“What’s going on, Amber? I know what it sounds like...” She heard a thump. “Amber?” No response.
Clair bolted upright, suddenly very much awake. She took a few deep breaths, pushing through the headrush of sitting up so quickly. Five seconds in, ten seconds out, she thought, forcing herself to calm down. Why would Amber call so early in the morning about... that? It makes no sense. She blinked a few times, racking her mind. Then she grimaced as a thought occurred to her. Is it Matt? He might have done something. But if it’s not that... then what? I have to know. I’m her friend. I’m supposed to protect her, aren’t I?
A loud banging on the door broke her train of thought. “Coming...” she called, quickly throwing on a shirt and shorts she’d thrown on the ground last night. She had to look a little presentable. She stumbled through her room, almost stubbing her toe on the couch on the way.
“Clair, it’s me! Open up!” Amber’s muffled voice shouted.
Clair sighed in relief. At least she was safe. But if she had come over this early, whatever happened had to have been bad. She unlocked the door, and was nearly barreled over as her friend stormed into the room.
She instinctively held up her hands to shield herself, then mustered her willpower as her friend began to pace with manic intensity. Tired or not, I have a friend to help.
“Amber. You’re fine. You’re here. What’s going on?” Clair moved her hands in a steady rhythm, more to calm herself than Amber. Showing her agitation wouldn’t help either of them.
“I think I got it, Clair. It’s been staring me in the face this entire time, but it finally all makes sense.”
Clair frowned slightly. “What makes sense, Am? Why don’t you sit down and try to explain it to me,” she suggested, motioning to her couch.
Her friend stopped in her tracks, looked to the couch, then at her. Basic practice for dealing with someone in distress. You ask them a question unrelated to their line of thought, but one they aren’t opposed to. Worst case, they would just ignore you, but more often than not it would help them switch topics to what you were trying to tell them.
Amber strode over to her friend. Clair had to resist the urge to look her up and down. Even with her hair a complete mess—and by the smell of it, still wearing the same clothes as yesterday, not that Clair had any right to judge—she cast a striking figure. Her traitorous mind brought up images of her friend from two nights ago. Amber, blank and obedient, ready to obey her every command. She’d spent too much time around the girl not to notice the things Amber would pause and flush at.
Yes, Mistress, she imagined hearing, as her fantasy maid began to strip. Or would Amber like it better if she was...
She mentally slapped herself, breaking the image. Get your shit together, Clair. Your friend needs you. She blinked a few times, then met Amber’s eyes. They were focused and determined, although she kept blinking, as though she was fighting off sleep.
“I did it, Clair. I know how to save everyone. You, me, Sash, everyone.”
“Am... what? Back up. What are you talking about? Save us from what?”
Amber let go, and started pacing again, this time with a determined stride.
“I did what you said, I raided. I found one of them. I tricked one of them! I... I don’t know how long that’ll last, but I got something really big. Profile data. And the code. I took it apart. And...” She trailed off with a grimace.
Clair sighed, she was too tired, and that made it too difficult to focus on what Amber was saying. She shook her head a few times. She’s upset. I need to comfort her.
“Am, you’re fine. You’re here.” She moved in for a hug.
Amber shook her head, and just continued talking, sounding choked. “I... I looked through the code. T-the sound. It’s a hum. That’s how they do it. Some modification of ambient sound—that’s what it has to be.”
Clair just hugged her tighter.
“It’s sound, Clair. They’re using sound. But... it’s, it’s the hum...”
Her thoughts drifted, despite her efforts to focus. Was she really that tired? Despite her efforts, she couldn’t follow anything Amber was saying. Unbidden, that idea just called up memories of a finger in Amber’s face, and the thrill she felt as her friend’s eyes closed. If only Sasha hadn’t been there. A few words, and she would do anything, be anything, wear any outfit for her. Clair could just imagine styling her makeup, bringing her deeper and deeper with each stroke of the brush...
She blinked, shaking her head. “Sorry, Am, I must be tired... What were we just talking about?” Amber’s expression fell. No, I’ve made her upset. I... I need to comfort her. She leaned in for a hug.
Amber shuffled back, looking worried. What? “Clair... I’m so sorry. I think... It’s this whole thing, all our missing time. I think that it’s...” She stopped, voice choking up.
Clair frowned. She didn’t know what Amber was talking about, but it clearly upset her... I should do something to cheer her up.
Clair heaved herself to her feet. “I’m gonna get some coffee. You want some?” She didn’t wait for a reply. She needed the coffee for herself sooner rather than later.
She heard footsteps as she shook the grounds into her small coffee press. She swiveled, and found Amber staring into her eyes.
“Clair, we need to talk.”
Clair frowned. “Ok... let me finish making the coffee first, though.”
“No, this is important. I need to talk to you.”
Clair nodded, mustering all her energy. “Ok... Ok. I’m here. What is it?”
“No. I need to talk to the real you.”
Clair drew back slightly, unsure if she should be offended or not. “What do you—”
“I’m... sorry. I don’t know what else I can do.”
Clair frowned. “Amber, what...”
“I’m really, really sorry, Clair.” She grimaced. “Admin override —”
* * *
“— puppet protocol.”
Amber watched as her friend’s concerned expression vanished in an instant. Her pupils dilated, and her arms fell to her side, knocking over the coffee press and spilling grounds all over the floor.
“Please provide identification,” she said lifelessly.
Amber shut her eyes. Please let me be wrong, she prayed. “Administrator Amber Cheng.”
The world stood still. Maybe Clair would reject her input. She’d emerge from trance, forget this happened, and complain about the mess.
“Identification confirmed. Welcome, Administrator Amber.”
Her blood froze.
She stumbled back. She’d been right.
Oh god, she’d been right.
She could feel tears starting to come, but it was as if it was from a distance. Like they were somebody else’s eyes. Were they? Did she even know who she was?
“Clair...” she whispered hoarsely. She didn’t respond, of course. She couldn’t. So Amber just grabbed her in a hug, lowering them both slowly to the floor.
She didn’t trust herself not to collapse. She didn’t trust herself at all.
“Clair... I... I,” she whispered. Her voice caught with every word. She couldn’t hold back her tears anymore.
“I’m... so sorry. It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault...” she repeated over and over, unsure what else to say. There was too much. This was all too much. She hugged her friend tighter, but it felt empty with Clair just numbly taking whatever Amber did. And... she couldn’t bring herself to order her to reciprocate. That would be worse.
Amber sniffled, releasing Clair to wipe her eyes. “I’m a monster,” she whispered. “I don’t deserve this.”
She met Clair’s soulless eyes. The tears had stopped. Feelings had stopped. She wanted to rest. She wanted to forget everything. To look up Ikora and tell her to fix whatever had broken. To go back to ignorant bliss. The only thing that stood between her and that—and giving up—was now silent, mindless... and it was her fault.
I came here for a reason. I have to see it through.
But I don’t deserve to.
“Clair... I—I need you, to...” She trailed off as her head pounded insistently. Pulling in air, she tried again. “I need you to—” she cut off with a whimper. Why was it so difficult to speak?
“Clair!” she whimpered. The tears had already started again.
Gasping for air, she grabbed the fabric of Clair’s shirt, closing her eyes.
“Help,” she whispered.
She could barely think. Everything was flowing together. It was too much. Too many thoughts, too many realizations. She needed... something...
“Shh... I’m here, now. I’m back.”
Blessedly warm arms wrapped around her. That felt wrong. It felt wrong as her hair was stroked, as she was held, squeezed tighter. “I’m here for you, Am. It’s going to be alright.”
She opened her eyes, meeting Clair’s. She had a sad smile, one filled with compassion that Amber didn’t deserve. “I’m here,” she repeated softly.
She opened her mouth in protest, but no words came. Clair nodded. “You can relax now. It’s ok.”
Amber groaned, an awful, pained sound. “Clair, I-I’m a monster.”
Clair frowned. “Why would you possibly think that?”
“Because... I did this, didn’t I?”
Clair just sighed. “Amber... you are not a monster.”
“You’re here,” Clair stressed. “You’re here. You’re... trying to help. That’s not what a monster would do.”
“No!” Amber hissed.
Clair didn’t respond. She just held her friend, rocking her back and forth.
“Clair...” Amber protested.
“But you don’t understand, I’m—”
“Yes. I do. I promise.”
That comment felt like a beacon, pushing aside some of the fog in her mind. Clair understood. This... was like before. Clair couldn’t tell her. But Clair—this Clair, the real Clair—knew.
“Clair... I have an idea. To... free you. A little more. But I’d have to...” she choked up. “I’d have to do more to you. Change you. And I don’t know if... that’ll...”
Clair smiled sadly. “Whatever you do, we can fix. Together. I trust you, Amber.”
“Administrator override. Serum protocol.”
Clair blinked a few times. “Wow. I assume you said something? This feels... huh. What exactly did you do?”
It would be easier just to show her. “What are you majoring in?”
“Psych,” Clair said, without missing a beat. She frowned. “Huh. That called up a lot of information with it.”
Amber nodded. “It... makes you tell the truth. I think... I think that I can use it to help. Are you ready?”
Clair nodded vigorously. “I trust you completely.” She paused. “And... it works even for questions like that, then, I guess.”
Amber took a deep breath in. She needed to get these words right. “Clair... remember everything that’s been hidden from you. All the rules, the things you can’t tell me, the things you aren’t allowed to know—all of it. And... tell me the truth, always. And also... tell the truth to yourself.”
Clair’s eyes opened wide, and she shot up, stumbling backwards, grabbing her head with one hand and steadying herself against the counter with the other.
“Oh, no...” Amber whimpered.
“No,” Clair said slowly. “I’m... fine. That was just... it was a lot, but it feels like nothing’s changed, y’know?”
“Yeah. I’m still here. And I think it might have worked. Try something?”
Amber nodded. “Uh... here’s one. C-could you... tell me what happened, when we were activated by Gina and Lois?”
Clair nodded distantly. “After being activated, we were taken to their dorm room. We were made to kiss each other while removing the other’s top. Ten minutes later, you were given a tray of snacks and ordered to stand over there and look pretty while I hypnotized member Lois using my breasts as a focus. After receiving no further orders for thirty minutes, you self-deactivated per your standard programming.” She took a deep breath, her eyes glinting. Then, she grinned. “It... worked. It worked! Amber, you beautiful genius!”
Amber shut her eyes. She kissed me. So I didn’t just violate her mind. I betrayed my friend...
“Hey,” Clair said, grabbing Amber in another hug. “It’s not your fault.”
Amber didn’t say anything, just shook her head against Clair’s shoulder.
“It’s not your fault, Am.”
She shook her head more violently.
“Amber, you have to believe me. You know I’m telling you the truth. I promise it’s not your fault.”
Amber couldn’t open her eyes, couldn’t meet the gaze she knew was determined and trusting.
“Amber! Look at me!” Clair hissed.
Her eyes flew open, stunned by the acidity that felt so unlike her friend. She met those emerald eyes. They looked at her as softly as ever, but something felt different now. That venom hadn’t gone away. She’s afraid of something. She’s afraid of me, then. She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t. She knew what she’d done. This had to happen. She hates me, and the only reason she’s staying is because she has to help me. I’m a monster, I’m evil, and I certainly don’t deserve her friendship. I’m so sorry, Clair. I’m sorry, for everything...
“I love you.”
So now Amber really had broken.
“I love you, Am. I...” Clair trailed off.
Amber blinked. She was hearing things, right?
“I really do,” Clair whispered.
Amber’s mouth fell open, and she sputtered for a few seconds as what Clair had said processed. So... she had actually said that? But... that... “Wh- h-how long?”
Clair nodded, looking distant. “I fell in love with you two months, four hours, and thirty-two minutes ago.”
What? That was... too precise... unless...
“Sorry,” Amber whispered. “I didn’t mean to.”
Clair looked pained, and finally opened her mouth.
“So what?” she asked softly.
Clair nodded, her voice growing stronger as she spoke. “So what? So what if you asked me a question, and I had to answer it. Doesn’t make it any less true. Amber, I’ve been holding onto a hopeless crush for a straight girl for two months now.” Amber winced at the irony. “You think it doesn’t make me the happiest girl in the world that I got to kiss you? You think I haven’t been fantasizing about that since I fell for you? That I haven’t wished for this moment, for getting the courage to actually tell you, for half my waking hours? And you want to apologize for it?”
“I wasn’t expecting to remember everything so... vividly. It seems like it’s doing better than my own brain’s recall, which has all kinds of fascinating implications about how this works,” she mused. Amber held back another smile. I don’t deserve to be happy, a voice told her.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t blame that one on the programming.
Clair patted her on the cheek. “Come on. Let’s sit down somewhere more comfortable than the floor. I’m sure you have questions.”
The two sat in silence for a long moment. Amber couldn’t bear to look at her friend’s face. She was too afraid of saying something wrong, of forcing Clair into action. She’d had her fears confirmed. That’s why Clair always helped. Of course it was. But... it was still Clair. She took a deep breath. This is... safe.
Clair walked up to her with a pair of mugs. Amber hadn’t even noticed she’d gone. She accepted the coffee gratefully.
“Thanks...” she said softly.
Clair chuckled warmly. “That’s the first word you’ve said in ten minutes.”
Amber rolled her eyes.
“Aha! There’s a smile.”
Amber turned away. It... what was Clair seeing? Her friend? Or the girl she loved?
Did that matter? Either way, this was still Clair. Still the same girl she knew.
“It’s all gonna be ok,” Clair sighed as she stroked her friend’s hair. Amber leaned into the touch gratefully. “I’m here... and I’m not on a ticking clock this time.”
Amber moved the mug to her lap. “I’m so sorry.”
“You know it’s not your fault. Even if... Well, I don’t know the details too much. It’s not as though they gave their victims a full tour. But you were never one of them. I can promise you that.”
“So. Ask what you need to ask, Am. It’s ok,” Clair continued.
Amber spent a few more moments enjoying the caress. Her hands gripped the mug to stop them from trembling. She began breathing slowly, steeling herself. This is important. It might hurt. But I have to know.
“Who did this to you?”
Clair blinked a few times, processing the information, and her eyes grew distant once more. Then, she grimaced. “...You did, Amber.” She raised her hands, cutting off the objection already forming in Amber’s throat. “But it wasn’t you. The mannerisms were off. I think... you were activated.”
“But it was different. I know how it feels to be activated. I know what goes on in your head and how you look when you’re like that. You’re blank, not there, almost dreamy. But when you got me... your face, your eyes—they were wrong. You were focused, working with purpose. And your eyes... you were aware and alert, for sure. But your eyes looked... cold.
Amber’s gut wrenched. She tried to imagine herself looking into Clair’s eyes, throwing a switch, and watching in silent determination as fear and betrayal became emptiness. It felt surreal. She couldn’t even imagine it without nearly crying out in distress.
“Amber, please... this, this blaming yourself—it isn’t okay. It’s hurting you. And I have to... you know. I have to help.” Amber’s expression grew more pained. “Gah, I know. Wrong thing to say. But you weren’t yourself, Am. The assholes behind this, the members who use us—they’re the enemy. Not you.”
“I know,” she said softly, looking down.
“If you did, I wouldn’t need to help.”
“Clair, please...” she pleaded.
“Even if it was your body, you’re not the one who disked me.”
“They did, not you.”
“Stop!” she screamed.
Clair froze, her mouth half open. She was still breathing, thank god, but everything else had halted. She didn’t even blink.
“Oh god! I’m so sorry! I’m so, so, so, sorry!” Amber jumped to her feet, thinking quickly. “Uh... You can move normally.”
Clair just snorted.
Why isn’t she angry? I just hurt her.
“I guess I shouldn’t try to force the issue,” she said apologetically.
Amber took a moment to process that. “You’re... not upset with me?”
“Nope!” Clair said happily.
“Don’t lie to me. Please. Not you...” she pleaded.
Clair coughed, then started laughing.
“Wh-what’s so funny?”
“Amber. Girl. Think about it. What am I literally unable to do right now?”
“Don’t make fun of me, Clair.”
She nodded, then shook her head as Amber opened her mouth to apologize. “And before you worry about that being an order, you know full well I’d have stopped even if I didn’t have to when you asked.”
Well... Wait. Of course she would.
She was Clair.
“Clair... you don’t hate me?” she asked softly.
“No, Am. I don’t. I love you.” The response was instantaneous.
The tears came back. It had been weeks since she’d had a friend. Everyone was a suspect, an enemy, or a victim. She had nobody she could confide in. Nobody else to share the burden. But now... maybe she could start to fix things. For real. She sank to her knees, just letting those tears flow. Clair moved with her. And for the first time in weeks, Amber was no longer alone.
“I missed you so much,” she whispered, gripping her friend tightly.
“I... well, technically, I haven’t missed you. I haven’t been there to miss. But it’s... good to be back. With you.”
The next minutes spent embracing felt like they stretched on forever, as Amber just cried, and cried, and cried. After what felt like hours, Clair got her to stand up and go back to the couch, and went to pour more coffee for both of them. Amber felt like she’d been pulled away from a cliff’s edge. I’m safe, and she loves me, she thought with wonder.
I don’t like girls.
Cute that you think that, not-me, Amber smirked.
“So, now what?” she asked, setting her empty mug aside.
“Well, first, we make sure you’re ok. Then we can plan.”
Amber smiled. She’s right. Even if this is her being forced to help me. Even if she has to tell the truth. I know my friend. And she’d be doing all of this anyway.
I don’t like girls.
You don’t say?
“We’re halfway there, by the look of it. Whoa-oh, and all that.”
Amber’s smile turned into a grin.
“Now we find out how to keep you like this,” Clair made a motion towards her smile.
I don’t like girls.
Nobody cares who you like.
“Ok, let’s get to work,” she decided. “Clair... I’ll need to ask you some questions again. Is that ok?”
“Absolutely. I trust you.”
Amber smiled warmly, and gave a pre-emptive mental glare at the not-her voice before it could tell her that she definitely, 100%, in no way liked girls. How had she never noticed it before?
Well, before, she hadn’t noticed much of anything, apparently.
“So. What was the last thing you remember doing before you were...”
“Disked?” Clair supplied.
“Uh... sure, but first. Disked?”
“The thing they use, it’s a disk. Don’t ask me how it works. They slap it somewhere on the forehead—I’ve seen it placed far to either side, so it’s not directly interacting with any part of the brain. It plays some weird sounds, and bam, you’re out,” Clair explained, her eyes growing distant.
Disqsap. Disk-sap, of course. But... sap?
Clair continued her explanation. “You—or rather, someone with your phone—texted me, asking me to come meet you in the comp-sci basement before heading off to see a movie. Once there, there was pressure on my forehead, and the next thing I can remember is the disk being taken off. That’s it. Even with... whatever you’ve done, I still can’t remember anything after that.” Clair blinked, exhaling.
“That thing is called ‘serum protocol,’ by the way. The admin I mentioned, the one I tricked? She used that, and another one... puppet protocol? They don’t do anything unless I say ‘administrator’ and then... the word for overruling first. Override.”
Clair nodded. “Alright, useful to know. Keep this kind of information coming, Am. Best to pool whatever we’ve got. Weird that I don’t know those, when I know the other triggers... Maybe admin stuff can’t give me access to admin stuff? Either way, serum makes sense. Puppet is body control?”
Amber shook her head. “Close... it’s commands. Short term commands, I think. It’s how I activated you. There’s probably one that lets me reprogram people permanently, but I’m not planning to try words until someone’s mind explodes. Anyway... does ‘sap’ mean anything to you?”
Clair nodded. “Uh, yeah. You.”
Clair waved her hands in a placating gesture, chuckling. “No, no, not like that. Your name, girl. Amber is fossilized sap.”
I knew that, didn’t I?
No, not-her replied.
Got it. So, disq-sap... ‘Amber’s disk?’
“Did I make them?” she asked softly.
Clair shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe? If so, I think you should try to find out why you made it before you go around blaming yourself, though.”
Amber nodded. It was a good point.
“So, you’re sure this was in the basement?” she asked, after a pause.
“About as sure as I can be.”
“Is that where they’re keeping these disks?”
Clair frowned, mulling it over. “I think so. That’s where they were, and there was good security. I can’t promise 100% they’re still there, but we’re in luck for infiltration. I remember the code to get in.”
Amber nodded, stifling a yawn. “So, we wait till nightfall and raid the building, grab the disks, and figure out how to deprogram ourselves,” Amber said hesitantly, looking at Clair for approval.
Clair smiled, nodding. “If they haven’t set up contingencies for this kind of thing already, the last thing they’ll be expecting is for us to run in with the same stupid plan a second time. Worst option might actually be the best one, here.”
I don’t like girls.
Give it a rest, won’t you?
Clair stared into space, hands pointing at nothing as she thought things through. “I like going at night. Gives you time to get rest—did you even sleep yesterday?—and makes it harder for anyone to activate us. We should also avoid our phones for the next while. They can’t trigger us directly with them if we never pick up, sure, but they can still give us instructions by email—and some of your programming is still working, right?” Amber nodded. “Best not to rely on the programming failing, then. Email’s how they shut Matt out of the system. The distrusting him was all me, though. Creep.”
Amber grinned, then took out her phone and turned it off. “That he is. That he is... So. What’s the activation trigger? If we start screaming when we hear the first bit, we might be able to stop us from hearing the rest.”
Clair’s eyes widened in alarm, and Amber realized her mistake too late.
* * *
Amber blinked. At once, she took in the situation. She was sitting on a couch next to Clair. Her friend was breathing heavily, a look of concern in her eyes.
“Hey, you’re ok, Am. I’m here,” Clair whispered, grabbing her shoulders.
“Wha...” Amber rubbed her forehead. I was activated. My task was completed. I need to leave, and forget this ever occurred. “Yeah...” she breathed listlessly, standing up and walking towards the door.
“Amber?” Clair frowned, moving to stand in front of her.
I need to leave and forget this. She smiled at her friend. “Oh hey, Clair. I gotta run. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Amber!” Clair growled. Then, she grimaced, and continued in a softer voice. “You can hear it, right? Don’t listen to it. It’s not really you.”
They locked eyes. Amber tilted her head. Why was Clair so panicked? I hope she’s ok. I really care about her.
I don’t like girls.
She gasped, lucidity returning in a rush.
“You good, Am?”
Amber shook her head, sinking down to the floor.
“You’re ok, Amber. You’re safe.”
Amber nodded slowly, mustering the courage to look up at her friend. “I was... I was going to leave.”
Clair sank down, meeting her eyes levelly. “Best I can gather,” she sighed, “getting activated leaves you kinda out of it. You can hear the voice, and that helps you deny it, right? But... your defenses weren’t up. Especially since I woke you up so soon. You would have come to your senses eventually... but I didn’t want to have that happen in the middle of the hallway.”
Amber nodded slowly. Clair’s smile was reassuring, a calm within the storm. “Why was I on the couch?”
Clair frowned. “When you get activated... you ask for instructions. And I still have to obey your commands.”
“Yeah. I tried to minimize damages. So I told you to sit down and let me think.” She looked down at her feet. “I panicked. It took me a few minutes to remember that I could wake you up.”
Both women remained silent for a moment. Finally, Amber moved closer, reaching towards Clair for a hug. I don’t like girls.
Not now. Please.
“Can you hear the voice too?” Amber asked.
“No, I can’t hear it. I can kinda know what I’m allowed to do, but that’s just an instinct thing.”
“So why can I hear it?”
“I don’t know. Occam’s Razor says it’s got something to do with you being...” she winced, “an admin.”
I don’t like girls.
And I don’t like you, but some things we just have to accept, don’t we?
“Thank you...” she sighed, wiping sweat from her brow.
Clair put her arm around her. “Anytime.” Amber leaned against her shoulder. What was that smell? Some kind of fruit? Well, someone certainly was committing to her ‘strawberry hair’ bit. Although, there was another, more pervasive smell...
Amber shot up, color draining from her face as she realized what that smell was.
“Uh... I’m... going to take a shower... and clean up.”
Clair smiled guiltily. “I didn’t want to be the one to tell you. I figured the reason was... not something you wanted to relive.”
Amber smiled. Clair was caring for her. Finally, she was safe. She could rest...
I don’t like girls.
* * *
Amber woke to the smell of bacon. She rubbed her eyes, stumbling off the couch. “Clair?” she yawned.
“In here,” her friend called from nearby.
“What time is it?”
“Around six,” Clair supplied, popping into view. “I figured you probably didn’t eat breakfast yet, given... everything. So, voila! Breakfast for dinner.”
Amber accepted the plate gratefully, and all at once, she realized just how hungry she was. The plate was empty within moments.
Clair smiled. “Glad to see you’re at least somewhat back to normal.”
She was, wasn’t she? The anxiety was still there. She could feel it, lurking at the edge of her mind, waiting to pounce. But right now, there was nothing to fuel it. She was safe. She was with Clair. She belonged.
I don’t like girls.
And despite the voice’s best efforts, she... well, for the first time in a long while, she could just let herself be happy.
“Amber?” Clair sat down on the couch, patting the empty cushion beside her. “What’s on your mind?
Amber nodded, first turning back to the sink to wash her plate. “It’s nothing.”
The dish slipped as she tried. Thankfully, it was cheap plastic, and didn’t shatter. She quickly grabbed a towel to clean up the mess.
Clair walked up, giving Amber a poignant look. “Am, it’s not nothing. Please. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“It’s...” Amber looked away.
“If you don’t wanna talk, that’s ok. Just say that, then.”
“No, it’s not that. I just... I...” Amber moved out of the kitchen. “I can’t stop thinking about earlier today.”
Clair frowned. “Earlier today? Lots of things happened today. Clarify, please?”
“I... when you activated me... by accident.”
“Oh.” Clair closed her eyes, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Listen... Amber... I know what you’re going through. And it’s normal, I promise. But... in my not-yet-a-professional opinion, I really can’t recommend doing that.”
“You don’t even know what I want to do, though.”
“I’m pretty sure I do.”
The room was silent.
Amber sighed. “Fine. But, I... I have to know. I have to know what I looked like. What... I’m like. When I’m like that. Please.” Amber couldn’t look her friend in the eye.
Clair sighed. “I thought it was something like that.” She fidgeted in her pocket, then tossed her phone to Amber. “I put mine in airplane mode instead of turning it off, so you can use that. Go set it up in the corner there. I’ve got a little stand for it. It’s where I take all my photos for social media and stuff.”
Amber nodded. She did so, then backed away, making sure nothing would fall. Then, she moved in front of it, staring at the camera.
“Ready?” Clair asked, turning it on.
“Yes. Just activate me, ask me a few questions, then wake me back up.”
Clair’s eyes hardened, and she nodded as the command registered.
* * *
Amber’s eyes snapped into focus. She took stock of the room. Clair was walking towards her.
“Clair?” she asked, tilting her head.
“Yeah, it’s me. Do you remember why you’re here?”
“Not really,” she smiled. “Anyways, I’ll catch you later. Great seeing you!” With that, she moved to stroll out of the room. Clair grabbed her arm before she could, though, and pointed towards the camera.
“Amber. You wanted to see what you looked like when you were activated.”
“Activated...” she trailed off, eyes wide as that sank in. “Thanks,” she groaned.
Clair just nodded, pointing towards the camera. Amber grabbed it, and saw the video that had just been taken
She opened it.
“Yes. Just activate me, ask me a few questions, then wake me back up.”
Amber quickly covered the speaker, muffling the sound. Once her expression changed, she moved her thumb away so she could hear clearly again. Watching it was eerie, and incredibly unsettling. Her eyes lost focus. Her shoulders slumped. She stared ahead at nothing. On screen, not-her turned towards Clair.
“Hello Mistress, toy Amber is ready for service. Please issue commands now.”
“Turn around and face the camera,” Clair ordered.
There was a small pause. Amber’s breathing was laboured already. She wanted to stop watching, but she couldn’t look away. Not now. Even though it was Clair... this was how she’d looked for the others, too. She felt... violated.
“Amber, how do you feel right now?”
“I am blank and ready for commands, Mistress.”
This is wrong, Amber groaned.
“Are there any commands you will not follow?”
“I am unable to follow any commands that would directly result in self-harm, or a disruption of my classwork. If you wish to receive such an experience, please contact administration to negotiate details.”
Please. Make it stop...
“If I order you to...” Clair stopped. “No. That’s enough questions. Wake up, Amber.”
The video ended there. Amber shakily put the phone back on the table.
“I told you it was a bad idea,” Clair sighed, not meeting her eyes. She handed Amber a glass of water, clearly having anticipated the reaction.
“I know. I just...”
“Yeah. I know. That’s normal.”
“I know... just... fuck! My hands won’t stop shaking,” she whispered.
“That’s normal too.” Clair’s voice was somber.
“I... I...” Amber slammed the glass down, empty, harder than she’d intended. She sank to the floor. Clair sank down to her side.
“You’re in mild shock,” Clair explained. Her voice was calm. Amber couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse.
“I... I...” she looked at her friend. Distantly, she was aware her breathing was too fast. “Fuck... I’m... I think I’m... hy-hy-perventilating...” she gasped.
Clair grabbed her hands tightly. “You’re gonna be ok, Am. Just... breathe,” she cooed.
“I can’t... Clair... please.... help.”
She nodded. “Ok. Just breathe, Amber. It’s gonna be ok.” Amber’s eyes flickered shut, as her focus turned inwards. “Just... breathe. In...” she placed a hand on Amber’s stomach. “And out. In... and out. Just... focus on your breathing. You’re here. Right now. With me. You aren’t activated. You aren’t controlled. You’re safe.” Her rhythm was smooth as she breathed along with Amber. “You’re gonna be ok.”
It helped. She felt safe, or at least, safer. “Thanks...”
“Shh... no worrying right now. Just breathe. How do you feel?”
“Safe... happy... I... I wanna keep going.”
“What do you mean?” Clair asked softly.
Amber’s pulse wasn’t steady, but it was better. Her hands still shook.
Clair nodded, as though that had been an explanation. “Alright,” she breathed. “Then, Amber... keep breathing. In... and out... In... and out... Focus on that breathing. All you have to do is listen, and keep breathing. In... and out...” As she spoke, she squeezed Amber’s hands rhythmically, following the pattern of her breath.
“You’re doing so well, just breathing. Just letting me center you. Ground you... guide you... help you relax, and listen, and breathe...”
Amber distantly felt herself sigh.
“That’s right. Feel yourself letting go. I’ve got you, girl. You’re safe.”
Her face slackened, her eyes no longer shut as tightly.
“And in... and focus... good.”
She drew together a little more, a little more aware.
“And out... and sink...”
And she was gone again.
“And in, again... and out. It’s a pattern, isn’t it? And you’re so good at following patterns, Amber. So, first you come up...”
She knew what came next, and she sighed, letting herself sink, and...
Amber’s head slumped, and slowly, she sank into Clair’s arms. Her breathing was normal, though her body still felt like it was drawn taut. But now, it felt distant. Unimportant. She could just... let Clair handle it.
“So good, following the pattern so, so well. Focusing on my words, as you breathe in... and out... going deeper with each breath out, letting yourself relax. You deserve it. You’re safe here. I’ve got you. And with each word I say, you can let yourself sink a little deeper. But your body is still so stressed, even if you’ve given your mind to me for a while.” Amber shivered. “Your body is still so tense, right? All those muscles, toned and trained... they’re on alert.”
On cue, Amber’s muscles tightened, months of gym work showing themselves.
“But you’re safe here, aren’t you? So you can just relax. Let that tension go, flow out, and relax completely. You can let go. Just let me handle it.”
Amber’s body fell limp. It felt so nice...
“Perfect. You’re doing so well. It’s as though you just finished a workout, and finally have time to relax. You’re stepping into the nice warm shower, where you can just let go of all that tension, and reward yourself for your work. Because you’ve done so well, Amber. You deserve to rest. And I’ve got you. So you can just relax, and let the epinephrine leave you.” Amber’s brow scrunched in a silent question. Clair chuckled. “Right, right... Let the adrenaline leave you, letting you be... just like you are now. Relaxed. Happy. Peaceful. Breathing in... and out. And as I speak, you can just let that flow over you. That same feeling of relief, and safety—as much as you need. Because I’m here.”
Amber just drifted, safe in Clair’s arms. Protected and loved. Everything was still. For just a few moments, there was no voice. No Ikora. No secret sex ring. Just her breathing, Clair’s words, and safety.
“How do you feel, Amber?” Clair asked.
“Happy... safe... loved...”
Amber couldn’t see the smile on her friend’s face, but somehow, she knew it was there. Distantly, she could hear sniffling, but that wasn’t important. She let it pass, slipping into the back of her mind. She was with Clair now. Nothing else mattered.
“Is there anything else you’d like me to do, Am?”
“What... you want...”
Clair choked in surprise. “A-alright... so, l-look at me, Amber.” Amber distantly heard her mutter no ethics violations, but dismissed that.
Her eyes drifted open.
“That’s right. Look into my eyes. Feel yourself being drawn into them. My eyes are so wide, aren’t they? So vast. My eyes can hold so much. They can hold all your worries. All your fears, all your problems. And all you have to do is meet my eyes, and you’ll find that you can focus, as though there was nothing distracting you or standing in your way. And you can stay like that for as long as you need to.”
Amber’s face was slack, but her emotions were not. She stared into Clair’s eyes, and felt the world melt away. She was at peace. The emerald could swallow the horrors of the world. She didn’t need to think. She didn’t need to worry. She only had to listen. It was bliss.
“Now, Amber, I want you to feel yourself rising back up. Still focused, still calm... just returning to wakefulness. Returning to yourself, but still as strong, and as safe. Just rising up, slowly as you like...”
Amber’s eyes flickered open. She took a deep breath.
“How do you feel?”
Clair giggled. “Oh?”
“Yeah. And good. Really good,” she nodded. “I needed that. Thank you. Honestly.”
I don’t like girls.
Come on, say what you really think!
Amber shook her head. “How much longer do we have until nightfall?”
“Maybe... ten minutes? We should give it a little longer than that, though.”
“We’d better get ready, then.”
They both nodded.