Marion stood in the entryway to the lounge, more than a little surprised to see that Alice, Erin, and Tiffany were all still there. More surprising was that they were all still in their pyjamas and underwear, as if they hadn’t moved all morning.
Admittedly, she hadn’t noticed when she had entered the apartment moments ago, as she had rushed to the toilet and only saw them from the corner of her eyes. It had been a little weird that nobody had replied to her greeting as she hurried past, but she let it go, thinking there might be an important discussion going on.
But now here she stood in the doorway, looking in at what may have well been three living statues. Wasn’t Erin supposed to be away running errands? Weren’t Tiffany and Alice going to put on Disney films and relax all day?
“Guys, what are you doing?” she asked. “Uhh, hello?”
They didn’t even turn to acknowledge her. Something about that sent a nervous shiver down her back. She found herself dropping her bag and coat on the floor and creeping into the room. Alice was sitting on the couch, her arm outstretched towards Erin. Both of them were unmistakably awake, but it was like they were checked out, staring into nothing, and certainly not making eye contact with each other. Tiffany was facing towards the corner of the room, away from everyone.
“Guys… this is pretty weird. Stop it, okay?” Marion circled around to find that Tiffany had the same empty eyes that both Erin and Alice wore. She was clearly breathing, and she was standing in such an awkward way that Marion thought she must have been in motion when she came to a complete standstill.
But she was staring into nothing, her eyes glazed over, her expression blank, and without a single sign that she even realised Marion was there.
“Guys, if this is some kind of joke, it isn’t funny!” Marion declared sternly to them. Nobody moved or so much as blinked. She waved a hand in front of Tiffany’s eyes, then clicked her fingers in front of Erin, before gently prodding Alice, her concern growing. They all remained motionless and vacant.
“Okay, what’s going on?” she demanded, her voice cracking with nervousness now. When no one answered, she found herself starting to feel panicked. They wouldn’t keep up a dumb joke like this... They couldn’t! Something felt seriously, sickeningly wrong.
A sudden fear struck her, like she might catch what they all had and become still and vacant herself...
No, no, she had to keep herself in check, that theory didn’t make much sense. They looked totally checked out... Oh fuck, where they all high? Marion had seen drug use before, mostly due to the crap Alice had gotten up to in the past, but she had never seen anything like this. But that was probably it. She had relapsed and taken a hit of something…
But Erin and Tiffany surely wouldn’t have done the same... And what kind of drug just made you freeze in place like that? No, this was something else, something she didn’t understand.
Then she saw Alice’s phone. It was on the floor a few feet in front of Tiffany. It looked like Tiffany had been moving towards it whenever… this… had happened to her. She wasn’t looking directly at it, but it was within her range of vision.
Marion went over to the phone and picked it up. A quick look at the screen showed six missed calls from Dillon.
“Huh. Did he do this to you? Or is he trying to help you?” Marion wondered out loud.
Having memorised Alice’s passcode, she unlocked the phone. Maybe calling Dillon to rule him out would be the right thing to do…
Josh stuffed his notes into his backpack and left the crowded lecture theatre. Computer science was a breeze, but he never missed a class. His parents openly admitted to him that the allowance they paid him was a bit excessive, but that so long as he studied hard, kept excellent attendance, took his training and basketball performance seriously, and kept out of trouble, then the extra money was his to enjoy how he pleased.
So he bought beers and takeaway food for his friends all the time, even though he strictly rationed himself on them. He bought weed for Alice whenever he noticed she needed to take the edge off, even though he never touched the stuff himself. He had all the latest gaming systems, a car that he didn’t need, and more cash than he knew what to do with. He now had savings that he could live off for months, even years were he to adjust his lifestyle. And all of that was in a secret savings account different to the one his parents had set up. They wouldn’t be able to take it from him the way they could take everything else.
If he ever came out to them, he strongly suspected that he would be cast out, severed from the family like a rotten limb. He wished he had more faith in them than that, but as conservative movers and shakers in all the highest circles of the Christian societies on the east coast, he felt he was just being pragmatic.
Almost weekly his mother asked him if he had found a nice girl yet. He was to look out for “marriage material,” which the implication was a woman who was wealthy and black. The ginger-haired, whiter than snow, and unmistakably penis-adorned teammate of his on the team probably wasn’t what they had in mind. Not that Josh had worked up the courage to even drop a hint to Bobby about his orientation, let alone enquire about his.
No matter what was said or what small changes were slowly happening in the wider world, there was no room for homosexuality in sports. They found excuses to bump you, to bully you, to subtly drive you out. The few that ran that brutal gauntlet and made it through to media fanfare and applause got all the focus, while the thousands who tried and failed and were left beaten and bloody in the gutter of their former life were all but forgotten.
This injustice infuriated Josh daily, and he was determined to burn down the old system. But watching his father while growing up had taught him something other than how little he mattered compared to the next investment deal or the business trip to Japan. He learned that once you made it to the top, the rules rarely applied to you anymore. You could always bend them, often break them, and sometimes even make them disappear and have something more suitable put in its place.
Josh knew he had to play by their rules for now if he wanted to bring it all down from the inside later. At least, so he had thought…
The Algorithm could change everything. It had been on his mind over the last few days. What could he do with it? What could it do? He could sit his parents down and poof, their homophobia that had added a bitter flavour to his adolescence could be brainwashed away.
Or maybe he should just brainwash himself to be straight, change himself into the perfect son they truly wanted just long enough to inherit the keys to their kingdom.
The possibilities ran through his mind on a constant loop of imagination and hypothesis while he walked to his next class. That was, until his phone interrupted him with an alert chime.
He looked at the message. There was going to be a delivery tomorrow between 3 and 5 PM. Odd, he hadn’t ordered anything… More odd was that the delivery address wasn’t his apartment.
Something clicked in his mind just then. He didn’t need to know unnecessary information. He would go to that address for that time window, he suddenly knew that he already had a key for the place. He would receive the delivery, and then he would Know What to Do. Knowing all this, he forgot about it for the time being, and continued to his next class.
Trev grunted as he thrust into Lucy from behind, gripping her shoulder with one hand and pulling her short dark hair with the other.
“Harder! Fuck! Fuck! Harder!” she panted, her eyes streaming with tears, her head tugged back and her body bent over the desk. She squealed and moaned and made all the noises Trev loved to hear her make.
He moaned and grunted as he came inside her, and she screamed so loud that Trev found himself clamping his hand over her mouth to muffle the noise. She had assured him that her economics professor would be out to lunch for a spell, but other students might still be in the corridors.
Feeling a wave of satisfaction flood his mind, he slowed his pace and released the tuft of hair he had gripped, allowing Lucy to relax her head on the desk as she continued to moan softly.
They both panted for a few minutes before Trev withdrew from her. Lucy reacted to this by pulling her skirt and tights back up and then bringing out a pocket mirror so she could start fixing her hair and makeup.
“Fuck me, that was awesome,” Trev remarked, pulling up his jeans and neatening himself out.
“When’s your next break?” Lucy asked.
“What, you want to go again then?” Trev replied, failing to hide his surprise.
“I want to go wherever you want to go.” Lucy batted her eyelids. “And based on the last few days, you want to go a lot… Unless I’m mistaken and you’re done for the day?” She stuck out her tongue slightly.
“No, no! Not at all.” Trev chuckled, grabbing her hands and pulling her into him. She gasped with a delighted smile as he held her close. He stroked her face and stared into her eyes. They were a beautiful speckled brown, and shone with intense love for him.
He sighed as a thought at the back of his mind pushed its way to the forefront. “I guess I’m a little worried, I’m feeling a little guilty. Ever since that night at Josh’s flat, I’ve noticed…”
“That I’ve been acting differently,” Lucy finished for him.
“Yeah, exactly, but I think it might be because, I guess I’m worried that…”
“That the strange swirling program you made has hypnotised me into being this way?”
Trev blinked in surprise. “Uh, yeah! Exactly that.”
“It wasn’t hard to figure out.” Lucy shrugged. “But it’s clearly programmed me to not be bothered by it. All I care about is being a good girlfriend to you.” She placed a hand on his chest to affirm her point.
“Well fuck, you’re doing a great job at that!” Trev remarked, though he felt guilty still. He loved this new and improved Lucy. She listened to him more. She made an effort to take an interest in things he liked. She wanted sex five times as much and was willing to do all the things he liked best.
But he couldn’t help but feel he should be saying something else. “But, you know I love you as you are, right? You don’t need to do this, you know?”
“Honey, it’s okay,” Lucy soothed. “I know I have habits and behaviours that you don’t like. A good girlfriend would want to change for her boyfriend.”
“But don’t you mind that you’ve changed? Don’t you want me to change you back?” Trev asked.
“Only if you want to.” Lucy sighed as she placed her head against Trev’s chest. “Hmm, I love that you’re this much taller than me…”
She stayed silent for a moment, letting her hold him. Eventually, she looked back up at him with bright, happy eyes.
“A good girlfriend would want to be a good girlfriend.” She smiled. “I’m happy so long as you’re happy. I want to want what you want me to. I want to do everything for you. I want to be yours, and I’m happiest when I know I’m being a good girlfriend for you. Before, I was jealous. I was selfish, demanding, and I was miserable so much of the time… Why would I want to go back to that?”
Trev looked thoughtfully down at her. If she was saying she was happy like this, then surely changing her back would be cruel.
He didn’t feel equipped to know if that was the correct answer or not. He just knew he was enjoying Lucy’s newfound enthusiasm to be the best girlfriend she could be, and he was reassured by how happy she seemed in embracing it.
Also, it was hard to have deep thoughts when he was so constantly turned on by Lucy’s vastly increased sex drive. She clearly remembered everything he’d wanted to explore with her in the past that she had refused back then, as over the last few days she had done one thing after another that pushed all his buttons. Sex in the university was just another thing he’d wanted to try last semester, and now on top of this office invasion Lucy was already talking about which lecture theatres were empty at certain times.
He kissed her then, deeply and intensely. She melted in his arms, and they lost themselves in each other’s embrace. When they finally emerged, Trev shook his head, blinking with disorientation. “God you’re amazing. Sorry, what were you saying?”
Lucy beamed up at him before leaning up on her tiptoes to kiss his nose. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Come on…” She took his hand and led them out of the empty office.
They walked to the edge of campus where the university buildings started to merge with shops in one of the more hip commercial districts of the city. They had lunch at their favourite cafe, The Cosy Coffee, and played scrabble while killing time before their next classes.
Just as Lucy finished tallying her score for ‘gavel,’ Trev’s phone rang.
“Oh, it’s Alice!” Trev said excitedly.
Lucy pouted momentarily, but almost instantly the phrase ”Good girlfriends don’t get jealous!”” buzzed across the back of her head, and before she knew it she was smiling pleasantly and saying, “I hope she’s doing well.” She took a sip of her tea and watched with interest as Trev answered the phone.
“Hey, Alice. Sorry I’ve missed you guys the last few days, we totally need to catch up!” Trev spoke excitedly down the phone. After listening to the reply for a couple of moments his face changed to one of concern, which Lucy quickly mirrored.
“Marion? What’s… Okay. Wait, I don’t. Okay, slow down!” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, but just start at the beginning, and I’m sure we can help somehow. Yeah, I’m here with Lucy.”
Lucy mouthed silently, “What’s going on?” Trev held up a finger to ask for her to wait a moment.
“Okay,” he said after a few seconds. “Okay. Dillon?! Really? Okay. Well that’s weird. Hold on. No, I’ll be right here, I’m just catching Lucy up.”
He pressed a button on his screen and looked up at Lucy. “Okay, it’s muted,” he said.
“So what’s going on? Is Alice okay?” Lucy asked, trying to appear as nonchalant as she could.
“I’m not sure. Marion says Alice is there, sitting still like a statue, looking into space. Erin and Tiff are there, too. It’s like they’re looking into the Algorithm, right? But they’re not at Josh’s.” Trev scratched his head in confusion. “I don’t get it.”
Lucy smiled, ever so slightly. “I do. It’ll be a post-hypnotic suggestion that makes them go back into trance as if they were staring at that weird screen at Josh’s flat. Just like how we weren’t staring at the screen at the time, but we still all lost our memories the other night.”
“Oh, okay,” Trev said, still looking confused. “I’m sorry, how do you know how it works? I helped make the damn thing, and I don’t think I understand it…”
“Well, yeah…” Lucy stuck her tongue out slightly. “Your exposure to hypnosis is limited to bad TV and that stage hypnotist we saw at the students union that one night. Are you forgetting I was getting hypno-therapy for months after my parents divorced? I read a lot about it in that time. I’d forgotten about most of it to be honest, but I started reading up on it all again when I realised the what? The Algorithm? Was affecting me...”
“Okay, so you know what to do?” Trev asked, and Lucy felt a warm glow in her with how impressed his expression showed he was.
“Of course. I’m surprised Marion hasn’t managed it herself. Maybe she just doesn’t understand trance at all either.”
“I don’t think most people do…” Trev shrugged as he un-silenced the phone. “Hey, Marion, I’m still here. Yeah, I’m going to pass you over to Lucy. She can help.”
Trev handed over the phone and watched Lucy with interest. She certainly seemed to know what she was talking about. Messing around with Alice and Erin days and days ago with Josh’s computer until they stumbled across the weird thing it did to people had been bizarre but fun. Yet he hadn’t been bothered to try anything further with it at the time. Now he was thinking more and more about seeing what it could do, although not so much with Lucy occupying most of his time and imagination.
“Hey, Marion. I don’t think we’ve ever met, no. I’m Lucy. I’m Trevor’s girlfriend.” Lucy smiled pleasantly as she spoke. “Yes, I think I can help. Well, it’s hard to explain. I think Alice and her friends could probably explain it better, but I’d better wake them up first. No, they’re not in danger, I think they must have just got a bit carried away with hypnosis is all.”
Lucy nodded for a few moments as Trev watched on. He wished he had put it on speaker when he had handed it to her, but it was too late now, he didn’t want to interrupt. Marion sounded shaken enough.
“It’s alright,” Lucy soothed over the phone. “No, you did the right thing calling us. I doubt paramedics would have had a clue, and that Dillon guy does sound a bit untrustworthy. Okay, so I’ll see if I can get them to respond, but I’ll need you to not talk while I’m talking, in case it mixes up the message. Okay. No, don’t put it on speaker. Just hold it up to someone’s ear for a moment. If this works, they’ll take the phone from you, and then you can leave it to me.” Trev watched, Lucy’s smile lingering but somehow becoming more pleased, her eyes twinkling with something. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
Lucy looked at him for a moment and blew him a kiss. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said calmly down the phone, “Alice first? Sure.”
Lucy waited a few moments, and then spoke slowly and clearly.
“Alice, can you hear me?”
A moment’s pause.
“Good. Take the phone from Marion and hold it to your ear.”
Then Lucy looked around the cafe. The place was abandoned at that time of day, the lone staff member was mostly in the kitchen. Lucy put her phone on speaker and set it on the table between her and Trev.
“Alice, are you holding the phone to your ear?”
”Yes.” Alice’s voice was emotionless over the phone.
“Okay, Alice,” Lucy spoke softly and clearly to the phone on the table. “Okay, when I say now, pass the phone back to Marion, and when she passes it back, put it back up to your ear. Pass the phone to Marion now.”
“What are you doing?” Trev whispered in confusion.
Lucy looked at him with a sly smile. “You’ll see,” she whispered back.
“Hello. Lucy? How did you do that? She took the phone and started saying things!” Marion’s voice spoke over the speaker in a bewildered and flustered tone.
“Hey, Marion,” Lucy said. “That’s okay, I just have some experience in this area. I just wanted to let you know that Trevor and I can take it from here. I don’t know if you need to get to class or get some studying done or something, but it’ll take us a few minutes to wake each of them up, and we don’t want to keep you back.”
“That’s really thoughtful of you Lucy, but I don’t feel comfortable going back to class until I see that everyone is okay and I get some answers from Alice. There’s just been a bit too much going on with her lately, and I’m worried. I mean, if you were here you could see. It’s seriously messed up how… how… lifeless they all look…”
“I completely understand,” Lucy said, a knowing smirk on her lips now. “It must have been so stressful for you to come home to that. Why don’t you go make yourself a mug of cocoa and take some time to calm down? If you hand the phone back to Alice, we’ll take care of this, and Alice will catch you up when we’ve woken her up.”
“Really?” Marion asked hopefully. “Yeah, okay, that actually sounds like something I really need. I get so worried about Alice, but this is a new level of worrying.”
“That’s perfectly alright,” Lucy replied. “We’ll take care of it from here.”
“Okay, thanks Lucy. I feel a lot calmer already. God, and to think I was actually thinking of calling Dillon as well... So what, I just hand the phone back to Alice?”
“Yes, that’s it,” Lucy said sweetly. “You’re most welcome.”
“Okay, here she is.” Marion’s voice sounded fresh with relief, and then there was some crackling on the line as the phone was handed over.
Lucy could barely contain her excitement, her hands rubbing together as she strained to speak calmly into the phone.
“Alice, can you hear me?”
“Yes.” Alice’s voice was the exact same as before, toneless and dull.
“Good. If at any point you drop the phone, pick it back up and hold it against your ear again. If at any point the call disconnects, call Trevor again. Do you understand?
“Good,” Lucy said. She then pressed the mute button on the screen of her phone, and looked up to Trev with an almost manic smile.
“What’s going on, baby?” Trev asked, scratching his head. “Can’t you just tell her to wake up?”
Lucy tilted her head slightly, biting her lip and gazing Trev up and down. “I could,” she admitted. “We could… but I want to talk to you about doing something else.”
“Okay…” Trev trailed, confusion and concern mixing together. His heart had started beating faster, and something about Lucy’s energy was unnerving him. “Doing what?”
Lucy rose from her seat and shuffled herself so she was nestled against Trev’s body. One hand ran up his leg from his knee until it was gently caressing his crotch through his jeans, while the other held his cheek as she leaned in to whisper into his ear.
Her warm breath sent an exhilarating tingle down his spine. “We have an opportunity here, Trevor. One that we shouldn’t ignore. I want to make some changes to them, baby. Nothing much, but I want to change them for you.”
Trev felt himself taking deep breaths as his heart pounded in his chest. “Wh- what changes?”
Lucy nibbled his ear, bit his neck, then stuck her tongue down his throat. He could feel himself becoming rock hard, something Lucy’s other hand also felt as she continued to massage his tightening crotch. Trev broke the kiss and looked around the empty cafe nervously before Lucy grabbed his chin and gently directed his gaze back to hers.
She batted her doll-like eyes and smiled serenely before saying with a voice full of playful promise, “I want to make them just like me.”