Lolanene lay on the floor, convulsing. Maria stood there, staring, no idea what to do. After a few moments, the convulsions stopped, and Lolanene lay still. She was still breathing, Maria noted, but was very much unconscious. Maria slipped out from behind the now motionless root and knelt down next to Lolanene. A light attached to her head somewhere turned on without prompting. She initiated a scan of Lolanene’s vital signs.
<BLOOD PRESSURE: 150/98 WARNING: HIGH BP DETECTED>
<HEART RATE: 110 BPM>
<TEMPERATURE: 37.6 DEGREES CELSIUS>
<RESPIRATION RATE: 19 BREATHS PER MINUTE>
<ASSESSMENT: MEDICAL DISTRESS DETECTED, SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION>
“Oh Void take me, what the fuck do I do? Mirideth? What the fuck do I do?!”
“You calm down, and do as I say.” Mirideth replied.
Maria instinctively tried to take in a deep breath, remembered she couldn’t anymore, and became even less calm.
Mirideth spoke again, in a calm voice.”Maria, listen to me. Just listen. You can help Lolanene. But not until you are calm. So listen to me.” On those last three words, a jolt of electricity traveled through Maria’s body. It felt warm, and wonderful. “That’s it, Maria, listening, calming, only my voice now, darling. Only my words. Nothing else in focus, just my words. Calm for me, calm for me, calm. Good, you’re doing well, Maria.” Maria’s thoughts fell into a state of order and ease of access. Listening to Mirideth felt good, Mirideth could help her help Lolanene, she should listen to Mirideth. It all just made sense.
“Now, Maria, I need you to reach up, and carefully remove the thin black hose attached to your right shoulder.”
Maria did as she was told, the hose popped out from the socket it had been inserted in. She pulled on it and it slid out of the other side, snaking out of the hole from somewhere deeper inside her body. At its end was a needle, which dripped with a pale green fluid.
“Well done, P- Maria. Well done. Now, I need you to carefully insert the needle into Lolanene’s neck.”
Everything made sense, so she did as Mirideth said. She inserted the needle, and she felt a pump start somewhere deep in her chest. The thin hose inflated as fluid flowed into it, and through the needle, into Lolanene. It was over in seconds.
“Excellent, Maria, Come up out of this relaxed state for me now, darling.”
All of Maria’s senses seemed to flood back into focus all at once. The warmth and humidity of the room, the rumbling in her chest, the earth beneath her. She carefully pulled the needle from Lolanene’s neck and ran another scan.
<ALL VITALS NORMAL>
She would have breathed a sigh of relief, instead she simply turned off her vision briefly, in a long blink. “Heaven and Void.. we did it! Mirideth you… you used your abilities to… to help.. I… thank you.”
“Of course, Myrrh…” The jovial tone in her voice faded. “Maria. Sorry, I...” She trailed off, leaving the large, dark room in silence. That silence stretched for several long moments, until Lolanene began to stir.
It started as a small twitch, then a testing flex of her hands. Lolanene groaned as she slowly blinked open her eyes, not sitting up.
“What in Nether happened to me? I feel awful.”
Maria carefully placed a hand on Lolanene’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Lola. You’re safe now. Well, you’re okay, we’re not exactly safe. What do you remember?”
Lolanene was silent for a moment, then said “Wh- Maria? What happened? Why did you… You… You…”
“Lolanene?” Maria asked in confusion.
“You disconnected me. You took it away from me. You took it from me.” She began to sit up. “Why would you do that, Maria?”
“I.. what? Y- I- What?”
Lolanene was sitting on the floor now, looking up at Maria’s empty black faceplate.
“The forest spoke through me, Maria. I knew… everything. Could feel everything. All over th’ planet. Everywhere at once. It was beautiful. It was th’ most free I’ve ever been. The way I felt… there ain’t no explainin’ it, Maria.” She stood up and began pacing. ”I never felt like that before and I sure ain’t gonna feel it again unless it takes me back. Fuck me in the dark... what if it don’t? Maria what the fuck have you done?!” Lolanene was becoming increasingly erratic and upset. She was standing in place, arms folded around herself, shaking.
Maria stood and attempted to place a hand on her shoulder. “Lo-”
Lolanene slapped her metallic arm away as hard as she could, Maria was unaffected by it, but recoiled anyway. “Don’t you fuckin’ touch me! You took it from me. You took it all from me. The vast glory of th’ universe! Gone! All because of you!”
“Lolanene, listen to me. I think that thing put something in you. Some kind of drug. It made you euphoric, but it wasn’t real, it wasn’t. That thing was feeding on you, and would have left you a lifeless husk, still walking around.” Maria sensed something behind as she spoke, a presence, someone else was in the room.
She turned and put her back to the wall, able to face both of the others in the room at once.
In the pollen dimmed light of her headlamp, Maria saw Niarith standing a meter to her left, with Lolanene still shivering in sheer panic to her right.
“The bounty is right, Metal Thing. We give it greater pleasure than it could ever experience elsewhere. We give this to it for more than its own natural lifespan. Why would it ever want to leave?” The plant thing said, in Niarith’s voice.
Maria played the sound of a sigh, then said “Listen, plant thing, do you have a name? Or am I just going to have to call you that?”
“We are TIOWSS, Metal Thing. You are nothing compared to our glory.” Niarith’s body made a dramatic, flourishing motion as it grinned widely.
“Of course I am. Regardless, I’m going to need you to give me my girlfriend back before I burn you to the fucking ground.”
TIOWSS giggled “Oh Metal Thing… The bounty doesn’t want you to take it back. Here, we will restrict our access of its cognitive functions, and it will tell you.”
Niarith’s body convulsed briefly, and then her eyes focused. She looked around, seemingly disoriented. Then she saw Maria. A brief expression of shock and horror passed over her features, then they settled on a sleepy sort of smile. “Oh Maria… You’re not even human anymore, honey. Why would I want to stay with whatever you’ve become, when I can stay with TIOWSS, and feel bliss… forever?”
Maria felt weak in the knees, despite not having muscles to feel it.She tried hard not to believe what Niarith had just said, to remember Niarith wasn’t in her right mind, but it hurt. It made her consider whether she wanted to save Niarith. If Niarith was this far gone, could she save her? Should she even try? No. This was what TIOWSS wanted. She refused to give it to it.
Maria stepped closer to Niarith. “That’s bullshit and you know it, Nia. This thing is manipulating you. Just like Ninia did. Are you gonna just let it? Because it feels good? Or are you going to fight like hell to make sure nothing can control you like this ever again?”
Niarith’s face was still grinning serenely, but Maria saw small twitches here and there, a small movement of her eyes. Niarith was in there, somewhere.
“I see that, Nia. Come on, come back to me.”
Niarith began shaking, sweat beading on her brow. Her left hand began to twitch, and her face screwed up in concentrated effort. Her eyes teared up.
"M-mari… I… I can't. It's.. it feels so good…" Niarith’s hands were clenched tightly into fists, her entire body shaking with the effort of speaking freely. “I… didn’t.. Mean… what I said… I... love you…” Vines sprang up from the dirt beneath Niarith's feet, wrapping around her limbs, forcing her to her knees. The formerly inert root that had pinned Maria to the wall once again sprang to life, slamming Maria to the floor on her stomach.
Lolanene stepped into view, a vine snaking from the back of her neck into the darkness. "The bounty fights against us." TIOWSS said, in Lolanene's voice. It gestured to Niarith, who now had vines around her throat, slowly choking her. "This one spurns our gift of eternal pleasure. It will not last. Better to remove it now.” Lolanene then gestured to herself. “But this one… This one willingly came back to us, after the Metal Thing so rudely removed her from us. We will keep this one, the other will die with the Metal Thing.”
Maria tried with all her strength to force the root pinning her upward, but she just wasn’t strong enough. She felt another massive root slam down over her legs and tail.
“The Metal Thing will watch the traitor die. And then it will die itself.” Lolanene’s body turned and walked off into the darkness.
Maria continued to struggle, but it was no use. She looked over at Niarith, who was struggling as well, but had even less of a chance. “I’m sorry, Nia. I tried… I really did.”
Niarith looked at Maria, staring at her blank faceplate, through to where Maria’s eyes were beneath it. She smiled slightly, then coughed and gasped, as the vines pressed tighter around her throat. She smiled again, and gasped out “No… regrets.. Mari..”
“I love you, Niarith. More than anything or anyone in this entire universe… I love you. I’m sorry.”
Niarith was no longer able to answer, as the vines began to cut off her ability to breathe. She simply stared, right at Maria, her eyes unwavering, wanting Maria to be the last thing she ever saw.