I always love working with Rynns, so I've been rather Rynn-centric in this one. It was fun choosing to push on her and see how she shifts the fates with careful words and powerful acts.
"Beautiful, isn't it," boomed a voice from behind the two adventurers. Alice whirled around to find a cleanly shaven man, immaculately dressed. In his hands he held a glass of what looked to be a fine whiskey, its color accentuating the rims of his glasses with lightly smoked lenses. Rynn appeared to have already been facing him and stood there looking at the newcomer. Alice seethed in frustration, "does that woman ever actually have to turn around, or is she always facing the right direction in the first place?"
"My name is Matthews," he continued. "I've been eagerly looking forward to meeting you both." He looked at the bodies of the guards at the doorway, "you did not disappoint."
"You built this monstrosity?" Alice exclaimed. She drew herself a hair closer to a ready stance, square to Matthews with her full body ready to strike at any moment.
"Yes, I built this monstrosity, and a beautiful monstrosity she is, is she not? It is amazing what a decade of raw will can do to father an act of creation." He took a measured sip from his glass and let the liquid slosh around in his mouth before continuing. "It is so easy to create a knife which cuts deep to the soul, but much harder to sew the wound shut again in the shape of your pleasing."
Alice took these words as though an alien uttered them, an alien whom she would never understand because she didn't want to understand. "You treat the mind like it's a toy to be played with. Even if you had found the secret of alchemy, things like this," gesticulating towards the chair, "should be destroyed. They play with too great a power."
Matthews smiled widely, and almost bowed, "It is quite an accomplishment. Of course, I cannot claim to have discovered the secret of alchemy. I simply found another way to power." He slid over to the wall nearest him and smoothly pulled a brass lever. The wall parted and rose up to reveal a room behind it. In this room, amidst gleaming brass machinery, were hundreds upon hundreds of glass vessels, stacked to the ceiling. Each was full of flesh, twisted and tumorous. The machinery seemed to breathe and pulse, forcing life into the piles of flesh. Alice could hear screaming from them. No, that's not quite right. It wasn't "hearing" that she was doing. In some odd way, she felt them screaming. Agony, it was.
Alice looked to Rynn, whose smile had faded to a thin red line. Alice's thoughts suddenly spiraled out in front of her: "I've never felt anything like this before; it's overwhelming. But what about Rynn? She picks up all sorts of details like this. It must be utterly agonizing for her to look at them. I'm amazed she's still standing."
Matthews continued on. "This is the real heart of the machine. 973 individual containers of living matter, linked by machine. You see, the secret to brainwashing is simple, really. Every mind is different, and if you simply try to force your will onto it like a battering ram, each mind comes up with a different and ingenious way to keep you out. Even if you strike at the same mind repeatedly, each time it comes up with a new solution to repel the blow. However, offer a place for the mind to grow, and it happily reveals its secrets, including the nature of its own defenses. We simply, oh, what's a good word for it.... 'inspire' these containers to be receptive to any mind and wait for the secrets to come to us."
Rynn spoke for the first time since his arrival, her voice calm, but measured. "If each mind thinks differently, as you say, it would take a very long time to teach your 'creation' how to understand our thoughts. This machine does it quickly, so I assume you're trading off size for speed. It seems difficult to store a whole mind in here. It's too small of a room. Only a fraction would fit."
"That is the true joy of my creation. I don't have to integrate with the whole mind at once. People's minds are built in layers. It's how they can stand back up again after someone knocked them down. They simply dig deeper and rise up again. They're marvelous creatures, really." Matthews had grown excited, sharing his work with others. His glass now rested on a table next to the machine's controls, and he was gesticulating to emphasize his points. "All we must do is provide sufficient... stimulation to encourage a clean break between the layers, then she integrates with the outermost layer. Once that is complete, we can simply siphon away the essence of that layer to be put back later, flush her containers again, and begin on the next layer. Once we are done, it's just a matter of using her to help put the layers back, one by one."
"And if the machine were overwhelmed by trying to chew off too big a layer?" Rynn looked skeptical, but Alice swore she heard something in her voice. There was something in her intonation that was cloyingly familiar to Alice. She'd heard it used before. She just couldn't put a finger on it. It was pushing, in a sense. Forcing. But if she hadn't been working with Rynn recently, she'd have never noticed.
"That, my dear, is where the power of statistics comes in. We measured countless minds, stripping thousands upon thousands of layers. My creation is sized sufficiently that I'm more likely to find the alchemist's stone itself than find a mind that can't be set upon by my machine. There are always edges in a person's mind to grasp, and we can find them!" He turned to stare directly at Rynn through his smoke-tinted glasses, "Why, I'd bet even you would submit to this machine in no more than 10 minutes' time."
Alice immediately raised her weapon to fully ready, crouching slightly ready to spring at Matthews' throat. He chuckled, "Relax. If I had wanted you put in the machine by force, I would have done it while I still had an army at my beck and call. Think of it more as a challenge, from one creative force to another. We are kindred spirits, trying to make sense of the world and make it suit our purposes. See what I have created. Experience it."
Rynn walked over to the window into the room crammed to the brim with containers. She touched one of them lightly. She held her finger on it for a moment, perhaps two, then pulled back quickly but controlled. Was there a purring noise from the vat as she touched it? Hallucinated sensations can be so hard to evaluate, thought Alice.
"You don't need to brainwash me. If all you care about is a strong mind to test your machine against, there are plenty of others. Why bother focusing on me at all?"
"You are right," he boomed, "but you are here, so it seems like you would be the best candidate for the job. What do you say? I know you are special. Are you up for testing what you are made of?" Rynn did not respond.
Matthews paused for a bit, picked up his whiskey glass and turned to Alice, "Tell ya what: how about I sweeten the deal. I know Rynn wouldn't be interested in a trade for information, but you just might be. It's amazing the things you learn when shucking minds is your occupation. You'd be amazed at how much your parents wished they could have told you, but never got the chance. Think of what I might be able to tell you, if only she gave my creation a try." He raised his glass in her direction.
Alice was electrified. Until now, the focus had been on Rynn and Rynn alone. Rynn remained cool, calm, and...well... Rynn. Now the attention was on her. Matthews's stare was infectious. She almost felt the excitement of discovery flowing from his eyes through the smoked lenses. Instinctively she began calming exercises, but every adventurer knows the one place those exercises don't work is the place you need them to work.
Rynn rescued her, "So you want a strong mind to test the mettle of your machine, and you're willing to offer Alice information you think she might be interested in, regardless of the result of the test?" Matthews smiled and nodded.
Rynn said nothing more to him. She walked up to the machine and sat down. Matthews deftly hooked up several electrodes and hypodermic needles, then shimmied to the control panel like an excited child running off to his tree fort.
Alice looked at Rynn, then at Matthews, then back at Rynn. She swore she saw just a flash of a smile. Thinking back, she almost even remembered feeling the vats stop screaming and smile too. It wasn't for long: just a split second before Matthews flipped a switch and sent the vats into indescribable wracking pain.
Rynn stepped down from the machine. It wasn't quite a stagger, but it was certainly not Rynn's usual level of grace in movement. She took a few steps towards Alice, and rested a hand on her shoulder. Rynn's breath was calm, but it felt like that was the only calm part left in her. The rest of her moved like strands of a wire flexed one too many times.
"What now?" asked Alice. She looked over at Matthews standing rigid next to the control panel, knife against his own throat. He quivered slightly, but other than that, he dared not move. "What are you going to do with him?"
"I'm not going to do anything. He's not mine to deal with. He's yours." Alice frowned in confusion at Rynn's words. Rynn continued, "If I had tried to control his mind while in that machine, he'd have felt it and stopped it. He's no fool, and his attention was completely devoted towards me. I had no opportunity. You, however, you did have the opportunity. He wasn't paying as much attention to you as he was to me."
"But, I didn't do anything. He wasn't even hooked up to the machine!"
"Wires and chemical injections never had much to do with it. Regardless, he is not mine to deal with."
Alice thought for a moment, "If I did this, and not you... I don't even know what I 'did!' What would have happened if I didn't?"
"I had confidence." Rynn raised up and walked out the door. The vats of matter were broken and leaking. The machine would be inert soon enough. Alice swore she saw wisps of something slowly uncoiling from the containers and dancing about in their own right. Their dance was free spirited, but seemed to drift in the direction Rynn was walking. Rynn even seemed to walk a little straighter as the wisps got near, offering them direction. They walked with her.
None of this made any sense to Alice. Just a few weeks earlier, she could trust her senses. She lamented the continued streak of hallucinations that seemed to follow her when she was around Rynn.
Alice looked back at Matthews. His eyes cried for death, but his hand seemed to refuse the order. His lips trembled, as though they were begging for Alice to give a command but could not form the words on his lips. It truly looked like he would stand there in pain until he starved to death if she gave the order. "Oh bother," she thought, "what to do, what to do."
It really was a monstrous machine.