My laptop hummed to me reassuringly. I mean, it felt comforting to me, anyway.
If anything had the ability to reassure me, as I hacked into Selecta’s Northern European drone network, my deceptively innocent-looking laptop could.
It had taken six hours of work to find this backdoor. I hadn’t left my dorm room during that time, though I felt reasonably sure I would see afternoon sunlight if I raised the window shade.
All for this. I supposed I could see that two ways.
All for this: just so I could throw it all away by using what I knew about the subject matter to identify a weakness in Selecta’s implementation of the Confidelia Protocol, and conduct a nascent criminal enterprise in my dorm room. All so I could throw away a potential career as one of the few people in the world who actually understood the subject matter and could tell Selecta where their cybersecurity flaws lay.
All for this: so I could get a shot at taking down the evil these corporate fucks had taken it upon themselves to do in the increasingly unstable republics of far Northern Europe. The official news—aka the corporate-governmentally controlled media—spoke of efforts to bring the fighting to an end and get the warlords to the negotiating table. Everyone who had seen the images coming out of Yesnia and Haroslava, though, knew that Selecta’s drone strikes had gone much, much too far.
Three months of a college education (well, three probable Fs in English, Western Civ, and Communications plus the A+ in Computer Science I was currently throwing away), so I could take down the megacorp that represented evil’s newest incarnation. All I needed lay 1024 hexadecimal characters away: a readout of current drone activity that I could send to the friends in Yesnia I had made over the summer, hanging out in dark web chatrooms, desperate to do something to stop the atrocities.
I entered the username I had made for myself in Selecta NE’s Confidelia shell. After Confidelia—the security firm now owned by Selecta—had fixed the flaw exploited by Relicorp’s Free Connect protocol, they hadn’t cleaned up after themselves. Not completely. CP—the Confidelia Protocol through which ninety percent of the world’s secure information now flowed—could be rooted.
Well, it could be rooted by me, I had discovered last week. I didn’t know if anyone else on Earth had the necessary skills, since it involved the sort of deep dive into the identity tables that my professor had specifically said had no potential to turn up interesting results. I hadn’t bothered even to start the paper that would prove him wrong; I had just used what I found to create an account in the Confidelia shell and get to work.
All for this.
Admin, I typed.
Password, the console responded.
I hit escape and moved my cursor over to the open notepad where I had put the enormously long password. If anyone were watching the connections on the drone network—I mean, of course someone was watching—they had probably begun working through the layers of my VPN. I had about ten minutes, I estimated.
I copied the password into the clipboard, moved the cursor to the console, clicked into that window.
I had just right-clicked and highlighted Paste when they broke down my door.
“So you just decided to throw it all away,” the man in the suit said.
I thought he might have done me the courtesy of putting a question mark at the end of the sentence, but no.
I supposed I should have felt some small degree of gratitude, though: the man in the suit, in deciding to speak to me, had rendered himself unique among the dozen or so assholes, some in uniform and some in suits—like this guy’s—that might as well have been uniforms, who had handcuffed, perp-walked, and straight-out manhandled me over the past three hours.
I sat at a table in an utterly nondescript room. Well, nondescript except for the fact that the table had a metal post, and the post had a chain, and the chain had the current set of handcuffs enclosing my wrists. Also, the mirror. At some point, I wondered idly, would they stop doing the two-way mirror thing, since absolutely everyone had seen a cop show in their life? Surely they had the imaging technology to move past two-way mirrors.
I glanced up from my intense study of my knuckles to make it clear, with what I considered a magnificent sneer, that I had no intention of answering his questions—or any statement that should have been a question and plainly carried the arrogant expectation of an answer. I didn’t have rich parents to call, or in fact any parents to call, but habeas corpus was still a thing; I had looked it up last week as part of what I called, to myself, due diligence. I wasn’t that stupid; I knew I might get in trouble.
Habeas corpus had gotten a lot more complicated in the wake of the corporate laws—especially in light of the increasingly open secret that laws now existed about which the public even now knew nothing specific and could be arrested for looking into. The NGOs who paid attention to the matter, though, said that the watchdog agencies inside the government had retained a robust presence: if you ended up in an interrogation room or a detention facility, you should do what the smart criminals in the cop shows did.
I returned my gaze to my knuckles, and I did it.
“Lawyer,” I said.
I knew the guy wouldn’t do what the cops—either the good ones or the bad ones—did on the shows. He wouldn’t say, “Are you sure?” in that regretful tone that meant I had absolutely done the right thing, or, “Lawyer up, fine with me. I’ve got you six ways from Sunday, asshole,” in the voice of righteous fury that meant I would probably get knifed in the third act.
I didn’t expect him to laugh.
“You’ve probably heard that the inspector general’s office is watching every corporate-governmental interrogation,” he said.
I turned my right hand over, curled my fingers to look at my nails. I felt fairly sure he couldn’t see my pulse jumping at my neck.
“Well,” he continued, leaning back in his chair—I could tell from the way the legs scraped on the concrete floor, even though I didn’t raise my eyes, “I have good news and bad news.”
I did look at him, then, and I knew he could see the surprise and anxiety in my eyes, because his unfortunately very handsome face crooked its lips into a sardonic smile of satisfaction.
I looked away, and found myself regarding this shitshow in the mirror. Lithe young hacker in a punk rock t-shirt. Spiky purple hair. The jeans jacket they had thrown at me before walking me out of my dorm. The sweatpants in which I had spent the previous forty-eight hours.
Chained to a table with a blond dude in a dark suit looking at her, a wry, smug, superior smile on his face.
Do. Not. Cry.
I forced my eyes back down to my hands.
“The good news is that the IG is definitely watching. Or, to be more precise, their algorithms are watching. Not that it would make much difference, as I’m pretty sure a smart girl like you knows, since the algorithm definitely heard you say lawyer just now. That’s where the bad news comes in, though.”
He stopped talking. Rage coursed through my body. The prickling started up in my nose.
Do. Not. Cry. Do not even speak. He’s going to tell you the fucking bad news.
“Lawyer,” I tried again. To my horror, I could hear the beginning of a sob in the word.
“Are you interested in the bad news, Claudia?” the man in the suit asked.
Shut up. Don’t even say…
I couldn’t help it. “Lawyer,” I tried once more, concentrating my whole will on keeping the word even in tone, and as scornful as I could make it.
The man in the suit sighed theatrically.
“Have it your way,” he said. “Maybe you’ll ask someone, somewhere down the very difficult path you’ve chosen for yourself, why no attorney ever showed up to challenge your detention.”
I closed my eyes, and I could feel moisture in their corners.
“You’ve got one last opportunity to cooperate with us now, Claudia.” I heard the chair push back, away from the table, and I knew he had stood up, because his voice came from above me when he continued.
“It won’t spare you the severe punishment you’ve got coming for trying to hack a proprietary national security system, but it could affect where you go after that.”
Was he bluffing? The information I had found online seemed to say that the watchdogs had lawyers ready to intervene at every facility. Even if this asshole didn’t mean to suspend the interrogation, shouldn’t an attorney be knocking at the door of this room?
It didn’t matter. Whatever my fate, I couldn’t just sit there without telling him and whoever the fuck was watching through the mirror what I thought of their cooperation. I opened my eyes and raised my head to look up at the man in the suit, looming above me on the other side of the table.
“If you think I’m going to tell you about the exploit—”
He interrupted me with a laugh—a real laugh, not the forced, derisive sound he had made when I had said lawyer the first time.
“I thought you were smarter than that, Claudia Danforth,” the man in the suit said. “I don’t mean that kind of cooperation.”
My lips parted. I had no idea in the world what he did mean, if he hadn’t been angling to get my help fixing Selecta’s security flaws.
“We know all about what you did and how you did it. The exploit you found is there to trap girls like you.”
I felt my breathing speed up. Girls like me?
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I demanded.
“That’s another thing you’re going to learn along the way,” he replied, mouth twisting again into the amused smile that had begun to drive me completely batshit. “But let me tell you what I mean about cooperation, so you get one last, fair chance at making things a little easier on yourself.”
I stared into his blue eyes, very conscious of how fucking handsome an interrogator I had drawn and even more conscious, to my dismay, of the effect his words and his sheer presence had begun to have on my confused nervous system.
That problem instantly got much, much worse, when the man in the suit spoke again.
“You can take your clothes off now, or we can take them off for you.”
I managed to keep my face still. Yes, I had tears in my eyes, but I knew my sneer would render my expression singularly unattractive even if the man in the suit was the kind of guy who thought girls looked pretty when they cried.
“One,” he said.
I felt my cheeks flare into fiery heat. The idea that he meant to treat me that way, like a small child, nearly undid all the effort I had put into my sneer. I knew he would see the blush on my pale complexion, and that made the problem even worse.
I gritted my teeth to keep the sob of rage and humiliation down. It destroyed the sneer, but making that sound in front of the man in the suit would have cost me so much more, or so it felt to me in the moment.
I waited until I saw his lips start to move, and then I yelled my retort at the same time he said, “Three.”
My fists clenched into tight little balls on the table. I tried not to move them because of the effect that feeling the handcuffs’ restraint seemed to have on my body, my nerves, my limbic system. I could deal with fear, I told myself; I had begun dealing with it the moment I decided to go all in and hack into Selecta’s CP shell. What I didn’t think I could deal with was the way my body seemed to crawl with unfocused, distracting energy when I felt the metal around my wrists and looked up at the man who had shackled me there.
And that reaction seemed to have arisen on its own, before the man in the suit had mentioned taking off my clothes. With that threat looming over my head, with the paternalistic counting, with his sheer, tall presence in the room, my limbs quivered as if he had run a low-level electric current through them.
To my dismay, he smiled at my defiant insult. He raised his eyes and spoke to no one in particular.
“Come on in, please. Let’s get her undressed.”
I think a major part of me had honestly thought he was bluffing. Even as I heard the door open behind me a chunk of my mind pleaded, No, he can’t be serious. Habeas corpus.
Then a chill went down my spine as I remembered something in one of the online postings about what to do if you found yourself in detention or interrogation.
There are unconfirmed reports that the secret corporate acts provide for a special form of detention for individuals identified as having qualifications for the megacorps’ corporate-governmental programs. Information remains very scanty, but if these reports are true, well, be afraid.
My mind went back to what the man in the suit had said a few moments before: traps for girls like you.
I didn’t have time to dwell on the words or their meaning, though. My head had swiveled automatically at the sound of the opening door. Two men even bigger than the sizable man in the suit, and wearing—to my surprise—military fatigues, had stepped into the room. I felt the hands of the man in the suit manipulating my wrists and the handcuffs, and I turned back to see that he had the key out and had begun to unlock the restraints.
“Wait,” I said, desperate for a little time to think through my options. “I’ll…”
I had no idea what I meant to say. I didn’t really mean to say anything, in fact; I just wanted to get them all to stop moving toward the insane idea that I would henceforth not merely be in their power but also be naked.
I felt my brow pucker at the very idea, and I realized I had started to chew on my lip at the mere touch of the man in the suit’s hands.
I needn’t have bothered even speaking, though. The enormous men in the gray fatigues didn’t hesitate, or pay my words the slightest attention.
One of them said, “Can you get up, miss, or do we need to get you out of the chair?”
My hands had come free of the cuffs. I raised them instinctively to my chest and cowered back, trying to draw myself into a tighter, more defensive posture. Again I thought I might gain time that way, but again it had no discernible effect. The man who had spoken, a dark-skinned soldier with a very deep voice, reached for me and took me by my upper arm, while his light-skinned companion stepped to my other side and did the same.
I cried out as they lifted me up as if I weighed nothing at all, lifting me all the way over the back of the chair carrying me backward until they could lower my feet to the floor again. The man in the suit stepped around the table and turned the chair around, then sat in it, looking up at me with the same infuriating, amused smile he had worn most of the time since entering the interrogation.
“Strip her,” he told the soldiers, “and put her over my knee.” As my jaw dropped and my heart thudded in my chest, he turned to me. “Claudia, I’m going to spank you now, until you’re ready to do as you’re told. Then we can talk more reasonably about what you did, and what it means, and about your new life.”
“What new life?” I demanded, catching hold of his final words and trying to use their meaning to ward off the other things he had said. But he just looked back at me, and the soldiers paid my question no attention at all; they had started to strip off my jeans jacket before I even spoke.
The tears, which had receded a little bit with the sheer surprise of the soldiers’ arrival, started up again. I felt my face scrunch into a weak, weepy pout, but I couldn’t help that, or the way I turned to right and left in desperate hope of winning sympathy from the enormous men in the combat uniforms.
My brain, hunting desperately for something productive or even meaningful on which it could focus, noticed an unexpected detail then: the insignia on the shoulder of the black soldier, the stylized eagle of the Air Force. They got my jacket off and I heard it land on the floor off to the side, under the mirror. The white airman—as my brain instantly began calling them airmen—held my hands over my head while his comrade took the hem of my vintage Stooges t-shirt and stripped it upward. I felt the cool air on my skin, and it contrasted instantly with the heat in my face and all the way down my neck as I heard them chuckle.
“No bra, Claudia?” the man in the suit asked while the t-shirt still shrouded my face.
I couldn’t help picturing it, and then, when the airmen had the shirt off, I couldn’t help looking in the mirror no matter how hard I tried to keep my eyes from it.
No, no bra. Of course not. I had sat in my dorm room at my laptop for the past twenty-four hours. In the mirror, through which I felt certain lay a room with unseen people watching my abject humiliation, I saw my smallish but, I thought, perky breasts. B-cup, when I wore a bra, which really I didn’t do often, because except for the gym three times a week I spent my time looking at a screen.
The worst part would come now, though. I started to struggle in earnest for the first time against the airmen’s grip.
No, I told myself, that’s far from the worst part, given what the asshole just said.
Nevertheless, it definitely felt like the worst part, when the white airman lowered my arms and gripped me tightly around the waist while the black one first ripped off my sockless sneakers and threw them into the corner of the room, then pulled down my sweatpants.
The chuckle sounded even louder this time.
“No panties either,” said the man in the suit. “Well, it suits you, Claudia. Rebel without a shred of modesty. We’re going to change that. Or, I guess I should say, we’ll add to your repertoire, at least.”
Again I tried to keep my eyes away from the mirror, and again I failed. I saw the golden thatch between my legs that revealed my true hair color, and I felt the heat surge in my face. I hated the fact, but without a shred of modesty didn’t describe me very accurately. I pretended pretty well, though—at least when I was allowed to keep my clothing on.
“We’ll make one long-term change, though,” the asshole continued. “We’re going to take away your pubic hair very soon. Right after I spank you, actually. We’ll also let your hair come back in a prettier color.”
I didn’t want to answer because I knew he wanted the satisfaction of me showing he had gotten under my skin with this matter-of-fact humiliation. My anger boiled up, though, and part of me didn’t want to seem meek, with my impotent tears running down my face as the airmen lifted me up and pulled the sweats off my feet.
“Fuck you,” I said, trying to keep my voice low so as to demonstrate ultimate contempt despite the roil of unwelcome thoughts and emotions his words and the airmen’s hands had awakened in my mind and body.
The man in the suit sniffed the air, and looked at his minions with a little smile on his too-attractive face.
“This bad girl needs a shower, doesn’t she?” Then he looked at me. “Claudia, have you been playing with yourself to cope with the tension of engaging in major cybercrime? I can smell your pussy from over here.”
“No, asshole,” I managed to get out through clenched teeth. Somehow I suspected, though, with a deep and sinking dread, that the corporate-governmental complex had seen me coming even more thoroughly than I had ever thought them capable of doing. I felt terribly certain that this asshole knew by some awful authoritarian means, that I had indeed masturbated that morning in bed.
My furtive right hand inside my sweats, my left hand under my t-shirt going from nipple to nipple, I had thought of the things that came unbidden to my mind when, yes, I needed to release tension that way. Even worse than my suspicion that the man in the suit knew about what I had done in bed, though, the outlandish but still inescapable idea came into my mind that he also knew about what I had seen in my wayward mind’s eye as I had shuddered into my quick, cleansing orgasm.
“You can think of this spanking as punishment for touching your pussy without permission,” he said, spreading his thighs and patting the left one.
My jaw dropped. My mouth tried to form the letter P, for permission? but no sound emerged. The airmen took hold of my upper arms and started drawing me toward the seated man. I struggled, twisting in their grip, but it felt like resisting a landslide. I found maybe a couple millimeters of movement, and I did nothing at all about the forward progress they forced on me.
“Or,” the man in the suit continued, “you can think of it as the beginning of your punishment for the illegal access of the system you hacked.”
“Stop!” I yelled, as the airmen manhandled me over to the right side of the chair, turning me so that I faced the place where the blond man’s left hand rested now, indicating where they should put me. The dismay that filled me grew so great that, despite the weakness it would convey, I added, “Please!” without even thinking about, and then repeated it in a much more unfortunate, rising tone, “Please?”
“Or,” he said, while his unheeding minions started to force me down, and I felt his right leg clamp down over the naked backs of my knees, “you could even think of this spanking as the result of your refusal to cooperate here in this room.”
My belly touched the woolen fabric of his suit, and I felt the strength of his leg muscles underneath it. One of the airmen put his hand on my head and the other pressed between my shoulder blades, to bend me fully over the seated man’s knee. With one last shred of strength, I flailed against them, and I heard the black airman grunt as I caught him a little by surprise and managed to free my left hand.
“Hold her hands, Smith,” the man in the suit said sharply. “She’s not to move while I spank her.” Then, as the white airman obeyed the order, grabbing my wrists and stooping in front of me to hold them in place, the blond man addressed me again.
“Really, though, you should take this spanking for what it truly means. It means that from now on, you’re going to learn to respect authority. Neither I nor your other daddies need any reason to punish you. We’ll do it whenever we want, to teach you to obey us no matter how shameful or uncomfortable you might find the command. You’ve shown that you’re a bad girl, Claudia. Bad girls get what they deserve, in this program, and your daddies will enjoy giving it to you, like I’m going to enjoy spanking your little butt right now.”