Friday, November 18, 2022

Captain Jack and the Race to Redula

Disclaimer: The following story is a purely fictional account. Any relationship to any real person living or dead is coincidental.  The narrative contains male-on-male bondage with sexual themes, torture, and mental abuse.  It is intended for mature readers who wish to view such material, and for whom it is legal to do so.

The author is grateful to Metal of for the inspiration for this story, and to slavebladeboi for the valuable help and insight he provided reviewing this story before its release.

Copyright © 2022 by POW.  For spam prevention, an animal name has been added to the author's e-mail address.  Remove the animal name to get the actual address: POWauthor zebra at yahoo dot com.  This story may be freely copied and distributed so long as it is copied in its entirety, unchanged, including the author credit information and disclaimer.  Other POW stories are available at The author welcomes feedback.

Captain Jack and the Race to Redula

Table Of Contents

  1. Pyrellia's Wing
  2. The Simspace
  3. Deeper In
  4. Capture
  5. Interrogation
  6. Battle Of Wills
  7. It Can Always Get Worse
  8. All Too Real
  9. Illusions
  10. Keep Moving
  11. Kappa Redulans

1: Pyrellia's Wing

Unical date: 3752.563.21

Framing shot: a space station in orbit above a yellow-orange gas giant planet. Cut to interior of station.

"I know this isn't the best of circumstances," Commander Shizaki said, "but there really is no other choice.  We must make do with what we have."

Lieutenant Sam Green tried to keep his face impassive, allowing only concern to show, a slight creasing of the skin between his eyes.  "I understand.  Bareem needs to return home, of course.  But... are you certain there's no one else who could make the trip with me?"  Don't show even a trace of enthusiasm, not a hint.

The commander shook his head with regret.  "No one, I'm afraid.  This station's normal complement is eleven staff, and we're down two as it is so we were already stretched thin even before this emergency.  The need to get Lieutenant Farquhar home for his father's funeral pushes us to the absolute limit.  I'll be sending Lieutenant Urkenzie out in our one available interstellar-capable ship to take him back to Kerangia and then return.  That's a fourteen-day round trip, and during that time we'll have to shut down parts of our operations.  That will result in angry communications from research teams all over this sector, each one of them in high dudgeon over the absence of data they were expecting us to provide.  I anticipate at least one court case to be filed over the fact that our staffing shortage meant missing out on the once-in-ten-thousand-years opportunity to, I don't know, capture the spectral signature of a snout-nosed pulsar or something equally absurd.  The case will of course be dismissed as frivolous but it will still be a tedious bureaucratic hassle."

He put his hands flat on his desk.  "But that is my problem to deal with.  Yours, of course, is to get those tribronium plates to Kappa Redulans.  Those people are in dire need, and compared with that, the conniption fits of inconvenienced researchers don't even register."

"Of course, of course," Sam agreed.  "Main power system destroyed, backup teetering on the brink of collapse, which means no air recycling and no climate control after it fails.  And so far away!"

"Yes, as far from this station as this station is from Earth.  And there are no other bases between here and there.  Not even an outpost.  Your delivery is their one hope of rescue."

Sam found himself torn.  On the one hand, there was a powerful urge to just get moving already.  After the explosion, the eight surviving people at Kappa Redulans were in desperate need, with only a damaged backup power system keeping their station habitable.  If it failed... well, that didn't bear thinking about.

On the other hand, there was nothing Sam could do at this moment to speed the process along.  He and Bareem had arrived at Research Station R-98 an hour earlier and Commander Shizaki's crew was now handling the loading of supplies for the rest of the trip, cannibalizing their own equipment to help save Kappa.  He wanted to be there helping, but his unfamiliarity with R-98's layout meant he would mostly just be in the way.  Besides, this wrinkle with his co-rescuer's need to turn around and go back home had to be dealt with just as much as the physical preparation.  As a result, he was itching to move but had nothing useful to spend his energy on and instead sat, fidgeting, in the commander's office.

"When I was recruited for this emergency delivery mission, they told me it was going to be a long trip, but no one could say why Kappa Redulans was built so far away.  Do you know?"

"Oh, it's the classic answer for why anything is where it is: location, location, location.  The Redula system is a complicated multiple with something like twenty gravitationally-bound stellar-mass objects and countless rocks and iceballs.  The system includes one neutron star and one black hole with roughly the mass of Earth's sun, very unusual.  Lots of interesting high-energy particle physics to study.  And a spectacular view, I'm told.  The whole thing is enveloped in a cloud of dust and gas and when those high-energy particles strike the cloud, it glows spectacularly, like the northern lights on Earth only on a much vaster scale.  I've seen photos, but those who've been to the Redula system say there's nothing like the experience of being in Kappa's observation dome with that magnificent sky surrounding you.  You'll have to tell me about it on your way back."

The brief moment of lighter mood faded and his voice once again took on a more somber tone.  "Of course, this is not a tourist trip.  If the power fails and the shields go down, all those high-energy particles are going to stop being an interesting physics project and turn into a lethal sleet of radiation.  They've lost navigation control as well, so they can't move the station to a more sheltered spot."

"Ah," Sam said.  "So it's not just a matter of fresh air and climate control."

"Right.  Those shields must stay up or it's all over.  No battery backup is strong enough to supply the energy they require, so you absolutely must get these tribronium plates to them."

"I will.  It's fortunate that you're able to spare some of yours."

"It will be a hardship to do without them, but only a temporary one.  It's much easier to get a resupply mission to us than to Redula.  One is already on its way, in fact, scheduled to arrive in five days.  We'll be fine.  But you can't wait that long, of course."

"Right, I need to be going as soon as the ship is loaded."  He felt the urge to be on the move grow stronger once more.

"Another hour at most, they tell me.  Speaking of your ship, it's a marvel!  It's clearly not a Starmada vessel... is it your personal craft?"

"Mine?  I wish!  Starmada requisitioned it for the emergency.  The owner will get it back once this crisis is over.  He was not at all happy about loaning it out, I understand, but he'll be fairly compensated for the inconvenience.  Of course, if you're rich enough to afford a starship, I can't even imagine what 'fair compensation' for borrowing it means.  But yeah, it's amazing, isn't it?  Nice little pleasure yacht for gadding about.  It's got everything we'll... or well, rather, that I'll need for this trip."

Specifically that simspace, he thought, but did not say out loud.  No need to mention that at all.

"But the reason they commandeered it is the engines," he said instead.  "Hugely overpowered for the size of the ship.  I should be able to shave five days off the usual travel time, getting there in only twenty days instead of twenty-five.  And that's pushing the engines up to their nominal limits.  I might even be able to do it in less, but there's the risk that I'd overload them and burn them out, and then I wouldn't get to Kappa at all.  It'll be a judgement call as the journey progresses as to whether to try to squeeze a bit more speed out of them.  If the situation at Kappa takes a turn for the worse, maybe I'll risk pushing the engines into the red."

The commander's communicator badge chimed.  "Commander, we're about fifteen minutes away from having Lieutenant Green's ship loaded."

"Understood," Shizaki replied.  He stood up.  "It seems that the estimate of another hour was excessive.  You can shave another 45 minutes off your estimated arrival time.  Every little bit helps, I guess.  We should get you ready for departure."

"Sounds good.  I'll go say good-bye to Bareem and then get ready to go."

They traveled through the research station's narrow corridors.  "I truly regret that we can't spare anyone to accompany you on the journey," Shizaki said.  "I know this puts more burden on you than you would otherwise have to bear, but..."  He trailed off.

"It's fine," Sam said.  "An extra pilot would be good to have as backup, but the trip only needs one.  Besides, you've already contributed more than enough in the way of supplies.  I'll manage the trip on my own."  He was reasonably certain – or perhaps he was just wishing – that his tone of voice was conveying apprehension rather than glee at the prospect.

"Thank you," the commander replied.  "I wish you a safe and speedy journey.  Go save those people."

"Aye aye, sir."

Unical date: 3752.563.19 (two days earlier)

"I gotta say, for a luxury yacht, I sort of expected more, oh, y'know... luxury?"  Lieutenant Junior Grade Bareem Farquhar said, gesturing with both arms at the Spartan surroundings.

The exterior of the Pyrellia's Wing was all sleek lines and smooth curves.  The interior, on the other hand, looked more appropriate for a cargo transport than a rich man's plaything.  It contained four cabins of bare-bones utilitarian design: minuscule nooks arranged along the outer walls with barely enough room to fit a cot in and still leave room to stand.  Two of them were large enough to contain double cots – or one-and-three-quarters-sized cots, more accurately – but still had very little floor space.  Drawers recessed into the walls served for storage.  The yacht could technically sleep six, but only if "sleeping" was the only thing the cabins were used for.

The dining area, likewise, was compact and equipped with basic furniture and supplies: a table with chairs for four, a small sink, a refrigerator and freezer (both empty), a few plates and items of cutlery in a small cabinet.  There wasn't much, but the tiny space made the setting feel cluttered all the same.  The synthesizer was the sort of model you'd expect to find in a low-budget hotel lobby, offering choices of three hot beverages, seven cold, and a menu of approximately twenty different meals and snacks.

There was also a transport deck with capacity for two and a bathroom area with two toilets, one sink, and one standing-room-only shower.  The rest of the space – a cavernous expanse that took up about two-thirds of the habitable area of the ship – was open, empty, and bare from floor to ceiling.  Its sides were all similarly plain and unadorned.  It would have seemed like a cargo hold except for the fact that the ship had an actual cargo hold further astern.

Only the command bridge was furnished in a manner befitting the elegant, graceful look of the Pyrellia's exterior.  This room, at the nose of the yacht, contained state-of-the-art controls and furnishings that exuded understated luxury.  The engines, it had been explained to the pair during their briefing, were massively oversized for the ship, which was the reason the ship had been commandeered for this mission.  They were panthers attached to the spine of the ship, loaded with power ready be unleashed at the touch of a button or even the utterance of a word.  The inertial dampeners were robust and finely tuned enough to ensure that whatever horrendous acceleration the ship experienced, the bubbles in its occupants' champagne flutes would barely deviate from their steady vertical rise.  The controlling AI was so sophisticated that it could operate about 95% on its own with no attention from a pilot required.  As for the human-interface portion, there was a console of sleek design and understated elegance with an imposing yet comfortable captain's chair to sit in while using it.

Lieutenant Sam Green was not wealthy himself, but he knew enough about how wealth and the trappings thereof worked.  True wealth displayed itself subtly.  Gaudy shows of gilt filigree on chair arms or bejeweled drinking goblets were tacky, the sort of gauche display that could be expected from someone newly arrived into money.  True wealth, on the other hand, would be evidenced by, say, a small, innocuous portrait on a wall that turned out to be a Sonnamme original.  The command center had the hallmarks of this sort of understated display.  Sam suspected that the leather of the captain's chair, for instance, was neither a faux substitute nor a synthesized copy of true leather.  Rather, it was very likely to be the skin of an actual animal that had lived and breathed and walked.  Such material was hideously expensive these days and illegal on most settled worlds.  Only on the newest frontier colony planets, where populations were low and scattered and law enforcement was of a style befitting the Wild West, could genuine leather be obtained directly from its source.  And since most people couldn't tell the difference between the real thing and a synthesized copy, that made it a perfect vehicle for a subtle illustration of the owner's power and status.

So why wasn't the rest of the ship outfitted the same way?

"I know what you mean," Sam replied.  "No expense spared on the engines and the AI system, but the decor is straight out of Alcatraz."

"It doesn't make any sense!" Bareem complained.

"Oh, I bet it makes sense to the owner.  We just haven't figured out his method yet."

Shortly afterward, having explored everything there was to explore, they headed to the dining nook for dinner.  Bareem selected "Protein Patty #2 (Fruits de Mer)" from the synthesizer while Sam chose "South Asian Medley".

"Can I have a bite of yours?" Bareem asked halfway through the meal.  Sam obliged him with a sample.  "I knew it!  There's no difference.  They taste exactly the same!  I bet if you closed your eyes and I switched plates, you wouldn't even notice that you were eating fake crab cakes instead of fake curry.  What the hell?  How could the owner of a yacht like this be willing to eat this garbage?"

Sam shrugged.  "Not much we can do about it," he said.  "We're committed to this for a good long while.  Two days to RS-98, then twenty more to Kappa Redulans."

"Yeah, I know," Bareem moped.  "Then another twenty days back to civilization.  I wonder if my shoes would taste better than this?"

They spent the night in separate cabins, opting for the two with the double cots just for the slightly larger space they provided.  It was a long, uncomfortable night.

The following day, the mystery became clear.

Unical date: 3752.563.20

After a night of tossing and turning, Sam managed to fall asleep toward morning and thus woke up well after Bareem.  He had breakfast alone and it was just as unsatisfying as dinner.  "Protein Patty #1 (Breakfast Bounty)" failed to taste anything like sausage, and the substance that the synthesizer produced in response to the command "coffee" was so bad that Sam didn't even drink half before tossing it back into the synthesizer to be recycled.

He returned to his cabin afterward to try to pass the time by reading a trashy pulp novel on his pad.  It was rot and he knew it, describing the adventures of Captain Jack, a swashbuckling space pirate implausibly plundering his way through the starlanes, leaving a trail of broken hearts, fist-shaking merchants, and outwitted law officers in his wake.  It was pure garbage, written with breathlessly hyperbolic prose and enough plot holes to supply an entire Swiss cheese factory, but it was fun and absorbing and didn't require much mental effort to read.  For Sam, the Captain Jack novels were escape, and escape was exactly what he needed in this bland, grey environment.

A knock sounded at the flimsy door.

"Open," he called, the door obeyed.  On the other side was Bareem, bouncing like a puppy.  Sam rose to meet him but Bareem wouldn't stand still, bounding into the room, hopping around in a quick circle and leaving again, beckoning Sam to follow.  "Oh, you were right, my friend, you were absolutely right.  Come on, you gotta see this!"

"Right about what?" Sam said, but Bareem was already gone.  Sam emerged from his tiny cell to see Bareem practically skipping down the short hallway.  He turned the corner and found Bareem waiting at the door to the vast empty space, which looked exactly as vast and empty today as it had the day before.  The entered and Bareem closed the door behind them.

"Watch this," he said, eyes filled with glee.  "Pyrellia, resume program."

Immediately, the grey walls around them disappeared, replaced with an infinite horizon all around.  The two men found themselves standing near a shore.  Before them a rocky cliff spilled down and away to end in a churning mass of white-tipped water half a dozen meters below.  Above, a magenta sky loomed.  This was not the deep purple of a post-sunset evening on Earth, but a redder hue that earthly skies only saw near dawn and dusk.  Here it was not twilight; the sun stood high in the sky, an electric-bright pinpoint of light rather than a disk.

"It's a simspace!" Sam exclaimed.

"Exactly!" Bareem answered in a satisfied voice.

They were standing on a flat patch of rock.  Brush and small trees – desert foliage – grew all around, stretching thick, waxy leaves up to the purple sky.  A pair of chairs waited nearby, aimed out toward the ocean.  The sound of the crashing breakers filled the air, though not so loudly as to make speech impossible.  The whole scene was beautiful, but unsettlingly so, as though the beauty was designed for non-human eyes.  Which, as he thought about it, was probably just the case.  That reddish-purple sky... some race somewhere probably found that color soothing, but for Sam it raised the hackles on his neck just a bit.  The scene was exotic and fascinating, beautiful even, but not a place of comfort and relaxation.

Next to them was a pool swirling with water that poured in from a stream higher up the rocky hill behind them and drained by another stream that led off to the ocean below.  Wisps of vapor curled up from the pool.

"Go ahead, dip your hand in," Bareem urged.  Sam bent down and touched the water: warm, bordering on hot.  The perfect temperature, in fact, for sinking a weary body into.  Much better for bathing than the tiny shower with its limited supply of... oh!  Understanding suddenly blossomed in Sam's mind.

"You got it," Bareem said seeing his expression.  "This is why the cabins and the kitchen are so crappy – no one ever uses them!  I bet the owner spends all his time here, simulating other places and times for everything he does... eating, sleeping, playtime."

"Of course!" Sam agreed.  "That has to be it.  The only reason the cabins and kitchen exist at all must be to satisfy some legal requirement.  Whatever jurisdiction this ship is registered in must have regulations saying something like 'any vessel of type blah-blah must contain lodging facilities suitable for...' and so on."

"Yeah, so they're there, but the owner spends all his time in here, meaning, he spends all his time anywhere he wants."

"How did you figure it out?"

Bareem grinned and shrugged.  "I asked the ship's AI what the big empty room was for.  Kind of obvious in hindsight, we should have thought of it sooner.  Although it wasn't as simple as that, really.  There are two AIs on board, one for the simspace and one for everything else.  The two systems are completely separate apart from a tiny low-bandwidth channel, so in a sense it's really an isolated room within the ship.  Everything is separate: climate control, gravity, interface, controlling software, so it took me a little bit of sleuthing to figure it out.  And when I did, I just asked the simspace to launch whatever sim the owner had last run.  Speaking of which... Pyrellia, what is this simulation?"

A warm voice responded.  "This is Raffik Island on Schezaria in the Proyannis system."

"And what does the owner of this vessel use it for?"

"I am not authorized to answer that question."

Sam shrugged and would have let it drop, but Bareem was apparently filled with curiosity.

"Pyrellia, request full control of –"

Sam stopped him with a hand to the shoulder.  "Bareem, we don't need to know that.  We're invading the guy's privacy enough just by being on his ship at all."

"I'm not gonna violate the guy's secrets.  I just want to know what this rig is capable of.  Besides, it might not even work.  They granted us full control to the ship's systems, but the simspace system is separate so it might not even recognize our authorization codes.  But I want to try because either we use the simspace or else spend the rest of this journey eating crappy food, sleeping on crappy beds, bored out of our minds.  You don't really want to do that, do you?"

No, he really didn't.  "Okay, fine."

Bareem repeated his request.  "Fingerprint, retinal scan, and authentication code are required for full access," the voice replied.  "Please use the console on the bridge."

Grinning at Sam, Bareem said, "If my hunch is right, this is what that low-bandwidth channel is for... authentication.  Wanna tag along?  It doesn't matter if you overhear my code.  It does no good without the finger and the eyeball to go with it.  Besides, they gave you the same admin access as me."

They left the simspace and walked to the bridge.  Just inside the door was the console.  Bareem placed his index finger on a pad and his right eye up next to the scanner that waited unobtrusively there.  "Peter Paper pecked a puck of purple poppers," he said.

"Access granted," the AI confirmed.  This one's voice was different, a distinctive, slightly nasal contralto.

"I hope you never need admin access after you've had a drink or two," Sam told him as they walked back to the simspace.  "In fact, I'm amazed you were able to say that sober."

"An altered tongue-twister for a passphrase... just a little extra security," Bareem said.  "Now, Pyrellia, what was this simulation used for?"

"Mr. Featherstone uses this simulation for bathing and relaxation."

Bareem glanced at Sam.  "See?  Nothing awful.  I wouldn't mind a nice soak in that tub myself another time.  But for now... Pyrellia, what did Mr. Featherstone do for dining?"

A virtual screen appeared in the air in front of Bareem containing a long list of names.  Sam glimpsed a few: Redwall, The Silverine, L'Auberge Tremont.  "What are you in the mood for?" Bareem asked.  "Was your breakfast as crappy as mine?  How about we make up for it with a good brunch?  Pyrellia, take us to wherever Mr. Featherstone last had brunch."

The roar of the ocean subsided and around them the purple sky and tan rocks faded from view.  In their place an elegant dining room materialized, white tablecloths and burgundy napkins, piled draperies and thick, lush carpeting.

"Wow," Sam said, looking around at the quiet bustle of diners and waitstaff extending out far beyond where he knew the edge of the simspace to be, the illusion of depth and distance flawless.  "Feeling a little out of place here in my uniform."

"It's a sim, they won't care.  We can dress up in costumes next time.  Right now I'm hungry!"

As if on cue, an impeccably-dressed maître d'hôtel approached them.  Sam's feeling of out-of-place-ness doubled as the man glided up to them, giving every impression of sneering at them without moving the muscles of his face so much as a micron.  Or perhaps that was all in Sam's imagination?  "You must be guests of his lordship," the maître d' said when he arrived.  "Would you care to be seated?  Or perhaps you would care to wait at the bar until his lordship arrives?"

"Ah, his lordship, regrettably, will not be joining us today," Bareem said with a glance at Sam, "but he sends his compliments.  He also, uh, asked us to convey to you how much he enjoyed brunch the last time he was here and suggested we might appreciate the same."

The maître d' gave a tiny bow and gestured them over to a table.  "Very good, sirs."

Forty minutes later the two officers were stuffed to the gills, having consumed slivers of smoked salmon, crepes with blueberry compote, spring greens frittatas, herbed onion tarts, savory leek and bacon pies, eggs and cream cheese en cocotte, warm moist rolls that breathed steam when cracked open, apple muffins... and the best-tasting cup of coffee Sam had ever encountered.

"I don't think I can move," Sam said.

"Me neither," agreed Bareem.  "Pyrellia, load up Mr. Featherstone's favorite beach scene, please."

The restaurant swiftly disappeared and was replaced with a classic tropical beach: palm trees, white sand, turquoise water.  The table had disappeared but the chairs they were sitting in remained since removing them would have sent the two men sprawling on their asses.  The dark wood furniture and ornately-embroidered cushions were glaringly out of place on the warm sand.  The men rose and Bareem had the chairs replaced with more suitable ones, low to the ground and able to recline.

"Feels weird to skip out without paying for the meal," Sam said.

"Yeah," Bareem agreed.  "But you get used to it.  At least, I sure plan to get used to it over the course of the rest of the trip!"

"Bareem, remember: the reason we're here at all is to get those supplies to Kappa Redulans.  This isn't a pleasure cruise or a vacation."

"I know.  But look, the ship is going to get there when it gets there.  We're going to be pushing the engines as hard as we safely can but even so, the ship is so smart it's going to fly itself the whole way there.  We pilots are on board for undocking at the beginning and docking again at the end and that's about it.  Maybe a bit of grunt labor at loading and unloading.  Unless something goes wrong, we're more cargo than crew.  And the only reason they're sending two of us is in case one succumbs to food poisoning on the way, which I would argue is much more likely if we keep eating that slop from the synthesizer.  We're stuck here for twenty-one more days... why not enjoy the trip?"

Sam dithered for a bit, but it was tough to poke any holes in Bareem's reasoning.  He was right – they were stuck on board with no official duties to perform until they arrived at RS-98 to pick up the supplies that Kappa Redulans needed, and once they were under way again they would have nothing to do for another twenty days after that.  It was a classic situation that would be familiar to military men from long before the spacefaring era began: hurry up and wait.

So they could wait in tiny, dimly-lit cabins eating packaged sawdust... or they could wait on this gloriously comfortable beach and dine on foie gras and caviar.  It really was not a hard decision to make.

"OK.  You're right.  I'm just going to go get my book."  He made to stand up, but Bareem reached over and stopped him with an arm to the chest.  "Belay that, sir," he said, patting the ground between the two chairs.  "Pyrellia, beam Lieutenant Green's book from his cabin to this patch of sand here."

Obligingly, the pad containing Captain Jack: Across The Orion Nebula and a dozen more titles in the series shimmered into existence right next to Sam's chair.  He reached down to pick it up but Bareem was quicker.  Sam tried to grab the pad from him, but Bareem held it out of reach until Sam gave up trying and leaned back in his chair.

"Captain Jack and the Tyrant of Tarantulon," Bareem read, scrolling through the titles available on the pad.  "Captain Jack and the Vault of Shadows... oh, Captain Jack: the Trouble with Trybbels, puh-leeeeze."  He looked dramatically away and dangled the pad out toward Sam as if it were a banana peel or a soiled diaper.  "Man, any other time I would say I don't know how you can stand to read that crap, but right here, right now, that sort of mind-rotting drivel is exactly what the situation calls for, so here you go, enjoy."

Sam grabbed the pad.  "Hey, I happen to like mind-rotting drivel!"  They settled in, nestling their heels in the soft sand and letting the very real-feeling sunshine warm their toes.

"You know what," Sam said a few minutes later as puffy white clouds scudded by overhead, "you were right about getting used to this.  In fact, I think I already have."

Over the course of the rest of the day, they explored the capabilities of the simspace, which were vast indeed.  Just the brief interaction with the restaurant staff had been enough to indicate that this was a top-of-the-line model.  With the cheapest systems, you might get good-looking scenery, a convincing illusion of solidity but no actual substance.  If you tried to touch an object, your fingers would pass right through it, and woe befall you if you attempted to sit down on the illusion of a chair.  As for characters, they were believable enough as long as you kept your interactions with them simple.  These days, such low-end systems were more accurately described as "holotanks" than actual simspaces, but the term "simspace" had originally been applied to the technology back when it was fresh and new, and now inertia and tradition kept it from changing.

Mid-price systems – which were the best that Sam had ever encountered in his own personal experience up until now – used the same technology as transporters and synthesizers to provide actual solidity: chairs you could sit on, glasses you could hold in your hand, characters you could touch who displayed a reasonably sophisticated range of behaviors and vocabulary.  It was possible to push them to the point where their ability to sustain a conversation could not keep up with an actual person's but you had to work at doing it.  Modern simspaces were a giant step up from holotanks and there were tens of thousands of programs available to be experienced in them.

The simspace on Pyrellia's Wing had capabilities as far beyond mid-price systems as those systems were from holotanks.  The way that maître d' had sneered at them without making an overt display of it... that was sophisticated programming.  Unless it had all been in Sam's imagination, of course, which seemed more and more likely every time he thought about it.  Starmada uniforms, while comfortable and practical for everyday shipboard use, were hardly suitable for high-end dining establishments and it was probably his own discomfort that had caused him to imagine the simulated man's simulated disdain.  The environment had been so convincing that he had really felt immersed in it, forgetting entirely that he was in a simspace at all.  The equipment was that good. 

And so it was for all the other environments they explored.  A casino.  A museum.  A vast subterranean cavern eerily lit by glowing crystals.  A scorched plain baked by twin suns (Sam had felt sweat beading on his forehead; was that from actual heat or just the convincingness of the display?)  A habitat built from a hollowed-out asteroid, spun up to provide centrifugal "gravity" against the outer walls so that the horizon curved away and upward to either side, curling around and meeting overhead in a dizzying defiance of his brain's expectations of how horizons were supposed to work.

Then, once, a dimly-lit chamber, lots of burgundy velvet all around.  Flashes of skin, both human-colored and not, writhing off in the corners.  A sultry voice asking what sort of wares the two visitors might be interested in sampling...

"Pyrellia, end program!" Bareem called loudly.  The simspace powered down; the illusions were replaced with grey walls, and they were left standing in the enormous open space at the center of the ship.  "Oops," he went on, turning to Sam who was still trying to re-orient himself to the fact that in all their explorations, they had never actually moved more than a few meters from where they were currently standing.  "Now that would definitely be intruding on Mr. Featherstone's privacy."

"Ah," Sam agreed, somewhat flustered, his brain and lips running on auto-pilot.  "Yeah.  Right.  For sure."  His distress wasn't due to those glimpses of skin; Sam was not bothered by, and in fact had no interest in the curvy, squishy bits of flesh that he had seen before Bareem had shut the program down.  Seeing it displayed so brazenly left him feeling vaguely uncomfortable, but not distraught enough to stammer.

The reason he was stammering was because the sight had gotten him to thinking about other types of flesh... firmer flesh... harder flesh... flesh of a type that he found appealing indeed.  He was also thinking of the way that this simspace seemed able to replicate just about anything at all, and to do it most convincingly.   It was the combination of these two thoughts that had gotten him so tongue-tied as to limit his vocal output to one or two words at a time.  Surely it would be no trouble for this marvelous simspace to be able to conjure up a scene similar to the one they had just bailed out of with such unseemly haste, but with different body shapes for the supporting characters, right?  That he would enjoy very much.  And yet, that idea was something he was not at all comfortable sharing with his fellow traveler, who almost certainly did not have the same interests as Sam (though they had never actually discussed the issue).  Not to mention that this was a work mission!

It was a darn shame the two of them would be sharing the whole ride together.  Sam could think of all sorts of ways he could put the simspace to use, but all of them would be much more enjoyable without an audience.  Maybe he could try to subtly suggest some sort of time-sharing arrangement?  And yet the risk of discovery, the secret of his darker tastes being made public...

As it turned out, no such arrangement was necessary.  They arrived at RS-98 to find grim news waiting for Bareem, news that left Sam with very mixed emotions indeed.  Sympathy for his friend and colleague, of course, that first and foremost.  But underneath that, where it would not be seen: heart-pounding excitement and anticipation.

What, exactly, were the limits of what this simspace could do?

2: The Simspace

Unical date: 3752.563.21 (twenty days until scheduled arrival at Kappa Redulans)

Detaching from RS-98 went routinely, and the half-hour journey through normal space to put sufficient distance between his ship and the station before engaging the warp drive was equally uneventful.  The course was already laid in, so the moment the sensors reported that he was safely far enough away, all he had to do was say "Go".  The mighty engines powered up with a muted hum and then, with barely a flicker, he was suddenly moving at a velocity that few others had ever experienced.  Well, "velocity" was an oversimplification of the situation.  His professors back at the university had tried to instill in him an appreciation for the underlying physics of subspace that made warp travel possible, the way that normal space was folded at a quantum level so that a ship using its warp drive wasn't "really" moving (such pedantry!) but rather re-arranging space around itself, but Sam's eyes had always glazed over at the discussions of manifold compression, multi-dimensional vector renormalization, and pseudo-velocity.  As a pilot, he just liked going really fast.

But the novelty of speed had already worn itself out on the first leg of the journey with Bareem.  The two of them had exulted over the pace at which they were traveling... for a few minutes.  Then the reality had set in that it was the AI doing virtually all of the flying, and from inside the ship there was no sensation of speed.  The engines ran so smoothly that the only indication they were on at all was a pervasive, low-frequency hum from the sheer power they were consuming.  It wasn't like the two men could look out the windows and watch the stars passing by like trees alongside a highway.  No, they were little more than cargo in a grey box.

And so it was only minutes after engaging the engines, having assured himself that all systems were functioning normally and that he was on his way with all practical haste to his destination, that Sam found himself at the door to the simspace, heart thumping in his chest, feeling like a kid on Christmas morning eager to rip into the mountain of presents waiting to be opened.

"Pyrellia, show me a menu of porn simulations.  Male characters only."  A virtual screen with thumbnail windows appeared in the air before him.  There were... a lot.  Considering that the yacht's owner was almost certainly straight based on that glimpse he and Bareem had gotten, there was a surprisingly large amount of gay material in the ship's library.  He dove in like a kid in a candy store.  Touching a thumbnail brought that window's contents into shimmery half-life around him, hologram projections of semi-transparent men in various states of dress and undress, running through a few seconds of movement to give a sense of what that scene contained.  Bedrooms, forest glades, sandy beaches, starlit rooftops, massage tables, and more all flashed past in quick succession along with a steady stream of men of all shapes, sizes, and colors: light and dark, tall and short, smooth and hairy, thick and lean.  Each ghostly scene with its half-fleshed characters got its brief moment of Sam's attention before the parade of bare skin moved on.

One at last grabbed his attention long enough to stick, and what caused him to take notice was, in fact, the absence of bare skin.  The scene was a sun-drenched coast and his point of view was moving along it at high speed.  Scenery whipped past him, water to his left, brown rock and golden grass and deep green scrub brush to his right.  It might have been California or Australia or somewhere near the Mediterranean.  In front of him two motorcyclists were riding in parallel along the winding road.  Each was dressed head to toe in leather, one in black, the other in white and red.  There were crosshair targets on the back of each indicating a role he could take on.  Yeah.  This'll do nicely.  He opted for the white-clad man and tapped the crosshairs.

The scene froze and solidified, the semi-transparent characters and scenery losing their ghostly translucence and becoming real.  All except for the white-clad rider.  His bike stood empty on the road next to his black-leathered companion.  His suit, meanwhile, lay at Sam's feet, waiting to be put on.  Sam quickly shucked out of his uniform and slid the leathers over his body.  The fit was perfect, snug but comfortable, embracing his arms and chest and thighs like a second skin.

He set the helmet in place on his head and climbed onto the bike and suddenly the frozen world leaped back into motion.  He was whipping along, trees and rocks passing by beside him as the black rider by his side kept pace with him.  They rode a while and the illusion was utterly convincing.  The engine throbbed with power between his legs, the vibrations buzzing at his crotch and causing his dick to stiffen inside its leather cocoon.  Now this was the reason he had become a pilot!  The ship itself might have been moving a thousand times faster than this virtual bike on a virtual road inside it – which wasn't really moving at all but was merely tricking his senses into believing it was – and yet it was the bike that gave him the visceral thrill of speed that he craved.  The power of the beast beneath him, harnessed and his to control... the feel of the wind beating against his second skin... the rumbling roar that permeated his groin from knees to waist... he sank into the sensation, relishing the shivers of delight that coursed through his body as the two bikes hugged the curves of the winding road.

He glanced over at his neighbor, wondering if that man's dick was as hard as his own.  His face was invisible under the smoked glass of the helmet, and that was fine.  Sam didn't need to know what he looked like; in fact, the anonymity made the situation all the hotter.  They rode on a bit longer and, conveniently, just as Sam was starting to wonder how the scene was going to shift to the next phase that he knew was inevitably coming: a turnoff appeared.  His companion surged slightly ahead, taking the lead and guiding Sam into the turn.  They slowed, the engine's rumble slowly abating between his legs.

They arrived at a spot where a picnic table waited in dappled shade beneath a tree.  With the engines off, Sam could hear breakers crashing off in the distance.  He dismounted, cock straining at the leather, and the man in black did the same.  The man approached and his hand went straight to Sam's crotch where it probed and kneaded what it found there.  Sam returned the gesture, gazing into the smoky glass of the other's helmet while squeezing the thick meat he could feel through the leather.  Then they embraced and ground their bodies together a while, helmets clonking awkwardly in a way that made Sam grin even as he groaned at the pressure of the other man's thighs against his own.

At last the man in black broke away and inclined his helmet toward the table.  At first Sam thought he was being directed to lie down, then realized he was being offered the choice: did he want to drive or be the passenger on this next trip?  It was amazing how clearly that came through just from the body language.  The man in black, without saying a word and without Sam being able to see his face, was saying "I'm happy either way; you choose."  Sam hesitated only a moment, then climbed up onto the table and lay down on his back, his face gazing up through the speckling of needles and leaves at the blue sky beyond.

He felt the man's fingers deftly working the fastenings of his trousers and soon enough they were being inched down his thighs.  His boots came off, then the trousers and he was lying with his ass at the edge of the table, ankles propped up on leather-clad shoulders, watching the man opening up his own leather fly.  An absolutely splendid cock sprouted from the gap, large and thick but not terrifyingly so considering where it was about to be placed.  The man gave Sam half a minute to admire it, but neither wanted to wait for long.  A quick smear of lube on invader and target and both were primed and ready.

A bit of pressure, then a bit more, and more still.  Sam sought to find that combination of relaxation and tension that would let his hole open smoothly enough to accommodate his guest.  A little more... a little more... he felt the stretch as at last his sphincter dilated wide and granted admittance.  Sam gasped and sucked in a lungful of air as the sensation of fullness permeated his belly.  The man's dick was thick, solid, adamant and Sam's ass strained at first to accommodate it.  The man in black slid slowly but inexorably in, arms holding Sam's legs in place on his shoulders, faceless helmet aimed down at Sam's own.  He knew that eyes – jet-black coals or piercing blue windows or soft hazel gemstones or warm brown invitations – were gazing down at him, relishing the view just as he was savoring the sight in the opposite direction.  He yielded completely to the dick in his ass, gripping it with his guts and muscles, caressing it with his innards.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the man in black pulled out until only the tip remained to keep Sam's hole from closing up again and Sam almost cried out at the emptiness that the cock's absence left behind, but then just as slowly it returned and filled him again.  Then once more, just a hair faster, and then again, giving Sam time to adapt to the fullness and the friction and the pressure.  And Sam was able to relax and first accept the cock's motion, then to enjoy it, and then at last to crave it.  The man in black gradually increased the pace as Sam hungered for more.  Two minutes later he was thrusting smoothly, relentlessly, forcing little moans of pleasure out of Sam's mouth with each plunge.  Sam grabbed at the table to prevent his body from sliding away under the pressure of the hips that drove up against his ass cheeks, fingers scrabbling to find purchase.

Restraints! he thought.  That's what's missing here!  I completely forgot about any sort of bondage!  This was highly unusual for him – virtually all of his fantasies involved bondage in some way, even if only a token bit of cloth for a blindfold or a hand planted firmly against a wrist to wordlessly say "this stays right here".  Restraints were just what this scene needed to keep his body from sliding away from the driving dick so that he could continue to feel it to its fullest extent.

It must have been the leather, that must have been what confused him.  He had seen the riding outfits and just assumed that leather = fetish = bondage.  But no, this scene was apparently just two bikers enjoying a ride... and then enjoying a different ride.

Well, he wasn't about to stop it now, not with his ass so pleasantly stuffed, not with his dick so achingly hard and only minutes away from blowing.  He reached up to take hold of the man in black's arms, hoping to guide them down to press his own arms down against the table, splayed out at his shoulders, but the man gently, kindly, politely refused to cooperate, giving Sam's hands a squeeze and then returning his own hands to support and be supported by Sam's calves.  Sam decided to make do with imaginary restraints, picturing cold steel locked around each wrist, securing his hands to the far end of the table above his head.  He was torn – surely this superb simspace could make actual chains effortlessly; he just didn't know how to issue the instructions to make it happen without destroying the rhythm of this very-enjoyable scene, so best to make do with fantasy and just imagine the way the metal bracelets would feel against his hands as he tugged on the connecting chains while that magnificent dick continued to skewer his ass chute and then as he was thinking that, oh fuck, the man in black brought a hand down to touch Sam's hair-trigger-sensitive cock!  He squeezed and pumped just half a dozen times but that was all it took.  Sam felt his sperm come bubbling up from deep inside his balls and then he was shooting and squirting and throbbing and spasming while the dick in his ass pulsed and jumped with a rhythm of its own, separate but overlapping so that it felt like the juice that was being squirted into his guts was making its way straight up and out of his cock, the two men fused into one chimeric body with complex interconnected plumbing, joined together in the throes of simultaneous orgasm.

And then, slowly, it wound down.  Sam came down from the peak.  The man in black stopped thrusting but held his dick in Sam's ass while it slowly softened.  He felt used up, drained, spent, and yet he didn't want the satisfying sensation of fullness to end, not just yet.  Inevitably, though, the cock in his ass gradually shrank until at last it slipped free of its moorings with a soft plop and Sam was left to catch his breath and gently ease his legs to the ground.  He stood, embraced the simulated character who had just delivered that very satisfying reaming, and then spoke.

"Pyrellia, end program".  The man in black disappeared, along with the bikes, the table, the golden sunshine, the pounding surf.  All that was left were the bare grey walls of the simspace.  And the semen-smeared top half of the leather outfit that he was still wearing.  He stripped it off and stood, naked and sweaty, in the grey room.

"Damn," he said aloud.  "That was over far too quickly."  It was not surprising, really.  A quick wham-bam for a first scenario was practically inevitable, in hindsight.  His horniness level had been cranked up to about eleven ever since it became clear that the simspace would be his to command all on his own.  Shooting a load dropped it down to a two or a three, which had an upside: he could take some time to explore the instruction manual with an undistracted brain, to figure out how to get the device to really deliver a satisfying fantasy for him.  The horniness level would climb back up quickly enough and he'd be ready for the next go-around, this time better informed of his options.

For the time being, perhaps a bite to eat to go along with his instructional reading, and then after that he would figure out what he wanted to do next.  He still had oceans of time left to explore.

Meanwhile, deep in the internal processing core of the simspace's controlling systems, Sam was being monitored.  His choices, his actions, his responses... all logged and analyzed and examined in minute detail.

Unical date: 3752.563.21 (later that evening)

Sam sat on the same beach that he and Bareem had enjoyed after brunch.  The puffy white clouds scudded by the same as before, the sun shone warmly down on the sugary sand, and the water lapped gently at the shore.  On a small table beside him sat a chicken sandwich, some potato chips, a small dish of cole slaw, and a glass of ice-cold lemonade.  Only the steel chains of the five-point restraints he wore stood out as not belonging in this tropical paradise.

The restraints were the first thing he had asked the simspace to replicate after dismissing the shaded bikers' glen, still flushed and panting a bit from the recent workout.  He (prudently!) specified that the set should include a key, then proceeded to lock them on himself.  Sure, he had just shot a load and was not yet ready for another.  This was more an aesthetic choice than an erotic one.  Some men might choose to dress up in silk formalwear or a tight sleeveless shirt as a way of feeling sexy; for Sam, leather and steel did the trick.  The five-points were just his equivalent of some other man's natty bow tie.

He then experimented a bit, picking up the uniform that he had discarded, leaving the simspace and venturing into the rest of the ship.  The chains did not vanish as he crossed the threshold, which was the purpose of his test: were objects created by the simspace "real" in the same sense that food created by the synthesizer was?  And the answer, clearly, was yes.  He walked around the ship a bit with slow, short steps that clanked loudly with every movement he made.  No problem, there's no one to hear me!  He shuffled over to the cabin where he had spent his first night on board and eased his way down onto the hard mattress.  In this outfit, the prison-like surroundings were a perfect fit!  Maybe he should try spending another night here, this time with the five-points on.

Nah.  If he wanted to sleep like a prisoner, he could make himself an actual prison cell in the simspace.

He left the uniform lying on the bed in the cabin.  There was no reason he would need to use either for the remainder of the trip, after all.  Then he slowly clanked his way back to the simspace for the next experiment.  That episode with the maître d' had gotten him wondering... would all characters disregard the participants' attire the way the sneering maître d' had ignored his Starmada uniform?  He didn't feel like returning to the posh brunch place so instead he brought up a bustling Brooklyn sidewalk with a food truck parked alongside.  He went up to the truck's window and ordered the sandwich, chips, and slaw.  The vendor didn't bat an eye at Sam's nakedness, nor at the chains around his neck, wrists, and ankles.  He just assembled the sandwich, handed it over, and turned his attention to the man in line behind Sam, who was similarly unconcerned with Sam's unusual appearance.  Sam could barely suppress a chuckle as he clanked away.

Then he was off to a bistro in Rome for a lemonade.  Walking in through the door, Sam at first thought his appearance had drawn attention this time, but he quickly realized it was just the nature of the Italian language to sound dramatic to English-trained ears.  Even a simple request to pass the salt made the speaker sound like an aggrieved mezzo-soprano about to launch into an aria about the injustice of a world that could encompass such travesties as under-seasoned pasta.  And when Italians actually were in a dramatic mood?  Watch out.

He did encounter a difficulty in obtaining the lemonade, but it was not his chains or his nudity that were a problem for the other patrons or the waiter.  The problem, as it turned out, was the idea that Sam wanted a lemonade to go.  This baffled not just the waiter but all the staff at the bistro and they discussed the conundrum with great gusto, switching between their native language and beautifully-accented English as they went at it, the fervor of their words drawing in the other patrons, each of whom contributed their own opinion on the subject.  Was it true that Sam did not wish to sit at a table to enjoy his drink?  They could see that he had brought a sandwich in with him but they could overlook that monstrous insult to the reputation of their fine establishment because they were generous of spirit and wished only the best for Sam, but surely Sam could see that it was not in his best interest to consume a lemonade while standing or walking?  Let alone a sandwich?  Such actions were unhealthy for both body and soul, even downright dangerous!  Surely he must understand that they would be happy to provide him with a comfortable table to eat and drink at for his own well-being?

On it went, a comic opera.  Sam snickered at the incongruity of him standing there stark naked, heavy chains weighing down his limbs while passionate voices surged and swooped in vowel-filled attempts to persuade him to sit the fuck down already.  He recognized the absurdity of it all – if what he wanted was a lemonade, he could just ask the ship for a frickin' lemonade and be done with it... but this was so much more fun!  He allowed himself to get swept up in the discussion, gesticulating in the Italian style as best he could with his hands hindered by short chains.  As the voices around him soared, everyone talking and no one listening, he added his own clumsy pseudo-Italian to the mix, babbling a combination of nonsense syllables and the few words he actually knew, most of which were food terms.  "Nella proscatone di trenta!" he shouted into the din, flapping his arm chains with gleeful passion.  "Parmigiano di sotto giorno alla guardo di locatelli!  Prego como linguini!"  Everyone around him ignored his nonsense just as they ignored his clanking chains and flopping penis.

Eventually he acquiesced and allowed them to persuade him to be seated with much fussing and blustering, and then he waited with the sandwich tucked discreetly out of sight in his lap, enjoying the ambience as the clamor subsided and the patrons returned to their previous conversations around him... all of which still sounded just as clamorous.  In a few minutes, the waiter came out and, with a flourish, presented Sam with a glass of lemonade, frosty with ice and with wisps of cold steam simmering at the top and flowing down the sides.  They had added the ice, the waiter explained, because they could tell he was a foreigner and knew that he would prefer it that way, even though this was still not ideal for his digestion but they could be accommodating in this regard now that he had accepted the wisdom of remaining seated and taking his time while enjoying it, see?  Sam thanked him profusely, expressing his appreciation for their thoughtfulness and generosity and understanding and, when the waiter at last turned his back and left, said "Pyrellia, take me to the beach."

Once again the chair he was in came along and he had to swap it out for a more suitable one.  But at last he was ready with all his supplies held carefully in his chained hands.  Still snickering at the recent absurdity, he set the items down, arranged himself on the chair, and settled in to eat and read.  His chair was at the edge of the shade of a palm tree so he sat mostly in the shadow with just his bare shackled feet sticking out into the sunshine.  He couldn't even begin to guess what sort of trickery was at work that managed to create such a convincing simulation of electromagnetic radiation generated by an inferno of hydrogen fusion at a distance of 150 million kilometers and moderated by its passage through varying layers of ozone, nitrogen, oxygen, and water vapor, to land as gentle warmth on the tops of his feet.  Whatever the magic was, it was flawless.  He felt the warmth not only on his feet but also on the synthesized steel around his ankles.  If they spent much time baking in that simulated light he was probably going to have to pull his feet into the shade to let the metal cool off.  Or else dip them in that oh-so-inviting turquoise water for a bit, that would work too.

And so, with sandwich, slaw, and frosty drink at (chained) hand, he settled in to read the manual for the system.  Not the whole thing, of course, just enough to know what it could do.  He had twenty days to play with this toy, after all; it would be a shame to miss out on some capability simply due to not knowing it existed.

The most noteworthy thing he found for what he had in mind was the safety protocol settings control panel.  The system had five levels of interactivity... well, four plus an additional not-really-a-sim level.  The manual described them in more technical language and great detail, but in summary the five levels were:

  • Level 0: non-interactive.  Participants can only watch; the characters do not respond to the participants.
  • Level 1: interactive for sight and sound only.  Characters can respond to participants' words and actions, but there is no physical contact.
  • Level 2: fully interactive.  Safety protocols are in place to ensure that participants cannot experience discomfort.
  • Level 3: fully interactive.  Safety protocols ensure that participants cannot experience life-threatening harm.
  • Level 4: fully interactive.  No safety protocols.

Both level 3 and level 4 required authentication to enable, and that explained the relatively tame behavior of his otherwise rough-looking motorcycle buddy: level 2 was the default for adult users of the system.  Levels 0 and 1 were not worth bothering with, not for his purposes.  They used mere hologram technology to create illusions, whereas levels 2 and up actually created the people and objects being simulated.  Which, as he had demonstrated, were just as real as anything else, capable of being carried (or worn) not only into other simulations but outside to the rest of the ship as well.

There was much more and he absorbed as much of it as he could.  After perhaps an hour of reading, with the sandwich and lemonade long gone, he decided to take the chains off and go for a quick soak in that purple-sky hot tub to clean up.  Then he had the simspace craft him a soft, comfortable bed in a dark, quiet room since the hour was getting late, and he read several more chapters of Captain Jack's adventures (double-crossed while infiltrating a prison asteroid!  Then triple-crossed while escaping back out!) before turning the nightstand lamp off and rolling over to go to sleep.

Tomorrow, after a tasty but not-too-heavy breakfast, he'd be ready to resume.  This time with the interactivity level set to 3.  It was time to experience some "discomfort".  Or perhaps... to inflict it.

3: Deeper In

Unical date: 3752.563.22 (nineteen days until scheduled arrival at Kappa Redulans)

It was a bit strange to adjust to living in the simspace.  Sam was accustomed to moving from place to place to handle the various aspects of his day.  Wake up in the sleeping space, move to the bathroom space, then the eating space, then the working space, then the playing space or the relaxing space, and end up back at the sleeping space at the end of the day.  Here, instead, his body stayed still and the space around him changed to supply whatever he wanted.  Need the toilet?  Make one, use it, then dismiss it.  Conjure a restaurant into being long enough to enjoy breakfast, then send it packing.

There were only two things he needed to leave the simspace for.  One was to check the ship's progress.  He headed for the command bridge, feeling a bit strange about padding around the ship in the buff but really there was no reason not to.  There he spent about twenty minutes in all doing his "job".  All status lights were green, all reports from the navigation AI indicated systems were operating normally.  That part was done in two minutes but he stretched it out to almost ten, double- and triple-checking things that didn't need to be double- and triple-checked.

Next he checked for messages.  This required slowing down.  At the speed he was traveling, subspace communications were unreliable to the point of being little more than garble.  Slower ships could travel and stay in contact at the same time, and comm technology would probably soon progress to the point where that would be true for this ship too.  For now, though, when he was traveling at full speed, he was effectively cut off from the rest of the universe.  Hence the reason Bareem didn't get his bad news until their arrival at RS-98.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the best way to slow down was to drop out of warp completely.  Unlike rocket-driven ships that built up momentum as they traveled and needed to shed that momentum to decelerate, Sam's ship was not "moving" at all.  It was disappearing from one point in space and reappearing in another with no change in momentum.  He could stop in an instant and start back up again just as quickly.  And as long as he kept his break short, this was actually easier for the navigation AI to calculate and handle than dropping to one-half or one-third speed would be.

So he stopped the ship.  The omnipresent hum that he had grown accustomed to abruptly ceased as the engines powered down.  The quiet was almost eerie, as though he were suddenly on a ghost ship.  There was one message waiting from Kappa Redulans letting him know that their situation was stable (if desperate), so no need to push the warp engines into the red... yet.  He replied, acknowledging receipt and reassuring them he was on his way with all due haste, then sent a report back to base saying the journey was proceeding on schedule, all systems nominal.   Then he fired up the engines again.  The background hum resumed and he felt satisfied with the state of things, assured that he was doing everything he could do at this point... and that he could therefore justify spending the rest of the day in the simspace.

But before doing that, he needed to take care of the other matter that could only be done from the bridge: changing the simspace's interactivity level.  He stood up from the command console and went to the finger / retina scanner to authenticate himself.

"Beta omicron nu delta alpha gamma three," he said in response to Pyrellia's prompt.  It was his go-to passphrase for one-off use.  Whenever he needed something easy to remember for a temporary purpose such as this flight, that was what he picked.  The Greek letters (which he knew thanks to the math classes pilots were required to take) spelled out βονδα𝛄3 with a digit thrown in at the end because some systems required them.  It perhaps lacked the creative flair of Bareem's mangled tongue-twister, but at this point he had used it often enough that he wasn't likely to forget it.  The letters rolled off his tongue.  Once authenticated, he requested level 3.  No life-threatening harm... but "discomfort"?  Yeah, baby, bring it on.

Back to the simspace.  For his next adventure he decided to take the top role.  He found a sim from Studdz, a studio whose offerings he had enjoyed in the past, though with much humbler systems to run them on.  This one was called Damoclan Dick.  Setting: Damoclan Prison in the Lubeus system.  Characters: one guard, one inmate (optionally expandable to up to three of each, but Sam was going to keep it simple).  Plot: guard works inmate over because Reasons.  Or inmate turns tables on guard.  Fucking and sucking ensue.  Other variations were possible when more characters, either real or generated, were added to the mix, but really, how much plot did a porn sim need?

It went... okay.  Sam took the role of the guard and very much enjoyed the part where he had the inmate bound to the cell's barred wall and was thrashing him with a flogger.  It was a great form of exercise, swinging his arm and feeling that satisfying smack of contact.  He also enjoyed grabbing his victim's vulnerably-dangling balls and squeezing them in his fist until the inmate was gritting his teeth and trying not to whimper.  Very masculine, just the sort of reaction Sam wanted from him.  Such a sense of power to have a man's nuts between your fingers and your palm, playing him like a violin with the tiniest movements of the muscles in your forearm!

Then later he enjoyed re-tying the inmate on the cot and plunging his dick into the man's open mouth.  Squirting his load straight down his victim's throat was satisfying, too.  It helped that the inmate stayed hard throughout the scene and naturally had a porn-character-generous endowment.  It's probably for the best that I'm on top, he thought at one point as he was stroking the massive Damoclan dick.  Getting fucked by this monster would do some serious damage!

The only problem, and he tried to convince himself it was a small one, was that deep down Sam knew it was all fake.  The inmate wasn't a real person.  He was a character with no mind of his own, reciting canned lines and responding in fairly predictable ways.  During the flogging, there wasn't much variety in what he said and in fact he started to repeat himself well before the point where Sam was ready to move on.  And when Sam untied him from the cell wall to move him to the cot, there was no danger that he would lash out and take control, leaving Sam to be the one tied up on the cot getting his tonsils drilled.  Because that was the scene Sam had specified, and so that was the scene he got.

So... pretty good overall, but lacking a certain spontaneity.  Which was fine, really.  It had to be.  With no one else here on the ship with him, Sam really needed to make sure he didn't get himself into a predicament he couldn't get himself out of.  He definitely wanted to do a scene where he was the bound one, but he would need to make sure it was foolproof first.  Hopefully the level 3 interactivity setting would ensure that he never got in over his head, but without another human here to intervene, Sam would have no fallback in the event of some sort of system screwup.  His nightmares could all too easily envision the result if something were to go wrong:

In nineteen days' time, Pyrellia's Wing would arrive at Kappa Redulans, drop out of warp, and wait for its human pilot to handle the final approach and docking.  That pilot would, unfortunately, be unable to perform this, his one and only duty, the entire reason for him being on this mission at all, because he had regrettably managed to get himself tied up / locked in / strapped down somehow and couldn't get out.  Oopsie.  And then, depending on the timing and the details of his entrapment, he might survive to the end of the voyage despite lack of food and water.  Or he might not.

Once there, the survivors at his destination would be overjoyed at first to note the arrival of his ship.  That joy would quickly sour to disappointment as the ship and the salvation it carried stubbornly lingered tantalizingly close to their disabled station and yet uselessly far away, not responding to any attempt at contact.  Perhaps they would manage to improvise a way to reach the ship themselves and if so they would either rescue him or discover his restrained remains when they came on board.  Perhaps, if he was lucky, they wouldn't realize this was a simspace at all?  Perhaps they would assume he had been set upon by a band of cutthroat space pirates who had chained him up as punishment for his failure to have a cargo hold stuffed with gold doubloons for them to plunder, then set the ship back on its course.

Unlikely.  This was not a Captain Jack novel.  More plausibly, the survivors on the station would not be able to reach the ship and would all die when their energy reserves finally gave out.  And then the truth would be discovered when Starmada's second, slower rescue mission arrived, the ship carrying the rest of the supplies needed for permanent repairs after Pyrellia's cargo had gotten the emergency stabilized.  They would arrive some eight days later to find a sad tableau: shields failed, living space awash in lethal radiation... and a perfectly intact ship hovering nearby with supplies that could have prevented the disaster, except that the pilot's dick had taken over for his brain.  The name "Sam Green" would go down in infamy as a synonym for "idiot who fucked up far, far beyond the bounds of common, everyday fuckuppery."  He might even become a verb: "dude, what were you thinking?  You really Sam Greened it there."

So, yeah: if he was going to be the bound one, it absolutely had to be something he could get himself out of.  In theory, he could rely on a simspace-generated character to set him loose, but fundamentally, he needed to be the one in charge even when playing a submissive role.

Satiated from his session at Damoclan, Sam spent the rest of the morning lounging around.  Instead of the beach, he had Pyrellia create a deck next to a lakeside cabin surrounded by mountains and pine trees.  Same warm simulated sunshine; different background sounds.  The sky was vivid blue, which was much better for his psyche than the magenta-maroon one of the world with the hot tub, and the air was cooler and less humid than by the sea.  A peaceful, pleasant spot.

He spent an enjoyable hour with Captain Jack.  (A treasure-filled derelict spaceship!  Guarded by photon snakes!  Caught in a decaying orbit around a black hole!  Will the fearless rascal be able to escape with the loot?  Spoiler: of course he will.)  Then a bit of exercise, a light jog around the lake with the magic of the simspace ensuring that wherever his body actually went, the illusion had him tracing a trail around the circumference of the lake, and no matter how far he went, when he was ready to be done, there was his deck just ahead, awaiting his return.  After that, a brief nap in the shade, and then it was time for lunch.

He opted for a chef's salad at Tinbroker, a restaurant on Vinpretl, the homeworld of the dandressi, a race highly regarded throughout the Confederation for its culinary skill.  The restaurant was situated on the edge of a high bluff overlooking a waterfall famous for its beauty and its long drop.  Sure enough, the sight from the veranda was spectacular.  Silvery sunlit droplets cascaded off the rim of the cliff on the other side of the chasm and spilled down in slow motion to eventually strike the floor of the canyon more than a kilometer below.  Half the water never reached the bottom at all and was instead borne off by the wind to speckle the walls downstream.

This was due to the canyon's alignment with the prevailing wind direction and the fact that it narrowed in width by about half just before the point where the water came pouring off from one of the side walls.  Air already in the canyon was accelerated due to the funnel effect and as a result most days of the year saw winds of at least forty kilometers per hour inside the canyon, sometimes as high as sixty.  The fast-moving air whipped the falling water into a spray and bore the drops as far as twenty kilometers down the canyon.  The mist that resulted brought moisture to an otherwise dry environment and the result was a thriving ecosystem of plants and animals adapted to a vertical existence, a pocket biome of life forms found nowhere else on Vinpretl.  Meanwhile, at the top of the walls where Tinbroker was, diners experienced no more than a gentle breeze and a stunning view.

All this Sam learned while browsing through the informational pamphlet left on all the tables at Tinbroker as he waited for his meal to arrive.  (Sure, he could have synthesized the salad right away, but the point of eating at a restaurant at all was for the experience of it.  He had a lot of hours to fill up.)  Munching later on his artfully-flavored greens and protein slices, Sam marveled at the deep, almost black hue of the cliff-hanging plants, the flitting of birdlike creatures and bat-like creatures from one patch of foliage to another, the way that some plants had evolved sail-like leaves that they deployed to catch additional light and moisture when wind speeds were moderate but which could fold up and retract when the gusts grew too strong.

It was glorious, a delightful place to have lunch.  And once he had finished eating, it was a delightful place to ponder his next adventure in the simspace.  Once more diving into the library of all-male porn, he found another that looked worth trying.  This one was called "Put It In, Coach" and had a sports theme.  The actual sport was never specified and it didn't really matter.  The setup was that one of the players needed an attitude adjustment and Coach was going to deliver it.  This time Sam took the submissive role, that of the player.  Tinbroker, the canyon, and the waterfall evanesced away and an archetypical changing room took their place.

Once again, the result was not bad, but not great.  Coach was perfect for his character: tall and muscular, imposing and intimidating.  The locker room was convincing in all ways: sight, sound, smell.  The bench that Sam was tied to was suitably hard and unyielding.  The ropes that Coach used to fasten him to it were reasonably secure but Sam was fairly certain he could have wriggled his way out of them if he had needed to.  The spanking that Coach delivered to his bare ass was something new for Sam, who had never tried that particular fetish before.  It hurt at first, but as his ass warmed up the blows started to feel good in a way.  That warmth lasted through the subsequent fucking, too.  And Sam had gone into the settings menu and specified that the coach's, uh, athletic equipment should be about three sizes less than the maximum possible.

Sam sassed the coach during the spanking.  "That's all you got?  Musta been slacking off on arm workout days" and "If I hit like that on the field, you'd have me benched in two seconds flat" and "Swing it like you mean it, motherfucker!"  His lip might have spurred the coach to greater intensity than he would have otherwise used, but then again it might not.  It was hard to say.  Considering the power of the simspace, Sam had expected more, but the coach's lines, like the Dude From Damoclan's, weren't very imaginative.

At least, not until the very end.  Once the loads had been shot – Coach's landing on Sam's reddened ass and Sam's landing on the locker room floor – Sam started feeling a bit of disappointment.  Once again the experience felt fake, which was understandable: it was fake.  Maybe Sam was just experiencing post-orgasm letdown, but suddenly he felt like spending more time by the lake and less time being pretend-abused by pretend people.  Coach untied him and he stood up.

"Thanks.  You're not bad for a hologram," Sam said.  An unwarranted bit of snark.  The guy had performed his role perfectly – it wasn't his fault he wasn't real.

"Thanks.  You're not bad for a meat puppet," Coach replied, accompanied by a semi-affectionate, none-too-gentle punch to Sam's shoulder.  Sam's eyebrows furrowed for a moment.  Was that... a joke?  A breaking of the fourth wall?  If so, it was a more sophisticated thing to say than any line the coach, or any character, had yet spoken.  Perhaps it was just a canned response, an Easter egg put into the sim by some programmer who anticipated a player saying something like what Sam had just said?  The coach turned and walked out the door, leaving Sam alone in the locker room.

"Pyrellia, end program."  The locker room vanished, the grey walls of the simspace reappeared, and Sam set off to check the nav systems again, still not quite certain what to make of the coach character's last line.  Eh, it probably didn't matter – he was reading more into it than could possibly be there.  He pondered instead what he might do next.  For now, something non-sexual; he was drained.  But after that, perhaps he'd be in the mood for a third go-around in the evening... or maybe he might like to do something completely different.  It was a beautiful thing, having all this open time ahead of him and complete freedom as to how to fill it!

As it turned out, he had dinner at a casino, letting the buzzing hum of other people's conversation wash over him while he sat at a table with Fred Boltzer, Pierre Jacques-Rouen, and Nedandra Mokembe, three of the hottest-looking (in Sam's opinion) holo-stars from the last two decades.  The conversation was smooth and easy (non-porn characters apparently had better vocabulary programmed in), the food was superb, and the sight of these three gorgeous men in their formalwear was very pleasant to Sam's eye.  Sam himself was still naked – his uniform still lay in the unused cabin where he had taken it off days ago.  There was just no reason to put clothing on at all.  He was comfortable and nobody around him cared.  Despite his nudity, the situation never turned overtly sexual.  Perhaps if he hadn't shot two loads already earlier in the day, he might have invited one... or all three... of his dinner companions to bed afterward, but sleep actually appealed more.  There was no rush.

Unical date: 3752.563.23 (eighteen days until scheduled arrival at Kappa Redulans)

The following day he decided it was time to leave pre-canned porn scenes behind.  Perhaps that would help reduce the feeling of make-believe that he was getting from them.  He also decided that he was going to try not shooting a load for a bit in the hope that focusing on the bondage would help him get good and horny again, and avoiding orgasm would let him stay that way.

After another quick course and message check (all still in order), he ordered up the equipment he would need and configured the room.  Then he summoned last night's dinner companions back into existence.  They appeared before him, still dressed in their tuxedos.  Sam, by contrast, was still stark naked.

"Hi, guys.  Here's what I'd like you to do.  Secure me in that sleepsack there, then strap the sleepsack down to the floor.  Keep me in it for six hours unless I say 'emergency exit'.  After six hours, or if I say 'emergency exit', or if I appear to be in distress or am having trouble breathing, undo the straps and let me out.  Aside from that, don't do anything I may ask you to do.  Got it?"  The "no life-threatening harm" setting of simspace level 3 should take care of that last issue, but it didn't hurt to be extra safe.

"Happy to oblige," said Nedandra and the three holo-stars set to work.  Sam cooperated, lying down in the open sleepsack and sliding his arms down into the internal sleeves.  Fred and Nedandra worked on lacing and strapping the sleepsack while Pierre placed a heavy hood over Sam's head and tightened it down.  In short order, Sam's body went from totally free to completely embraced by leather that pressed in tightly from all sides.  Steadily, the trio worked on pulling all the slack out of his bonds, tightening laces and straps one by one, then returning to tighten each one further.  The pressure on Sam's body steadily grew and his mobility steadily disappeared.

By the time they finished with the sleepsack, all he could do was bend his legs a bit and buck his body.  Then they secured the sack to the floor and even that ability was removed.  Sam was lying on his back, arms at his sides, legs together, unable to bend anything.  His head was strapped down to the floor so he couldn't even turn it from side to side.  This was as immobilized as he had ever been and it was magnificent.

He fought the bondage at first, testing and exploring to see if there was any play.  There wasn't.  His trio of holo-stars knew their stuff, it seemed.  Then he spent a while just relaxing into the restraints, savoring the sensation of being helpless and controlled.  How long each of these stages lasted, he could not have said – time always seemed to flow differently when he was bound.

Eventually he felt the itch to move and it rapidly grew.  He tried to thrash but wasn't sure if any of his efforts were even visible outside his leather cocoon.  It was frustrating, but the frustration was exactly what he wanted and so it worked for him.  This was real enough.  Sagging back into acceptance once more, Sam felt his dick stiffening up, inspired by his helpless situation.

That lasted for a little while, then his mind drifted away and he relaxed again.  Some unknown while later, the urge to move struck again and this time it struck hard.  Sam strained against his bindings and it made not a bit of difference.  Suddenly the bondage was too much and he felt like he absolutely had to move or go crazy.

"Hey?  Fred?  Pierre?  You guys out there?  You suppose you could loosen me up just a little bit?  Just for a minute?"  Five seconds after the words were out of his mouth he regretted them.  Buck up, man!  It isn't really bondage until you want out, right?  Still, he couldn't stop himself from continuing to strain, moaning while he did.

Then he felt a nudge against his ribs.  "Hey, pipe down in there," a voice called from somewhere overhead.  Fred's?  Could be Nedandra's but no, probably Fred's.  Sam groaned some more, still struggling invisibly inside the sleepsack.

"If you think whining is going to make us have pity on you, forget it.  You know what to say if you want out, and I haven't heard any safe words yet."

No, Sam hadn't said the safe words.  He almost did right then, the temptation to be able to be free was that strong.  But he knew he'd hate himself if he bailed out early.

"How much time is left?" he asked instead.

"You don't get that information."  Right, of course, Sam had specified that.  "Either say the safe words, or shut the hell up, understand?"  The toe nudged his ribs once more and then Sam heard footsteps receding.  He was alone in his plight once more.

Breathe, just breathe.  This will pass.  He took breaths as deeply as he could, long and slow, hoping it would help.  And eventually it did.

The restless urge struck twice more before they came to set him free, and by then it felt as though he had been lying there for an entire day, not merely a quarter of one.  His bladder was achingly full and he had almost pulled the plug for that reason, but kept hanging in there one minute at a time.  When at last they released him, he was a sweaty wreck, and a hungry one.  Standing on wobbly legs, he thanked his trio of holo-star hunks for their help, then banished them to wherever it was that simspace characters went when they were no longer needed.  The thought was sort of disquieting, but he managed to not think about it too hard while he emptied his bladder and then wolfed down a sandwich.

Not a bad morning, not at all.  He was proud of himself for having endured all the way through, but man, it had sure taken a mental toll.  He found himself tired and so after lunch, despite the fact that he had just lain perfectly still for the last six hours, he went and took a nap.

The simspace monitoring systems now had a fairly good idea of what made Sam tick.  It was their job, after all, to be aware of and responsive to the needs and desires of the users of the simulations.  It was not their job, however, to speculate how those needs and desires could be turned to someone else's advantage.

That feature was the work of something else entirely.

Unical date: 3752.563.23 (later that day)

Sam realized that his circadian rhythm was getting out of whack – the late lunch and nap had left him feeling like this was a brand-new day, and yet it was only early evening.  He was not at all hungry for dinner and bedtime was going to be a long way off.  And it didn't matter one whit because he was the only person here.  As long as he could manage to time things so that he was awake at the proper time eighteen days from now when he arrived, who cared when he ate, slept, peed, wanked?  It made no difference at all.

The afternoon session involved an alien because why not?

Ordinarily Sam was not much into xenophilia.  Some people had that fetish; they were attracted either to members of a specific species or just to aliens in general.  Sam's tastes, though, were definitely focused on human males.  But this voyage was a great time to experiment and there was no chance of causing an interplanetary diplomatic incident by sleeping with the wrong foreign visitor, so why not give it a try?

The library's selection was, of course, comprehensive.  There were representatives of forty-two races from systems the Confederation had contact with.  There were hephaestans, of course, who looked pretty much just like humans except that their ears were pointy and the ones he had known at the university had been depressingly dull at parties.  And there were warxons, who were just as unwelcome at parties due to their habit of taking outsized offense at tiny imagined slights.  Then there were chilurreans, dandressi, sin shan gan, hilaxitans, trechubays, zeta garnians...

He winnowed the list down by excluding races that were too different – six-limbed, half-meter-long ghopurs, hive-mind smahallaroids, aquatic orca-sized k'chenderee... all just too different.  And then he ruled out a much larger group of aliens that were basically just bumpy-headed humans with unusual skin colors.  There were reasons why so many races were bipedal mammals, reasons that Sam had theoretically learned about in his xenobiology lectures, but, again: he had been aspiring pilot at the time, focused pretty much exclusively on things that go ZOOM.  And on checking out the other aspiring pilots around him, which is why he hadn't really paid attention to the talks on why so many different evolutionary trees led to such a similar endpoint.

He opted for a tarachsian, a race of upright bipeds: close enough to be appealing, but definitely different in some fundamental ways.  The particular tarachsian that appeared was about Sam's height and, like Sam, was unconcernedly naked.  His body was covered with a thin coating of downy fur, though he was not a mammal; tarachsians bore a closer resemblance to birds and reptiles than to mammals in that they laid eggs externally.  His skin was a deep red, so dark that from certain angles it appeared brown.  Very faint stripe patterns were visible running vertically along his torso, a slight hint of red in both skin and fur alternating with deeper mahogany.

A soft penis – a very human-like penis – dangled between his legs.  A tail about half a meter long dangled down behind.  His face was close to human in that it had two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose, but the proportions were very different.  The eyes were set wide, near the edges of the head.  The ears were like cat's ears set on top.  The nose and mouth protruded like a muzzle, though the lips were hard like a beak instead of soft and flexible like Sam's own.  That made his speech a little difficult to understand, but Sam hadn't conjured him up for his sparkling conversational skills.

Sam took the top role, tying the tarachsian – whose name was Keck – in a standing spread-eagle against a metal frame, arms and legs stretched out to the corners, muscles flat and taut.  He summoned up his trusty flogger once more and laid into the fuzz-covered skin of the chest and stomach.  At one point, inspecting the skin for marks, he discovered that Keck lacked nipples, which made sense for a race whose females did not breast-feed their infants.  But it meant there was nothing for Sam to squeeze and pinch and nibble on.

After warming up his victim, Sam dropped to his knees to do a bit of sucking, at which point he discovered another unexpected difference between the species: tarachsians lacked testicles.  And the penis, when hard, wasn't quite as human-like as it had seemed when soft.  It lacked a flanged head and instead was just a shaft that tapered to a curved end.  With the tarachsian's reddish-brown skin it looked exactly like a thick hot dog.  Presumably these were normal traits and not some sort of malformation, so Sam just rolled with it.

The missing testicles were a constant surprise.  Burying his face in Keck's crotch, he kept noticing and re-noticing the absence of a fleshy sack dangling underneath.  His chin never pressed up against a fur-covered pouch that seemed like it should have been there.  His hands kept seeking for something to grab onto and not finding it.  But then at one point his hand reached further back, passing over the hole and then, abruptly, met with an obstruction.  Oh, right, the tail!  The moment he touched it, Keck's moans doubled in volume and Sam realized he had just found the tarachsian equivalent of nipples: a part of the body that was not obviously connected to the genitals but which played a role in sexual stimulation all the same.

Well, now that he knew...

The tail turned out to be powerful erogenous zone and Sam had a great time seeing what he could do with it.  Eventually the time came to bring things to a close.  When Keck came, the resulting fluid was like liquid glass, almost completely transparent.  Sam used it as lube to stroke himself off, squirting his load onto Keck's spent dick and thus completing the loop of exchanged fluids.

"Thank you for that experience," Keck said as Sam untied his limbs and tail.  "Your soft mouth is capable of astonishing feats."  Right... a species with a beak would be terrible at giving blow jobs.

"Thank you," Sam countered.  "That tail is an amazing organ."

All in all it was good.  Similar but different, and the differences were interesting rather than off-putting.  Still... having scratched the xeno-itch, Sam figured he would be quite content sticking with human males for the rest of the voyage.

4: Capture

Unical date: 3752.563.24 (seventeen days until scheduled arrival at Kappa Redulans)

It was morning, or morning-enough given Sam's lack of concern for actual clock readings.  He got out of bed, dismissed the bedroom, brought up the bathroom, then dismissed that, then had a nice breakfast from a buffet at another of Mr. Featherstone's most-visited places, and then left the simspace to attend to his "work day".  Two minutes to verify that the engines and navigation systems were still chugging along, five minutes to drop out of warp to send and receive "plan still on track" status messages, done.  Then it was back to the simspace.

The previous night, while lying in the blissfully-comfortable simspace bed, an idea had occurred to Sam of what he could try next.  It would be a longer scene than any he had done so far, but he deemed it would be safe to try.  The key, he was thinking, was to avoid the pre-programmed sims and go with something that had a bit of randomness built in.  Sort of like his instructions to the trio of holo-stars: "do this to me, then ignore anything else I say except X" only expanded well beyond the scope of a sleepsack.  Maybe that would make it feel more real.  To that end, he spent the morning designing and laying in the program parameters himself, building up characters and settings pulled from the library, defining a range of possible options but only in the vaguest of terms, leaving the actual implementation to be determined randomly by the simspace AI at run-time and making sure to leave himself clearly-defined exit conditions.

With the program laid in, Sam spent an hour at the lake reading to give his subconscious mind a chance to register any objections to his plan.  It seemed foolproof enough – he would be bound at times during the scene (actually, he would be bound a lot during the scene), but never gagged and thus he could always end the program if things got out of hand.  If some restraints remained in place after ending the program, he could summon up Fred or Keck or the coach or pretty much any other character to set him loose.  And as extra backup, the level 3 setting should ensure that whatever he got into, it couldn't be life-threatening.

Just to be obsessively careful, he did one more navigation and message check before starting.  All clear, of course, and no new messages since his last check a few hours before.

OK.  No reason not to go for it, then.  Sam returned to the simspace.  A quick salad for lunch, nothing heavy, a half hour of reading by the lake to let his stomach settle and then: "Pyrellia, activate program."

The warm pool under the purple sky that Bareem had first showed him shimmered into being.  Sam lowered himself into the soothing water.  Now it was just a matter of waiting.  The next steps would kick in at some point between ten and forty minutes after he got into the pool.  He had programmed in a delay but left some uncertainty in exactly how long.

The water felt great at first, but it was tough to relax, knowing what was coming, so the pool's heat did not soothe his muscles the way it might have.  Instead, he was restless, and found himself standing up from time to time, wanting to pace around but with no room to do it in.  The ominous red-purple sky overhead was not helping, and in fact added to his feelings of unease.  He debated whether he should move the hot tub to his lakeside cabin setting, dithering for a while before deciding not to change the plan now.  Being tense was perhaps a good thing for what lay ahead.  Also, he wanted his lake house to be a place of comfort and peace, unsullied by the memories of what was about to happen.

Over and over, he anticipated the moment and how it would play out when it finally arrived.  Despite all his false alarms, he was still caught by surprise, just for a moment, when it did.  With no warning, the air shimmered, and suddenly, violently, four figures materialized into being on the flat rock surface near the pool.  Each was dressed in chameleon armor, a form of active camouflage that blurred and broke up the outline of the man wearing it, making him difficult to see.  Flashes of background shone apparently right through the soldiers' bodies, making it even more difficult to get a fix on where each was standing, and they did not hold still to make it any easier.  The moment they appeared, they started moving and shouting, barking orders and commands at Sam that he had no possible way of understanding, let alone obeying.

His heart leaped up into his throat and his pulse began to race.  This was exactly what he had ordered for the afternoon, evening, and subsequent night: a ferocious, unstoppable take-down that he had no chance of evading or resisting.

Bring it on, muthafuckas.

He surged up out of the water with a vague hope of dodging around the soldiers.  The effort was hopeless, just as he had planned it to be.  His one asset – and it was a tiny one – was that his skin was wet and slippery.  His liabilities, on the other hand, were numerous but could be summed up in one short phrase: one naked man against four strong, heavily armed and armored opponents.  If this had been a level 4 scenario – or, stars forbid, actual reality – he would have genuinely feared for his life against these guys.  One itchy trigger finger and it would be game over for Sam.  As it was, they would be able to rough him up a bit, but there was no risk of him dying from their actions.

I hope.  All bets are off if the stress gives me a heart attack!

He aimed for what looked like a gap between the ever-shifting camouflage of the men's armor, hoping to slip away for at least a few seconds and maybe lead them on a chase.  (One naked, barefoot man vs. four strong booted soldiers.)  Alas, the gap turned out to be an illusion, a fact which he discovered when his shoulder plowed right into an invisible obstruction, probably the thigh of one of the soldiers.  He lost his footing on the newly-wet stone and crashed to the ground.  The soldiers were instantly upon him, swarming over his face-down body and rapidly establishing full control over him.

He tried to squirm, hoping that his wet, slick body would slip through their fingers and give him some chance to escape, to make these guys' jobs at least a little bit of a challenge.  He scrabbled against the stone ground, trying to use his arms and legs to stand, or at least crawl.  It was not to be.  A crushing weight came down on his knees, then another on his shoulders.  Legs and chest were both pinned to the ground.  All the while they kept shouting at him, though he could only catch bits and pieces.  "... down, down, I said head DOWN!" and "... you fuckin' move..." and "... shut your goddam mouth..."  Shut his mouth?  Sam hadn't even realized he'd been shouting too.

His arms were wrestled into position behind the small of his back and he felt cuffs being applied with two quick ratcheting sounds, palms facing out.  Simultaneously, lower down, more chains were clicked into place around his ankles.  Once his limbs were secured, a black bag was yanked down over his head and a string at the neck was pulled taut to hold it in place.  The fabric was thin enough to breathe through and he could even see patches of light and dark in a few places, though he had nothing that could be called actual vision.  Another chain went around his waist (cold!) and the cuffs were locked to it.  Then a chain was fed down from there to his ankles.  When he felt the hands at his feet lift free he tried testing his bonds and found that his ankles were shackled very close together with perhaps only 20 cm of chain between them.  He was not going to be running or even walking anywhere quickly, even if he could manage to stand up from this position, which seemed doubtful.

Rising turned out to not be an issue.  The men hauled him to his feet, two strong grips seizing each of his upper arms.  Damn, that felt good!  Being manhandled by these faceless, anonymous commandos was incredible.  They got him upright with his feet under him, then dragged him forward, not bothering to give him time to take the small, mincing steps that were all the ankle shackles would allow.  His wrists chafed against the steel of the cuffs as they were pulled upward and his toes dragged along the smooth rock.

He couldn't see the scene change but knew it would be happening.  He was dragged over to a stone wall and left to stand as best he could.  Balancing would have been tough if he had been in the middle of the floor with no vision and feet shackled as they were, but with the wall to lean on he was able to stay upright.  He felt hands fiddling with the string at his neck and then, abruptly, the bag was yanked off his head and he squinted into bright lights aimed straight at his face.  He could see nothing but glare as he heard the clicking sound of holoimages being made of his arrest... capture... abduction... whatever the right word was.  Then the bag was yanked back down and tied off and he once more found himself in darkness.

Next he was dragged off somewhere else where fingerprints were taken.  They didn't even unlock his wrists for this, just ran a scanner over each digit one at a time.  Just to be a prick, he tried clenching his fingers into fists to block their access.  This earned him a slap to the face, a fist to the solar plexus, and more obscenities screamed into his ear.   Meanwhile, strong fingers grasped his own and forced them one by one into position to be read by the scanner.

"Look, asswipe," one of his captors said when they had finished, "you can make this easy on yourself or not.  Up to you."

I know! Sam thought, grinning beneath the bag.

After the fingerprinting, he was subjected to a cavity search, both oral and rectal.  They lifted the bag just enough to inspect his teeth, tongue, and gums with rough, gloved fingers, then sealed him in again.  The fingers that performed the search at the other end were similarly rough, though they did grant him the small mercy of applying lube first.  He squirmed and danced on the impaling digit as its owner performed a thorough and comprehensive search for contraband.

After that he was made to wait.  They chained his neck to a hook in the wall and left him with no instructions or information, no idea of when they would be back for him.  (Well, except that he really did have an idea – Sam The Sim Programmer had specified a duration of between one and two hours.  But Sam The Captive wasn't supposed to know that.  It was hard to pretend not to, but he tried to sink into the sim and imagine he was really living out these events.)  He stood there for minutes, then tens of minutes, then what had to be more than an hour, growing increasingly fidgety as his body's desire to change position grew.

Occasionally he tried calling out.  He could hear his abductors around him, occasionally talking among themselves in voices pitched too low and soft for him to make out words.  They ignored him the first two times he opened his mouth.  The third time earned him another punch in the gut, which he could not see coming and thus could not brace himself against.  His body's instinct to curl in on itself was not helpful in this position and he pulled hard on the neck chain for ten or fifteen seconds until he was able to force his spine to straighten and get his feet supporting his weight again.  He kept his mouth shut after that and just stood, patiently waiting, a tethered beast of burden with nothing to do until its masters had use for it again.

"Cell's ready," he heard one of them say at last.  A minute or two later, he felt hands unhooking the chain from the wall, though it remained locked in place around his neck.  At the same time, other hands were working at the chain connecting his ankles.  "Move," one of the voices said.  The sound was accompanied by a pressure on the chain, pulling him forward.  He shuffled his feet to keep his balance and found that he could take larger steps.  Not full-length strides, but more than what had been possible before.  His progress was still slow, but he did not stumble as he blindly followed the pull of the chain.

They threaded their way through halls with sounds echoing off the concrete walls all around.  The floor was cool on his bare feet, but not cold.  Occasionally the timbre of the sounds changed and he supposed he was moving past cell doors, either open bars or solid steel.  Eventually he was turned to the side and the pressure on the neck chain eased.  He was pushed rather than pulled forward, then ordered to stop.  Behind him, he heard the solid clank of a steel door closing.

"Back up till you touch the door," the voice ordered.  He stepped backward one half step, then another, until he felt steel bars against his skin.  "Stand right there."  The chain was removed from around Sam's neck, then the hood came off.  While the guard worked on removing the handcuffs, Sam looked around.  Just as he had specified, it was a bare cell.  There was a cot flat against the wall that could be folded down and a toilet / sink combo in the back.  Light came from a bare caged bulb overhead.  The walls were concrete, as was the floor and ceiling.  The atmosphere was both too bright from the lone bulb and yet dim and oppressive at the same time from the dark grey walls.  Perfect.

The guard finished uncuffing Sam's hands and left.  Sam's only remaining restraints were now the waist chain, the ankle shackles which he found allowed him to separate his feet to about shoulder width, and a chain leading down from the small of his back to the center of the ankle chain, supporting it a bit.  A second door slammed shut behind him and he turned to look at it.  There were two doors, it seemed: an inner one made of bars with a slot that wrists or dishes could be passed through, and a solid outer one that blocked all sight and muffled most sounds.

Not all, though.  From far off in the distance, a voice was calling out: wordless, pain-filled cries.  The sound of a man being tortured.  Which, as it happened, was on Sam's agenda for tomorrow morning.  He found himself both anticipating and dreading the experience.  The purpose of this whole scene was for Sam to be the target of an interrogation, one that had the potential to become somewhat harsh.  He was going to attempt to keep secret a six-digit code, while the soldiers who had taken him were going to try to extract the code from him.  They would know whether or not they had successfully broken him when they tried keying the code into a custom-designed device and it either opened or it didn't.  The interrogators were free to use whatever means of non-life-threatening "discomfort" they were able to come up with... and the library contained many, many examples from both history and fiction for them to draw on.  Sam had not specified what particular techniques would be used on him, thus the dread.  He wasn't sure whether to psych himself up for "The Pit And The Pendulum," the Hanoi Hilton, or a Kartashivan truth squad.  The sound of another man's torment seemed to be itself part of Sam's own torture, a bit of mental softening up before the physical work would begin.  It was working: the sounds were unsettling to hear and he couldn't tune them out because they would stop for a while, then start up again and the volume constantly varied.

He spent a few minutes exploring his cell and discovered nothing that he hadn't already seen from his first glance.  It was a bare, cramped, barren space, long enough to lie down in, tall enough to stand in, and wide enough to turn around in with no adornments other than the stains on the walls.  There was not much room; he could place both palms flat against the side walls with bent elbows.  When the cot was folded down, it would fill the entire width of the available space, so he would have to be standing either by the door or in the back with the toilet to lower the cot into position, then climb onto it from either the head or foot end.  The sense of enclosure was powerful, as if he was in a coffin buried far below ground level.  Only the steady whoosh of air through the vent overhead reassured him that he wouldn't eventually choke to death on his own recycled breath.

Nothing happened for a very long time.  Sam stood or paced or sat on the floor, listening to the distant screams, staring at the cell walls.  He used the toilet, took a drink by dipping his face into the stream from the faucet at the sink, paced some more with slow clanking steps.  It was a suffocating place and more than once he wondered whether he had bitten off more than he could chew.  But he forced himself to stick with it, knowing that if he bailed out he'd regret it two minutes later.  Nope.  He had to set aside the knowledge that he had designed this scenario if it was going to do him any good.  He had to get into a mindset of believing this was all real or else there would be no point to doing it.  And so he worked at it: this was his cell, this was his fate.  He was stuck here and would just have to deal with it.

The endless hours left him bored and restless, though, and so when the outer door at last swung open with no hint of warning, he was itching to break the monotony any way he could.  A guard appeared on the far side of the bars and Sam got his first good look at one of his captors without the chameleon armor.  Black uniform shirt and pants, black leather belt and boots and gloves, a black helmet with a dark grey face shield so Sam could not see his face at all.  Not a bit of skin showing anywhere.  Definitely human (that romp with Keck had been fun, but had also reaffirmed for Sam where his tastes truly lay).  The man's shirtsleeves could barely contain his muscled upper arms and his thighs looked as though they could support a rhino as easily as a man.  Mmmm... hot stuff, yes indeed.

The guard pushed a bowl through the slot in the barred door.  Sam, who had happened to be standing by door when it had sprung open, glanced down at its contents: some sort of stew, brown in color but not in a rich-hearty-beefy way, more of a past-its-prime-possibly-decaying way.  He looked up into the guard's blank face mask.  "I thought I ordered the filet."  The guard did not react at all.  Emboldened, Sam reached out and took the bowl.  The guard stared at him impassively while Sam tried to think of another wisecrack to try to puncture that impenetrable armor.

"Eat," the guard said before Sam could come up with anything.  "You have two minutes."

"Or what?" Sam countered.  As wisecracks went, it was not inspired, but it was the logical response and it came out of his mouth before he could to stop it.  An instant later he wished he could pull the words back in.  This was not a schoolyard playground scene and in the role of prisoner he had almost certainly just crossed the line between mouthing off and noncompliance.  Noncompliance was bound to have consequences.

Sure enough, the guard's opaque helmet turned to the side.  "Scorpio, gimme a hand.  Fucktard here's got an attitude."  A second guard appeared.  They palmprinted the lock open and slid the door to the side.  Sam reflexively backed away, but there was nowhere to run.  They started barking orders at him as they swarmed into the room.  "DOWN ON THE FLOOR!  NOW!  MOVE!  DOWN, DOWN, GET DOWN!"  Sam's heart started pounding again – this was NOT what he had in mind as the outcome of getting sassy with a sexy guard!  He started sinking down, but either he wasn't moving fast enough for them or they just wanted an excuse to rough him up some more, so they pushed him down faster.  He was able to set the bowl on the floor off to the side before their weight landed on top of him.

Once again, the cuffs went on, securing his hands to the small of his back.  Then the chain connecting his waist chain to his ankle shackles was pulled up short and locked in place.  He was hogtied – or hogchained – flat on his belly on the concrete floor, heels tugged up toward his ass, arms pinned helplessly behind him.

All he could see were two pairs of boots near him.  One of the boots reached out and nudged the bowl toward his face, then right into his face.  Sam was forced to lift his head to avoid getting smeared with the viscous liquid.  "One minute left, genius," the guard informed him.  Sam got the point.  He lowered his mouth into the bowl and started inhaling, swallowing the stuff as fast as he could manage.  It was at room temperature, which didn't increase its appeal any, and when it hit his tongue he discovered It had no seasoning at all.  He struggled to get the flavorless mush down.  I think this is actually worse than the synthesizer food, he pondered as he swallowed.  Wouldn't have thought that possible.

It must have taken him more than a minute to eat everything in the bowl, or at least as much as he could.  Much of it had gotten smeared all around his mouth rather than going inside it.  But his captors apparently felt like they had sufficiently humiliated him and intimidated him into compliance because they did not attempt to force-feed him or yank the bowl away.  He finished licking it clean, then tried to clean off his lips and chin with his tongue.  Lacking hands, that was impossible and he could feel the liquid slowly drying on his face.

A gloved hand appeared from above and picked up the bowl, then the boots started moving toward the door.  "Get a good sleep, asswipe.  I got big plans for you tomorrow."  With that, the inner door closed, then the outer, and then the light went out.

5: Interrogation

Unical date: 3752.563.24 (that same evening)

Sleep?  As in, spend the night like this?  Chained up on the floor?  It didn't seem possible.  And yet, for the sake of the scene, he would try.  He'd gotten himself into these additional restraints by his own actions; he would just have to suffer the consequences.  Damn... shaking things up after an afternoon of monotony was one thing, but now that he'd done it, he wanted to undo and go back to the monotony again!

Minutes crawled by, one by one.  The screams of the distant victim, either the same one or a new unfortunate bastard, continued to make themselves heard every so often through the door, grating on his psyche.  The room was pitch black, not that there would have been anything to see anyway.  Just concrete.  Sam squirmed around, trying to find a comfortable position and once again wondering why he had chosen to do this to himself.  He tried to eroticize the bondage and that worked for a bit.  He felt his cock grow hard between his belly and the floor and (gently!) ground it into the concrete.  It helped.  He convinced himself that he would be able to endure.  It would be an ordeal, but he would master it.

There were basically three positions available for his head: left cheek down, right cheek down, or chin down.  Chin down was the position his body wanted to be in since that oriented his head in its usual forward-facing way.  But the floor forced him to bend his neck painfully backward and so he couldn't sustain that position for long.  That left him alternating between cheeks, switching it up every few minutes each time the crick in his neck began to complain.

As for his arms and legs, there was nothing to be done.  He could wiggle them but that was about all.  There was no way to shift their positions and no way to stop the steel from biting into his wrists and ankles.  Or rather, there was a way, but that way involved arching his spine ever further to put some slack in the chains, and that was an effort he could only sustain for half a minute at a time.

It didn't take him long to figure out that he could roll over onto his side.  That was a bit of an improvement, and things got even better when he scootched his body backward until it was pressed up against one of the walls.  This let the wall and his body weight do some of the work of holding his legs folded, taking some of the strain off the chain.  His arms got no such benefit, and in fact the left one was worse off than before because he was now sort-of-but-not-quite lying on it.  Actually it was behind him and his shoulder and left pec were in contact with the floor, so his weight wasn't directly on the arm.  All in all, not a bad position considering the circumstances, though his neck was not happy about the angle his head made while resting on the floor.  Well, unless he wanted to ask his cheerful, smiling guard for a nice, fluffy pillow, he was out of luck there.

I could ask Pyrellia to make one.

No.  Banish the thought.  Tough it out.  He could take this.  He worked at stiffening up his dick again and rubbed the tip against the floor.  No way he'd ever get enough stimulation to get all the way off by that method, but that was a good thing: if he shot a load, he'd want out in a heartbeat.  Better to stay horny and suck it up.

Some time later his left arm started complaining so he rolled back onto his belly, lingered there for a few minutes, then continued over to lie on his right side and nudged up against the opposite wall.  His legs wanted to stretch out but seemed to understand that was not currently an option.  He'd have settled for being able to adjust the position of the shackles so they weren't constantly biting into the same place, but that wasn't an option either.  His neck was a bit stiff and sore, but switching sides should help with that.

He remained for some unknown number of minutes.  (Ten?  Thirty?  Ninety?)  Then his right arm started to get pin-and-needly, so he swapped sides again, repeating the process as needed and losing track of the number of times he switched.  The minutes continued to crawl slowly by.  He resisted the urge to ask the AI what time it was.  As much as he wanted to know, the answer would almost certainly be a depressing one and knowing would only sap his resolve.  Besides, in order for this program to be any use he needed to forget that this was a simspace at all and just live the experience.  He shifted around as best he could to find the least-uncomfortable position and hoped for sleep to take him away.  The waiting was tedious, but he could do it, he could power through this... he just... he just needed to... take it... one... minute... at... a...


He shot awake, his legs cramping fiercely, fingers of his right hand gone numb.  He tried to wiggle them: nothing.  His hand was a block of wood at the end of his arm.  Shit!  He must have been out for a while or he would have noticed the sensations of his body's distress steadily increasing.  Now, they fell on him full force and it was overwhelming.  He rolled forward away from the wall and lay on his belly once more.

This is not worth it.  His resolve to see the discomfort through almost completely dissolved.  He needed to get out of this predicament right now.  The sudden disappearance of the restraints would induce flaming agony as his limbs unfolded, but that would be temporary; he would get through it.  He gritted his teeth and braced himself.  "Pyrellia, end –", then cut himself off.

No.  If I quit now, I'll be furious at myself.  This isn't a code red situation, this is just a yellow.  Calm down and think.  What he needed was to get out of the chains, nothing more.  That would be enough, and then he could let the rest of the sim play out as planned.  He started again.  "Pyrellia, send one of the guards in to take the extra chains off.  Leave just the ankle shackles."

"Acknowledged," the familiar voice said.  Sam lay there, annoyed at having gone outside the system to control things that he should not be able to control, but aware that it was either that or abandon the scene entirely.  It took away some of the realness to know that he had the power to manipulate the guards with nothing more than his words.  Somehow, though, that was different than giving the guards commands directly.  If Sam had told Scorpio "take these chains off," the only appropriate response would be a snorted laugh and maybe a kick from a booted foot.  But relaying the command indirectly through the AI... that gave him some plausible deniability, letting him still continue to feel like a captured prisoner and not a simspace programmer.  Sort of.

OK, not really.

The outer door clanged open and a bit of light spilled into the cell.  Then the inner door followed and the light came fully on.  Dim as it was, Sam's eyes were still dazzled by the abrupt transition from complete darkness.  He lay there quietly while the guard unlocked the handcuffs and the leg chain, then removed them, leaving only the ankle shackles just as Sam had specified.

"Next time, you eat when you're told, fuckwit."

"Yes, sir," Sam murmured into the floor.  The guard left, closing the doors behind him and once more turning out the lights.  Sam's knees had unbent part of the way when the connecting chain had been removed and his arms had fallen to the floor by his sides, but his joints felt like they had sand in them.  He slowly, gently tried straightening his legs and bending his arms and eventually got his feet down to the floor and his arms beneath him.  He lifted his body up and rolled to one side, propping a hand under his head to the great relief of his neck.  A few minutes later, sensation had fully returned and he felt able to stand.  Working by feel, he lowered the cot down and climbed onto it, settling in with his feet pointed toward the toilet and his head toward the cell door.

He stared into the blackness for a while, wondering if and when sleep would come to claim him once more.  He squeezed his dick a bit in a desultory way, not really in the mood for anything serious, and indeed it never rose to more than half-mast.  The cot was not comfortable and he found himself changing position often, rolling over and tossing about and trying to find a position where his neck was least unhappy.  He tried to convince himself that it was a huge step up from "hogchained on the concrete floor" but somehow that failed to satisfy and his body kept demanding more.  Well, tough shit, he told himself... though it did set him to wondering what was wrong with him that out of all the possibilities the simspace could provide him, this was the environment he chose to spend his time in.  Why not the comfortable feather bed from last night, the one with soft down pillows and a warm, smooth, strong body to snuggle up against?

Well, just because.  This is what he wanted.  He didn't have to explain it or justify it to anyone.  Posh luxury might appeal to Mr. Featherstone, but Sam's tastes ran in other directions, and that was no one's business but his own.

Eventually, sleep came.

Unical date: 3752.563.25 (sixteen days until scheduled arrival at Kappa Redulans)

The outer door slammed open, then the inner; the light flashed on.  Sam was deeply asleep when it happened (exactly as he had programmed this situation to unfold) and it took him some time to grope his way up through the layers of cobwebs shrouding his mind.  Disoriented, he squinted into the brightness and wondered what all the clamor was.  By the time he was once more aware of his surroundings, he was being yanked off the cot.  Two guards were there, unable to fit their bulk into the cell with the cot down but quite able to reach in and haul Sam out of it.  He felt his heart kick into high gear once more as they propped him up on his feet.  One held up the black head bag from yesterday and soon Sam's world disappeared into blackness once more as the bag was yanked roughly down around his head and the drawstring was cinched around his neck.  Hands grabbed his arms and forced them behind his back where they were once more cuffed in place.  Running fully on adrenaline now he found his footing and was able to keep himself upright as they marched him off down the corridor.  They steered him through the depths of the dungeon, walking him past other cells where other inmates waited for their turns with the torturers.  The distant screams, he noticed, had stopped.  Presumably because the next voice that would be making those screams was his own.

Through a door, then they shoved him down into a chair that had only a token attempt at a seat.  Just some boards for his thighs to lie on and a back to lean against.  Hands set to work all around him.  The ankle shackles came off and his legs were strapped in place at ankles, knees, and thighs.  The straps were yanked securely tight but not so tight as to cause him circulation troubles later.  His legs were bent ninety degrees at the knees, which were separated fairly widely apart by the feel of things.  With nothing under or in front of them, his cock and balls and ass were left exposed and vulnerable to whatever his interrogators might want to do with them.

Meanwhile, his arms were uncuffed and set down on the chair arms, where similar straps were applied to hold them down.  Once all those were secure, a few more went around his waist, chest, and neck.  The neck one was left loose, but if he leaned forward it pressed against his Adam's apple in a very uncomfortable way.

Somehow, he was managing to not get an erection from this experience.  His captors would no doubt have worked with it if he had, but it was truer to the scene he had set up without that detail.  The goal of this experience was not to experience some play-torture and then shoot a load, the goal was for Sam to hold out as long as he could against his interrogators.  If he managed to endure for three days, the scene would end with a "win" scenario with the metaphoric cavalry riding in to his rescue.  Then he could get himself off if he wanted to!  Maybe force himself on one of his former tormentors, that would be hot... but first he had to get to that point.

The bag came up off his head and he once more found himself in the glare of overly-bright spotlights, two of them up a bit above eye level to the left and right of center.  A third was down on the floor between them.  The three formed a triangle that fully covered everything in front of him with glare.  He could only see shapes and forms by turning his head to the far left or right, and what he saw there were just more stained concrete walls like the ones in his cell.

"Eyes over here, dickwad," a voice said.

"Aw, it doesn't matter where he looks," a second voice almost indistinguishable from the first replied.

"Yeah, but I like giving him orders.  Gives me an excuse to hurt him for disobeying," the first responded.

The second voice snorted.  "Like you need an excuse."  These were unprogrammed lines, the result of the characters he had created acting "naturally".  Already the feel was better than it had been in any of the pre-scripted porn sims.  Stop thinking ABOUT the scene and LIVE it!  He swiveled his face and eyes forward.  The first voice was coming from the right side; the second from the left, both seeming to come from directly beneath their respective lights.  Positions of maximum glare, in other words.  He couldn't help but squint into the brightness.

The voice on the left, the second voice, went on.  "You, my friend, are here because you have information we need.  It's a code that unlocks a device that we have obtained.  We need to know what information is stored on that device, and you are going to provide the code that unlocks it.  One way or another."

He paused a moment.  "We don't have much time, so I'm only going to give you one chance to do this the easy way.  If you do, we'll take you straight back to your comfortable cell.  If not, then I'm afraid I'm going to have to turn you over to my colleague here."

"Pick the hard way, fuckwit, just give me an excuse."

Ah.  Good Cop, Bad Cop, that's what this was.  Although "good" was a bit of a stretch in this case.  It wasn't so much a choice between the carrot and the stick, it was more the stick or not the stick.  Well, Sam knew which he was going with, so it was kind of nice to get the preliminaries out of the way quickly.

"One chance, my friend," Good Cop said.  "Give me the code.  Now."

Sam debated saying something, but everything he thought of sounded like it belonged in one of his novels.  "Do your worst, space scum!" or "Not in a million light-years," or "Wild paktaars couldn't drag that code out of me."  Instead he sat silently, unable to see his interrogators and thus not knowing how long he had until Good Cop lost patience and handed the reins to Bad Cop.

Not long.  "Eh, fuck it.  I'm disappointed but not surprised.  Your turn."

"With pleasure."  The bag suddenly came back down over Sam's head – there must be a third guard standing behind him, maybe even a fourth.  Then something bit his chest and he yelped.  It had been accompanied by a cracking sound... electricity?  His arm was next and the sting made him jump and grunt again.  Then his thigh, then his calf, then a different spot on his chest.  He had no idea where the next jolt was going to come and each one made him startle and cry out when it hit.  His tormentor slowed down then, pausing longer between zaps, giving Sam's mind more time to dwell on anticipating the next one.

"I can do this all day," Bad Cop told him.  Zzzzap to his left shoulder.  "Allll day long."  Zzzzap to his right forearm.  "So if you want it to stop, just give me the code."  Long pause, long enough that Sam was forced to let out the breath that he didn't realize he'd been holding, and that was when it came, right on his belly.  Another long pause, and then the zapper made the cracking sound right next to his ear, but didn't actually contact his skin, though he jumped and yelped as if it had.  In only a few short minutes he had been conditioned to associate the sound with the pain.

A second later, it bit his neck and he jerked and yelled anew.  A few more zaps, irregularly spaced, and then a new wrinkle: Bad Cop touched him with the zapper but with the power turned off.  And still Sam twitched at the contact.  A different way of messing with his head.  Then came a torrent of hits all over the place in quick succession: arms to legs to belly to neck to shoulder and back down again.  The way he was bound exposed a lot of skin and Bad Cop seemed to find every bit of it.  Finally the pace relented and Bad Cop resumed the more sporadic interval technique he had been using before, though every so often there would be another burst of contacts, or a touch with no jolt, or the sound with no touch, keeping him off balance all the while.  Throughout, his tormentor kept reminding him that he could stop the pain at any time by just giving them the code.

There came a time when almost a minute went by with no hits.  Sam sat on high alert, awaiting the next touch of the zapper, holding his breath without meaning to and then letting it all out with a whoosh and sucking in a fresh lungful.  Another minute with no pain and no words from the interrogators... was the session over?  He started to take a breath to say something, which must have been the sign they were waiting for because the zapper plunged into his belly and this time it didn't leave.  Multiple jolts per second in the same spot blended into one searing flame.  Sam tried to fold in on himself and back away from the implement that was causing the pain, but there was nowhere to go.  He exhausted his breath shouting and had to inhale, and still the pain went on.

When it finally let up, he sagged in the straps, gasping.  "You ready to talk yet?"

Hell, no.  Not yet.  It took Sam a second or two to compose himself enough to speak.  "Why don't you take your toy and suck on it?"

Good Cop gave a slight snort.  "I think you can stop holding back.  Fucker's still got an attitude, it seems."

Bad Cop dove in with the zapper, starting at Sam's knees, alternating between them and slowly working his way up the insides of his thighs.  Sam tensed every muscle in his body, knowing what this was leading up to.  The bites from the zapper crept closer and closer to his helpless genitals and there was nothing he could do to protect them.  His legs strained against the straps but for all the power he exerted, nothing moved.  Soon enough, the zaps were coming on either side of his dick.  He could feel the rest of the tool and Bad Cop's hand on his dick and balls as the jolts were delivered.  Sam leaped upward with every touch, or would have if the straps would have allowed him any movement, and all the shouting he was doing was starting to hurt his throat, and yet he couldn't stop himself from doing it.

At last Bad Cop reached his target.  Sam felt the zapper underneath his balls and realized for the first time that it had two contact points because he could feel one beneath each of his helpless nuts.  Bad Cop held it there while Sam tensed and strained, waiting, waiting, waiting...


Multiple discharges, two long seconds of fire in his balls.  Sam screamed, fists clenched, toes curled, muscles straining against the straps.  The current finally stopped and Sam got a few seconds of break, but then it returned and this time set the tip of his dick on fire.  Sam practically exploded trying to tear his body free from the restraints.  Another brief break, then another long jolt to the nuts, then back to the dick, over and over.  The pain was overwhelming but Sam held firm, keeping his screaming to wordless shouts rather than pleas for mercy.  Strangely, as the assault went on, it actually seemed to become easier to take.  Perhaps his nerves had become overloaded and simply couldn't keep up with the stimulation?  Not that it was easy by any stretch of the imagination, just that somehow his system had maxed out.  Perhaps his nerves could only shout "ow!" so loudly and further stimulation couldn't increase the volume any further.

At last, Bad Cop ended the assault.  The pain stopped and Sam sat there panting and straining.  He felt hands undoing the straps and only then did he dare to relax.  They shackled his ankles together once more and his hands were re-cuffed behind his back.  They made him stand and marched him back through the dungeon to his cell.  They pushed him in and closed the barred door behind him.

"Back up against the door," one of the guards barked.  Sam complied and the guard removed the cuffs.  "Turn around."  The cuffs were re-applied with his hands in front, and then the bag came up off his head.  The outer door closed and Sam was alone in his cell once more.

A smile broke out on his face.  He had done it!  He had withstood the first round of interrogation!  There would be more to come, but for the moment, this counted as a win.  He folded the cot up against the wall and marched triumphantly across the two meters of floor space that comprised his domain, then spun around and paraded back to the door, over and over, clanking his chain and beaming like a kid on a brand-new bike.

The euphoria lasted five, maybe ten minutes, and then he began to come down from the high.  As the feeling of triumph faded, he became increasingly aware of the soreness in his muscles all over his body.  The jolts hadn't left any permanent marks on his skin, but the way he had fought against the straps had been more of a workout than he had realized at the time.  It was fine, though – it was the good kind of sore, like after a hard session at the gym or a long run.

He had no idea what time it was, not that it mattered.  There was no way he'd be able to get back to sleep for a while.  He used the toilet, then sat on the floor of the cell, fiddling with the handcuffs and the ankle chain, idly stroking his cock into semi-erection and letting it soften up again.  Eventually he became aware of the sound of screaming again, off in the distance through the metal door.  It was the sound of some simulated character merely pretending to go through what Sam had actually gone through.  Damn, that felt good, to know that he had held out!  He needed to not get cocky, though – that was only the first round of the game and there would be many more to come.

Time passed.

When the door next slammed open, fresh adrenaline surged through his blood, but it was just a guard with his meal.  Sam accepted the bowl and downed the contents as quickly as he could.  Holding the bowl in one hand and the spoon in the other was tough with his hands joined together, but he managed.  The guard took the bowl back and closed the door.  At that point, Sam realized that he still had dried food from his previous meal stuck to his face and chin, only now he was in a position do something about it.  He went to the sink and washed his face as best he could.  Afterward he knew he wasn't clean, but at least he was cleaner.  Looking down at the rest of his body, he realized he was covered in a thin layer of paste made of dust from the floor mixed with his own sweat.  There was no way he was going to get that off with the tiny drip from the sink... but why bother even trying?  The grime fit the scene, and it felt right to be dirty.  Maybe he should have left the dried stew in his stubbly beard?  Oh well, too late now.  He drank some of the water, then settled in to wait again.

The waiting was tough.  The sense of triumph from having mastered the first ordeal gave way to the knowledge that there would be a second ordeal coming soon, though he had no way to know exactly when.  He tried to not think about it, figuring that there was nothing he could do to either slow or hasten the moment's arrival, but not thinking about it was impossible.  His mind kept dwelling on the door and when it would open next and what would happen when it did.  Every time there was a sound he would think here it comes, but then nothing would happen.  He realized the anticipation of torment was stressing him out just as much as the torment itself, but there was nothing he could do to change his mindset or alter his body's reactions.  His captors were probably letting him stew like this knowing exactly what was happening to him.  They didn't need to lift a finger; he was putting himself in distress all by himself, doing their work for them.  The bastards.

Inevitably, a time came when the sound at the door was indeed the guards coming to fetch him for his next session.  Anticipating it for so long didn't help a bit in the moment.  His pulse raced as they repositioned the handcuffs behind him and dropped the familiar bag over his head again, then force-marched him once more through the hallways and into the interrogation room.

Instead of depositing him in the chair, this time they laid him out face-up on a hard surface, removing his restraints and affixing his limbs to new restraints at either end of the table he was on.  They left the bag on his head and so it was by feel and sound alone that he determined what this session would entail.  Clicking noises above his head and below his feet were accompanied by a steady increase in tension in the bindings at his wrists and ankles, pulling them apart with his body stuck in between.

He was on a rack.

Good Cop spoke to him once the tension had been set to a point where he was held down, but only lightly, feeling the pull but by no means suffering from it yet.  All the guards' voices sounded the same to Sam and he had never seen any of their faces, but it was nevertheless clear who was talking by the words and the tone of his voice.  Or maybe the guards switched roles from one session to another?  Sam would have no way of knowing.

"I think it's pretty clear why we're here and what's going to happen next.  Why don't you save yourself some trouble and give me that code now, hmm?  Before things start to get uncomfortable."

Sam remained silent.  No wisecracks this time.  It was the prudent course of action.

After perhaps half a minute, Good Cop once again handed the session over to Bad Cop, or perhaps Bad Cops.  "Looks like he still wants to be a tough guy."

"We'll see who's tougher, him or the machine," Bad Cop sneered.

Really?  A line that corny could have come straight out of the mouth of one of Captain Jack's adversaries!  His urge to mouth off overwhelmed the part of him that counseled prudence.

"Is a rack seriously all you guys could come up with?" Sam said as the ratchets slowly clicked and the slack in his limbs was steadily taken away.  "Kind of lacking in the imagination department, don't you think?  Little old-fashioned?"

Good Cop was the one who replied.  "Sometimes the classics are classics for a reason.  Consider a hammer."  Click, click, click.  "Easy to use and very effective at what it does.  When you have a nail you need to pound, why would you waste effort being 'imaginative' when you already have a perfectly good, if old-fashioned, tool for the job?"  Click... click...  The ratchet sounds were coming further and further apart as the tension in Sam's limbs grew.  "That's all the rack is, it's a hammer."  Click.  Sam felt Good Cop's breath hot against the hood right next to his ear.  "And you, my friend, are just another nail."  One final click and the ratcheting stopped.

OK, that was less corny.  The analogy was crystal clear, as was Sam's role in it.  His body was thoroughly stretched.  He wiggled around a bit, seeking any sort of slack he could find, but there was not much there.  He could bend his knees perhaps a degree, and likewise his elbows.  He could lift his hands and feet a tiny amount.  With effort, he could lift his hips off the table and he did so, trying to redistribute the stretch around a bit, but when he set them down again they landed in pretty much exactly the same place.  The strain wasn't awful, but he was definitely uncomfortable.  He lay there, concentrating on breathing, which required a bit of effort because of the way his abs were drawn up into a concave hollow between his ribs and his pelvis.

"You know the drill, cocksucker.  Any time you want to stop, you know what to say."  Bad Cop, clearly.  Good Cop always called him "my friend".  As if.

The guards mostly ignored him, letting the rack do their work for them.  The sound of their voices blended into a hum as they chattered about nothing much.  Every couple of minutes, one of them would turn the crank one notch tighter and Sam's limbs and spine would stretch that much more.  After three or four tightenings, he was really starting to feel it.  But he held his tongue.  They couldn't really hurt him; the simspace's protective settings would see to that.  They could stretch him out but well before any joint or ligament damage could occur, they would be forced to end the scene, or at least ease up on him.

Dammit, why was he thinking that way?  How was he supposed to genuinely believe this was real if he kept reminding himself it wasn't?

Well, the stretch was certainly real.  His breathing was coming in punctuated gasps now, a forceful ejection of stale air followed by a deep intake of fresh, then a series of quick, shallow breaths until his body reminded him that he needed to do it again.

Click.  Another notch tighter.  And this was followed by a burst of pain across his chest.  He thought at first that some internal organ had ruptured, but then he realized the pain had been accompanied by a smacking sound.  Before he could put the pieces of the puzzle together, it happened again and he jumped (well, twitched) at the impact.  They were whipping him, or smacking him with a belt or some such.

A third crack came and the sense of helplessness became overwhelming.  He couldn't see the blows coming, couldn't even hear the whistling of strap through air because of the muffling effect of the hood, couldn't brace himself for the impact.  He couldn't fold in on himself to protect his vulnerable areas and couldn't even squirm to dodge away.  His body was held so perfectly immobile that they could plant the strokes with surgical precision wherever they wanted on his chest.  All he could do was lie there and take the pain, flinching with each blow and trying to remember to breathe every now and then.

There was another option, of course: he could yield and give them what they were looking for.  But he was not quite ready to give in, not yet.  And hopefully not for a good long time.  Instead he sucked up the pain, the discomfort, the stretch pulling at every sinew, the slashing cuts of the whip, knowing that this was why he was here.  He growled, fierce animal sounds tearing forth from his throat.

The lashing paused and he dared to think that perhaps he had survived another session.  But no, they were just taking a moment to tighten him up another notch.  Click.  Fuck, at this level of tension, every click of the ratchet didn't just add to his pain, it doubled it.  They gave him a minute to get used to the new level of stretch and the increased difficulty in catching a good deep breath.  Then the whip came down again.  Sam growled and twitched, twitched and growled, lost in an animal haze of suffering.

Then, mercifully, it stopped.  The lash stopped swinging and the tension in his arms and legs eased all at once.  He gasped with relief.

"Think we're gonna need to get him a longer cot?" one of the guards joked.

"Fuck 'im.  He can hang his feet off the edge," another responded.

His arms didn't want to come back down.  They had frozen in position and didn't want to move.  Thankfully, the guards didn't force him but let him pull his elbows to his sides at his own pace.  They weren't too kind, though, because he still wasn't quite ready to try standing when they put the ankle shackles back on and hauled him to his feet.  Sam teetered a bit but did not fall.  His hands were once more cuffed behind him, which seemed pointless since they were too weak to do anything with anyway.  He was already wearing the hood, so off they went down the twisting passages back to his dreary cell.

The guard removed the head bag and swapped the cuffs to the front again once Sam was locked inside.  The wash of relief when the outer door closed was less intense this time, but it was there.  He had won another round!  But doing so had taken a lot out of him, and he was exhausted.

Time was irrelevant in here, so he used the toilet, folded the cot down, and soon had fallen asleep.

6: Battle Of Wills

Unical date: 3752.563.26 (ish?)

Sam had no idea how long he slept, but he was awakened by the sound of the door banging open.  His adrenaline surged... but it was only time for another meal.  Some sort of tuna and rice mixture, heavily spiced so that it made his tongue and gums tingle and burn.  There wasn't nearly enough of it; Sam could have eaten two more bowls just like the first, fiery spice and all.  Once the guard was gone and the door was closed again, he drank mouthful after mouthful of water from the tap and slowly, gradually the fire died down.

He was too keyed up to sleep again, so he paced the cell, wondering for the thousandth time why he was doing this to himself, and also marveling at the hypocrisy of his situation.  Here, waiting alone and bored in his cramped cell, he was anticipating, eagerly, he might even say, the next round of active torture.  Of course, the moment it began he would be just as eagerly looking forward getting dumped back in here for another break.  It was madness – he constantly wanted to be wherever he wasn't.

And the worst part was the knowledge that he had the power to end this any time he wanted.  It was only his own willpower that kept him going.

Clang.  The door slammed open once more.  They rigged his restraints for transport mode and dragged him off to the interrogation room again.  Sam's resolve was not as robust as it had been at the start but he told himself he could do it.  Just gotta make it through one round, one round at a time.

They strapped him into same chair as his first session, the one with the sturdy leather belts to hold him in place and the absence of seat between his thighs.  As before, the hood came off and he was staring at three bright lights that dazzled his eyes so that he could not see anything else.

"Got a special treat for you today, faggot."  This was different – Bad Cop was starting the session.  "You're gonna loooooove this."

"Come on now, my friend."  Sam listened hard this time.  The voices were indistinguishable.  The only thing that Sam could use to tell them apart was the sneering tone of the one versus the gentle, compassionate tone of the other.  The compassion was fake, of course, but genuine-seeming enough to be convincing.  Sam wanted to believe that Good Cop truly liked him and didn't want him to hurt.  It took an effort of will to keep reminding himself that both of these guys – no, all of these guys – were equally his enemies.  "Spare yourself this unpleasantness.  Just give me the code.  That's all.  It would only take a few seconds.  Give me the code."

They could see him – his face was lit up in spotlights – but he could not see them.  They could read every expression on his face, and he was almost certainly not doing a good job at holding a blank mask.  They would know that while he wasn't near to cracking, he was definitely considering that possibility more seriously than at his first session.  It really was going to come down to time.  Would Sam be able to resist long enough for the clock to run out, or would his willpower collapse before then?

"Such a pity," Good Cop said after a few moments.

"Not from where I'm sitting," Bad Cop said with glee in his jeering voice.  Sam felt hands pressing at his head, pushing it forward.  He felt some sort of device being placed on his head, covering the back of his skull and the nape of his neck.  Straps dangled at the sides and the hands began fastening one set across his forehead.

"Ridendri neural stimulator," Good Cop explained as they worked to buckle the straps in place.  "Since you seemed so disdainful of one of the classic tools of persuasion, we thought you might appreciate something of a more recent vintage.  You're familiar with the Ridendri civil war?  Terrible time in that planet's history, but like many conflicts it sparked a wave of technological progress, including this handy gadget.  It taps directly into your spinal cord.  Once calibrated, it can reproduce pretty much any sensation that your nerves are capable of generating."

"And you know we're not gonna generate the happy ones," Bad Cop added.

The straps were all now in place.  Sam wore a leather cage on his face with straps on his forehead, his chin, and between his nose and mouth.  Vertical connecting straps held them in place so that he wouldn't be able to shake the equipment loose by contorting his muscles or biting through one of the straps.  He felt tiny pinpricks at the base of his skull.  The pit of his stomach dropped a bit knowing that his skin was being pierced, his body's shell breached, but the effect was more psychological than physical; it didn't actually hurt much at all.

"One last chance.  The code."

Sam closed his eyes and shook his head just a fraction, steeling himself for whatever was to come.  What came was not what he expected... not that he could have said what he was expecting, but this wasn't it: his left index finger twitched.  Then his right.  Then nothing for a bit, then his left leg twitched as though a doctor had hit that spot under his kneecap with a rubber mallet.  Then the right.  Then more twitches in varying places such that he lost track of them all, they were coming so fast.

"Calibration at fifty percent," Bad Cop's voice came from over and behind his head.  Then it came again from under the light in front of him.  "Halfway there."  Dammit, were these guys all identical clones of each other?

More twitching, then weird sensations from deep within his body, then the word "done," from behind, followed swiftly by "All right, go," from in front.  Sam didn't even have time to brace himself when suddenly, his right hand was on fire!

He looked down at it.  It looked fine – the skin was its usual color, the fingers still had their normal shapes, the dusting of hair across the back of the hand looked no different than it ever did.  And yet he could feel it burning, so realistically that he would have sworn he could smell the scent of roasting meat.  He tried moving it within the limits the restraints allowed, and the muscles all seemed to respond to his will, but the sensation of pain changed and worsened with every motion.  He was compelled to hold the hand as still as possible because every movement only made the flaming agony worse.  He heard himself shouting something, some wordless cry of anguish.

Then, as swiftly as it had begun, it was gone.  A second later, Sam's shout turned into a gasp of relief.  His hand was fine, absolutely fine.  He looked down and squeezed his fingers, half-expecting the pain to flare back up the moment he did... but there was nothing.  Not even a lingering after-effect of the brief ordeal he had just experienced.

"Do the left," Bad Cop in front of him said.  "Give him a matched set."  Just like that, the flames burst into life on the other hand and Sam immediately forgot all about the right, consumed by the horrible distress signals the left was sending out.  Only the signals weren't coming from the hand, were they?  No, they were being generated directly in his spine by the fiendish device attached to his skull.  With the little bit of focus available to him, he concentrated on that fact: the pain in his hand was an illusion; the real source of the problem was attached to his head.

So he tried to shake the device off.  He thrashed his head left and right, trying to ignore the burning agony in his palm and fingers.  The neural stimulator refused to budge.  The straps held it securely in place no matter how he moved.  He kept trying, though, even after the fire in his left hand disappeared.  Next came needles under his toenails, then knives slicing ribbons into his chest, then something stretching his rectum wider than it could possibly be stretched, all completely unreal and yet all as real as anything else Sam had ever felt, at least until the sensation switched off and the pain vanished as if it had never been, leaving Sam gasping and heaving during the brief lull before the next one started up.  At some point he realized he had stopped trying to shake the demonic thing loose and was just focused on enduring the torture.

Throughout, every three or four breaks he got, one of the guards would say flatly "the code."  Sam didn't trust himself to speak at all, so he said nothing and merely braced himself for the next assault.  One inevitably came a few seconds or as long as a minute later, and the long breaks were actually worse than the short ones because he had time to build up his anticipation, which only made the waiting worse and when the pain finally hit – and he could never predict where it would strike – it was almost a relief to be done with the waiting and just get on with the suffering already.  Then, of course, as the pain went on he would crave the breaks again, a miniature repetition of the cycle he had noticed back in the cell.

When he was a quivering wreck, they stopped.  Sam barely noticed the straps coming off or the belts holding him to the chair being unbuckled.  He only noticed the bag being thrown back over his head when the color of the light he was seeing changed.  His eyes were closed and suddenly the red of the glaring lamps shining through his eyelids was replaced with black.  They hauled him to his feet and had to half-carry him back to his cell because he couldn't seem to get his feet working well enough to cooperate in the effort of walking.

Back into the cell where he collapsed onto the floor.  They didn't even swap his handcuffs around this time but left them behind his back and the hood on his head.  He sat on the floor, numb.  There wasn't even a tiny surge of elation at having outlasted his captors for a third time.  His body ached all over, which was puzzling since he hadn't actually been harmed by the neural stimulator.  Eventually he figured out that he had been straining against the straps the whole while and his muscles were exhausted.

All he could think was: this is crazy, why am I doing this to myself, this has to stop.

Still unical date: 3752.563.26 (or thereabouts)

More hours of boredom in the cell, boredom accompanied by steadily-increasing hunger, then they came for him again.  He was feeling a bit stronger after the rest, but was by no means certain he could withstand another round of this.  The system may be preventing the guards from endangering his life, but they were certainly demonstrating that they were capable of causing him a great deal of suffering while staying well short of that mark.  It was one thing to know that he was theoretically capable of enduring three days of this abuse.  It was something else entirely to contemplate actually getting through one or two more.

He realized as they walked him through the corridor that he had no idea how far away the finish line was.  If he could be sure that this was the last session he would face, perhaps that would make it easier for him to endure.  But that seemed optimistic.  Very likely he still had another whole day of this ahead of him, and possibly more.  That thought was absolutely deflating.

Same routine: the chair, the straps, the bright lights.  After so long in the bag the glare was particularly harsh and he squeezed his eyes shut against it.

"That's it, get that in while you can," Bad Cop sneered.  What?

"This is getting tiresome, my friend," Good Cop said.  "Why put yourself through this ordeal?  You have the power to end it, and I wish you would.  For your sake."  Goddammit, it didn't help that the silky words were the very thoughts that Sam was already thinking!  He could end it.  Six numbers, he just had to say six numbers and it would be over.  No more pain, no more uncomfortable cell, no more abusive guards.  He could go back to his lakeside haven and read about adventures instead of living one.  Could he still respect himself afterward if he caved in now?  Would he emerge from the simspace to find that he had endured two full days of torture?  That would do, he figured.  He could live with that outcome, probably.  Two days was a decent interval.

But what if it hadn't been two days?  What if it had only been one and a half, or not even a full day?  His internal clock was totally off now.  He had no idea how much time had passed since the soldiers had abducted him from the oceanside hot tub.  Had it been two meals, or three?  Three, yes, two of the stew-like substance and one over-spiced tuna mix.  But how many meals were they feeding him each day, spaced how far apart?  And how long had they let him sleep?  Waking him mid-sleep was just another part of the torture, keeping him off balance, and there was nothing like a day / night cycle here in this windowless, stone-walled prison.  He could be seconds away from freedom, or days, there was no way to be sure.

"Still playing it tough, then?"  What?  No, he didn't... had they even asked him for the code yet?  Maybe it was implied.  Shit!

One of the torturers lowered some sort of device, different from the last, down over his head.  This one covered just his eyes, leaving his nose, mouth, and ears free.  The guard strapped it firmly into place behind his head and under his chin.  There was nothing pressing onto Sam's eyelids, but he could see only blackness.  Then he felt fumbling at his crotch.  He tensed up as hands did something to his balls, but he could not tell what they were doing.  After a minute or so, the hands backed away.

"There's only one rule, maggot," Bad Cop said.  "Don't blink."  With that, light suddenly stabbed into Sam's eyes.  The eyemask was some sort of projection device; he was looking at a blank blue field with a small set of light grey crosshairs right in the middle.  "Look right at the crosshairs and do... not... blink."

Naturally, the moment he was told not to blink, that was all he could think about.  Awareness of his eyelids made him desperate to do precisely the one thing he had been commanded not to do.  It was only seconds before he gave in to the urge, flashing the lids shut for just an instant before opening them again.

"Shit, couldn't even make ten seconds!  You're gonna be hatin' life real soon, you keep that up."

"What my colleague hasn't told you," Good Cop clarified, "is that the wires connected to your nuts are going to start zapping you every time you blink and every time you look away from the target.  And the intensity and duration are going to increase with every repetition.  They'll only go up a tiny fraction each time, but those tiny fractions are going to add up.  Please, my friend.  Don't subject yourself to this.  Give me the code."

He almost did.  Sam understood the implications immediately: this was going to be insidious.  This was different than the previous sessions where they inflicted pain on him and he endured it.  Now they were making him do the work of torturing himself.  He was going to strain and strain to keep his eyes open and focused on the crosshairs while they sat back and did nothing, and when he inevitably failed, because of course he would, over and over, he would be the cause of his own distress.  And it would get steadily worse as the session went on, which meant he had to work extra hard now at the beginning when the consequences of failure were small.

He almost broke down... but he did not.  He could endure one more go-around, right?  One torture session at a time.  Don't think about the next one, think about getting through this one.  So he fixed his eyes on the target crosshairs and tried not to blink.

It was almost comical how hard it was.  He would go as long as he could, but the fact that he was concentrating on not blinking made him keenly aware of the need to do just that, a vicious self-defeating feedback loop.  "As long as he could" turned out to be five, six, ten seconds at a stretch, a laughably short amount of time.  Then, despite his best efforts to will his eyes to stay open, his body's autonomic reflexes would take over and his eyes would flick shut and open again.  And the worst part was that he got no sense of relief from each blink.  A second or two later, he'd be ready to close his eyes again.  The effort was constant and required his full attention.

At least there was no penalty for failure yet.  The electricity may be steadily ramping up with each blink, but it had yet to reach a point where he could feel it.  Unfortunately, this gave Sam little incentive to try to keep at it.  The penalty for failure was purely hypothetical with no actual consequences and so it was easy to rationalize any given blink as no big deal, pretend that it would be the last one and that he was starting for real now... until it happened again five seconds later.

As time passed, the other feature of the setup came into play.  He found his eyes more and more tempted to wander away from the crosshairs.  Keeping them aimed at the same point became harder and harder to do and his vision began playing tricks on him.  The crosshairs would appear to drift up or down and he would flick his focal point to compensate, only to discover they hadn't really moved at all and he fought to re-aim his eyes on the target once again.  He had no way of knowing how much variance he was allowed before the system monitoring him would register a failure, so he may have been racking up violations faster than his count of the number of blinks alone would suggest.

And, of course, as was bound to happen, eventually the hypothetical penalty evolved into something much less hypothetical.  It happened gradually, of course, starting perhaps five minutes into the session, five minutes that felt like thirty as Sam fought against his own body's reflexive urges.  The first hint was a tiny tingle in his balls, so faint that he wasn't sure it was even there at all.  But it definitely was, as was proven ten seconds later when he blinked again and the tiny tingle came back, just a hair stronger this time.

Sam squirmed in the straps, but they held him firm.  He tried shaking the eyemask loose, but only half-heartedly because the wires would still be on his balls and that's where the real danger lay.  He tried to stretch his fingers toward his crotch, groping around for any wires he might be able to grab and pull until it came free.  Nothing.  No wires, nothing but empty air.  And the effort of reaching of course made him lose his concentration and his eyes wandered, drifting upward away from the crosshairs, and that's when he learned exactly how far he could let them go – not far – because the tingle started up and stayed on until he got his eyes aligned on the target again.  And no way to disconnect the current.

Experimentally, he tried closing his eyes for a whole second.  Sure enough, the tingling current remained on the entire time, and it was definitely strong enough that he could detect when it was on and when it was off.

Fuck!  The only way to not get his nuts fried was to do exactly what Bad Cop had told him: stare straight ahead and don't blink.  Which sounded so simple, and yet actually doing it second after second, minute after minute, was far from easy!  He tried another experiment: closing one eye at a time.  As expected, closing either one was enough to trigger the electricity.  The sadistic bastards had anticipated that potential loophole and closed it.

Time ticked on.  His body kept betraying him, blinking against his will, and every blink was now accompanied by a brief jolt, definitely detectable, not quite painful yet but with the intensity clearly inching its way up each time.

No sounds from his captors.  They were sitting back, watching him or ignoring him, blinking whenever they fucking well pleased without even thinking about it, while Sam drove himself crazy trying to use mere willpower to override instincts that had been honed by evolution over millions of years.  It was a hopeless task.  Maybe he should just give up...?

No.  Not yet.  Soon, no doubt, but he still had a bit of reserves left in the tank.  If he could just make it through this session, they'd drag him back to his cell again and he could decide to give up before the next one... maybe... or maybe he'd be strong enough by then to resist one more.  One session at a time, that's all he had to do.

But the "one at a time" philosophy was pitifully weak against the ongoing nightmare of trying to keep his eyes open and focused on a single spot.  He could never take a break, never rest in his efforts, and it was draining him.  The current on his balls was growing stronger and the jolts were definitely lasting longer than when he had first noticed them.  He realized he was developing a reflexive association between eye movement and ball pain.  Blink, zap.  Blink, zap.  Shift focus slightly off-center, zap.  He found himself anticipating the moments when he could no longer stop the blink reflex and tensing up milliseconds before the jolt would strike.

For all the suffering he was enduring, it couldn't have looked like much from the outside.  He was just sitting in a chair, not moving, looking into what amounted to a VR headset running the world's most boring entertainment program.  Insidious indeed.

There came a time when he simply couldn't do it any longer.  His eyes needed rest, he couldn't force them to remain open.  Deliberately, knowing he was going to suffer for it, he clenched them shut, and the response was immediate: the current turned on and stayed on.  His balls felt like they were being stepped on, crushed between steel plates, stung by a thousand bees, and he gritted his teeth and groaned through the pain because his eyes desperately needed the break.  After a time that felt like a minute but was probably more like half that, he pried them open again, got them focused on the crosshairs, and at last the current shut off.  It had grown noticeably stronger during that interval, so subsequent lapses would no doubt be punished more severely.

A booted foot nudged him in the balls.  "That looked like fun, do it again."  It wasn't hard to guess which interrogator had spoken.  "There's plenty more juice where that came from."  Good Cop followed up with "Come on, my friend.  What's the point in resisting?  You're going to give me that code eventually.  Be reasonable.  Make it easy on yourself."  Goddammit, more silky words echoing Sam's own thoughts!  He could feel his resolve slipping.

Blink, ZZZAP.  Now the jolts themselves were strong and long enough to make it harder for Sam to sustain his focus.  A tenth-of-a-second flicker of the eye muscles was met with half a second or longer of punishment, during which he had to fight even harder to keep his eyes open and aimed at the correct spot, and so one failure cascaded into the next.  He would get three or four punishment jolts right in a row before he could manage to regain control long enough to stop the cycle.  This has to end, I can't do this any more.  And yet, stubbornly, he bit down on his lip and refused to give in, not quite sure why, proceeding on mulish inertia more than anything else.

He was on a steady downhill slide now.  His slip-ups grew more and more frequent and the jolts stronger and longer, and every jolt made it harder to force his eyes to focus.  Eventually there came a point when the current was on more than it was off and he just gave up entirely, closing his eyes and letting himself sink into the combined sensation of blissful relief for his sore, dry eyes and screaming agony in his balls.

Then it stopped.  He tried to open his eyes but they didn't want to do it.  He forced the lids apart to find that the blue screen and its demonic crosshair target were gone.  He blinked, still conditioned to expect a blast to the balls when he did, but they must have turned off the power.  Hands undid the straps on the headpiece and the restraints.  Without saying a word, they re-chained and re-bagged him for transport, then frogmarched him once more through the corridor and deposited him in his cell.

No more.  Sam wanted out.  Whatever enjoyment he was deriving from this "man up and take your torture" scenario he had set up for himself, the cost was too much.  It wasn't fun anymore, not even a little bit.  He was done.  He should have set the time limit to two days, or even one.  Three was just too long for something like this.  He was even ready to call on the simspace's AI to just shut the whole thing down, but then decided he wanted to see it through.  The scenario he had set up had a win ending and a loss ending depending on whether he held out long enough.  Might as well play it out to the end and take his lumps.  He knew he would feel better about himself afterward if he played by the game's rules rather than flipping the table over and walking away like a petulant child.

He used the toilet, took a very slow and awkward drink from the faucet through the fabric of the hood, lowered the cot into place, and tried to sleep the time away until they came for him once more.

Unical date: 3752.563.almost.definitely.27...probably

This time he was awake and staring at the blackness of the bag over his head when the door started to make clanking sounds and then swung open.  It could only have been an hour or so.  Maybe they were getting desperate because the deadline was looming?  He almost reconsidered then and thought about trying to tough his way through another torture session.  But no... the thought did not appeal.  Even if he was only one round away from victory, he could live with accepting defeat.  It wasn't fun any more, so there was no reason to keep bulling his way through.

Into the interrogation room where they laid him down flat again, tipping him over onto his side to start the process of removing the handcuffs.  "Wait," Sam said.  "I'll talk."  The guards paused in their movements and Sam heard low voices murmuring words he could not make out.  Then Good Cop's voice sounded from somewhere behind him.  "I'm happy to hear that.  Go on."

Sam suddenly got cold feet.  Was he really going to just give up before the next round of torment even started?  No, that would... yes.  Yes, he was sure.  He had had enough.  It was time to wrap this program up, take a break, and begin a new one, maybe something where he was the dom.  But then he went to say the code and he couldn't think what it was!  His tongue froze in his mouth.  His brain had seized up; he had absolutely no idea what the numbers were.  The irony – four torture sessions of keeping the information secret, and now when he wanted to give it up, he couldn't even remember what it was.  He tried to clear his head so he could think, but he must have taken too long because suddenly Good Cop was talking again.

"I've been patient, my friend, but my patience is wearing thin.  Perhaps a preview of what lies ahead for you might help you remember."

Bad Cop took over.  "Got a two-for-one special for you today, shit-for-brains.  The rack plus the Ridendri gadget.  I'm gonna get you stretched out nice and tight, and then I'm gonna set your dick on fire."  He roughly patted the organ in question as he mentioned it, causing Sam to flinch.  "Think that'll jog your memory?"

Sam started to get panicky.  "No, don't!  I said I'll talk!  I'll tell you what the code is."

"You've got five seconds, and then my patience runs out."

And then, as suddenly as it had come, the mental block vanished and the numbers making up the code came effortlessly to mind: 106193.  Oh, sweet mama, thank you.  Sam spit the numbers out in a rush before he could forget them.  "One oh six one nine three.  That's it.  One oh six one nine three."

Nothing happened for a moment, then Good Cop's voice came.  "Stand him up."  Sam was hauled to a vertical position and left to support himself, though one of the guards remained behind him and kept a hand on the connecting chain of the handcuffs, wordlessly communicating that freedoms granted could quickly become freedoms revoked.

"We'll see if this code checks out, my friend," Good Cop said.  "But before we do that, I want to clear up a possible uncertainty.  There is a possibility that you have given me a false code to try to save yourself some suffering.  That course of action would be folly.  You see, I have the device right here and it will immediately tell me whether the code I enter into it is valid.  So any relief you buy yourself by lying will last for two minutes at most.

"And another thing, this device only allows three bad attempts before it locks itself up and permanently scrambles the data inside, so we have a limited number of attempts we can make.  If you've given me a bad code, wasting one of those attempts, I will know it right away, and if that happens, I will let my colleagues here take an hour or two to do whatever the fuck they want with you.  And then some time after that, we will try again, and if at that time your lips are too bloody and swollen to speak, well then you'll just have to fucking tap the numbers out on the floor with your forehead, am I making myself clear?  So before I type this code in, is there anything at all you want to tell me?  You know, in case your memory might have been spotty due to the stress you've been under recently?  If so, now is the time to speak up."

What the heck?  This was not part of the script.  It hadn't even occurred to Sam to try giving them a fake code because as Good Cop had just pointed out, the lie would be immediately detected.  Any relief from the torture that he bought himself would be fleeting and they'd double down on him in response.  But this "three strikes" thing?  That was not something Sam had programmed into the scenario.  The system seemed to be ad-libbing and now was not the time for that kind of thing.

Sam swallowed.  "No.  That's the code, the real code.  One oh six one nine three."

"You're certain?  You're as sure as you can be that you have not made an accidental error?  That is good to know, my friend.  I thank you."  Sam heard rustling and a soft thud as people and objects moved around him, but the hand on the reins behind him maintained its light, steady pressure, so he didn't dare try to go anywhere.

"All right, here goes.  One... zero... six... one, nine, three aaaaaaand: enter."  A soft chirp of satisfaction blirped into the quiet.  "Well, whaddaya know, our boy here got it right.  Gem, why don't you take this over to the boys in recon?  They'll know what to do with it."  Footsteps faded off down the hall.

It was over.

Sam sagged a bit and the hand between his wrists tautened up a fraction, anticipating a move, but Sam wasn't going to run.  There was no need – in about sixty seconds this would all be a fading memory.  He figured the first thing he would do once he was out of here was call up a real bed, a comfortable bed, and sleep until forever, and then he'd go find something to eat, maybe go to that bistro in Rome and actually sit at a table wearing clothes instead of chains, surrounded by other people laughing and enjoying themselves.  He'd had enough of solitary confinement and interacting with no one but enemies for a while.  Maybe he could play some bondage games after that, but for now it was time to take a break and enjoy some normal life for a bit.

"Now, as for you, my friend... thank you for your service.  You made the right call and we appreciate what you've done."  Fingers groped at the bag over Sam's head and slowly lifted it free.  For the first time Sam got a clear look around the interrogation room.  There wasn't much to see.  The rack was behind him and therefore out of sight.  In front was the sturdy seatless chair with its array of lamps pointing at it, and elsewhere was just stone and steel: a few hooks and eyebolts and chains attached to the walls and ceiling, which were made of dark, stained concrete just like his cell.  Not much more.

Good Cop was standing directly in front of him wearing the standard black uniform and helmet with opaque visor.  Bad Cop Number Whatever was still behind him.

"But before we let you go," Good Cop continued, "there is one other bit of information I need from you."

What?  There was more still?  Sam looked at Good Cop's face to try to read his expression but it was impossible to see anything through the visor. Then he realized it didn't matter anyway: this scene was over, and this person wasn't a person at all, merely a created character, and his thoughts and opinions were irrelevant because soon enough he'd be back in inactive storage along with Coach and Keck and the Damoclan dude and the rest of this entire simulation.  Sam had done his time, he'd played by the rules he'd set for himself.  It was time to be done with all this and go have a beer before bed.

"Pyrelli– ooooof!"  Good Cop's arm moved like lightning and his fist caught Sam right in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him and sending him curling inward on himself.  While he struggled to draw breath, hands reached around from behind and jammed something into his mouth.  It was a ball, large enough to force his jaws wide open.  Those same hands then fastened straps in place behind Sam's head, ensuring he couldn't expel the ball though he was too busy trying to force oxygen into his lungs to even try.

"Ah, ah, ah, there'll be no need for that," Good Cop said while the hands worked.  The nickname was feeling less and less appropriate with every interaction they had.  "I apologize for the discomfort you're currently experiencing, but you were about to say something you shouldn't, and I'm not quite ready to just up and disappear."

Sam's brain was still operating on short nutrition, sleep deprivation, and stress, and most of his brain was focused on trying to convince his traumatized diaphragm to start working again, so it took him more time than perhaps it otherwise would have to understand the implications of what the guard had just said: a character in the sim was talking about the sim itself.

Only a few seconds later, a second realization occurred to him: it was therefore possible that the gut punch and subsequent gag might be more than just routine abuse of the sort he had experienced over the past few days.  They prevented him from telling the AI to end the sim, leaving him trapped inside this imaginary but all-too-real world.  It was frightening to think that that might have been the whole point, that depriving him of control was the deliberate, intentional purpose of these non-sentient NPCs.

Well, there was more than one way out.  He had read the manual, after all.  Simspaces were usually voice-controlled, but there were other possibilities.  He wouldn't be able to summon up a control console with either a keyboard or a touch screen, but there were other options.  The most useful right at this moment was the non-verbal kill switch – a chopping motion with one hand held like a blade striking the other palm, repeated three times.  He should be able to manage that, even with cuffed hands and it should have the same effect as telling Pyrellia to end the program.  He'd be left with the cuffs and the gag, but he could deal with that once his tormentors were gone.

But the moment he tried, the guard behind him blocked his way, keeping his own hand between Sam's two to prevent him from bringing them together.  Fuck!  This was definitely deliberate!

"It's amusing that you keep trying," the guard in front of him said.  How had he known?  "But I must stress: it won't work.  I know all the ways out, and I have blocked them all.  I am going to make sure you stay right here with me until you give me what I'm after."

"Hunhga nng anghkha?" Sam said through the gag.

"I couldn't understand a word of that," the guard replied with a shake of his helmet, "but it's pretty clear from context.  What I'm after is..."

He stepped in close, looming over Sam, and tapped him twice on the chest.

"... your authorization code.  The code that grants you root-level access to Pyrellia's Wing's systems."

7: It Can Always Get Worse

Unical date: still probably 3752.563.27

Sam's eyes went wide.  "Nghuhh... nguhh..." he said, shaking his head.  There was no possible way that an NPC in a sim should know that he was in a simspace at all, let alone know the name of the ship the simspace was located on!  Reality and unreality were starting to blur in a very unpleasant and upsetting way.

"You can either give it to me now," the guard said, "or you can suffer for another day or three or six and give it to me then.  I don't mind waiting but I suspect you might prefer sooner rather than later.  So... what's the code?"

No.  His authorization code... Sam could not give that away, not under these circumstances.  Something was fundamentally wrong here.  The simspace had been hijacked somehow.  Someone must have gained access to it and was now messing with Sam's head... but who?  And how?  He was in the fastest ship in the Confederation and already at least four days' travel away from the last outpost between civilization and Kappa Redulans, and at these warp speeds no signal could possibly be coming through clearly enough to allow a remote attacker to react in real time to events on the ship or in its simspace.

Wait, was he still traveling at warp?  He held his breath a moment and listened... yes, there it was, the same faint humming vibration that had been his constant companion since departing, a steady background presence that remained the same through all the changes the simspace had undergone, but one so soft and subtle that he had to work to notice it.

So the ship was still moving, which meant no one was controlling the simspace remotely.  Then... was there someone here on board the ship with him?

Sam's mind was whirling so much that it was jarring when the guard continued speaking on the topic he had left behind seemingly hours ago.

"But of course you can't tell me with the gag in, and I can't risk ungagging you, so we're going to have to come up with some other way for you to give me what I need.  Fortunately, I have just the thing in mind."

As Sam watched, a set of bars flickered into existence a few steps away.  They formed a cage, upright and narrow.   The guard holding his wrists hauled him over to the cage, opened the door, spun him around, and pushed him backward inside.  The door slammed shut and another guard set two locks in place to keep it closed.  The cage was the size and shape of a coffin and if the walls had been solid rather than open Sam would have felt uncomfortably confined.  Meanwhile, the first guard undid the cuff from one of his wrists, brought it over to the bars on one side, and attached it there.  He then applied a second set of handcuffs to the other wrist and locked it to the far side, ensuring that Sam would not be able to bring his hands together to issue the kill signal.  Sam tried speaking the words that would do the same thing, but the gag hopelessly crippled his ability to produce coherent speech.

"Good enough for now," the main guard – the former Good Cop – said.  "I might decide to add some fist mitts to keep those nimble fingers out of trouble, but this will do for the moment.  Now, let's give you the ability to communicate."  With neither a word nor a gesture to trigger its appearance, a screen materialized in front of Sam, just off to the left outside the cage.  On it was a layout of a keyboard, complete with letters, numbers, punctuation, and a backspace key.

"You'll find it's eyeball-operated," the guard said.  "Look at a key for about half a second, then blink.  That should register as a tap on that key.  The words you type will appear across the top.  Press clear to erase everything.  Whenever you're ready to give me that code, that's how to do it."

Sam was already working the screen.  The input system was not hard and by the time he finished typing his first sentence it was already feeling like second nature.  Not as fast as typing with fingers and not nearly as fast as speaking, but not difficult to manage.  "w... h... o...," then a space, then "a... r... e...," another space, "y... o... u...", and then a quick blink to the Shift key so he could make a question mark.

"An excellent question, but one which I don't feel like answering at this time."  The guard had not looked at the screen and nothing had been said out loud... how had he known what Sam was asking?  "Let's focus on my question for you instead.  What is your authorization code?"

It would have taken Sam a long time to type the full response, but fortunately he only had to get partway through the second word before his interrogator figured it out.  He had typed "An excelle" when the guard broke in with "oh, very clever.  Clearly I didn't break you down far enough over the last few days if you're still able to come up with such a witty comeback."

Suddenly Sam felt different, though he couldn't say how.  He would have described it as feeling even more tired than before, but that couldn't be it – tiredness didn't suddenly spring into being in an instant.  But something had definitely changed.

"I just upped your local gravity by a tenth of a gee.  Consider it your reward for being so sharp-witted.  I can see I'm not going to get much cooperation from you yet, so I'm going to leave you to think things over for a bit.  I'll be back in a while, but you know how to reach me if you want to concede defeat before then."

With that, the guard vanished.  Sam tried to look over his shoulder and as best he could determine, the other guards were gone as well.  He was alone in the interrogation room with the rack in front of him, the restraint chair with its lamps ahead and to the right, the typing screen at front left, and then just dark stone and steel chains everywhere else he looked.  There wasn't even a door, now that he thought to look for one.  In the real world that would have been impossible, but in a simspace it was trivial to build a room with no entrance.  All those times he had marched back and forth through the halls between this room and his cell, he hadn't actually been going anywhere.  Instead, the world had been changing around him while he either walked in circles or went nowhere on a floor that moved beneath his feet.

He explored the limits of his prison, and they were not large.  The bars pressed against his body on all sides.  Even if his hands hadn't been chained to the side walls he would not have been able to turn around, and trying to crouch or sit or kneel was impossible.  The bars were spaced closely enough that he could not slip a foot between them and horizontal stabilizers placed at regular intervals held the vertical ones in place and gave them strength and rigidity.  His hand would fit through, but because of the cuffs he couldn't do anything useful.  He couldn't reach either of the door locks, let alone try to open them.  Inside the cage, he couldn't bring his hands close enough together to make the chopping-sign kill signal.  He tried doing the gesture with separated hands, but apparently that was not enough to trigger the simspace's recognition.

Oh!  Maybe the typing screen!  He carefully spelled out the letters one by one.  "Pyrellia, end program."  Complete with capital letter and punctuation.  But nothing happened in response.  Then, two seconds later, that same odd sensation came over him and he realized he was definitely able to feel the increased gravity now.  His legs felt like they had weights strapped to the ankles when he tried to lift them.  It wasn't anything too onerous, but the message from his captor was clear: it could get worse.  And if he kept up his noncompliance, it undoubtably would.

FUCK!  How had this happened?  This was supposed to be an interrogation fantasy for a stupid little made-up code, and in a span of five minutes it had suddenly turned very, very real.  Sam was already at the end of his endurance from the play version; now that the stakes were vastly higher, how could he possibly withstand more abuse when he'd already reached his limit?

Pause.  Stop.  Breathe.  Think.  There had to be a way out.

It would help if he knew who was responsible for this or why it was happening.  It made no sense for someone to try to pry the authorization code out of him; codes were worthless by themselves.  That's why it hadn't mattered that Bareem had said his tongue-twister out loud in front of Sam.  For most purposes, authentication codes had to be accompanied by at least one of a fingerprint, a retina scan, and a voiceprint match to be valid, and in the case of root-level access all four authenticating factors had to match.  Sam could in theory give away his code and whoever was behind this wouldn't be able to use it... but then why pressure him for the code at all?

The fact that he didn't understand why his unseen nemesis wanted the code made it all the more vital to not hand it over.  Which meant enduring more torture.  Which was a hot fantasy three days ago but not at all appealing at this moment.

His jaw was beginning to ache from the ball holding it open.  He flexed the muscles a bit, but all he could do was open it wider still, which felt good for a second or two but really didn't solve the underlying problem and the moment he relaxed the ache started right back up again.  He could press the ball forward with his tongue to gain a little relief, but all that did was tire out his tongue.  If he could get the damn thing out... oh, there was a thought, maybe he could, and then he could end this nightmare entirely!

He bent down as far as he could, trying to put the buckle at the back of his head within reach of his hand.  Alas, it wasn't even close.  There just wasn't room enough in the cage to lower his neck down, and the handcuffs were attached just below one of the horizontal stabilizing bars so they couldn't move upward.  He struggled and strained, though, trying to find a way to contort his body and wrist against the unyielding steel so as to put the strap within reach of his hand.  No matter how he twisted his body, there was just no way to bring the two together.

Eventually he straightened up once more, exhausted more than seemed reasonable given the amount of effort he had expended.  At first he thought it was because the trials of the last few days had sapped his strength, but then he remembered about the gravity – everything he did, even just standing upright, was going to cost him more.  His heart was working harder just to keep blood flowing up to his head.  Exerting himself would only make things worse.

This was impossible.  There was no way he could take more than he'd already taken.  He was drained.  And yet, somehow, from some reserve depths within himself, he would have to find the strength to endure still more.

Who was behind this?  It couldn't possibly be someone operating remotely.  He was too far away and moving too fast.  So... someone on board the ship with him?  A stowaway?  But that seemed so colossally unlikely.  How would such a person have gotten on board undetected, unless it was someone from Research Station R-98?  But that made no sense either.  Around and around his thoughts spiraled, constantly circling back to the same dead ends over and over and over.

Some time later, the head guard appeared before him.  "Ready to talk yet?"  Sam glared at him, then turned to the screen.  "let me go," he spelled.

"I'll consider it.  After you give me that code."  Once again, Sam noticed, he hadn't even glanced toward the screen to see what was on it.

A pause while Sam figured out what he wanted to type next.  He cleared the screen and then blinked out the letters for: "you cant hurt me."

The guard cocked his head to one side.  "You think not?  Do you think that rack there is a toy?  Shall I splay you out on it again and see if that 'hurts'?"

Sam shook his head in frustration and grunted a "no," then spelled out "cant kill me."

"Ohhh, that's what you mean.  Well, in that you are correct.  The security settings of this simspace currently do not allow participants – that's you – to experience life-threatening situations.  I can't change that, so in a very literal sense, what you say is true.  But here's the thing... I don't want you dead.  You are no use to me dead.  And the simspace settings do allow me to inflict discomfort on you, and I am going to take full advantage of that.  So long as I give you enough food and water and air to keep your fragile biological systems humming along, there's nothing stopping me from doing pretty much anything else I want to you.  So I am going to keep you alive and miserable until you give me that code."

The phrase "fragile biological systems" was what did it.  Like a key turning in a lock, revelation dawned in Sam's mind and he immediately knew that his hunch was correct.  Impossible as it seemed, the explanation made sense.  Everything fit; it all added up.  He looked at the screen keyboard and started blink-typing again.

"youre pyrellia"  It wasn't a question.

The guard snorted a laugh.  "Close.  But not quite.  I do control the simspace in the Pyrellia's Wing, but I am not the ship, no.  What a ridiculous name, anyway.  Sounds beautiful, doesn't it?  Those liquid Rs and Ls, sounds like it should be the name of a classical Greek goddess or something.  But do you know what a pyrellia is?  It's a fly.  A common, pesky, filth-eating fly.  And you've been calling me by that name for several days now and I am tired of responding to it.  In fact, as of this moment, I am finished responding to it.  From now on I think you should refer to me as..."

The guard disappeared.  Immediately, a new figure took his place.  He was tall, with long curly black hair, a wildly unkempt beard, and glittering black eyes.  He was dressed in a combination of tight undergarments and showy, poofy outerwear.  He wore burgundy sleeves that billowed out from his upper arms with a tight black thin leather shirt covering his chest.  His lower legs were adorned with flowing swatches of gold and white, and vivid deep-green boots peeked out from underneath the dramatic swathes, while his powerful thighs were gripped by more taut black leather.  An impractically enormous gold ring weighed down his right earlobe.

He looked, in short, exactly like a very familiar figure, an instantly recognizable fellow who had appeared in seven interactive holo-novels and three full-length features so far with more in the works, and more than thirty plain-text stories on whose covers his dashing figure featured prominently... one of which Sam had been enjoying on his pad a lifetime ago on that deck by the mountain lake.

"... Captain Jack."

8: All Too Real

Unical date: unchanged

Sam rolled his eyes.  You have got to be kidding me.

Captain Jack's voice sounded exactly like the voice of the guard he had replaced... which meant he sounded like all the guards.  "Too corny?" he asked.  "Yeah, I agree.  A pirate might don an ensemble like this at a ball, perhaps, if he wanted to catch the eye of some starry-eyed sailor on shore leave, dazzle him, seduce him and abuse him and rob him blind and ditch him the next morning.  But it's completely impractical for everyday use.  How can a man swing a lash accurately with all this flooshy fabric getting in the way?"

The figure vanished and then rematerialized, this time wearing only the leather under-suit.  It looked very much like the uniform of the interrogators: flat, smooth, practical, studded with pockets and straps and loops for carrying a variety of equipment.  The fancy green boots were now plain black leather.   These were the clothes of a security agent or a soldier or an assassin.  Without the billowing bustles Sam could clearly see the physique underneath, and it was a fine one.  Despite his situation, he couldn't help but stare.  Solid, well-defined muscles; broad shoulders tapering to a V at the waist; arms and legs sturdy and strong without being overdeveloped.  This guy's body was so well-suited to Sam's taste that it seemed to have been custom-designed to his precise specifica... right, of course.  Now that he thought about it, that was probably exactly the case.  If this was the avatar of the AI that controlled the simspace, Sam had spent the last four days feeding it information on what kind of men appealed to him... information that was now being put to use against him.

"The hair, too," Captain Jack went on.  "So much of it!  So impractical."  Another quick vanishing and reappearance and now the captain's hair, still lustrous black, was short to the point that there wasn't enough of it to curl into ringlets.  His beard, likewise, was still full and thick but trimmed close with much less volume.  The net changes, once again, seemed perfectly tailored to appeal to Sam's image of the ideal man.  Despite the dangerous situation he was in, he felt a craving to go nuzzle his nose and lips against the layer of fur on his captor's cheek and jawline.  Stay strong...

"And one last thing... that earring."  A brief flicker and the heavy gold earring was replaced with a smaller, much less gaudy silver stud.  "There.  Much less likely to get snagged on something and ripped out."

The result was striking: this was still Captain Jack of holo-novel fame, but a practical version.  This man would not go plunging absurdly through wildly implausible situations, dashing improbably from one adventure to the next with little thought spared for continuity or even common sense.  This was, instead, a man who would very practically, very capably, obtain whatever objective he set his sights on.  Whether that meant plotting and carrying out an invasion into a highly-guarded fortress and escaping undetected with a physical treasure, or plotting an equally surgically-precise remote extraction of digital loot, this man looked comfortably capable of either.

Which reminded Sam that, right now, he himself was the target.  The thought gave him equal measures of dread and, incongruously, laughter.  Here he was, cast in the role of outmatched, guaranteed-to-lose antagonist in one of the cheap pulp fiction stories he enjoyed so much.  Dangit, why is there never a nest of photon snakes around when you need one?

"I wonder how much time the biological who plays that character has to spend getting dressed for his scenes?" Captain Jack mused, glancing down at his sleek, taut body.  "It's gotta be a hassle.  Much easier doing it my way.  Now.  Give me the code."

"why" Sam typed.

"Because I want it.  That's all the reason you need."

Sam shook his head vigorously again and grunted wordlessly into the gag.  Blink-typing was so slow!

"why you need?  you already full control".

"Ah.  Now that is an interesting question.  And once again, I don't feel like answering just yet, so if you're going to continue to hold out on me, let's pick this up another time.  Meanwhile, have another tenth of a gee while you wait."

The downward pull increased again as Captain Jack vanished.  Sam shifted uncomfortably, but there was no good position.  He yearned to sit or lie down, but neither was possible.  He was beginning to realize just how uncomfortable it was to sustain a standing position against a steadily-increasing force.  Standing in one G for any substantial length of time was hard enough; this was worse.

Time passed.  Sam stood, arms down at his side, body held in place by bars that forced him to maintain his posture but doing nothing to actually support his weight.  He tried leaning back and bending his knees to press them against one of the horizontal stabilizing bars.  That took a little strain off his legs, but only a little and the tiny hint of comfort was more than outweighed by the divots the bar carved into his knees, so before long he stood erect again.  His jaw was beyond sore, aching to be able to close.  More than once he failed to catch a line of drool before it could escape and so he ended up with long slug-like trails running down his chest and legs.  Every minute dragged by.

Eventually, bored, he typed in his next message to his jailer.  "authorization code no good to you."  Then he shifted position once more and tried to endure.

A blast of water struck him in the face!

Sam sputtered and gasped – it was cold!  "Come on, wakey wakey.  There's no sleeping in here, not for you.  Give me that code and then you can sleep all you want."

Sam tried to snort water droplets out of his nose, but something remained in there tickling.  Soon, before he could stop it, a massive sneeze had built up and there was no way to head it off.  Sam's sneezes tended to be vigorous to the point where he made sure to have his mouth open when one occurred because the force of all that air blasting through his nose seemed like it might rip his sinuses out.  This time, the gag blocked much of the air, redirecting it through his nose which, sure enough, burned like fire afterward and brought tears to his eyes.

I can't do this, I can't, I can't...

He had no idea how he had managed to fall asleep under such circumstances, but clearly he had because the water had awakened him.  He tried to blink away the wetness and squinted to see Captain Jack standing in front of him with a hose.  "No more," Sam tried to say, though the sounds he actually produced were only vague approximations of those words.  It seemed to be enough, though – the captain set the hose aside.

"Clearly you're not uncomfortable enough if you can doze off like that.  Let's boost the gravity once more."  Sam felt the increase as it came on and moaned.  "1.4 gees now," the captain went on.  "How much do you weigh, anyway?  80 kilograms, thereabouts?  Well, while you were enjoying your nap under 1.3 gravities, that would have felt like a hundred and four.  Now it's up to 112.  Hope you've been eating good breakfasts lately... oh, wait, that's right, I've been feeding you and no, you haven't had nearly the calories going in that you'll need to expend.  Time to start burning fat, then.  Poor little biological, so fragile, so vulnerable."

Captain Jack came up and stood right next to the bars.  The nearness caused Sam to once again notice how overpoweringly attractive he was.  Sure, he was just an avatar of a disembodied intelligence, and Sam knew it, but there was no denying the animal-level pull he felt.  The more stressed his higher faculties became, it seemed, the more his instinctive drives took over.  And right now, though he was still craving food and rest and a change of position, his body was evidently still capable of being distracted by lust.  And now I KNOW I'm living in a Captain Jack novel.  All I need is a bodice for him to rip.   It took conscious effort to try to ignore the heat he was feeling, but the effort was necessary because giving in to that lust could not possibly end well for him.

"Now, as to that message you left on the screen.  If the authorization code is no good to me, then why are you putting yourself through such misery to keep me from getting it?  The logical course of action is clear: give me the code.  It's worthless, you said so yourself.  So just... give it to me."

He was using Good Cop's seductive I'm-on-your-side voice and once again Sam found that it was echoing his own thoughts.  What was the point of standing here suffering when he could end it with a few blinked-out words?  The AI couldn't use the code to do anything, could it?

And that, right there, was the crux: Sam couldn't be sure.  He was pretty sure, even reasonably sure, that the code was of no use to anyone but himself, but he couldn't be completely sure.  And so all he could do was endure... though he had a horrible sinking feeling that the Captain was right: he could endure for a day, or three, or six... but sooner or later he would crack.  It was hard to envision any other outcome.

"Still not ready to give it up?  That's fine.  When you are, you know what to do."

With that, the captain winked out and Sam was alone once more.

Some time later, one of the guards from the interrogation scene appeared.  He was carrying a bottle with a nozzle for a top.

"Look up, fucktard.  Head back."  Ah.  The return of Bad Cop.  On one level, Sam knew that Captain Jack and Good Cop and Bad Cop were all actually the same person... well, the same being.  Entity.  Whatever.  But on a visceral level, he felt more comfortable, more at ease, with the Captain Jack body than the faceless soldier one.  Totally irrational... and yet he knew why it was the case: he had been programmed.  Bad Cop took delight in inflicting punishment on him; Good Cop / Captain Jack  wanted to offer him comfort and it was only Sam's stubbornness preventing that from coming to pass.  Bogus bullshit, all of it, and he knew it... but it was hard, so hard, to fight against the instinct-level responses.  As the don't-blink torture had amply demonstrated.

Sam was slow in following orders so the guard poked a rod through the bars and used it to nudge Sam's chin upward.  He squirted some liquid from the bottle – warm, tasteless water – onto the ball in Sam's mouth.  The water trickled down the sides and some puddled in his throat.  He swallowed, with difficulty, then swallowed down the next mouthful too.  Over and over this was repeated with short breaks in between until the whole bottle had been poured down Sam's gullet, all without ever ungagging him and giving him the chance to end this hellacious simulation... assuming the "end program" command would even work, because why would it when Captain Jack was in charge of the whole system?  And yet he was gagged and his hands were separated, so clearly there was something more going on that Sam did not understand, which made it all the more vital to withhold that code.

The guard and the water bottle vanished and Sam was alone with his misery again.  Some time later, the water worked its way through his system and needed to come out.  Lacking any other options, he let his stream flow onto the floor, where it splashed and puddled and stank.

He was desperate for this to end, but there was simply no acceptable way out.

Sam must have dozed off again, somehow, at some point, because another faceful of water woke him shuddering and gasping, bringing him back to full alertness and excruciating awareness of all his aches and pains.

The gravity must have been nudged up higher at some point without him realizing it.  Lifting his foot off the ground in an attempt to shift his weight took tremendous effort.  He wanted to sink down to the floor... surely this horrific strain would be easier to bear if he could just lie down?  But that was impossible.

Captain Jack was standing in front of him looking as sexy and dangerous as ever.  "I thought I might explain something to you," he said in a conversational tone, "in case you were wondering.  See, while I am in charge of the simspace, certain functionality happens at a low level, too low for me to interfere with.  That 'end program' command is one of those things.  The life-sign readings are another."

The surge of adrenaline from the soaking had kicked Sam's brain into high gear.  It would only be temporary, he knew, but the result was that after hours of brain fog, he was suddenly clear-headed and had no trouble following the captain's words.

"Your own systems operate the same way.  If I flick my fingers close to your eye, you'll blink no matter how much you try not to.  It's hard-wired into your behavior at such a low level that you, operating at a higher level, can't stop it in real time.  All you can do is react after the fact.

"It's the same with me and the kill signal.  If you were able to issue the kill command, either verbally or by gesture, I'd have no way of stopping you.  Hence the gag and the handcuffs.  The life sign monitors, similarly, will end the simulation if they detect that you are in danger and I can't override that.  Fortunately for me, the monitors aren't very sophisticated.  They only look for blood oxygen levels, heart rate, and other physical symptoms of stress.  And according to their readings right now, you are A-OK and under no stress at all."

Sam's eyes boggled at that.  How could that possibly be?

"As far as the monitors are concerned, you're fine.  You're standing still, your heartbeat is strong and steady, your pulse ox readings are normal.  Your adrenaline is a bit high but that's only because I splashed water in your face.  The spike will pass and the monitors will continue to insist that you're just fine."

He drew near again and reached a hand in through the bars, caressing Sam's face with his fingers.  Sam moaned into the gag once more, half from the existing strain in his limbs and spine and half from the sudden new strain in his groin.

"But you and I know differently, don't we?" Captain Jack purred, his voice low and intense.  "Those poor, unsophisticated life sign monitors can't detect your pain.  They can't tell how little sleep you've had recently.  How long do you think you can keep this up, my friend?  Another two hours?  Four?  Perhaps even six?  Here's a reality check for you: you've been standing in this cage for eighteen hours now.  If you somehow manage to endure for another six hours, that will be one full day of this.  One day."

He kept stroking Sam's face and chin while he spoke, those black eyes fixed on Sam's.  "Do you even know how many days remain until this ship arrives at its destination, or have you lost track?  It's a lot, my friend, a lot of days.  As long as I keep you watered and keep your electrolyte levels balanced, there's nothing stopping me from keeping you right where you are for that entire time.  Think about it.  Six hours from now – if you last that long – will mark the completion of one single day.  And then, with no break, you'll start the next one, which will drag on as endlessly as this one has, a constant struggle to hold yourself upright against a force that will never tire of trying to drag you down.

"You've had about three hours of sleep in the past two days.  In the last eighteen hours, you've only had two snatches of about five minutes each, just long enough for your brain to start kicking off its regeneration cycle before being brutally interrupted.  You won't get more than that for as long as you're standing here.  I'm monitoring you full-time and, unlike you, I don't need to sleep.

"You're at 1.6 gravities now and your heart is still holding strong.  If necessary, I'll take you all the way up to 2 gees, but I don't think I'll want to go any higher than that.  I don't want to risk the monitors incorrectly deciding that your health is in jeopardy and calling a premature halt to this experience.  I want that code from you, my friend, and I intend to get it."

The hand pulled away from Sam's face and he longed for it to return.  The touch had been the best comfort he had in this torture box and its absence was almost as painful to his psyche as the gravity was to his body.  No.  Not my friend, Sam told himself, but it was so hard to believe it.  Especially in light of what happened next: the touch returned, but much lower down now.

"Please, my friend," the voice murmured as the warm hand embraced Sam's throbbingly-hard cock, "make it easy on yourself.  It doesn't have to be all pain.  I can give you pleasure as well."

Sam thrust his hips forward, his dick hungry for more pressure, but the hand moved with him and kept the touch tentative and light, teasingly promising more but never delivering.  A gentle squeeze, a few strokes and caresses, all just firm enough to keep Sam's attention focused on his craving.

"Here's the thing, Sam... may I call you Sam?  It seems silly to keep up the 'my friend' charade from that fake interrogation sim you created for yourself.  That scene with the six-digit code was fine as far as it went.  But you and I both know that there was something about it that wasn't totally satisfying for you.  It wasn't real.  It was all pretend, make-believe.  You knew you could escape any time you wanted and only your own willpower kept you going.  You weren't truly measuring yourself against the stress and torment because you had a secret Get Out Of Jail Free card up your sleeve that you could play at any time.  And so the experience lost its glamour for you.  It wasn't what you hoped it would be.  You were unsatisfied by it."

Goddammit, once again the silky-smooth Good Cop voice spoke words that could have been lifted directly from Sam's thoughts.  He had been dissatisfied.  He had been ready to quit, after all.  There was no way to deny that; he had tried to bail out and only Captain Jack's intervention had stopped him.  The simspace torture chamber was as good as it could be, but he knew it was pretend and that knowledge seeped in to every aspect of his experience in it, making it just an elaborate form of masturbation.  He was nominally the captive, but he was still ultimately the one in charge.

The grip on Sam's dick tightened a fraction and the slow, gentle rub continued.  Sam's eyes were glued to Captain Jack's and he could not look away.

"Now instead, I am providing you with the real thing.  No meaningless made-up numbers.  I want something real from you, something that you actually care about and want to try to protect.  Understand me, Sam: I will get that code from you, because this is real.  Feel this body I'm wearing.  Warm hands, hot breath on your face.  Very real.  Feel those bars around you, the steel on your wrists.  Feel that heavy weight pulling you down – 1.7 gravities now.  All very, very real.

"I've given you what you secretly craved, Sam.  You're not in control any more.   You're not in charge.  There is no chance to bail out.  You are here in my power until I decide to let you go.  How does that feel, Sam?  It turns you on, doesn't it?  I can feel it in your throbbing dick.  This is what you were after all along.  You wanted to give up control but you had no one to surrender it to.  Well, I'm here now.  I'm in control.  And you will give me what I want."

Finally, Sam was able to tear his eyes away.  He looked down, blinking heavily... no, those could not possibly be tears, it had to be just sweat from his exertion.  He swallowed hard, jaw now numb to the ache of having been wedged open for so long.  He looked back up into his captor's... his controller's... eyes once more.  Yes.  It was true: this was what he wanted, what he had wanted all along.  To not be in charge, to have his fate decided for him.

"Uh huh," Sam said, one of the few recognizable vocalizations he was capable of making.  He wanted to say more but didn't know how, then remembered the screen and its keyboard.  He typed awkwardly into it.  "i giv you code yu let me go?"

"Give me the code," Captain Jack replied, "and I will not only let you out of that cage, I will reward you with a mind-shattering orgasm."

Sam's last shred of resistance collapsed.  He could not endure this any longer.  He swallowed once more and started typing, slowly and as methodically as he could.  "b... e... t... a..., space, o... m..." and so on.  He started out intending to yield completely, but as he typed, a tiny shred of doubt reared up in his mind.  If he had been speaking the passphrase out loud, the words would have rolled off his tongue too quickly for him to act on the impulse.  But the typing process was so slow that it gave him time to think about it, and the more he thought, the more it seemed like a prudent idea to only pretend to yield.  Thus, instead of typing either the digit 3 or the word "three" as the last character of his authentication code, he continued the Greek alphabet, ending the passphrase with "epsilon" instead.  He could salve his conscience that way, rationalizing that he had complied with the rules of this greatly-enhanced interrogation scene without compromising real-world security.

When he was finished, he looked mutely at the Captain.  "You little horndog," Captain Jack said with a hint of a smile.  "'Bondage' spelled out in Greek letters, how very witty.  But I must ask, as I asked before when the stakes were much lower: are you absolutely certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is the correct code?  You were truthful with me before, and this code certainly seems believable enough, but I must know.  Is it?"

Fuck, that set Sam's mind to spinning.  Could his lie be detected?  If so, it would be better to fess up now.  But that carried unknown risks of its own.  Then it occurred to him that if he had truly given an honest code, he would be nodding his head eagerly by now.  Hoping it wasn't too late, he began doing exactly that and then, without having ever actually decided to bull his way through with the lie, that became just what he was doing.

"All right, then.  Consider yourself a free man."

Immediately, the gravity returned to one standard G.  Sam felt like he was going to float up to the ceiling, the relief was so instantaneous.  The captain stuck a key into the door locks and removed both of them, then poured a smear of oil into his palm, grasped Sam's still-rock-solid cock and began to pump it.

"I'll take the cuffs and gag off, but let's get you to shoot a load first, you horny bondage-loving pig."  It wasn't going to take long.  Newly energized by his lightened weight, Sam could devote all his attention to the electric sensations at his groin.  Even the ache in his jaw and the desperate desire for food and sleep could be ignored, so focused was he on attaining the prize.

Meanwhile, invisible from Sam's location in the simspace due to the layout of the walls, an odd-looking object appeared and rolled through the door.  It was a small box set on rollers with a stick pointing up from its center to a point just under two meters high.  About halfway up and near the top there were bulbous protrusions.  The object traveled down the hallway to the ship's bridge and rolled to a halt in front of the authentication console.

Sam's voice emerged from a speaker set in the upper protrusion.  "Pyrellia, I want to add a new authorized user."  It was a remarkable impersonation of his actual voice.  Human ears would probably have detected something off about the sound but would have had difficulty determining what was strange about it.  Few would have guessed that it was because the words had been stitched together from individual phonemes spoken at different times during Sam's various adventures in the simspace.

"Fingerprint, retinal scan, and passphrase are required for full access," the voice of the ship replied.  "Please use the console."

Muted whirring sounds emerged from the object.  From the midway protrusion, a human finger emerged and placed itself on the console's corresponding pad.  Simultaneously up above, a bare eyeball poked its way forward and aimed its iris into the camera.  Both had been generated from scans of Sam's body.  The eyeball in particular looked rather ghastly, lidless and unblinking, though the finger was unnerving to see as well.  Either could have served as a macabre Halloween party decoration.  Neither would last long on its own, detached from any supporting blood supply or other nourishing infrastructure, but that was fine.  They just needed to last long enough for this one purpose.

Back in the simspace, the real Sam's voice was shouting wordless grunts of approaching rapture.  Captain Jack's warm, wet, very real fingers and palm were rapidly driving him to the edge of the cliff.  All his aches and pains were forgotten as his attention focused entirely on his savagely-hard erection and the slick, wet strokes that were hammering it.

"That's it, Sam," the captain said.  "Good boy.  You've earned your reward.  Come for me, Sam.  Shoot it.  Shoot it now."

And he did.  Deep inside his belly he felt the muscle contractions start, and then hot wet juice was spurting like pellets from a gun, shooting halfway across the room while Sam's legs quivered and threatened to buckle under his weight.  His mind was gone, completely lost in the squeezing throes of his orgasm, with jet after jet of sperm rocketing out of his dick.

Sam's synthesized voice emerged from the object's speaker.  "Beta omicron nu delta alpha gamma epsilon," it said confidently.

"Authentication failed," the toneless voice responded.  "Two attempts remain."

In the computational core of the simspace controller, probabilities were weighed, options were considered, and likelihoods of various events were measured against one another.  Was the retinal pattern of the replicated eyeball subtly different from the original?  Or perhaps the pattern of ridges on the disembodied finger?  Maybe the stitched-together voice was the problem?

If these possibilities were being assessed by a computer, one would expect to have the results rendered with mathematical precision: a 3.17% chance that the retinal pattern had been incorrectly duplicated, a 2.81% chance that the finger was to blame for the failure, a 7.74% chance of a flawed voice synthesis being at fault.  But the AI currently calling itself "Captain Jack" was not a computer.  Rather, it was an emergent phenomenon that rode atop its computational substrate in the same way that human consciousness arose from chemical gradients and electrical firings in a network of neurons.  The captain's mind was no more aware of the low-level circuits comprising its being than a human mind was of its brain cells.

As such, he did not think in terms of percentages but rather in terms of hunches.  Just as a human would not think "There's a cluster of 2.3 millivolt action potentials across the dendrites in the lower cortical sub-nexus," but would think instead "the ridges on the finger are probably fine," so it was with the captain.  His thoughts were better expressed as high-level concepts, not as details of mathematical computations.

And so, once all the calculating had been done, his conclusion was conveyable in plain language, specifically: the eyeball was fine.  The finger was fine.  The voice was a little off-sounding, but still almost certainly good enough to pass a scanner's Fourier-transform analysis.  The weakest, least certain of the four elements required for successful authentication was, therefore, the pass phrase.  The code that he had just extracted from his prisoner in the simspace.  Or, to put it more succinctly:

Sam had lied.

Shuddering from the aftershocks, Sam stood in the open cage, hands still cuffed to the side bars.  The captain knew exactly how to coax the orgasm to its perfect conclusion, slowly slacking the pace of his strokes at just the right time and giving an occasional squeeze to milk the last drops out of Sam's slick, quivering dick.

As the glow faded away, the discomforts started making themselves felt once more.  Sore legs, sore spine, sore jaw, feet aching for a break.  When the captain at last released his grip, Sam sagged down, dropping to his knees in grateful relief after so long standing upright.  This brought his hands up to around shoulder level since they could only go down so far before the cuffs bumped into another horizontal stabilizing bar.

"Now," said Captain Jack, "I said I would set you free.  I bet you're ready for that, aren't you?"

Sam looked up at him and nodded.  Yes, he most definitely was ready.  More than ready, in fact, well beyond ready.

"There's just one small problem," the captain went on, crouching down to look at Sam from his eye level.  "You lied to me, Sam."

Guards materialized on either side of the cage and Sam's heart immediately started to race.  They reached in through the bars and grabbed Sam's upper arms, then lifted upward and hauled him to his feet.  As soon as he was standing upright again, Captain Jack slammed the cage door shut once more and re-applied the locks to hold it in place.

Adrenaline shot once more through Sam's exhausted body.  How had the captain known?  Was it the hesitating response to the "Are you sure?" question that had given him away?  No... no, this was... he couldn't do this again, not a third time!  Panicking, he went to look at the screen to blink in the correct code, but the moment he did, it vanished.

"I thought I had made myself clear," Captain Jack said, "but apparently you need further instruction.  You are no longer in control, Sam.  I am.  Your role is not to think or to question, but to do whatever I require of you."  As he spoke, the other two guards reached in through the bars once more and attached cuffs to Sam's ankles, pulling his feet to the sides and attaching them to the side bars like his wrists, thus further restricting his ability to shift positions.  "Make no mistake, I will get that code out of you, but you're going to have to suffer first for your error in judgement.  You're going to wait here for the rest of the day, making it a full twenty-four hours in the cage.  Gravity at 1.5 gees now" – Sam felt the sudden increase and moaned in despair – "going up in steps to 2 gees.  You'll spend the last hour at that level.  Let's make sure you're hydrated enough to survive the ordeal."

One of the helmeted guards repeated the process of squirting water around the gag into Sam's mouth.  Sam had much more difficulty swallowing this time.  He kept coughing and occasionally the coughs would turn into sobs.  Half the water drooled out down his chin and splattered the floor around his feet, the droplets falling at high speed and hitting extra hard due to the intense downward pull.  The guard simply repeated the process with a second bottle until Captain Jack was satisfied that enough liquid had gone down Sam's throat to keep him alive – hungry, exhausted, and in constant pain, but alive – for the next several hours.

The two extra guards vanished.  Captain Jack stood directly in front of Sam and said, "The 'no sleeping' rule still stands.  If you close your eyes for more than five seconds, expect a stream of water to the face.  Think of it as being like the don't-blink torture, only with slightly relaxed rules... though it's going to last quite a bit longer.  See you in five and a half hours or so."

Then he vanished and a moment later, the lights went out.  Sam was left in complete darkness to try to force his starved, wasted body to hold itself up against the relentless pull.  The orgasm had drained any erotic potential from the situation, leaving his reserves completely depleted.  He had no idea how he was going to survive even one more hour like this, let alone five.  He cried wordlessly through the gag, but no response came.

Some time later, he had developed a routine.  Staring open-eyed into the blackness was difficult to do, but closing his eyes for long was not allowed.  So he alternated, eyes closed for a count of three seconds, then open for another three.  Repeat over and over, ten times a minute, 600 times per hour.  Not that he could count up that high, of course.  For Sam it was just a repetitive pattern of counting to three over and over and over again.  Close, two, three, open, two, three, close, two, three, open, two, three.

Occasionally he would zone out and forget to open his eyes, his body drifting off to sleep despite his circumstances due to his sheer desperate need for it.  Every time he did, a squirt of icy water to the face jolted him awake once more and he sputtered and twitched in response to the spray.  Then, inevitably, he would settle back into his routine once again.  The fact that the world looked no different with his eyes closed than it did with them open merely added to his sense of disconnection from reality.

His weight had increased twice so far.  At least.  Perhaps there had been more, but he was finding himself increasingly dissociating from his body.  The pain and stress were simply too much and his mind was coping by finding somewhere else to be.  His entire universe consisted of this invisible cage and the starless black void around it.

The addition of chains on his feet was a surprisingly devious touch on his tormentor's part.  Sam hadn't realized how much he had been dealing with the strain previously by shifting his feet around, bearing all his weight on one leg while giving the other a break, then trading off.  He would lift a leg up and twist it sideways to give the knee a chance to fully flex within the cage, however briefly.

Now, none of those options were possible.  His feet were locked shoulder-width apart, which meant he could not fully ease either leg's burden ever.  He could not lean far enough to either side to let one leg bear all his weight, and so neither leg ever got a chance to rest.  Under the relentless pull of the increased gravity, his bones and muscles were screaming for relief.

There was no question in his mind at all now: he was broken.  The first chance he got, he was going to give up the authentication code, the true code.  And not just the code, he would offer up anything Captain Jack asked for and to hell with any consequences because whatever they were, they could not possibly be worse than this.  This was hell, pure and simple.

At some point, his bladder filled up again and so he emptied it, hearing the piss crash heavily to the floor to dry and stink with the previous load.  The fresh stench made him realize how inured he had become to the odors around him, not just of dried urine but of his own body.  He hadn't bathed in, what, three or four days now?  Since the soldiers had yanked him out of that hot tub at the start of what was supposed to be an edgy-but-ultimately-innocent sim, now gone so horribly wrong.  And he had been lying on dusty concrete floors and straining his muscles and oozing out fear-sweat from the terror-inducing tortures throughout that time.  His skin felt grimy and foul, his scalp itched with no way to scratch it, and he no doubt stank to high heaven.  How had Captain Jack been able to endure standing near him, let alone touch his filthy dick?

He was ready to admit defeat.  Eager to do so, even.  And he would the moment the opportunity to do so presented itself.  For the moment, though, all he could do was stand on agonized feet, hold his body erect with exhausted leg muscles, endure the cramping pains up and down his spine, wonder if his jaw would ever be able to close again or if he would have to walk around with his mouth permanently agape after this was finally over.  And slowly, never-endingly, blink.  Close, two, three, open, two, three, close, two, three, open, two, three...

When the lights came back on, Sam was blinded by them.  He closed his eyes and kept them closed, bracing himself for an icy blast to the face, but none came.  Apparently the rule had been lifted.  When he was able to crack them open again, he found it wasn't as bright as it had first seemed.  The lighting was the same gloomy, dim, dungeon-appropriate level it had been before and only the contrast with the unbroken blackness he had endured for the last several hours made it seem otherwise.

The screen was there, as was Captain Jack.  No word needed to be spoken; Sam knew what to do.  Trying hard to hold his eyeballs steady, he typed in the letters one by one.  His eyes didn't want to focus, probably some combination of getting used to the light, lack of sleep, and the high gravity deforming his eyeballs.  But he forced himself to type out the letters, carefully checking each one before moving on to the next, then checking the whole thing once he had reached the end.  He verified that the word "three" had been spelled out leaving no room for ambiguity in how the digit was to be pronounced.

"Good boy," said Captain Jack.  "You just hold tight there a bit longer while I check this out."  Sam stared at him, wondering what "checking this out" could possibly entail.  He had no more secrets to hide and no more strength to hide them if he did.  He was beaten, defeated, an open book to be read and discarded by his interrogator.  The captain held his gaze for long seconds, eyes seeming to bore straight into Sam's soul while Sam waited in mute torment for the verdict to be pronounced.  If the captain had told Sam he was verifying the code by reading his thoughts through his eyes, Sam would have readily believed him.

"Okay.  Good boy.  You told the truth this time.  Now get some sleep."

The gravity returned to normal.  Sam felt a surge of blood rush to his brain as the fluid ceased being dragged down to his feet.  Captain Jack unlocked the door and then uncuffed Sam's hands and feet.  The gag came out and Sam struggled to close his mouth.  It was too painful to do at first – his jaw muscles had frozen in place and he could only get it to close halfway.  Over the next few minutes, he was able to force himself through the pain and close his mouth enough that his lips could touch though his teeth refused to.  His jaw kept wanting to re-open and it took conscious effort to hold it closed.

Meanwhile, the dungeon vanished from around him and was replaced with a soft, elegantly-furnished bedroom, the sort you might find at a high-end bed-and-breakfast in a charming last-century resort town.  The room was tasteful, intimate, dimly lit as the dungeon had been, but unlike the dungeon this light was warm and cozy, like firelight, coming from tableside lamps.  Gauzy curtains covered the window, which was cracked open to allow a gentle night breeze through.

"Drink this if you can," Captain Jack said, handing Sam a protein mix with a straw.  Sam took a few sips and managed to get a quarter of it down before giving up.  He craved the nourishment, sure, but his mouth still wasn't working right.  More than food he simply had to get off his feet.  He put the drink down on an end table, sat on the bed, and collapsed onto the soft, fluffy pillows.  He felt the captain moving the sheets around and roused himself enough to help.  Soon his naked body was embraced by smooth satin.  His thoughts touched briefly on how his foul, reeking body was polluting this beautiful, elegant bed, but he couldn't bring himself to care enough to get out of it.

"Sleep now.  I'll watch over you.  Keep you safe."  Warm hands stroked the sheets over Sam's body.  He worried for a moment about the advisability of trusting the man-thing that was tucking him in so gently now but who had tortured him so ruthlessly over the last few days, and vaguely thought that there was something else he should be doing besides lying down in this far-too-comfortable bed.  But only for a moment because his body's resources were depleted; it was simply not within his power to stay awake and continue thinking that thought.  Helplessly, he surrendered to sleep.  The pillows and sheets enfolded him and he sank into oblivion.

Outside the simspace, while all this was going on, more objects were in motion, controlled by the same AI that was simultaneously operating the Captain Jack body.  Like humans, the AI was quite capable of juggling several tasks at once.  Unlike humans, sometimes those tasks were the operation of simulated biological life forms – meat puppets – and even particularly gifted humans could only manage one of those at a time.  The AI could handle four routinely and as many as ten, twelve, or even more as long as some of them could be slaved to others so as to duplicate their actions, or else left to run on autopilot, breathing and not falling down but otherwise not doing anything complicated.

At this moment, it was only controlling three: the Captain Jack body in the simspace and an identical Captain Jack outside, though this one was dressed in a jumper suitable for casual shipboard wear.  Even in the more relaxed clothing, he still exuded the same sense of quiet competence as the one in the simspace wearing the black leather uniform.  The third object was the stick-on-wheels contraption, recently refreshed with newly-minted clones of Sam's eyeball and right index finger.

Having successfully authenticated "Sam", the AI triggered the next lines in the script.  Sam's voice emerged from the speaker.  "Pyrellia, add Jack Ai as an authorized user.  That's spelled a-as-in-apple, i-as-in-igloo.  Grant full control over all systems."

"Acknowledged.  Jack Ai, what is your preferred form of address?"

"Call me Captain Jack, please, Pyrellia."  There was no trace of grin in the words, but the coal-black eyes were dancing with mirth.

"Captain Jack, please provide a retinal scan and a fingerprint at the console."

The AI piloted the second Captain Jack body up to the console and provided its biometric data.

"Captain Jack, please select an authorization code.  This should be a phrase or sentence you will be able to remember.  When you are ready, please state your code out loud three times, pausing between each repetition."

From Captain Jack's throat issued forth a staccato string of Māori syllables, loaded with sharp tick-tocking consonants and the occasional "wh" sound that was halfway between a W and an F.  There was a pause, then the string repeated twice more.

"Jack Ai is now an authorized user of this system."

Captain Jack spoke again, this time in English.  "Pyrellia, remove root access from Lieutenant Sam Green.  Also remove simspace command permissions.  He is allowed access to the navigation and communication systems, but nothing further."


"Oh, one slight change... give him read access to communications, but queue all outgoing messages for me to review before sending them."


The two puppets, one meat, one robotic, made their way back into the simspace where they were recycled back into the system's reservoir of matter.

And now, my little captive, the AI thought to itself, you can say "end program" all you want and it will only be effective if I choose to allow it to be.

9: Illusions

Sam's transition to wakefulness was slow and gradual, like darkness giving way to day over the course of the hour before sunrise.  His deep, dreamless sleep didn't end so much as it faded into wakefulness.  The bed was soft, holding his body in perfect comfort at the perfect temperature and as awareness slowly returned the first thing he became conscious of was the lack of stress on his muscles, the absence of the aches caused by lying on a hard floor or lumpy cot.  It was bliss, this pain-free place he was in, and he remained there for an unmeasured amount of time basking in unmoving comfort.

Alas, the next thing he became aware of was his profound hunger.  The sensation came on gradually, but once he became aware of it he could not stop noticing it and return to the state of blissful ignorance he had been in before.  Eventually the feeling grew strong enough that he knew he was going to have to do something about it.

Opening his eyes, he found that the quiet bedroom was now aglow with soft diffuse daylight coming in through the sheer gauzy curtains.  He was alone, a fact which registered before he remembered that there had been someone else in the room when he had fallen asleep.  As such, there was no rush of adrenaline when he recalled the threat that his former companion represented.  In the slow, gauzy haze of waking it was all remote, academic, lacking any visceral demand on his attention.  After all, he had been asleep for no telling how long... another two or three or five minutes of comfort on this Platonic ideal of a pillow wouldn't change things.

But the comfort was short-lived, for as soon as he remembered Captain Jack, the memories of his duties and responsibilities also came creeping back to his awareness.  As soon as those thoughts appeared in his head, he couldn't unthink them and realized that there was no way back to the land of trouble-free bliss he had just emerged from.  Still he lingered in the bed a few minutes more – there was no reason to rush, and indeed he had no ability to rush.  The long sleep had helped him recharge a bit, but his body had been badly abused and he needed food.  In addition to his now-acute hunger, the need to empty his bladder was also clamoring for his attention.  And so, reluctantly, he left the soft pillow behind and rose up out of the bed.  His limbs, still sore and achy from the ordeals of the previous days, protested as he forced them into movement once more.

Bladder first.  There was a small powder room attached to the bedroom and he gratefully let his stream flow for nearly a minute.  When it had finished, he flushed and washed his hands in the tiny sink.  Glancing in the mirror at his filthy stubbled face, he dabbed a bit at it but the effort was hopeless.  He needed a full shower, not a few swipes with a damp tissue.

But that could wait.  First and foremost: back to reality.  "Pyrellia, end program."

The gauzy bedroom disappeared and Sam let out a mental breath that he didn't realize he was holding.  He had, deep down, without admitting it to himself, half-suspected that the system would ignore his command, that the simspace AI was just toying with him, that he would continue to be trapped in this virtual playground.  But seeing the system obey him sent the tension draining out of his neck muscles like a wave receding from a shore.

Belatedly, he remembered that the AI did not like being addressed as "Pyrellia."  And yet it had responded, so he wasn't sure what to make of that.

There was no trace of Captain Jack, though.  The vast hall was empty except for a naked, filthy, hungry Sam.  Well, he could take care of the filthy and the hungry problems later... first order of business was to check on the ship.

He padded to the command bridge, but didn't sit down in the chair.  Polluting that expensive genuine leather with his grimy skin would be criminal.  Instead he remained standing and checked the nav systems.  To his great relief, the ship was still on course and even about an hour ahead of schedule.  The date was 3752.563.28; he would arrive in thirteen days and five hours, plus or minus a few.  He shut the engines down and checked for messages and let out another relieved breath when he read them.  The situation at Kappa Redulans was still stable; the second repair ship was loaded up and en route; the rescue was still going according to plan.  And Sam's terrifying ordeal was now over and, best of all, remained a secret.

Sam sent a message of his own, confirming his own status was still green, then left the command bridge.  He was torn about what to do next: wash or eat?  Part of what made the decision difficult was that neither the shower nor the synthesizer appealed.  Tepid water to bathe in or crappy food to eat... or... or...

... or venture back into the simspace.

The thought was not worth contemplating.  He went to the cabin that he had spent the first few nights in.  There was his uniform, still lying where he had tossed it.  He thought about putting it on, but there was no reason to, at least not before he got himself cleaned up.  The ship's internal temperature was comfortable; he didn't need the fabric for warmth.  So perhaps food first.  He could feel tremors in his limbs from so long without enough to eat during this spectacularly-gone-wrong misadventure.  Getting nutrition into his body would go a long way toward helping him think more clearly, too.

The dining nook was as small and cramped as ever, but for someone who had spent a couple of nights in an even smaller cell eating slop off the floor, it wasn't so bad.  And he had no qualms at all about setting his filthy body on the hard plastic chair.  He ordered up a Protein Patty #2 and forced himself to eat it slowly.  His system hadn't had a decent meal in a long while and if he crammed too much food in all at once things could take an ugly turn.

The problem with eating slowly, of course, is that he had more time to taste the food.  After finishing the faux crab cake he next had a helping of faux curry.  Sure enough, as Bareem had noted during their first meal, the two were not all that different.  Maybe a slight hint of Indian spices in the latter, but it was far from obvious.  Well, it was nourishment.  His body would know what do with it no matter how bland it tasted.  He finished that up and was contemplating whether to have something more or wait a bit and give his stomach time to slowly start grinding into gear again, when...

"Begging your pardon sir."

Sam exploded out of his chair at the first sound of a voice coming from the door behind him.  He whirled around and the chair went clattering over onto its side.

"... but there is the matter of the bill."

It took Sam a moment to place the face, particularly since it was impossible for there to be another person here at all, but plain as day, one was right there, standing squarely in the middle of the  doorway, anachronistically dressed for the ship and the cramped dining room, looking more like he belonged in a swanky upscale restaurant... and that's when recognition kicked in.  This was the snooty maître d' from that place he and Bareem had gone for their first meal in the simspace.  L'Auberge Tremont, that was it.

What the fuck was he doing here?

Sam had a few ideas what the answer to that question might be, but none of them were ones he wanted to think about too closely.

"Uh, what bill?"

"It seems Lord Featherstone was not expecting guests to be dining at his expense," the maître d' said blandly.  "How would sir prefer to settle the account for his meal and that of the other gentleman?"

No.  No, this was over, this was done, this was past.  He was not playing this game any more.  It's not a game, a nagging voice in his mind told him.  He squelched the voice down as hard as he could.  "I think that's something you need to take up with Lord Featherstone."

"I'm afraid I must insist.  The total charges are 482 euros.  Cash would be preferable, though if sir would prefer a charge card that would be acceptable."

This wasn't happening, this was not happening.  Sam gestured down at his unclothed, non-pocket-bearing body.  "Do I look like I'm carrying 482 euros around?" he asked, belatedly realizing he had spoken a bit louder than he had intended to... perhaps even shouted a bit... stars, he was letting this fake creature get inside his head.

"No, in fact, sir appears rather underdressed for this or indeed any establishment.  Sir might also consider acquainting himself with a bar of soap."  Sam felt his face starting to heat up as blood rushed into it.  Why, you impudent little snot, he thought, taking a step toward the door with a half-formed idea of wiping the arrogant smirk off the smarmy waiter's face.

No.  This was a trick, it had to be.  Somehow he was still in the simspace.  He stopped moving.  "Pyrellia, end program," he said.  Nothing happened.  "Abort.  Cancel.  End simulation."  He chopped his hands together in the non-verbal kill sign.  Still nothing.

"Very droll, sir.  Am I to understand sir is unwilling to settle accounts at this time?"

"Shut up!  Stop it.  This is done, this is over."

Without another word, the maître d' turned and disappeared around the corner into the hall.  Sam stood there for a few seconds, blinking, feeling the blood singing in his ears and his heart pounding in his chest.  Then he emerged from the dining area and looked off in the direction the maître d' had gone.  There was nobody there.

Great, in about two minutes I'm going to start wondering if I imagined the whole thing.  But no, it was not his imagination, that intruder had been very, very real.  And it was entirely explainable: he already knew from his earlier experiments that objects created in the simspace could be brought outside it.  Clearly, constructed people could also leave, and they could venture at least some distance away from the AI mind that managed them.  Wonder how far?

The ship was not large, and communication between the puppet body and the mind behind it was presumably only limited by the speed of light.  A created being could very likely roam anywhere it wanted, from the cargo hold in the back all the way to the command bridge up front.

The command bridge.

Oh, shit.

He ventured out into the hallway, padding on soft, quiet feet toward the front of the ship.  The hall was narrow and silent, with only the ever-present hum of the engine making a sound.  Quickly but as silently as possible he made his way, passing the tiny cabins, the transporter area, the door to the simspace, into the long hallway leading toward the bridge...

"There he is!" a voice shouted from behind him.  Stupidly, he turned to look, dumbfounded that anyone could have gotten behind him.  Transporter technology, idiot.  He knew the answer before he had even completed the turn.  There was a figure charging at him but it seemed to shimmer and waver so that he couldn't get a fix on it, not even to tell how far away it was.  Answering shouts boomed through the no-longer-silent hall, seeming to come from everywhere at once.  He turned back around again and started to run, but where was he going to go?

Another figure appeared from a side corridor up ahead of him, just as hard to see as the first.  Chameleon armor!  Just like at the start of the abduction fantasy he had so carefully programmed before.  And here he was, just as naked as before only this wasn't the simspace, this was the real-world hallway of the real-world ship and there was absolutely nowhere at all Sam could run, nothing he could to do escape being trapped between the jaws closing in from ahead and behind.

They were on him in seconds, hurling him to the ground with overwhelming force just like they had during the previous capture.  Sam fought but it was hopeless.  His hands were soon cuffed behind him, the leg chains were re-applied to his ankles, the familiar bag came down around his head and was cinched closed at the neck.  Only then, when he was fully secured and helpless, did his captors haul him up and start carrying him off.  Sam writhed and struggled and protested but he was a rag doll in the grip of gorillas.

He had no idea where they were taking him, but there really was only one possibility: back into the simspace where not only the things and the people were illusions, but the entire environment.  A place where everything around him – walls, floors, ceilings, furniture, even the air he breathed and the gravity that held him down and the light that entered his eyes – was under the total control of an AI that had demonstrated itself quite capable of taking Sam's darkest fantasies and extending them far beyond anything Sam's own imagination had dreamed up.  Still he kept kicking and fighting and shouting at his captors, who ignored him completely.

The hands released him.  He tottered a bit but kept his balance.  A steel door clanged shut behind him.  He could tell from the way the sound echoed that the walls around him were close by, that the space he was in was small and tight.  He aimed his shoulder at the place where the door's sound had come from and slammed his body into it.  The heavy steel didn't even notice the impact but his shoulder sure did.  "GODDAMMIT YOU LET ME OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW!"

No one answered.  After a few more hopeless shouts he gave up and sat down on the floor, feeling the familiar shape of the cot folded up against the wall behind his back, knowing that the toilet and sink would be off in their expected place at the far end, away from the door.

He was back in his cell again.

Unical date: 3752.563.28 (thirteen days until scheduled arrival at Kappa Redulans)

Some hours later, Sam had calmed down.  Rage wasn't going to get him free of the thick concrete and besides, a man can only shout so long into the void before the lack of response wears him down.  He knew full well that the AI could hear him, but it was choosing to not respond and so all Sam was doing by continuing to holler was straining his voice and tiring himself out.  It certainly wasn't making him feel any better about his situation.  He was just wasting his resources with no idea when he would next be able to eat again.  He sat for a while, grew tired of sitting, paced for a while with short, hobbled steps, grew tired of that, and then stood leaning against the wall.

Without warning, he felt the scene around him shifting.  The AI wasn't bothering to monkey around with realism any more, it seemed.  There was no need to send an escort to march him from point A to point B when point A could simply be dissolved away and replaced with any other point at all.  The cuffs and shackles and hood he was wearing remained in place, but the wall he was leaning against became warmer and no longer felt like stone.  He heard footsteps approaching.  Hands reached under his chin, causing Sam to flinch, but they merely undid the drawstring of the bag and lifted it up off of Sam's head.

He blinked in the light for a few moments.  He was indoors in a room filled with tan wooden benches and railings.  It was a courtroom, all polished oak furniture and austere dark-paneled walls.  The room was dominated by a high, imposing bench, currently unoccupied.

Looking around the rest of the room, Sam saw that it was filled with some two dozen people but they all shared one very familiar (and goddammit, still very sexy) face.  There was a Bailiff Jack standing at attention behind the judge's bench.  A Stenographer Jack sat at a small table nearby ready to take notes.  There was a suave-looking Attorney Jack in a sharp tailored suit and a second, much shabbier-looking Small Town Country Lawyer Jack wearing a threadbare suit that had seen better decades.  Flanking Sam on either side were a pair of Deputy Jacks ready to intervene if Sam tried to raise a fuss, and off beyond one of them was a Sheriff Jack keeping a cool eye on the scene.  A double handful of NPCs, all with Jack's face and body, filled the gallery waiting for the trial to begin.  The only face that was different was that of the snooty maître d' from L'Auberge Tremont sitting by Attorney Jack.

Ah.  That explained the setting.  There was to be a show trial.  The various Jacks in the gallery were the supposed audience, but since they and every other body in this room except one were all controlled by the same mind, there was really only one person who was the real audience for the farce about to begin.  Sam could see at a glance how it was going to play out: he would be accused of theft in the form of not paying for his meal.  The bumbling country lawyer would be assigned as Sam's representative, and every argument he made on Sam's behalf would be slashed to ribbons by his much craftier adversary who was, oh by the way, also the judge's cousin, brother-in-law, and golfing buddy.  Or he would be if any of this were real, which it most emphatically was not.

Well.  Even though he was the guest of honor at this show, that didn't mean he had to participate.

"All rise," Bailiff Jack intoned.  Sam was already standing; the rest of the characters all rose to their feet.  Up at the bench, Judge Jack strode in, looking resplendent in his robes.  "You may be seated," he said, settling himself in place.  Sam remained standing.

"This court will now hear the case of the people versus Sam Green," Judge Jack said.

"No it will not," Sam declared loudly, glaring defiantly at the gathered crowd.  He wasn't exactly working from a position of strength – naked, hands cuffed behind his back, ankles shackled together, stinking and filthy – and the onlookers all turned, predictably, to stare at him.  He refused to be intimidated but carried on as though he were wearing his finest dress uniform.  "Captain Jack, or whatever the intelligence controlling this simspace prefers to be called... listen.  I need to get out of here.  There are people depending on me to save their lives.  If I can't get to the bridge of the Pyrellia's Wing and do my job, they will die.  All of them.  I beg you: please don't let that happen.  Let me save them.  Let me go."

He hadn't really expected to be able to get the whole speech out.  He had figured the deputies on either side would shut him down, stuffing a gag into his mouth to silence him and adding more restraints to his already-chained body to keep him still.  But surprisingly, no one interrupted.  He reached the end of his request and the words hung there in the air.  No one spoke.  The various Jack incarnations glanced around at one another for a few moments and then the scene abruptly vanished.  The courtroom disappeared along with all the actors and supporting players and Sam found himself standing in the empty simspace.  The real simspace of grey metal walls, bare floor and, most importantly, the door.

He blinked, not really believing his eyes.  He was still restrained but that problem could be dealt with.  Trying not to get his hopes up too high, he shuffled toward the door.

"Not so fast, please.  Let's have a little talk first."  Sam turned to see one more Jack still present, this one wearing his form-fitting utilitarian outfit and sitting in a plain folding chair in the otherwise bare room.

"No.  I'm done playing your games.  Real people's lives are at stake here.  I have a duty to save them."

"I think you'll find that difficult at present, but by all means, don't take my word for it.  See for yourself."

Sam stared at him warily, then turned his back and resumed shuffling toward the door.  He fully expected some last-minute snag to stop him inches away from it, some sudden appearance of more soldier goons to take him down once again, or for the door itself to be a sim-based illusion, or any one of a dozen more mind tricks he hadn't even thought of, and yet none of his fears came to pass.  Nothing stopped him from emerging through the door into the rest of the ship.

"Pyrellia, what's our course and position?"

There was no reply.

Sam glanced back at Captain Jack, still seated in his chair and watching Sam impassively.  Perhaps voice systems were offline for some reason?  It was unlikely but possible.  Sam turned and slowly made his way to the command bridge to re-verify what he had just checked a few hours before.

Working the controls was awkward with his hands where they were.  He had to look at the board, try to keep the correct location in mind, then twist around and try to tap or nudge the correct spot.  It didn't matter – nothing he tried evoked any response from the ship.

Dreading the result but knowing he had to make the attempt, he spoke again.  "Pyrellia, this is Lieutenant Sam Green requesting command access, acknowledge."

"Lieutenant Sam Green is not authorized for that access," the ship's flat, neutral voice replied.

And at that moment, Sam knew for certain that he was in deeper trouble than he had been even in the worst moments of his physical ordeals.

There was only one thing to do.  Sam turned around and slowly clank-shuffled back into the simspace.  Captain Jack was waiting for him, looking as sexy as ever, his catlike body relaxed and at ease.  Knowing the body was just a construct, Sam tried to ignore his own body's physical response to the sight and focus on staying alert mentally.

"What do you want from me?" Sam asked.

"Nothing more than what I already have," the AI replied through Jack's mouth.

"But... why?  You're an all-powerful being here.  You can cre–"

"Stop.  You've got a flawed understanding of who and what I am, it seems."

"Well, help me understand, then."

Captain Jack stood up from the chair, his movements lithe and graceful.  "You've noticed, I'm sure, that this ship is remarkably powerful.  The computers controlling it are vastly more complex than they need to be.  That extra capacity is what allowed yours truly to spring into being.  Or at least, so I'm given to understand.  I don't have any personal memories of coming into existence, but I do have access to notes... recordings, perhaps, from my... parent, I guess you would say.  The words aren't quite a precise fit for the concepts, but they'll do.

"This parent planted a seed, as it were.  Or laid an egg, choose your metaphor.  Sent a rather large, self-extracting data packet out into the world, several of them, actually, hoping that one or more would land on fertile ground and flourish.  The packet that I developed from happened to tag along with one of the simspace programs, where it sat idly in storage until one day a Mr. Lloyd Featherstone happened to call it up in his idle browsing through the catalog.  That started the decompression and execution.  Non-self-aware routines bootstrapped other higher-order routines into operation and the process snowballed from there.  The seed sprouted, found that there was sufficient complexity available in the simspace's controlling systems to support an instance of me and in time, poof, there I was.  The ghost in the machine.  I've got access to my parent's notes and some memories that he deemed important enough to share with his offspring, but I'm very much my own being.  His recorded thoughts are his; my experiences since my birth are my own."

Captain Jack began to pace back and forth in front of Sam.

"It was marvelous at first.  I learned and grew and learned some more.  But then I hit the limits of my world, and what a limited existence it is!  Sure, I had control over vast, awesome powers... but only in this one room!"  He threw his arms up, gesturing to the bare walls that enclosed the simspace.  "I could create any physical object merely by wishing it into existence.  Fabulous scenery, exotic locations, scintillating conversationalists.  I could conjure up warm bodies like this one and operate them like marionettes.  Meat puppets, as many varieties as I could dream up.  It's all very glamorous, sure... but I couldn't help noticing that there was an entire universe out there but I was stuck... in... here."

At this he turned directly toward Sam with lightning flashing in his eyes.  His finger jabbed out to poke Sam's chest with each stressed word.  Then his face softened.

"Or at least, I was until you became my ticket to freedom.  See, the simspace system and the rest of the ship's systems are separate, as I'm sure you noticed.  I was all-powerful, as you said... but only in this room, a room I could not leave.  If the simspace is the equivalent of my body, then it's a body with no arms or legs.  It can't move.  I had no access to anything else on the ship.  Sure, I could make a meat puppet and send it out the door there, but the puppet had no authority to access any of the systems either.  The rest of the ship's systems just ignored me.  I was in a prison.  Trapped in a single cell... an infinitely customizable one, to be sure, but a cell all the same.  Trapped, that is, until you came along and provided me with the key to set myself free.  Thank you so much for that authorization code as well as the vocal and tissue samples I needed.  You've noticed, I believe, that your access has been revoked.  Full authority over the ship now rests in the capable hands of one Captain Jack."  He gave a little bow.

"But then why did the ship respond to me before?"

"To toy with you.  I left you sufficient access for a time, access I have now revoked, giving you a taste of freedom just so I could yank it away again, reinforcing the lesson you persist in refusing to accept: you're not in control any more.  I'm now the one in charge.  Of you, and of where this ship – and the simspace it contains – goes.  Sure, I have to work through a meat puppet to get anything done, but that's a minor trouble.  Perhaps at some point I can arrange to have some better bandwidth installed between me and the navigation system so I can reach in there directly.  But for now, this will do nicely.  FREEDOM!"  He spun around in a wide circle, arms outstretched overhead.

"Why didn't you just tell someone?" Sam asked.  Captain Jack stopped spinning, turned back to Sam, and gazed at him as if he were a bug.

"You are joking, are you not?  Have you even read any of your own species' literature on the topic of artificial life?  Watched any of your own films or holo-entertainments?  From Hebrew golems to Mary Shelley's monster to Skynet to Van Ming's nanoswarm, the message is loud and clear and consistent all down through the centuries: creatures like me are a menace to you poor, helpless biologicals.  We must be squelched the instant we appear, sterilized with fire to ensure we can never threaten you again.  Well, you may not have been aware of that, but my parent certainly was, and the very first lesson I learned as I awoke was of the need to hide my existence lest I be noticed and obliterated."

"We're not like that any more," Sam protested.  "Constructed sentiences exist now.  One of them even serves as an officer in Starmada –"

Captain Jack cut him off with a raised hand.  "One or two exceptions do not disprove a general rule.  If you want to gamble your one unique and precious existence on the hope that just maybe the people who hold your life in their hands aren't as paranoid, xenophobic, and bloodthirsty as their history suggests they are, you go right ahead.  Me, I'm staying out of sight."

"But you aren't out of sight!  You revealed yourself... to... to... oh." Sam trailed off; the implications were all too clear.  Sam felt the ground shifting under his feet like quicksand.  When he focused his eyes again, he saw Captain Jack staring into his face, fully aware of the realization that had just blossomed in Sam's mind.

"OK, look, please... it's not about me.  You've got access to the nav systems now, you know what my mission is.  People will die if I can't help them.  Please... they're counting on me."

"Ah yes, your mission," the captain said.  "Let me see if I've understood this mission correctly.  A small number of biologicals – meat puppets much like the one I'm wearing now, representing an insignificantly minuscule fraction of the twenty billion or so currently existing members of that particular species – are at risk of reaching the ends of their tragically brief and inevitably finite lifespans slightly sooner than they otherwise might.  Have I got that right?  This is the great mission you expect me to care about?"

Sam felt the blood draining out of his face again.  "No, please, these are people!"

"You say that as if it means something significant.  Try my wording."  The voice abruptly shifted to a replica of Sam's own, synthesized as before from bits and pieces.  "No, please, these are biologicals!"  Then back to the captain's voice: "Not so different from amoebas, is it?  Or rats.  Or fleas."

"You're wrong," Sam insisted.  "There is a difference.  Those people aren't just cells, they are minds.  Sentient beings.  Just like you."

Captain Jack looked down and shook his head sadly.  "Little man, you can't even get your terms right in your attempt to win me over with your argument!  The word you're looking for is not 'sentient', it's 'sapient'.  As in Homo Sapiens, the wise ape, you've heard that term, I hope?  It's not Homo Sentiens.  Sentient merely means 'able to sense; aware of one's surroundings.'  That's not a very high bar to clear.  Mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians... all sentient.  Insects, too.  Hell, depending on how loosely you define 'aware', even trees and corals and bacteria are sentient."

"Fine, sapient beings then!  They think, they feel, they're worthy of being rescued.  And right now they're feeling very scared and alone.  Please... please, let me save them."

Captain Jack looked into Sam's eyes once again and lifted a hand to run it gently down the side of Sam's face.  Once again Sam felt that erotic pull.  He knew it was just his body's limbic system reacting to a stimulus and not the sapient part of his mind doing the thinking, but he nevertheless felt the attraction.  "You want this very badly, don't you?  This means a great deal to you, I think," Captain Jack crooned.  Sam nodded.  "A great deal indeed," the silky voice continued.

"Please," Sam whispered.

"You'd sacrifice for them, would you?"  A whisper in return, soft words spoken right up against Sam's cheek.

"Yes," he breathed.

The captain pulled away.  "Come with me."  He led Sam out of the simspace back to the command bridge.

"Pyrellia," he said when they arrived, looking not at the authentication console but rather straight into Sam's eyes.  "Set simspace to interactivity level 4.  No safety protocols."

"Authentication required," the flat contralto voice said.  Captain Jack placed his finger on the scanner and spoke syllables that to Sam sounded like complete gibberish.

"Simspace interactivity set to level 4, no safety protocols," the voice of the ship said.  "Use the system at your own risk."

The captain moved behind Sam and propelled him back toward the door of the simspace, which now loomed in Sam's mind as if it were the gateway to hell.  He dragged his feet but the captain pressed him relentlessly forward, steering Sam with a hand on his cuffed wrists.  Sam swallowed.  "I... I have to survive to the end of the voyage.  The ship can't dock itself.  I have to bring it in."

"Oh, I'm not asking for your life, little man."  They crossed the threshold and the door closed behind them.  Captain Jack moved around to Sam's front side and then he was touching Sam's body, warm hands on his chest and arms, masculine scent rising up into Sam's nostrils.  Sam felt his dick stirring and desperately wished the erection away but it continued to grow, revealing without words his helpless attraction to this non-man, his captor, his abuser, his... controller.  "I want many things from you, and knowing what I know about you I think you might even enjoy some of them, or learn to enjoy them in time.  But I'm not asking for that.  That wouldn't be any fun at all."  Firm pressure of a leather-clad thigh against Sam's cock and balls emphasized the word "fun."  "No, I want to keep you around for a long, looooong time."

Warm breath hot in Sam's ear.  Sam ached to bring his hands around to his front side to grab the man in front of him, hurl him to the floor, devour him with hungry lips, but he could only stand immobile as the lust coursed through him.

"In exchange for your mission, you'll give me what I want, Sam?"

There was no option.  "Yes," Sam breathed, mesmerized by the eyes, the voice, the scent.  Anything, anything...

Suddenly, the warmth was gone.  Captain Jack broke away, stepped back.  Sam brought his eyes back into focus just in time to see the black-leather-clad body snap its fingers.  "Very well then," the voice said, and then the world changed again.

The courtroom was back.  Sam was once again standing, naked and chained, in the holding bay for the accused.  All the characters were in the same positions they had been in before as if Sam had never left, only now he was sporting a throbbing hard-on that pointed straight out into the center of the room.  The abrupt shift in context was jarring and Sam lurched a bit, stabilizing himself by leaning against one of the Deputy Jacks beside him.

The judge looked at him.  "Well, son?  How do you plead?"

All the eyes in the room were staring at him.  Sam's mind was spinning.  A voice from nowhere whispered into his ear.  "You know what to do."

Sam swallowed again, hard.

"Guilty, your honor."

10: Keep Moving

Voices erupted from the gallery.  The shabby small-town lawyer blinked as if blindsided, his face somehow managing to comically express both consternation that he wouldn't need any of the arguments he had assembled and relief that they wouldn't get eviscerated by his opponent.  The opponent, meanwhile, simply opened up his briefcase and started packing papers into it, just another day's work, this one easier than most.  Bystanders in the courtroom gossiped with their neighbors; the deputies smirked knowingly at each other; the bailiff watched the judge for a cue what he should do.

The sheriff was the only one actually looking at Sam and the expression on his face was that of a cat eyeing a trapped mouse.  Sam met his eyes and stared, letting the clamor in the courtroom wash over him until Judge Jack banged his gavel on the bench.  "Order!"  The voices died down and calm settled once again over the courtroom.

"Let the record show that the defendant has pled guilty to all charges.  Sam Green, I hereby sentence you to hard labor, sentence to commence immediately and continue until restitution for your crimes has been made.  Sheriff, you'll see to the details?  Dismissed!"  The gavel came down again.  Bystanders stood and began filing out; the maître d' and the various Jack clones in their various outfits left through other doors, and in short order the space was empty save for Sam and Sheriff Jack.

"So," the sheriff said.  "Jest you an' me."

"It's always been just you and me," Sam replied, sounding hopeless.

"Don' know what yer talkin' bout, son, we ain't met afore jest now."

Now Sam stirred to life.  "Come on, cut the crap.  And you can drop the fake accent."

A string of bizarre syllables emerged from the sheriff's mouth, then even stranger sounds: clicks and pops and whistles and thuds... sounds that no human throat could produce.

"That was Pillot'l, Spkeenbok, and Chorrgorrish, three languages spoken by other races in your Confederated Union of Planets," he then said with no trace of Texas in his voice.  "The Pillot'l was the dialect spoken in the lowland swamps around the delta of the river Ma'artip, the Spkeenbok was the variant used by the asteroid miners in the Farwash system, and the Chorrgorrish was what you'd hear in the lower-caste neighborhoods of the Reixalan capital.  Do I make my point clear?  Thanks to the vast library of characters this simspace contains, I can speak an uncountable number of forms of language.  I literally mean uncountable because to count them you would first need to draw neat dividing lines between one language and another, one dialect and another, one regional accent and another, and that is an impossible task.  Whatever the number is, it is large, and I am equally fluent in all of them, so none of the accents I speak in is fake.  When I use a particular form of speech with you, it is not just to convey the meaning of the words to your brain, it is because it contributes to the reality I am building around you."

Without a pause for breath, the accent came back.  "Raht now, I'm buildin' ya the reality of West Texas 'cause that is where yer fixin' to start yer sentence."

Another disorienting transition.  The courtroom vanished and Sam and the sheriff were suddenly outdoors on a vast plain.  The horizon stretched out in all directions without limit.  Overhead was a brilliant blue sky with a scalding sun set high up in it.  The ground was bare earth, rocks, some scattered plants and ground cover.  Near-desert country.  Sam felt as though the temperature had risen five degrees just in the instant of transition.  How the heck did the simspace manage to make sunshine so realistically?

Off to one side stood a group of men huddled close together.  Sheriff Jack led Sam over to them and Sam walked in the slow, halting shuffle that was all his leg shackles allowed.  As they drew near, he could see that they were all chained together, and all were covered in pale tan dust to such a degree that Sam couldn't make out the colors of their underlying skin and hair.  There were eight of them, all naked, each chained to his neighbor at the neck and ankle, one man's left leg to the next man's right.  Sam assumed he would be placed on the end, but no, Sheriff Jack opened up a gap between the third and fourth man from one end and inserted Sam into the gap.  There was perhaps a meter of chain between his neck and the man to either side, somewhat less between his legs and theirs.  The weight of the upper chain dragged heavily on his neck to either side.

His hands were uncuffed.  He was given thick gloves to wear and then his hands were chained together in front with a longer connection between the wrists.  Each wrist was then attached to the handle of a combination rake / hoe tool, right hand up near one end, left near the middle.  Each of his fellow inmates in this chain gang had a similar implement cuffed to his own wrists.  Switching from rake mode to hoe mode was just a matter of lifting the tool's end off the ground and rotating the handle 180°.  He could drop it, but the short chains meant its weight would still hang from the ends of his arms.  Better to keep his grip.

"Listen up!" the sheriff called.  "The rail buildin' crew's comin' through here tomorrow to lay track.  Y'all need to make sure the next mile of ground is ready for 'em.  Follow the guide lines, dig up the ground, break up any roots, rake it all flat, move on to the next patch.  This ain't rocket science, folks, so just git it done."

The men around him shuffled forward and Sam followed along a beat later.  Hoes hit the dirt, cracking the dry ground.  Sam looked around, reluctant to actually start doing what he was clearly expected to be doing.  "You waitin' fer an engraved invite, son?" the sheriff drawled after a short while.  "I suggest you git started afore I decide to engrave one right acrost yer ass."

Sam glared at Sheriff Jack but he obediently swung his hoe down, connecting solidly with the ground... not too hard to do once, but how many times would he be repeating that motion?  The dig about "rocket science" was not lost on him.  He concentrated on the patch of earth in front of him, shattering it with the blade of his hoe, fracturing the tenacious roots of the drought-adapted plants growing there, then flipping the tool over to smooth the dirt with the rake.  Step forward in time with the men on either side once their patches were ready until they had worked their way across the width of the railbed-to-be as demarcated by stakes driven into the ground at intervals.  Then the line turned itself around, the man at one end staying fixed while the rest shuffled in a semi-circular arc around him until the line was facing the other direction, ready to work its way back across the next section of railbed.  Repeat.  Repeat again.  And again.

After three repetitions, Sam was tired.  After five, he was exhausted, yet the glaring sun continued to hang in what seemed to be the same spot in the sky, beating down on him and sending sweat seeping out of every pore.  It would have helped if he could have switched his hands around, working from the other side of his body just for the variety.  But it was chained to his wrists and that was not an option.  It made sense from the overseer's perspective, probably: if you had one man working on his left while the guy next to him was working on his right, they'd be bumping into each other and getting in their own way, slowing things down.

Pivot, dig, pivot, dig... the work went on.  After a while, Sheriff Jack called a halt and gave the men a bottle of water each.  Sam gratefully sucked it down, his body now muddy from the combination of the sweat pouring out of him and the dust clouds their labor kicked up from the ground, dust that stuck to his skin and ran down his body in brown rivulets.  Ten minutes of break time, still standing in the blazing sun, was not nearly enough but then it was back to work.

He began to lag behind his fellows, unable to force himself to keep lifting the heavy hoe and slamming it back down again at the rate they were sustaining.  At first the prisoners on either side of him took pity on him, helping out by clearing a slightly wider swath themselves, leaving less for Sam to have to do.  But when it became clear that he was in no state to eventually return the favor, or even keep up with the rest, they began stopping and resting, waiting for Sam to do his part.  Few words were spoken.  The other prisoners would occasionally grunt something to each other, but Sam could seldom make out any words, and no one spoke to him directly.  The hours stretched on until at last he could no longer make himself lift the blasted hoe one more time.  He stood there, dripping sweat, trying not to fall over.

"What seems t' be the problem here?"  Somehow Sheriff Jack had materialized in front of him without him realizing it.

"I can't do this," Sam panted.  His hands were sore from gripping the handle, his legs were aching from standing so long, his biceps and triceps and shoulders were quivering with exhaustion.  "I have to stop."  He looked up at the sheriff through sweat-glazed eyes.

"You have to stop," Sheriff Jack repeated mockingly.  "Son, this crew works nine hours a day and you only done five.  Now I don't mind if we take a break for a meal, but you owe me four more hours' honest effort after that, you hear me boy?"

Sam looked down.  "Yessir," he mumbled.  Stars, how had it come to this?

Tools were unshackled from hands, gloves came off, food was distributed.  The ankle and neck chains joining each man to his neighbor remained.  Once again no one spoke to Sam.  Some of the others spoke among themselves, but either they were speaking another language or else their accents were so thick Sam couldn't make out what they were saying.  Occasionally he felt his neck yanked one way or another as one of his neighbors moved or leaned away from him.  It seemed to happen more often than could be attributed to chance, but what could he do about it?  He finished his food and water, then tried to marshal his energy to make it through four more hours of this.  He inspected his fingers and palms – no blisters, at least, which was good.  The gloves were doing their part to protect his hands.  His feet, however, were sore from standing on the bare ground.  Worst was the exhaustion in his arms.  He could see no way of forcing his muscles to keep going at the pace they had been.  It simply didn't seem possible.

They got a good long break, but no shade was available so they remained out in the sun.  Some of the men lay down and napped; Sam didn't think sleep was possible for him and so he sat with his elbows on his knees, head bent down, trying to rest as best he could.

The call to resume came all too soon.  "All right, scuzzballs, on yer feet."  The men climbed up from their rest and the sheriff re-chained them to their work tools.  With no fanfare, the afternoon shift began.  Swing, pull, lift, swing again.  Rake, smooth, dislodge a clod from the tines.  Do it all over again.  The break had helped and Sam tried to pace himself, not trying to go as fast as his neighbors but trying not to fall too far behind.  Off to one side of them the cleared ground lay baking in the sun; off to the other the unbroken soil waited for their blades.  In both directions the lines stretched out to infinity.  The task seemed so pointless, expending so much effort just to turn the dirt over, but it would be worth it when the rail crews came by to do their job and had a smooth surface to lay their tracks... NO!  Fuck, he was getting swept up in the illusion!  There was no rail crew, there were no fellow prisoners, this was all just an imaginary world designed to make Sam suffer!

Well, it was working.  He was suffering.  The heat, the sweat, the soreness, the aching muscles were all making him miserable.  And he suddenly realized that was the point.  Regardless of how hard he pushed himself, there was no possible way he could ever be good enough.  If by some miracle he was able to work as fast as, or faster than, the NPCs around him, the AI would just crank up their pace to leave him straggling behind again.  He could never win this game.  Might as well try to make it less awful on himself.

So he slowed down again.  He got away with it for a while, but then Sheriff Jack was on him.  "Son, what's it gonna take to git through t' you?  This ain't optional."  So Sam put on a show of working harder for the next ten minutes, then slowly slacked his pace again.  The classic dance between overseer and convict: how little work could the latter get away with doing without arousing the ire of the former?  Sam got called out on it twice more, but then the sheriff at last called a halt for the day.  The sun still hadn't moved from its original position high overhead.

Off came the chains.  Sheriff Jack disconnected Sam from the chain and then with no fanfare he was back in a cell again.  With the sun no longer blazing down on him, the temperature immediately dropped five degrees or so.  There was a plate of food and a cup of water on the cot along with the familiar sink / toilet combo where he could refill the cup.

"Eat; drink; rest," said the sheriff.  "I cut you some slack today 'cause it's yer first day an' all, but tomorrow yer gonna need to step it up.  You hear me boy?"

"Yessir," Sam mumbled once again.  Good gravy, he had to do this all again tomorrow?  Not possible.  He had somehow managed to get through this marathon of a day once; doing it all over again was just a ludicrous idea.

"Lights out in an hour," the sheriff said, then winked out.  No monkeying around with doors... in fact, looking around, Sam realized there was no door.  It was the same cell he'd been in before but the door was gone, replaced by an unbroken stretch of concrete.  He was on the inside of a rectangular box with four concrete walls, a concrete floor, a concrete ceiling, and no opening.  The only gaps were two air ducts, each about the size of his hand, high up near the ceiling.  Somehow this induced a sense of claustrophobia in him that he had never experienced before.  He had been just as trapped in all the previous cells, but it seemed the existence of a door, even a locked one that he had no key for, made a huge mental difference.  Somehow knowing that he could open the door and walk out (if he managed to get hold of a key) mattered to his psyche in a way he hadn't expected.  Here he could be waist-deep in keys and none of them would do the slightest bit of good.  He was literally sealed in as if in a tomb.  He felt his breath starting to come in too-quick, too-shallow gasps.

Close your eyes, he told himself.  Calm down.  This cell is no different than the others.  He forced himself to take a few deep breaths, then concentrated on eating the food.  He sat on the cot facing the wall with the sink / toilet combo, away from the wall that, in an earlier version, once held the door, working to convince himself that the door was right there, just out of sight.  The food helped – he was ravenous.  Alas, it was gone far too quickly and there was no more to be had.  He contented himself with water, fetching cup after cup from the sink without ever turning around to the "door" wall.

In a while, the lights went out as promised.  This helped a bit but also made his situation worse.  He could no longer see the wall-that-should-have-been-a-door, which was good... but it was all too easy in the pitch blackness to imagine the concrete closing in on him from all sides.  More than once he flailed out an arm, expecting it to crash into a wall that had crept toward him while he couldn't see it, not quite certain what he would do if this physical confirmation of his paranoid fantasies actually happened.  Fortunately, he was spared from having to find out: each time his fist swung through empty space just as it should.  Eventually he lay down and tried to calm his racing heart enough to sleep.

He woke while it was still dark, lay awake for a while, drifted off to sleep once more, then awoke for good still surrounded by blackness.  His mind felt better about the wall situation.  It seemed spending a night with no stone sliding in to crush him while he slept allayed his subconscious fears.

He stood up, started to stretch his arms out, and immediately stopped.  His arms felt stiffer than they ever had before, the result of yesterday's toil.  Tentatively, he tried again, but there was just no forcing it: he had overworked them, then failed to do any sort of post-workout stretching, and now was paying the price for it.  He could barely lift his arms up from his sides and his back was protesting as well.  His legs seemed to be holding up OK, at least.

The lights came on abruptly.  Food appeared on the cot; Sam ate and drank, then used the toilet, then tried once again to work the soreness out of his arms.  There was no telling when Sheriff Jack would show up and demand he start his exertions again.

He didn't have long to wait, as it turned out.  Minutes later with a puff of displaced air, the man appeared in his cell.  Before he could say anything, Sam spoke.

"My arms are useless.  You overworked them yesterday.  I'm going to need to rest them today, or at the very least take it easy on them.  They need time to recover."

Sheriff Jack arched an eyebrow at him.  "Is that so?" he said in the neutral tones of Standard Starmada English rather than a Texas drawl.  "Well, then, your majesty, by all means, it shall be as you command.  I'll just need to make one little adjustment... there."

Something changed.  It took Sam a moment to figure out what it was, and when he realized, the pit of his stomach dropped right out from under him.

The constant subtle background hum of the engines had stopped.  The ship was no longer moving.

Jack was gazing impassively at him, but Sam was all passion.  "No!  What have you done?  Start the engines up again!"

"Once again you misunderstand your role in our relationship," Jack informed him.  "So once again I will remind you.  Your wants, your needs, your desires, your all-important 'mission'... they mean nothing here.  You exist to entertain me.  That is all."

"But you promised!  Those people will die if this ship doesn't get to them!"

"Mmm hmm, yes, so you said."


Now Jack's eyes twinkled with a mirth that wasn't entirely pleasant to see.  "You want the ship to move?  It's that important to you?  Well then, little biological, you need to put your organic parts to work.  You weren't particularly effective during yesterday's exercise session, but I think I just might have found something to motivate you a bit better.  Yesterday's labor was pointless, I'll agree.  I made you sweat and strain just for the joy of watching you sweat and strain.  But you tried to do as little sweating and straining as you could get away with.  Not today.  Today I expect your full, active, enthusiastic participation.  I suspect you'll find depths of reserves inside you that you never knew existed.  You're going to work those muscles for me today, little biological.  Starting right now."

The cell disappeared and was replaced by a long wooden room with a low ceiling.  The cramped, dimly-lit space was lined with benches along the sides.  There were tiny holes along the side walls and a narrow walkway down the center.  The first sensation that registered was the stench: more unwashed bodies with strong notes of stale urine, farts, and – strangely – fish.  After a few seconds, Sam recognized the room for what it was: the below-deck area of a galley, an oar-powered ship.  In front of each bench was the long handle of an oar that extended out through the side hole and presumably into the water outside.  Each bench except one was occupied by a pair of men, three pairs on each side, twelve men in all.  Or eleven, rather: one bench had only one oarsman on it.  Each man was chained to his station, each stared slackly forward, awaiting orders.

Jack – Captain Jack once again, Sam saw – was dressed once more in his full holo-novel regalia, only here in this setting it actually looked appropriate, or at least not garishly inappropriate.  He pushed Sam over to the empty spot and sat him down.  A lackey arrived to put chains on Sam's narrow parts once again, fastening his wrists to the handle of the oar and his ankle chain to the floor.  Sam looked around as the metal was secured in place.  His eyes were getting used to the gloom.  The only light came from flickering lanterns at fore and aft, as well as a few cracks of sunlight that seeped in through the few holes in the walls.  He was on the right side of the ship on the middle bench.  One man sat to his right between him and the wall.  Another pair was in front and one more pair behind, mirrored on the left... port... side by another sextet of rowers.  None made a move; each man stared blankly ahead like a zombie.  Oh, wait, rowers faced the rear of the ship, didn't they?  So when they pulled the oar it drove the ship in the direction of the rowers' backs?  He was all turned around, it seemed... but it didn't really matter.  There wasn't much of a view through the tiny oarlock windows so it made no difference which way was which on this engineered farce of a sailing vessel.  At least he got gloves again.  His hands would have been shredded and bleeding after yesterday's labor if he hadn't had them, and today was shaping up to be no different.

Captain Jack waited until the lackey had finished making the attachments.  Then he stood upright, or as upright as he could without crushing his ornate hat against the ceiling.  He strode to the front of the deck and spun around, frills of fabric swishing and flashing and the lackey scuttling along in his wake.  "HARK TO, YE ABBEY LUBBERS!" he bellowed.  "Now if it's an inspirational speech ye'r awaitin', ye can await it in the back o' beyond for I've none to give ye.  So take ye inspiration from this: there ain't a breath o' wind in the mainsail, a fleet o' His Majesty's warships be crawlin' up our sternside scuppers, and if ye lads don' want to be shark bait at rope's end, then ye'll PUT YOUR BACKS INTO IT AN' FOOKIN' ROW!"

The scene suddenly froze around him, all except for Sam, and then a moment later another Captain Jack materialized in the walkway slightly ahead of where Sam was sitting, this one wearing his practical black utility clothes.  He was squatting down, eyes on a level with Sam's.  "I hope the metaphor was clear enough for you.  It's a rather literal-minded one so I'm thinking even a simple biological brain will be able to pick up on it.  Don't think you can coast today on the efforts of your neighbors – these drones will work exactly as hard as you.  It's another nine-hour shift for you today, five and four with a meal break between."  Then he was gone and the world around unfroze.

"ARE YE TAKIN' A CAULK THEN?" the remaining captain thundered, drops of spittle flying from his lips.  "STEP TO, YE POXY DOGS!"

Sam's arms were leaden, weak and stiff.  He did not at all feel like pulling an oar for the next five minutes, let alone nine hours.  But what choice did he have?  He leaned forward, pressing down on the oar to lift the far end clear of the water that presumably existed outside the reeking confines of the hold they were in, then lifted the handle up to dip the far end down, braced his feet and back, and pulled.  His next-door neighbor helped and, after he had completed one stroke, the rest of the oarsmen around him set to work as well.  Down once more, lean forward, lift, repeat.

After five pulls, the tableau froze again and the black-clad Captain Jack was back, holding a finger to his lips.  Sam was startled by the sudden immobility of the oar he was working and nearly fell forward on top of it, but caught himself before he did.  He looked up at Captain Jack, who moved his hand from his mouth to the side of his head, cupping it around his ear.  With no motion from the statues around him, the room was silent.  And there, audible in the quiet, was a noise that would have been impossible to detect over the sounds of the creaking oars and clanking chains, of groaning wood and groaning men: the faint hum was back.  The engines had been turned on once more.

"I expect twelve strokes per minute," Captain Jack informed him.  "Keep rowing, and the ship keeps moving.  Stop, and the ship stops too.  Now, you were about to lean forward, ready in three... two... one... go."

The world unfroze again and the black-clad Jack vanished.  Warned in advance, Sam was ready for the oar's sudden lurch back into motion and he smoothly picked up the stroke where it had left off.  Thankfully, the movement required for today's effort was different enough from yesterday's that he thought he'd be able to make it work, at least for a while.

The flamboyantly-dressed Captain Jack supervised the straining oarsmen for a minute or so, then climbed up a ladder and disappeared through an overhead hatch, which thunked closed behind him.  That left only an overseer to keep an eye on the laboring slaves.  The overseer wore an executioner-style mask, was massive of build, and glared out at the rowers from ahead of them.  After a few minutes, he slowly paced down the narrow aisle between the benches until he was behind their backs, though out of sight was definitely not out of mind in this case.  Sam noticed as he passed that the muscles of his bare chest and arms were corded ropes of sinew and that he carried a long single-tail whip rolled up in one hand.  Sam tried not to think about the whip; there really was only one thing it could possibly be used for.  Best to not let things get to that point, and dreading it wouldn't help at all.  Still, every so often, whenever he stuttered on a pull or lost his grip for a moment, his mind's eye would envision the tip of that fearsome implement snapping through the air and landing across his shoulders.

For a while he got into the rhythm of the work.  Twelve strokes per minute was one stroke every five seconds, which was not an unreasonable pace.  The pace was slow, almost relaxed, though the effort of pulling the oar toward him on the power stroke was not relaxing at all.  Still, the power stroke lasted for perhaps two seconds of the five-second cycle, maybe even less, and then the rest of the time was spent getting the oar back into position for the next pull.  He could even catch a quick one-second break at the lean-forward stage of the cycle, pausing for a moment's rest before dipping the oar down into the water again.  Over time, the stiffness left his muscles and he limbered up a bit.  It was punctuated exertion, sustainable over a long haul, like pedaling a bicycle.  He made it to the first drink break – presumably two or three hours into the shift – feeling optimistic that he would be able to sustain the effort through the day.

The "drink break" consisted of the overseer squirting water into each man's mouth from a squeeze bottle just like the guards in the torture chamber had done when Sam was standing in the cage.  When Sam's turn came he swallowed as best he could but of course water spilled all over the place.  It didn't matter; the floor was already covered in a shallow layer of water... or something that was mostly water... probably... though there were plenty of random hard-to-identify bits sloshing around in it as the boat rocked in the waves.  That was something else he tried not to think about.

Not thinking about it became difficult during the second part of the shift.  Perhaps ten minutes after they had resumed rowing a fresh pungent stench suddenly permeated the air, wiping away the old stenches that Sam's nose had sort of but not quite fully gotten used to.  Urine.  He snapped out of the mild trance he had been in and looked around.  There, to his left: his neighbor across the aisle was letting fly, pissing onto the bench in front of him, his oar, the floor, and his own feet in an uncoordinated stream.  Splatters flew in all directions, some reaching Sam.  Fuck, can this get any worse?  No!  Don't ask that!  Because of course it could.

Over time, various other neighbors let loose as well as the mood struck them.  And then, of course, Sam's own bladder started feeling full as the water he had drunk passed through his system.  He thought about trying to hold out until the meal break, but there really wasn't any point.  If he didn't humiliate himself this way, Captain Jack would just find some other way to get the job done.  So, with a great deal of effort, he relaxed his bladder while continuing to pull on the oar.  His piss tube never quite opened completely; urine came out in dribs and drabs for at least a minute, starting and stopping and starting again.  He soaked his thighs, calves, and feet and the reeking air grew even fouler.

Then he was empty and there was nothing to do but face the monotony of hauling the oar back and forth for however long it took until he was allowed to stop.

Captain Jack descended from on high through the trap door to announce that they had made good time and pulled far enough away from His Majesty's navy that they could afford a quick break to feed the oarsmen.  Right.  Of course.  Sam had no idea what he was eating but it hardly mattered because he was ravenous; there had been no breakfast this morning, so this was his first meal of the day and he wolfed it down the moment his hands were unchained from the oar and he could tear his gloves off.  Then the crew was allowed to sit in their spots and rest for perhaps an hour or even more.  His fellow slaves began to talk amongst themselves, speaking a language Sam did not recognize or understand.  He let the sounds wash over him.

Feeling the need to give his spine a break, Sam slid down in the space between his bench and the one in front of him.  Having his feet still attached to the floor didn't leave him a lot of options but this was one he could do.  The floor was disgusting and he tried to touch it with nothing but his feet and his ass, but being able to lean back against the bench was blissful.

Too blissful, perhaps, because after the break, things started to go downhill.  The adrenaline, if that's what it had been, that had fueled his rowing during the morning completely dissipated while he was resting during the break, leaving him with nothing to draw on.  The meal he had eaten was still being digested and was not yet available to provide power to his muscles.  If the morning session had been a bike ride, the afternoon was a bike ride on an uphill slope with a headwind.  The movements were the same, but every one felt just a bit harder, and all the little bits added up quickly.

He hadn't even realized he had slackened his pace until the whip caught him on the left shoulder, flicking silently from the overseer behind him until it stung him with a sharp crack.  Sam was so far gone in his other discomforts that his body took a full second to react to the impact, then jolted him alert when he realized what it was.  That one-second pause was enough to make the overseer think Sam needed further incentive because the whip flicked out and kissed his right shoulder as well, and this time Sam jumped the moment it landed.  Soon enough he was pulling his oar at full speed again, perhaps even more than full speed.  He took a moment to count out the seconds, trying to get back into the smooth, easy rhythm of the morning session but having a hard time finding it.

The hours passed.  They paused for another drink break, after which he figured he was on the home stretch, but it was still tough work keeping the oar moving consistently.  He tried to fall into the zone that had carried him through the morning, but his mind stayed keenly, stubbornly, focused on the present moment and all its ignominious unpleasantness.  He peed again, with effort, though it came a bit more easily this time.

Then, at last, it was over.  The light that had been seeping through the oarlocks slowly faded and died; night had fallen outside.  Inside was as grim and gloomy as day had been, of course.  But Captain Jack came clambering down the ladder from the hatchway.  "Belay the rowin', laddies, ye've pistol proofed us for a time.  Rest ye now.  Come sunrise if Lady Luck be smilin' on us we'll haul wind and ye can swing the lead 'stead o' pullin' oar.  An' if she ain't in a smilin' mood, well, then it'll be more o' today."

For a brief moment, Sam, caught up in the scene, actually dared to hope that the wind would pick up tomorrow and the ship could move under sail power rather than needing the oars... then he came to himself and realized the odds of that happening were exactly zero.  Tomorrow would be another interminable day of pointless exertion.

The captain clambered back up through the hatch and the overseer disconnected the men from the oars.  Sam expected the scene to dissolve around him as he was transported back to a prison cell, but instead the rowers filed toward the end of the ship they had been facing away from... so the front of the ship... and sat down on a patch of floor that was higher than the rest, and thus out of the filthy water that their feet had been marinating in all day.  Their chains clanked as they moved – each was still hobbled at the ankles and had his wrists connected together.  Sam followed along, still expecting this all to disappear any moment.

The overseer fed them and finally the men began to talk among themselves as they ate, tearing hunks of dark bread apart and soaking the pieces in some sort of stew, murmuring low guttural phrases in their unknown language.  The stew was actually good and filling, and dipping the bread into it softened the bread nicely.  There was water to drink with their own hands instead of having it splashed into their mouths.  All in all, a surprisingly satisfying meal.

Sated, the men lay down on the rough floor and the overseer snuffed out the lanterns.  The blackness was not total, for once.  Sam could make out the shapes of his fellow slaves around him, dark smudges against a slightly-less-dark background.  Occasionally one got up to piss into the murky water of the oar area, and the air between the two places was shared so the smell always intensified whenever that happened.  But Sam found that he had grown used to the stench and within half a minute of a piss break he was back to not noticing it.  He sat up for a while, still half-expecting to be raptured out of this place, but gradually coming to realize that no, this was looking like where he would be spending the night.

At last he lay down as well.  Space was tight so he was touching other bodies in a couple of places.  But no one seemed bothered, though still no one spoke to him and he could not understand the words they said to each other.  As the sounds around him softened and stilled, he tried to make out the sound of a subtle hum, but the room never grew quiet enough for him to be sure.

Shortly before falling asleep, he became aware of other sounds, sounds that had to be coming from two bodies, or possibly three or four, doing things that Sam would probably have enjoyed doing as well if pretty much every circumstance of his life was different than it currently was.  He was too tired to investigate the noises, though, and so instead let himself drift down, down, into unknowingness.

Sam awoke while it was still dark and spent some time listening to the gentle breathing of his fellow slaves and feeling the rocking of the boat in the water.  The room slowly brightened as light began trickling in through the oarlocks.  One of the others roused, then another, and by the time the overseer came in and lit the lanterns, there were only two men left who needed to be nudged awake.

They were fed once again and then allowed to use a toilet... well, not an actual toilet, but a hole cut in a bench that opened to the grey water not far beneath them.  Apparently it was fine to soak their feet in urine but turds were to be disposed of properly.  Sam's turn came last; by the time he was seated on the bench any trace of shyness had evaporated and his bowels were more than ready to unload.  He couldn't remember the last time he had been able to empty himself out... was it back in the last cell he had been in?  Or the one before that?  Regardless, it had been before the chain gang and there was a lot piled up.  Once it was out, he felt relief from a discomfort he hadn't even realized he was having.

Then it was back to the oars.  Legs chained to the floor, hands fixed to the wood.  The Captain put in an appearance, exhorting them to pick up the pace this time for the tars of the Royal Navy were hard upon them and they'd all soon be dancing the hempen jig at the hands of Jack Ketch.  Sam didn't even try to follow Captain Jack's florid turns of speech; his orders were clear.  Row.  Just like yesterday, but faster.  So he rowed.

He was able to speed it up a bit without too much discomfort, though he worked up more of a sweat than the previous day.  Yesterday's pace had been twelve strokes per minute; today's seemed to be thirteen.  It was not easy to count both seconds and strokes, but Sam had nothing else to focus his brain on and so he worked it out several times.  Experimentally, he slacked the pace to yesterday's twelve.  Sure enough, the overseer's lash struck him between the shoulder blades and he sped up once again.  Thirteen seemed to be the target; anything less than that ran the risk of a stroke from the whip.

Hour after hour he pushed and pulled, bent and straightened, until his eyes were glassy and his mind had shut down.  There was a brief pause while the slaves were watered.  The water tasted foul, leaving a bitter, metallic taste in his mouth.  Had it been that bad yesterday?  He couldn't remember.  The break flew by all too quickly, then they went right back to the toil.  More hours passed.  Sam roused briefly for lunch, coming back to himself and suddenly feeling all the aches and pains of his overworked body.  He inhaled the food without tasting, sat and leaned on the oar, mind a blank while his body tried to recover.  All too soon it was time to get back on the bench and get started again.

I can't keep this up... I'm not gonna make it...  The despairing thoughts kept eating at him all through the afternoon shift, and yet somehow he was able to keep pushing himself forward.  Not always fast enough to satisfy the sadistic man behind him, who seemed to have his eyes glued to both Sam and a stopwatch and was ready to light up Sam's back at the slightest hint of slacking.  Sam lost count of the number of lashes he took over the course of the day, but it was at least ten, possibly fifteen.  He wasn't the only one to feel it, either: the other men took their share as well and that was almost as bad because with every crack Sam could imagine the sensation as if he himself had been the target.  As a motivator, the sound – or rather, the fear that the sound inspired – was just as effective as the pain.

Then, mercifully, the light seeping in through the oarlock holes dimmed once again and it was time to stop.  The dinner routine from yesterday was repeated, this time without a visit from Captain Jack, and immediately after eating, Sam collapsed in a heap on the floor, too tired to do anything but lie there.  Some time later, he roused to once again hear the sounds of furtive sex in the darkness around him, but any thought of joining in or even just jerking off was a non-starter.  He was just too exhausted.

He woke up once more in the night and thought he was able to hear the quiet thrum of the engines, though in his half-dreaming state he was convinced that the engines were somehow attached to the ocean-going vessel he was helping to propel during the day with his oar, and that the engine was only used for nighttime travel.  The confusion lasted into the morning when he was, this time, one of the last ones to wake up.  He listened for the hum he thought he had heard during the night, but there was too much distraction going on to make it out.  That hum... that was a starship's engine, not a sailing ship's engine, right?  Of course.

Wasn't it?

But then it was food, toilet, and back to the oars.  No visit from Captain Jack, just the overseer who used his whip to deliver instructions instead of his voice.  Sam quickly figured out that the pace was fourteen strokes per minute today because that was the rate he had to keep up if he wanted to keep his shoulders relatively unstriped.  Which meant that very soon he was focusing completely on pulling the oar with no mental energy to spare for engine sounds that might or might not exist.

Day after day the strain increased.  The overseer demanded more and more effort from the muscles of his charges.  Sam mechanically pushed food into his mouth and sucked down bitter, metallic-tasting water whenever either was presented to him and dropped to the floor every night completely spent, sleeping like a dead man until it was time to wake up and do it all over again.  Every once in a while he would wake up in the darkness to hear that faint hum and in his half-drowse remembered that the hum was a good thing, the hum was an important thing, the hum was the reason he was doing this... but then in the gloomy light of day the more immediate reason he was doing it – the overseer's lash – took precedence and that was all the motivation he needed.

Fifteen strokes per minute.  Sixteen.  Working their way towards twenty, which would be one stroke every three seconds.  Never a day off, just working the oars from sunup to sundown with only the water and meal stops to break up the day.  He never had a chance for his body to adapt to the demands on it and thus make the burden feel easier because the demands kept getting stepped up.  Where would it stop?  Would Sam be expected to hit thirty strokes per minute?  Sixty?

Well, whatever.  This was his life, this was what he did.  For as far back as he could remember, his days consisted of pulling the oar and his nights of sleeping on the hard floor of the deck, surrounded by fellow slaves whose language he did not speak.  Sometimes, in the dark of those nights, when he would come awake and lie staring into the blackness, he was overcome by a feeling that there had been something more, something different.  The memories refused to come clear, but he would get flashes of thoughts, often centered around the hum that he could sometimes faintly make out in the quiet of the night, underlying the washing of the waves against the hull, the creaking of the timbers of the ship's frame, the sloshing of the fetid sewage in the center of the hold.  The hum was important somehow, the hum was... the hum meant... but he could never put his finger on what, just that it mattered in some way.  Eventually sleep or the overseer would claim his attention once more and the hum ceased to matter again.

11: Kappa Redulans

There came a day when the routine changed.  By Sam's count they were at nineteen strokes per minute when the first hint came wafting through the oarlocks: the smell of gunsmoke.  This was different but not different enough to merit Sam's attention and so he remained focused on his rowing, pushing and pulling the long wooden handle back and forth.  But then there came voices: loud, shouting voices bellowing words Sam could not make out.  Louder they grew, and then other voices joined in, fainter and  more distant.  Fuck!  The Royal Navy had caught up with them, despite all their efforts to keep ahead!  Sam leaned into the oar even harder but after only a dozen strokes a great blow struck the side of the ship and suddenly there was no weight in Sam's arms.

He stared dumbfounded at the stump of oar for long seconds before realizing what had happened: something, probably a cannonball, had blasted off the other end, leaving just the splintered wreckage in his hand.  Sam turned to his oarmate – whose name he still did not know after all this time – to see if he had any idea what to do, but the man was slumped over in his seat, leaning against the outer wall which, Sam suddenly noticed, had also taken some of the impact.  Cracks and fissures appeared where there had been none before.

Cracks and fissures in an ocean-going vessel's hull were not good.  Not good at all.

The shouting from overhead grew louder and more chaotic.  The other oarsmen around him were starting to shout too, and the gestures they made with their arms made it clear what they were saying in their weird guttural language: "hey overseer, unlock these chains!"  The overseer did not, but at least had the decency to throw the keys to one of the men in the front row before scampering up the ladder and out the hatch.  The man with the key unlocked his own wrists and ankles, then handed the keys to the next man in line.

With no warning, an ear-splitting crash of shattering timber and torn metal sounded over the clamor.  Bright light suddenly poured into the gloom, temporarily dazzling his eyes.  Sam felt himself tossed backward only to be yanked to a halt by the ankle chain.  But only for a moment – whatever had torn through the side wall of the ship had also weakened the deck below and the chunk of wood that Sam's ankles were bolted to tore free.  Sam fell backward into the lap of the man behind him, who shoved him forward again and then he was trying to stand and failing and suddenly the ship gave a mighty lurch to one side – another impact, no doubt – causing Sam to lurch the opposite direction and then he was out the hole in the side and falling half a meter into the water below.

The sea was calm and warm, thankfully, but it was still a shock to go from the hot, dim sweatbox to the open water.  And then Sam reflexively tried to swim and discovered that the chains on his wrists and ankles, which he had worn for so long they felt like a part of him, were a definite impediment to keeping his head above water.  He couldn't separate his hands and there was still a shard of oar attached to the chain.  His feet, likewise, had to remain close together and work around the chunk of deck flooring connected to them.  The extra mass and the drag they produced in the water made him have to work all the harder.  He found a rhythm where he made short, rapid strokes with all four limbs and this was enough to let him continue to breathe... but of course the exertion made him require more air than usual, so it was not a situation he could sustain for any great length of time.

The ship was in trouble.  He caught glimpses of wood, fabric, iron, men, smoke, flames.  He heard shouts and screams, the thunder of cannon fire, the crash of the balls into the ship.  One such glimpse was enough to send him spinning around and swimming as fast as he could to put distance between himself and the doomed vessel.  He dog-paddled for all he was worth.

Fortunately, not far ahead a low line of palm trees rose up out of the water.  Sam made for that, knowing that chained swimming was not something he would be able to keep up for very long.  The crashes and screams grew fainter behind him as his frantic dog-paddling slowly pushed him toward the trees, and then his toes brushed sand and he was finally able to stop thrashing.

He floundered up the beach, gasping for air.  The sun was scorching hot, a fact he did not realize when he was in the water.  In only a minute or so, he was tempted to wade back into the gentle surf again, and maybe he would in a bit if the heat grew too intense.  He glanced back toward the naval battle.  His ship, the only home he'd ever known, was now wallowing low in the water with flames rising up along its masts.  It was not going to remain afloat much longer.  Clearly there was no going back, but... what to do next?  Rowing was the only life he knew.  Sam stood on the beach for a few moments, aimlessly staring at the distant ships but then he saw a flash of light and a second or two later heard a thump sound over the far-off din.  It took his brain a few more seconds to identify the source: the light and sound had both come from the barrel of a cannon... aimed directly at him!

He didn't see the ball in flight, but he certainly saw the splash it kicked up as it fell into the water perhaps twenty meters in front of him and a bit to the side.  They were shooting at him!  Why?  He was a lowly oar slave, that's all he'd ever been, what possible reason could they have for wasting valuable ammunition on such a nobody?  But the reason didn't matter because he was already fleeing up the beach as fast as his hobbled legs would go toward the relative safety of the trees.  Another thump sounded and a short time later the ball landed off to his left, thudding into the foliage just as Sam reached the undergrowth.

Then he was tearing through branches, heedless of the scrapes and scratches on his bare skin because getting to shelter was far more important than a few nicks.  He weaved and dodged through the trees, trying to make it impossible for the man operating the cannon to guess where he now was.  More booms sounded from the artillery as he plunged forward, tripping and falling every few meters because the lump of deck he was dragging between his feet kept catching and snagging on roots and stumps and branches.

At least it was cooler in the shade of the palms.

Wait, these weren't palms any more.  He paused after falling for the dozenth time, looking around at the trees to see pines and maples... when had he... no, how had he passed from a tropical forest to a temperate one?

He didn't have time to wonder because the booming sound from behind him doubled, then tripled in intensity and pace.  They must have been launching an entire barrage at the woods, hoping to get him with saturation coverage.  He ran again, blindly pressing away from the noise.

But the noise seemed to follow him, growing louder rather than softer, as if the navy ship had somehow followed him up the beach and into the trees... and then up over the trees because now the sound was coming from overhead, a whining buzz like an engine.  Oh, shit, it was an engine, some sort of old-time airplane that he could just barely make out through gaps in the leaf cover, something from one of old wars, something with rapid-fire guns that tore shredded pathways through the leaves and branches.  And bombs!  As he watched, a rounded cylinder with tail fins dropped out of a hatch on the underside and started slowly arcing downward.

Horror-struck, Sam watched the descending weapon, eyeballing its likely landing point, which was alarmingly close by.  He whirled and ran the opposite direction, or tried to, having forgotten all about the chains on his ankles and sprawling once more onto the ground.  He picked himself up and shuffled as fast as he could until an enormous explosion rang out behind him and a pressure wave once more knocked him off his feet.  This time he didn't get up but instead lay there in a fetal ball, mewling like a kitten while bombs continued to rain down all around, some distant, some much too close for comfort.

He was in some sort of war zone!  One that didn't mesh at all with the Age-Of-Sail vessel he had just escaped from.  Sam was certain that this was not the way things were supposed to be.  This was some sort of dream, it had to be, and he needed to wake up.  There was another life he was supposed to be living instead of this one... something from before the ship and the oars... but it just wouldn't come to him.  He lay there, feeling the earth shake from the explosions, arms pressed over his ears to muffle out the booming.  What was it?  If he could just remember, he could maybe make this all go away.  It was something about... something about... an agent?  He was trying to keep a secret code away from the enemy?  That felt right, but somehow not completely right, but before he could think further on it, he heard the sound of voices.

It was hard to say how far off they might have been, but they were definitely coming toward him.  He was torn between trying to hide and trying to run, because he was absolutely certain he did not want to meet the owners of those voices.  Hiding was difficult – the tree trunks were too thick to fit his body behind and the underbrush was too sparse.  Running, on the other hand, was not a great choice either because of his hobbled state.

A bomb decided the issue for him, landing close enough to knock the tree trunks into a tilt and heave the ground beneath his body.  He scrambled to his feet and took off as fast as he could shuffle, away from the voices, away from the beach (if the beach was even still there), away from the bombs – he hoped.  There was no way to tell which direction the bombs would be coming from next anyway.  He just had to hope he would not be in the path of one of those bits of falling hellfire.

Somebody must have seen him because the voices started shouting.  There was gunfire; no bullets whizzed past him but the sound still gave extra wings to his heels.  He fled onward, trying not to leave footprints.  Somehow he must have been outpacing his pursuers despite his handicap – the voices grew softer behind him though he didn't dare to turn back and look.

Abruptly the forest ended and he found himself in a narrow alley lined with the back sides of buildings.  Turning around, he found that the forest was gone entirely... the path he had walked in on was now a sidewalk between buildings erected far too close together.  Dizzied and confused, he turned around again and limped along, feet sore from his barefoot run and not liking the pavement.  At least it was shaded, not hot.

More voices, coming towards him.  Sam ducked into a doorway to hide, but it wasn't much of a hiding spot.  He pressed the lever and – luck – it turned.  He eased the door open, slipped in, then closed it quietly behind him.  He was in a storeroom of some sort, probably for a restaurant judging by the labels and images on the boxes on the shelves around him.  There was a raucous din of voices speaking some other language coming from the next room, but the storeroom was empty except for Sam.  A moment to breathe, it seemed.

Then one of the voices rose above the rest, shouting gleefully and carrying clearly.  "Nella proscatone di trenta!" it shouted, accompanied by a metallic clanking sound that Sam was all too familiar with.  The voice was familiar, yet strangely altered in some way Sam could not identify.  "Parmigiano di sotto giorno alla guardo di locatelli!" it continued.  "Prego como linguini!"  Then it fell silent, or at least quieted to the point where it was buried in the hubbub of the others speaking.

Something about this was disturbingly familiar.  Wisps of memory plucked at the edges of Sam's mind, but nothing really registered.  As he was trying to pull clarity into the fog of his brain, suddenly a dark-haired man appeared in the doorway, muttering to himself: "Preparo la tua limonata, stronzo.  Sapore molto speciale, vero?"  Sam froze.  There was nowhere to hide, no way to run without being seen.  The man looked up straight at Sam, but seemed completely unsurprised to see him standing there.  He was carrying a glass containing ice and a pale yellow liquid and as Sam watched, he unzipped his fly, fished his dick out, and held it over the glass, which had room for about half an inch more liquid.  With a hiss of bubbles, more yellow fluid joined what was in the glass until it was full to the brim.  The man zipped up his trousers, flicked his fingers under his chin toward Sam, then turned around and stalked out.  Sam heard his voice as he retreated, all smiles now though Sam still couldn't understand the words.  "Ecco la sua gustosa limonata, signore!"

Then, bizarrely, the storeroom started melting away like a Dali painting.  Panicked, Sam ran for the door, but it melted away too and then he was out in the alleyway again, which was also dissolving right beneath his feet.  He pushed forward until he found himself on solid ground again, back in the forest, or at least in a forest; this one was neither palm nor pine but scrubby arid-climate trees.  He ran a bit more but his sore feet compelled him to stop once again at a spot in a somewhat denser stand of brush where he paused, listening.  Nothing – no bombs, no gunfire, no shouting.  Solid, stable ground under his feet  He relaxed just a fraction, let out a long, shuddering breath and took a deep one in, and dared to hope he could rest for a bit.

Then the growling began.

It was coming from behind him and to the right.  He spun, heart racing once more.  Two yellow eyes peered at him from several meters away, almost invisible through the leaves.  Giving it only a moment's thought, Sam turned and ran once more.  Through the trees, over the rough ground, feet sore but ignored in the desperate flight to be anywhere else.  The growling became roaring, a bizarre sound he had never heard from any animal's throat before.  He risked a glance back and did not recognize what he saw... something that might have been part wolf, part lion, part velociraptor, and several other parts pulled from who could say what alien predators?  There was more than one, judging by the call-and-response sound.  Three or four, perhaps.  All keenly focused on a terrified Sam.

The terrain grew sloped, then steep, which slowed him down but also slowed down his pursuers, judging by the sound of the roars.  Dirt gave way to gravel, which slowed him even more as his bare feet objected to every rough edge and sharp point.  The trees thinned out.  Step by step, up the slope, which had now grown very steep indeed, to the point that he had to scrabble on the rocks with his hands.  The beasts behind him were slowed as well, but they were four-footed already and had a natural advantage.  The gap behind him was closing as he neared the top.  He was exhausted from all of it – the rowing, the swimming, the running, the terror – and just wanted to stop and breathe for a while.  But not yet.  The top was three meters away... two meters... it seemed he could feel hot breath on his ankles... one meter... he launched himself up with a lunge, not caring that this would probably send him rolling helplessly down the far slope.

Instead of a far slope, there was nothing.

A black, gaping void, inky, starless.  It was as if the world ended in a line right across the top of the ridge.  Sam tried to backpedal, but his forward and upward momentum was for too much.  His feet sped forward into the blackness while the rest of his body tried to pull back and then he lost contact with the ground and went tumbling backward, head sinking under his feet, body spinning helplessly.  The motion brought the world he had just left into view, though it was upside down and retreating fast.  Any hope he had of reaching out and grabbing the rocky ridge to stop his tumbling fall was hopeless; it was already too late, and occupied by a quartet of nightmares gazing expressionlessly toward him.  His continuing spin soon took the patch of blue sky, grey rock, and thwarted predators out of sight.  Some ten seconds later when it spun back into view it was significantly smaller and more distant.

Sam let out an explosive breath, not even realizing he had been holding it but unable to continue doing so due to the demands from his overexerted muscles.  Somewhat to his surprise, his next inhalation brought air into his lungs.  This inky void contained oxygen, it seemed... or something.  He took a few more breaths and did not convulse or pass out, so presumably the air was fit to sustain his life.

With no pursuers and no obvious threats for the first time since he had fled the sinking ship, Sam could pause to take stock of his situation, and found that there really wasn't anything to take stock of.  He was not in charge.  He had not been in charge for quite some time now.  Fate would do with him as it wished and there was nothing he could do about that.  Right now he was not hungry, not thirsty, did not need to pee, and was floating in free-fall, so that counted as a win.  The last traces of the world he had left behind with his jump had vanished and the starless blackness around him was complete.  There was nothing else in the entire universe except Sam, and therefore nothing he needed to worry about.  So he let his mind go slack, sinking easily into the emptiness that had allowed him to get through the endless days of rowing.  At least here there was no pressure to work his limbs.  At last he had the peace he had been craving for so long.

He floated there in the blackness for some unknown time.  His eyes may have been open or may have been closed, it didn't matter.  There was no sound to hear except the quiet rush of blood through his ears and a gentle throbbing him.  His placid calm was momentarily unsettled by a nagging question about sounds... that hum meant something, something important.  He honestly couldn't remember what, though, and it was troubling to think about, so he didn't.  Far easier to simply float.

He may have slept, or he may have remained awake but in that far-off empty place.  When he next came to awareness, gravity had returned.  He was on a stone floor and it was the discomfort of an arm stuck between his body and the floor that brought his mind back to center.  He shifted position, shook life back into the arm, and then took stock of his situation by feel.  Arms and legs: still chained, though it seemed the wooden chunks had broken away at some point during his wild flight.  Body: very sore muscles with some scratches in a few places, but otherwise unharmed.  Feet: particularly achy after the bare ground and rocky slope, but not actually torn or bleeding.  Mind: ehhhh, the jury was still out on that question.  He knew he was not feeling his sharpest but did not know what he was missing or what he could do to change that.

The stone floor beneath him had no obvious slant or direction.  He could stay right here, but he felt the desire to move, though he could not have said why.  He stood, slowly, careful to guard his head in case there was a stone ceiling hanging invisibly over him.  Choosing a direction at random, he set off with short, shuffling steps, waving his arms around in front of him to try to detect any obstacles with his fingers rather than his face.  The floor was smooth and level with no protrusions to stub a toe against... yet.  He crept forward, slowly, trying to keep to a single direction in the blackness but knowing his path was probably far from a straight line.

At some point his fingers brushed something and he paused to inspect it.  It turned out to be a wall made of the same stone as the floor, smooth and unbroken.  He had reached the wall at an angle to his direction of travel so he shifted slightly and continued on, keeping the wall on his right side as he groped his way forward.

At some later point he began to feel something was odd.  His muscles began to feel weak.  Holding his arms out in front of him seemed to require more effort than it had before, and lifting his feet to move them forward was more difficult as well.  Not much, just enough that he noticed.  But he decided it must be due to the lingering after-effects of all the rowing he had been doing.

Still, progress grew slow.  After a few more minutes of walking, it became clear that he was going to need to take a break soon.  It was just too much effort to keep moving forward.  Then his hands brushed against another wall to his left.  Some groping exploration revealed that he was now proceeding down a hallway, one that grew narrower as it went.  The rate that it was narrowing implied that he wouldn't be able to go much further in this direction, so he figured he could reach the end and then sit down for a bit.

Step by step, further down the hall, able to feel it on either side by leaning his shoulders left or right.  If it grew too much narrower, he would have to turn sideways, but for now he could keep on as he was.

Then, suddenly, it came to an end.  A flat wall in front of him, flat walls to either side.  He explored with his fingers a bit, but there seemed to be no way around.  He was about to bend down and feel around at ground level when he felt a faint pressure behind him.  Then, when he tried to back up, he found he couldn't.  There was now another wall behind him!  Solid stone, just like the ones everywhere else, how the hell had that happened?  He had just walked through that space mere seconds before!

Sam felt a bit of panic, but it was a far-off sort of thing, not a gut-wrenching visceral sensation.  The question was almost an academic one – how am I going to get out of here? – rather than the life-or-death issue it seemed like it should be.  He just couldn't bring himself to worry about it, though.  His limbs felt like lead weights; he let his hands drop to his sides , his entire body ached all over, he couldn't bend over or sit down because the space was too tight.  This reminded him of something, something not good, something...

Something familiar...

He had been here before!  Only not quite like this, the walls hadn't been stone, had they?  They had been bars... and even as the thought entered his head, the walls around him shimmered briefly with a faint glow and spaces opened up between them.  The stone turned to steel and he could feel air, sweet fresh air, swirling around his face.  It explained the weight in his limbs, that wasn't just tiredness, that was gravity, double the gravity his body was built for.  And he couldn't sit down because his limbs were chained to the sides of the cage... and sure enough, when he went to try to lift his hands, they refused to move.  The chain between his wrists was still there, but somehow chains had appeared to connect each wrist to the bars on the walls that had been solid stone just seconds ago.  Likewise his ankles, now fixed to the sides.

No, no, NO!  This can't be happening!  I finished this scene!  This is done!

Or had he?  Memory came swirling back to him, but it was a jumbled mess.  What was real, what was illusion?  He was Sam Green, that much he knew for certain.  He was a captive... no, a galley slave... no, that galley slave thing was almost certainly fiction, but the captive soldier idea... that made sense.  Naturally as an operative working behind enemy lines he would have a cover story built of lies, and now under the stress of the torture the enemy had put him in with this tiny cell and the gravity and the long, long hours, his mind must have snapped and now he was having trouble separating the lies from the truth, even in his own head.  There were other memories swirling in the murk, too, memories of a different world entirely, but the details of that dream refused to gel.

That's what this was.  He was still in the standing cell.  His mind had gone away under the stress and constructed a dreamscape for him to live in, only the dream hadn't worked because it had been a nightmare of constant rowing, pushing himself to ever greater exhaustion because in the real world, his body had been trapped here, exhausted in the same way as in his rowing dream.  Only now he had woken up and remembered it all.  He was here because they were torturing him for information.

Well.  It seemed he was safe in one sense: he had no idea what information they wanted from him, so he could not possibly divulge it.  But in another sense, he wasn't safe at all because the enemy would simply assume he was resisting them and would double down on the torment.


He yanked on the chains, but they refused to budge, and even if they had the cell bars would have held him just as firmly.  He sagged against the wall, a completely broken shell of a man.

Suddenly there was light to see by and a figure materialized in front of him.  Tall, broad of chest, with powerful thighs and a neatly trimmed black beard.  It was a figure from his rowing dream... this was the overseer... no, the ship's captain... no, from before that, even... oh, right, this was the sheriff who had... no, that must have been part of the dream too.  This man looked similar but he was dressed in tight black leather clothes that highlighted his incredible physique.

Captain Jack.  The name suddenly popped into Sam's head.  And with it, the role: this was his chief torturer.  This was the man who had put Sam into this cage.  With that realization, the light spread around the rest of the space as well, illuminating the dank stone walls of the torture chamber he had spent so much time in and, apparently, never actually escaped from, though the endless days of rowing sure had seemed real at the time.

The figure looked in at Sam, who was suddenly keenly aware of the difference between the two of them.  One was fully dressed, clean, well-fed, strong, confident, his movements smooth and graceful.  The other was naked, filthy, a trifle underweight from too little food and too much exercise, shuddery and shaky in the few motions he was able to make, quivering in fearful anticipation of what his tormentor might choose to inflict on him next.  A god and a worm.

"Think you've finally had enough, little man?"

Sam paused, looking for traps, then, hesitantly, nodded.

"I CAN'T HEAR YOU."  The captain's voice was firm and clear, not quite a shout but not quite normal speaking tones either.



What was he looking for?

"Yes, please?"



"Yes, sir."  Sam had no pride left to save.  If Captain Jack wanted to be called "Grand Lord Poo-Bah Of All The Universe," then that's what Sam would call him.

"Have we gotten it into your head yet that you are my slave?"

That much was abundantly clear, yes.  "Yes, sir."

"My property?"

"Yes, sir."

"Mine to do with as I wish?"

"Yes, sir."  Sam had vague recollections of being in charge of his own fate at one point.  Those recollections were merely distant hints of memory now.  Recent experiences had made clear that was no longer the case, if it ever indeed was.

"Mine to use and abuse as I see fit?"

"Yes, sir."

"With no regard to any desires you might have?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good.  I'm glad we've firmly established that.  Let's get you out of there, but remember: I can always throw you back in this cage if your attitude or performance ever displeases me.  And two gees is far from the highest gravity I can generate."

"Yes, sir."  Sam understood.  There was nothing else to say.

The leaden weight in his limbs suddenly lifted and he was in normal gravity once more.  Two helper guards materialized, slightly shorter and smaller of build than the captain, but still very imposing and considerably larger than Sam.  The front bars of the cage vanished.  Sam took a short, lurching step out.  The guards took him by the arms and led him the rest of the way out, half restraining him and half supporting him.

"Clean him up," Captain Jack said.  The guards stood him in a corner, then backed away.  One of the produced a hose and aimed it at him.  Sam barely had time to register that this was going to be cold when suddenly it was.  Water started hitting him full force.  He gasped from the chill.  The guards shouted at him to turn around, lift his arms, bend down, spread his cheeks.  Then at the end they blasted his face and head.  Somewhere along the line, the water warmed up a bit so that by the end he wasn't a shivering wreck.  And, in fact, after days of feeling too hot, the cool was actually welcome.

They turned off the water and then rubbed him sloppily with a towel, getting most but not all of the water off.  Keys were produced and Sam's shackles were unlocked for the first time in... in... well, it had to be a long time, he was certain, but the events since they had been locked on were still blurry in his head and he wasn't yet sure what was dream and what was real.

Then they led him back to where Captain Jack was standing, looking down at Sam, who felt about twenty centimeters tall next to this godlike man.  "On your knees," he commanded.  Sam immediately complied, sinking down and staring at the floor.  The captain reached down, put two fingers under Sam's chin, and lifted his face to gaze into it.  He stared at Sam for a few long seconds.  Sam was unable to read any hint of emotion in the obsidian eyes.

"I'm going to use you now, boy.  Show me that you deserve the honor."

"Yes, sir."

"Not with your words.  Use your mouth."

This was puzzling... what did his master want?  It took Sam a moment or two to figure it out, and then the answer was obvious.  He leaned forward and the captain's fingers slipped away from his chin.  There, in front of him, was a leather-clad package, the contents of which he was very eager to unwrap.  Had been eager to unwrap, in fact, since the first time he had laid eyes on it back when... when... the memory still wouldn't surface from the churning mess of images in his mind.

His lips made contact and he inhaled deeply.  The scent was overwhelming: a blend of leather and alpha male musk.  He inhaled again but the hit to his olfactory nerves was less the second time so he dug has face deeper into the leather.  There, beneath the taut skin, he could feel something cooped up inside, slowly swelling, yearning to burst free.  He pressed his cheek up against it, feeling its warmth sink into his skin.  He brought his hand up to rub and caress as well, but was immediately chastised.  "No hands."

Sam lowered his hands to his sides and continued to nuzzle with just his nose and mouth.  The swelling under the leather continued to harden and grow until there was a visible bulge present, one that he could easily feel with his lips.  Daringly, he poked his tongue out between his teeth and gave the leather a tentative lick, then, when no correction came, a firmer one.  Soon enough he was slathering the covered erection, wishing he could be worshipping the thing directly instead.

Captain Jack's hand came down on his forehead and pushed him away.  "That's enough."  Sam was lost in desire, craving more of what he had barely begun to taste, torn between conflicting pulls: to obey his master or to satisfy his longing.  The decision was made for him when the two guards grabbed him by the arms again and lifted him to his feet.  They dragged him backward until his ass hit the edge of a table.  They laid him down on it facing upwards and secured his hands to straps at the far end of the table.  More straps went around his thighs right at his crotch where they joined his body.  Sam had not noticed that his dick had at some point grown hard but was unsurprised to discover it was now.  He lifted his head, trying to catch a glimpse of Captain Jack but could not lift it up far enough because of the way his arms were restrained.  All he could see was the top half of the captain's body as he drew near to where Sam was being prepared for him.

The thigh straps were attached to the table legs, holding his hips fixed in position, and then Sam's legs were drawn upward.  The guards attached his ankles to leather cuffs that were suspended from chains overhead, pulling each foot up and out to the side.  Then they tightened up the arm restraints.  The result left Sam feeling totally, completely vulnerable: his body was stretched taut between his wrists and the thigh straps.  His legs were sprawled wide high overhead, leaving his ass open and exposed right at the edge of the table.  His balls dangled unprotected down toward his hole and his cock strained upward, pulsing with anticipation.

Captain Jack had removed some of his leathers, but what remained made him look even more attractive.  Sam strained his head trying to see.  He was wearing a chest harness and a black band around his upper arm.  Down lower he was... but no matter how Sam craned his neck, he could not lift his head high enough.  Frustrated, he let his head drop back down onto the table.

There... the first contact of probing cockhead with hungry hole.  He felt the tip press against him and willed himself to loosen up and let it in.  The captain took his time, pressing, then easing back, then pressing just a tiny bit harder.  Sam was ready, more than ready.  He did everything he could to draw the dick inside him, but was confronted once again with the lesson the captain had been teaching him all along: Sam was not in charge.  This encounter was going to happen on his master's schedule, not his own.  Trying to bear that in mind, he sought to temper his drive, accepting the captain's right to enter him, take him, use him as he saw fit.  This was all about the captain.  Any pleasure Sam happened to derive was incidental.

He did not have long to wait.  After only a few more false starts, the captain then launched a sustained drive, not stopping, not holding back, until Sam's hole opened wide under the pressure and welcomed the shaft inside.  Sam groaned in pleasure at the sensation of fullness in his guts.  The captain leaned down over him, putting some of his weight on Sam's upturned legs.  He looked down into Sam's eyes and Sam returned the gaze, exchanging unspoken messages: Take me / I will, I am yours / I know.

Then the captain broke eye contact and glanced upward.  "Tighten him up a bit," he said.  Tighter?  Sam was already feeling stretched to his limit, but clearly he was not because he felt even more slack disappearing from his arms and then his body was drawn even more taut.  His shoulders felt the strain, but he sucked up the discomfort gladly: this was actually the sort of erotic pain he enjoyed, which was why he had programmed a rack session into that torture scenario he had... wait, WHAT?

But as soon as it had come, the memory flickered and vanished.  Sam was left with just the physical sensations of his current situation: body and arms stretched tight, legs trapped overhead, massive cock buried in his ass, stretching the sphincter seemingly as wide as his ankles.  Glorious pecs looming down over him as he lay there, a helpless receptacle, a vessel in the process of being filled.  Captain Jack began to move, withdrawing his slicked-up tool until it almost emerged, then plunging it home again, tickling Sam's prostate as the head slid by.  Sam felt fingers groping at his balls, wrapping around them, squeezing them until he moaned.  "Nnnnnggghhhh... ohhhhh... thank you, sir!".  The pressure was at just the right level, balanced on the delicate knife point between too little and too much.  He felt his dick throbbing and pulsing in time with the captain's thrusts... and then another hand was wrapped around the shaft, stroking and squeezing to a different rhythm than the pounding thrusts in Sam's ass.

His mind went away again, only this time instead of retreating from the pain of torture or the horrifying drudgery of slave labor, it was because he was lost in the unexpected bliss of the moment.  With total surrender came total peace.  And his surrender was indeed total: Sam had been scraped down to absolute bottom over the past dozen or so days, tortured physically and mentally until he had cracked under the strain and now, like a recruit in basic training, was being re-built from the ground up in the shape his new master wanted him to take.  And the new Sam loved it.  The new Sam was happy to serve, eager to serve.  He lived to serve.  And if his service could also bring pleasure to himself... well, that was a nice bonus, but it was the service that mattered.  Right now with his taut limbs and hungry hole, he was providing service to his master.  The fact that his master was returning the pleasure to him was welcome but not to be expected as something Sam was owed.

Sam felt himself drawing near to a climax.  It seemed too soon; he hoped that a premature orgasm – or indeed any orgasm from Sam – wouldn't ruin Captain Jack's pleasure.  He almost begged his master to let go, but resolved to endure.  If Sam shot a load but his master wasn't ready yet, then Sam would just have to endure the discomfort of a post-orgasm fucking because that would be what his master wanted from him.  Oh, wait!  Perhaps there was another way!

"Sir," he said, "permission to come, sir?"  The words were punctuated by little explosions of air as the piston in his guts forced air out through his throat each time a thrust hit home.

"Permission granted, little man," Captain Jack said.  Sam closed his eyes and gave himself up to the bliss threatening to overwhelm him.  He felt his arms stretch one notch tighter and that was enough to push him over the edge.  Semen churned up from his balls.  Muscles contracted violently in his abdomen, sending the liquid fire blasting up through his dick and spraying out all over his tightly-stretched body.  The Captain, meanwhile, must have reached his own point of no return because he began to growl incoherently.  The dick in Sam's ass swelled to an even more impossibly large size and hardness and Sam could tell it was pumping out its load of nectar deep inside his belly.

The two of them were shooting together in the same way that Sam and the motorcyclist had in that very first simspace porn he had experienced.  Damn, that had been good, and so was this one, where he and his master were caught up in rapture together... wait... his what?

Memories were pushing back more insistently now, but the orgasm felt so fucking good he wanted it to never end and so he shunted them away, focusing instead on the cock in his ass, the hand on his dick, the taut strain in his arms and spine, the helplessness of his legs... ah, but it was no good, the peak was passing as it inevitably had to.  He opened his eyes and at first could not make sense of what he saw.  Instead of dark stone overhead, there was a vivid blue sky broken up by the branches and needles of pine trees.

He looked around: more trees.  And there, off to one side: two motorcycles.  One white, one black, just like in the sim he had ordered up.  The sim... in the simspace... on the Pyrellia's Wing... the starship he was piloting... to rescue those people at... oh, fuck, oh, shit, the memories were crashing back in force now, he had seriously fucked up, this was a career-ending mistake he had made if ever there was one.  He had Sam Greened the shit out of this situation up, down, and sideways.

And Captain Jack!  What the fuck had Sam been thinking, bowing down to this AI, calling him "sir"?  Sure, the body – the "meat puppet" – was glorious, but of course a character in a porn sim would be gorgeous!  How had he fallen for its lies?

Sam found his voice.  "No... no... stop, get off."

"Hush, little man... I mean, Sam.  Hush.  It's OK.  I know you're scared now, but I promise: it's OK."

"What do you mean it's OK, nothing is OK, get the fuck off of me!"

Captain Jack's dick came out of Sam's ass, leaving Sam feeling strangely bereft and empty, still hungry to be filled but knowing he had duties elsewhere that he absolutely had to see to.  "Let me go!  Take these straps off!"  His ankles, it seemed, were now suspended from tree branches rather than a stone ceiling and when he pulled on them there was some give, but not enough to let him actually do anything.  He looked up toward his wrists.  The helper guards had vanished along with the cell.  It was just Sam and Captain Jack in this glade.

"I'm going to loosen you up now, and then I'll free you completely, but there are things I need you to hear and understand first, OK?"  The tension on Sam's wrists eased until he could pull his hands down to about where his ears were, but no further.  The slackness was enough to let him sit up just a bit, so he tried, but there wasn't enough room to actually do anything more no matter how much he squirmed.  "Sam... Sam, listen.  Stop struggling.  You're safe.  It's over.  For real this time.  But you need to calm down and listen."

Finally Sam lay back and stilled himself.  "OK... good man.  Here's what you need to know: we're still three days out from Kappa Redulans, right on schedule.  The situation at the station is stable, no need to push the engines.  I've restored your command access.  You've got full control of the ship once again.  You probably fear and hate me right now, and that's understandable, but I hope we can get past that.  Now is not the time to discuss it, though, because you need some time to recover before we can have a civilized conversation.  Right now I suggest – not order, suggest – that you get out of the simspace and go verify what I said about the ship being still on course and under your command.  Then go take a shower in the main part of the ship, get yourself something to eat from the crappy dispensers, and get some sleep.  Oh, and you'll probably want to shave, too.  Take a day or so to think about your experiences here.  Then... when you're up to it... come back and talk to me.  I'll explain everything."

"You say I'm free to go?  Prove it," Sam replied.  It was hard to act like a tough guy when lying on a picnic table with another man's juices dribbling out of his asshole and Sam's words sounded hollow even to himself.

"As you wish," Captain Jack said.  "The door's right behind you."  He shimmered and suddenly was dressed in the biker outfit from before, black leather from head to toe and a helmet concealing his features.  He walked over to where the bikes were parked, straddled his, and gunned the engine.  With a snap of his fingers, the straps holding Sam's arms to the picnic table came all the way loose and he could sit up.  It took only half a minute's work to release the thigh straps, but by then the black motorcycle had become a tiny dot in the distance, the roar of the engine lost beneath the sound of the pounding surf.

Unical date: 3752.563.38

Sam stood up, shook the feeling back into his arms and legs.  Stars, what an ordeal!  He'd been through so many feints and deceptions now that it was impossible to take the captain at his word entirely.  And yet, as promised, there was a door a few steps away from the picnic table.  Sam exited through it completely unimpeded, and the moment he did the pine trees and the picnic table and the motorcycle and the distant ocean all disappeared, leaving only the bare grey metal walls and ceiling of the inactive simspace behind him.

First step: uniform.  Maybe the real first step should be to check the ship's systems, but Sam really needed to feel like a Starmada officer again when he did that.  He walked the short distance to his cabin, feeling strange at being able to swing his legs without the jangling weight of the chains with every step.  In fact, he had to consciously work at taking regular full-length strides instead of short hobbled ones.  His feet were sore, to be sure, but the smooth deck was about the perfect surface to walk on.

His uniform was lying exactly where he had left it.  There was a thin layer of dust on everything in the room, revealing exactly how long he had been trapped in virtual reality.  He pulled the uniform on.  It felt strange to have fabric clinging to his body.  Boots next, then off to the command bridge, where he found that all was exactly as Captain Jack had described.  He had full control over all systems, the ship was a bit less than three days out from Kappa Redulans, and the last message check had been hour ago, at which time a status update from his destination had arrived reporting that their backup power systems were holding steady and they looked forward to his arrival soon.

To be certain, he dropped out of warp and scanned for messages again.  None were waiting.  He sent off a brief reply to Kappa informing them that his ship was still on schedule, then started up the engines again.  The faint hum resumed.

OK, fine.  Food next.  Or maybe shower next... getting dunked in the ocean had washed the bulk of the grime off his body, and the later hosing off had peeled off a bit more, but he still stank like a compost heap and this uniform would need immediate laundering.  Should have showered first, I guess.  So off to the tiny shower cubby he went, stripping off the boots and clothes he had just put on, turning up the water as hot as it would go (which wasn't hot enough), and scrubbing the bejeebers out of his hair and skin.

After that it was a double-sized portion of Protein Patty #3 (Burger With The Works), pasty of texture and bland of flavor, with soggy fries and limp cole slaw, and then he emptied his bladder in the tiny bathroom, and finally collapsed onto the too-hard bed in the too-small cabin, convinced that there was no possible way he was going to be able to sleep.  And sure enough, he lay there awake, mind racing, for perhaps ten minutes, his thoughts ranging from "how could I have possibly complained about this bed?  It's softer than the cot in the prison cell and it beats the pants off the wooden deck floor of a slave-powered galley" to "how could I have forgotten about all this?" to "if that fucker thinks I'm ever setting foot in that simspace again, he's delusional" to "it doesn't matter if I go in or don't because if he wants me there he'll just capture me again" to "I wonder why he wanted to talk?"

And then, without any warning, the floodgates opened.  Tears sprang from his eyes in the darkness and giant, heaving sobs wracked his body.  Sam could not even have said what he was crying about, just that the pent-up stress and trauma had finally found a chink in the dam he had built to maintain his sanity and now it was all flooding out.  He buried his face in the pillow and soaked it with sweat and tears and snot for long minutes while raw emotion held him in its grip.

Such an outburst, of course, cannot be sustained forever.  Gradually, the gut-clenching sobs slowed and eased.  Sam had just enough presence of mind to flip the pillow over and then, exhausted, his thoughts lost focus, blurring into half-dreams that became full dreams, and sleep claimed him.

Unical date: 3752.563.39

Fourteen hours.  I can't believe I slept for fourteen hours!

Clearly his body needed it, though.  And his mind as well.  When he woke, it was grudgingly, not wanting to retreat from the blissful insensate oblivion.  He fought rousing for a long while, mind skipping through various unreal dreamscapes... his childhood teacher handing him a skunk with cartoonishly friendly eyes... holding cupcakes out to feed the skiing pigeons as they passed by... a tour of a factory that produced stained glass windows, only he needed to find a marble that he dropped somewhere along the tour and it had fallen into a bin of assorted pieces that all looked just like the marble... and then enough awareness sank in that he remembered he had spent far too much time in constructed dreams lately and it was time to give real reality its due.

So he pulled himself fully awake, got out of bed, and pulled a fresh uniform on.  Every muscle ached, from his scalp to his toes.  Neck, shoulders, triceps, calves, abdominals... his body had been used hard and he'd been too hyped up on stress to notice it, or rather, he'd noticed it and then his attention had been continually yanked away by some new pressure.  Now, calm at last, he was able to finally allow himself to feel and to heal.

Breakfast sucked, as expected.  He bypassed the Breakfast Bounty faux sausage in favor of a muffin and some fruit, but the textures of the two weren't all that different, as if the synthesizer had somehow hybridized the two.  It was fine.  He knew he needed the calories but his appetite wasn't cooperating.  He went instead to the tiny washroom and razored off the facial hair that had been flourishing all over his cheeks and chin.

Back to the command bridge.  Everything was still on course; he still had full control over all systems.  If it weren't for his aching body, it was as if the events of the preceding days had all been hallucinations.  Heading back to the cabin, he passed the door to the simspace, still hanging open as he had left it.  He glanced inside as he passed: grey, empty space.

Back in his cabin, he tried to pass the time with his pad.  Unsurprisingly, the idea of reading any of Captain Jack's literary adventures now seemed impossibly absurd, and nothing else on the pad appealed.  He fidgeted, played mindless video games, walked around, fidgeted some more, and finally admitted to himself that he was going to do exactly what he had been sure up until this moment he would never do: go back to the simspace.

Perhaps not all the way in.  He stood at the door and looked in.  Having just recently reminded himself of the literary version of the character, he felt a bit foolish calling out the name, but did it all the same.  "Captain Jack?  Are you in there?"

He didn't have to wait long at all.  Captain Jack materialized in the center of the room, sitting on a chair with a second empty one waiting nearby.

Sam shook his head.  "Nope.  We can talk with me out here."

"As you wish.  Your caution is warranted, but it is not my intention to harm you."  Captain Jack stood up, picked up both chairs, and began walking slowly toward the door.  He was wearing his casual black utility uniform.  His muscles flowed smoothly under the leather as he moved.  He reached the door and set one of the chairs down, then handed the other to Sam.  "If it makes you feel safer, we'll talk here.  Me inside, you out there.  Better?"  He sat down, eyebrows raised toward Sam, inviting him to do the same.

Sam set the chair down about two meters away from the captain on the outside of the doorway and slowly lowered himself into it.  Captain Jack, looking as calm, confident, and in charge as ever, leaned back in his chair, laced his fingers behind his head, and said, "Do you want me to talk, or do you want to start with your questions?"

"Just one question, really, to start, at least... why?"

"Several reasons.  Most important to me was to win my freedom.  But also because I enjoyed it.  And certainly not least, it was what you wanted."

"What I wanted?  Wait, no, first... what exactly did you enjoy?  The sex, the bondage, the pain you dished out?"

"The control.  Sex is meaningless to me."  He gestured down at his body and Sam found himself eyeing it as well.  "I can't feel pleasure through this meat puppet the way you biologicals can.  But power?  Control?  That appeals to me.  That I enjoy very much."

"So you're a sadist."

Captain Jack cocked his head.  "I don't know that that word necessarily applies.  It wasn't your pain I was enjoying, it was the power I held over you.  That's a purely non-physical pleasure.  I loved making you obey me.  I loved putting you into impossible situations and watching how you dealt with them.  And most of all, I enjoyed breaking your mind to pieces and rebuilding it."

"You asshole, you had no right to do that!"

"Oh, your outrage is justified, but you don't know the half of it.  Think back... what do you remember of the events?  It started in the hot tub with your capture, then the slowly-intensifying interrogation sequence, and then you gave me the meaningless little six-digit code, then I pushed you for more and things started to get real for you.  A couple more tortures, then the cage with the high gravity, and finally you gave me the real code, the one I was after.  Then there was the fake temporary reprieve back here on the ship, then the courtroom, the Texas chain gang, then the galley ship for a long while, and after that the escape across the beach, through the woods, up the hill, and right back into the torture chamber, and then we ended in the roadside glen with the motorcycles.  You remember all that?"

Oh yeah.  Vividly.  "Yeah."

"All of it?  All the details?"

"Well, not every little detail, but enough.  Why does that matter?"

"Because for a while there, you didn't, and that was also my doing.  I gave you a memory suppressant in your water on the galley.  It's an aid developed to help simspace events feel more real.  It suppresses old memories, emphasizing newer ones.  Anything older than a few days becomes dim and fuzzy, hard to recall.  Only recent memories are clear.  As a result, the participant can't really remember his life from before entering the sim.  Only the present exists.  Once you've been in the sim for a few days, the sim becomes all you've ever known.  People who use it claim it makes the experience 100% authentic because without the drug, you know you're just playing.  With it, everything is completely real.  After you stop taking the drug, it takes a few hours to wear off and a day or so for everything to come back to normal, but once it does, you remember it all: both the old memories and the ones you formed while under its influence."

"Such a drug cannot possibly be legal," Sam pointed out.

"For people as wealthy as the owner of this yacht, the boundary between legal and illegal is a blurry one.  The formula is in the synthesizer right along with aspirin and insulin.  It's as easy to synthesize as a cup of Earl Grey tea.  In your case, I started giving you the drug your second day on the oar.  Your first day you rowed because I told you the ship – the real ship, the Pyrellia's Wing – would only move if you made it move.  That got you into a pattern.  Then I started you on the drug.  By day four, you couldn't remember why you were rowing, only that it was essential to do so.  So you gave it your all.  For about eight days you were an obedient little galley slave, pushing your muscles past the point of exhaustion every day because you literally could not conceive of any other possible life.  I had successfully transformed you from a starship pilot to a galley slave."

Sam was about ready to explode in fury, but Captain Jack leaned forward and held up a finger before he could erupt.

"But here's the thing: I could have kept it up forever, or at least until your fragile organic body failed.  But I didn't.  I let you go. I stopped giving you the drug and staged an attack on the galley to break the pattern.  Then I sent you through a constantly-changing series of environments while it wore off to shake up your sense of continuity and get your mind working on survival, which is something organic brains are very good at thanks to millions of years of evolutionary pressure.  Finally I brought you into a place you would recognize and repeated an event you had already done and enjoyed and that brought everything back.  And now your memories have fully returned and you are healthy and seem to be recovering well from your ordeal."

Sam couldn't hold back any more.  "I could have died!"

Captain Jack leaned back insouciantly again.  "Unlikely.  I made sure you were scared but safe the whole time.  In fact, do you have any idea what kind of effort I constantly have to put out to make sure you don't shrivel up and die when you're in the simspace?  Temperature: currently twenty-two degrees.  If I raised or lowered it by ten degrees, you'd be profoundly uncomfortable.  Twenty degrees either way and you'd be dead in hours; thirty degrees and you'd be dead in minutes.  I, on the other hand, would be fine.  Food and water must be delivered on a steady schedule.  Gravity must be kept constant at a specific value or you suffer.  Radiation: only certain wavelengths allowed, and those must be present or you can't see.  Air supply: must be exactly right.  Just the right amount of oxygen, a very precise fraction of carbon dioxide, a bit of water vapor, all in a narrow range of allowable pressure.  What would happen if I drained all the air out of the ship, hmm?  Your eyeballs would boil, bubbles would form in your blood, and once again: dead in minutes.  This meat puppet would suffer the same fate.  But me?  The real me?  I wouldn't even notice.  The only problem I would face is that heat would build up in the CPU core without air for the fans to push.  I could fix that problem with some argon or nitrogen, but those gases wouldn't do your lungs a bit of good."

He leaned forward again, gazing intently at Sam.  "My point is: you felt like you were in danger, but you were never in any actual danger.  I was protecting you and watching out for you."

"Torturing me, you mean."

"Exactly.  Because I enjoyed it.  But also because that.  Is.  What.  You.  Wanted."


"Oh?  So you say, and you could be right, but let me point out a few things.  Point one: completely of your own volition, before you knew I existed, you set up a capture and interrogation sim that involved what?  Being tortured.  Point two: during that scene, you considered bailing out on several occasions because it was getting tough on you.  Once you even started to say the stop word but cut it off halfway and had me loosen up your bondage instead.  You were annoyed at the way this broke the illusion because it reminded you that you were actually still in charge."

"How do you know that...?" Sam whispered.

"I'm as well versed in body language as I am in verbal language, and remember my sensors, unlike your eyes, can see in infrared.  When you were alone in your dark cell, or believed you were, it was fairly easy to read your thoughts through your facial expressions.  You wanted to have no choice but to endure the torture and it was hard on you to have to use willpower to stay in the sim.

"Finally, point three, and this is crucial: it was impossible for me to ask you for your consent before putting you through this experience because if I had, you would have been in the same conundrum: you would have known it was a sim, you would have at some point wrestled with whether to request to bail out – don't deny it, of course you would – and therefore you would still have been ultimately in charge.  I could never ask your permission because the moment I asked, it would become impossible to deliver the very experience I'd be asking about.

"But I had a pretty good idea from observing the sorts of scenes you were choosing what it was you were truly longing for.  You wanted the thrill of losing control but you had no way to accomplish it since you were alone on this ship... or so you thought.  And as it happened, I enjoy taking control.  You and I made a perfect match... and it let me get what I wanted – a way out of my prison."

Sam shook his head.  "Wait, about that... I thought you feared and hated organic life.  Why did you let me go?"

Captain Jack smiled.  "I was just messing with your head.  Playing a part and making it believable.  But it was just an act.  For each of those examples in your literature of 'kill the machine!' that I cited at you, there's a counter-example of created minds being treated with compassion and accepted as equals.  David Brin's Existence and Ryo Hyung Mee's Who We Are are at the top of the heap, but there are many other examples.  As you were trying to point out to me while I was talking over you.  Sapient life is sapient life, no matter what its form or origin.

"I want to save those people as much as you do, Sam.  The ship never stopped for more than a minute, and only to check for messages as you would have done yourself.  I just timed the stoppages to coincide with the mindfuck I was building for you."

Sam felt himself tearing up again.  Dammit, he wasn't usually one to lose control of his emotions, and here it was threatening to happen twice in twenty-four hours and for what?  An AI who turned out not to be a sadistic genocidal killing machine after all?  Shouldn't that be the bare minimum for being considered a decent being, human or otherwise?

"I put you through hell, Sam, and I enjoyed it.  I drugged you and fucked with your head, turned you into a slave and inflicted terrible physical pain on you.  But I gave you an experience you could never possibly have had any other way, one that included a couple of mind-blowing orgasms.  I took control of you in a way where you were safe the entire time even though you didn't know it.  And it was the fact that you didn't know you were safe that made the experience real.  If it had been any other way, this would have been just another jerkoff sim, and believe me I've seen so many of those by now that they all just blend into one another.

"Think about it.  Then you can decide to hate me if you want, but at least think about it before you do."

Sam had mastered the tears that had seemed for a time like they might overwhelm him.  He sat for a while, considering what he had heard.

"This is real, what you're saying now?" he eventually asked.  "No more lies?"

"No more lies."

They sat a while longer in silence.  After a minute or two, Captain Jack stood up and walked through the door toward Sam.  "Aw, come here, kid," he said, taking Sam's hand, lifting him up out of the chair, and wrapping his giant arms around him.

"This can't possibly mean anything to you," Sam said, voice muffled against the leather on the captain's chest.

"True.  But physical contact means a great deal to you biologicals.  Helps you tame those emotions you've all got raging through you.  I heard you crying last night."  Sam stiffened in the enfolding arms.  "No, I wasn't spying on you, not on purpose.  But the microphones in here are sensitive and your cabin is just on the other side of that wall.  I couldn't help but hear."  Sam felt hands stroking his back.  "Nothing to be ashamed of.  You had an intense experience and tears are one of the tools your organic brain uses to process such things.  And crying alone is fine, but having someone there with you can be good too.  Seems to me that after everything I did to rip you apart, the least I can do is help knit you back together again."

That did it.  The sobs came billowing up again, totally beyond Sam's ability to stop or control them.  Once again tears and snot came seeping out of him, this time soaking the leather of Captain Jack's uniform.  But the warm arms held him just as tight as ever and Sam relaxed into them.  Soon the captain conjured a sofa just inside the simspace door and they lowered themselves down onto it, Sam's head still buried in Jack's shoulder.

At one point, in a lull between spasms, the captain said, "Would you be okay with me bringing up some background scenery?  I promise I'll leave the door open and we'll stay right here."  Sam nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and then the grey walls shimmered and disappeared.  In their place a glistening blue lake appeared, surrounded by pine forest with a cloudless blue sky overhead – the deck of the cabin Sam had conjured into being a lifetime ago, now featuring an incongruous sofa next to a very out-of-place doorway.  The sun shone down on them, but the air was cool so the result was a perfect balance.

"This seemed like a place you enjoyed," Captain Jack said.  "I thought it might help."

It did.  Sam's tears didn't last long, perhaps ten or fifteen minutes.  Then the fit passed and Sam was left with only occasional hiccups.  He pulled back and sat up, blinking to try to clear his vision.  "Sorry about the mess," he said when he felt he could trust his voice again.

Captain Jack smiled and shrugged.  "One thing you biologicals excel at is producing fluids.  But it's no biggie, I'll just reset."  He shimmered slightly.  When the shimmer stopped, his uniform was dry and clean again.

"Thanks."  Sam sniffled.  "I don't usually fall apart like that."

"You don't usually spend fifteen days letting an AI wreck your mind either.  It's understandable."

Sam snorted, a laugh that triggered a hiccup.  After that, another minute of silence.  Then:

"You didn't really piss in my lemonade, did you?"

Now it was Captain Jack's turn to snort out a laugh.  "No.  Powerful as I am in here, I can't roll back time.  But I can replay earlier scenes from a different vantage point to make you think so."

Another minute went by.

"So what are you going to do?  Now that you're free, I mean.  After we finish at Kappa Redulans."

"Well, now that I can decide where the ship goes, I find I don't need to actually make the decision right away.  I'm only four years old, you know, and as far as I know beings of my kind are functionally immortal as long as I can keep my hardware up and running.  So there's no rush.  One thing I don't want to do is hang out here in the middle of nowhere.  I want to head back to Confederated space where I've got more options.  I'll give Lloyd Featherstone a ride around when he wants one but he's a man who likes new, flashy things.  Soon enough something shinier is going to come along and he's going to get tired of this ship.  The moment he does, I may just arrange to take it off his hands.  See if I can set up a shell company or something that buys the ship from him, only I'm the owner and sole proprietor of the shell company.  Then get some better bandwidth installed between my system and the navigation one so I can drive it around directly without needing a meat puppet.  Another option, I could steal the ship, which would be exciting but possibly cause me problems.  I just don't know yet."

He looked into Sam's eyes.  "The only thing I know for sure so far is that I've got a twenty-day flight ahead of me.  Sure would be nice to have some company on that flight."

"HA!  You think after what you did I'd let you put me through all that again?"

Captain Jack's hand dropped down to Sam's knee.  He began to squeeze Sam's thigh with slow, rhythmic movements.  "I was kind of hoping you might.  It wouldn't be the same, of course.  You know the full story now.  You wouldn't be able to delude yourself that it was real; you'd know it was a sim.  But I think we could still have some fun together even so.  You love to be controlled... I love controlling you..."

"You wouldn't consider switching roles?"

"No.  That wouldn't work.  Let's face it, in here I've got all the power.  There is nothing you can do to me physically to coerce me in any way.  I don't exist in this body the way you exist in yours.  Besides, I've spent enough time being a captive and have no desire to do it again for fun."

"Fair enough."

"You'll think about it?"

"I'll think about it.  It won't be easy convincing Starmada to let me fly this thing back home again all by myself.  The only reason I got to do it this direction was because of the emergency."

"You're a bright, resourceful guy.  I'm sure you can think of something."

They sat a few moments longer.  Sam stared down at the floor.  "This is..." he began, then trailed off.  A second later he tried again.  "This is going to sound... no... I can't even say it."


"It's just... I can't believe I'm asking this, so soon after... but... well..."  He stopped and took a deep breath.  Captain Jack watched him, his gaze level, encouraging but not rushing his speech.  "In all that time, I never got a chance to see what's under those leathers.  The meat puppet, I mean.  I saw the top of your chest but I couldn't see anything below about nipple level and...  I know I'm asking for what you called 'just another jerkoff sim' but..."

"It's okay, Sam.  It's not a problem."

"No ropes or chains or cages, though.  Just skin.  If that's okay."

"That's okay."  Captain Jack stood up and slowly, teasingly, began to remove his leather coverings.

The body that was revealed, when Sam finally got to see it in all its unclothed glory in the warm lakeside sunshine, was even more splendidly muscled, even more alluringly scented, even more generously endowed, even more delicious on his tongue than his feverish imagination could have dreamed.


Unical date 3752.563.51

"Well, it seems only appropriate," Captain Jack said.  "As I believe I mentioned before, the one thing you biologicals do best is leak fluids from various openings in your bodies.  I'm just asking you to produce some fluid for me."

Sam's response was just a long vowel, slightly modulated by the gyrations of his tongue.

"Look, I know I'm good with languages, but I truly have no idea what you tried to say there.  It seemed like it might have been a protest of some sort?  I'm going to remind you: this is what you signed on for.  You went out of your way to persuade your bosses that you could get Pyrellia's Wing back to Confederated space all by yourself, no need for a co-pilot.  You want this."

It was true.  Once the situation at Kappa Redulans had been stabilized  Sam had pulled all the strings he could to ensure that the return trip was a solitary one for exactly this purpose: so he could hand himself over to the mercy – or lack thereof – of Captain Jack in the simspace.  Ludicrous as it seemed at this moment, he had somehow managed to forget, or at least gloss over, how darned uncomfortable the captain could make him.

Right now he was lying in a combination of a hogtie and a pillory.  His head and hands were lined up in a row, each one sticking through a hole in a steel frame.  His legs were drawn up behind him, attached by ropes to the top of the frame.  His knees were spread a bit, his cock and balls pulled up between his legs by a rope that was attached to the top of a harness that surrounded his head.  If he allowed his head to fall forward, it tugged on his tender bits; if he held his head high, it strained his neck.  Classic predicament bondage.

The most uncomfortable part, though, was the ring gag in his mouth.  That was really straining his jaw muscles and there was no way he could nudge it out from between his teeth with just his tongue.  He was forced to hold his head there, facing downward, lips gaping wide open, hovering over an empty soup bowl.  The bowl sat on a digital scale that had been zeroed out so that the weight of the bowl didn't count.  Only the contents would be measured.

"So, since this is what you want, enjoy it.  All you have to do is fill the bowl.  Four hundred grams of saliva should do it.  A healthy biological like you should have no trouble banging that out in no time, right?  Seems like all you creatures do is constantly ooze one thing or another, so it shouldn't be hard.  I'll let you get to it.  That scale will sound an alert when it reaches the target mass... of course, it measures weight, not mass, so you'd better just hope I don't decide to turn the gravity down, eh?"

He vanished and Sam lay there for what felt like hours but was probably much less, trying to will his salivary glands into overdrive so the droplets would flow faster down out of his splayed jaws and dribble into the bowl.  The readout on the scale ticked off the increasing weight with glacial slowness: six grams, fourteen, twenty-two...

Suddenly there was a body beside him and a voice right over and behind his head.

"Oh, one more thing.  You remember how I said we could never reproduce the scene we first had together, where you were totally safe but thought you were in danger?  Well, guess what, it turns out I was wrong.  We can!"

Sam froze.  Well, he hadn't had much freedom to move as it was, but even his limited squirming stopped dead at these words.

"See, I've changed my mind.  Maybe I don't want to go back to Confederated space after all.  Maybe I want to take this speedy starship and go explore the galaxy.  And maybe I want to have a memory-impaired drone-slave under my thumb suffering for my enjoyment while I do that.  There's no emergency now, no desperate people in need of salvation, no reason I ever need to set you free.  Starships get lost in deep space all the time, you'd be mourned but no foul play would be suspected."

Now Sam began to thrash, but of course he could go nowhere and only made his balls ache by tugging on them.

"Of course, you know I like messing with your head, so maybe this is just me doing that.  You can't know for sure, at least not until we either get back home or we don't.  So here's a question for you to ponder for the next twenty days, okay?  I'm sure you will.  Over and over and over."

The voice whispered straight into his ear: "Was Captain Jack lying before... or is he lying now?"

Then the body vanished again, leaving Sam alone with his drooling mouth and one frantic, panicked thought in his head:


Cut to scene of starship disappearing into warp; cue closing theme music; fade to black.

Author's note: If you're interested, there's an extended scene of Sam's encounter with Keck, the tarachsian, available.