CATHERINE BELL *is* Ronnie Allbriton, Slave of Kul*Dakar!

Spellbinding Tales of Virtual Adventure!
trapped in time


 Liz!The phone on Ronnie's desk rang, the warbling tone designating a call internal to the TESSERACT Headquarters Campus.  "Games, Cultural Design," she answered.

"You owe me, Allbriton," an alto voice drawled.

"Liz!" Ronnie said with a grin, recognizing her friend from R&D Technical Services.  "You aren't finished already, are you?" The entire Game Design Team will be *very* grateful...

"Ha, I like that!" Liz retorted, with a cynical laugh.  "I go out on a limb and upgrade your personal SPHERUS unit to full TIKLER six months ahead of schedule and you complain I'm too fast."

"It's not my 'personal SPHERUS unit'," Ronnie protested in mock outrage.  "The entire Game Design Team will be very grateful you stepped us ahead of the queue and—"

"I've seen the logs, Allbriton," Liz interrupted.  "You spend twice as much time in VR as the rest of your Division put together." *Full Life Support?*

Ronnie blushed.  "I like designing things from the inside out," she said defensively.  "It speeds up the refresh cycle, and—"

"Don't get your panties in a bunch," Liz interrupted again, "I'm just rattling your cage.  Listen, there are things you need to know about this new unit.  Open the file I just sent you."

Ronnie turned to her workstation and tapped a few keys.  "SPHERUS-V(T)/FLS," she read aloud.  "'Full Life Support?'" You arent gonna get us in *trouble*, are you?

"You read so very well," Liz said sarcastically.  "The only way I could sneak you an upgrade was to down a spare LS unit for one of Margo's black programs."

Ronnie frowned.  Everyone at TESSERACT knew Margo Wells had dozens of "black" or "secret" projects underway at any given time.  "You aren't gonna get us in trouble, are you?"

"The unit genuinely failed a maintenance check," Liz explained.  "I replaced the faulty module and diverted it to your Division for 'troubleshooting.'  It's a backup to a backup.  We'll be in Generation Six before anyone asks for it back.  Anyhow, it is a full life support unit, but leave the LS subsystem on standby and the catheters and feeding tubes don't engage unless the medical monitors decide you need them, and then it's automatic, so—"  Ronnie heard Liz* keyboard clacking over the link.

"Can't you just disconnect all that?" Ronnie interrupted.

Liz laughed.  "That's about six month's work, with the full-time help of the code jockeys that wrote the triply redundant safety and medical routines.  By the way... you'll need a new VR unitard for the new unit, one that doesn't mask the TIKLER sensors, that or your birthday suit.  Now, check this out." Wow!

Ronnie heard Liz' keyboard clacking over the link.  Her monitor cleared, and a full color 3-D image snapped into focus.  Ronnie instantly recognized part of her prize-winning creation, The Lost City of Kul'Dakar.  "Wow!" she gasped.  The image was clearer and more detailed than what she usually worked with by an order of magnitude!   Shafts of dappled sunlight played across moss and lichen covered stone walls.  A spider was spinning an orb across a dark opening.  "Valpakra!" Ronnie whispered.  It was a side entrance to Kul'Dakar's ruined "Palace of Pain", the complex of dungeons and torture chambers used to train and discipline the horde of fictional slaves that supported, had supported, the fictional Kul'Dakar Amazons' predatory economy.  I have *got* to see this.

"Did I mention the new and improved super-servers that come with the new unit?" Liz asked smugly.  "Sixteen giga-quads of ambiance, plus direct channels to as much more power as the network can spare.  This is as real as VR can get... at the moment.  Check back with me next week."

"Wow!" Ronnie repeated.  "I have got to see this in full VR!"

Liz laughed.  "It's Friday afternoon, Allbriton," she observed.  "Leave it 'til Monday... I mean Tuesday .  It's a three day weekend, remember?  Anyway, I've got a soccer team to coach.  Bye!"

"Bye Liz," Ronnie mumbled, still staring at the screen.  "Thanks!" she added hastily, then hung up the phone, mesmerized by the photorealistic realization of her creation.  "I have got to see this."
If found, return to TESSERACT SECURITY.This place is a ghost town, Ronnie mused as she walked through the nearly deserted Entertainment Division corridors, waving amiably at the few coworkers she encountered who hadn't yet left for the long weekend.  Ronnie had scheduled a late afternoon Robo-Tae-Bo session at the Health Club Gym, but testing the new SPHERUS unit was just too tempting.  She'd put her hour of time sparring with the "smart dummy" up for grabs and it was immediately snapped up by the scheduling agent of some other "TESSERACT Tae-Bo Tart." I'll run an extra six miles this weekend, she promised herself.

Ronnie arrived at her Team's Storeroom and swiped her security badge through the reader to open the door.  She passed through and it hissed closed and locked behind her.  Ronnie continued forward through the clutter of shelves and cabinets groaning with Video and Virtual game products (TESSERACT's and their partners' and competitors'), books, old briefing binders, stored files, holiday decorations, bulk coffee and tea, office supplies, etc., etc.  She approached a nondescript alcove tucked into the far wall and swiped her card through another, inconspicuous reader.  The projected image of a touch-pad appeared, as if by magic, its numbers glowing in red on the alcove's mirrored wall.  Ronnie entered her access code and the wall rumbled aside. 

When her Team had moved into their spaces in the new Headquarters Campus, they were allocated a secure storeroom with an included high security vault for "sensitive or classified material" (even though her Team neither worked with nor generated "sensitive or classified materials").  The hidden, unnecessarily secure vault was at first thought to be a rare example of TESSERACT bureaucratic waste, but possession of the "Virtual Dungeon" (as the Game Division insiders now called the hidden space) turned out to be a happy circumstance when they went looking for a place to install the Team's SPHERUS unit.  Full VR rigs were in great demand at TESSERACT HQ, and having one squirreled away where almost no one knew about it greatly simplified the Team's scheduling problems.  It wasn't exactly an actual secret, but the Team kept "forgetting" to order the required signage designating a SPHERUS Facility, and they resolved to keep the number of non- Team Members who knew about the system to an absolute minimum.  (Liz, Ronnie's friend and the Team's technical support, was, of course, very much the exception.)

"Wow!" Ronnie gasped aloud.  The new, Generation Five SPHERUS was nearly half the size of their old unit, the spherical framework and armatures much less complicated.  One of TESSERACT's stated long-term goals was to develop a full VR unit for the home consumer market within five years, and Ronnie was beginning to believe Liz and her techno geek friends just might pull it off.  The controls were reassuringly familiar, the interface screen identical to what Ronnie was used to.  Time to suit up, she thought, and opened the gym locker tucked in a small, curtained alcove near the door.  To her momentary surprise no spandex VR unitard was waiting, just a few empty hangers and a hand scrawled note.  It read:
RonOld suit not TIKLER compatible.
New suit ordered.  Remember, skin only!Liz
Oh yeah, Ronnie remembered, she mentioned that.  Well, if I'm going to be prancing around here naked...  She walked to the door, inserted her security badge in the reader slot, and keyed the sequence that locked the vault and gave her "full privacy" on the Campus network.  Now, no one would be able to disturb or even find her using the TESSERACT network's public locator system; therefore, no suddenly opening doors, no pop-up video links, and no "urgent" message relays (as unlikely as these events were, this late on a get-out-of-town Friday).  Ronnie was a little shy.  She wasn't a prude, but she certainly wasn't an exhibitionist, either.  She stepped back to the locker and began undressing.

Ronnie in the mirror.|.rorrim eht ni einnoR Ronnie stepped out of her "sensible" pumps and carefully hung her sweater, top, and skirt from hangers.  She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirrored wall next to the open locker... and smiled.  Ronnie was your classic "late bloomer."   She had taken a lot of grief in High School for her "scrawny geek" figure, compounded by her quiet demeanor and bookworm habits.  Twelve years later, with advanced degrees in History and Cultural Anthropology, after countless miles of running and countless hours of Tae-Bo...  Who's scrawny now? Ronnie mused, admiring her toned, sleek, buxom figure... then blushed self-consciously. Silly idiot!  Ronnie didn't need to prove anything to anyone anymore. 

She began removing what Ronnie thought of as "Veronica's Secret," her "hot lingerie."  Today she was wearing bikini panties and bra, both in a leopard skin print.  Liz, among others, constantly teased Ronnie about her mousy dressing habits, her propensity for conservative business attire in muted earth tones, "virgin librarian drag," as Liz put it.  Like I need fashion advice from someone who practically sleeps in TESSERACT-issue coveralls , the nearly naked brunette mused.  Little did her friend and other coworkers suspect her secret indulgence: "naughty undies ."

Wearing only her glasses, Ronnie closed the locker, pattered to the SPHERUS console, and began programming her session:
PLACE: Lost City of Kul'Dakar.   (Ronnie specified coordinates near the main gate.)
TIME: Early Morning.   (She loved the play of the jungle mist rising through shafts of tropical sunlight.)
WEATHER: Dry/Hot.   (As one wag on the Design Team had noted, for a rainforest, the jungle surrounding Kul'Dakar never seemed to get much rain.)
COSTUME: LC1.  (Ronnie's favorite "Lara Croft Wannabe" outfit: dark gray T-shirt and shorts, jungle boots, "stun pistol" in a shoulder holster, and a long boot knife.)
ENCOUNTERS: Nominal/Neutral (Friendly).   (No need for excitement this trip.  She just wanted to admire the scenery.)
SPECIAL: PADD (Full Feature).   (Ronnie always carried a "Personal Access Data Device" when she entered VR to work.  It was really just a system interface (conveniently styled to resemble a PalmCom, a handheld computer.   It allowed Ronnie direct control of all parameters of the Virtual environment from inside the session.  Programming the "device" had given the code jockeys fits.  Overriding the various safeguards and controls so Ronnie could change the running program without the entire system crashing had not been a trivial task, but all agreed the results for the Design Team had been well worth the trouble.)
TIME COMPRESSION: Maximum (10x.)   (Ronnie liked "apparent game time" to run fast.  Her perceptions would all still seem perfectly normal, of course, but it allowed her to get a lot more work done.  With the TC factor set at 10, she could stay in Kul'Dakar past sunset (always a spectacular sight) and still make her solo dinner reservation at The Cedar Plank, one her favorite Seattle restaurants.)
Ronnie was very careful to make sure the Life Support system was set on STANDBY No need to get double goosed by catheters and have a nano-tentacle feeding tube snake down my nose, she thought with a delicate shudder.  The status board blinked "READY".  Ronnie removed her glasses and set them on the console, then stepped towards the waiting machine.  Like the rest of the system, the open VR cocoon was more compact than the previous model; much more like a futuristic fully-articulated suit of plate armor; much less like a steel moon suit.  Ronnie settled into the sensor bead lined cocoon cavity, settled her hands and feet into the gloves and feet, and took a deep breath.  The panels snapped closed one by one, then slowly squeezed her limbs and torso to achieve perfect fit.  The full head mask closed last of all.  Several seconds of total immobility and isolation followed (as well as carefully controlled panic (Ronnie was a trifle claustrophobic)), then...

Wow! Ronnie mused, I mean WOW!  She was used to VR being, well, realistic... but this was so real, so much better than Generation Four it was scary!  Huge forest giants with buttressed roots, flowering vines, ferns, bromeliads, orchids, butterflies, colorful birds...  Okay, granted the jungle was a little Disneyesque (no clouds of stinging biting insects; no disabling parasites, disfiguring skin rashes, and various fevers and diseases not known to Medical Science); but who wants to play in a festering, humid, snake, spider, and ant infested natural jungle when you can play in the most picturesque, artistically naturalistic tropical garden imaginable?

Ronnie made her way down the jungle trail, approaching the Lost City, a journey she had made countless times... but never like this!  The sound of distant birdcalls; tiny, unseen things scurrying away into the leaf litter; the smell of damp wood, green leaves, and countless blossoms; a breeze stirring the canopy and lifting strands of her short hair...  Wow!

She was nearing the turn in the trail that would provide her first good look at the jungle clearing containing the main entrance to Kul'Dakar.  This is gonna be good, Ronnie mused... and it was!  The massive blocks of Kul'Dakar's "Victory Gate" were draped in vines (some flowering) and overgrown with moss, lichens, and tropical epiphytes.  The mist and sunlight effect Ronnie loved so well lent the massive, mostly intact gatehouse and city walls the airy feel of one of Monet's cathedrals, only the un-shrouded detail was crisp and absolutely photo-realistic.  Wow! Ronnie mused, then smiled ruefully.  Time to stop staring like a hick, Ron, she scolded herself, and get to work.

Time to become... "Action RonnieIntrepid Adventuress!" (the teasing but good-natured nickname her coworkers had given her favorite VR persona).  Ronnie checked the energy cell in her stun pistol, eased her jungle knife in its boot sheath, and settled her PADD in its belt case.  It was a ritual, something Ronnie always did before venturing into her creation to get herself into the mindset of The Gamer.  This was also the reason she dressed the part (in VR)... at least that was what she told her fellow designers.  (Truth be told, Ronnie loved playing "Action Ronnie," pretending she was venturing into Unknown Peril.)

Ronnie entered the city.  The massive teak and iron portals of the Victory Gate had long since returned to the soil, but the bas-relief sculptures adorning the walls could still be seen: wagonloads of tribute, exotic animals, captive maidens, rank upon rank of captive maidens, all making their way into the city, guarded by armed whip-wielding Amazons.  In "Ancient" Kul'Dakar the monumental carvings would have been brightly painted, as would the entire city, but in the ruined "Present" they were bare stone, moss shrouded, chipped, and cracked.  Ronnie paused to examine the scene, not for the first time imagining the feeling of being an Ancient captive, stumbling into Kul'Dakar after a hellish, endless, nightmare journey of scores if not hundreds of miles, staring at these very images, images that depicted the gazer's very fate... a fate that had befallen countless others.  Ronnie smiled (and shivered in the tropical heat.)  The irony was delicious... just as she'd designed it.

Ronnie continued into the vast Central Plaza.  A few stunted, twisted trees struggled to grow in the huge mostly open area.  Ronnie knew they were sickly because under her feet (and the trees' roots) was a vast warren of subterranean vaults: the work chambers, passages, storerooms, and slave barracks of the main city.  Opposite Victory Gate on the far side of the Plaza rose the empire's administrative center: the huge step pyramid of The Kul'Dak, the "Throne of the Moon," abode of She Who Commands AllThe Queen.  To the right was the massive fortress of Kat'Ur, the "Warriors' House," headquarters of the Amazon class.  And to the left, Ronnie's destination, the colossal, windowless, monolithic block of Valpakra, the "Palace of Pain."

Purposely plain and somewhat inelegant next to its two sisters, Valpakra was nonetheless as vital to the city as either the palace of the Queen or the fortress of the Amazons.  In Valpakra captives became slaves, and the most aggressive and talented slaves might became Amazons (if they survived the trials.)  Slaves were everywhere in the city, but in a curious way, Valpakra was their house (hence its other name, "The Mother of Slaves.")  Ronnie made her way to the same side entrance that Liz had displayed on her workstation screen, and entered.  (The spider was still there, and Ronnie was careful to step under its web.)

All trace of the exterior gate had long since rotted away, as had the iron portcullis which had barred escape or intrusion.  Only rust stained sockets in the stone floor, walls, and ceiling hinted at their former existence.  Ronnie pulled out her PADD, punched up the Gamer's Map of the City, zoomed in and scrolled to the floor plan of the Valpakra Ruins, and used it to guide herself to the Chamber of Waiting.  (Ronnie knew most of her creationher Team's creationby heart, but again, she liked to play the Player, to stay in the Gamer's mindset.)

The Chamber of Waiting was a staging area for newly acquired captives.  Dimly lit by indirect sunlight from neighboring, less intact rooms and passageways, roughly a hundred meters square, the floor and the lower walls of the Chamber were rough semi-dressed stone.  There were several small drains set in the floor and one or more doorways pierced each wall.  Two meters above floor level, the stones were fully dressed (as finely worked as any building in the city), and covered with bas-reliefs of naked maidens undergoing torture.  The images were graphic, disturbingly graphic, and terrifying.  That was their purpose.  Naked, bound, dusty from the trail, the cheers and jeers of the arrival parade still echoing in their ears, new captives would be herded inside the Chamber and the doors locked... and the waiting would begin.  Hours, possibly days, with little food and only occasional showers of water from high in the vaulted ceiling to sustain them...  The captives would stare at the Chamber's decorations... and think about what lay ahead... and despair.  Ronnie shuddered in sympathy as she stood in the dark, cavernous space and gazed at the artistic propaganda she had helped create.  Again, the detail of the new Virtual environment was spectacular .

Protected from the elements, some of the sculptures' original paint layers were semi-intact.  The 3-D forms of the suffering maidens were faded and stained, but


Suddenly the paint was crisp and new!  Torches lit the chamber, and the PADD was gone from Ronnie's hand and—


The PADD was back and the chamber dark.  The PADD was beeping and its screen flashing.  Ronnie looked at the small device and read: "WARNING!  NETWORK MALFUN—"


Again the chamber was bright and new and Ronnie's PADD was gone and—


The PADD was back and the chamber its former, ruined self, and now the PADD was speaking in a tinny, strident voice. "EMERGENCY!  FATAL ERR—"


The PADD was gone and the Chamber bright.  "Juuust great!" Ronnie groused.  "A damn malfunction on a Friday afternoon, and nobody left in town to fix anything.  We'll probably lose half of next week just figuring out..."  Ronnie became aware that she was not alone.  Near one of the doorways a young woman (little more than a girl actually) was kneeling on a folded cloth, a scrub brush in her hands, a wooden bucket of soapy water by her side.  But for a filthy ragged loincloth and an iron collar around her throat, the sweaty, dirt-smudged waif was naked.  I've crossed into a different live session, set in Ancient Kul'Dakar, Ronnie surmised. I thought accidental transfer was supposed to be fundamentally, technically impossible!  That's what Liz said, anyway.

The drudge-slave (Ronnie could tell by costume and context the slave's role) carefully put down the brush, slowly stood, and backed towards the door.

"Sorry about this," Ronnie called out.  "Didn't mean to disturb you... if you're real, I mean."  The slave continued backing, an expression of horror and fear on her otherwise quite beautiful face.  She's probably not real , Ronnie realized, and here I am talking to a generated character like an idiot.  "Computer!" Ronnie shouted.  "End program!"  Nothing happened (other than the slave flinching at the sound of Ronnie's raised voice.)  "Hello?  Computer?  End program!  EchoPappa!  This is User speaking!  Uniform—Sierra—Echo—Romeo!  User protocols invoked!  Hello?"  Still nothing.  The slave was nearly to the door.  Ronnie smiled at the terrified, nearly naked maiden.  "Uh, could you please direct me to the nearest session interface?  I need to..."  The slave had turned and run out the door.  "Juuust great!" Ronnie repeated.  She patted her belt.  The carrying pouch for her PADD was missing as well, but her stun pistol and boot knife were present.  "I'm not in freakin' Kansas... don't even have a freakin' Toto!" she complained.  The brightly painted, suffering stone maidens of the Chamber of Waiting offered no response.

There was a sound at the door.  Ronnie turned to find a blonde Amazon in leather armor in the doorway.  The warrior was clutching the recently departed slave by her hair.  The shivering maiden pointed at Ronnie.  "Do you see, Mistress?" the slave gasped.  "I told the truth, Mistress!  She's a Spirit-Witch, Mistress!  She came out of the very air and spoke Words of Power, Mistress!"

"Silence!" the Amazon barked, then gave a loud whistle.  Instantly, a dozen more Amazons were at her back.   A Captain in the Panther Cult Guard (Ronnie recognized her uniform and the badge of rank mounted between the cups of the blonde's breast armor), the Amazon had a high-cheeked, almost girlish beauty, but the smile curling her lips and the glint in her pale blue eyes hinted at something... disturbing.  The Captain kissed the terrified slave full on the lips, then released her hair.  Instantly the slave knelt beside the doorway, her breasts on her knees, her wrists crossed behind her back, her forehead pressed to the rough stone floor.  Her eyes locked on Ronnie, the Amazon spoke again, this time gently .  "Look at me, Little One."  The slave lifted her head and gazed up at the Captain.  "You are loyal and brave, Little One," the blonde warrior continued, "and will be rewarded."  She pulled a small token from her belt and tossed it to the floor.  "Finish your tasks, then use this pass to get yourself a bath.  Have someone bind you and be waiting in my quarters at the turn of First Star Watch." The slave leaned forward and used her tongue and lips to pull the token into her mouth.  The grimy little waif gave the Captain a worshipful smile; favored Ronnie with a haughty superior smirk; and settled her dirty forehead back on the floor.

Her eyes still on Ronnie, the Amazon Captain drew her sword and motioned to her troops.  "'Spirit-Witch' or no, this one's a spy."  The troops, armed and dressed in leathers like their Captain, edged past their leader and into the Chamber.  "If you surrender now, spy," the Captain addressed Ronnie, "I promise you a clean death... after your interrogation, of course."

Ronnie glanced from Amazon to Amazon as the female warriors slowly began to encircle her, then drew her stun gun and pointed it at the Captain.  "I don't belong in this session," she explained.  The Captain gave Ronnie a puzzled look.  "No, really," Ronnie continued.  "There's been a network malfunction or something.  We all ought to terminate this program and—"

Two things happened very fast: a whip snapped from the right and Ronnie's pistol flew from her hand and skidded across the floor; then a pair of bolos were thrown at Ronnie's feet from the left.  The confused and increasingly alarmed brunette barely reacted in time, leaping into the air and avoiding the bolos, coming back down in Tae-Bo combat stance. That hurt! Ronnie thought, shaking her still stinging hand. Things aren't supposed to hurt in VR!  Apparently the sensory feedback routines in Generation Five were every bit as enhanced as the rest of the presentation.  Not so sure feeling pain is an improvement, she mused.

The Captain smiled.  "Very good moves, spy," she said, then gestured to her troops.  "She's to be taken alive, unwounded if possible.  First Squad—pin and hold.  Second Squad—nets.  Slave..."  The kneeling drudge-slave lifted her head.  "Fetch your High Mistress. "

The slave's face paled slightly under its patina of dirt, then she scrambled to her bare feet, slipped the Captain's pass token from her mouth and into the front of her loincloth, and followed half the Amazons out the door.  (Ronnie assumed they were the Second Squad, scurrying to fetch nets as ordered.)

The remaining warriors arranged themselves to cover all exits.  Not... freakin'... Kansas! Ronnie mused.  This was all getting a little too real, too much like an actual adventure... only Ronnie wasn't in control!   Time to beat a retreat until she could figure out how to terminate the program. There has to be an interface someplace, and I seriously doubt it's disguised as a net.  She considered drawing her boot knife... then eyed the Captain's sword (modeled on the Roman gladius, only with a longer blade and grip) and thought better of it.  One of the Amazons (the one who had deprived her of her pistol, Ronnie thought) was coiling a whip and preparing to draw her sword.  Ronnie feinted in the opposite direction, then lunged.

One strike and a spinning kick and Ronnie was past her opponent.  She sprinted for the nearest open door and rushed through.  The fugitive could hear another of the Amazons right on her tail with the others close behind.  She paused at the first corner, then executed a punch and kick, timing the attack to catch her opponent just as the surprised warrior came into view.  The Amazon staggered back, tripping two others.  Ronnie turned and fled.

Where am I? she thought, besides in deep shit?  She came to a junction: a ramp going down, and a narrow set of stairs going up... and she knew where she was.  The stairs would get her nowhere but deeper and deeper into Valpakra.  The ramp, on the other hand, led to the lower dungeons, and several possible routes into the main city, the catacombs, even the outside jungle, via the service gates.  Ronnie sprinted down.

She could hear the clamoring, hobnailed boots of a handful of her pursuers.  They must have spilt up at the junction, Ronnie surmised, but they're too close I'll never get away without some breathing space!  The only thing was to set an ambush.  She ducked into an alcove and waited until her pursuers rushed past, then felled the last Amazon with a blow to the head and sent the second sprawling with a running kick.  Ronnie is caught!The remaining Amazon spun and managed to deflect Ronnie's first punch with a slap of the flat of her sword.  Ouch!  Glad they're trying to take me alive, Ronnie mused, fluttering her hand, then attacked again.  The Amazon was good, but seemed confused by Ronnie's Tae-Bo style.  The Amazon's sword went clattering and soon she too was sprawled on the stone floor.

Ronnie turned to sprint away into the darkness—and suddenly a net of hemp rope dropped over her head.  She tripped in the folds and fell heavily, then looked up to find the swordpoints of the grinning, blonde Captain and the returned Second Squad surrounding her.

"Very, very good moves, spy," the Captain purred, then gestured at Ronnie with her free hand.  Before the entangled brunette could do more than struggle to her knees, the net was pulled off, her wrists wrenched behind her back, and bound together with rough hemp.

"Look!" Ronnie protested as she was being tied, "It's all a system malfunction!  Computer!  COMPUTER!  END PROGRA—M'MMPFH!"  A blue silk cloth was tied tightly between her teeth.

 "Our spy is a Spirit-Witch," the blonde Captain said with an evil grin.  She sheathed her sword and drew a dagger.  "We've caught ourselves quite a prize, haven't we?"  The question must have been rhetorical, because none of her troops replied.  "We'll take her to North Dungeon Five on this level," the Captain announced.  "Strip her, but don't damage her clothing or equipment.  The Queen's scholars may want to examine them... and if that boot knife disappears before finding its way to my belt, there'll be hell to pay."  The gloating blonde lifted Ronnie's chin and held the dagger to the helpless brunette's throat.  "Hmm... punishment tie three , with white silk rope," she decided.  "She may as well begin learning her place."
The Second Squad had a grand time stripping their captive.  There was minor disagreement over which Amazon should be detailed to run and fetch the white silk rope for Ronnie's more elaborate binding, but as with most military organizations, seniority ruled, and the youngest member of the squad (a svelte brunette of about twenty) missed most of Ronnie's unveiling.

As per orders, the prisoner's T-shirt, shoulder holster, shorts, boots, socks, and underwear all received careful treatment.  Ronnie's person was not so lucky.  She tried not to react, but the guards' groping, pinching fingers and lewd, taunting remarks made it impossible not to squirm and mew through her gag as her wrists were untied, her limbs and torso grabbed and held, and each item of clothing peeled away, revealing more and more and finally all of the embarrassed brunette to her handlers' pawing explorations.  Ronnie struggled for all she was worth, but was helpless in the hands of the half dozen trained female warriors.  Kul'Dakar culture revolved around warfare and the capture and handling of slaves.  In her current circumstances, Ronnie was not a challenge to her captors.

The Amazons were amused by all of Ronnie's costume. but her bra was singled out for special ridicule.  The consensus was that only a race of dimwitted slaves would torture themselves with such a breast binding garment.  Cowering on the floor, naked, gagged, her wrists again bound behind her back with hemp, Ronnie's cheeks burned with humiliation.

The junior guard returned with coils of white silk rope.  "Punishment tie three" turned out to be a shoulder yoking harness that framed Ronnie's breasts, lashed her touching elbows together behind her back, encircled her waist, dove between her legs, and pinned her wrists to her buttocks.  It was indeed punishing, the ropes pulled taut and double cinched by the snickering guards for added discomfort.

Ronnie knew the significance of white silk rope: she was a State Prisoner, not a slave-in-training or a war captive.  Ronnie had been singled out for special treatment.  The blonde Captain had leaned against a wall and watched Ronnie's stripping and binding with obvious relish.  Ronnie stared back at the Amazon officer in angry defiance.

The Captain laughed.  "A spirited spy," she purred.  "You'll soon learn to show the proper respect."  She stepped forward and slapped Ronnie's face, hard, then grabbed the wincing brunette's chin.  "Listen, Brown Eyes," the Captain barked, "you are a criminal foreign prisoner, lower than the lowest, newest, most poorly trained slave.  All you have to look forward to is torture, interrogation, and your eventual ritual execution.  Keep staring into the eyes of your betters, and your death will be agonizing, elaborate, and very, very lingering.  Understand?"

Ronnie nodded her gagged head (still ringing from the slap), her eyes carefully averted to the rough stone floor.  Ronnie was still angry, but she was not stupid.

"Gooood, Brown Eyes," the Captain cooed, then gestured to the amused guards.  "Let's march," she barked, spun on her booted heel, and tramped away.  With a rough shove (and a chorus of mocking laughter from the Second Squad) Ronnie was hustled along in her wake.
"North Dungeon Five" turned out to be one of the countless torture chambers comprising the massive labyrinthine edifice that was The Palace of Pain.  A complex frame of heavy dark timbers (almost certainly a torture engine of some sort) was in the center of the large dimly lit space... but standing in front of the device and apparently awaiting the prisoner's arrival, two very beautiful women demanded Ronnie's immediate attention.

The first had delicate fair skin, auburn hair tucked in a tight bun, and a commanding presence.   She was wearing a fabulous costume of silk and cloth-of-gold, and also wore what Ronnie recognized as the badges of rank of the High Mistress of Valpakra: gold bracers and high collar (symbolic of the chains of a slave), all elaborately engraved and studded with precious stones.

The other woman was bare breasted, wearing only the leather G-string, body harness, and engraved collar of a Trustee Slave.  She had long chestnut hair and carried a scribe's slate tablet.  Her self-assured (but respectful) manner suggested one of the High Mistress' close assistants.

The Captain, her troops, and their prisoner approached the waiting duo and Ronnie was thrown to the stone floor, none too gently.  The Panther Cult contingent snapped to attention, then their Captain bowed from the waist and stepped forward.  Ronnie fought to control her anger (and fear) and stole a surreptitious glance at the imposing figure of the High Mistress.   I don't remember designing her this... attractive, she mused. 

"Well... look what the Panthers dragged in," the High Mistress drawled, eliciting an appreciative chuckle from the Amazons.  With a gesture from the Captain Ronnie was dragged to her bare feet and thrust forward.

The bound and gagged captive blinked in surprise.  I... I know that voice, she realized.  It's the primary avatar of the Eve-6900!Margo Wells' personal manifestation of the Artificial Intelligence that ran her domain!   Ronnie remembered a briefing she'd attended once, in which "Eve-Prime" had narrated part of the presentation.  She stole another look at the "High Mistress."  It was Eve-Prime!  Ronnie twisted in her bonds, mewed through her gag, and lunged forward, desperately trying to communicate with the smiling simulacrum.  If only she could speak!  Surely Eve-Prime would have to respond to User Protocols!

The blonde Captain grabbed Ronnie by the hair and pulled her back.  "Stop it, Brown Eyes!" she hissed, then continued in a whisper.  "One more show of disrespect in the presence of the High Mistress and I will personally whip your breasts, rump, and feet for one full turn of the glass, and then turn you over to Second Squad for some real punishment.  Do I make myself clear?"  Ronnie nodded, then winced when the Captain's grip on her hair tightened.  "Good!" the Captain barked, and thrust Ronnie's head away.  The captive staggered, then stood very still, her head bowed, her eyes carefully, respectfully lowered.  Maybe I'll get a chance later, she decided.

The High Mistress ignored Ronnie's outburst and correction with regal indifference, then glanced at her scribe-slave and smiled.  "Hmm... reminds me of a certain spirited, defiant slave who required special attention, before she earned her special collar," she purred, eliciting laughter from her fellow Amazons and a coy blushing smile from her demure assistant.  The High Mistress turned back to the Captain.  "Report," she ordered. 
The Captain presents her captive to the High Mistress (and her scribe-slave.)The Captain placed one strong hand on Ronnie's right breast.  "This one was discovered spying in the Chamber of Waiting," the grinning Captain explained.  "The dirty little monkey of a drudge-slave who reported her claims she appeared from thin air."

"A Spirit-Witch whose magic is no match for the protective wards of the City, no doubt," the High Mistress mused aloud.

The Captain nodded in agreement.  "She's a trained fighter, and spoke Words of Power, but as you can see..."  The Captain gave Ronnie's breast a squeeze, eliciting a wince from the helpless brunette.  "...she was unable to escape.  I ordered her gagged immediately."

"A wise precaution," the High Mistress agreed, then walked a slow circuit around the nude, bound and gagged captive, examining every detail of Ronnie's athletic, toned body and flawless, tanned skin.  "She has magnificent breasts," the High Mistress observed.  "Perhaps we should make her a dairy slave."

"Who would want to drink the slave milk of a Spirit-Witch?" the Captain inquired.  The High Mistress and Amazon guards laughed (as did the Trustee Slave, carefully hiding her amusement behind the top edge of her tablet.)

"You're probably right," the High Mistress conceded, then took one step forward and abruptly placed her right hand on Ronnie's sex.  The helpless captive yelped through her gag and took a step beck.

Instantly, the Captain's hand gripped Ronnie's tousled hair and she was thrust forward.  "Stupid less-than-slave," the Amazon scolded.

The High Mistress smooth, strong fingers resumed their examination, parting the labia and slipping into Ronnie's vagina.  "This one's wet," she observed.

Ronnie squirmed and blushed bright crimson as the High Mistress probed her most intimate person, lifting the hood of her clitoris and teasing the expanding, throbbing nubbin of flesh with gentle, educated strokes.  Despite herself, Ronnie felt her nipples responding as well, and the passage of her tormentor's fingers being eased by increasing wetness.

"Responsive little minx, isn't she?" the High Mistress mused, eliciting more laughter from the Amazons.  "Clearly, a natural slave... whatever her skills or training."

'Natural slave?'  Ronnie blushed anew, and stole a glimpse of her tormentors.  The High Mistress had an amused, wolfish look on her beautiful face; the scribe-slave was glaring at Ronnie, openly jealous; and the Captain— 

Smack!  The blonde warrior slapped Ronnie's blushing face.  "Keep your eyes on the floor," she commanded.  "Are you dimwitted as well as foreign?"

The High Mistress lifted her now slightly filmed fingers to the scribe-slave's lips.  Instantly, the slave licked Ronnie's musk from her mistress' hand.  A quick darting glance on Ronnie's part confirmed that the slave's jealousy had not abated.

"She'll meet The Queen in the morning," the High Mistress decided.  (The slave began writing on her tablet.)  "Collar her, and she is to remain gagged until inside The Kul'Dak.  The Queen's Witch-Warriors will make quick work of our little mage-spy if she tries anything in their domain."

"As you command," the Captain intoned.

The High Mistress lifted Ronnie's chin and gazed into her gagged, tear stained face.  "Beautiful," she murmured, "a diamond among quartz pebbles.  Such a pity."  She dropped Ronnie's chin.  "I approve of your choice of accommodations," she told the Captain.  "We want her in a talkative mood when she's questioned by The Queen tomorrow.  Let her ride the Water Horse.  Well done, Elá," the High Mistress praised the Captain, then turned with her assistant and departed (the Trustee Slave favoring Ronnie with a dismissive superior smirk from the doorway).

An iron collar was snapped and locked around Ronnie's neck (the Captain pocketing the key).  The collar was heavy and clutched Ronnie's throat uncomfortably.  Next, Ronnie was dragged towards the torture engine in the center of the dungeon.  Before she had a chance to examine the "Water Horse" (she assumed it was the "Water Horse") Ronnie found her collared neck clamped in a stout wooden pillory, the edge of a smoothly rounded but narrow plank nestled against her loins, her widely separated ankles clamped in wooden stocks, and her toes dangling in midair.  Ronnie's white silk bonds and blue silk gag remained intact.  The semi-suspended pose was bearable, but hardly comfortable.  (Ronnie was relieved that only a portion of her weight was riding the rounded plank.)

"Out!" the Captain barked.  "Stations!" and her troops dutifully withdrew to resume their posts... and Ronnie was alone with the blonde warrior.  The Captain had a fiendish, almost maniacal glint in her pale blue eyes, a hungry smile on her angelic face.  "I want you to know I agree with the High Mistress," the Captain purred, gently caressing Ronnie's breasts.  "You are beautiful."

Ronnie squirmed in her wooden prison and tight bonds, lifting her gaze to lock eyes with her captor.  What had the High Mistress called her?  'Elá.'  Let her punish me, the helpless prisoner thought. What difference does it make now?

Elá continued the gentle massage, fingering her victim's erect nipples.  "I also want you to know I will do my best to see that you are not put to death.  I've always wanted to own a strong fighter such as yourself, to break her spirit and train her to the yoke."

Ronnie shuddered as she felt the Elá's hands slowly slide down her rope-bound torso... across her flat tummy... then gently stroke her labia where they parted to kiss the cruel plank.

"It can get boring playing with cattle," the smug Amazon explained, continuing her sensuous, cunningly lambent massage, "don't you see?"

Ronnie squirmed, despite her current circumstances, responding to her tormentor's teasing touch.  (Or was it because of her current circumstances?)   No! Ronnie thought, I am not a 'natural slave'!  When I get free I'll kick her butt!  I'll kick all their butts!  I'll...  I'll...  Ronnie closed her eyes and shuddered again.  Elá 's hand was bringing her to climax!  She whined through her gag and swiveled her hips, grinding her sex against the unforgiving plank, against her captor's strong, tan, dancing fingers; twisting in her tight, inescapable rope bonds; bucking against the viselike, cradling grip of the torture engine's pillory and stocks; and the delicious, delicious feeling was building, and building, and...  Elá 's hand was gone!

Ronnie opened her eyes.  Her torturer was licking her fingers, one by one; a cruel, knowing smile curling her smacking lips.  Ronnie felt her cheeks burn with humiliation and shame.  Tears welled in her eyes.  You bitch!  She had been close... so close...

"You didn't earn it, Brown Eyes," Elá said with a mocking laugh, watching her prisoner squirm and blush.  "A life of exquisite pleasure and pain awaits you," she continued, "...if I can save your pretty skin from the flaying knives... or whatever fate The Queen decrees."

Elá stepped behind Ronnie, out of the captive's rather limited field of vision.  Seconds passed, then abruptly the slow echoing sound of dripping water filled the chamber.  Elá returned, but now her expression was wistful, almost sad.  "I know a pretty thing with the learning of a Spirit-Witch will be familiar with the principle of the lever.  The water you hear slowly emptying from one barrel to the other will shift the balance of this device, slowly settling your weight, and the weight of the pillory and stocks, onto the edge of that plank you feel beginning to squash your smelly, well-handled, no doubt dripping loins."  Despite her fear, Ronnie glared at her tormentor, eliciting an evil smile.  "You won't be so defiant in a few hours," the gloating blonde purred.  "By morning you'll be screaming and begging for a chance to demonstrate your complete obedience, your craving for the Yoke of Kul'Dakar.  They always do."  Elá gasped in mock dismay.  "Oh, I forgot the gag!  You won't be able to scream or beg, will you Brown Eyes?"

Captain Elá laughed, spun on her heel, and strode to the doorway.  She favored her victim with a lingering, gloating gaze as she paused to adjust her armor and weapons harness... and then she was gone... and Ronnie was alone... alone with the stone walls, the sputtering torches, and the sound of the dripping water.

Ronnie squirmed in her bonds, then went very still when the "Water Horse" gave a delicate vibrating shudder... and more of her weight settled onto the plank... ever so slightly more.  Her mouth was becoming quite dry, and the tight gag was beginning to make her jaw ache.  Trapped in VR... which isn't supposed to be possible! she mused, the start of a three day weekend in the real world, so with full time compression in effect... at least thirty Virtual days until I can expect rescue... more if no one notices I'm gone right away.  A tear trickled down her cheek.  The water continued to drip.  The faint, echoing, piteous scream of one of Valpakra's other victims found its way into Ronnie's dungeon.   I am so... very ... screwed! she mused.
Poor Ronnie!

Poor Ronnie!
Be BRAVE, our little Tae-Bo Tart!
Things can't possibly get worse... can they?
Well... can they?
Is this truly...
THE END of Trapped in Time?

In a word... NO!
Ronnie's Virtual Adventure continues...
(...& we get to watch! J )
Stay Tuned for the NEXT thrilling episode of...
Spellbinding Tales of Virtual Adventure!