Everything was set up just right, like it had been for three weeks now. Camera, laptop, water, chair, headset, Mari. I must have had a bit of a rough day at work, though—"must have," because no details jumped out at me about anything specific (not unusual because of the mess AlterLogic makes of our memories) but I was still stressed and tired when we walked in the door, even after a lovely pasta dinner and incredible company.
It wasn't just Friday, though, it had been a long week. Or at least I felt like it had. And Mari's efforts at cheerfulness felt like efforts made for me, and while they were very welcome, they made me feel like I was leaning on her for emotional support. Which I was, naturally, because she was good at it. Which also made sense, since she was in customer service; her job was to be supportive, or at least to sound like it.
"Ready to see what goes wrong this week?" I said, as I made sure the camera was ready and in good working order.
"Well!" Mari answered, putting her hands on her hips. "Look who had the gloomy sauce on his chicken."
I couldn't help it, I laughed. It was such a silly thing to say. "Sorry, Mari, I guess that was a bit defeatist."
"Sure was," she retorted. "Do I have to remind you that each of the last three weeks you've successfully opened my mind up every time."
"Yeah, getting started isn't the problem." I stepped up in front of her. "Care to have a seat, Mari?"
"In a sec." She kissed my nose. "First, promise me that you're not gonna be a gloomy gus about this, okay?"
I smiled. "I'll try to keep my spirits up."
She spun around, making her skirts flare. "You'd better, because otherwise afterwards I'll stick the helmet on your head and make you happy."
"Doesn't quite work that way. Besides, you don't actually know how to use it."
She sat down and ran a hand up her leg. "Then I'll use another method."
"You don't want me thinking about that all session, Mari," I said, a bit plaintively. I was starting to feel the time pressure a little. I had to have this recording done in a month, if I wanted to get my certification. Still, I sounded a little whinier than I felt.
Fortunately, she laughed. "Alright, I'll stop teasing you. Just keep a smile on that face, alright?"
I forced a smile, as directed. "Okay." I picked up the helmet, held it up like I was looking it in the 'eye' and rapped on it with my knuckles. "Ready for another go, old friend?"
"Talking to the equipment now?"
"Just trying to get the mood right." I put the helmet down on the table and stepped over to the camera. "All ready?"
"We gonna do the relaxing thing from last week?" she asked, settling in.
I shook my head. "I want to try something faster." I adjusted the focus a little. "I talked with the professor again and he suggested that we try some of the rapid induction options."
Mari nodded. "Alright, sounds kinda fun, actually."
"Let's hope you're still all in on that after the system works its magic. Okay. Here we go."
I turned on the camera and we went through the usual, by-now-familiar routine of setting the headset up. Everything seemed perfectly normal, but then, other than a few giggles the second week, that part of things had always gone pretty well. I tried to keep that thought from my head as I settled in at the computer.
"Alright, Mariana, I'm going to activate the Alteration system." I took a deep breath. "You might feel a little disoriented as the magnetics and the visuals work deliberately to confuse you, but just remember that I'm here to help out."
"Okay, Lucian. I'm ready." Mariana sounded like she was steeling herself against an incoming barrage. She wasn't necessarily wrong about that.
Or maybe I was just imagining it. Either way, the show had to go on. I selected the relevant settings. "You should feel the magnetic systems working on your mind already." I added a little, nearly imperceptible aura to the visual effects, which gave everything a slight blur. "Are you noticing anything different?"
She paused, moved her head around a bit, and said, "I think so? Are you doing something to my eyes?"
"Pick a spot on the wall, or perhaps the recording light on the camera, to focus on, maybe it'll make things easier." I looked at the readouts and waited for things to align properly.
"Hm, yeah, that's a little b—"
I pressed the spacebar and watched the statistics spike. A little surprisingly, things were going as expected. I looked over at Mari, who looked a little bit like I'd just electrocuted her. Her limbs were tense, her eyes wide.
She took a breath. "Is... was that normal?"
"Yes, Mari, was that alright? How do you feel?"
She paused, shaking out her limbs. "Yeah, it was alright. Great, actually, once I got a chance to think about it."
I chuckled a bit. "Alright, focus on your special point again."
"Why, are you going t—"
I pressed the spacebar again, and then immediately selected a program to hold that opening in her thoughts. I spoke into the microphone, quickly and softly: "Your left arm is tied down to the chair tightly, and does not move."
I saw the registering of the suggestion on the charts, and looked over to see her left arm fall to the chair.
"—o do more like that?" she finished the sentence she'd begun a few seconds before I 'shocked' her.
Perfect. "Yes, Mari, I think we will."
"Good, I liked that." She hadn't moved that left arm, not an inch. She hadn't even apparently noticed that it was locked down. This, too, surprised me.
This was turning into a surprising session.
It was about then that she noticed her arm. "Oh? What's going on? Lucian, I can't move my arm, is this normal?"
There it is. That's what would bring this session to an end, surely. "Yes," I said, deflating a little. "I gave you a suggestion, and interfered with your nervous system to make it work better." We were instructed, for purposes of the recording, to be honest in any interaction with the subject. I would maybe have not told her that so directly in another setting.
"Huh," she said. "Interesting." It looked to me like she was trying to flex her fingers, which of course wouldn't move, because there was a powerful miniaturized electromagnet muddling the message her brain was trying to send to her arm. "That's different. Feels like it should be—"
I sent another interrupt pulse. I tried to adjust her suggestibility. "Feels like it's completely normal, Mari," I said into the mic, proceeding through the list of suggestions we were supposed to instill, or at least to try to. I didn't expect Mari to take to it, really, especially since I could only give her cursory statement about it; an interrupt like that didn't leave a lot of time for highly detailed instruction.
"—should... be... sorry, Lucian, I think I lost my train of thought."
"That's alright, Mari, it's not unusual. You are being hypnotized, after all."
"Huh, yeah I guess I am." She looked at her paralyzed hand, then back at the camera. "What's next?"
Huh, it almost sounded like it had worked. "What's next, is that I deepen your suggestibility by repeatedly putting you into trance and bringing you out."
Mari noded. "Alright, I'm—"
I hit the spacebar. "There's nothing unusual going on," I said, as the interrupt faded.
Another flash. While she wasn't consciously registering anything, physiologically there were definite changes happening, measurable by the scans of her brain activity.
"—time you want—"
I could have automated the brain flashes at that point, but I had to admit that it was kind of fun, just tapped the space bar and earning myself a few seconds of silence. Not that I didn't love the sound of her voice, but it was still a bit of a power trip.
"—to... to start..." she muttered and blinked a couple times. "Sorry, hard to... um."
I hit the interrupt again, seeing the moment to send her further into trance, still scarcely believing that this was actually working. As her body relaxed out of its temporarily tense state, I sent a message to her body to her body to continue that pattern of relaxation. "That's right, Mari," I said. "Hard to worry. Hard to care. Just easier to let your mind and body relax now, floating down into the armchair, letting everything go until..."
I trailed off, looking at the scanning pattern. There wasn't a whole lot of point in continuing, she'd already slipped down into a trance. I couldn't really believe it, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Still, I switched up the script. "Perfect, Mari. Just letting everything go until there's nothing left but my words in your mind. That's right. Nothing left to think about, nothing left to concern yourself with."
She let out a slow sigh, then said something I couldn't make out. I needed to put a mic on her or something. "A nice deep breath, Mari, and letting your voice find its strength, please repeat that."
She took another slow, deep breath, and her words were more audible this time. "You sound surprised," she said.
I frowned. I tried to redirect her attention. "How are you feeling, Mari?"
Lacking good posture or breath control, her reply was slow. "Good," she said, then took a breath. "Relaxed." Her eyes were open and unfocused, but her head lolled vaguely in my direction. "Worried about you."
"Worried about me?" I tried to keep from scoffing. "Why are you worried about me?"
She gave a motion that I had trouble interpreting, but it looked like a lazy one-armed shrug. I remembered that her left arm was frozen. "You seem upset."
I wasn't upset, though. Was I? I was definitely shaken by her assertion, anyway. I looked over her stats, trying to make sense of where that came from. Nothing followed. She seemed to be deep in trance, there were no indications of deception... Apparently to her, I was upset.
What I was, definitely, was tripped up. I had lost whatever momentum I had on my side, and I couldn't keep up my own train of thought. Defeated, I ran a waking subroutine and stepped over to stand by Mari, rubbing her shoulder and talking gently.
"Easy, slow breaths, Mari. Take your time. Let your body and mind start to regain their strength, their... uh..." I stammered a bit. "Slow and easy." I'd already said that. "Let the Alteration device bring you up, and up, and out of trance."
Mari opened her eyes. "That was..." She let out a puff of air. The machine wasn't done with her just yet, but she was awake enough to talk. "That was an experience."
"A good one?" I asked.
She nodded. "Good, yeah, and intense. Powerful."
I walked over to the camera and shut it off. "Didn't work out so great for me this week."
"Yeah, I can tell, sweetie." Her sympathetic smile hurt me some. "Wanna talk about it?"
I shrugged. "Not much to tell, really, you know? I'm tired and stressed and I fucked up."
She scowled. "You're not gettin' away with that, Lucian." She reached for the helmet.
I shook my head. "Don't take it off just yet. It's not done." I knelt in front of her, looking her in the eye. "I guess it's just been a rough week. And I was feeling the pressure from the last three sessions, I guess."
Mari nodded. "Wanna try again?" she asked.
I smiled at her. "We could, I suppose, but I'm not sure that things would go better." The indicator light switched off on the collector and reached up to help Mari out of the helmet. "I think I'm pretty much shot for the night."
"Lucian," she said, sounding serious. "This isn't like you. What's wrong?"
I shook my head. "It's exactly like me, when I'm tired and stressed out, isn't it? Because I'm tired and stressed out."
Mari stood up. "I guess I don't see you very much when you're tired and stressed out."
"You tend to make me less stressed out." I stood up as well.
I grinned. "You usually make me very tired, Mari." I leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Just in a very good way."
She smiled sympathetically again, at my joke, and patted my cheek. "Lucian. You need a break."
"Well, it is the weekend..."
"I think more than that," she said. "Maybe a week away from A.L.?"
"I really can't," I replied. "I don't have the time banked."
"Call in sick Monday?"
"That's my Alter day. Could mess up the whole schedule."
Mari took my hands. "Maybe it's time not to think about work so much."
I sighed. "That's the point of all this, right? Getting away from work?"
"No, Lucian. The point of all this is getting you new work." Mari looked me in the eyes. "It's more stress."
"Until it works," I pointed out. "Then I can get out of A.L. and into a job I want."
Mari frowned thoughtfully, but said nothing. I felt like I was on the edge of some sort of discovery, but I had no idea why, or about what.
"Is..." I ventured carefully. "Is that something to talk about? Do you think?"
Mari let out a slow breath. "Largely thanks to you, I don't think I can understand that idea."
There it was. I almost felt it click into place. The missing piece. "That's it, Mari. That's exactly it."
She looked surprised. "What is?"
I let go of her hands, starting to pace rapidly as I thought through the implications. "The Alterations. I'm experiencing conflicts. This is something I want to do, but not something I'm supposed to want to do. At the same time, this is activity outside work, which the Alter programs legally can't interfere with. And as it gets closer, my programming is failing in little ways, which means things like my forgetting confidential information might be starting to slip, which in turn puts it into conflict with the programming again, programming I need to do my work."
She nodded. "Alright, I don't follow, but I believe you. What does it all mean?"
I sighed. "It means I need to talk to the Alterist on Monday and see about getting it all sorted out?"
"Coming clean?" Mari asked. "Couldn't that jeopardize your job?"
I sighed. "Yep. But, if I get fired, that does resolve the problem."
Mari opened her mouth, then closed it, then smirked. "Can't argue with that logic. Brings up a few other problems, though. Like how you make rent, or take me out for fancy meals."
"I think I need to take the leap, either way, though. Thinking about it, you know? If I'm not fired..."
I nodded, determined. "Damn straight. I need them out of my head, both Alter-wise and work-wise, if I'm going to do this."
Mari took a breath. "I'll miss you." She put her hands on my chest.
"You can still see me, you know."
"Sure, but not at work."
I put my hands over hers. "Whether I get fired or I quit, I still have two weeks. And nothing says I can't join in when people head to the bar."
"Won't be the same without you, you know."
"You see me once a week, and for most of that you're not really aware."
Mari frowned a bit. "Don't think that you don't have an impact, though, Lucian."
I tilted my head, curious. "What do you mean?"
She laced her fingers through mine. "If you think I don't know it's you when you're working on me..." She brought my right hand up and kissed it. "I know the technician's work. I can tell."
"Well, I know when it's you, anyway, and I know when you took a Thursday off."
"Huh." That, theoretically, shouldn't have been possible. Or at least, shouldn't have been likely. We weren't the hypnotists, after all, we were just the ones who execute the programs. "That's probably just psychosomatic."
Mari shrugged. "Doesn't matter to me whether it's real or not, I know, Lucian. And I like it when you're there."
"Then we're just going to have to keep doing this, whether I'm at work or not."
"You couldn't keep me from this if you tried." She winked. "Maybe we should do this more often."
"Twice a week?"
I mirrored her gesture from earlier, bringing her hand to my mouth. "Every night?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Ooh, Lucian, I might have to move in for that."
I flushed a bit. "Don't really have room here, do I."
"Hmm. Maybe it's something to discuss." Mari seemed pensive. Then she smirked. "Once you can support us both on your Alterist's income."
As if I didn't have enough reason to get this done. "Meanwhile, whatever happens Monday, we should plan to get together next Friday, I suppose?"
"Lucian, I'm not letting the best part of my week get away from me now, you know."
I laughed. "Surely this isn't—"
She gave me a look.
I, wisely, shut up.
"Next week, next Friday, we're going to be up here," she continued, her momentum pulling her into a pep talk, "you're going to put that stupid bike helmet on me, you're going to hook up all those idiotic wires, you're going to warm up my brain with the magnets, you're going to get a perfect recording of a perfect Alteration session, you're going to shut off the camera, and you're going to celebrate."
"Celebrate, hm?" I said, squeezing her hands. "What do you have in mind for a celebration?"
She raised an eyebrow, quickly pulled me in and planted a smoking-hot kiss on my lips.
"We'll celebrate like only we can."
I sighed happily, but my mood quickly soured, and I knew that Mari noticed.
"Alright, fine, but for now," she said, spinning me around and putting her hands on my back, "you get yourself into that bedroom and get naked. I'm going to give you an amazing backrub and then I'm going to ride you until I'm just too tired to stay on my knees any more."
I laughed. "I'm listening."
"You damn well better be." She get me a light spank and a push towards the back. "Doesn't matter whether you had a good time or not, but I sure did, and I want to take advantage of my good mood."
I found myself wanting the same thing.