Saucy Puppet Show
Iris whimpered. "My hair..." She ran her fingers over her smooth head.
"Hush, it's part of the disguise," Peony said, rifling through a selection of gynoid wigs. "How's short and black strike you?"
"I want blonde and curly."
"You'll have it back good as new and shampooed a little when you're back from the mission."
"Gonna be a long mission."
"It's your first. Find some pretty thing with blonde hair and a strong wrist if you feel lonely." She pulled out a long red-haired wig. "This looks good. An' it's a little curly too. Just don't go for French curls, alright?"
"Swiss Miss ponytails good?"
"No problem, lass." She swivelled her torso back around. "As for eyes..."
"Oh, no, you're not!"
"Okay, okay, lense glamour."
There was a knock on the prep room door. "Is Dressing Beauty presentable yet?" Eclair.
"Oh, uh, yeah! Jus' a sec..." Iris struggled with the red wig, snapping it in place and looking in the mirror. It framed her slim shoulders nicely--her new slim shoulders, rather. Exchanging bodies was... odd. Her head and neck were carried over, so at least it was a windup, but she had a little bitty conjuration engine in her chest instead of a bulky steam engine. It made her feel roomy, like an underused closet.
Eclair stepped into the room, dressed in a sharp casual buisness outfit. "Ah, looking nice and pretty. How's the composite materials going for you?"
"It's weird. I'm all light and stuff. I keep feeling like I'm gonna blow away in the wind, but hey, there's a breeze and I'm sticking in place. Hard to get used to."
"How about the Carter keys?"
"Oh, a real trip--"
"How about red? Goes with your eyes," interrupted Peony.
"Uh, sure." She took the lenses and popped them in; her eye color changed with a light glamour's pop. "Yeah, real trip. That stuff with the night-gaunts might be useful. Never know if I'm gonna need a ride. Speakin' of never, I still haven't used it. Spells kinda scare me."
"Me too," Eclair said, patting Iris's head. "It's big stuff. I've cast a couple spells from books before... it's like you're taking a glimpse at the ocean and all you've known is a three-foot box. I wonder what Selest feels like, tossing off spells for a living..."
"Brr. I'll save it for when the forces of Good absolutely need a faceless monster thing to carry them around, 'kay?"
"No prob. 'Sides, you probably won't need it this mission." She drew a folder and popped it open to the first page. "Thought you might take a personal interest in it. It involves the puppet gynoids of the Sydney puppet house..."
"The Sydney house?! Ah, man, I've always wanted to go there!"
"You're cute when you're excited. Now, the thing is, we need you to be the bodyguard for--"
"Don't tell me. Really?"
"Tam and Pam! Omigod, Tam and Pam!"
"Cute name for a big duo. We think they might be a target for a certain cult group..."
"Which ones? The Court of Dionysis?" Iris peered over Eclair's shoulders at the photo of Tam and Pam. Tam Lin was the puppeteer, Pam Skipheels the puppet. They were stunning: Tam a mousey woman with a winning smile and a loose, light interpretation of the blue-and-gold puppeteer suit; Tam, a gentle-looking gynoid crafted from equal parts shineskin and genuine Dreamtime mithral--or possibly, as some whispered, mithral from the Dreamsource itself. Iris's eyes slid down to their chests. "Or maybe some Venus-Whisper girls looking for mascots?"
"We wish. Those guys are fun, but... we're talking about the Khlysty."
"The Khlysty. They're... odd. Old ones, powerful ones. Rasputin's in their number."
"They seek physical ecstasy... dancing, sex. Supposedly, after a long enough rite is executed, a ritualistic orgy will birth a god on earth."
"Nobody's spoken up. That's why we're worried. Pam was made by Ellias McCleary, a semi-obscure Scottish mage with connections to the Khlysty, and there's been rumors that ghosts or spirits are dancing under the ley lines of the Hole in the Sky. Dancing naked and crying out words in an unknown language."
"Yes. You'll be pared up with Cesta, though, so buck up."
"Cesta? You mean... aw, man."
"What's so bad about Cesta?"
"She's got bigger breasts than me."
Eclair chuckled. "You're an athlete, you're a sneak, you're fast. Boobs would drag you down. And, who says they've got a soft spot for breasts?"
Eclair smiled. "You just want room for the autographs, right?"
Peony wondered how much blackmail material she'd seen in all her years. She was glad she never left the house without a recorder clicked on in her ear.
"Alright... now, let's see how your responses are doing." Tam lay back in her fit-to-form chair, cracking her knuckles. "Is she hooked up?"
"Hooked and ready," Jude the stringman said. Subtle hand motions wove Pam's magic strings from her wheeled street-frame and onto the stage's web.
"I am ready," Pam said, voice like a cool breeze. Dressed in her elegant costume she would blend in perfectly in a photograph from the height of Victoria's reign--she would sans the sometimes slight, sometimes pandering cuts to better show her curvaceous frame.
"Then let's," Tam said, her fingers dancing. Pam strode onto the stage, not a hiccup or moment of misstep evident. Her step picked up rhythm, built to a dance, and soon she was flying across the stage; sometimes she truly was, Tam's motions holding her in air for molassas-slow moments.
This is why I'm a stringman, Jude thought, watching Pam sail and step. It's times like these when you're not really sure if you're awake or dreaming...
Sometimes as Pam wove across the stage, he caught brief glimpses of the Dreamlands... or so he believed... following after her like a shadow racing to catch up, a shadow offering glimpses of fields, of flowers, of cities and peoples.
Magic, untempered by spell. It never happened before an audience... but just one watcher could appreciate the intimacy of the glimpse.
Unfortunately, Pam had to stop. As she danced to a stop, Jude checked his watch. She'd taken three hours to go through her entire routine, sans the costars and extras. Tomorrow's play would be perfect.
"That wraps up the morning practice," Tam said. "String 'er up, the girl's been up all night."
"Night on the town, huh?" Jude said.
"The libraries, anyway," Tam smiled.
"Ah... naturally. Sure." Unstringing was quicker than attachment. In seconds Pam slid back under the frame, her steps relaxed and mechanical.
"Thank you so much, Jude," she said, planting a light kiss on his cheek. His heart fluttered.
"No problem," he said, maintaining his composure.
Pam smiled and stepped alongside Tam, whose fingers mapped a simple walk for her partner. They disappeared backstage.
"So beautiful," A. said, stroking Pam's chin. The puppet was asleep--rather, turned off--in her cradle, held in a bed of strings. "So innocent. Perfect for our needs."
Alric shushed her. "Don't touch her. We needn't risk contamination of her spirit beforehand. Nothing short of purity itself can be the mother of Dea Nutrix." He stroked Tam's chin as A. had stroked Pam's. "But this... though lovely, not nearly as untainted as the puppet."
Tam's eyes were as blank as a sleepwalker's.
"A fine plaything... and ignition. The final preparation rite is within twelve hours. Plant the thought, dear."
A. slid past Alric, embracing the puppeteer. She leaned over, licked her ear, and whispered the geas.
To be continued...
Iris couldn't believe the stringman. Really, she couldn't--how could someone look so nondescript he'd disappear not in a crowd but a pair? And yet here he was, she guessed.
"I stayed out too late in the evening and got a low dose of the sundown," he said, pouring her tea from a plain teapot. "Part of my identity got sucked into the Hole. Just superficial, mind you. Made me great for behind-the-stage stuff..."
Perhaps it was uncouth to have her eyes dart constantly to Tam and Pam, sitting not three feet away from her, Tam in a plush chair and Pam in a seating position in her street frame. "Man. Uh, so, Tam... ah, how's the next show coming along?"
"Fantastic," she said, patting Pam on the back. "The girl's been wearing her joints down for Between the Streetlights, and..."
"I'll have to check Pam for a geas," Cesta interrupted.
Cesta--a piece of work. Something like the new style--her deeply tanned skin and black hair looked natural enough, and she was fetching in her on-the-street buisness casual outfit--but with curious throwbacks to older fashions--her antennae ears, the lack of expresion in her eyes and lips. She looked like she was locked into a thousand-yard stare.
"A--ahem--geas?" Tam asked, setting down her cup.
"Yes. A compulsion, set in place by magic or psionics. Should the right chain of events... usually a short phrase or occurance, obscure enough to prevent casual activation. There are ways to detect it, and to break it when it is inactive, but once it's been triggered only the closing condition can return the victim to normal."
"Never heard of that..." Tam said, looking over Pam. Pam mimicked her look of concern. "Is it bad?"
"If it's a sex cult that's after you... as we assume..."
Both blushed some.
"Then we can assume the compulsion will make you better at sex, or at least more willing to give in."
Iris cut in. "Don't worry, this gal's a great breaker. That's what we call disenchanters in the Golden Dawn--she's got a nifty little factory defect that lets 'er break magic and psi. Usually it's one or the other."
"Oh, that's... very good."
Cesta said, "I'll need her alone to administer the detection. Out with you."
Tam aimlessly wandered the stage, practicing hand motions for the big night.
"What's it like?" Iris asked, twirling around her idol. "I mean, working through a gynoid. I bet it's weird, having to walk somebody else around all the time."
"Oh... it's not as hard as you think. Bad habits, though." Her fingers twitched. "Kind of lonely when there's nobody but a half-there stringman and your own puppet. Your own mute puppet, mind."
"You never think of gearing her up with a voice?"
"She seemed fine without it. But sometimes I just want to talk, you know? I've been asking her but she doesn't seem to want it. The rest, well, it's showbiz."
"Yeah." Iris thought of the road, of shows punctuated by parties, never really seeing anybody but ... She remembered June, their gossip, her talking about her latest idea, Iris just nodding her head and going with it. She remembered the silver-skinned machine she became, and marvelled at how unnerving another gynoid could be.
"This cult thing, though. It's crazy. I mean, I'm not that good looking, am I?" she asked, turning to Iris. Iris met her gaze, drifted quickly to her breasts, came back up.
"Uh, yeah. To be honest."
She smiled, a marvelous look for her. "Oh, thank you. It's usually Pam out there. Not that I mind, though. She's a beaut, and it just sickens me to think that she's some prick's toy to be misused." She thought over it some. "Uh, what's it like between you and Eclair?"
"You've, uh, heard?"
"It's kind of obvious. Big name singer signs up with the Golden Dawn and is seen hand-in-hand with the biggest-name unique model. People make assumptiosn. What's it like with you? Is she easy on your rea... your normal body?"
Iris grasped for words. "Er, you know. Quid pro quo."
Tam blinked. "You..." Her posture slumped a bit. Her eyes grew distant, and she inched over to Iris. "You wind her up... and she ... winds... you... back..."
No space between them now. Chest to chest. Her warm breath fogging Iris's polished skin. Her eyes flat as beer left out too long. Beyond her breathing, she was motionless. And, Iris could see in the distant corners of her eyes, wanting.
"Oh. Oh, man."
Cesta opened the door from the backstage. "Good news," she said, pulling Pam's cage behind her. "Your puppet lass is geas-free."
"Bad news..." Iris said, noting that Tam's face was slowly dipping down towards hers, lips slightly puckered. "You guessed wrong."
Cesta halted, Pam worried and confused. "Oh, shit."
Tam's lips met Iris's forehead. "Yeah," Iris said, "not too far off."
They set her on a sofa backstage. It took her a few seconds to hit a seductive pose.
"Hell. Now we have to figure the disenguage," Cesta said, pacing. "We are, pardon the phrase in the current context, heavily screwed. What would a Khlysty set as a switch-off for a geas of lust?"
Iris shrugged. "Maybe a ... no, not a kiss, too easy. Maybe we gotta do something to her."
"Convenient for you, eh? I won't stop you should you want. In the meantime, I'm linking up with home. I need to check the library and get some advice." Cesta stood bolt-straight, eyes glazing over with a black screen. Prompts danced across as she browsed the remote files.
Who knew where Jude was, anyway? They were effectively alone, Tam writhing on the couch and Pam twiddlign her thumbs and putting on a perfectly cinematic "quiet worry" face.
"Uh... sit up," Iris said.
Tam slid to a sitting position, legs crossed.
She slipped to standing.
"Huh. Great. Er, sit back down."
Back on the couch, more pose-striking.
"Double great. I'm in a room with Tam Lin and she's pulling an Amelia Bedelia act."
Tam smiled, not the warm and inviting smile she bore earlier, but the forced smile of an overworked hooker.
Iris frowned. What now, then? Just let her follow orders until the Khlysty came for her? Maybe drag her back to base, set her in heavy security until the figured out how to deal with the geas, and just chill until then? No, too passive, too easy to be intercepted and...
She heard something. "Who's--"
A cool machine hand slid across her chest. Another pressed a freezing blade against her throat. Peering down she saw the blade was jet-black, like a midnight shadow torn from the ground.
"Hold still," a slightly accented voice whispered, "or you'll be short a body."
--To be continued...
Outwardly, Iris complied; it's not wise to argue with a blade at one's throat. Inside, she roared through her key-granted memories, trying to find a similar situation.
There was one, mentally titled "Fall of the Hero," and it was the last from the warrior-woman Ionalal. Bad tidings all around.
The shadows around the stage twitched and warped, and a tall, handsome man strode out of the deepest. "Much thanks," he said, wiping a lick of magic shade from his cloak, "I was going to activate her geas soon anyhow. You've saved me some work."
"Bastard," Iris hissed.
"Naturally." He stood over Tam, who smiled up at him. "Stand up," he said, and she did. He looked back at Iris. "You should know we don't plan to hurt her. It's such a grotesque idea, unnecessarily hurting a woman, especially a beauty."
"What'ya call this then?" she asked.
"Tam, or you?"
"Both. You fucking rapist."
"Rape? How blasphemous! Tam Lin voulenteered for her geas."
"No way in hell. No way in..." The blade hovered closer.
"We wouldn't have it any other way. Tam has longed for this day... it's just the geas is necessary to perform the rite perfectly." He stroked her chin, and she purred like a kitten. "As for Pam--she was made for this day! It will be like finding her purpose."
"She's an artist, not..."
"She is a mother," he said. "She will birth the Dia Nutrix."
The name clicked at the back of her mind. Latin. "The 'nurse god?'"
"She will heal the sick... cleanse the wounded... bring fecundity to women and gynoids." He walked around her, his pet gynoid cooing at each proclamation. "It will be joyous. You will join us in our brilliant orgies. We will couple across the planet, a paradise of flesh, steel, wood, plastic, marble..."
"There's life outside sex, you know," Iris said.
"Frivolous. All life outside sex is unnecessary. Why bother with life when ... oh, you don't care. A.? Weave her."
"A. is for 'arachnid,'" said the gynoid. Iris felt something wind up her body, like a tightly-wrapped plastic; she couldn't move her legs... now her arms were pressed against her sides... Now was the time to panic, to fight, screw the blades, but she couldn't bring herself to.
She realized why: A. was whispering in her ears. A geas. "...accept the weave, and do not scream for help, and keep those eyes open. Your geas will be fulfilled after sunset. Amen."
She fell limp into A.'s arms. The gynoid didn't even need her blades; she hefted the antique over her shoulder like a sandbag. The man nudged Cesta, who, standing still, fell over like a bowling pin. "Like a rock." He motioned for Tam to follow, and she obeyed, keeping one step behind him. He addressed the shadows, whispered a few words, and walked into their depths with Tam just behind him, disappearing. A. followed, fading into the pitch blackness. None of them noticed the fifth following close behind. At their passing the shadow grew slightly brighter.
They emerged on a rooftop, from the scant shade afforded. Sydney was breathtaking at near-sunset; the Hole in the Sky played with the light and set it afire between the glass spires of the skyscrapers. But something ominous was in that light, something that grew with each passing heartbeat.
A. set her leaning against a flag pole. The man smirked. "Now comes the fun part. We leave you here to face the sundown. You've heard of sundowns in Australia, of course. It has been nice seeing you. If it's any consolation, what occurs probably isn't death..." Clutching Tam Lin, he and his gynoid slid back into the shade.
Iris leaned, covered in a black weave, staring at the horizon. And suddenly the weave was coming apart.
"It's me," someone said.
"Oh--Jude! Cripes, I'm sorry I... well, the whole 'into the background thing.'"
"No problem. It came in handy this time. Hm, this stuff's not too different from strings..." Now that she heard him speak, she could pinpoint him. Damned if it wasn't weird, looking like a nondescript extra even as he was saving her existence. The last of the weave faded away and Iris could move again.
"Gimmie a sec. I've got an idea."
"What, break in? Everybody's in lockdown by now and it'll be sunset in..."
"Three minutes, give or take? This spell only takes one and a half." She dropped to her knees, found she couldn't close her eyes, damn the geas, but she wasn't yelling for help, she was whispering. "Get closer," she said, before evoking the spell:
"Black winds between the stars, I call your riders. Those who serve the king of the empty spaces, heed my call. Come to me, that I may peruse you, that you may defend me, that you may fulfill your duty as servitor to sorcerers. Come to me..." And so on.
Each word felt like she was digging her grave by another scoop. The wind whispered...
A creature settled over them, vast black wings concealing them from the sunset. They waited under the canopy of its wings, waiting. When the pitch curtain parted, the sky was black and the streets again alive.
"Oh, praise be," Jude groaned.
"Glad you're not picky about who saved us," Iris said. The beast she had called truly was. It was taller than them, about seven feet high, with wings stretching twice that in either direction. Its skin was pale and greasy-looking. A blank, featureless face was crowned by two swept-back, inward-curving horns.
"Huh... a night gaunt? I've heard of those."
"Yeah. Now, let's find Tam before those perverts get their greasy hands on her." She turned to the monster. "Loyal steed, carry us across this land, until we find our foes. Set us upon them and your deed is done. You will be rewarded in time."
She wondered how much difference lay between summoning and geases. She'd have to think more about it later--there were pressing matters to attend to. Asses to kick as well. Ah, the ass she'd kick...
The night gaunt scooped them up in each tawny, powerful arm, and it took off silently into the night.
"Hey, are you alright?" asked Selest to Cesta's astral form.
"I think..." Cesta flickered. "Oh, hell."
"I think someone knocked me over."
"What makes you think that?"
"A route is broken. Physically. I can't unlock the communication spell."
"Easy to fix, though. I'm sure Iris can help me."
Several minutes passed.
"Where's Iris?" asked Cesta.
"Elsewhere, apparently," Selest said.
"Oh, dang. Uh, this is awkward."
"She can handle herself. Just give it time."
"Better not take too long."
She would be stuck there until just after midnight. The news she'd receive upon being repared would be unpleasant at least.
To be continued...