“Oh-ex-oh-four,” Clair intoned.
Amber’s expression began to move again, and quickly fell flat as she saw who was in front of her.
“Oh. That time again.”
“How are you feeling, Amber?”
“Could you be more specific?”
“I’m feeling pretty suspicious of you. You still haven’t told me why any of this is happening, and you won’t let me leave. And you keep sedating me.” Her eyes narrowed. “And I’m not sure why I’m telling you that, either.”
“I promise it’ll all be clear very soon. Could you close your eyes, please?”
Amber eyed her. Clair held her breath, not wanting to have to order her to do it.
“You owe me an explanation first.”
God damnit, Amber! I can’t risk you freaking out because you want to play twenty questions! You’ll get your answers when you’re ready to hear them.
“This is for your own good. You’ll thank me later. Close your eyes.”
Amber obeyed. She frowned as her eyes shut, then her head snapped to the side. “What did you do? Where am I?”
“In your memories, Amber. You told me they felt weird because you couldn’t associate how you felt at the time. So I’m going to let you experience them. First, we’ll do one memory of that kind, as a test. Because we’re inside your head, you can pause and rewind as much as you like. And I’ll be here to answer any question you have.”
Clair grimaced, thankful that Amber couldn’t see her face. “I don’t know the exact specifics of the procedure.”
“And why should I trust you?”
“Please, Amber. I’m just trying to help.”
“Fine. Whatever. It’s not like I have much of a choice.”
“We’re making good progress, Amber. I have little doubt you’ll be back to your old self soon.” I doubt it’s that easy, but any assurance I can make...
“So, what? I go through this and I start remembering things again?”
“Assuming nothing goes wrong, I promise.”
Clair held her breath as Amber’s eyes started to move under her eyelids. She’d programmed her to experience it as though she was watching a movie through her own eyes. Cliched for sure, but effective nonetheless. Amber’s lips pursed as she watched.
“What the hell is this place?”
“It’s your dorm room,” Clair supplied, remembering what the first memory she’d slated was.
“There’s a lot of posters in here.”
“How do they make you feel?”
“A little ridiculous, I guess? Some have pictures of half naked women or muscle bound guys with chainsaws for arms. Why are these on my wall?”
“They’re movie posters. You’re about to watch one.”
“Hm. That’s a strange chair. I wonder how it feels.”
Probably the beanbag chair.
“Damn, this is comfy! I like this!”
As Amber settled down, Clair prepared herself for twenty minutes of observation as her subject watched the movie in her mind. That still amazed her. How did the disks promote such perfect recall?
After twenty minutes, she checked in.
“How’s the movie?”
“It’s really stupid. I know how it ends, sure, but really, she’s being such an idiot. Why doesn’t she just pick up a knife?”
“It would be boring that way.”
Amber nodded, then relaxed, returning focus to her mind’s eye.
Clair waited another half hour for the movie to finish, taking notes on tests she’d want to perform with the disks once all this was over to pass the time. Can they recover memories lost in the earliest parts of life? Once a memory is recalled, can non-disk means recall it just as easily? How does it compare to hypnosis? Is it possible to use the disks to bolster hypnosis without risking such sweeping effects?
She was brought out from her musings by Amber resuming her observations.
“Wow. That was a waste of time. But... I kinda wanna watch it again. It was fun, even if it was stupid.”
“Later, you can do that as much as you’d like. For now, let’s move on. You’ve got years ahead of you, and so we’re going to do a lot of this in chunks.”
* * *
Amber’s eyes fluttered to life, and immediately she jumped off the couch, beginning to pace the room.
“Alright. I’m ready. What kind of memories do you have for me today?”
Clair smiled at her eagerness. “We’re getting to college now. Close your eyes and we can get started.”
Amber laid down on the couch. “Clair? Is there any chance I could... y’know, not be put to sleep after this?”
“I have to put you to sleep to implant new memories.”
“Yeah, okay, fine. You need to put me to sleep for that. But you can’t be spending all that time implanting memories, right? What about eating, and using the bathroom and that kinda stuff? I just... you know. Like, this is good, we’re making progress, but I don’t want to just be a walking movie projector. Like, what about that other girl I see walking around here sometimes? Why can’t I go talk to her?”
“Close your eyes, please, Amber.”
“We’ll see what you’re ready for after this next batch of memories.”
* * *
“I’m in a room, picking out clothes. A black leather jacket. Memory-me smiled at it,” Amber narrated.
“How does that make you feel?”
“I’m not sure. Like, I’ve seen clothes like it in posters and movies. And yeah, it looks nice, sure. But why am I putting it on? I don’t care about stuff like this, and honestly, I didn’t get that impression from memory-me. Not really.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, like... the working out I get. I can see why I might choose to invest in my fitness. And yeah, clearly I feel great! But I never really cared about how I look. It’s too much work, so why bother? I’m gonna look just as terrible the next day after I wake up. And I don’t exactly seem like the type to motivate myself like that. Motivation comes in bursts. Something routine like this? No way.”
Clair grimaced. How to explain about the disks?
Without input, Amber continued narrating the test memory.
“I turn around and look at my ass in the mirror. I... bite my lip.”
Her face contorted.
Clair tried her best to steady her breathing. “What’s wrong, Amber?”
“That doesn’t make any sense! Why am I getting turned on by my reflection? I mean, yeah, I look great. But I’m looking at myself. Why would I suddenly start...”
Huh. There wasn’t any conditioning like that for the rest of us...
“What’s wrong, Amber?”
“This just isn’t me! I used to hang around in my slacks all day and watch movies. I’d hang out and play games with friends, sure, but it’s not like I cared about my appearance. Now I’m spending half my day worried about how my hair looks? And why am I spending all this time looking at boys? All the previous memories made it pretty clear I’m gay!”
“You can like both, Amber.” I know she’s bi, the roster said so, but... if that’s the impression she got, it’s a wonder she ever thought she was straight.
“Yeah, but when did I ever? I never cared the slightest bit about anyone but girls, bar one or two exceptions. And now, I seem to have forgotten them entirely? What the hell?”
“Why don’t we take a look at a different memory?”
“No,” she growled. “I want answers. This doesn’t make any sense. The stuff you’re showing me now is different. You say these are my memories, and up until now, that’s been believable. They seem internally consistent, painting a picture of a nerdy gay antisocial girl. That makes sense. But these last few sessions, things have been different. Small things, things I’ve been able to ignore, but this is just the crux of it. I ‘remember’ that being me, but my priorities are all wrong. What, did I get amnesia before, too? What aren’t you telling me?”
She... hadn’t liked all of this?
But, Amber had always been proud of her body. Hadn’t she?
If she wasn’t, if this was different, that meant...
That meant the Amber she knew was the lie.
She was trying to restore Amber. She was going to restore Amber.
But what if the Amber she knew wasn’t the Amber she was going to bring back?
What if this drove that Amber away?
She jumped, then looked at Amber, whose eyes had opened.
“H-hello? Clair? The memory’s over. Can we talk, please? All I want is some answers. I’m scared. Please. Just... tell me what’s going on.”
No. No, no, no, she couldn’t.
I can’t fix her. I can’t save her. I’m fixing ‘Amber,’ but not the girl I knew. That girl’s gone forever, ontologically dead. I can’t save her. And even if I could, I’m not sure I should.
Everything felt loud. Too loud. Her heart was a maddening beat in her ears, and she gasped desperately for breath.
Hands grabbed her shoulders. She screamed, and the hands shot away, then came back. Her face felt cold. Sweat dripped from her brow. She heard her name.
Her eyes shot open. Where was she? She was in a room. Sara’s room. Matt was grabbing her.
She nodded, unable to get words out.
“Why don’t you sit down, ’kay?” Matt said quietly.
She nodded again, accepting his open hand.
“I will prepare food,” Sara called distantly.
“She really doesn’t get things, does she?” Matt sighed, helping Clair up to her feet.
Clair took deep breaths, trying to focus on his words. She counted each step they took towards the table in her head.
Things I can hear. Matt. Sara. Things I can feel. His hand. The floor. You’re ok, Clair.
“Are you... Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No, I’m fine.”
She stumbled into the chair.
“Are you sure? ’Cause you sure as fuck don’t look fine. You’re still sweating.”
She glared at him.
“The fuck do you want?”
Matt recoiled, looking offended. “The fuck do I want? I don’t know, Clair! I’m just trying to help!”
“Yeah, right. You have what you want already. I’m not gonna take her away from you just because I’m feeling sick.”
“What? This isn’t about... And hey! You just said you weren’t feeling well!”
“No, I mean...” he sighed. “Look. You’re clearly not doing well, and she’s definitely not going to help with an emotional crisis. So... yeah. I just wanna be... I dunno.”
Clair sank into the chair, trying to make herself smaller.
“I’m really not in the mood to talk.”
“I get that, but... leaving you alone right now feels like the opposite of the right thing to do.”
She gave him a look. One more blip on the list.
* * *
The two of them sat in silence, waiting for Clair’s heart to stop beating out of her chest. Sara gave them food, then left them alone to do... whatever it was she did when they weren’t watching. Homework, probably.
“Does she just not care or anything?” Matt snorted.
“It’s not her fault. Ikora did a number on her. She acts normal when she’s outside, but this version of her’s just... not.”
“Can she be fixed?”
“Maybe. I’ve been asking her about her programming, when I need a break from Amber. I’ve got some ideas, but she won’t let me try them out until Amber’s back, and even then, Amber probably will do a lot better than I would. The disks, the things Ikora used on us? It’s not as simple as telling someone they’re free and snapping your fingers. There’s no undo button. They alter brain functions, somehow. That’d mean her brain is literally wired differently. How she is outside, that’s an act. A flimsy one. It can’t be impossible to fix, with how powerful the things are. But possible doesn’t mean easy. And that’s all secondary to Amber, anyway.”
He hesitated. “What about you?”
“I’ll... be ok. I’m pretty sure that most of Ikora’s victims should be easily fixable, myself included. I mean, I nearly managed it without the disks myself.”
“That’s not what I meant. I meant, are you...” he paused, blinking. “You... nearly managed it? What?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess you wouldn’t know. Amber figured it out by accident. If you order someone to do something that contradicts the programming—for me, it was ‘helping Amber’—the new order takes temporary priority. I used that to free a bunch of toys for a while, nearly all of them, to raid and steal the disk. Worked, too.”
“Huh indeed. The programming wasn’t so invasive that it changed their lives. It was minor things, really. Working out, paying attention in classes. Positive things, besides the sex slavery. And I’m not even sure if we should give back their memories. I mean...”
“Yeah. This kind of thing... I can...” he grimaced. “I can only imagine how bad it is. For...”
“For your victims.”
Matt nodded uncomfortably.
“You’re not just thinking about the toys, are you?”
Matt sighed. “No. It’s... these last few days have had a lot for me to think about. But... shouldn’t we give them the choice? Let them remember? Even if... they hate us for it?”
She sighed back. “You might be right. I don’t know. Maybe. Ignorant bliss, or shocking reality. We might even be able to just give people the memories like a movie, like I’m doing with Amber. Except instead of having her make her own emotional judgements, it’s so they can stay emotionally divorced. But... not right now. I need to focus on Amber, first. Not just because I have to, but because... well, I have to.”
The room grew quiet, broken only by the sound of cutlery as Clair ate. Matt just watched uncomfortably.
“Why did you freak out in there?” he eventually asked.
She put down her knife, taking deep breaths. Even the mention of it was enough to set her spiraling again, and it took a massive effort of will to recenter.
I can leave. I can try to deal with this myself, and probably just break down again. Or... I can let a rapist with a guilty conscience try to console me. Fuck.
Her trembling hand pushed the issue.
“... Because I might be making a mistake. Amber is getting better, but we’re pushing hard, and it’s showing. I’ve gone as far as I can go without telling her what happened. I was lucky enough to broker enough trust as it is. But she’s getting frustrated, and I don’t blame her. She’s starting to resent me, and if I don’t tell her, it’ll only get worse. I’d need to start commanding her to work with me. The experience might break her. It could fundamentally change who she is, because she doesn’t have a strong sense of self.”
“So why not ju—”
“Because I’m not sure who Amber is anymore. Did you know that she was an introvert?” Matt blinked in surprise. “Yeah. The disks did that to her. Am I recreating Amber? Or am I just recreating what she’d been made into?”
“... Fuck. I’m sorry,” Matt said after a pause.
“Thanks, but sorry doesn’t exactly fix Amber. Or whatever it is I’m doing to her. I’m fucked, is the long and short of this.”
Those words hung in the air. But she couldn’t stop. Not just because she was programmed not to. She would see Amber back, or...
“It’s not your fault,” Matt said softly.
“It’s not your fault,” he repeated, stronger.
“Please, don’t just give me sophistry. I need—”
“It’s not yourfault,” he snapped. Clair opened her mouth, but that just made Matt angrier. “You listen to me, alright? I think you’re forgetting something, bitch.”
Clair raised an eyebrow.
“You said you might be making a mistake. Sure. Great. That’s fine. Then make it.”
She scoffed, but Matt kept going.
“Whatever you do, it’s going to be better than what that bitch left her as. Whatever you do, it’s going to be more her than the ruined thing we saved.”
“I could do better, though,” Clair snapped. “What if I can find a way to do this right? To fix her?”
“Sounds great in the long run, but hey, guess what? You don’t have a long run. Right now, she’s broken, and you’re helping put her back together.”
“And why do you care?” Clair shot back. “I bet I could just make her your devoted little sextoy and you’d be just as happy as with the real thing.”
Matt grimaced, then sighed. “I get why you’d see me that way. Hell, I don’t even blame you. But... I’m trying, okay?”
“Because I saw a dead girl walking,” he growled, and Clair’s eyes widened. “Because I learned that I’ve bascially been used by a megalomaniac as a tool to rape the girl she hated or loved or both, and I’m still not sure which. Because I decided I wasn’t going to put up with that shit. I’m an awful person, fine. You’re right. But I can see things for what they are.”
“And those things are your new personal toy?”
Matt chuckled grimly. “You know, even that ended up feeling wrong? I tried. Tried to do it. I had sex with her, and it worked at first... but after remembering that shell, I couldn’t do it any more. Ikora smiles, she acts like she enjoys it... Yeah, she’s bad. But still. That vacant, obedient look? It’s wrong. All of this is wrong.”
So, that was what had changed. He’d decided to shape up.
“What are you trying to say, Matt?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “I wanted to reassure you, but really, I think we all could use some of that right now.” He paused. “Especially Amber.”
Clair pulled back at the affront. “And how am I supposed to do that?”
“I don’t know, talk to her? You’ve been treating her like a patient. I thought you said you loved her?” He leered a bit as he said that, before he shook his head, his expression falling back to neutral. “Well, try acting like it for once.”
What could she say to that?
“You’ve got time,” he continued. “You don’t need to fix everything right now. Just... be there for her, alright?”
She just nodded.
* * *
Clair closed her eyes, watching as Amber processed her instructions.
“I am ready,” her subject intoned.
Clair took a deep breath.
Immediately, Amber groaned, cracking her eyes open. Her face was unnaturally calm.
“I’m sorry,” Clair sighed.
Amber blinked. “You’ll... have to be more specific.”
“I... I’m going to give you those answers, now.”
I have to. I can’t keep it from her. She needs to know.
Amber met Clair’s eyes, frowning. “You’re saying that like it’s a bad thing.”
“Sit down, please.”
“Clair? What aren’t you saying?”
Be strong. For her.
“Clair?” Amber’s voice had risen to panic by now.
“This is going to be painful. But it’s for the best.”
“Clair, just tell me!”
“I will. I promise. I... know that promise doesn’t mean much to you, but... after this. I’ll tell you anything.”
“Close your eyes, Amber.”
She obeyed. Instantly, her brow furrowed as the memories began to play.
“It’s that girl I was working with, on that grad student’s project. Echo.”
Clair held her breath.
“Why are you showing me this, Clair? What’s important about...”
She trailed off.
“We... built something? You didn’t show me those memories. Come to think of it, you didn’t even let me see what the project was for. It’s... a disk? And... the memory ends when she places it on my head.”
“Okay, this is a sequence. She’s doing it again, and this time we’re discussing the results. It’s hypnosis, or something similar.” Her eyes, already closed, scrunched up. As if she was trying to avoid what she was about to see.
“And now she’s testing it out. I can’t move my arm, and we’re partying. After a few seconds, she taps my arm and it frees up. And... memory over. A bunch more tests. I get the gist. Then, we’re discussing it. And she... she’s asking me... if I liked her. I did, I think. Why did I say no? I don’t understand...
“She just took the disk off my forehead. And... I’m smiling, but there’s no emotion. At all. So that means, this is what...”
Amber’s eyes shot open, and she met Clair’s gaze with frantic urgency.
“This is what happened. It’s not some accident. She did this to me.”
Clair nodded grimly.
“There’s more, isn’t there? She wouldn’t have wiped my memories. Not then. There’s more to this. Show it to me. You promised answers. I want everything.”
* * *
Clair couldn’t agree more.
“I... really did all of that. I hurt all of them. I made them into slaves.”
“No,” Amber snapped. “It was. And I had... so much sex...” she trailed off, looking disgusted.
“Fuck. This is what you did to me, isn’t it? Were you the one who wiped my mind?” Amber started shifting backwards. “Sara, I remember from the last few memories. She was Echo’s puppet. Matt... why are you working with that bastard? Who the fuck are you, Clair?”
“Well, that clears it up, thanks! How much of this was real? Are you working with Echo? No, wait, I saw her.” She paused, then gasped. “Wait, I saw her! And she was blank. You got her too!”
I can’t just keep secrets from her forever. I need her to trust me.
“Yes. I got her,” Clair sighed.
“So Sara’s your maid now, too? Trying to fix my memories so I’m compliant, eh? Building a nice little harem?”
“No.” Clair rolled her eyes. “Never. The only person I want is...”
“Me. You’re smart, you were reserved, but you broke down when I begged. You’re... you’re just like her. Of course. You had a crush, and I never noticed you, so you took it into your own hands, and...”
“Amber. Remember the night before finals.”
Her eyes snapped shut, and she gasped. “I can’t disobey you. You really... are... huh?”
She trailed off, looking confused. “Clair, what the hell is this?”
“I was comforting you. You were freaking out, and sent me a worrying text, so I came over. You were in a bad state, and I held you, reminding you of how skilled you were, how you were prepared, how you were going to ace your tests. And you did.”
Amber frowned. “I... did. You’re right. But... what the hell is this?”
“Tell me what you see, Amber.”
“I see myself being comforted by nobody. There’s nobody else in that room. I just... got over the panic attack. That isn’t how that works. I never come down that quickly. And you say...”
“She removed your memories of me,” Clair said softly. “And I don’t know how to bring them back.”
“And... and why,” she started slowly, “am I supposed to believe that? For all I know, Echo could have been the one you removed. Maybe I did accept her confession. Maybe I did fall in love with her! And you took offense to that.” Amber met Clair’s eyes defiantly. “And now you’re forcing me to tell you all of this. I need to give you as much detail as I can. Using that to refine your approach?”
It painted a disturbingly believable picture. She’d just been shown her reality was a lie. How could she know who to trust?
Clair grimaced. “How can I make you believe me?”
“You can’t. Unless you’re going to force me to, in which case my objections are moot anyway.”
“What if...” Clair began. “What if you could make me tell the truth?”
It was a stupid plan. Amber had just admitted she was suspicious of Clair. This was as good as suicide.
Amber raised an eyebrow.
“I... was a toy, too. The admin protocols you saw in the memories... they’ll work on me.”
Amber frowned, searching Clair’s expression. “That’s a lot of power to give me.”
Clair just nodded.
“Hm. Well, I need to test that. How did it go? Admin override... puppet protocol.”
“Please provide authentication,” Clair said, almost desperately.
“Administrator Amber Cheng.”
They sat there in silence for a moment.
“I need to confirm you’re not lying. If this protocol works, I can order you to do anything,” Amber mused. “But it needs to be something you wouldn’t be willing to do to get me. I need to do it in a way you can’t compromise.”
Her expression turned pensive.
“If you are being genuine, I’m sorry for this. But I need to know.”
“Stop breathing, Clair.”
Her eyes widened as her body did just that. Was Amber really going to...
Spots began to form in her eyes, and Amber just watched dispassionately. How could she?
It was almost a relief when she slipped into unconsciousness.
* * *
“So you weren’t lying,” Amber said softly.
Clair coughed, sitting up straight, looking into Amber’s concerned expression.
“You started breathing again once you passed out. I’d have given you CPR if you didn’t. You won’t be suffering any permanent damage. For what it’s worth... I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.”
She hadn’t even expected to wake up at all.
“So. Admin override. Serum protocol. Let’s talk.”