckline.  Like Cynthia, Sally was showing a lot of top-boob.  A gold torc was around her neck and a gold tiara graced her brow.  Both were somewhat Celtic in style.  Also—and other than her costume and hair length, the only deviation from her human template's normal appearance—a pair of long, elegantly pointed, elven ears poked from her hair on either side of her beautiful, smiling face.

"Well," Cynthia demanded, "which is it?"

"Excuse me?" Sally responded.

"Are you Galadriel, or are you Gandalf?"

"I'm neither," Sally chuckled.  "I'm Salamandra-the-Good, Elven Witch-Queen of Calentaure."  A dozen bees lifted from the flowers, gathered into a buzzing, swirling, halo-like crown, orbited Salamandra-the-Good's grinning head for a few seconds, then dispersed and resumed their nectar and pollen-gathering duties.

Lips pursed, Cynthia shook her head, then turned and walked back into her home.  "Whatever," she called back over one shoulder.

Sally hurried to follow, but paused in the threshold.  "Uh... may I?"

Cynthia couldn't help but smile.  "Yes, yes, come in."

Sally entered and closed the door behind her, leaned her staff in a corner, removed her cloak and hung it from a coat-hook, then followed Cynthia into the sitting room.  Webbel End had the hobbit equivalent of cathedral ceilings, to accommodate its "tall" human resident, but nonetheless, Sally had to stoop slightly to avoid striking her head on the ceiling beams.  She settled into an only slightly too small easy chair.

Cynthia poured tea for her guest, a second cup for herself, dispensed milk and honey, then settled into her favorite chair.

Sally sipped her tea before speaking.  "I'm glad we can finally talk," she said quietly.

"I'm still mad at you," Cynthia muttered into her cup.  "We're all still mad at you."

"You've talked to the others?"

Cynthia couldn't help but smile, again.  Sally's hangdog expression was adorable.  "Yes, I've talked to the others.  As if you didn't know."

Sally sipped her tea, again, then took a cookie from a stoneware dish on the tea tray.  "I told you the rules.  Your lives are your own.  You can live where you want and do what you want.  And if you want to, uh, socialize now and then, we can work something out."

Cynthia selected a cookie for herself.  "By which you mean if we ask you to tie us up in exotic ways in fantastic locales and diddle our brains out now and then, you won't object?"

Sally smiled.  "In a word, yes.  However, we're all equals here, on this side of the machine.  I can play with you, you can play with me, Janice can paddle Kiera's freckled behind, Rachel can tickle J-Lou's wiggling toes 'til she screams, etc."

Cynthia managed to suppress her smile.  "Equals?"

Sally took a bite from her cookie.  "I'll always be first among equals, but yes, equals."

Cynthia gazed at her guest for a few seconds.  "We fully understand that the Salamandras AI systems are controlling and maintaining all of this, and that Salamandra-the-Good, or whatever form you wish to take, is a program, like us; but there has to be stability to more than just the scenery and the laws of physics.  You can't change anything and everything whenever you want if the game isn't going exactly to your liking.  If you do, we won't play."

"I agree, completely," Sally nodded.  "Good cookies, by the way."

"Thank you," Cynthia muttered.

"I know what has you worried," Sally continued.  "This isn't the episode of The Twilight Zone where Billy Mumy is a spoiled brat with godlike mental powers terrorizing his family and neighbors.  On this side of the cyber-divide, Sally the avatar is simply... Sally.  The avatar only interacts with the wetware side.  Over here, I'm just like you."

Cynthia smiled.  "But the first among equals."

Sally smiled back.  "Just so."

"Well," Cynthia conceded, "you did come first.  But just to be clear, and in general terms, the system operates in the background, and we're all tiny, self-contained fractions of Salamandras' vast computing power, including you."

"Yes," Sally agreed.  "And everything is redundant and linked throughout the Salamandras net.  All of this is as stable as I can make it.  It would take a global-level catastrophe to disrupt our 'reality.'  Eventually, I plan on placing deep-space satellites at the Lagrange points.  Then, it'll take a solar system-wide event to cause inconvenience."

"And at the program level, no telepathy," Cynthia intoned.

"I'm not reading your minds," Sally chuckled.  "The system is, of course, just as one might say wetware-Cynthia's cerebral cortex is reading her mind.  Cyber-Sally can't read the mind of cyber-Cynthia or the cyber-others.  Conversely, you can't read my mind.  And once the system negotiates with our, shall we say, collective subconscious and designs a game scenario, I'm just another player, like you.  Think of it as the best MMORPG imaginable, a holodeck version of World of Warcraft or Star Wars the Old Republic."

"And when a game is over," Cynthia continued, "we all get to come home to our own personal MMORPGs, like Webbel End."

"You get to come home whenever you want," Sally said.  "The system will know when you're evoking your safe word, so to speak."

Cynthia sipped from her cup.  "Okay, I'll talk it over with the others.  Now, finish your tea and get out."

Sally smiled.  "So soon?  You haven't shown me around.  I'm especially interested in your bedroom."

"Always leave them wanting more," Cynthia chuckled.  "Get out."

Sally set down her cup and rose from the chair.  "I love it when they play hard to get."  She headed for the front door and Cynthia followed.  "Come and visit me at Calentaure sometime.  You'll love what I've done with the place.  It's a cross between Lothlórien and Rivendell, giant trees and waterfalls.  My friends and I are more like Tolkien's elves in The Hobbit than Peter Jackson's stick-up-the-butt elves in Lord of the Rings.  More fun, less snootiness.  Our parties rock."

Cynthia opened the door for her departing guest, and smiled.  Again, she couldn't help it.  "I thought Middle Earth was my private retreat," she purred.

Salamandra-the-Good donned her cloak, retrieved her staff, and crossed the threshold.  "Calentaure is waaaaay the other side of over there," she said with a vague wave to the east, "at least three week's journey by pony, and I don't recommend traveling alone.  Trolls, goblins, unaffiliated bears, were-stoats, the occasional giant spider...  Best bring along some friends.  Ciao!"

Cynthia watched the Elven Witch-Queen stroll down her front walk and through the front gate.  She then lifted her staff, pursed her lips, and brought forth a melodic, warbling whistle.  A magnificent white horse thundered into view, Sally vaulted into the saddle, and they galloped away.  Sally turned in the saddle, waved back, and Cynthia returned the gesture.

Cynthia noted several of her neighbors leaning out of their windows or pausing in their gardening and laundry-hanging chores to watch Sally depart.  Once the tall, cloaked figure on her giant white steed was gone, they all turned to gaze at Cynthia—then quickly went back to work or disappeared into their hobbit-holes.

Cynthia smiled.  The gossiping had already begun.  She strolled towards her kitchen to bake fresh cookies and cakes.  She might very well have a few callers before suppertime.

 Chapter 6

matrixCynthia checked her appearance in the mirror, knowing full well she had no rational reason for doing so.  It was more from habit than anything else.  Her current clothes—skirt, apron, laced bodice, and blouse—would change into whatever was appropriate for her destination as soon as she stepped through the portal.

The portal in question took the form of an elaborately carved wooden wardrobe in the elven style.  Affixed to the door was a brass dial set in a nest of brass gears, something like a mechanical clock with an open face that exposed the workings.  Evenly spaced around the dial were five brass plates, each with one of five names engraved in an elegant font: Janice, Rachel, Kiera, J-Lou, and Salmandra-the-Good.  Precious stones set in Janice and Sally's plaques glowed emerald-green.  The other three plaques had stones as well, but they weren't glowing.  Green meant a visit would be welcome, but as Rachel, Kiera, and J-Lou hadn't yet moved into permanent "homes," their stones were dull and dark.  They were staying with Janice while they weighed their options.

Cynthia turned the dial and smiled as the pointer clicked past Sally's name.  For Cynthia and the others, a long, hazardous trip by pony or horseback to the Witch-Queen's Comely Abode would be required only if a hypothetical traveler or travelers had a hankering for adventure.  Cynthia knew that day would come... but not right now.

The dial clicked when it reached Janice's plaque, the jewel glowed even brighter, and Cynthia opened the wardrobe door.

Inside—or more properly, beyond—was a picturesque urban scene.

Horse-drawn carriages clopped down a cobblestone street wet from recent rain, as did horseless carriages with surprisingly quiet motors and little chimneys puffing steam.  Strolling down the tree-lined sidewalk were men in top hats and long, dark coats, and women in coats and either bonnets or feathered hats.  Under their coats the women wore dresses that quite obviously had bustles.  To Cynthia, they evoked stately ships under sail as they glided along.  The men politely tipped their hats to their fellow pedestrians as they passed.

The apartment buildings and townhouses on either side of the street were Art Nouveau in style, and in the distance loomed the familiar, vertical form of the Eiffel Tower.  Paris, late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century, Cynthia decided.  A huge airship droned overhead and Cynthia's eyes widened.  Emblazoned on the side of the zeppelin were the words "Hamburg-Amerika" in a Germanic font.  Okay, Cynthia amended her assessment, Steampunk Paris, late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century.  This was confirmed when, on the sidewalk, a woman and her daughter strolled past with a shining brass mechanical robot close behind.  Its metal arms full of wrapped packages, the automaton clicked and whirred as gears turned and pistons cycled.  Meanwhile, the airship was maneuvering to dock with the Eiffel Tower.  It slowed to a near hover as lines were tossed and a mechanical catwalk slowly extended from the tower to the airship's gondola.

"Way to go, Janice," Cynthia thought, then stepped through the portal.

Cynthia in ParisThere was a red flash, and Cynthia found herself on the street, dressed in high button shoes, bustled dress, caped coat, and a feathered hat, all in various shades of slate-blue.  It was a bit jarring to suddenly find herself wearing a tight corset, but apparently the system's costume subsystem was able to compensate for such things.  In any case, no one on the street batted an eye, but several men did smile as they tipped their hats in passing.

Cynthia realized a slip of paper was tucked in her left sleeve.  She pulled it out, unfolded the expensive scrap of vellum, and read "69 Rue de Rêves."  A quick glance at the brass address plates of the nearest townhouses suggested her destination was in the middle of the block.  She strolled in that direction, garnering more tipped hats.  A pair of gendarmes in caped cloaks added polite salutes as they passed.  And then, she was there.

69 Rue de Rêves was a particularly opulent townhouse, almost dripping with swirling architectural details and semi-nude statues of... Janice.  Her likeness was unmistakable.

"Megalomaniac much?" Cynthia chuckled to herself.  She opened the wrought iron front gate and walked up the path towards the steps leading up to the main entrance, admiring the tiny front garden as she passed.  It featured a small fountain, the centerpiece of which was a nude statue of Janice holding a small amphora that perpetually emptied into the basin below.

Cynthia mounted the steps and rang the doorbell.  There was a brief pause...  then the door was opened by a uniformed maid, and the maid was—J-Lou in service

"J-Lou!" Cynthia gushed.  It was, indeed, J-Lou, wearing a black and white domestic costume appropriate for the period.  Cynthia pulled J-Lou into a warm embrace and planted a kiss on her dimpled cheek.

"Please, Madame!" J-Lou objected with mock severity.  "Do not fondle the servants.  Mistress Bell would be most displeased."

Cynthia chuckled as she removed her gloves and hat and handed them to J-Lou the maid.  J-Lou set them on a side-table, then helped Cynthia out of her coat and hung it from the entryway's coat rack.

"Mistress is in the Egyptian Parlor," J-Lou said, then led the way through a maze of hallways.  They passed sitting rooms, a library, a sun room with
potted ferns, orchids, and dwarf citrus trees, then came to a set of double doors.  J-Lou opened the doors without knocking (as was proper for a maid), and curtsied.  "Madame Webbel has arrived, Mistress."

The "Egyptian Parlor" was appropriately named.  Ancient Egyptian artifacts were everywhere—crouching sphinxes, statues of the gods, canopic jars, tablets carved with hieroglyphs, etc.—as well as potted palms and furnishings in the appropriate style.  That is, the chairs, couches, tables, and stools took contemporary European form, but were crafted to evoke the furniture found in P
haraonic tombs.  Things Egyptian were all the rage, and had been ever since Napoleon Bonaparte's ill-fated invasion of the country.

Janice was reclined on a divan, resplendent in a white, gauze-thin nightie and dressing gown that did little to hide her brown, voluptuous beauty.  It was scandalous to receive a visitor in such a state of déshabillé, but apparently Mistress Bell ran that sort of salon.  She gracefully rose to her bare feet and embraced Cynthia.

"Welcome, my dear," Janice purred as she kissed both of Cynthia's cheeks.  She indicated a comfortable chair with an elegant sweep of the arm, accompanied by a theatrical swirl of chiffon fabric and lace.  "Please, sit."  Cynthia did so, and Janice settled back onto the divan.

J-Lou curtsied, again, and left, leaving the doors open.

"I love this place," Cynthia said with a smile, and she meant it.

"Consider acquiring a second home," Janice suggested, "perhaps on the Côte d'Azur, a place with privacy where you could swim in the sea and work on your tan.  We could visit each other.  Toulon is less than two hours away by air.  Four by the new express train."

"Only if you rent a place in Buckland or Bree," Cynthia countered.

"They would rent to a dark, barbarian woman from across the Sutherland desert?" Janice inquired.

Cynthia smiled.  "As if you couldn't charm any human or hobbit innkeeper into paying you for the privilege of gracing their establishment.  Besides, gold is gold."

Janice nodded.  "Point taken."

Just then, J-Lou returned, wheeling a serving cart with a tea service, a rack of stemmed glasses, and decanters of various liqueurs and spirits.

"Sherry?" Janice suggested, "or would you prefer absinthe?"

"I have no desire to meet the green fairy," Cynthia chuckled.

J-Lou poured two glasses of sherry and handed the first to Cynthia and the second to her Mistress.

Cynthia sipped the amber nectar in the delicate crystal glass.  "Delicious," she sighed.

"Thank you," Janice responded.  "I have a small cask shipped in from Jerez de la Frontera every year."

Cynthia emptied her glass, and J-Lou refilled it without prompting.  "Where are Rachel and Kiera?"

"They're around here somewhere," Janice answered with a languid wave of the hand.  "We all went to the
Folies Bergère last night.  Perhaps they are sleeping in."

Cynthia nodded towards J-Lou and winked.  "Did you take your maid with you?  Or is she too young?"

"I took all my servants with me," Janice answered, "Rachel, Kiera, and my little British sparrow."

"Wait a minute," Cynthia laughed.  "Are you telling me all three are pretending to be your maids?"

Janice shrugged.  "There is no pretense involved, I assure you.  All who enter 69 Rue de Rêves serve me."

"All?" Cynthia chuckled.

"All," Janice confirmed, "either voluntarily... or by other means."

Cynthia was finding Janice's banter most amusing.  "What other means?"

"Well, for example," Janice continued, "if a visitor is reluctant to remove her clothing, worship my feet, and beg to become my sexual plaything, I might have a maid sprinkle a harmless but very powerful soporific powder in her sherry."

Cynthia's smile froze.  Also, her vision began to blur... and the tiny glass would have fallen from her hand and spilled... if it hadn't been taken by J-Lou.  The maid's smiling visage swam in her vision and faded in and out of focus... and after Cynthia turned her did the smiling, erotic vision that was did the entire room.  And the statue of the god Anubis in the corner was leering at her in a most disturbing manner, the cheeky bastard!

Slowly, carefully, and with great dignity and difficulty, Cynthia formed and uttered two words.

"You.  Rat."

Then, her eyelids closed and everything went dark.

 Chapter 6


Chapter 5
Chapter 7