Panic. Fear. Despair. Self-loathing.
Massive fucking understatements.
Where is she? How do I find her? How do I save her?
Words scribbled in permanent marker across her wall stared back at her. Why hadn’t she just used a dry erase? She knew the answer, though. It was the first thing she could find.
She grabbed the marker from the dresser - she couldn’t waste time, not now - trying to find an empty spot on the wall.
Crossed out words and scratches barely legible were everywhere. She knocked over some crumpled up pieces of paper overflowing from the nearby trash bin like some grand diagram, but far, far less useful. At least she hadn’t appropriated the furniture. Yet.
Great. My room makes me look as crazy as I feel.
She inhaled sharply, slapping her cheeks. No. Not going down that path right now. Amber first. Worry about my lack of hygiene later.
A timer went off, breaking her concentration. She hit Stop without even glancing at it. She knew what it was. Her usual alarms - Breathe. Take a walk. Meditate - had all been silenced. She peeked outside her window. Nothing. She’d been held up inside her dorm room since Amber instructed her to return.
Amber had given Clair her freedom, yeah. Ignorance was gone, burned away. But Amber hadn’t been trying to fix things, not permanently, with what she did. It was supposed to be a stopgap. And, even as it pulled her apart, it forced her to keep going.
She chuckled. I wanted to study it, when she first freed me. What I wouldn’t give to never have to think about it again.
She sat down and stared at the wall. She’d learned the hard way that attempting to rest only made her headache worse.
Real classy, Clair. I think too much, I go crazy. I don’t think enough, and I wish I was.
She cursed under her breath as she started pacing around the room. She’d had the prudence to stop by Amber’s dorm room on the way home. She grabbed whatever food she could from her fridge before moving on to the real prize. Amber’s successful raid had yielded a complete manifest of every toy on campus.
And then the second one practically threw it away. Great! Now I just have to figure out how to use that information without leaving my room or even checking the damn internet.
Leaving the safety of her room was an obvious danger when anyone could activate her. The other problem was that she knew the system. She knew how toys got instructions. It was so, so simple. Just a simple phrase from the right number or e-mail and she would obey any order. And she could exploit that - wanted to exploit that - but couldn’t, not as long as it risked consigning Amber to an endless living hell.
The problem had resulted in one sleepless night, and likely many more. Her mind unwilling to let her body rest until she discovered a solution.
This isn’t working! I’ve gone over everything more times than I can count. I have no idea how to help her!
She had to help her. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! That single thought, that single realization, burned through her, and she knew she was going to act, like it or not.
You have to use the laptop.
But I can’t risk everything on a gamble.
Clair’s hyperfocus had done a number on her sense of self, but her perfect recall and inability to deceive herself had turned that into a curious advantage. Despite the warring in her mind, she not only knew exactly where her neurotic association with helping Amber had come from, she knew precisely what it was doing to her. The headaches kept her analytical mind from dwelling on the specifics for longer than a few seconds, but those seconds were enough. A lesser-used part of her, the part that weaved compelling narratives and imagery, the part she once hoped to use on Amber in lurid fantasies, gave her a single image to describe the situation. A frayed rope. Pain surged through her skull if she tried to think about that further. It. Wasn’t. Helping. Still, the image didn’t go away.
You have to do something, was all it allowed her to think.
Her computer glared at her from the corner of the room.
No! If I’m a mindless drone, I can’t be helpful! Is that what you want?
No, but you don’t have any other options. It’s this, or...
The frayed rope flashed in her mind again.
She growled in frustration, moving towards the computer. Her headache dulled as she did something, anything to help.
Fuck me. I really don’t have any other choice, do I?
You know this is the only way.
I fucking hate you, you know.
You do realize that I’m just-
Yes. Now shut up and let me work!
Her mind quieted as the boot logo displayed itself. She’d already come up with a line of attack hours ago. It was obvious. The only thing stopping her had been the inherent dangers of turning on anything connected to the internet.
A white haired girl surrounded by glowing runes greeted her after the initial chime. Her background. Step one was cleared.
Ok. Just need to make a fake email and I can get this show-
Her mind froze mid-sentence as she saw it. A normally benign pop-up. A simple one word sentence that drove her to despair.
You’ve got mail.
She tried in vain to pretend she hadn’t seen it.
You literally can’t lie to yourself.
Thank you for pointing that out.
You know what you’re going to do now.
Don’t you have anything better to do?
Her hand was already navigating the trackpad to click the accept notification.
I literally don’t. You haven’t lost yet. It might not be from her.
I like my shoulder devil more, you know.
Her mail opened. Her heart beat louder and faster. Tense seconds passed as the page loaded.
Her heart sank when she read the sender’s name.
She fought against the compulsion, but even as “freed” as she was, it was useless. She clicked on the email and held her breath.
Pay the piper, read the first line. The activation phrase.
She read the line as slowly as her programming allowed her, cursing and screaming silently. Then, she got to the end, and blinked.
Awareness returned. She was standing in front of her dresser, head poised high. She grinned.
Ha! Fuck you!
Her programming had already forced her to delete the email, but she couldn’t forget anymore.
Get yourself all nice and pretty. Wear something you would like Amber to see you in. Then meet me for a party. Details are as follows:
Her programming had forced her to obey the first sentence. She had dressed herself in an outfit that left little to the imagination. She shuddered to imagine what she would have forced her to do while wearing it. But she wouldn’t get the chance.
The orders had been to leave for an event that had already taken place. Unable to obey the order, she was free. Leaving her standing in her current state in front of her closet, makeup and hair looking perfect.
Next time I do that will be for Amber, she growled.
Hurrying back to the desk, she logged out of her email, searching articles on forums about the way email worked. She wasn’t a computer scientist. She wasn’t going to be able to program her way out of this. But she could type some shit into a command line.
And she was pretty sure the toys wouldn’t be looking too closely at any email from Ikora. Real or not.
She’d seen spam emails that pretended they were sent from other sites. And she had a valid login for the school email servers. So it might get past spam filters, too. All she had to do was pretend she was Ikora.
She could at least free a few people, in some small capacity. It was a start.
Safe in the knowledge that she wasn’t going to be activated again, not without access to her email, she set to work.
* * *
Grimacing, she hit enter. With that, Sasha, Valerie, Cooper, and Alana - the friends she knew the emails of without needing to log in - should all be unable to see emails with the trigger phrase. But that wasn’t enough.
Tense, she waited for half an hour, just to be sure. But that waiting just made it worse.
It wasn’t a voice. That would have been a blessing. And this was definitely from the other place...
* * *
Finally, she readied herself for the most harrowing part of her journey: leaving the front door.
The email hadn’t actually accomplished much. It had contained instructions to ignore the emails, and to treat every member of campus as if their account was under review. She breathed a sigh of relief knowing that at least her friends wouldn’t be used by some asshole in the near future.
But I can’t lie to myself. So the fake email wouldn’t work on me.
You know what you have to do.
Doesn’t stop it being terrifying.
You’ll succeed. She’s counting on you. You don’t have any other option.
She nodded to herself and opened the door. The bright morning light shone on the blessedly empty hall.
Figures. Not very student-like for most people to be up around this time.
She used the emergency fire exits. Just to be safe.
Next stop, administrative records.
It was an obvious course of action, though it increased the risk to her. She only knew a small handful of toys, and even less by email. The school administrative office, however, would have an itemized list of every student and their preferred method of contact. With that, she’d be able to start rescuing Amber.
* * *
The walk was uneventful, if harrowing. She knew enough of the campus layout to avoid students who were out for a morning jog.
Guess you should be grateful for all the times a boy forced you to avoid them using an alley.
Wrong time for humor, isn’t it?
Ten minutes of side-streets later, and she was at campus admin. A decidedly ironic name, given the circumstances.
The building was open, even this early in the morning. A bug earlier that month had caused every student’s date of birth to swap with another. How did that sort of thing even happen? It was an easy enough problem to fix, in theory, but a clerical nightmare to implement. School staff had been working overtime for the past week, and, per their union contract, they were legally required to keep the building open to assist with any student requests while they were on the clock.
God bless the bureaucratic fine print.
The reception area was painted an odd green color. Something about trying to be creative yet inviting. The student body had yet to make up their minds as to whether that was true or not.
I literally couldn’t stay in that room any longer, but I also just happened to figure out the solution to my problems at the most convenient time of the day.
You shouldn’t jinx it, though.
Clair couldn’t recall any of the admin staff using her. She knew that a couple of the teachers were complicit, but none of them were here. The people here were controlled, if anything, not controllers. Which meant the receptionist, whoever they might be, would be safe. So she rang the bell. A shuffling sound came from the back room.
“Yes, hello?” came a feminine voice. She recognized that voice.
Clair’s eyes widened reflexively. Her blood quickened as panic overtook her senses. She recognized that voice.
“Yes?” repeated the unmistakable nasal drone of Gina. Of course.
Clair held her breath. She wanted to run. Worse though, she knew she couldn’t run. There was no possible way to escape what was coming next. She cursed under her breath.
Fuck me. The last thing I’m going to say before I go away forever is profanity.
She stared down her attacker. If this is where it was going to end, she would meet the end with dignity.
“Yes? What do y- er, how can I help you?”
Clair met Gina’s eyes, and somehow, by some luck, Gina barely gave her a second glance. Apathy. Bless its abhorrent ways. With panic finally subdued, she reached into her memory, her brain providing her in stark clarity their meeting several nights ago. Clair and Amber were activated. Clair hypnotized Gina and Lois. And Amber had figured out, if by accident, a way to bring Clair back. She couldn’t be certain if the coverup she did on Gina and Lois would work. They were high enough she was pretty sure they’d think it was just a dream, but it was still a risk.
“Miss, I need to get back to work,” she sighed. “I’m on duty today, for some reason. So, if the-”
“I need to see the student records.”
Gina blinked, then nodded.
“Ok. What’s your student number?”
“No, not mine.”
“I can’t show you someone else’s record,” she scoffed. “That’s illegal. Is there anything else?” She didn’t wait for an answer, already leaving the desk.
Of course they’re not just gonna release everyone’s student files.
“Please?” she said, an idea forming.
Gina turned around, looking at Clair as if she was insane.
“Please. Show me the student files. It’s... important.”
“I can’t...” Gina scoffed.
“Please! Just show me the files.” And with that, Clair leaned forward.
Gina blinked several times. She stared at Clair - mostly at a very specific part of her. The gambit had paid off.
“Let me see the records, Gina.”
Clair hid her frown with a seductive smile. “Come closer.” She cupped her breasts between her elbows, emphasizing her chest. She’d included just thinking about them in the focus. That means...
Gina walked towards the front desk, her eyes never leaving the small window of skin.
“Come closer and look at me.”
Her feet carried her forward, and Clair slowly unzipped her hoodie. Gina’s eyes dilated as her top for the party was revealed, in all of its low-cut glory.
“That’s right. You can just stare.”
“I’m going to walk into your office now, Gina. You can keep staring at me.”
She nodded slowly, her head turning, eyes fixed on Clair’s strange but effective choice of tool. She watched, following slightly behind, as Clair carefully lifted the barrier gate of the front desk and made her way into the back room, walking backwards with a slight sway. Once inside, Clair sat down in front of the computer, nodded for a moment, and began typing.
“Stand here, Gina. Remember this? You can just stare. Remember staring?”
Clair fully removed her hoodie. Her cleavage was on full display.
Clair kept glancing at her, but she showed no signs of waking.
Well, I can safely say this is the most awkward thing I’ve ever had to do for someone.
The student contact information was easy enough to find. Worryingly easy, actually. Was campus security really that bad? She took pictures, not wanting to leave any evidence behind. The effort of retyping the email addresses was worth the safety. Then, she turned to face her zombie voyeur.
“Gina. I’m going to leave now. But you’re just gonna stand here.”
“You can keep staring. Just imagine my boobs now. You can picture them in your head, just like before. Remember that dream? It was so nice...”
A nod, and the hint of a blissful smile.
“Very good. You don’t even need to remember this. You’ve just been thinking about my boobs this whole time. When you hear the bell ring, you’ll know you can stop staring.”
Beating Ikora at her own game. I didn’t even have to do anything to her mind to win. She literally already asked for it.
She hit the bell on her way out. Panicked shuffling came from inside the office.
I’ll bet she even enjoyed that.
* * *
She held off sending fake emails to the other students on the list until she returned to her dorm. Getting distracted here was dangerous, and the list was long. Time was of the essence, and though her memory was enhanced, visual memory didn’t work the same as raw information. She’d tried that, and her recall of images was mostly at baseline. It had been just over half a day since she’d been freed. She needed to remain on constant alert. Keep her head on a constant swivel.
She found something when she was rounding the corner to her building. A familiar sound that made her bones chill. It filled her with hope and dread all at once.
* * *
She followed, deliberately nonchalant as she watched the trio of girls walking down the main campus road. They laughed and giggled. Amber, Sasha, and a third girl that she didn’t recognize.
I’ve been replaced?
Every part of her screamed at her to run to Amber. To embrace her, and remind her that things were going to be okay. To have Amber say the same thing to her. She twitched, and bit down on her tongue to keep herself steady.
This isn’t real. You haven’t saved her yet.
This is probably a trigger, one of the protocols or something. Keeping up appearances. Don’t want anyone suspicious.
Well, she forgot about you. Go. You need to find out who this third girl is.
The mousy brown-haired girl meeped, and then she and Amber said something to Sasha. She looked dejected, but nodded and walked off as the third girl and Amber broke away.
Clair ignored her friend’s sullen expression. It hurt a little to do that, but Sasha wasn’t important, in the grand scheme of things. If Clair got Amber, they could fix everyone together. So she followed Amber and her replacement. Avoiding their attention was shockingly easy once inside. The sheer volume of people, thanks to classes letting out, made her a ghost. Just a girl in a hoodie in a sea of faces. Nobody would dare attempt to trigger her in such a broad open space. The risk of someone finding out was too great, and the clients were disked to make sure they couldn’t spill the beans. And that was assuming they even noticed her in the hoodie.
When they got far enough into the dorm that the crowd began to dissipate, she took note of their direction, and started following more discreetly. They were on the third floor. Clair rolled her eyes. Ikora would want a room with a view.
She hid behind corners, pretending to look at her phone. Amber and the mystery woman paid her no mind. Something clawed at the back of her mind. Something told her she had seen the brown-haired girl before, but no actual memory surfaced. The recall only worked for things she knew - it didn’t enhance her ability to make connections. She’d learned that the hard way over the sleepless night. She listened as the two girls chatted about proper exercise form and muscle grouping, stuff she knew Amber could say in her sleep, until they came to a door at the end of the hall. And it clicked.
She’s the RA! That’s where I know her from! She’s either in on the whole thing, or another one of us.
The thought made her grimace. How many people were involved in this?
She was inches from the now closed door. She hadn’t heard it lock.
Maybe I can burst in there and save her. I can take one girl.
You know that’s a bad idea. Amber could be programmed to fight, and she’s hardly just one girl. She’s stronger than you are.
Oh, shut up! Didn’t you have driving me crazy to do?
You... You do realize that without-
She sighed, breaking that train of thought, and moved away from the door.
I have much more intelligent ways to save her.
* * *
Clair woke well before the crack of dawn. She scarfed down a shoddily made breakfast of bread and peanut butter.
Can’t believe I’m actually grateful I was programmed to wake up early. Though honestly, that one’s pretty benign.
She couldn’t break the programming. Amber had made her aware of it, and certain compulsions could be thought around, but certain things like her need to work out and be on top of her classwork were hardwired into her. Yesterday, she’d had to run on the spot for twenty minutes, hoping her downstairs neighbors wouldn’t notice. This morning, though, she could at least mix her morning run with a bit of espionage.
Running in a full hoodie and sweatpants wasn’t fun, but the alternative was worse. She followed Amber and the brown haired girl - Sara, she knew, after a quick search through the campus website. They made a quick stop for coffee - that was her stop - before meeting up with Sasha and heading to the gym.
Good thing I’m dressed for exercise.
Clair didn’t have to say anything to the front desk workers. Most people working out at this time preferred not to speak, in her experience. She scanned her card, and followed her target into the changing room.
“I’m gonna grab a quick shower before I start. I really don’t feel all that clean right now,” Sara called from the back room. Clair opened a nearby locker to hide her face as the RA passed by. She stole a glance over at Amber’s naked form, and nearly fell over as her friend pulled a thin latex bikini from her bag.
Jesus! I certainly don’t remember you wearing stuff like that to the gym.
Her face grew pale as her eyes swept the locker room, then turned back, desperately trying to look natural. She was here. The megalomaniac who took her love away from her. She froze.
That would be too suspicious, though. So she just stayed there.
“Report. What happened?” Ikora whispered, stopping as she passed Clair.
That was a trigger. She had to report to admin.
Her eyes widened. She had to report to admin... and that was the exact wording, sent in an update a few weeks back. Probably because someone had been at the hospital when Ikora sent for them, or something.
But that was the exact wording. Nothing said she had to report the full truth.
“I was doing my homework, and my phone was off,” she said evenly, though it took monumental force of will not to tense up. “I missed the email until after the party had finished.”
I mean, it was work at home, right?
Ikora seemed satisfied by that, and kept walking.
Clair winced. That had been far, far, far too close.
“Come along now, slut,” she called.
“Ok...” Amber replied meekly.
I’m going to hurt her.
Patience. You’ll get your chance.
The brunette girl stopped halfway to the showers upon hearing Ikora’s voice. She turned around, a vacant look in her eyes.
“Don’t bother with classes today. I want you to keep working on training our new pet.”
“Understood,” she said softly. Her towel had nearly fallen to the floor.
The three women left for the changing room.
Ok, so probably not an admin. Probably. I mean, Amber’s one, and look at her.
She squeezed her eyes shut as an idea occurred to her.
No! I’m not going to do that.
But if you do...
What if she tries to activate me?
Then you lose. You don’t exactly have many other options.
Fuck! So I guess that means I’m going to try this.
Unless you can come up with a better idea... yeah, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
She cursed under her breath, then took off her hoodie, placing it in a locker. She grabbed a towel. Being naked didn’t feel right. Not now.
Ok. She’s definitely programmed, which means she’s a toy, right? Then I know how to activate her.
She listened for humming, but it wasn’t Amber’s discordant pattern. So it was just her and Sara. Her heart beat faster as she stalked towards the furthest shower, where the humming was coming from. One final breath out, and she set her weight against the stall door. The small latch buckled. It’d needed replacing, anyway.
Sara turned to face her, blinking water out of her eyes.
“Hey, sleepyhead. Tired?” The trigger phrase.
Clair waited for Sara's eyes to dilate and her jaw slacken. This might be the break she finally needed to capture and save her. An informant in Ikora’s private retinue.
“Uhh... no?” Sara whispered, blood draining from her face.
Clair’s heart sank.
She cut off as Clair pinned her to the wall. She wasn’t nearly strong enough to escape, or even put up a fight. Sara screamed, fear and pain mixing into one primal sound.
She’s loud. She’ll get attention. And I gotta stop her from speaking. She might know the trigger. And even if she didn’t, I just told it to her.
“Please, I don’t wan- Mhhh!”
Wasn’t exactly plan A, but fuck it. We’re here now.
She began forcing Sara’s hands up. She offered little resistance. She was shaking too hard to even try. Clair used the opportunity to shift her other wrist so both were held in Clair’s left hand.
Sara’s eyes widened in fear, helpless to resist Clair pushing her right hand over the pinned girl’s mouth. She tried to recoil, but couldn’t. Clair’s grip was too strong, and combined with her weight forcing Sara against the wall, she didn’t have a chance. Strength training had paid off well, though she hadn’t expected to be using it like this.
She knows she can’t win. She’s letting me do this so I don’t hurt her.
You know what this means.
Yeah, I know. She thinks I’m trying to rape her, and she’s pretty close to right.
You’re doing this for-
I know exactly why I’m doing this. I have a reason. Doesn’t mean it’s not the act of a monster.
She looked over the scene, trying to figure out the best course of action. She’d committed out of sheer panic and desperation. Stuck in her current predicament, her only way out was forward.
She removed her hand from Sara’s mouth and kissed her. The other woman didn’t kiss her back. Why would she? Even if Ikora was using her, there was no guarantee she liked girls. That would be exactly the kind of twisted thing the bitch would like. And even if she did... this wasn’t what anyone would want.
I hate this.
You aren’t going any further than you have to.
And you can make sure she won’t remember any of this, when it’s all over.
I know, alright?
You’re doing this for the right reasons.
She closed her eyes, picturing herself leaving the stall and running away. The image was painful, literally so.
You know that’s not possible for you. It...
Wouldn’t help. I know. Stop talking.
She kept kissing her, slipping her right hand between the other woman’s legs.
She’s not fighting back because she’s afraid of what I’ll do. I... I need to play into that narrative.
“That’s right, Sara. Don’t fight it,” she said threateningly, hovered her hand above Sara’s naked form. Teasing a touch that never came.
“If you listen to my words I won’t hurt you. You’ll be fine. Understand?”
A nod. Clair wanted to vomit.
“Speak only when I tell you to speak. Tell me you understand, Sara.”
Silence. Her eyes quivered.
Clair sighed and brought her right hand to the girl’s collarbone. Slowly, she started sweeping her finger in a circle, watching as Sara’s eyes grew more and more frantic.
“Tell me you understand, and it stops.” She sped up.
“I-I-I I understand,” Sara mumbled into Clair’s fingers.
“Good girl.” She removed her hand.
“See, do what I tell you to do, and you’re safe. I’m going to let go of your hands now. Keep them up there for me.”
She let go, but stayed in her stance, making it clear what would happen if Sara disobeyed. She didn’t.
“Good girl. Now listen closely, and look into my eyes.”
The two women locked gazes. Green and brown stared at each other unblinking. Hers filled with fear, and Clair’s filled with feigned malice over an ocean of guilt.
“You can blink, Sara. It’s ok. I won’t hurt you, as long as you listen and obey.”
“Keep staring. You can blink if you need to.”
“You can take deep breaths if you need to.”
She sighed. Her shoulders slumped a little.
“That’s right. See,” she brought her hands up to her sides, directly in Sara’s field of view. “I’m not going to do anything you don’t want me to do. I’m just here to talk, and you’re here to listen.”
Blink. She looked a bit confused. Good.
Her chest rose.
Her shoulders sagged.
“That’s right. Keep your eyes open until I tell you to close them. Understood?”
She barely sounded like she was there.
I would be proud of myself if this wasn’t so fucked up.
“In just a moment, now, you can let your arms drop, and everything else with them. Don’t worry. I’ll be there to catch you. You’ll be safe, because as long as I do what you say, you’re safe.”
She crumpled, collapsing into Clair. She was so light.
Sara was completely limp, held up only by Clair’s arms. Completely at her mercy.
“Good girl. Just keep listening. Listening keeps you safe. Listening to me keeps you relaxed. You want to be relaxed. So you’ll just keep listening.”
She slumped forward even more.
“Good girl. I’m going to ask you some questions now. If you want to stay safe, stay relaxed, you’ll answer them truthfully.”
You shouldn’t do this here. She could be back at any moment.
Clair nodded to herself.
Gotta move up the timetable.
“Sara, what happened when I touched you earlier?”
“It’s ok. Just relax. Listen. Obey. I asked you a question. If you answer truthfully, you’ll keep relaxing. Keep being safe.”
“What happened when I touched you earlier?”
“I spoke,” she responded.
“Because I asked you to speak. Remember?”
“So, when I touched you. What did you do?”
“Very good girl, Sara. So when I touch you, you...?”
“Good girl. And when you obey, you...?”
Sara had started to drool.
Moment of truth.
She placed her hand between Sara’s legs, stroking gently. The other woman made no protest. Her chest rose and fell with the same cadence as before. Clair smiled.
The other woman obeyed. Her eyes remained closed, but Clair could see the rapid eye movements that denoted a trance state. She’d hoped it would be that easy. Even if she didn’t remember it, Sara had to have a lot of experience being like this, with how Ikora had treated her. A lot of practice.
“When I move my hand away, you’re going to wake up and dry yourself off and put on your clothes. You know you’ll be so relaxed and happy that you won’t need to remember anything that just took place. It was just a dream. You had a nice, lovely, relaxing shower, and now you’re ready to follow the girl in the hoodie. You don’t need to know why, because it's so relaxing and lovely to follow the girl in the hoodie. Understand?” God, am I going to make her think this was pleasant? That’s...
“Yesss,” she whispered.
Clair removed her hand and returned to the locker room. Thankfully, it was still empty. Not many people on campus worked out so early in the morning. She heard the water from the shower turn off just as she finished putting on the rest of her clothes. A few minutes later, Sara was following her like a lost puppy, completely unaware of why.
Clair led her to the library across the street, finding an empty study room. They rarely got much use. People preferred to work in their dorms, or at coffee shops, mostly. Once the two of them were inside, she pulled down her hoodie and turned to face her.
“Uhh... hi? Sorry, I’m not quite sure why we’re he-”
Clair closed the gap between them as quickly as she could, placing a hand between her legs.
The shock of the touch was quick. Her eyes widened and dilated. But just as quickly came the expected calm. Her eyes softened and her shoulders slumped.
Yes! It worked. I’ve got her. She’s mine, now, to-
You can’t just not think about it. You can’t lie to yourself, remember?
... I know. This is wrong.
You’re doing it for the right reasons, though.
That doesn’t even remotely justify anything I’m doing right now, and you know that.
But you’re still going to do it.
She had to look away from Sara’s expressionless face.
She looks so happy right now. And if she knew how I did it, she’d hate me for the rest of her life. Hell, I might probably hate myself for the rest of my life. And this ordeal isn’t even over.
You don’t know that. You’re in a bad headspace, and it’s causing intrusive thoughts.
Thanks for the therapy session.
You know it helped.
Clair didn’t answer.
Focus on your task now. You can heal later, once everyone is safe.
“Sara, I’m going to ask you some more questions. You will answer them truthfully.”
“When did you first meet Amber?”
“We’ve always been friends. Since forever,” she responded automatically.
Too fast. She wasn’t remembering that. It always took a moment for me. Time for a new approach.
“When did you meet Ikora?”
“I don’t know who that is.”
Clair snorted. “Think back to the locker room earlier today. The woman who spoke to you earlier. What did she look like?”
“She had... I don’t remember anyone.” Really?
“Who were you speaking to?”
“To... No one.”
Don’t know why I thought that would work. Same thing happened when Amber tried questioning Sash. Didn’t even register to me then, of course, but...
You had to try anyway. You’re much more practiced than Amber is.
Am I? If she invented something like the disk, she’s gotta know a thing or two. And she took to it really easily. Strangely easily.
“Sara, stay there and keep relaxing for me.”
Clair took a few steps away from her subject and began pacing the room.
So now what the fuck do I do? Anything valuable is restricted to admin access. She can’t remember anything because the disk won’t let her. And you’d need a pretty specific mindset to interpret ‘help’ as liberally as I did.
You couldn’t even give that order. You’re not an administrator.
Her eyes widened. But I know someone who is.
She strode back over to Sara. Keep working on training our new pet, Ikora had said.
She’s going to be alone with Amber.
You can’t get through the disks. Psychology class didn’t prepare you for this. Why would they teach you how to break someone’s mind?
I don’t have to. I just have to get what I want.
She won’t enjoy this.
You won’t enjoy this either.
She brought her hand closer to Sara. The other woman sighed as Clair’s hand weaved its way underneath the fabric of her panties.
“What happens when I touch you, Sara.”
“I relax and obey.”
“Sara. What happens if I touch something? Am I touching it?”
Her brow furrowed, “Yes.”
“And if I touch you with the thing I’m touching. Am I still touching you?”
A few moments of silence, followed by a confused murmur. “Yes. You are.”
“Open your eyes, Sara.”
“Look at what I’m holding,” she showed Sara the phone in her hand. She slid it down Sara’s panties. “Am I still touching you?”
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation.
“Good. And while I’m touching you. What do you do?”
“Relax and obey.”
“Good girl.” She stepped away from her. “Can you imagine my hand still holding on to you? Touching you?”
“Am I still touching you, Sara?”
“Good girl. Now, here’s what you’re going to do...”
* * *
Clair sat in the corner of the room, trying to take deep breaths. Sara stood at attention repeating her instructions over and over again.
“I will record my interaction with my friend Amber. I will say the phrases, and stop when I have recorded each of the words.” Then, Sara started having a one-sided conversation. Those words should work. Amber should respond correctly, and say what she needed to say. Even if ‘puppet’ was a bit of a stretch.
That didn’t stop each word Sara spoke to empty air from cutting Clair to the core. She closed her eyes, trying to push away her guilt.
This was still my choice. I have to see this through.
You can’t torture yourself over this. You’re not in control of your actions. Not fully.
It’s still my idea. If I’d come up with another other way to save her, I’d have done it already. I’m not a hero. I’m just as bad as the rest of them.
You don’t really believe that. You know you’re not at fault. You’re desperate, and pushed into the corner by the real culprits.
Then why do I still feel like shit?!
Because you’re a good person.
She brought her head up from her arms, wiping away her tears. She stared at her captive, repeating lines endlessly.
“I need her to say certain words. It’s very important that I get her to say the following words. Administrator...”
Clair wished it was possible to forget how long she’d made Sara repeat her instructions.
“The next morning, I will return this device to this location and forget all about this.”
I’m just using people.
Sara began repeating her instructions from the beginning.
“I’m so sorry. For everything. You didn’t deserve this.”
“It’s very important that I get Amber to say the following words.”
You can’t interrupt her now. Do you want to make this all for nothing?
I know! I just... I have to make it up to her. Somehow.
Her eyes met Sara’s blank stare. This would be her penance. She forced herself to listen to each syllable of Sara’ mantra, the words becoming condemnations to her ears.
I deserve to feel like this.
That’s not healthy. You know that.
Doesn’t make me feel any better.
Clair placed a hand over her chest. She tried to take deep breaths, but each word from Sara brought each inhale more shallow.
I should do something. I need to help her!
This is helping. Anything more you do will only lower your chances of success. She’s already got a lot she needs to get right.
This is wrong.
You need to leave. There’ll be people coming soon.
As if on cue, footsteps sounded in the library.
They might want to, yes.
“Sara, keep repeating your instructions. When you hear the door open, you can stop repeating them and start following them.”
“Ok... Then I’ll place the phone at this location tomorrow morning and forget this ever happened.”
Clair put back up her hood and left, rushing back towards her dorm.
* * *
Administrator override. Puppet protocol, the recording said. It didn’t work on her. She knew it was a lie. There went her hopes of taking the burden off her back.
“Please provide identification,” a thick latina accent responded.
Clair tapped the second sound file on her phone.
Administrator Amber Cheng.
“Identity confirmed. Welcome, Administrator Amber.”
She put away the phone. “Samantha, you will obey any orders given by Clair Lehmann. Confirm.”
“Now, I, Clair Lehmann, order you to think and behave like your unaltered self. As if you were free of any influence created by the disks, save for the command to obey me.”
Sam blinked several times.
“Listen, I’m really sorry but I gotta go. I’ve got a class coming up soon.”
“Stay where you are.”
Sam’s feet rooted themselves to the ground.
“What the fuck! What did you do to me?” she growled.
“It’s ok, this will all make sense in a minute.”
“You better start making sense right now. I swear to god, bitch, I will stab you.”
Amber had used the serum protocol for this, but there was no reason that puppet protocol shouldn’t let her do it too.
“Samantha, I’m ordering you to remember everything that’s been hidden from you. All the rules, the things you can’t tell anyone, and the things you aren’t allowed to know.”
Sam blinked a few more times. She looked around the empty room. At the other women in the room, faces sympathetic. She started to cry. Sasha laid a hand on Clair’s arm, keeping her steady.
“It’s ok. You’re safe now,” Clair said, hugging her.
“That’s not gonna work,” Sasha said softly. “It didn’t for any of us but me.”
“It’s still important to do.”
“Why are you even bothering to do this?” another woman asked. “Just tell her to calm down and stop crying. This just seems like a waste of time.”
Clair didn’t answer. She focused her attention on the woman in her arms.
I have to try. If I don’t try to do this properly, I’m no better than she is.
Even though you know it won’t work.
I hate you.
You know exactly what that means.
“It’s ok. Just breathe. Yeah. Like that,” Clair whispered, stroking her hair.
“Why?” Sam managed to choke out.
Clair didn’t answer.
“Why did you let me remember? It was better the other way.”
“Because I need your help.”
“Fuck you!” Sam tried to push herself away, but her feet were still glued to the floor. Even as she stumbled, her feet slammed right back to the ground, keeping her from moving further. Her eyes widened. “Fuck you!” she screamed louder.
She’s making too much noise.
“Sam. Calm down.”
Her breathing became steady.
Her whimpering ceased.
“I’m sorry for that, but I didn’t really have a choice. If we get found out, that’s it. We’re done. You can move normally now, but don’t run away.”
Sam stood up, inspecting her limbs. “So I’m going to be helping you then, yeah? Seems like you’ve made up my mind.”
“I’m sorry. I need your help. All of your help. You have my word that I will do everything in my power to free you from all this, once I am able. But what I did to you is fragile. All of those triggers still work, and it’s likely that getting activated will undo a lot of the work I did to free you. Right now, though, I need your help to free my friend. She’s the key to saving everyone, permanently.”
“Ok. Seeing as I don’t have much of an option to say no... what do I need to do?”
“I need eyes on campus. People who can do things I can’t.”
“People who are disposable,” she sighed.
Clair nodded grimly. “Yes. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is. Talk to Carla here. She’ll give you all the details you need.”
Clair nodded towards the other woman in the room, then once again to Sasha. Sasha followed her out of the room as Carla began explaining the details of Clair’s operation.
* * *
It only took a few steps outside the meeting room for Clair to keel over and vomit into the trash can.
“Oh, fuck. Hey, you ok?” Sasha said quickly, moving to her side.
Clair kept her head bowed low. Without looking, she gave Sasha a thumbs up.
“Yeah, I call bull,” Sasha chuckled softly.
After a second round of vomiting, she switched fingers.
“Hey! That’s uncalled for. Look at me, Clair.” She did, and Sasha started wiping away at her friend’s mouth with a handkerchief.
“Who even carries those anymore?”
“Can you not? I’m trying to help you here.”
“You shouldn’t be. I haven’t commanded you to yet.”
“Hey, I get it, ok. I’m not as useful as the others. Or not as disposable. Whatever. I think we know you’re just playing favorites, but fine. I’m still your friend, and, seeing as how I’m literally forced to think about things rationally right now, I can very confidently say that I’m with you till the end.”
Clair chuckled weakly, leaning in for a hug. Sasha shuffled back, pointing to the handkerchief. Well, that was fair. “How are you still self-deprecating even after I’ve made you more logical?”
“You’re the psychologist. You tell me.”
* * *
“Clair, wake up,” Sasha jostled her.
Clair squeezed her eyes, groaning. She had finally been able to rest. She finally didn’t need to be helping all the time. Her burgeoning psychosis had died down. What now?
“What time is it?” she groaned.
“It’s eleven in the evening.”
“What’s going on?”
“It’s Cooper. He told me he saw Sara running around in a disheveled maid outfit.”
She got up and rubbed her eyes. Clair was the only girl who was out of the loop. Her phone and computer were dangerous. Clair had omitted the fact that the email she sent was fake from the debrief, but she’d danced around the subject. The other girls understood what had happened intellectually. The programming, however, had already received its orders. So, in lieu of being able to send instructions herself, Sasha was serving as her point of contact.
“We don’t have an idea what it means.”
“The Enemy is a megalomaniac, but even she’s not stupid enough to draw that much suspision to herself,” Clair groaned. They’d started calling her that, since many of the girls had... uncomfortable memories associated with the name.
“Yeah, don’t remind me.” Sasha stared at the floor.
“I’m... sorry, about what she made you do to Amber.”
“I know, and you’ve told me, so many times it wasn’t my fault. She used one of those magic control protocol thingies on me. Next thing I know, I’m feeling up Amber in the shower. I still don’t feel great about it.”
“Hey, cheer u-”
“Please don’t try to make me feel better. I’m not in the mood.”
Clair smiled slightly at that, and Sasha returned it, but only for a moment.
“Right, sorry,” Clair sighed. “Just tell the girls to keep monitoring her. Let’s see what she’s doing.”
Ring. Sasha’s phone
“Hang on, I think this is Cooper. Yes? Oh shit... Yeah, I’ll tell her. Boss, Sara just came out of the comp-sci building holding a small metal briefcase.”
She blinked, then gaped. “Why the hell would Sara be carrying that?”
“Fuck if I know.”
“Call the rest. Meeting in the war room in five.”
Sasha nodded and began punching numbers into her phone.
* * *
“There’s no way to even know if she’s actually got the disks in her hand. This plan is bullshit!” Clara roared.
“It’s worth the risk. We couldn’t get to the disks any other way. They’re under constant lock and key. If she’s really got the disks, we have to strike. Having them is one of our victory scenarios!”
If she keeps them under lock and key, she’d probably have something similar for whatever Sara’s transporting. I’ll need to handle that...
“What if it's a trap?”
“That’s why we have a separate group go, and raid the Enemy herself when she least expects it. If it is a trap, her own defences will be almost non-existent. Her resources will be stretched far too thin to do anything about it. Hell, she’ll probably be completely alone, if that’s the case.”
“But if it’s not, you’re sending a bunch of us back to her.” Clara’s voice dripped with venom.
Clair put her hands on her head.
“Clara, you were there on the night that Amber first started to notice this whole thing.”
“Yes, thank you, I remember. I was hanging off some guy’s arm with a dumb smile. Thanks for the reminder that these things can make me switch sides.”
“The point is, you remember how selfless Amber was. She chose to run after Sasha, even though she had no idea what she was getting into.”
“It's easy to be brave when you don’t know the stakes.”
“Even after she knew about them, she stopped at nothing to free her friends. To free you. To free me. This is why we’re here. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for her!”
“So you do it, then!”
“You know why I can’t.”
“Yeah, yeah. Because you’re the mastermind. You’re not protected. Bull. Shit. The rest of us are barely better off than you are. I’ve been carrying out your orders to the letter. That thing you did to my head means I literally can’t forget. I know your plans inside and out.”
Clair held her breath.
“And plus, don’t think I don’t have ideas of my own. Why do you think your surveillance network is so deep, huh? How did we manage to convert nearly ninety percent of the roster in a matter of hours? You started this, but I can sure as hell end it.”
“You’re not listening.”
“I think I’m listening pretty damn closely! You don’t care about us. You’re gonna tell us that it won’t be that bad. Once you have the disk, assuming that’s even what Sara’s really carrying, you’ll come save us? Fuck you! You know exactly what it's gonna be like in there. What she’ll do.”
Clair opened her mouth to speak, before being cut off.
“And don’t even try to convince me that maybe I’ll have a chance to overpower her,” she mocked with air quotes. “You know damn well we’re being sent there to fail. This isn't a raid. This is a fucking distraction!”
The room went quiet.
I’m running out of time. I need to act, now.
She hit the desk. Pain shot through her forearm.
Their eyes met and in an instant, Clair wished she couldn’t see. Gone was the anger and frustration. Now, faced with the end, they both knew what her next words would be. The other women in the room were afraid. She could practically hear their silent worries. Would they be picked as the scapegoat? Had they been useful enough to stay free?
Clara made no such pretense. Her face was calm. She nodded. She knew what she had to do. What Clair didn’t have the guts to. Grimacing, Clair gave the order.
“Clara, you’re going to lead a raid against Ikora. Take ten of our physically strongest allies and split them into two teams. Actually, don’t take any of our guys. We don’t have enough to risk losing our eyes in the boys dorm. One group will ambush Sara on her way back to the comp-sci building. The other will attack the Enemy in her room.”
Clara nodded, determined even in her silence.
I’m a hypocrite.
“You can all talk and move normally now. Go. One way or another, it ends tonight.”
One of the boys in the room sighed. “And I was hoping to get to punch her face in, too...”
Clara and the other women broke formation, gathered their things, and left. Clair turned towards her friend, the last one to leave.
Her friend kept her back turned.
“Did I do the ri-”
“We should leave, Clair. We’ve got an ambush to prepare.”
* * *
Sasha, Clair, and two other women hid behind bushes and in alleyways, waiting for their mark.
Clair’s eyes burned as she kept them forced open. She still couldn’t decide if having preternatural recall was a blessing or a curse. As tired as she was, not knowing how long she’d been sitting in a dark alley would at least allow her to disassociate, unhealthy as it might have been. Now, all she could do was focus on the task at hand.
At least it isn’t helpful to think about what just happened.
You can think about that later. Saving Amber comes first.
She was talking to herself again. That wasn’t healthy, not the way she was doing it. But she didn’t have time to worry about that. Occasionally, she would look towards the other women in her group. A flash of guilt, followed by another surge of determination.
They had been waiting outside the only passageway to the comp-sci building for almost twenty minutes when they heard footsteps.
High heels. It’s her.
The rhythmic click clack confirmed her suspicions. She looked towards her allies, and nodded.
* * *
The maid had made little attempt to resist. She struggled as best she could, but didn’t have a chance. They were lucky Sara hadn’t been taught to fight.
“Is this it?” Sasha asked, holding up a small case.
“Only one way to find out. You got someone to buy a stethoscope for that lock, didn’t you?”
“Any word from the raid group?” Samantha asked.
Sasha shook her head.
“Fuck. This better be worth it.”
“It will. I promise.”
Sam picked up the now gagged and bound Sara, carrying her into an alleyway where she wouldn’t cause trouble.
“We’ll decide what to do with her later. I know some chemistry people. We might be able to keep her drugged until we can free her.”
Sam stared at her in disbelief. “You can hear yourself right now, yeah? That’s crazy.”
“Oh, I can hear myself, all right. I’m open to better ideas.”
She never got any.
She looked over to Clara. “O, ye of little faith. That’s probably the raid group.”
“For your sake, I hope you’re right. Sasha, who is it?”
The redhead looked down at her phone.
“It’s... someone important. I really need to answer this. One second.”
The other two women looked at each other and raised an eyebrow.
“Is it the raid group? Let me speak to them,” Sam said, reaching for the phone.
Something’s not right. Sash looks distant. Like...
Like this is a trap, and Ikora had gotten to her recently.
She ran towards the phone, but it was far too late. Sam’s eyes widened as she picked it up, then glazed over.
No, no, no, no, no. I’ve got to get to that phone. I can’t hear it. If I swat it away from them, she can’t hurt them. She can’t get to me.
“Understood,” Sam droned before pressing a button on the phone. That had to be the speaker button.
She was still agonizing steps away from Sam. Her pulse quickened.
“Hello, Clair. I hope you can hear this.”
She felt her breath catch in her throat. Her feet stumbled, and she nearly tripped. It. Was. Her.
Stop her. It’s the only thing that matters. Get. To. That. Phone.
Time slowed as the voice from the phone’s speakers projected Ikora’s voice across the field.
Clair screamed, piercing and primal. She heard vague sounds of anger, but her ears were left ringing.
She found her footing, bolting in the opposite direction. She had to get somewhere. Anywhere. She couldn’t tell if the other girls were giving chase. She was too scared to look back.
Clair was fit. She could run for hours. If she wasn’t unable to lie to herself, she might have thought she already had. Her brain told her that by the time she had stopped, she’d been doing so for nearly ten minutes at maximum sprint.
Fuck me. I don’t think I’ve ever run that fast.
You haven’t needed to.
Her lungs burned. Her legs buckled underneath her.
Ok, fine. Few minutes rest. Then I’ll get my shit together.
She coughed, doubling over. Her body wasn’t handling it well. Running on adrenaline that much could damage your body, couldn’t it?
She got moving, though. She couldn’t rest.
She made it to a nearby coffee shop. It was still open, even this late. She ran into the bathroom, and locked the door.
Now she could focus on her prize.
Certainly wasn’t going to forget about you.
She reached into her pocket, pulling out the stethoscope and a printed piece of paper. Amber might not have known how to do that, but Clara had looked up how for her. And she had nothing but time.
She placed the case on her lap, then began to listen. She wrote numbers down as she went, getting closer and closer. The latch finally popped free.
She held the small disk, attached to the wire monstrosity still in the case, up to the bathroom light, and laughed. Her diaphragm seized immediately, and she nearly dropped it.
Ok. Too tired for high degrees of expression. I need a nap, once I find somewhere safe.
She examined the disk. It was small, and sleek, but she knew how dangerous it could be.
And she had no idea how she was going to use it.