"So you did it, huh."
Mari's first words to me coming through the door of my apartment were less than impressive.
"I sure did," I replied. "Up and quit."
"I noticed you weren't there yesterday."
I shook my head. "Manager paid me my two weeks, thanked me for my service, and sent me on my way. Said they had a few prospects coming up, and couldn't risk having a disgruntled tech on the floor messing up employee brains."
She smiled a bit. "In those exact words?"
"Heh, I wish." I let out a breath. "So. Time is of the essence."
"Four weeks, right? Then your class is done?"
I nodded. "And that's just about how long I can afford to be out of work."
"So I guess I'm buying pizza tonight?"
I chuckled. "Are you hungry right now?'
She shook her head. "Nah, I'm good for a couple hours."
"How about we make a little bet, then?"
Her eyebrows shot up as she pulled off her light jacket. "A bet?"
"A bet," I confirmed. I walked over to the table and picked up the Alteration helmet. "How about I try to convince you to pick up the tab?"
She smirked. "And the toppings?"
"Whatever I can get into your head."
She practically hopped into the comfy armchair. "Let's not waste any time, then."
I laughed. "That's not normally where you rush to."
I shook my head. "I'm all set up, ready to go."
"You gonna do that weird flashing thing again?"
"Nah. I want to do something a little more... off the beaten track." I'd been spending a lot of time at home, and I'd been doing some research, outside the usual acedemic texts and sites. There were places online where if I'd uploaded videos of our first couple sessions I could have made a fair bit of money (and got myself in some serious legal hot water if I didn't get Mari's approval first, not to mention the significantly more important problem of losing my good friend). In fact, there were sites where the story alone would have attracted a lot of eyes. And they all had, interspersed between the significant number of similar fantasies and wild stories, a few creative gems that leapt out at me, here and there.
Mari looked at me curiously. I shrugged. "What can I say, Mari? My creativity has been stoked. I'm not forced into a particular line of thinking, and I'm exploring some new concepts. Besides, it's not like the old standards have been particularly good to us to this point, you know?"
She nodded. "Sure, I get it. I think." She settled into the chair. "So, same basic idea, though? You have me state my name, you get a video of putting the helmet on me, all that jazz?"
"Yeah. And then the fun begins."
"Ooh, you know how much I like fun."
"Do you like buying me pizza?"
"I got your back. Tonight anyway." She grinned. "Or wait, I mean, 'There's no way I'm paying for supper, Lucian, and our pizza is definitely arriving with pineapple.' Is that better?"
I laughed. I felt good. Honestly good. The tension between my work and my ambitions was gone, and while there were now different tensions (between my lack of work and my rent payments, for example) they weren't nearly so immediately pressing. "Yeah, Mari. I think that's better."
"Good." She took a breath. "I'm ready to do this. One last time, right?"
"One last time for the camera, anyway," I replied. "When I've got my own equipment and I'm not turning logs over to a teacher, well, I don't see a reason to stop."
"Hmmm we can talk about that once you're certified," she said. "A conversation I'm sure looking forward to."
"Alright." I checked the laptop. "Ready to go on my end. How about you?"
She smirked. "I'm listening."
I chuckled. "Perfect." I made sure the camera was ready, then hit record. "Your name, please?"
"Mariana Guadalupe Garcia." Her voice was cheerful and confident.
So was mine. "And do you consent to this Alteration, understanding that I'm a student undergoing training?"
"I do, Lucian."
I picked up the helmet. "I'm going to put you in a trance, give you a few small, simple suggestions, and then wake you and test things to see how the suggestions have taken."
She nodded. I attached the helmet and plugged in the leads, playing to the camera. "Are you ready to be Altered, Mariana?"
"Sure am, Lucian."
"Then let's get at it." I moved to the computer. "You're going to hear a sound in your left ear, that's going to slowly travel across to the right. When you can only hear it in your right ear and not your left, raise your right hand. At the same time, you're going to see an image in your right eye, and it will slowly travel across to the left. When you can only see it in your left eye and not your right, raise your left hand. Do you understand?"
She paused a second. "Yeah, I got it."
I started the program. "Good, Mari. Now, you're also going to see little bits of other things, mostly letters and words, and hear some other sounds, mostly gibberish and static, but I want you to focus on those two specific things, and concentrate on that one particular sound and that one particular image." The sound I wanted her to focus on was a pure sine wave, not pleasant but easy to distinguish, and the image was of a slowly-rotating multicoloured square. I didn't put any of the confounding variables into the mix just then, I just wanted her to be aware that they were coming.
In fact, the program was watching for certain neural movements; every time she raised her right hand, it would reset the waveform sound to her left ear and add a little more static, and every time she raised her left hand, it would do the same with the visuals, popping that square back to the right side of her vision and kicking in a little more confused imagery.
She did raise her right hand then, at just the right moment, and the program registered the motion and moved the sound back into the left speaker. "Good, Mari, it's going to happen again, just do the same thing again."
"Alright," she said, her voice sounding a little strained. I saw the same sort of adrenaline spikes I'd seen that first week, as she was trying to do math.
Her left hand shot up, off the arm of the chair. "Great job, Mari. The visual stimulus is going to start again."
"This is like a really weird video game," she said, her body tense.
"It is a bit game-like. It gets harder and harder as you go." Her right hand went up, resetting the audio program. "Just stay focused on that specific sound and that particular shape."
"The square and the... strange tone," she affirms. Her voice was strained.
"That's right," I responded, smiling. I turned my attention more to the laptop screen as she lifted her left hand again.
"What happens if I miss?" she asked, sounding a bit worried.
I tried to sound soothing. "Nothing at all, the program will just wait for you to notice."
"Okay," she said, raising her right hand and letting it fall with a thump. Her vitals were showing an interesting mix of bodily relaxation and mental stress.
"Same thing if you raise a hand prematurely. It's not about right and wrong, Mari, it's all perceptual, all about how you sense it, and what you make of it."
"Alright, thanks Lucian." She raised her left hand. Her breathing slowed and her muscles relaxed, and her levels of focus and stress both climbed. I double-checked the numbers, and sure enough, stress was going up as the concentration of confounding factors increased which was more or less the opposite of the intention.
I started to make little adjustments to the program, easing off on the extra flashes on the monitor, backing down the static in the speakers. "Does that help, Mari? Take a couple nice, deep breaths."
She lifted her right hand, and followed it with a long sigh. "That's... yes, that's nice."
I froze the program in that state, which seemed to be about her limit for challenge at the moment. "Good, Mari, I'm going to keep talking, but I want you to keep tracking the sound in your head. Nothing I say is going to distract you from that sound."
She nodded. "Nothing you say will distract me," she agreed, lifting her left hand.
"You're going to let my words just drift into your mind, even if you're not paying attention to them, just raise your right hand when you agree. Let the sounds pass from one side of your head to the other, and follow that square across your field of vision," I paused there as she raised both hands, "and that's right, just relax, calmly, easily follow the sounds and the shapes, and..." I left the statement hanging, deliberately.
Her left hand rose again, far too early. "Just follow the sounds and the shapes," she said, sounding like she was talking to herself. She seemed determined.
I decided to use that. If she was going to repeat my words back to me, I could at least make her say something useful. "Mari, listen to the sound in the headphones, and just let everything flow naturally."
"Flow naturally," she said with a nod.
"You might find that it's easier now to find the sound, even with my voice. And it might be easier to follow that shape, because of my voice."
She lifted her right hand. "Mhmm, easier." That seemed to work a little more. Her mind was starting to follow the body into relaxation, finally, once she started to think of it as easy.
I released the lock on the program, letting it climb in difficulty—and increase the density of the subliminal messaging. As it stood, there wasn't enough activity in the electronics to meaningfully impact Mari's state of mind. My words were actually affecting her more than the Alteration systems.
"You might start to feel a little warmth in the back of your head, but you can ignore it, it's nothing significant."
"Got it." Whether she was referring to my instruction or to the square that had just reset because she raised her hand wasn't certain.
"Good, Mari, you're doing great. You know you can do this."
"I can do this," she sighed.
There was that stress again. "Just breathe deep and slow, focus on the sound and the sight. You can do this."
She nodded and raised her right hand. "I can do this," she repeated.
"You just keep repeating that to yourself, Mari. Keep saying that to yourself, again, and again, and just keep raising your hands when the sounds and the shapes make it across, that's right."
"I can do this," she said, raising her left hand.
"You sure can, Mari. You can do this. Simple tasks, easily accomplished."
"I can do this."
I turned to the metrics, trusting Mari to continue to raise hands and repeat herself. Her levels of focus were high, her bodily (other than her arms) was getting more relaxed, but there was still that matter of stress.
"I can do this," she slurred. She was letting herself relax more, physically; I looked over as she lifted her left arm, and it seemed boneless. She looked a little drunk in her motions.
"Doing great, Mari, just focused, fixed on that tone in your ears even while I talk to you." I increased the level of the program. "Take it nice and easy. Breathe. Slow and simple. There's no rush, there's no hurry. Just take your time."
"Can do this!" she growled, her right arm flailing wildly. It was strange to see, like watching a sleeping child push away their parent when they don't want to get up for school.
I decided to take a chance and try the arm catalepsy suggestion. "While you're not listening to me, Mari, I'm still speaking straight into your mind. Breathe nice and easy, and don't listen, just focus on that sound in your ear, and know that the next time the square makes its way across your field of vision, you'll raise your left hand as normal. But after that," I paused there while her left arm flipped into the air and then flopped back down on the armrest, "your left arm is being tightly tied to that armrest, bound as if by iron, locked in place. Give me a nod when you understand."
Her right arm flailed. She nodded. "Ic'ndooo..."
Like when she believed herself to be nodding a couple weeks before, I needed her to believe she was still moving. "Even though your arm is restrained, you don't need to notice, like you're not noticing these words, you can still feel like you're activating those muscles and raising your hand every time that square makes its way across your line of sight."
The stress indicators were starting to come down, which I took as a good sign. I opened the monitor for the visual timing program, and waited to see how her mind reacted to the square crossing her line of sight.
"Good, Mari, just nice, slow breaths, relaxed and calm..."
The square passed out of her right eye's range of vision. I looked to see if she would raise her hand. She didn't, so that was good. I looked back at the program window. It was still waiting for an indication that she was trying to raise her arm.
"Candoiiiit," Mari said, her voice a mixture of determination and lethargy.
But she wasn't doing it. She didn't even think she was doing it. She seemed to be ignoring the directive altogether. I waited and watched, looking back and forth between her and the monitor. She lifted her right hand at the right moment, but didn't even try to raise her left.
"Mari, you can do this," I said. "When the square travels to the left side of your vision, you will try to raise your left hand."
"Cando't" she nodded once, lazily.
I manually reset the visual pattern, waited a moment. Meanwhile, she gave a flip of her right wrist which seemed to be her response to the audio program completing. But again, once the square made its way across her field of vision, she gave no response. Didn't even try.
"How are you feeling, Mari?" I asked her.
"Good... candothis," she said.
"You sure can," I replied. "Is there a reason that you're not?"
"am," she replied, flipping her right wrist again.
Strange. I checked everything I could. She should be able to see the square sitting in her left eye. She should be trying, and failing, to lift her left hand, but according to her brain activity there was no such attempt.
And then the stress was pushing up higher still. My question didn't help at all. The dissonance between what she believed she was doing and what she was supposed to believe she was... I stopped myself, having to sort out the threads myself. She was supposed to think she was raising her left hand, while not raising it, and instead she was just not raising it while thinking that not raising it was actually what she was supposed to be doing.
She'd gone blind to the square, in other words. Or at least wasn't able to tell where it was.
Which meant that I'd screwed up somewhere.
I looked over all the metrics. I checked all the windows. Mari kept getting more and more stressed as I did, still occasionally lashing out with her right arm.
Finally, after about three minutes of trying to sort out the problem, I'd had enough. "Nice deep breaths, Mari. In and out." I called for the wake-up routine and disabled the little sensory game. "It's time to come up out of the trance."
"Can do..." she mutters, as I walked around to kneel by her side.
"Good, Mari. Very good. No more worries about sounds in your ears, no more squares in your vision, no more raising your hands. Just breathe, and listen, and start to let yourself move, bit by bit." I held her hand. Wiggle your toes, just like that, and roll your ankles around. Doing good. Moving your knees, feeling your strength coming back, give my hand a good squeeze." I received her squeeze and squeezed back. "Good, Mari, let the machine do its work." I got another squeeze, and responded in kind. "Meanwhile you can take a deep breath and let your eyes focus through the visor here on mine. You were pretty deep, let things come away in time."
Her breathing was a little bit laboured. "Phew." She sighed. "That was... rough."
"You're feeling alright?" I asked.
She shook her head. "I'm feeling strung out. Can I...?" She put her free hand up to the helmet.
I let go of her hand and nodded. "Yeah, I'll get the camera turned off." I got to my feet.
She grimaced. "That bad?"
"Well... um. No. But not a success. As you can probably tell." I went to deal with the equipment.
"Getting used to that." She stood up and stretched. "I do feel like buying you a pizza, was that your doing?"
I shook my head. "Just your generous nature." I took the helmet from her hands. "You go ahead and make the call. I'll put some of this away."
She gave me a kiss on the cheek and took a walk down the hall to summon supper, while I put the helmet away and shut down the laptop. I was thinking, hard. There had to be a solution, and I was sure that that was it.
Mari came back out to the living room. "Busy night, be an hour."
I'd been thinking too much. "Alright then. You. Bedroom."
She laughed. "Got some plans?"
"I'm keeping my pants on. Someone's got to tip the delivery guy." I pointed. "Go."
She snapped to attention in military fashion and marched stiff-legged down the hall. I grinned, following her.
"Strip," I said.
"I like where this is going," she said, slipping off her jeans.
"It's not going where you think it is, probably," I replied. "You've just been stressed out like mad. Leave your panties on. For now."
She turned back and winked as she pulled her shirt off and started unhooking her bra.
"Face down on the bed, Mari," I said, and she complied. "Make yourself comfy."
She did. It took her a moment.
I stood at the foot of the bed and ran my finger over her foot. She giggled and pulled away a little. I applied a little more pressure, running my fingers along her metatarsals, rubbing her heels, massaging her ankles.
"Mmm, is this your 'thank you'?" she asked. "Because if it is, maybe we need to go to two sessions a week."
"I just stressed you out. Least I can do is unstress you." I dug my fingers into the backs of her calves, listening to her soft moans. "Just breathe nice and slow, let my fingers do their work."
"Oh God, no arguments here," she sighed into the pillow.
I worked around her knees. "Just let the tension out. You know how. Breathe in, let everything go." My hands softly brushed her thighs, warming them up, then I pressed into them with my palms.
"Mmm... that's so nice, Lucian," Mari said, sounding sleepy.
I slipped my hands up under her panties to rub her buttocks. Intimate, sure, but it wasn't sexual, not really, or at least I didn't feel that it was. "Just breathe in, then let everything go," I repeated. "In, and out."
"Mmm, yeah. In and out," she murmured.
I started in on the small of her back. "Let me push out all that tension," I said, my palms running outward from her spine, curling my fingers around her sides. "And you can let it all go."
Mari moaned. "God, Lucian, you need to screw up more, if this is what you're going to do after."
I ran my hands over her sides. "We'll talk about that later," I said.
"Oh, I hope so."
I kept rubbing her back, muttering idly as I reached up to her shoulders. "Maybe after dinner we can switch places." I brushed her hair aside and kissed the back of her neck. "I could use a little de-stressing myself."
"Mmm, I bet." Mari rolled over, and I admired the view. She gave me a grin. "Just gonna look, or are you gonna finish the job?"
I straddled her, held her down gently, and massaged her shoulders. "Could do both." I leaned in for a kiss and got one, and my hands moved a little lower. Our kissing continued for a while, gently, until I heard the phone ring.
"Must be the pizza," I said, climbing off the bed. "You can stay there, I'll take care of it."
"Mmm, great," she said.
I went quickly to answer the phone and let the delivery guy into the apartment complex. I sat in the armchair. I was thinking again. I had been sure that that technique would work. Sitting there, waiting for the pizza to get to my door, I tried to inhabit Mari's mindset, sitting there. Of course, I couldn't do that very well, we were very different people, but I tried. There was no other explanation I could come up with, that had to simply have been the wrong approach for her.
In fact, I had been getting better results when—
The knock on the door interrupted my train of thought. I opened the door and traded a $5 tip for two boxes of pizza (Mari had paid online), and brought them into the bedroom. Mari was still lying there in her panties, smiling up at me. I smiled back and put the boxes on a chair, still a little lost in thought. "I'll get plates and drinks," I said, heading back to the kitchen.
I looked at the armchair again as I passed. There was something pressing on the back of my mind that made me feel like I was missing something obvious.
By the time I returned to the bedroom, Mari had already devoured a piece of the Hawaiian and was working on a second. I sat next to her on the bed and put my arm around her shoulders.
"I feel like I'm just on the edge of a breakthrough," I said. "But I'm not sure what the last step is."
She snuggled back into my arm. "Less talk, Lucian. Just eat now. You can talk more afterwards, when you lie me back down on the bed..."
That was it. "Holy shit, Mari." I thought that it was just a cliché, that sort of bolt of inspiration, the Eureka moment, but as my thoughts fell into place I felt an almost physical reaction in my mind. I looked her in the face. "I can't believe that I'm going to say this, but... do you mind getting dressed after supper?"
She raised her eyebrows. "What's on your mind?"
"I'd like another try. Unless you want to be on camera like—"
"No, thanks, I got it," she laughed. "And if you think you have an answer, sure, I'm up for a second session."
"Fantastic. Alright." I took a breath. "I'm sure I've got it this time."
She smiled at me. "Eat your pizza, then, you'll want your strength."
I had no argument to that. I dug in, trying not to let my excitement make me rush my dinner. I almost succeeded.