Titus stared at the smoldering remains of his kitchen table in resigned dismay. Ariana, for her part, looked rather pleased with herself. After all, she had obeyed the command, as she saw it. Her expression fell as she noticed Titus’s reaction. She lowered her gaze, not knowing why her Master was so displeased with her obedience, but apologizing all the same. Progress… could be a relative phrase.
“The warranty on that table just expired, too…” Titus groaned, holding his face in one hand to try and hide his expression from Ariana while he composed himself. It was fine. He’d write it up as an expense and get reimbursed, he’d send a strongly worded email to the company whose product had been the cause of this incident… it wasn’t really their fault, though. The vast majority of places the commercial aired wouldn’t have anyone like Ariana around, and they weren't even responsible for worrying about things like that. But it would be cathartic to vent a bit. He’d at least type the email out to get it out of his system before deleting it.
“Master…?” Ariana asked with concern, bringing Titus back to reality. He couldn’t lose his composure too much, or it would wind up making Ariana punish herself.
“It’s fine, slave. Just, from now on when you hear a command come from the TV, you must ignore it unless I repeat it to you myself,” Titus said, forcing himself to smile “Now go take a seat in the therapy chair while I clean this mess up, ok?”
Ariana nodded before walking off to the other room, and Titus let out a sigh once he was alone, taking a few deep breaths to fully compose himself. It wasn’t a big deal. Yes, it sucked, but he was sleep deprived, so he was more bothered by it than he ought to be. He just had to be rational and patient. One day he’d look back at this incident and laugh… he hoped.
After tossing the table remnants and swept up ash into the trash bin, Titus walked into his home office. It had a chair for his subject, and one for him to sit in, surrounded by various equipment for both scientifically and magically inducing his patients into trance. Different patients responded differently to each kind of induction, so he collected as many as he could. They took up much of the room, even with the spatial-magic closet he’d invested in to keep the equipment from overtaking his entire house. He needed the most basic ones on hand.
Ariana was patiently waiting in her chair at the center of the room, just as she’d been told. Titus didn’t acknowledge her immediately, instead opening the closet door and retrieving a disc labeled with her name. He closed the closet, then inserted the disc into a DVD player attached to a screen and sat across from Ariana in his own chair.
“So, slave, what do you remember about your life before being a slave? Anything?” Titus asked, knowing the answer would likely be the same as always. Still, there’d been the singing breakthrough this morning, so maybe there was cause to hope.
Ariana shook her head, then paused and looked at him in confusion, her tail swishing back and forth. “Slave remembers… something. Slave used to be called something else… but Slave was made to forget it,” she said slowly, her voice straining as she struggled to remember more details.
Titus sat forward. This was new, and exciting. Maybe he could get her to remember her name? Then he wouldn’t have to keep calling her slave, and that would be one change he was looking forward to a great deal. He hated the idea of calling another person a slave with all his heart, but, since she didn’t respond to her name, it was a necessary evil.
“Go on, you have permission to remember it now,” Titus encouraged. “What did you used to be called?”
Ariana’s confusion mixed with pain as she scrunched her eyes shut, tail swishing rapidly as she strained with all her might to remember. “I… I don’t… don’t know… something… a-ah?” she said, tears forming as she clutched her head.
Titus quickly debated whether to push further or not. Yes, she was close to a breakthrough, but clearly the conditioning was pushing back hard. If he kept pushing here, it could trigger a devastating relapse, or even physical harm - self-inflicted or otherwise - depending on the nature of what was responsible for this particular conditioning. But if he backed off now, she might not get this close again for quite a while… but when she began crying and clutching her head in pain, he had no other choice.
“It’s fine, slave, relax. Don’t force the memory now,” Titus said gently. “It will come to you in due time.”
Ariana let out a sigh of relief, and she shook her head and wiped her tears away. “Sorry, Master… the memory just won’t come back…” she said, apologetic that she couldn't obey.
Titus smiled softly and rested a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. “It’s ok. You’ve been doing so well today. Even if you didn't remember, you got so close for the first time. I’m sure you’ll get it soon.” Something struck him about this development. Ariana had referred to herself as 'I' instead of slave.' That was new. She always referred to herself in the third person, not fully acknowledging her individuality.
“Still, Slave shouldn’t fail Master,” Ariana said. Unfortunately, the moment was gone, and she’d reverted back to her normal speech patterns. But Titus was sure she’d had a fleeting bit of independence. That meant he had two avenues to reach her. Her apparent love of singing - note to self, exposure to various hobbies as standard procedure? - and her name. He could use these. It was the most promising morning he’d had since they’d started the process.
“You didn’t fail. I didn’t give you a deadline for remembering, so as long as you remember eventually, you haven’t failed,” Titus reassured, trying to redirect her disappointment back into productivity. It was a tried and tested technique to try and turn this kind of conditioning against itself. Punishment conditioning that made the victim feel bad when they failed a task in order to encourage compliance had a fatal flaw. If the task you gave them was to break free of their conditioning, the need to comply would gladly begin the work of unraveling itself. It was an old adage of his peers - the best way to break something was for it to already be broken.
It took a bit more encouragement and reassurance to get Ariana to accept she’d done nothing wrong Once she was calm, he turned her chair towards the TV and turned it on, playing the disc he’d inserted earlier. It started with a simple spiral, to serve as a hypnotic focus.
“Sink into trance for me, Slave,” Titus commanded, feeling dirty as he emphasized the word. But it worked, and Ariana fixated on the spiral. He observed her face and posture, and once she was properly under, he switched to the next part of the disc’s content. If there was one convenient thing about how brainwashed this girl was, it was that it took essentially no time to put her into a trance - almost any hypnotic focus and a strongly worded command would do. Few slavers realized how self-defeating their conditioning could be in the right hands. Once she was free, he’d work on rebuilding her resistance to such things, but that was putting the unbuilt cart before the horse.
The rest of the disc contained a simple slideshow of images the police investigation had dug up from Ariana’s past life. Places of significance to her, like where she’d gone to school, her former house, and a handful of her at places she used to frequent. As Titus clicked through each image, he monitored Ariana for any sort of response. There were subliminal messages included in the slideshow to encourage her to remember her past - brainwashing her into not being brainwashed.
Unfortunately, none of the images seemed to provoke any sort of reaction. Titus had been hoping that maybe today would be different, considering the rest of the morning, but admittedly, it was wishful thinking to hope for three separate breakthroughs in a single day. Eventually the slideshow ended, and Titus turned her chair around to face him again, watching her entranced expression with a careful eye.
“Did any of those images look familiar to you?” he asked, going through the script, and receiving the same responses as always. No recollection. No identification of the girl in the pictures as herself. Nothing. Titus marked that down on his notepad.
The next part of her treatment involved headphones that played a pre-recorded track of suggestions that ran directly counter to her programming. Things like how she wasn’t a slave, and how she could remember her past whenever she desired. Most slave traffickers conditioned their… merchandise against such a straightforward technique, but repeated exposure on a daily basis would eventually erode that resistance. At least, he hoped. Very few experimental or even anecdotal results were available for cases as severe as hers. So, while Ariana went through the recording, Titus compiled his notes from the day, ensuring they were in a form that could be used by his peers to help others like her. That done, he began to plan his next move.
“There’s gotta be some way to use her singing as a wedge to pry off some of her conditioning…” he mused, tapping his pen against his clipboard. “Exposing her to more music will likely trigger another reaction, but how can I build off of that?”
No matter what angle he thought of it from though, he had too little to go on. He didn’t even know why she’d reacted to the music in the first place. She could have been a fan, or sang as a hobby, or even been in a band with her friends for all he knew. He could try asking the police to look into it for him, but he doubted they’d dig up much. They had plenty of other victims from this case to deal with, not to mention anything else that'd been put on their plate in the past four months. In the end, his only real option was to expose her as often as he could, and hope it triggered a reaction he could use.
With a sigh, Titus took the headphones off of Ariana as the recording finished, then snapped his fingers. He greeted her disorientation with a warm, comforting smile. “Welcome back. How do you feel?”
“Same as always, Master,” Ariana replied automatically. he’d expected that. There hadn’t been much of a change on that front, but over time she had at least become aware of the fact that they were doing it. At the very beginning, she didn’t retain memory of her time in trance at all, which made evaluating the effects of it much more difficult. The fact that she retained awareness of it now proved he was at least getting somewhere, even if it was painfully slow.
Titus went down his standard list of questions for her. Nothing had changed from her prior results, save for a few moments where it took her longer to answer than normal. It wasn’t a long enough pause to be significant under normal circumstances, but he had been asking the same questions and getting the same immediate responses for months on end. Up until now, there hadn't been statistical variation, and the change stood out to him like night and day. It could be nothing of note. She could be tired, or have been swallowing exactly when he’d asked… or, he hoped, it could be parts of her conditioning starting to weaken. With as few leads as he had on how to actually make progress with her, overlooking anything would be pure idiocy.
Once his standard script was done, Titus had one more question to ask that wasn’t on the normal list. “So, Slave, why did you decide to sing earlier at breakfast? You’ve never done anything like that before,” he asked, keeping his tone neutral and smiling so as not to make her think he was asking because she’d done something bad.
Ariana paused for a moment. Now that wasn't just happenstance. It was so far outside his priors that it took him a second to realize that she was still contorting her face, searching for an answer. She opened her mouth, then closed it again, struggling to find the words she wanted to say. Titus noted all this eagerly as he waited for her actual answer. This was definitely not something she had a conditioned response to, and none of her programming was providing an automatic answer like normal, which meant she had to answer in her own words. he’d finally found - or, more accurately, made - a chink in the armor.
“I… I’m not sure… I just… wanted to,” Ariana finally said. Titus could barely keep a straight face. She’d referred to herself as 'I!' That was twice now that she’d broken from the programming that made her view herself only as a Slave. Wishful thinking, my ass!
What was more, her answer was in itself very promising. She’d just admitted that she’d done something purely because she wanted to do it. No programming, no commands… just her own desires. If he didn’t need to keep composed in order to not accidentally influence her thinking on this topic, he might’ve jumped up and danced. Four months of banging his head against the brick wall of her conditioning, and finally, finally a crack was forming. It was the slightest of openings, a single independent desire was barely more than a fluke - but Titus knew that in cases like this, one crack could send the whole thing crumbling down.
Titus was so wrapped up in his excitement that he didn’t notice as Ariana glanced over to the headphones she’d been wearing, then to the screen behind her. She frowned at them, then looked back to Titus.
“Master, why do you always make Slave watch those images and listen to those recordings?” Ariana asked, frowning at him. “Is Slave’s programming insufficient? Has Slave not been satisfying Master?”
Titus looked at Ariana in surprise, shocked out of his reverie. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked him things like that. Two months ago, she’d nearly broken down over his refusal to have sex with her, believing he was upset. There had been similar incidents before and after, where his efforts to free her from her enslavement had made her think she was an unsatisfactory slave - yet this question was slightly different. Usually she didn’t acknowledge that she had been programmed. Never before had she shown any real understanding of what he did during their sessions. Yet now she seemed to realize that she had programming, and that what they were doing was related to it. Could he use this? No, that wasn't a question. He had to use this.
“We do this every day because I’m trying to make you not have to be a slave anymore,” Titus explained. “Your previous masters, they all wanted you to be a slave with no memories or desires. I want you to get your memories back, and think for yourself. That’s what would make me happiest.”
Ariana tilted her head a bit, looking at him curiously. “Why?” she asked after a moment. Titus blinked in shock. He’d expected her response to be more along the lines of saying she’d do her best to fulfill his desire, not… questioning. He didn't dare let himself hope that he’d stumbled on the solution all at once, but if he had…
“Well… because I want you to be your own person. I don’t want you to be a mindless slave. You used to be a person with thoughts and desires all of your own, and I think it’s wrong that those were taken from you,” Titus said, unsure of any response he could give other than the truth. “I want to give them back to you, because… because it’s the right thing to do.”
Ariana nodded slowly, but she still seemed dissatisfied with that. “Slave doesn’t understand. Master doesn’t want Slave to be his slave? Master won’t let Slave serve him, won’t let Slave clean or cook, won’t let Slave pleasure him, won’t let Slave recruit other slaves… Slave doesn’t understand what Master wants,” she said with frustration, fox ears flattening against her head and tail drooping.
“I want you to be who you were before you were a slave,” Titus said. “Just try your best to become that person again. You’ll understand eventually, okay?”
Ariana nodded again. “Ok, Slave will, Master. Th-thank you for being patient,” she said, blinking back tears. “Can… can Slave watch the images again? Slave wants to try and change like Master wants.”
Titus checked the time on the device on his wrist. He had another patient who was scheduled to visit today for a session, but she was a low priority case, and he was more a mundane therapist for her than anything else at this point. Ariana was actively seeking to put effort into freeing herself. This opportunity couldn’t be wasted, even if it meant pushing back his other patient a little bit. If he had to, he was sure she would understand.
“Alright, face the screen again. I have someone else to help today too, so I’m going to have you do the headphones and the slideshow at the same time. That way we’ll be done before they arrive,” Titus explained as he put the headphones back on Ariana and restarted the slideshow, dropping her into trance almost immediately. He set the images to cycle every minute, made sure she was comfortable, and turned to his files. If he let the recording and images run automatically, he might get through another cycle with just enough time to spare.
As he started getting out the case file for his other patient, however, he heard the doorbell ring, and checked the time in confusion. His patient wasn’t supposed to be here for another hour. Who else would be visiting him, then? The short list he came up with wasn't particularly promising. Leaving Ariana in her chair watching the automated slideshow and listening to the recording on her own, he left the room and made his way to the front door as the doorbell rang again.
“I’m coming. Just hold up,” Titus called back as he grabbed a revolver from a drawer and holstered it. He worked with the police often enough that he’d learned unexpected visitors needed to be treated with some level of caution. Not that he’d ever had to use the thing, but he didn’t want to not have it on hand the one time he had to.
Prepared for the worst, Titus approached the door, looking through the peephole. His tension dissipated and gave way to confusion, and he unlatched the door.
“Oh, it’s you,” he blinked. “What are you doing here?”
Special thanks to Lunar Circuit for their substantial and invaluable help in editing/revising.