Amber looked at her captor, her jailer, and, if she was to be believed, her savior. The past few days were a torrent of emotions she’d never felt, and things she’d never learned. She hadn’t felt any emotions before then. If Clair was to be believed, she hadn’t even existed. The thought horrified her, though she took solace in the fact that she was being restored. But even then, she couldn’t be sure if that was the truth. And finally, she’d gotten another feeling for the first time. Power.
And what had she done with that power? Abuse it immediately. She grimaced. Clair showed vulnerability, and the first thing she did was stab her in the back.
It was the right call. I had no other way to trust her. How fucked up is that? How fucked up am I?I literally told her to try and kill herself, and now I’m justifying it.
“I’m sorry. I really am,” she reiterated, more for herself than for Clair.
“I... I know. It’s ok. I understand. I’d probably do the same thing in your position.”
She cares for me, obviously. But that doesn’t tell me why, or in what way, or if she just wants to possess me.
She kept her face impassive, though she had no idea whether the facade worked.
“Let’s start with the easy ones, then.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I love you. I miss you, and this is the only way to get you back in any form.”
“Yes, you said that already. And I’ve already explained why I can’t trust that. For all I know, you were just a stalker.”
“No! We were friends! Really good ones, too.”
“Alright. So why don’t I remember you?”
“I told you already!”
“Asking questions again is a common investigative method, Clair. Answer the question.”
“Ikora erased me from your memories. As far as I can tell, those memories are gone, permanently, poof. And those that are left are... well, you remember finals night.”
That’s well within the disks’ power, so her story matches up. Her brow furrowed. But that ignores a bigger problem. I’m living proof the programming isn’t perfect. Or at least, only as perfect as the human designing it. She could just as easily be manipulating me with half truths and carefully chosen wording. As much as I want to trust her... I can’t. Not yet.
“Why would Ikora remove you?”
“My guess? To cause you pain. Or out of jealousy.”
“Why would that cause me pain?”
“I... because you’re my friend.”
“And if she’s really eliminated you from my memories to the point where I can’t even recognise where you’re missing, how would that hurt me?”
“It wouldn’t. I think she’d started to crack under the pressure by then.”
“How very convenient.”
She sighed. “Yes. It is. If she’d been in her right mind, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You’d be worshiping the ground she stepped on, and I’d probably have forgotten all about you. And I know how that sounds. And... I know that I’ve been making a lot of mistakes these past few days.”
“I know you love me. Let me guess, your excuse is that love makes you do stupid things?”
“No... Yes? Fuck, I’m not sure if I can definititively answer that. Yes, sometimes there’s no logic in love! But I saw you, and... the thing you became, and I was terrified, okay? And I had to do stupid things. I grasped at straws, doing whatever I could, consequences be damned, to fix what... to fix what happened to you. I had to help. No, I had to help. No other choice. Your words, not mine. And... I tried.”
My words. So I gave her an order? It could also be a convenient excuse...
Clair sniffled, then started crying. And now the waterworks. Doesn’t help me figure out if she’s being real, or if she believes her own act. The disks certainly would help with that...
She kept her face impassive.
“Why do you feel responsible for this? For me?” She hadn’t said it outright, but it’s a safe assumption.
Clair tried to hesitate, but the programming forced words into her mouth. “I’ve hurt so many people to get you back. I’m a monster. Every time I try to convince myself that I had no choice, or that I wasn’t at fault, I go and do something to prove myself wrong. I needed to save something. Make one good thing from all of this. You.
“I... I wasn’t sure if you’d forgive me in the end. If I brought you back, you would understand why I put you through so much, but...” her voice hitched. “I didn’t. I made... well, you. You aren’t her. And you don’t understand. And I can’t even blame you for that.”
She hasn’t even fully worked this through herself.
“I want you back, Amber. I... I need you back. But this isn’t about me. It never was.”
She smiled through the tears, but it had a bitter edge to it. “You’re back. As much as you can be. I didn’t want to admit it. I felt like it wouldn’t be complete if I wasn’t there. But... even without me, all I can see is you.”
“So, what? You’re done with me?” Face. Neutral.
“I never should have considered you a project to work on in the first place.”
She held her breath.
I can’t keep doubting her. Unless this is a scheme so deep I’m never getting out, this is real, or at least, she believes it is. Everything about this tells me she wants to change, that she regrets what she did, that she can’t stand the person she is now, and I’m seeing that evolution in real time.
“So. Now what?”
“Now I need to accept that who you are now is who you are now. That... Amber is gone.”
She feels responsible for that. Responsible for what she sees as the old me’s death.
Amber clenched her jaw.
“And what if—hypothetically—I told you I wanted you to go further?”
“I don’t think I can. Not without controlling you. Not without changing you again.”
“And what if I told you that I still don’t trust you? That I don’t think I ever will, and I don’t want to see you again?”
Why am I asking her this? Why the hell am I still here?
“I would—” Clair cut off, her breathing growing tight. After a second, strained, she continued. “I would understand. I’d leave you alone.”
I need to stop talking. I need to leave.
“You said you loved me. Why?”
“How could I not?”
“How the hell do I even begin to explain that? You’ve been on my mind since I first saw you at that convention. Uh, right... that’s where we met. An anime convention. You’re smart, but dumb at times. You’re funny, but you find your jokes funnier than anyone else. And you care, so strongly. In moments that would make anyone else break and run, instead, you charge. You’re brave, and selfless.”
Clair was smiling now, “You could have run. You could have left all of us to a fate of ignorant bliss, but you chose to do the right thing. And then you did something more. You... you sacrificed yourself for me. Threw yourself into her arms because the fear of me being the one she got was so strong you’d push me away before that happened. I... owe you my life. Or my self. Same difference. I can’t ever repay that. Whatever you ask for, I will give you. I promise. Because that’s all you’ve ever deserved.”
This has gone on long enough. I need. To. Leave!
She couldn’t make herself move. Why? It wasn’t like she couldn’t move her body, couldn’t make herself move to the door. She knew that. So. Why? “Why would I do that?”
“I... I don’t know,” she laughed sadly. “After all this time, I’ve never really had the opportunity to think about it. Any of it. Everything that’s happened. Everything that I’ve done. I... I can’t help but think of it as an act of love, Amber. What else could it have been?”
Amber wanted to believe that. More than anything.
But I can’t.
They made eye contact. Amber had expected this to be easier. Something inside her cried out, desperate. A subconscious desire to be close to another? The fear of being alone? Running from the questions this raised? A desire for that fearsome joy Clair’s embrace promised? A fervent wish to believe her? She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t be sure.
She had to be sure. She had to make sure.
“Tell me I have permission to leave. Tell me I don’t have to listen to your orders anymore. And don’t try to stop me, either.”
Clair’s eyes widened with horror, even as she began to speak.
“You have permission to leave this room. You don’t need to listen to my orders anymore.”
“Is there any other way you can control me?”
“Yes, you still have the most basic programming for toys, the admin protocols. The rest seemed to have been gone already. Sara’s likely made you obey her orders as well.”
“Can you remove that?”
“I can tell you to stop obeying Sara, but I’m not sure if that will work. The base protocols... no. I don’t think I can do that without putting you back under a disk, and I’m not confident I could remove them even if you did go back under. It’s why I didn’t use a disk to remove them from myself once I stole one.”
Stole? There’s more to this story, but I don’thave the timeto listen!
Her brow furrowed, and she squirmed in her chair.
She wants to say more. She’d be pouring her heart out, if I hadn’t ordered her not to try to stop me. But... I don’t think she’d have ordered me to stay. She just wants to talk. But words are dangerous. I don’t have their luxury right now.
“It’s worth trying. Tell me I don’t have to obey Sara or anyone else anymore.”
“You don’t need to obey Sara or anyone else anymore.”
She turned towards the door.
“You didn’t have to do this,” Clair called softly. “I’d have let you leave if you’d asked...”
Amber looked back over her shoulder.
“I really wish I could believe that. Truly. I do.”
With that, she turned to leave, ignoring the sounds of sobbing she left behind.
* * *
She couldn’t go. Not now. But she had to. She’d waited around for what felt like hours now, though it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. She was already there. She knew what she had to do. But why? Couldn’t? She? Move?
Because I’m a coward. I’m afraid of the answers I’ll find. Afraid of Amber.
Afraid of me.
Paradoxically, it was that fact that gave her the push she needed. Yes, she was afraid. But more than that...
She needed to know.
She turned the corner, and, steeling herself for a potential ambush, knocked on the door of the dorm room.
The latch clicked.
She tensed, taking a deep breath.
I know that coming here is playing into her hands. She knows I’d go here next. But... if she’s really planned all this, do I really have a way out at all? She grimaced. Gah! I hate this. I can’t trust my own mind! More than I can remember, anyway...
The door opened, and she was stuck with a wave of paralyzing fear, before her instincts drove her to act. She shoved forward, her hand going to cover a surprised Matt’s mouth as she tackled him to the floor.
Of course it’d be you.
The door clicked shut behind her, but that wasn’t important. She couldn’t let anything intimidate her. Not now.
“I know what the activation phrase is, and it won’t work.” I hope. “Tell me to do anything, speak out of turn, and I can’t promise you’ll still be breathing.”
He raised an eyebrow, and her grip tightened in response. “Is Ikora here?”
He gave a quick nod. So I was right. They needed a room nearby. Sara’s room. Ikora’s room.
“Why are you here?” She shifted her grip to his chin, jerking him up to meet her eyes.
“Sara told me to watch over her so Clair didn’t try and kill her again.”
“K... belay that a second. But why are you here?”
“I have a roommate. It’s easier to explain that I’m gonna be staying somewhere else than to bring her there. Plus... this felt better. It’s her room. And I mean... I don’t know, I think she’d be comfortable here. More than some guy’s room, right?”
Amber frowned. “What have you told your roommate?”
She grabbed a sock off the floor and stuffed it in his mouth. His eyes squeezed shut for a moment, and it looked like he was going to try and spit it out. I can’t have that...
“Take that out of your mouth, and you’re dead, understand?”
He rolled his eyes. “Mm mm mm!” Amber fixed him with a withering stare. He nodded, but still seemed amused. Something was off about him.
“Have Clair or Sara contacted you? Told you to watch out for me?”
His eyes widened momentarially, and he shook his head. Widening at that, but not a threat. Mixed signals. Why?
Her memories of Matt were few, and not pleasant, but she threw them up onto her mental screen anyway. He didn’t act like this in any of them, though he certainly acted cocky enough. But...
Her last memory of him, before she’d seen him with Clair and Sara, was... him getting his access revoked, because of...
“You had your access revoked. Why?”
He grinned. “Mmmr. Mm mf mmmm mmmr!”
Amber drew her lips to a line. “... fine. You can take out the sock.” And what a good idea for getting answers from a captive thatwas.
“I said ‘Please, as if I can answer!’” he chuckled. Noticing Amber’s expression, he quickly continued, smile fading. “Right, fine. It was because of Clair. She filed a rape report against me. Which, fair. Was... that one of the memories she couldn’t get back?”
That mapped up, but it left more questions than answers. There was a story here. Had Clair disked him to get this level of change? Or... what?
She had an idea.
“Say my trigger, Matt.”
She was fully aware it was a stupid one.
Matt started, looking at her like she was crazy. Well, it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing someone asked for. Not even from their closest allies, let alone their enemies.
“If that’s true, and that happened, then it won’t work.”
“You said it wouldn’t work at all, though?”
She grimaced. “It was a bluff. Maybe. I... look. Say. It. If you want me to even try to do anything other than report you all over again, then just say it.”
He hesitated for a moment, but, resigned, spoke the words.
“Hey, sleepyhead. Tired?”
Amber froze, not sure what to expect. It was possible it could be delayed. It was possible that she was still susceptible.
“Of course,” she grumbled. “Of course you’re the only one I can trust.” She rolled off of him, offering a hand as she stood up, which he took.
“Where is she?” Amber asked.
He jerked his head towards the bed. Amber blinked, noticing there was a person beneath those covers. A person silently watching, expressionless.
Her heart seized. Echo. She stared, frozen, at the girl she loved. The girl she...
Do I? After what she did? “We need to talk,” Amber demanded.
Echo didn’t move.
“She can’t address you unless I order her to,” Matt offered.
“What, are you her handler or something?”
Matt chuckled sheepishly. “Uh... yes?”
Amber blinked. “Well. Putting that aside... let her speak freely. I need to talk.”
He nodded. “Ikora, you will speak freely if Amber allows you to.” He chuckled uncomfortably. “So, should I be leaving, or...”
“No. Stay. I can’t have you fetching Clair or Sara. And I need you to watch, in case...” In case Clair was telling the truth, and Echo is...
She shook her head. Time for that later. There was something more urgent, anyway.
“I’m not here to hurt you, Echo.”
Beneath the sheets, she blinked, but otherwise didn’t respond.
“I just want to ask you some questions.”
Echo’s face shifted, and she turned away.
“Please. Look at me, Echo.”
She did, pulling herself up into a seated position. “Don’t call me that,” the girl Amber loved whispered.
“Alright, Ikora. I just want you to answer my questions honestly.” She paused. “Matt, tell her she has to speak honestly. After that, I’ll leave you alone.”
Matt repeated the command, hesitant for some reason.
Amber took a deep breath, and spoke the truest, burning question.
“Because it felt good.”
“Clarify,” Amber snapped. That had her on edge, right from the start.
“You deserved it. All of you bitches deserved it. You were cruel and uncaring. All you people ever did was fuck around with me.”
Amber grimaced, trying to work through the twisted logic. “So you... what was your wording, wanted to ‘be the one to show everyone exactly what they are?’”
She turned her head, stealing occasional glances back at Amber.
“And what about me?”
Echo actually growled at her. “You? You were the worst of them!”
Amber raised an eyebrow.
“You led me on! Pretended to be my friend! Made me... feel... everything, for you! You were so nice to me, and let me do all those things, and cheered me up when I was down, and... and you just threw me away!”
Amber flinched at the raw emotion in the words, but couldn’t draw her gaze away as tears formed in Echo’s eyes. In that moment, despite all the differences, Echo looked the same as Clair. Both of them, broken up over... over her.
Yeah, that’s the truth, alright. As if I needed any more condemnations.
But that didn’t answer why she would think that...
“I led you on?”
“Yes! God damn it, yes! You! You used me just so that you could turn yourself into the toned, studious girl you wanted to be, and once you had all that, you didn’t need me anymore! You thought I was a nobody, just some forgettable idiot who happened to be good at math. And that’s it. That’s all you needed from me. A bit of wiring and a lot of equations. You didn’t have to seduce me for that...”
“Seduced you? Clarify. I remember it differently,” Amber said stiffly.
“By... doing all that stuff together. Making you remember stuff, making you forget stuff, making you do stuff. Yeah, sure, it was simple enough, but you were clearly turned on by it!”
That was wrong, wasn’t it? She hated control. Because...
“What are you talking about?” Amber said slowly.
“Oh, don’t play dumb. You think I didn’t notice how you fucking squirmed? Even before I put the disk on you, you were anticipating that shit like a drug. Especially when I...” She paled, eyes widening.
“When you said the quiet part out loud? Explain. When you what?”
Ikora didn’t answer, looking panicked.
“Matt,” Amber snapped, turning to face him. “Make her talk.”
He gave her a weak grin. “Alright... Ikora, you have to tell her the truth now.”
“Good,” she nodded curtly. “Now. Ikora. When. You. What?”
“... when I fucked you,” she grumbled reluctantly.
Memories flashed by, of her being used by Ikora. She was in Sara’s room, kissing Ikora while their hands roamed each others’ bodies. She was in a bathroom, Ikora’s face buried in her thighs. She was on her knees, eating Ikora out in an office while holding in her terror. But she wasn’t reacting anything like what Ikora described. Aside from that last time, she was activated, and Ikora hadn’t given any orders as to how Amber needed to act, so she wasn’t reacting much at all, which meant she was talking about -
“Before the ring,” she breathed. “You used the disks for that before the ring.”
Ikora glared at her, but nodded. “And I made you forget, each and every time,” she finally sighed.
Connections. She thought Amber had feelings for her. She...
“Didn’t realize the disks were that powerful, did you?” she murmured. “That deleting memories did a whole lot more than just nix the conscious recall, but any subconscious remnants too? That they could override any desires a person had, regardless of feelings? God, woman, why didn’t you just make me love you? With them, it would be easy!”
“I... didn’t try that at first,” Ikora scowled. “Not until I saw how you felt about her. But look how much good trying that did,” Ikora spat.
More things she didn’t remember. But... why wouldn’t it have worked? She had loved Ikora before, or something close to it. There shouldn’t have been any problems with a suggestion like that. So why would -
She grimaced, halting the spiral with a painful effort of will. There were just too many unanswered questions. Too many to ask.
She had to ask what she could, though. She needed to.
Before this adrenaline surge ran out, and she broke.
She took a deep breath. Okay. Think.
I’m getting too caught up on this. Too caught up on her.I could argue about whether I loved her or not forever, but even if I can trust my memories on that, there’s no conclusive evidence, and I’m not even sure if that matters. I need concretes. I need to know. So I can know what will happen next.
She focused again on Ikora. She had theories, but all of them seemed wrong. This was the biggest question. She needed to know...
“Why did you make the ring?”
Ikora blinked, seemingly taken aback, and hesitated.
“Why,” Amber repeated. “Tell me. You had me. You could have had others. Why did you throw that away?”
Ikora sneered. “That one’s easy. So I could throw you away. Again, and again. Like you did to me. I wanted to take the disks, what you’d worked so hard on. And break that. To take everything you wanted, and turn it back on you. You liked being used? Fine. I gave you more of that than you could ever ask for. And I saw how it turned you on.” She laughed coldly. “Didn’t even need to put that into you. I’d just take you to parties, and tell you to find someone, and seduce them. If I liked whoever you brought back, I’d join in. And if they didn’t like that, well... You gave me the perfect tool to fix that, didn’t you?”
Following a girl into a bathroom, then holding her while Ikora twisted the girl’s mind, balancing a laptop in one hand and the ceramic piece in the other. Seducing guys, bringing them into a bedroom, and fucking them. Ikora joined in for the girls. Those memories were there. She had been the mindless accomplice more times than she could easily count. But that didn’t answer why...
“The clients? Where did it go from stealing people’s minds at parties to... this?”
Ikora shrugged. “Wasn’t even my idea. A guy who used you asked me afterwards if I could bring you to another party the next week. Offered to pay me for it. And, I thought... why not? Why not make it so that you were available for whoever wanted you, passed around like a common whore? Served you right! And using your own research to do it was just icing.”
Amber drawing up plans, happily following along with Ikora’s every request. Building a system. Putting in the old triggers, since they’d been meant to allow a complete instruction set. She was turned on. But was that her? Was that something Ikora had put in? She couldn’t remember. There wasn’t any context. She could tell she was aroused, but that was as far as the nuance went.
Could she infer from the surroundings? No, she didn’t remember the programming. But surely she could...
“Yeah. Exactly. You remember it now, don’t you?”
Ikora sounded... unsure? Amber couldn’t tell.
“I had you make it. Another bit of delicious irony. You came up with the triggers, the system, everything. You came up with the admin overrides. You came up with puppet protocol. You made sure to make me Administrator Ikora Amar.”
Yes. She... had, hadn’t she? Her memories were... hazy... but...
“You always were in my control. Never able to disobey me. Always mine to use, however I see fit.”
Something about that felt off. But she couldn’t put her finger on it.
“I could always tell. You want to give me control. You always —”
Amber blinked, as Matt’s fist connected with Ikora’s face. Why was he -
“What did you just do,” he growled. Amber frowned. She hadn’t done anything.
“I put her into puppet protocol,” Ikora growled back, “so I could take control of her again. Fuck. That went well, clearly.” She rubbed her cheek, which was already starting to bruise.
“Undo it,” Matt ordered. “Then take her out of whatever state you put her in.”
Ikora flashed him a dirty look. “Amber, you don’t want to be in my control any more than you were before. You can disobey me. You aren’t mine to use. Now, snap out of puppet protocol. Is that enough, Master?” she snarled.
Amber scrambled back, breathing becoming ragged, realizing what just happened. How close she’d been to... losing herself. Again. Clair had been right about her.
If she had just made Matt leave...
“Yes. Now stay there, and shut up.” He turned to Amber, concerned, but a little flushed. “Are you okay?”
She took a deep breath, then let it out.
Matt opened his mouth, then closed it. There was clearly arousal in his eyes. But...
“Why didn’t you take control?” she whispered. “You had the option. You could have done it. She had me, and you had her. Why...”
He sighed. “Because I’ve seen what happened when this is taken too far, okay? I already said this to Clair, you know. Because I saw a dead girl walking. You. And you’re... different, now. That did something to you. And I don’t want to see that. Not again. Not ever.”
He spared a glance for the girl giving him a death glare from the corner. “Not even to her. Nobody deserves that. And I know I’m the last person to do all this moralizing crap, but I’m not blind. That a good enough explanation?”
Amber nodded mutely.
“I even tried it. With her. I had her at my beck and call for days. Doing whatever I wanted. Making her whatever I wanted. All with a smile. And you know what? It was amazing. Fantastic. And so, so wrong. Honestly, this? Her glaring at me, spitting insults? That feels better. That’s how this should feel.”
Matt turned to Ikora, who flinched. What was she remembering? What was she feeling?
And do I even care?
Clair had been right, about Ikora. But that’s all that was certain. She still didn’t know the rest. Who was Clair to her? That uncertainty, it scared her. More, even, than what had just happened.
I need to know.
“You said you wanted what I had with Clair. What did we have?”
She gestured to Matt.
“Matt. Please. I need this.”
He looked at her, meeting her eyes. After a moment, his gaze shifted down, and he sighed.
“You can talk again, Ikora. But if you try anything, I will make you regret it,” he warned.
She just glared at him, before turning to Amber. “You were friends. You loved each other. What more do you want me to say?”
“How did we meet?”
“At some convention, I think. You realized you went to the same school, and started hanging out. Spending time with each other. Watching fucking anime, and it’s all you would talk about. It was nauseating. So I made sure that you were the one to get her. To disk her. To program her. Did you know how talented her tongue is? You certainly learned.”
“And why did you think we loved each other?”
“I didn’t just think it. I knew it. You sent her away before I caught you. You somehow lied to me under serum to protect her.”
“I loved her, you say. I did all that for her. Even though I didn’t like girls?”
Ikora blinked. “What? The fuck are you talking about? You told me yourself, under the disks, that you were bisexual. Even if you found a way to cheat serum, even if you found a way to resist me trying to make you love me, there’s no way —”
Amber couldn’t help it. She started chuckling, then laughing. Matt looked at her, concerned.
“You tried to make me love you? Even though you told me you didn’t want to see me with anyone, especially not a girl?”
Ikora looked at her blankly for a few seconds. Then, her eyes widened.
“I... did that? I... I said something like that, yeah, but...”
She looked at Amber, abject horror on her face.
“You weren’t resisting me. At all. You were... obeying me, to the letter.”
Amber stayed silent. She didn’t remember what Ikora was talking about, but she didn’t know that. She didn’t need to know.
“And yet. You still loved her,” Ikora snarled. “Was she really that good? How the fuck was she better than me? She wasn’t. She deserved everything I did to her.”
Amber didn’t need to know that. She had what she wanted. She should just leave, and plan for what came next.
“What did you do to her?”
So why was she asking that? Why was she still here?
“I used her. I threw it in her face, how she’d failed to save you. Then I asked her what the best way to break her was.” She smiled cruelly. “She got exactly what she asked for. She was so ruined that she was willing to fall at my feet, because the release of loving me instead of you was everything she wanted. And who was I to refuse?”
She turned to Amber, grinning. “A talented tongue indeed.”
“And yet, she saved me,” Amber mused. “If you broke her, she picked up the pieces. Even broken, she did more than you ever could for me. Isn’t that right?”
Ikora didn’t answer. But it didn’t matter.
Amber had her answers.
She turned to leave, then paused.
“It’s funny. I did love you, you know. If you had just done things differently, maybe this could all have worked. Us.” She smiled sadly. “Wouldn’t even have had to use the disks for that. But instead, you used them to make sure that would never happen.”
She turned back to the door.
* * *
Clair had stopped sobbing after about an hour. It wasn’t that she wasn’t sad, or that she had come to terms with it.
There just wasn’t enough in her left to cry.
She thought it had been an hour, anyway. How long had she been lying there?
She didn’t even have the strength to pull out her phone and check.
She flinched at the sound of keys turning in the door. It was so loud. Louder than it should have been.
I really wish I didn’t have this much experience going into shock.
She entertained a brief hope that it was Amber, but that died quickly. She didn’t even have keys.
It was Sara, of course. She wasn’t going to be happy.
The door opened, and she looked over Clair with a dispassionate eye. “What is the status of Amber?”
“Gone,” Clair murmured. In more ways than she could ever know.
She just shook her head.
The command gave her mouth energy she couldn’t. “She left. I don’t know where she went.”
Sara stood still. Clair couldn’t read her well in the best of circumstances. Now, she just... couldn’t put in the effort.
Finally, she spoke. “Is your task complete?”
And what a question that was.
She was Amber. She looked, she talked, she walked like Amber. Duck erat demonstrandum. She’d restored Amber Cheng.
But she hadn’t restored Amber. She’d restored someone with the same name, some shared memories, but not the girl she knew. Amber never would have watched as she gasped for air. But this Amber did.
I can’t be the metric, though. I... can’t be unbiased. I want something, something for her to be. I can’t make this decision for her. Only she can. Which means...
“Yes,” Clair managed to get out, her voice cracking. “That’s... that’s Amber.”
Sara nodded. “Then you are no longer necessary. You can leave.”
She walked past where Clair was lying, not saying a word. She didn’t even glance at her.
Clair was free.
And it didn’t matter.
It couldn’t matter, without Amber. She had been doing all of this for Amber. And now, she was free, but she hadn’t won. Not by any stretch of the word.
So what did she do now?
She worked over that question for a few minutes. She heard a zipper, then the scratch of pencil on paper. Sara was doing homework, probably. Clair couldn’t bring herself to care.
She couldn’t stay here, though. Knowing that, she lifted herself up and gathered her things, though it felt like her muscles were leaden. Slowly she made her way to the door, and then through it. Freedom, for the first time in weeks. And it felt awful.
She walked to her room, ignoring hushed whispers about her appearance. She knew she looked haggard. They didn’t need to tell her.
She stopped. She hadn’t made it to her room. She’d gone where she’d always felt safe and cherished. She’d gone to Amber’s room. Of course she couldn’t let go.
She needed to know, though. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out Amber’s room key. Something she hadn’t been able to use as proof, since a stalker with mind control could just have taken it. But it still worked.
The room was empty. Drawers open, items left out. She had hoped it would contain Amber, realizing that Clair was trying to help, and happy to see her. She’d expected it would contain an Amber, suspicious and guarded. But she’d feared this. That she came and went.
Sighing, she closed the door. Amber was gone. Gone from the school, gone from her life, gone from herself. She had to accept it. Had to be strong. If Amber wasn’t going to do it, she would have to deprogram the toys. She needed to hold herself together, appear a confident leader.
But not now.
Stifling a choked sob, she turned, closing the door behind her. The lock clicking shut felt like a physical blow. Sharp and final.
She forced herself to move down the hallway to her room. Why did she have Amber’s key on the same ring as hers? It had never been practical, but now, it was just painful.
She turned the lock, and stumbled onto her bed, burying her face in a pillow.
“That bad, huh?” a voice said softly from nearby.
Clair froze. That couldn’t be right.
“Hey, Clair. Anyone there?” it continued.
She was going insane again. Great.
“Get out of my head,” she mumbled.
“Isn’t that my line?”
Her head whipped around, her entire body twisting as she turned to face the source of that impossible voice. It couldn’t be her. There was no way.
Amber was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a key, and wearing a sad smile.
“Wh-wha? What?” Clair stammered.
Amber held up the key. “It was buried in my computer bag, inside a pouch that was inside another pocket.” Noting Clair’s confusion, she continued. “I kept thinking about what you had said. And... it’s where I keep my passport, my backup key, and a necklace my grandma gave me on my eighteenth birthday. The important things.
“So I checked there, and I didn’t know whose this key was. I didn’t know why it was there. The room number was one I’d never seen. I’d never seen the room, despite walking these halls how many times? That wasn’t a coincidence.
“So. Here I am. You went here, so it was your room. That means I cared for you enough to consider your key one of my essential possessions. We were friends, at the least. Good ones.
“Of course, this could all be a trap. But at this point I’ve beaten that horse dead more ways than I care to list. If this is a trap? Then hey. You got me.” She followed that with a weak laugh. “But I really hope it isn’t one, y’know? I just... I want to trust you. But.”
Clair waited, but Amber didn’t continue. “... But what?” Clair prompted.
“You know? I’m not sure. I don’t think there really is a but. This is all just kind of a lot. I mean, I’ve been dead to the world for weeks, and I had to relearn how to be myself in a fraction of that. And you were this figure who told me you were fixing me with something I hated, though I wasn’t sure why I hated it until later. And you didn’t let me leave, or do anything without you there to supervise. My life was just snapshots of you, ordering me around. And then, you told me you loved me.”
Clair opened her mouth, then closed it. Amber sighed.
“Yeah. Made it hard to trust you at all. Conflicts of interest, and all that. But... I wanted to. It was a pretty story, true or not. And... if it had just been about you? I might have just gone with it. But... Echo.
“It’s funny. You told me, earlier, that you loved me because I charge forward when others break. But that isn’t me! Not at all. I’ve always bent to the flow. It was easier that way. Except... earlier. When I thought you might have done something to Echo, used her as a pawn in your schemes? I did exactly that. I wonder who I was doing that for before?” she sighed, giving Clair a wry look.
“This could be a facade, but I keep coming to the same conclusion whenever I think that through. That it doesn’t make sense. Either you’re wasting time, playing a fantasy where I escape and you capture me... or, it’s the more terrifying option. That you’re telling the truth. That you love me, and want to help. Helping... now that is something I’ve always tried to do. Hell, it’s the reason for all of this in the first place. My family’s got a history of Alzheimer’s, and I jumped at the chance to do research towards a possible cure. Too bad we found what we did instead.” Amber looked thoughtful. “And now, I’ve lost my memories of someone I clearly cared about. My feelings about you are a blank void and a confusing jumble sitting on top. Ironic, isn’t it? Some cure...” she trailed off.
“You talked to her,” Clair managed to get out, still reeling.
Amber nodded. “I needed answers. And you know what’s the funniest part? The reason I decided I could trust you?”
She sighed. “Fucking Matt. He... seemed to be concerned for me. Genuinely. If this had all been a ploy, he would have had the perfect opportunity to take control. Knowing what he did to me, I’m still surprised he didn’t.”
Clair chuckled weakly. “What’s the world coming to, that he’s our metric for heroism?”
“I know!” Amber chuckled. Then, she fell silent again.
Finally, Clair mustered the courage to ask, dreading the answer.
“Why are you here, Amber?”
Amber froze, then laughed. It sounded forced.
“What, you didn’t want to see me?”
Clair grimaced. “Amber... you know what I mean. You have no reason to be here. To be explaining things to me. You barely know who I am. So. Why are you here?”
Amber met her eyes, then looked down.
“Because I’m scared,” she whispered. “I’m still me, but I’m not the same me that you fell in love with. I know I was happy. But I don’t know why. Evidence it was you, I guess. And I... don’t remember why, precisely, I did the things everyone says I did. Ikora said it’s because I loved you. And that’s the only conclusion I can come to.”
Clair moved to put a hand on her shoulder, but Amber flinched, scrambling away from the contact. Clair winced, then sighed. “Why does that scare you?”
Amber’s voice was shakier this time. “I want to know the person who I fell for. But I don’t know you. Not unless you count the time you were my jailer, and I don’t think you want me to.” She grimaced. “I... I want to trust you. I just... I can’t do this. I can’t be who you want me to be. I... don’t know. Please. Help, Clair,” she whispered.
Clair broke. She couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. She didn’t want to.
She wasn’t sure if they were happy or sad, at this point. She reached for a hug, and Amber returned it stiffly. The girl she loved flinched at the initial contact, but leaned in, even though it was clearly uncomfortable for her.
No, things weren’t better. They hadn’t been resolved.
But it was a start.