by Togi Kayako (土宜草子)
illustrated by RunnyCrusty
Elia ducked out of one narrow alley and wove through the busy pedestrian street toward the next alley on their usual scrap-hunting route. The early evening crowd had a mix of everyone, from older corporates off early and looking to slum it for dinner to the enterprising local kids who knew easy marks when they saw them. Elia knocked shoulders with a corporate man wearing a large, tacky watch and too much cologne. They muttered an apology as the man shoved past them and winked at the sharp-eyed tween who had taken the chance to lift the corp’s wallet.
The multitude of pockets in Elia’s long brown duster were more empty than not today, but they had enough to renew their spot in the pods for another week. Another solid find would add a half-decent dinner to that. Two more, plus sweet-talking one of their favorite buyers into giving them a good deal, might be enough to pay for a whole ten-minute bath rental.
A woman in a bland gray jumpsuit rounded the corner of Elia’s next alley a few paces ahead of them, carrying a small package and glancing nervously over her shoulder as she went. The company logo on her back caught Elia’s eye — that was a nice courier service, not one that had any honest business in the area.
Elia idled at a window display, pretending to be the sort of person who had a deep interest in jars of imitation avocado long enough for the courier to duck out of sight. By the time they peeked into the alley, the courier was walking out the far side. Since her hands were now empty, that meant two things: it was Elia’s lucky day, and someone with more money than sense was going to get a rude awakening about how not to do a dead drop.
The button to set their glasses to low-light mode was small and tended to stick no matter how often Elia cleaned and reseated the damn thing. It took them a few tries to catch the edge with one nail before they could start scanning the alleyway for the package. The courier had done a good job hiding it — Elia had to trace the alley twice before they hunted down the dark box.
It would have been invisible to anyone casually walking by, tucked behind a drainpipe and balanced on an uneven bit of brick to keep it above eye level. The package was light and didn’t rattle as Elia batted it down. They unbuttoned their coat and tucked their windfall into an inside pocket lined to prevent anything inside from transmitting. Seconds later, a deep, calm voice behind them said, “Drop it.”
Elia bolted, slapping over a trash bin behind themself as they went. The sound of impact and a grunt of pain were music to their ears as they dashed out into one of the busier main streets. No one gave a second glance to the scruffy beanpole running by and most people didn’t even bother moving out of the way. Elia dodged around a flock of chattering teens wearing a rainbow of LED-lit jackets and turned into another alley.
When Elia spotted a fire escape overhead, they pulled a plastic crate out of a nearby pile of garbage to tug it underneath. With the extra height and a small jump, they caught the bottom rung of the rusted ladder. It didn’t even budge under their weight, so they braced their heels against the wall and scrabbled their way up to the first platform. They looped up one flight of stairs and stretched out on the filthy metal deck with their back pressed against the wall.
Hurried footsteps clattered by underneath them and faded away into the bustling background moments later. Elia stayed put, flicking their eyes down and right to pull up the time on their glasses’ overlay. A few minutes passed and the footsteps returned, slower this time. Elia held their breath and leaned harder into the chilly cement behind them.
The man took his time with a second pass, but finally muttered a curse and left again. Elia waited another ten minutes, only giving up once their teeth started to chatter — lying on metal had leached away what little body heat they’d managed to work up from running. Their hair tie snagged on something as they sat up, and Elia took a moment to retie their ragged mop of brown hair into its usual messy bun.
Back at ground level, they hurried over to the main scrap buyers’ market, but the unexpected detour had them arriving as most of the stalls were shuttering for the night. The remaining options ranged from unacceptable to dire: an innocent-looking man with a bushy white beard who was the latest edition of “obviously a cop,” the stingy and preachy Oblivionist temple booth, and Sienna. Elia had no idea how old Sienna was, but she looked to be on the far side of ninety, with a face like dried-out protein strips glued together with paranoia. Given her choices, Elia suspected she’d probably exist forever out of sheer spite and hate every minute of it.
Plastering on their best woe-is-me expression, Elia trudged over to Sienna’s and started emptying their pockets under the flickering red-orange glow of her name sign. Sienna looked down her knife-spike of a nose at the growing pile and asked, “Got anything that isn’t garbage, kid?” Despite the complaint, she was already sorting with both hands, her many mismatched rings twinkling in the light.
“Hang on, I have one more thing that might interest you.” Elia dug out the dark colored package and opened it, ignoring a plastic bag of accessories and pulling free an inner container. “A lucky find, though I have no idea what it is.” The box hinged open on one side to reveal a glossy black rectangle with rounded edges, roughly the size of three of Elia’s fingers together. It had no obvious controls or markings, but nothing that sleek and shiny was cheap garbage.
Sienna snapped out one bony hand and smacked the case closed. “You fucking idiot,” she hissed. “It could be a bomb for all you know. I’ll take this”—she gestured to the pile Elia had hoped was the rejects—”but not the rest, and you get your weird mystery shit out of here quicker than quick.” She tapped out a number on her ancient credit machine and raised an eyebrow at Elia in lieu of a question.
It was enough to keep their half-decent pod for a few more nights and to snag something tasteless but filling to keep them going until the scrap market opened again tomorrow. Elia nodded rather than telling Sienna to go fuck herself, but they couldn’t muster a thanks. Sienna confirmed the payment and passed over a square, silver credit chit — probably more thoroughly anonymized than most, given the source.
Elia took their payment and their new puzzle, then distributed the rest of the junk back across a dozen different pockets. With a bit of careful arranging, the baggy shape of the coat hid how much they were carrying. Sienna didn’t let up her death glare the whole time Elia was putting things away, and only offered a grudging nod as they turned away.
The pod tower they were currently staying in was cheap, but it was also a solid thirty-minute walk away from the scrap market. Elia could have shaved ten minutes off by backtracking, but they weren’t going to press their barely extant luck with the mystery thing still tucked inside their coat. Besides, the longer walk gave them time to grab some of the cheapest possible food blocks from a corner dispenser and munch their way through the bland, beige cubes before they got inside.
Elia took the elevator up to the twenty-seventh floor, climbed up to the top pod in their row, and used the last of Sienna’s chit to renew their rental time. They shrugged out of their coat and ducked inside, turning the entertainment station on as soon as the door clicked shut. With a casual stretch, they reached up and stuck a tiny, curved screen over the pod’s camera. It played boring footage of them lounging around, since blacking out the camera would only make security turn up in record time.
A quick scan with their comm showed there were no known explosive compounds inside the mystery thing, not that Elia had expected any — the nicer courier services always checked. Slipping on a set of disposable gloves, they brought the black box up to eye level and examined each side in turn. A tiny, flat divot caught the light as Elia gave it a second, slower pass. “Oh, you clever little thing,” Elia murmured, digging out their set of tools with an eager smile.
Their smallest screwdriver slid into the divot perfectly and the tiny latching mechanism clicked open. Each side folded out until the whole thing was spread flat in a cross shape in front of Elia’s knees. The dark outer casing was almost invisible under the wonderland of bright-colored components dotted across the top of it. At the heart was a cotton candy pink circuit board with wires snaking out in every direction, each connection meticulously labeled in font so small that Elia had to set their glasses to magnify it.
Elia lost all track of time as they teased out its secrets one after another. The only thing they removed was a generic tracking device tucked into a corner, obviously store bought and wedged in as an afterthought. Elia pried it loose, snapped it in half with no remorse, and tucked the pieces in two separate pockets to dispose of somewhere unmonitored. The tiny microphone next to it Elia left intact, but reprogrammed to only power on when given a signal from their personal comm number.
Overall, the thing was a masterwork. The standard components were ingeniously fitted together and the custom pieces were nothing short of art. Elia only found a single mistake: a piece of near-invisible film covering a mystery sensor that they only spotted because the flickering light of the entertainment screen caught on its edge. It must have been one of the final touches if someone talented enough to build this thing had overlooked it. Elia peeled it free with a pair of tweezers, holding their breath as they eased it off without letting it catch on any other components.
Modifications done, Elia closed everything back up and took off one glove to rest the device on their bare hand. Soft orchestral music swelled, quiet enough that Elia had to lift it to their ear to hear it over the advertisement playing in the background. In seconds, the song had smoothly blended away into a more upbeat guitar and piano duet, and then into an electronic dance number Elia actually recognized. They caught themselves tapping one finger to the beat and broke into a grin as the tiny radio played it all the way through.
Now that they’d seen it in action, the purpose of the array of sensors inside became clear: a radio that used biometrics to respond to its owner’s whims. There was nothing like it on the market, and if the tech components were as inexpensive as they looked, the idea was probably worth a fortune. Since it was no doubt already reported as stolen, there wasn’t any real chance Elia could sell it, but it was a pleasant thought all the same.
Elia took down their privacy bug and turned off the entertainment screen, flopping back onto the thin foam mattress with a contented sigh. Their back hurt from sitting hunched over and they were flat-out broke, but they had a fun new toy plus the extra thrill of having nicked it from some rich bastard. The music faded from one tune to the next, tempo dropping steadily as Elia closed their eyes and started to drift off to sleep.
— ♪ —
Dorran leaned around around the edge of Cyrill’s door so fast that the purple tip of her braid smacked into the far side of the door frame. After a quick check to make sure there was only one suited figure in the room — not a mistake she cared to repeat — she said, “Cyrill, I need you right now.“
Cyrill set down his tablet and spun his chair around, crossing one long leg over the other. “My goodness, such a change of heart, and in the middle of the workday too?” He hooked a finger under his tie and raised both pale eyebrows with his patented wicked smile. “But I am, as always, happy to accommodate you.”
“No, stop that — serious business time!” Dorran kicked the door closed behind her and plunked her custom privacy shield down in the middle of his desk. She loved Cyrill’s huge corner office; it gave her enough room to pace and shake out her hands without bumping into anything. “Do you trust that guy you had me send my prototype to? Jack? Jesse?”
“It’s James,” Cyrill said, “And as much as I trust anyone. Has he done something untoward to your work? We have quite a bit of legal leverage I can bring to bear for you.” Dorran let out a huge sigh and paused to look out the massive windows, counting the tiny figures on the rainy street below with umbrellas until she hit twenty.
Cyrill scooted in closer to his desk as Dorran resumed her loop around the office, one hand tugging at her braid and the other one gesturing wildly. “He claims he never got it, but the courier service said it was delivered yesterday evening, and the tracker’s not working, which means it’s gone, which means I’m basically fired—” Dorran broke off and jammed both hands in her lab coat pockets to keep herself from messing up her hair further or flailing into Cyrill.
“They would be hard-pressed to fire you for losing something they didn’t know existed,” Cyrill pointed out. Before Dorran could thank him for being the voice of reason, he added, “But don’t worry, darling, I promise I’ll still find you utterly lovely at home in your pajamas, sobbing into a pint of ice cream.” Cyrill waited until Dorran’s pacing brought her face to face with him before giving her an exaggerated wink with one deep blue eye.
“Stop that this instant,” Dorran said, brandishing a finger at him. Cyrill put a hand over his heart and winked with the other eye, even slower. “You’re the worst,” Dorran groaned. Her shoulders sagged, and she could feel her face breaking into a fond smile. “You’ve barely said anything useful but I feel better already.”
Cyrill did one of his fancy, dismissive hand twirls and shrugged off the affection, like he always did. “I do what little I can. You’re the genius, I’m afraid. I’m merely here to look pretty and sweet-talk clients out of their money.”
“You’re smarter than you give yourself credit for,” Dorran insisted. She ran her thumb along the inside seam of her pocket a few times to focus herself on the current problem rather than slip into their familiar argument. “Anyway, you’re pretty sure this guy is on the up and up? No chance he just straight up stole the thing?”
“We did make him sign a contract with a staggering number of penalties for doing just that, so regardless of my personal feelings, I doubt he’s a likely culprit.”Cyrill patted the edge of his desk. “Sit down a moment and let’s work through this. Even if they did fire you — which they would have to be idiots to do — you will hardly be destitute given that you own the rights to a significant number of your designs.”
Dorran plunked down on the spot he’d indicated and kicked her feet up on the arms of Cyrill’s office chair. “Because you’re both paranoid and extremely convincing,” she said, idly spinning Cyrill’s chair side to side. “What am I even going to tell the boss man, though? I already scheduled a meeting slot with him next week. There’s no way that asshole will let me cancel, and now I have literally nothing to show him.”
“You are going to tell him nothing, obviously,” Cyrill said, carefully folding his hands in his lap so he wouldn’t accidentally touch her legs. Dorran beamed at him. He was one of the few people who had picked up on her need for space without being told. “Spend a few days sprucing up one or two of your eight hundred half-finished projects so you have something nice to show the higher-ups, and then we can spend the rest of our time tracking down your rogue prototype. How about I contact James and the courier service this afternoon and you can bury yourself in your work for a bit to relax, hm?”
Cyrill’s calm was contagious, as usual. Dorran wished she could bottle it up somehow, or clone Cyrill so she could have him on hand when she got frazzled. “Great plan, as always. I don’t know how I survived so long without you.” Maybe she could design a digital assistant for her comm modeled after him. He’d probably go for it if she only made it for herself.
“Again, you are a genius.” Cyrill held up one hand and Dorran brought him to a stop. “I’m happy I can make things run a bit smoother for you, but really, I’m barely more than an occasional personal assistant and product tester.”
“Sure, if you ignore the thing where you make sure I eat and sleep and go for walks regularly even when I’m deep into a project, and how you helped me prep my argument to get a raise along with my patents, and—” Dorran cut herself off with a huff. She kept a full list in her private notes, but a lot of it was too personal to hear Cyrill argue against. “If you think I’m such a genius, then you should listen to me.”
Cyrill smiled at her, the good kind of smile she didn’t usually see during business hours that crinkled up the corners of his eyes. “You seem to have me backed into a corner, logically speaking. I will grudgingly concede to being useful to you in a number of ways, provided you don’t let that tidbit hit the gossip mill.”
“Sounds like a deal.” Dorran got to her feet and reached out to tuck an artfully loose bit of blond hair behind Cyrill’s ear, letting one knuckle brush his temple. “Speaking of product testing and being useful, do you think you’d have some free time for me to borrow you this evening?”
She watched Cyrill’s pupils dilate like a cat following a laser pointer, and glanced down in time to catch the bob of his throat before he rallied enough to speak. “Is that stress relief for you, or a reward for me being so terribly helpful?” Cyrill asked. Now that Dorran was looking closer, she could spot a layer of carefully applied makeup covering dark circles under his eyes. He probably hadn’t been up late with a partner if he was so eager to do some testing for her, but what on earth had he been up to?
Ultimately, it was none of her business, so Dorran filed the thought away. “It’s a perfect chance to test out a few options and see what I want to focus on. Let’s see, I have….” Dorran made a show of staring off at nothing and counting on her fingers. If Cyrill was having a rough day, the least she could do was give him something nice to look forward to at the end. “Well, at least four or five things. Maybe up to ten, if I dust off a few of my older projects.”
She loved how obvious Cyrill’s interest was, especially now that she’d had months to learn every signal right down to the tiny flick of his tongue over his lower lip. That was the subtle one that meant he was thinking of something nice, rather than the more dramatic sweep he did purely for show or to see if he could seduce someone.
“Ah, it’s time to test the limits of my stamina, then?” Cyrill put the back of his hand to his forehead with a heavy sigh. “My poor, innocent body is yours to work your depraved science on.” He looked up at Dorran through his long lashes and gave her a considering look. “Though I think I’ll schedule tomorrow off, in that case.”
“Sounds great — I’ll order dinner in.” Dorran rummaged through her lab coat pockets, then her jean pockets, and came up empty-handed. “Could you message me in a few and remind me to take tomorrow off too? I think I left my comm on one of the workbenches. Oh, and I should see if I can’t hack a connection to the radio, assuming you don’t get anything useful out of your calls.”
“Of course, my dear absentminded professor.” Cyrill checked his watch. “Ten minutes, you think? I’ll keep calling if you don’t respond, but do try not to immediately lose yourself in a project.”
“No promises!” Dorran’s chipper grin stayed steady in the face of Cyrill’s terrible attempt at a stern look. “You know you love the way I get sucked into work.”
Cyrill shook his head, already reaching for his tablet. “No, I admire your work ethic and appreciate how many lovely toys it gives me to market. I love the way you fuck me senseless. Now shoo, you vile temptress. There’s much to be done and you’re distracting me.”
— ♪ —
“Hello? Is anyone there? My name is Dorran Lee and I need to speak with you.”
Elia jolted awake as the soft music on the radio cut out and was replaced by a high-pitched, hesitant voice. They fumbled for their comm, wincing at the bright screen, and confirmed that the microphone was still disabled.
“If you can hear this, you’re holding prototype technology that is the intellectual property of an employee of the Lustic Corporation. We would be happy to offer a reward for its safe return to our main office, no questions asked.” Elia waited, but after a brief pause the person only started repeating the message word for word.
Before they could begin a third round, Elia enabled the microphone and said, “I kindly invite the Lustic Corporation to go fuck itself.” The indignant sputter from the other end was everything they could have hoped for. They ran a quick search and discovered that Lustic made sex toys, so either the radio had some exciting features they hadn’t found yet, or the person calling was lying through their teeth.
“Look, you don’t like corporations, that’s fine, but don’t blame me. Everyone has to make a living somehow, right?” The speaker let out a little frustrated huff that Elia refused to find cute. “Besides, its battery will only last a few more days and then it’ll just be a lump of useless plastic, so you might as well bring it back?” Their voice pitched up at the end to turn the statement into more of a hopeful question.
“Oh, the battery’s going to die, of course.” Elia held the radio against the charging pad by the pod’s entertainment screen. It let out a soft chime as the radio’s edges pulsed green and they rolled their eyes. “Well, would you look at that? Seems like it charges wirelessly with no trouble.”
The sound quality wasn’t good enough to pick up the corporate drone’s teeth grinding, but Elia could imagine they heard it. “I was trying to do this the nice way, but fine. There’s a tracker inside. If you don’t bring it back today, I’m going to have you arrested for theft and—”
“Yeah, I snapped that into a couple pieces last night,” Elia said. “Don’t pretend you wouldn’t have sent the cops to my door by now if you knew how to find me.” The caller slapped their hand down on something and Elia heard a metal object clank to the floor seconds later. “Anyway, tell your corporate overlords I said eat shit. They’ll have to fork out the money to pay whatever genius made this a bonus to make a second one, because I’m more likely to take a hammer to this thing than I am to return it.”
Elia dropped the radio next to themself, which cut off the sound, and muted the mic from their comm. No doubt the speaker could be reactivated remotely, but the person who’d called probably wouldn’t realize they needed to do that before Elia could stop them. They cracked the radio open in record time and tweaked its settings so any incoming signals would have to be approved on their comm.
When they closed the radio up and set it back on their palm, the speakers produced nothing but soft music. Elia yawned and stretched back out on the bed, smug and sleepy. It wasn’t even noon. The scrap markets wouldn’t open for a few hours and they had no money for breakfast, so there was no reason not to have a little nap.
— ♪ —
After three tries in a row produced nothing beyond “Call not accepted,” Dorran gave up and threw herself into her work for the day. By the time the sun had started to set, every horizontal surface in her private workroom had a project spread across it and her second-favorite screwdriver was wedged into a piece of acoustic foam on the wall where Dorran had thrown it in a fit of frustration. She’d even scared off one of the nicer interns who had been bringing her coffee every afternoon — the guy had taken one look at the room, set the coffee on the floor, and u-turned back out the door.
Dorran sank down to the floor and rested her back against a cabinet, setting her comm to try to connect to the radio on a one minute loop. The biometrics were coming in and she could even see what song was playing, so whoever had the radio was using it, at least. As Dorran stared at the failure message popping up over and over again, her eyes started to unfocus. The call connected with a faint click and a terse, “What do you want?” from the same person as before. Dorran jolted so hard she dropped her comm and lost it under a nearby table.
“Don’t disconnect! Please, please don’t disconnect,” Dorran called. She stretched out on the floor and frantically batted the comm out. By the time she retrieved it, the person at the other end was in the middle of saying something.
“—not interested in more offers from you, corporate lackey.” They snapped out the words with even more irritation than earlier and Dorran’s shoulders hunched up toward her ears as she sat up again. “You can stop wasting my time by calling — you don’t have anything I want.”
The finality of the statement was enough to make Dorran start to tear up. “Okay, I get it, but please — I worked so hard on that damn thing. Just promise me you won’t smash it or throw it out, and I’ll leave you be.” Dorran’s voice choked up on the last few words and she started twisting her braid in tight loops around her hand. The sting of pulling on it kept her grounded, but she was going to give herself a headache pretty quick if she didn’t find a better option.
“You made this?” There was a long pause, followed by a sigh so faint she only saw it on the biometrics screen. “I promise I’m not going to get rid of it or destroy it,” they said, in the first gentle tone Dorran had heard from them. “It’s too nice to toss out.” Dorran had a fraction of a second to register the compliment before the thief flipped back to grumpy so fast she flinched from the emotional whiplash. “But I’m not giving it back, and I’ll block you if you keep trying to call me.”
“Thank you for not getting rid of it,” Dorran said, releasing her hair and letting her head thunk back against the counter. Her hard work wasn’t going to end up in a trash compactor somewhere, and that wasn’t nothing. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to test it, if I said you could keep it?”
“I’m keeping it whether you say I can or not.” Dorran imagined the thief as a pufferfish she’d seen at an aquarium as a child, doubling in size every time she tapped her finger against the glass of its tank. She’d felt awful once a staff member stopped her and explained it was a defensive response. “What would I have to do to test it? I’ve been listening to music already. It’s pretty good at figuring out what I like.”
Dorran flipped back through the earlier data — the song selection algorithm was performing exactly as expected. “That’s wonderful to hear.” She scrolled down through the list of biometrics and frowned at the readings from the sweat sensor that hadn’t been cooperating when she sent the radio out. A quick double-check of the live feed showed it was actively collecting data, with enough variations that it couldn’t be an error. “But you weren’t working,” she muttered.
“If you’re talking about one of the sensors, it had a layer of contact film between it and the case. Probably would have been invisible in your nice, bright corporate lab.” Despite the sarcasm, Dorran watched their stress levels start to drop as they kept speaking. “That was one of the last things you put in, right? Sound input and output was clearly first. Did it start life as a normal radio and then you just got carried away, or what?”
Against all odds, the radio seemed to have ended up with someone who could actually appreciate it. Dorran launched into the explanation of how she’d thought up the radio, omitting any mentions of Lustic’s role in the process. “There’s applications in all kinds of areas, really. If I can get the basic learning algorithm to work the way I want, my plan is to try implementing it in a fucking machine—” And once again she’d gotten carried away and started talking about sex toys with a stranger. “Sorry, you probably don’t want to hear about that.”
“Can’t you tell whether I do or not from all the data this thing’s sending you?” Their tone was calm and unreadable, but their pulse was up a little from baseline range in a way that could be arousal, stress, or both. Dorran probably could have figured it out by scanning some of the other data, but her happy curiosity had soured to skin-crawling awfulness at how invasive having the information suddenly felt.
She carefully turned her eyes away from the biometrics and up to the ethically uncomplicated beige ceiling. “I could probably guess if you experienced physiological arousal from the idea, but that’s intrusive and doesn’t tell me what you actually want. Biometrics aren’t the same as consent.” It was a phrase she’d rehearsed many times already while preparing to take the idea to her boss, along with a massive list of reasons not to make the full dataset user-facing.
“A corporate who’s actually a half-decent person, huh?” Now they sounded pleased, or maybe amused. Dorran had never been great with tone. It would be so easy to tell with the information scrolling by on her tablet, but Dorran made herself slowly count the acoustic panels along the far side of the room. “I’ll at least hear you out — what do I have to do to test this thing?”
“Right, I suppose you’d need an actual explanation to decide.” Dorran pulled up the massive list of ideas and potential problems she’d made, and skimmed it for the most important points. “I mainly want access to the biometric data and to have you report any issues on your end. If possible, I’d like to call you every other day or so to run some small tests — no more than fifteen minutes each, probably.”
“That doesn’t sound terrible.” Dorran perked up at the words — by the current conversational baseline, that was pretty glowing. “You willing to pay me, if I agree to be your test subject?” They sounded almost playful and Dorran had to ruthlessly tamp down the memories of a mad scientist roleplay she’d done with Cyrill not two weeks ago.
Dorran offered up a figure that was roughly a quarter of what James had wanted for the initial consult and crossed her fingers. “That’s for your general participation, and then you would receive a smaller weekly stipend for as long as we both wanted to continue the testing,” she said. The budget would be coming entirely out of her own pocket, but they didn’t need to know that. “Would untraceable chits left in a public locker be an acceptable method of payment?”
There was silence on the other end that went on long enough to break Dorran’s resolve. She peeked at the biometric data and oh, they were interested. Dorran’s eyes snapped to the lab door as it hissed open to reveal Cyrill holding a bottle of wine. His eyes went wide at the state of the room, but he nodded when she put a finger to her lips and shook her head.
Dorran clicked her comm onto speaker as the person with the radio finally responded. “…Yeah, okay, but I’m going to turn the microphone off whenever I want. You don’t get to eavesdrop on my whole life.” Dorran hurried to start a notepad for her unexpected new product tester, jotting down her first bullet points: needs privacy and hates corporations.
“Of course not,” Dorran said, beckoning Cyrill over. “I’m happy to add a confidentiality agreement signed by myself and my associate to the first payment drop, if it would set your mind at ease.” Cyrill rolled his eyes as he found a square of space big enough to wedge the wine bottle into, but as usual he didn’t protest Dorran volunteering him. “Would also like something we can call you, if you don’t mind. A nickname would be fine.”
Another fraught silence, but this time Cyrill was here to pass her a screwdriver. With the smooth, even ridges of the handle to roll her fingers over, Dorran had no trouble waiting until she got an answer. “Yes to the confidentiality agreement — and I will read it, so don’t try to sneak in any loopholes. You can call me El. I’m nonbinary, they pronouns. Do not call me any pet names.” Cyrill glanced from the comm to Dorran several times, eyebrows all the way up.
“Can do, El. Not a problem.” Dorran introduced herself and Cyrill, and worked out specifics of where Dorran could leave El’s payment. By the time El hung up the call, Dorran’s bad day had been deleted and rewritten as a total success. She gave Cyrill the comm address that would connect to the radio and a quick primer on how to read the biometric data, with a promise of an actual manual in the near future.
Cyrill pulled two stools up to a workbench corner Dorran cleared as she talked, and he divvied up the wine into a set of lab beakers for lack of any better options. “You’ll want to keep in relatively close touch, I imagine? I’m happy to call them when you’re in the depths of a science binge,” Cyrill offered, tapping their glasses together with a smile. “Shall I see if I can’t sweeten them up a bit, or would that count as tampering with your data?”
Dorran shook her head and tossed back a huge swig of wine — probably wine too nice to do that with, given Cyrill’s faint wince. “You have my blessing to try to seduce the radio back from them all you want, as long as you don’t piss them off enough to cut contact. Don’t record, please — they’re too serious about privacy — but do take notes on anything they respond well to.”
“Would you prefer those notes to be strictly business, or am I allowed to leave in all the delightful details?” Cyrill’s lips quirked behind the rim of the beaker. They were tinted darker than usual with a deep red lipstick that Dorran had many fond memories off. He was also wearing a different tie than he had been that morning, which meant he’d put on a cheaper one he didn’t mind her using to tie his wrists or blindfold him.
“Give me a short version for reference, but if you want to give me some bedtime reading too, I won’t object.” Dorran reached over and brushed her knuckles along one of Cyrill’s gorgeous, sharp cheekbones, and he leaned into it like a cat. “Now, I’ve got a few new iterations of my prototypes that I unmolded earlier. They’re a bit thicker than last time — you don’t mind me smudging your lipstick, do you?”
Cyrill set his wine aside and slid to his knees with a grace Dorran knew she’d never stop envying or enjoying. “You know I’m thrilled to let you use me however you see fit, darling,” Cyrill said, dropping his voice down into the lower part of his register. It would go higher again as he got more aroused and started losing enough control for all his artifice to fall away. Dorran loved the contrast and loved taking him apart to get to see it. “Though if I may make a small suggestion? It’s been a rather frustrating day for us both and I think some aggression on your part wouldn’t go amiss, if you were so inclined.”
Dorran ran a hand through his hair. He’d gotten all his usual product out somehow, so she could properly enjoy letting her fingers trail through all the soft blond strands. “You know I’m happy to be rough, as long as you let me take care of you afterwards.”
“You’re far too kind to me,” Cyrill said. His tone was a little rough and off somehow, but with his face turned toward the floor, Dorran couldn’t get enough clues to puzzle it out. He had said today had been bad for him — it was probably just stress.
On her next pass, Dorran got a grip on Cyrill’s hair and gave it a little tug. “You started it,” she said, and pulled harder to turn Cyrill’s laugh into a sweet moan. His perfect posture started to sag as she did it again, and he tucked his hands behind his back. “Should I tie those out of the way, or do you want to hold them there for me?”
“Tie them, please,” Cyrill said, tipping his head back to smile up at her. His dark eye makeup made his blue eyes look wider than usual. The effect was striking, but Dorran knew she’d love it even more after it started running in messy trails down his cheeks. With that inspiring thought in mind, she dug out her favorite harness and worked it on over her jeans in near record time.
— ♪ —
Elia staked out the public lockers for two hours before they went in to pick up the chits, and scanned the shit out of them with three different programs to make sure each one was clean before they left again. Tucked away between two dumpsters in one of the quieter alleys in the area, Elia distributed all but two of the chits into the smallest hidden pockets of their coat and clothing. They caught themself almost strutting out of the alley as the warm glow of financial security put a spring in their step and did their best to dial it down before someone picked them out as an easy mark.
The radio was strapped to their upper arm with a band that had been in the case. Dorran had included other options in the locker along with the chits, but Elia doubted they’d need them — the thing was so light that they had almost forgotten it was there after it warmed up to body temp. Then they pulled their arms in close to squeeze past someone on the street; the band shifted and Elia’s pulse spiked with the weird knowledge that someone elsewhere in the city was watching it.
Elia picked up their pace and made it to the nearest public baths before they could decide if it was a good weird or a bad weird. It was just a job. There was no reason to waste time thinking about it when they could be soaking in a nice, hot bath for a ludicrous amount of time. The baths had a special if you prepaid for an hour that was usually outside of Elia’s budget.
Today, they popped one of the chits into the lobby kiosk and blew its entire balance on a full hour with scented bubbles in the largest tub the place had. Elia took off the radio, tossed everything except their jacket into the attached laundry, and sank nose-deep into the floral-scented foam with a happy groan. Before the heat could melt their muscles into uselessness, they dried off one hand and grabbed the radio, tapping one corner to turn the music on.
The algorithm flipped through the start of three different songs, and then Elia’s comm let out the angry beep they’d picked for an incoming call from the corporate duo. Elia ducked their head forward to blow out a frustrated stream of bubbles and then surfaced to let their comm connect the call. “You have the worst timing,” they said, holding the radio up to glare at it.
“Terribly sorry to interrupt,” Cyrill said, low and smooth like he was trying to pick someone up at a bar. Elia rolled their eyes and resettled their neck against the padded edge of the tub with a soft splash. “My goodness, are you in the bath? The steam would explain why the readings from the sweat sensors jumped so high.”
“I suppose you’d like me to fill out some forms before I do anything? Make a nice itemized list of my schedule for every day?” Elia was too relaxed to muster up as much venom as they wanted. “You realize I’m not getting up to test anything, right?”
Cyrill laughed, a warm little chuckle that was probably the exact length mandated by some bullshit corporate training guide. It managed to drag an answering smile out of Elia anyway. “I had no intent of even asking you to get up — I’d hate for you to waste your money like that, and it makes for a far more titillating conversation as-is.”
The fact that he knew it was an expense surprised Elia; they gave him a grudging point for common sense. “Does your pet genius know you’re flirting with the person who took her toy?” Elia closed their eyes and melted further into the bath. “Or is this just standard operating procedure over there?”
“Yes, page seven of the marketing handbook has a section on flirting with people who have stolen proprietary technology,” Cyrill said dryly. “I do have Dorran’s blessing to seduce the radio back if I can, though I think she’s content to have someone testing it no matter how unorthodox the situation. Still, if you think of any sexual favors I can provide that would incline you toward returning it, do let me know.”
Elia blew a raspberry at the radio. “Pretty sure you wouldn’t like any of my suggestions, Mr. Corporate Heartthrob.” In the privacy of their own head, Elia could admit he did have a nice voice and the fact he’d offered at all was impressive. Maybe working for a sex toy corporation meant he got to swap out the standard corporate stick up his ass for something more fun that could vibrate.
“You might be surprised,” Cyrill said slowly. “Let me think. You hate corporates, reasonably enough, so perhaps you’d like to have me humiliated or roughed up a bit?” He let out a thoughtful hum and added, “From what I can see over here, you don’t exactly seem to hate the idea.”
Elia’s free hand flattened against the side of the tub underwater. Having Cyrill in the room might have left them feeling less naked — they could control their face and body language, but not whatever cocktail of signals the radio was converting into a nice, organized display. Given enough time, someone reading it could figure out what turned Elia on as effectively as the radio’s music algorithm had found the cheesy love songs they’d never have admitted to liking.
“Okay, if you don’t need me to test anything, I think we’re done.” Elia dropped the radio onto their coat before Cyrill could reply and shut down the connection. At least with the damn thing on the floor, nobody else got to know if they jerked off to the idea of wrecking a smooth-talking corporate bastard.
— ♪ —
Dorran’s watch chirped at her and displayed a little sad face, followed by a solemn warning about the importance of regular sleeping hours that she swiped away as soon as she recognized the first few words. The split-section distraction was enough to make her lose her train of thought again and she slapped her tablet down on the table.
No matter how she rubbed her eyes or scowled at the circuit board diagram, she couldn’t find the right way to squeeze in the battery upgrade she wanted for the second version of the radio. Dorran flipped over to the feed from the original to check its uptime between charges and blinked at the heart rate reading. There were motion readings too, so either El was having a pretty intense nightmare, or they were also up way past a reasonable hour. Dorran tapped in a call to the radio without a second thought and was greeted with a confused, “Hello? Did you sleep dial me or something?”
“Oh, no, I was checking the data and I saw you were awake and I thought… I could call you?” Dorran finished weakly. Normal people didn’t make social calls at three in the morning. She jammed the thought into her mental garbage can — after only a few days of talking with El, she was sure they would let her know if she’d done something to offend them.
Even with that in mind, the brief silence was bad. Dorran tried to fuss with her braid and found that her hair tie had escaped long enough ago that half the braid had come undone. “Well, looks like you can,” El said slowly. “So… you’re up pretty late?”
“Yeah, I am,” Dorran said, brain grinding to a halt at the realization she had no idea where to take the conversation. Rather than let the awkward silence come back, Dorran spilled out the entire situation: “I was working on the radio — the second version, I mean — because I couldn’t sleep, but then I got stuck. Everything’s kind of off today — Cyrill had to go out of town yesterday on short notice.” She let her forehead rest against the metal table, and it was so cool against her skin that either she was a bit dehydrated or she’d accidentally left the AC up too high.
“I wondered why he wasn’t around to harass me today,” El muttered. Dorran gasped and fumbled for the biometrics screen, but El interrupted before she could flip back to Cyrill’s last call. “Sorry, I’m kind of out of it, I didn’t mean it like that. He’s a flirt, that’s all.”
Dorran slumped back down again with a really horrible nervous laugh as the tension left her. “You’re sure he’s not doing anything you don’t want? He’s usually great with boundaries, but I’ll tell him to knock it off if you need me to, just say the word. Or if you don’t want to talk to him—”
“You’re like a bag of Sugar Fluffs in human form, I swear,” El said. They sounded like they were smiling and all their vitals were steady enough to blunt the worst of Dorran’s worries. “Cyrill’s fine. The flirting is”—El’s pulse picked up as they paused and Dorran smiled as she watched the little line wobble—”not a problem. Did you actually say he could try to seduce me?”
“He told you that?” Dorran put both hands over her face and made some kind of pitiful noise that got El to break out laughing at her. They had a beautiful laugh: deep, loud, sunshiny, and nothing like Dorran would have guessed it would sound like. “I mean I did say that, so I guess it’s fair, but he asked. I didn’t tell him to!”
El snorted. “Yeah, I could’ve guessed that. You don’t seem like the type — I’m pretty sure you can’t even lie worth shit.” They weren’t wrong, but the conversational jump had lost Dorran.
“Cyrill’s not really lying,” she said slowly. “He likes to talk about fantasies, I guess, but I don’t think that’s the same?” Dorran glanced over at her harness, hanging off the back of a chair where she’d tossed it after their last session together. “He does like sex as much as you’d think.”
“Now that, I can believe,” El said. They chuckled faintly and Dorran caught a rustle of fabric in the background, maybe El shifting around in bed? Dorran watched all the little numbers and graphs and wondered where El was and what they were doing. El made a soft, questioning noise. “So are you two together, or…?” Their stress levels shifted up and they added, “Not that it’s any of my business, obviously.”
“It’s fine,” Dorran assured them, smiling as their stress dropped again. “Cyrill and I aren’t exactly a couple, but we’re a really good team. I’m not great with the people side of things, or the stupid corporate politics, but he’s like magic with all that, and he makes sure I take care of myself. I… really miss him.” Dorran added a weak laugh in an attempt to make it sound like more of a joke.
Elia hesitated, even holding their breath for a few brief seconds. “It’s good that you’ve got someone looking out for you,” they finally said. “Though have you considered not working for a corporation? I think zero is a really nice amount of corporate bullshit to have to deal with.”
“It’s the sacrifice I make to have a really nice lab.” Dorran took a careful breath and asked, “Can I talk to you about what I’m working on?” She crossed her fingers and closed her eyes, because she didn’t need to try to puzzle out El’s thought process in real time no matter how much the idea appealed. “It’s fine if you don’t want to. I know it’s late.”
There were more fabric noises, definitely El shifting around this time. “I can’t sleep sometimes either,” El said, so quietly that Dorran barely caught the words. “Anyway, I’m not doing anything important, so go on, Miss Genius. Let’s find out if you can explain your project without knocking me out cold.”
Dorran beamed at her comm and brought the schematics back up. “So, I’m working on a second version of the radio and I wanted to make a few improvements—” The rest of the night went by so fast that Dorran didn’t realize neither of them had slept until the sun came up and El started yawning so much they couldn’t finish a sentence. She said her goodbyes and curled up on the lab bed she used for testing, burrowing into the soft sheets with a huge smile.
— ♪ —
Before long, Elia settled into the rhythm of regular conversations with both Dorran and Cyrill and gave up on being sour with them. They had snapped at Dorran exactly once, after she innocently asked what Elia’s house was like. The apology they got in response was so long and fervent that Elia almost broke down and offered the radio back to get Dorran to stop apologizing.
Cyrill had seemingly given up on the radio, and Elia couldn’t rile him up no matter what they tried. He turned any jabs back around like they were only flirting, and had no qualms about using the radio’s biometrics to home in on what Elia liked best. He was never bossy — everything was an offer of what he could do for Elia, or what they were welcome to do to him.
Dorran was always polite, but every so often she got deep into testing and rattled off a casual command in a calm, detached voice that hit Elia square in the gut. If she noticed she’d done it, the apologies came out again along with a polite rephrase, so Elia never brought it up. If Dorran noticed how much they were enjoying it, she had the decency not to mention it.
The teasing, both intentional and not, was becoming a problem. If Elia kept the radio on and touched themself, the data would show what they were up to. If they took it off right after a long stretch of Cyrill flirting or Dorran ordering them around, it would be equally obvious. Cyrill certainly had teased them after the evening in the baths. So they just didn’t and got increasingly antsy as they stewed in their own arousal.
That was when the world decided to outright shit on Elia. In the space of a few days, one of their best scrap-hunting spots got an automated cleaning setup that left it sparkling but empty, and some idiot accidentally set the pod tower’s sterilization cycle to go off two days in a row, interrupting their sleep both times. Finding that their favorite taco cart had relocated to a better part of town, too far away for a regular trip, was the last straw.
Elia stormed back to their pod, set up their usual security measures, and clawed out of their clothes like someone had set them on fire. They stretched out on their back and settled the radio into the center of their chest, the casing cool against their heated skin. The radio shifted smoothly to a new song with a pounding beat to match their racing pulse.
It was after the time Cyrill usually called, but of course he was running late when Elia actually wanted him around. Garden variety frustration mixed with sexual frustration, leaving Elia hot all over and itching to lash out. They were the only one around, but that was fine — they’d never minded a rougher touch.
“Let’s see what you think of this data,” Elia muttered. They raked their nails up over the slight curve of their stomach, breath hissing in at the sweet sting. From there, they dragged sharp lines up across their chest and down the insides of their arms, only easing up on the delicate skin of their wrists.
The pain faded quickly, leaving warmth and tingling sensitivity in its wake. Elia switched to a lighter touch, shivering as they traced their path in reverse. When their comm announced an incoming call from Cyrill, Elia accepted it with a grin and said, “Was wondering when you’d turn up.”
“Terribly sorry to have kept you waiting,” Cyrill said. There was a slight pause, almost certainly him looking at the biometrics. He couldn’t parse them as quickly as Dorran, but his intuition was sharp enough to make the difference negligible. “Though if I’m not mistaken, you seem to have started without me. What would you like me to talk about?”
“I thought ‘What are you wearing?’ was the usual opening line,” Elia said. They had a dozen answers to his question, easy, but there was no way they were going to give him more angles of attack.
Cyrill’s deep laughter rumbled pleasantly against Elia’s chest through the radio’s speaker. “I’m happy to oblige if formulaic is what gets you going — what are you wearing?” He sounded invested in the answer, like there was nothing he’d rather hear, and it made Elia shiver. They lifted their knees and set their nails against their thighs, digging in hard and pulling up to leave a fresh set of stinging lines.
“Not a fucking thing, unless you count scratch marks.” Elia closed their eyes and let themself imagine a hypothetical Cyrill stretched out next to them, making the same sound of delighted interest as the real one. Even with no idea what he looked like, the thought of his eyes on them was inspiring. “And what about you? What are you wearing?”
With a playful hum, Cyrill said, “I could send you a picture, if you give me your number. I’ve been told I photograph quite well from certain angles, and I’m certainly not above finding a quiet corner to loosen my tie and undo a few buttons.”
Of course he was in a suit. The fact it had probably cost enough to house Elia for months only put the smallest damper on the appeal. They shook off the irritation by imagining how they might ruin it: tearing it open to send buttons flying everywhere, wrinkling his tie by using it to blindfold him, or just jerking off over him to make as much of a mess as possible.
Elia dragged themself out of the fantasy and managed to dig up a tiny drop of sarcasm to call Cyrill out. “And I’m sure you wouldn’t immediately use my number to track me down, out of the sheer goodness of your heart?”
The laugh Elia got at that was far more genuine than most of Cyrill’s, and it was irritatingly attractive. “I’ve been accused of any number of things, but goodness isn’t generally among them. Still, my clumsy attempt at subterfuge doesn’t seem to have put you off, so I must be doing something right.”
Elia’s hand dropped to give their hardening cock a quick stroke, trying not to get carried away too fast. The sheer confidence in Cyrill’s words got them going, but the fact he had an inside line to their reactions to back him up left them burning hot already.
“Can’t be too mad at you if you’re going to try to charm the information out of me.” Elia had meant it to be flippant, but felt the words ring true as they said them. “So, you’re wearing a suit. I imagine you’re sitting in some fancy corporate office — one with a nice view, because you definitely sweet-talked your way into that.”
“Guilty as charged,” Cyrill said, bright and absolutely shameless. “It’s charitable of you to assume I only talked my way up here. I do believe I’ll have to take that as a compliment, given that nearly all you know about me is my voice.”
Elia had flashes of what the very plausible idea of him fucking his way up the corporate ladder might have looked like: Cyrill’s smooth voice going ragged as someone bent him over a desk, or the sound of him moaning cut off by someone shoving his face between their legs. “I wouldn’t mind hearing how you actually managed,” Elia said. Their resolve not to touch themself was crumbling fast, one hand inching up their thigh to settle around the base of their cock.
“I hate to disappoint, but I’m just enough of a gentleman that I won’t kiss and tell.” Cyrill had never been shy to discuss something sexual before. Elia was half tempted to pry, but Cyrill carried on before they could commit to the idea. “Now, if you’re naked, I expect you’re stretched out on your bed, maybe cradling Dorran’s little masterpiece close to your heart?”
The too-accurate guess made Elia flinch, but they liked the slight weight of the radio on their chest too much to move it for the sake of proving Cyrill wrong. He probably couldn’t know where it was, though Elia was paranoid enough to want to check. “Totally wrong. Can’t you tell I’m standing on one leg and balancing this thing on my nose?”
Cyrill only chuckled at the suggestion. “If that information’s in here, only Dorran could find it. In the unlikely event that you are in such a precarious position, do try not to drop it.” The last two words made Elia’s whole body tense in sudden, unwelcome recognition.
Only hearing the exact phrase again could have let them match Cyrill’s casual tone with the authoritative way he’d spoken on the night Elia had found the radio. Having made the connection, Elia had no idea what to do with the information. Their gut instinct was to disconnect and call Dorran immediately, but she’d never believe them without proof.
Confused and still turned on despite themself, Elia decided to stall: “Try not to what?” they asked, shooting for unaffected. With any luck, how fast their heart was pounding could be passed off as a jolt of arousal rather than shock.
“Drop it,” Cyrill repeated calmly. “Dorran would be heartbroken if something happened to it. Not just for the radio itself — she’s gotten quite fond of talking to you by this point. As have I, for whatever that might be worth.”
His tone was off in a way that Elia had never heard from him before. He sounded exhausted and maybe even guilty, like he was confessing and waiting for the executioner to drop their axe. Elia couldn’t judge how much of that was wishful thinking on their part, but it was enough to keep them from calling him out or even just disconnecting. If there was any way through this that didn’t emotionally devastate Dorran, they wanted to find it.
“I can’t imagine you’d want to hurt her like that,” Elia said, feeling out the words like the edge of a fresh bruise. There was a faint hiss of breath over the line, an auditory wince that suggested they’d struck a nerve. Whatever his reasons for trying to steal the radio, at least he seemed to feel bad about it. “I guess I’d better reposition. Wouldn’t want to piss either of you off and risk losing my meal ticket. Hang on.”
Elia set the radio aside and scrubbed at their face with both hands. They’d wanted one nice thing, but no, even uncomplicated comm sex was too much to ask for from this week. Well… the sex at least was still on the table, minus the uncomplicated. Elia grabbed their comm and started recording the call. Dorran wouldn’t believe them without proof — or at least that was a convincing enough argument to let Elia keep going with something that was objectively a terrible idea.
Cyrill seemed to have collected himself, returning to his usual effortless charm as Elia picked up the radio. “Your meal ticket, is it? I’m not sure I believe that’s your main motivation.” He slid right back into the low tone that Elia loved best like nothing had ever been wrong. “In my experience, most people who make a point of telling me they’re naked when I call are after something more than money.”
“Maybe I’m the exception that proves the rule,” Elia countered. The banter was nice, exactly as distracting as they needed it to be right now. “Besides, you can’t even be sure I am naked, can you?” Their brain’s internal debate over what to do was rapidly taking a backseat to their dick’s very clear interest in finally fucking getting off.
“I should hope you’re naked. I’m no expert, but Dorran taught me enough to pick out arousal from this mess. If you’ve got clothing on, I suspect it’s uncomfortable, a mess, or both. Though perhaps you enjoy that? I do like getting someone too worked up to even undress before they lose control of themself.”
Cyrill was able to make anything sound like a good idea. He was persuasive to the point it was probably dangerous, and Elia knew the right course of action was to hang up. “Not really my thing,” they said instead, shutting their eyes and giving up on trying to be sensible, “but that’s exactly the sort of lousy manners I would expect from a corporate.”
“You may hate corporations, but you seem to like me well enough,” Cyrill said, smooth and certain. “Your readings spike every time I shift my voice down like this. Go on, tell me you don’t wish I was with you, whispering filthy nothings right into your ear.”
Elia dug their teeth into their lower lip to hold back a moan as they started stroking themself slowly. “I’m sure you’d do a great job distracting me long enough for some corporate goon squad to steal the radio back.” That was the only plausible outcome of being near Cyrill — or even Dorran, probably. They needed to keep reminding themself of that fact as many times as it took to sink in.
“I think I’d prefer to take it from you myself, once I made sure you were far too tired to object.” Cyrill turned what should have been a threat into one of the sexiest things Elia had heard him say yet. “Besides, with the radio there, Dorran could listen in. I know she’s behaved thus far, but if you tell her you’re interested, she will push every button you know you have and find at least a dozen new ones in the process.”
The thought of Dorran using her genius brain to analyze them and leave them a quivering wreck hit Elia square in the gut. “Something you know from personal experience?” they asked faintly. It was becoming a struggle to keep themself to a slow place as they jerked off. “Tell me about it. Make something up, if you want. I don’t care.”
“I suppose Dorran wouldn’t mind me sharing, in the interest of a good cause.” Cyrill let the statement hang for the perfect moment, giving Elia a chance to wonder if he meant seducing the radio back or just seducing them. “She actually had me the evening you agreed to test for her, right there in her lab. If only she’d forgotten to end the call, you could have listened to her fuck my mouth with all kinds of lovely toys.”
Elia arched up into their own hand and used the other to muffle themself in a vain attempt to stop Cyrill from hearing them. It hardly mattered — he had all the insider information about their body that he could possibly want.
“Something you’d like to hear — or something you’d like to try for yourself?” Cyrill asked the question with a sinful amount of enthusiasm. “I love the thought of getting on my knees for you. I’d do it right here in my office, if you wanted. You could stand in front of my desk and use my mouth, or relax back in my chair and let me take care of you, nice and slow.”
Despite the incredible mental images, Elia had to laugh. “Who would want you to stop talking?” they asked, breathless and uncaring if they were giving Cyrill too much information. They were wound tight, hand and hips in constant motion, driving them straight toward a badly-needed climax.
“Maybe you’d prefer me bent over the desk, then,” Cyrill offered. “I could wear a plug all day to keep myself ready for you, so you could stroll in and pull my pants down enough to have access. Or if you’d rather have me filling you up, you could ride me however you like. I’m blessed with a great deal of stamina and I have no objections to being used like a toy.”
The thought of Cyrill sliding into them, still saying filthy things in his smooth, deep voice, was all it took to send Elia over the edge. They came with a whimper, biting down on the heel of their hand and shuddering harder at the little shock of pain.
Any potential afterglow evaporated when their post-orgasm clarity brought a wave of guilt. “Are you going to tell Dorran about this?” Elia asked, hoping the roughness in their voice could pass as literally anything other than a sudden onset of feelings.
“I can avoid mentioning it, if you prefer, but she does review your data every night and I’m afraid I can’t erase it. I doubt she’ll miss such an obvious spike.” Cyrill sounded exactly as he always did when he wasn’t teasing: warm, calm, and attentive. Unaffected. Elia rolled onto their side, feeling half-sick at the idea that Cyrill might be used to people who regretted having sex with him.
What was he tangled up in that had made him try to steal the radio in the first place? Something nasty, that much was clear. Something that wasn’t any of Elia’s business, definitely. The right choice was obvious: return the radio, warn Dorran, and keep a healthy distance from whatever weird corporate bullshit was going on.
“No, it’s okay,” Elia said, draping a hand over their eyes. “I can’t really see her giving me shit about what I’m into, so tell her whatever you want.” Dorran knowing what they jerked off to would probably be the least of their worries by the time the situation inevitably went to shit, like every other half-decent thing in Elia’s life.
“I’ll give her all the delightful details, then,” Cyrill said, almost like he was testing them. “She loves to hear about what makes people tick, and not just for the sake of furthering her work, if you catch my drift.”
There was no way Elia could get hard again so soon, but the thought of Dorran touching herself to a detailed account of what they’d just done made it feel almost possible. Maybe she’d watch the data as Cyrill talked her through it all, seeing every time their heart rate spiked and the exact millisecond they came.
“Sure, that’s… fine.” Elia’s voice was unsteady, and they could only imagine what stupid tells their body was passing along via the radio. They hung up in the middle of Cyrill’s satisfied chuckle, but kept the radio against their skin as they cleaned up and tried to relax. No reason to be shy now — it was already way, way too late for that.
Even after Elia dimmed the lights, they couldn’t sleep. They kept glancing at their comm, as if the recording might have turned it into an actual bomb about to go off, but they didn’t delete it. Dorran called sometime after midnight, but Elia only muted their comm and set the radio over on the charging pad. They watched it pulse green until exhaustion finally won out over their racing brain trying to figure out what to do next.
— ♪ —
After monitoring El for a while, Dorran had a mountain of usable data and a beautiful set of almost-completed schematics for a second version of the radio. Along with those was a fondness for her grumpy pufferfish of a test subject that was sliding toward a non-zero amount of a crush. Under all the prickle, El was smart as a whip and asked good questions when Dorran went off on one of her infamous tech tangents, like today.
It was the first time they’d spoken after a series of what seemed like very bad days for El. Dorran had spent every evening scowling at the readings, noting down the elevated stress levels and wishing there was anything she could do to help. Then Cyrill had managed to finally seduce El — after a length of time he claimed was record-breaking — and El hadn’t answered either of their calls for a full twenty-four hours.
“Would thick body hair or a lot of sweating be an issue with the current sensors?” El asked idly. Their voice was slightly flat, with no resonance or real background noise on the mic feed, so they were probably at whatever served as ‘home’ for them. Dorran suspected it wasn’t nice, or particularly stable, but she’d already put her foot in it once by asking. None of her standard socializing gambits had gone over well with El, and Dorran had resolved not to pry further.
“That’s a great thought. Would you be willing to try a few quick tests for me?” Dorran jotted down the idea on her dedicated notes tablet and then paused, hand hovering over the screen as El mulled the offer over. Early on, they had refused a ton of requests, but they had slowly swapped over to genuinely considering anything Dorran asked.
“So what, I go run laps around the place for you until I get sweaty enough for science?” That was the happy sarcastic tone, the ‘I’m making a shared joke’ one rather than the sharper one that served as an alert Dorran had said something thoughtless again. In some ways, El was easier to deal with than the average person. Dorran never doubted that they would tell her when she’d offended them.
The idea of El running themself breathless at her say-so was tempting, but…. “No, too many variables we couldn’t control for,” Dorran said. “Do you have any spots with thicker body hair?” She penciled in her ideal test conditions for sweating, then followed it up with more plausible options that wouldn’t require custom sauna rooms.
“I mean, I do,” El said slowly. Dorran looked up from her notes to focus on her comm and the endless scroll of El’s biometrics. Slight signs of arousal, but in a way that could be either stress or sexual interest. “But only if you don’t mind me putting it on my junk.”
“Oh, it’s completely waterproof,” Dorran said brightly. “Wouldn’t suggest internal use, because no flared base and I expect it would be pretty hard to hear you, but it wouldn’t damage the radio in the slightest.” El taking so much care with her tech absolutely made her melt.
El broke out laughing for some reason, but it was one of the nice ones that made Dorran get warm fuzzies all over. “I was trying to figure out if you’d mind me getting dick cooties on your masterpiece, but I should’ve guessed that a sex toy designer wouldn’t bat an eyelash at that.” Dorran could hear the smile in El’s voice and wished for about the five thousandth time that she could see it in person.
“Yep! It would be a pretty big problem for me, professionally speaking, if people weren’t willing to put things I make on and in their bodies.” Also the idea of making something she couldn’t sanitize was unthinkable. “As long as you don’t mind, that would be a perfect place to test.” Dorran tried not to sound too eager, but there was something viscerally satisfying about the thought of her tech resting on intimate parts of El’s body.
“Sure, why not?” The biometrics paused for a moment, and Dorran heard the faint sound of a zipper over the line. El’s voice was too quiet as they started speaking again, but the volume correction caught up before Dorran could add an upgrade to her to-do list. “You want me to just lay here and think about nothing?”
Data started flowing in again, with no immediately obvious differences in quality from before. “Anything you like is fine, really.” Dorran noted additional data from the top pressure sensors as well as the bottom and added, “Please make sure the only contact is through your body hair, if you would.”
“Right, right,” El said, faint and a bit strained. “I’ll focus on… keeping myself out of the way, I guess.” Not two seconds later, they added, “Look, I’m sure this is normal for you, but it’s super weird for me to try to kick back and hang onto my dick for science.”
“Yes and no,” Dorran said, smiling at all the data. The increased heat and blood flow suggested it wasn’t a bad sort of weird for El, at least. “I don’t often test remotely, and I’m usually much more focused on arousing someone than helping them ignore it.” The little pulse spikes were probably normal reactions and not inaccurate readings, but Dorran wanted to know for sure. “So your heart rate picked up there — did you notice it on your end?”
El made a mildly alarming sort of choking cough. “Uh, yes, that was me. Should I have said something? Like I can’t just tell you every time I have a feeling, that’s crazy.” They laughed a bit, but strained enough that Dorran didn’t need to look at the data to pick up on the tension. “Fuck, this is so weird.”
“Would you like to stop?” Dorran offered. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable just to test a fringe case.” She smoothed back her hair, gathering up all the stray strands and retying her ponytail. “My general goal for testing is to make sure everyone has a good time while I get the data I need, so whatever you want is best.”
Dorran had no idea whether that had been too forward, El was conflicted, or the sensors really weren’t working. Their readings were all over the place and El was dead silent. Cyrill had definitely had comm sex with them, but that was Cyrill, not her. Dorran’s hands dropped to her thighs, running back and forth across seam lines of her jeans until the texture and steady motion helped her settle.
“That sounded a lot like you offering to talk dirty to me for science,” El said. Dorran recognized the throatiness in their voice through long familiarity with listening to people get turned on, though it was the first time she’d heard it so clearly from El. “I’d like that, if that wasn’t already obvious from your end.”
“Biometrics still aren’t consent,” Dorran muttered, mostly to herself. She seemed to be in the minority opinion of the three of them, to her ongoing irritation. “Anyway, it was an offer. What would you like me to talk about?” When El didn’t immediately respond, Dorran switched to her best soft and coaxing voice and said, “Anything’s fine. I’ve heard all kinds of things and I promise I won’t judge.”
El let out a long breath and then said, so quietly the mic scrambled to volume balance again, “Just this is good, honestly. Tell me what you want me to do to make the test work right. Tell me what you’re getting out of the biometrics. I like it when you know how I’m feeling. ” That put a rather different spin on El wanting their response to be obvious — one that Dorran was now more than happy to run with.
“I can do that.” Dorran went with a long, theatrical hum that she had absolutely picked up from listening to Cyrill seduce other people. “I’m going to need you to stay very still to make sure nothing throws off the readings. No bucking your hips or squirming around.” She put a little bit of snap into her voice, shooting for the tone she used to make people listen to her at department meetings.
“Okay, that’s hot,” El said, letting out a shaky laugh, “and mean. I didn’t even think you could be mean to people, no matter what Cyrill said.” Cyrill knew better than almost anyone how quickly Dorran could flip from playing bossy to making sure someone was okay, but he’d probably glossed over the second part in favor of the first.
Dorran attempted to turn her goofy-sounding snort into more of a scoff. “I think you’re going to find that I can be plenty mean to my test subjects.” She turned her attention back to the data and grinned as she realized they would both be happy if she kept up a running commentary on it. “You don’t mind one bit, judging by these readings. Pulse and temperature this high suggests you’re fully erect already. Would you say that’s accurate?”
El made a beautifully responsive noise at her question, somewhere between a moan and a giggle. “I’m going to need a clear answer so I can note it for the record,” Dorran said, sharp again. “Tell me how hard you are, El.” The thought of her tech on El’s body, nestled up against the base of their erection, sent a pleasant tingle down Dorran’s spine. This was the part of her job she could never get tired of, despite all of the nonsense she had to deal with to get to it.
“I’m really fucking hard,” El said, voice dropping even deeper. They seemed to be the opposite of Cyrill, going lower and softer with more arousal. “Past the point I’d do something about it, normally.” The motion sensors showed El was holding about as still as Dorran could expect them to, only moving with their breath and a few involuntary muscle twitches.
Dorran considered the possibilities of having two versions of the radio, one for El, and one for Cyrill. If she could coax them both into the lab, she could watch them and their data and tease out every last thing the two of them enjoyed. Not to mention the options it would give her for designing toys intended for two partners. Dorran gripped the edge of the table and refocused on the present.
“Subject states they are fully aroused and increasingly desperate.” Dorran spoke calm and steady, as if she was actually recording her findings. If they were going to do this again, she might ask El for permission. The scenario was tantalizing enough that she’d love the chance to listen to it recreationally. “If that was intended as a subtle request, I’m afraid it’s denied. Keep holding yourself out of the way, but don’t move your hand.”
There was another muscle clench and a very faint whine. “Yes, ma’am,” El said, so sweet and pathetic-sounding that Dorran was struck by the impossible urge to squish their cheeks. They were so cute on top of everything else that it was completely unfair. “Either of my hands?”
“No, I think we should put your other hand to work.” Dorran flipped through a mental list of options and wished yet again El was here where she could see them — not to mention be able to pass them some lube. “Play with your nipples, however you like, and describe it to me as you do.”
Each of the clear arousal spikes when Dorran got bossy made her smile a little brighter. The readings showed a brief flicker of pain in time with another beautiful whimper from El. “I pinched myself,” El said, after a brief pause. If they had been trying to compose themself, it hadn’t worked. Their voice was rough, trending firmly in the direction that Dorran liked to think of as wrecked. It was her favorite tone to hear, because it meant a test was going very, very well.
“You know, I haven’t had much of a chance to document pain yet,” Dorran said, letting the statement hang as another spike crossed her screen. “Looks like you’d be more than happy to help me with that. Maybe I should give you something nice in return? I appreciate a test subject who’s so eager to do what I need.”
“Yes, please, fuck.” Every metric Dorran had access to painted a picture of someone unraveling one breath at a time, and El was breathing hard and fast. “Please, Dorran. Anything.”
Hearing someone beg her by name never failed to be deeply satisfying, no matter how often she had the chance. Dorran jotted down a reminder to ask El about recording, bolded the note, and set it to her highest non-work priority. “Every time I see a clear pain reading over here, I’ll let you stroke yourself a little. Don’t move unless I say so, and stop when I tell you to.”
El’s answer was largely incoherent, but there were enough repetitions of yes mixed in with the profanity and pretty noises to make Dorran confident they were on board with the plan. “Go on, then.” Dorran let her voice slip down as low and commanding as she could muster. “Hurt yourself for me.”
There went the pain level, so fast Dorran had barely finished speaking. “Now you can stroke yourself, but not too fast. I can’t have you jostling anything while I’m trying to get clear readings.” Dorran set up an alert that would make her screen flash red if El’s data suggested they were getting close to orgasm, and as soon as she finished typing it in, she said, “Stop.”
Nearly instant compliance again, despite a very unhappy whine. Dorran loved their noises. Cyrill’s reports, no matter how colorful, had not even begun to do justice to what hearing El for herself was like. Dorran squeezed her thighs together for a moment and then shifted them firmly apart to keep from getting too distracted.
Each time Dorran made El stop, they got louder and their arousal levels were slower to drop away from their peak. “You’re doing so well,” Dorran said, not even trying to hide how pleased she was. “I’m almost ready to conclude the experiment. You can keep touching yourself, nice and slow, but don’t come until I give you permission.” It wasn’t likely that she could make El come on command, not on a first attempt, but the suggestion seemed to be inspiring.
The most impressive thing to Dorran was that El was still following her earlier instructions not to move their hips. There were far more motion readings now, but almost all of them were muscles tensing as El headed toward their long-delayed orgasm. Dorran kept one eye on the biometrics, but allowed herself to imagine what El might look like at the moment, stretched tight all over as they struggled to do everything Dorran said.
As their readings got high enough to tint Dorran’s screen red, El sounded like an absolute mess, breath catching in a way that was getting close to sobbing. “Okay,” Dorran said, raising her voice to be sure El heard but trying to sound gentle, “you can come.”
El managed in under a minute, which was better than most people could do on their first try. They stopped breathing entirely for a moment as they peaked, and it looked like their whole body shuddered through the aftershocks. Dorran drummed her fingers against her leg in time with El’s heartbeat as it made its way back to baseline. It was so relaxing that she jotted down a note to try it with Cyrill at some point, to find out if it worked as well in person.
“I hope you were serious about this thing being waterproof. It’s a huge mess.” El let out an exhausted, slightly hoarse giggle, sounding every bit as satisfied as Dorran could hope for. She was warm down to her toes with the mix of arousal and satisfaction at a job well done.
Dorran shot a fond smile at her comm. “I never joke about waterproofing. Trust me, given what I usually design, it’s an absolute necessity. You can wash it, use a sanitizing wipe, put it in a dishwasher, even — almost anything except an autoclave would be fine.”
There was a nervous little flutter to El’s pulse and they said, “So, I know this was theoretically for science and all, but if there’s something I could do to return the favor…?” Dorran winced. They sounded so hopeful, but she was long past the point of faking it for anyone, even if it was only over comms.
“I probably should have talked about this beforehand,” Dorran said, looking at anything other than the biometrics as she rattled off a version of her prepared statement. “I’m a bit on the far end of the bell curve of human sexuality, so while I’m very enthusiastic about other people having sex, I prefer to deal with my own wants and needs by myself.”
“Of course, whatever floats your boat,” Elia said. They sounded more okay with it than anyone except Cyrill, so Dorran snuck a peek at the data. Everything looked normal. “As long as I’m not leaving you hanging or… boring you or anything.”
“Oh, no, absolutely nothing like that!” Dorran said quickly. As usual, when El let their guard down, they were surprisingly sweet. “I actually wished I’d asked you if I could record a few times — you made some amazing noises back there. If you’d like to do this again sometime, I’d really enjoy having a copy so I could listen to it later.”
El huffed out a tiny sigh of relief and their stress levels dropped all the way back to baseline. “That’s really flattering, honestly. You signed a pretty thorough confidentiality agreement, so go nuts.” They sounded like they were smiling again, and Dorran felt her shoulders relax. “Also, if you want a recording of this time… I definitely recorded that.”
“That’s illegal,” Dorran said on auto-pilot. El let out an incredulous laugh and Dorran felt her face prickle with embarrassment. “Please disregard that. I’d love a copy, and thank you very much. I’ll give you my comm address, shall I?”
The two of them said their goodbyes, sleepy on El’s side, and ended the call. An anonymous file transfer popped up a few minutes later, with a note: One legal recording, compliments of your new test subject. Dorran grinned as she saved it, and then got back to work. If she wanted an early night so she could go home and enjoy listening to the recording, she had a lot to do.
— ♪ —
After Dorran damn near melted Elia’s brain out of their skull with comm sex, the issue of Cyrill moved from nagging to urgent. Elia found themself spending more time talking with Cyrill in hopes that he would give them any clue about what his actual goals were. A week of attempts left them with hours of detailed and creative dirty talk, a couple guilty orgasms, and an invitation to call Cyrill’s personal comm address anytime, but nothing that sounded more than mildly suspicious.
The few cautious questions Elia asked Dorran about Cyrill had only gotten Dorran to laugh at them and offer reassurances that it was fine. Elia couldn’t have disagreed more — Dorran was too trusting and Cyrill was devastatingly good at being charming. Whether Cyrill had been angling for corporate sabotage the whole time or had recently swapped sides under some kind of pressure, it was going to crush Dorran once she found out.
Since there was no chance Dorran would believe them without proof, Elia settled on the only solution: do something reckless and probably stupid. They headed out for a burner comm, and tried not to think about the dent it would take out of their savings.
One painfully expensive purchase later, Elia found a condemned building with only a few squatters in residence and climbed up to the roof. Newer developments on two sides hid the area in the shadows, and the sounds of traffic and pedestrians from below provided some welcome background noise.
Elia started recording, tapped in Cyrill’s comm address and hit connect with a faint wince. It took a few seconds to start ringing as the comm routed the call through who knew how many layers of security and different locations around the globe. The guy who had sold it to them claimed the records were erased when they hung up and it couldn’t be directly traced in under fifteen minutes. Elia started a countdown for half that, for safety’s sake.
“Cyrill Larsen speaking.” His voice was so clipped in professional mode, with none of the warmth that Elia had long since started taking for granted.
All of his usual friendliness was probably faked, no matter how much they wanted it to be genuine. Elia held the thought tight as a shield against any sweetness Cyrill might bring to bear. “It’s El. Do you have a minute to talk?”
“Good afternoon, El. I can certainly spare some time for you.” Sure enough, Cyrill’s tone softened as soon as he knew who he was talking to. Elia did their best to smother the stupid part of their brain that insisted it meant he liked them. “What can I do for you today? You seem somewhat stressed.”
The next part of their plan felt about as safe as hurling themself off the roof, emotionally. “So things aren’t great for me right now,” Elia said, letting every bit of genuine tension leak into their voice. “I’ll spare you the sob story. What would you pay me to hand over the radio?”
“I’d need to consult Dorran to see what her budget would allow, but I’d be happy to do that and get back to you in an hour or two.” Elia gritted their teeth at Cyrill’s blithe deflection.
“I’m not making this offer to Dorran or Lustic. I don’t know why, and honestly I don’t care, but I’m pretty fucking sure you want this for yourself.” Elia hoped the blunt phrasing would help gloss over the massive lie in the middle. “Now do you want to bullshit me more, or do you want to make a bargain?”
“You’re really far too clever,” Cyrill said, sounding both utterly sincere and remarkably displeased about the fact. “Well, I suppose there’s no need to keep up pretenses now.” Cyrill named a figure that made Elia’s jaw drop and calmly added, “A tenth up front, in untraceable chits, and the rest in a private account that you would have sole access to once the radio is in my hands, still functioning. Would that be acceptable?”
The sum was enough to let Elia pay for certifications to back up their skills, get on track to a real job, and never have to dig through other people’s trash again. They could even rent an apartment in a half-decent part of town. It was more money than they were going to see in their life, probably. Elia’s throat felt like it was going to close up, but they forced themself to speak. “Done. Drop the chits in the same place as before. Once I have them, I’ll call and we can pick a meeting place to hand off the radio.”
“Certainly. A pleasure doing business with you,” Cyrill said. He didn’t sound happy about it, but he hadn’t said no. Elia had their confession at last, with a side of feeling sick to their stomach. They’d wanted to be wrong, for Dorran’s sake if nothing else.
Since time was tight and there was no sense in secrecy any more, Elia punched in Dorran’s address on their personal comm. “Dorran, it’s El, can we talk?” Elia pulled out the radio and gripped the smooth plastic tight when their hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Cyrill would be contacting whoever he actually worked for to get the money dealt with, but that wouldn’t take long.
“El, are you okay? Is something wrong with the radio?” Any doubts Elia had about getting involved vanished at that. First them, then the radio? Dorran cared, and it turned out a lifetime of collecting trash and living in pods was a price they were willing to pay for that.
“It’s complicated. I need to speak to you in person. Get to a public park, not too near your office, and don’t tell anyone. Especially Cyrill. Please.” It was a big ask, so Elia tossed in the only bit of leverage they had: “I’ll give you the radio back.”
It was harder to make the offer than they would have expected. Losing the radio itself was nothing, as fun as it was. Losing the slice of fairy tale life they’d gotten used to, where someone cared how they were doing and called to chat? That stung. The idea of not talking to Dorran every day left Elia feeling hollow.
There was a steady trickle of background noises: fabric rustling, keys jingling, and hurried footsteps. “Okay, I’m on my way out,” Dorran said. “I’ll give you access to my location and send you a picture so you can find me, okay? I know a good place. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”
“Thanks,” Elia said, wishing there were other, better words that would actually cover everything they were feeling. “I’ll see you then.” They disconnected the call and hunkered down on the roof to cry for a minute, scrubbing away their tears on the sleeve of their coat.
Their comm pinged as Dorran sent what had to be a selfie she’d just taken. It wasn’t flattering — the lighting in her lab was harsh, and the beige walls covered with black, slightly off-level acoustic panels made for an awful background. The smile on her round face was strained, and one strand of purple-tipped hair was tucked wrong behind her ear so it stuck out sideways.
Her big, dark brown eyes were the worst part. The look of genuine concern damn near set Elia off all over again. They checked Dorran’s location — near Lustic’s main office but headed away fast enough to be in a car. Dorran had included her destination, one of the largest city parks that straddled a nicer neighborhood and one that was a half step up from the slums.
Good pick. I’ll come find you by the main fountain. Elia sent the text and made their way back down the building. With a bit of luck, they could make it to a larger street, catch a cab, and reach the park not long after Dorran. Then it would all be over, one way or another.
— ♪ —
Dorran perched on the edge of a bench facing the hideous concrete ‘art’ that served as the centerpiece to a large fountain. She flipped her comm back and forth between her hands at a steady clip, pausing every five passes to make sure El hadn’t sent her a message. There were tons of people walking by and Dorran’s eyes darted between them, ruling most of them out almost instantly. Too young, too old, too well-dressed — Dorran frowned at herself for the last one. It wasn’t a nice assumption, no matter how likely.
She was so wrapped up in watching everything that it took Dorran way too long to notice when someone started waving at her from the other side of the fountain. It had to be El. Dorran perked right up, smiling and waving back. They were tall and maybe on the skinnier side, given the way their baggy brown coat hung off their shoulders. It was covered in mismatched patches that were probably functional rather than fashionable, but it had enough pockets that Dorran instantly wanted one for herself.
El moved around people with a careful grace, hands jammed in one set of pockets and arms tucked close to their sides so they didn’t even brush up against anyone. “Hey, Dorran,” they said, easing down onto the bench next to her with a cautious smile. Their eyes were a warm brown and ringed with thick, unevenly applied eyeliner, but tinged red like they’d been crying. “Thanks for coming out here.”
“Hey, El!” Dorran knew she was smiling too much, but whatever the reason, it was so nice to see and hear El in person. The sound quality on the radio was good and all, but no microphone that small was going to capture all the details of someone’s voice. “Sorry, I know something’s wrong, but it’s really great to finally meet you.”
To her surprise, El’s smile got brighter as Dorran spoke, crinkling the corners of their eyes. The way their face lit up was like the critical final component slotting into place for Dorran’s maybe-a-crush and suddenly the system booted up perfectly without a single error message.
“Yeah, it is, but… it’s good to see you too,” El said. They looked away as they finished speaking and reached inside their coat, pulling out the radio. Their smile went wobbly and faded away entirely as they turned it over once in their hands and then held it out to Dorran.
She stared at it for several long seconds, waiting for some kind of emotional reaction. It was her baby, finally come back to her, but the only thing she felt was the same worry for El that had plagued her since they spoke earlier. She took it anyway and set it in her lap. “So, what did you need to talk to me about?”
“More like I need you to listen to something.” El pulled out an ancient comm and a single wireless earbud, passing the latter over to Dorran. “And for what it’s worth, I’m really sorry about this.”
Dorran listened to the brief conversation between El and Cyrill with a sinking heart but less surprise than she would have guessed she’d feel. Cyrill had always been a bit too good to be true. She tugged the earbud free and twirled it around in her fingers, staring at the ground as El told her about the night they found the radio and how they later recognized Cyrill. Dorran nodded along, drifting in a disappointed haze that refused to offer up anything helpful.
One of El’s hands inched into Dorran’s field of view, hovering over her own. “Are you gonna be okay? If you want me to get more information from him or pretend to go through with the meet-up or anything, just say the word and I’ll do it.” They sounded almost as lost as Dorran felt.
“I’ll probably be fine,” Dorran said. She had no idea if it was true, but it was a nice, normal thing to say. Better than calling herself gullible or wondering why Cyrill had tried to steal the radio. Had he been lying the whole time he’d known her? Dorran took one of El’s hands, flipped it over, and dropped the earbud into their palm. “Thank you for doing all this.”
A faint laugh made Dorran look up to see El trying to smooth away a smile. “Thanks for stealing your stuff and refusing to give it back? You sure about that one?” It was amazing to be able to put gestures to El’s tones, like the little head tilt that went with friendly but incredulous.
“If you hadn’t done that, Cyrill would have taken it and been long gone.” Dorran realized she was still holding El’s hand, but they didn’t seem to mind and the warmth was nice. “Besides, you’ve been an excellent test subject, and I’ve really enjoyed talking with you,” Dorran said, voice dropping to a whisper as her brain unfogged enough to decide it was time for sadness.
“Same here.” El’s hand twitched under hers, then curled tighter. “We don’t have to stop talking,” they said, voice ticking up at the end like it was a question. “I mean, at the very least you owe me a rant on that manufacturer you were so mad at the other day.”
Dorran rolled her eyes and groaned, but was thrilled to have a simple topic to latch onto. “Those guys. ‘Oh, we’re sorry, Ms. Lee, but small orders are automatically moved down our production queue.’ I specifically asked about turnaround times when I sent them the schematics!” Had El listened to all her rants with that adorable little smile on their face? Maybe not everything about the situation was terrible.
It would have been a perfect moment, except that Dorran spotted Cyrill advancing on them over El’s shoulder and sat bolt upright. El’s quick reflexes saved them from a head to head collision, but they also tugged their hand free when they turned to follow Dorran’s gaze. “That’s Cyrill, isn’t it? Should we go?”
“What’s he going to do to me in a crowded park?” Dorran asked, shaking her head. “You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to — he probably won’t recognize you if you stay quiet.” She’d daydreamed about all of them meeting more than a few times, but not even her worst case scenarios had been like this.
That was all the discussion they had time for before Cyrill strolled up to them, with the worst fake smile Dorran had ever seen plastered on his face. He glanced down and of course Dorran had left the radio sitting in plain sight, right there on her lap. Cyrill’s weak facade crumbled, mouth flattening out and shoulders slumping forward.
“I suppose this simplifies matters,” he said, scanning Dorran’s face for something. She didn’t even know what expression she had right now, but it couldn’t be good. “Are you going to turn me in to Lustic, darling? I do understand if that’s a yes — or if it’s already too late for me to even ask you not to.”
“I haven’t told anyone yet,” Dorran said. Her voice came out strained and awful. She started fiddling with the radio, and it helped a little bit. “I’ll give you some time to pack up, or whatever. A day or two?”
Cyrill tipped an imaginary hat with a ghost of his usual charming smile. “A day would be very generous of you, Dorran.” He watched her a moment longer, and then sank down into a crouch so he could meet her eyes. “You have treated me with incredible kindness, and whether or not you wish to believe it, I regret having to spend time with you under false pretenses. You deserve better.”
Dorran gripped the radio tighter and looked down at her hands, cataloging the uneven edges of her nails, the tiny papercut on her ring finger, and the way her knuckles were going white. “I really liked you,” she said, pressing her empty palm down harder against her leg. “I thought we were friends.”
Bad enough that she was in public for this conversation, but El was right there, getting a front-row seat to Dorran sounding like a petulant child who didn’t know how the world worked. Some hopeful corner of Dorran’s heart wanted them to stay, after Cyrill left, even if all they could offer was a friendly ear to listen to boring work complaints. She’d have more of those now, without Cyrill to act as a buffer between her and office politics.
“We were, and much more than I normally allow myself to put anyone in that category. I am sorry, truly.” Cyrill rested a hand on the bench, next to her leg, but Dorran only shifted away. With a quick nod, he got to his feet and gave his slacks a tug to smooth them out. “But I’m sure you’ll forget about me in no time. You are a genius, after all — far too sensible to pine after a scoundrel like me for long.”
“I never thought of you like that,” Dorran said, “and I don’t want to forget you.” Her throat was getting thick and the pressure behind her eyes was awful. There were strangers everywhere, and if she started crying it would make a scene and they would all stare—
Cyrill pushed a small multi-tool under Dorran’s hand. “Breathe, darling. I don’t have to run off right this second. We have time to talk first if you need to.” Dorran flipped out a flathead screwdriver and twirled the whole thing around in her fingers. It was so heavy on the one end that it took a lot of focus not to drop.
El let out an exasperated sigh. “Do you actually have to run off at all? Look, unless you’re the world’s best actor, you didn’t want to do any of this. You barely tried to get the radio back from me at all until I forced your hand. How bad is your remaining debt?” The question made no sense, but Cyrill was looking at El like they’d said something unexpected and clever.
“What debt?” Dorran asked, looking between the two of them in total confusion. El patted the bench next to themself and Cyrill sat down, though he was still too tense to do more than perch on the edge.
Dorran emerged from her fog of awfulness enough to really look at the two of them. Cyrill looked awful, tense and awkward, with his shirt buttoned all the way up to the neck in a way he hated and never did except for the most formal of meetings. El was harder to read. They looked almost… fond? Certainly more at ease than Dorran was.
“Almost nobody gets into corporate espionage for fun,” El said, prompting a faint huff of laughter from Cyrill. “He’s clearly good at his job, so I’m betting he’s been at this for a while.” They glanced over at Cyrill, and he nodded. “So unless you’ve been blowing your money like an idiot, I’m guessing whatever debt you have left isn’t that terrible — or do they have other hooks in you?”
Dorran flipped through the rest of the tools, naming each one by feel as she clicked it free and letting the information settle into place. Corporate espionage meant it wasn’t anything to do with her personally and that meant everything Cyrill had said with his apology was probably true. It almost made her feel like crying again, but from relief.
“I have been underestimating you from the night we met, haven’t I?” Cyrill’s tone was friendly in the softer, sincere way that Dorran mostly heard when they were alone together. “You’re entirely correct. Purely monetary, and the remaining sum is… tolerable, though the terms of repayment are less than generous if I’m not working for them. What’s your plan?”
El’s grin made their whole face light up again and that loosened a lot of the tension in Dorran’s body. “You both like each other. You both deserve better than your current jobs. Take Dorran’s amazing tech and amazing brain, your marketing know-how, and use that to set up your own business. I doubt you’d have much trouble finding investors.” El ended out their brilliant idea with a small shrug and leaned back against the bench.
Dorran’s hand traced over the edges of the radio as she tried not to light up at El’s praise. “That might be a viable option. Cyrill talked me into keeping the intellectual property rights to most of my designs, so we would have a good base to start from. There’s a small penalty for ending my contract with Lustic early, but if we could hold out for a couple months, I could avoid that.”
“Unfortunately, I’ve been stringing my employers along as much as I dared to,” Cyrill said, with the sort of disgusted wrinkle of his nose Dorran had only seen him apply to meetings and cooked cauliflower previously. “If your second version of the radio is as close to completion as I think, we could go through with the hand-off of the original that they regrettably heard me set up earlier.”
“You could buy yourself a lot of time to launch it first by erasing all the labels on the motherboard and maybe doing something to obfuscate the code,” El suggested. “Anything where it still functions will keep Cyrill out of trouble, but it’ll take them forever to puzzle it out.”
Dorran nodded along, pulling out her comm and looking over the original schematics with an eye toward causing problems. It was fairly complex — even just removing the notes in the code would add heaps of work. “Will the start of next year be a reasonable time for you to change jobs, El? I assume the money you’ll get for handing over the radio will more than cover any moving expenses.”
El held up both hands, shaking their head. “Whoa now, I’m not sure why you’re including me in this planning. I’m not involved.” Cyrill scoffed and stared El down until they looked away.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dorran said absently, pulling up the list of designs and prototypes that still belonged to her. “We need someone to be the voice of reason, plus I’m one hundred percent sure you have the skills I’d need in a lab assistant.” She paused mid-list and gave El a reassuring smile. “To be clear, I mean doing actual tech work, though obviously I would love to have you both on hand for product testing.”
Cyrill leaned in to whisper in El’s ear, just loud enough that Dorran could make out what he was saying. “I’m sure you don’t trust me, but you know Dorran is honest and I completely agree with her estimation of your talents. Besides, you should know by now that her genius extends well beyond circuitry and programming. Let me assure you from personal experience that you won’t regret taking her up on both parts of the offer.”
“How about a month to month contract to start out, El?” Dorran offered. “If we’re not actually a good fit, or you hate the work, you’ll be free to go.” She was tempted to add in a spicier offer, but really, Cyrill had the seduction side of things covered and then some. “Pay won’t be amazing, as a startup, but I’m sure we can at least swing some housing accommodations.”
El’s eyes were wide, though whether it was shock or interest, Dorran wasn’t sure. She’d have to learn their body language now, but hopefully it wouldn’t take too long. They managed a slow nod and held out their hands in both directions for Dorran and Cyrill to shake. “You have some very convincing arguments — I think I’d be an idiot to turn you down.” Dorran’s heart lifted as their beautiful smile came back full force. “It’s Elia Edwards, if you’re going to be drawing up any kind of official paperwork.”
“Lovely to meet you properly at last, Elia.” Cyrill shook their hand with the sort of heated eye contact he often used to start a seduction — though in this case, it was really more of a continue. Judging by the flustered look on Elia’s face, the move was as effective on them as it was on most people Cyrill’s had in his sights. If the two of them had the same level of chemistry when they were having sex, Dorran had hit an absolute jackpot.
Dorran nudged El’s shoulder and gave them a reassuring smile. “You’ll get used to him after a bit, but he almost never stops flirting. I’ve managed to distract him enough to stop a few times, but it takes more than you would expect.” Maybe finishing the list could wait for later, actually. “Interested in a demonstration? I’d love to show you my lab while I still have it.”
“And I’d love for you to watch her work me over,” Cyrill said, smoothing his thumb over Elia’s knuckles as he spoke. Dorran heard their breath catch and every instinct she had agreed this was going to be great. “Or perhaps you’d like to be more involved? I’ve offered you quite a variety of things in our recent chats, and I would be delighted to have the chance to fulfill some of those promises.”
Elia’s eyes were even prettier when they went wide with interest. “I don’t suppose you recorded any of that?” Dorran asked hopefully. Cyrill shook his head at the exact moment Elia nodded. They glanced at each other and Elia grinned, a sharp flash of teeth that had Cyrill looking a bit star-struck.
“I started recording our conversations as soon as I realized you were the guy who chased me when I found the radio, and that was….” From the way Elia glanced up at the people walking by and how Cyrill’s smile went even more smug than usual, Dorran could guess the context.
“Something we can talk about back at the lab?” she suggested. She tucked her comm into her pocket and got up. Cyrill instantly followed suit, keeping a loose hold on Elia’s hand as he stood that they could easily slip free from.
They didn’t pull away, but did hesitate and glance over at Dorran, so she reached out a hand too. With an incredulous laugh, Elia took it and let Cyrill and Dorran pull them to their feet. “Look, it’s a tempting offer for sure, but a solid job prospect and a visit to sex toy paradise might be a bit much for me to handle in one day.”
“How about dinner, then?” Cyrill offered. “Our treat, since you’ve done both of us rather sizable favors.” He was staring Elia down, despite the fact they were slightly taller, but the curve of his mouth suggested it was meant to be a friendly challenge.
Elia rolled their eyes and gave Dorran’s hand a little tug, as if to pull her into the conversation. “Let me guess: after dinner, it’ll be dessert, and after dessert he’ll have managed to persuade me back to your lab for that demonstration after all?”
“Statistically, yes,” Dorran said. “Unless I get going on a really good idea, in which case he’ll drop everything to make sure I can keep working. He rented out a restaurant overnight once, and then somehow charmed finance into letting us expense it.” Dorran felt a little shaky at the memory, and relieved to know that most if not all of his caring had been genuine.
Elia gave both their hands a squeeze and gently pulled free. Dorran’s heart sank a little — it had been a bad day, and selfishly, she really wanted to keep Cyrill and Elia close, no matter what shape that took. “Okay,” Elia said, shaking their head slowly. “I’m agreeing to dinner, anywhere that won’t get me dirty looks for how I’m dressed.”
“I know a few excellent options nearby that have private rooms,” Cyrill said, pulling out his comm. “That should deal with any concerns over attire, and will give Dorran space to work on the radio, since I rather doubt she’ll be able to leave it alone much longer.”
Now that he’d mentioned it, Dorran was hyper-aware of its weight in her pocket. Designing it had been a joy, but getting to sabotage it was its own thrill. If anywhere nearby sold contact film, or even screen protectors, she could use that to recover the sweat sensor and maybe one or two more….
“Is she always this cute when she gets focused?” Elia asked. Dorran jolted back into focus to find both them and Cyrill giving her identical fond smiles. “I’m totally heartbroken I didn’t get to see this when she went off on all those tangents.”
Cyrill’s comm chimed with a message and he tapped out a quick reply. “Yes, and even more so when she’s actively working on something.” He tucked his comm away and held out his arm to Elia, who took it with a pleased look. “I caught her with a bolt behind one ear and a screwdriver in her teeth once.”
“Only once!” Dorran protested. “It was a large build and my assistant had already gone home, so I didn’t have enough hands.” Cyrill and Elia shared a glance that suggested her explanation had done absolutely nothing to change their feelings on the matter.
“Of course, darling,” Cyrill said placatingly. “Now then, would you two give me the pleasure of escorting you to dinner?” He leaned in to Elia and added, “Maybe even dessert after?”
Whatever Elia’s protests, Dorran could see their resistance melting away under the heat of Cyrill’s charm. “Yes to dinner, maybe to dessert. As for the rest….” Elia pondered as Cyrill led the way toward whatever restaurant he’d chosen. Dorran kept a close eye on Elia’s face and was rewarded with another stunning smile. “Well, I guess you have my permission to try to seduce me, if you can.”