“Stay in this deep state of trance.”
Tiffany’s mind registered the instructions as she read it on the screen and heard it in her ears. She continued to stare into the screen as the visual and audio patterns kept her mind deeply entranced.
It repeated many times, but she didn’t count how many. She couldn’t.
“You will stay in this deep state of trance until instructed otherwise.”
Tiffany’s mind registered the instructions as she read it on the screen and heard it in her ears. Then she forgot about it, unable to linger on any particular thought.
“You will only emerge from this trance when your name is spoken three times followed by the words ‘wake up now’.”
Again, the instruction was registered and embedded in her mind. The commands repeated several times before the signal abruptly stopped. There were no longer lights or sound, but Tiffany remained deeply in trance. Unthinking. Unfeeling. It was impossible to tell how much time had passed before the next message appeared on the now blank screen.
“Tiffany and Tiffany only, all programming in your mind is now removed, and all false or hidden memories restored.”
The message repeated itself several times, each time sinking into the depths of Tiffany’s mind.
“Tiffany, Tiffany, Tiffany. Wake up now.”
Tiffany jolted back into awareness, her mind flooding with thoughts where previously there were none. Where was Ross? And Dillon? Was anyone else awake? Was Erin safe? Hannah? She had tried to leave, did anyone else try? What should she do? What should she do? What should she do?
She clutched her head and sank to the floor, whimpering softly under the burden of her thoughts. The sound had stopped, the lights were no longer pulsing from every screen. All she heard now was the occasional “Tiffany, Tiffany, Tiffany. Wake up now.” delivered in Josh’s calm voice.
Her eyes closed as she curled up into a ball on the floor. Tiffany took several deep breaths as her head pounded with pain. Her mind had been so empty, so quiet, it now felt like a cacophony of chaos from within. It felt like being plunged underwater without having time to take a deep breath first. It was like being pushed out of a dark silent room into a deafening nightclub with strobe lights and suffocating smoke. Tiffany willed her mind to silence itself. She continued to breathe as slowly as she could.
“Tiffany, Tiffany, Tiffany. Wake up now,” the recording played again.
“I’m awake…” she whispered hoarsely, still curled up on the floor. “I’m awake.”
She cast her mind back to when she discussed the emergency button App with Josh. They had both agreed that the interlacing signals had to be set to the maximum possible gain the hardware and software could handle in order to ensure it overwhelmed everyone within the boundaries of the apartment. It was intended to be a last resort, a way to stop Dillon or Ross in a worse case scenario. More than that, it was intended to stop a situation even worse than any they could have imagined. A situation much like they had found themselves in.
Tiffany slowly rose to her knees. Fixating on one train of thought was proving to be helpful. She kept running over it in her head… She and Josh had agreed on five minutes of continuous sound and video signal to ensure nobody could avoid being ensnared. Following that was to be five minutes of basic programming, the sole purpose of which was to ensure everyone stayed in trance once the signals finally ended. Then a further five minutes was assigned to deprogram Tiffany, ensuring her mind was free from outside control. Only once that was done was the signal to terminate, so in total that meant she and everyone else had been in trance for at least 15 minutes.
“Tiffany, Tiffany, Tiffany. Wake up now.” The recording played once more. It was supposed to repeat until Tiffany turned it off from the Algorithm control console. She needed to make her way there.
Tiffany opened her eyes and tentatively looked around. Sure enough, everyone else in the lounge was still deep in trance. A sea of naked butts faced her as most of the room’s occupants stood staring at the now blank main TV screen. Closer to her, she saw Janet, Izzy, and Libby all strewn on the floor together. Janet had been tackled to the floor, with Libby in the middle of wrenching the tablet from her hand.
Tiffany slowly made her way over to the three girls and relieved them of the tablet. Her hands were still bound with duct tape in front of her, making it awkward to handle the tablet, so she quickly placed it down again on the kitchen island.
When she turned back to the girls, she found it particularly unsettling that their faces were all similarly expressionless, their eyes vacant of thought and awareness. The way they had been tranced mid-scuffle… It really didn’t look like a comfortable position to be stuck in.
“Janet,” Tiffany said, her voice dry and croaky. She cleared her throat and spoke again. “Janet, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Janet murmured in reply.
“Good. Stand up,” Tiffany instructed, quickly adding, “Libby, Izzy, both of you stand up as well.”
The three girls stiffly climbed to their feet and stood at attention. Tiffany guided them over to the largest sofa and had them sit down and relax their posture. She hoped that when she woke them up, they wouldn’t have any aches or pains. But before she set about bringing them out of trance, she had more important things to do.
Her head was still pounding with pain, but it was getting better. It helped her to focus on one objective after another, as her mind recovered from the complete emptiness the powerful signal had inflicted upon her. Her memories of everything that had happened that evening were still an overwhelming discord of information and emotion, and she could feel her heart beating faster as she walked into Josh’s bedroom.
There was Trev, standing near the door, naked and staring into the large main monitor of the Algorithm. The screen was blank now, and was slightly obscured by Hannah and Emelia, who were frozen in confrontation with each other, each holding onto Josh’s baseball bat, albeit loosely now. They both had their heads turned towards the screen, and Tiffany knew they were still lost in the depths of mindless trance.
Her eyes shifted to the bed. Lying beside each other were Lucy and Alice, both staring off to a different monitor on Josh’s bedroom wall. In front of the bed was Josh and Dillion, both facing opposite screens as the Algorithm had interrupted them mid struggle. Across the room, Marion stood upright and still, having been entranced even before Tiffany had activated the app on her phone.
But Tiffany’s eyes were drawn to Ross. Upon seeing him frozen in trance, staring mindlessly at the inactive Algorithm, Tiffany felt a sudden panic sweep over her. What if his trance somehow wore off? What if he was able to resist it and return to awareness? Tiffany could have sworn she saw his fingers twitch and his head turn slightly, and it filled her with terror.
She had to do something! She had to protect everyone! If Ross suddenly woke up, none of them would be safe! Her eyes darted around the room, from Josh’s set of lifting weights, to the baseball bat in Emelia’s hands, to Ross’s gun that lay on the floor in front of him.
Feeling herself trembling in fear, Tiffany was nearly hyperventilating as she crouched down to pick up the weapon. She kept imaging Ross suddenly springing to life and brutally kicking her in the head as she reached for his gun. The entire thing might be a trap!
She grabbed it awkwardly with her shaky and bound hands and sprang back to her feet, fumbling with the heavy steel before pointing it at Ross’s chest. Tears obscured her vision, it felt like her chest was so tight she was going to collapse. She had to stop Ross… Before it was too late. If she waited too long, he could shake off the trance and hurt everybody. She had no choice, she had no-
“Tiff,” Erin’s voice was barely above a whisper. She stood frozen in the doorway, eyes fixated on the gun in Tiffany’s hands.
Tiffany turned her head to see Erin standing there, then quickly turned back to Dillon, raising the gun slightly. “You’re safe,” she said through her labored breathing, not taking her eyes off Ross.
“Yeah. I am. Thanks to you…” Erin said, nodding briskly. She took a small, cautious step towards Tiffany. “Your plan worked.”
“Stay back!” Tiffany said fearfully. “He might wake up at any moment!”
“He’s not going to, Tiff,” Erin said softly. “He’s completely tranced out.” She looked around the room. “They all are.”
“He might wake up! We can’t take any chances!”
“Tiff.” Erin strode towards her. “Mistress.” She took another step. “Please listen to me.”
Tiffany snapped her head around to Erin again. She really was here, wasn’t she? But what if it was a trick? What if this was all part of Ross’s sadistic game? What if this was her one chance to truly stop him and she blew it? Her chest was so tight, it felt like she couldn’t breathe.
“I’m sorry, Erin,” she said, still fixating on Ross, the gun shaking in her hands as her finger crept towards the trigger. “I don’t know if you’re real or not. I can’t take any chances.”
“Please wait…” Erin urged her. “You’re disorientated. You need to take a minute.”
“Why are you trying to protect him?” Tiffany replied in agitation.
“I’m not!” Erin snapped back. “I’m trying to protect you!”
“I don’t understand,” Tiffany said. “I… I need to do this… I need to…”
Erin stepped between Tiffany and Ross, herself trembling with nerves. “I can’t let you do it, Mistress. I don’t want you to feel what it’s like to take a life.”
Tiffany instinctively moved her finger away from the trigger but kept the gun pointed shakily at Erin’s chest. She felt frozen in place, too terrified to move, terrified of hurting Erin, terrified of not stopping Ross in time. She just managed to say “You… do?”
“I was fourteen,” Erin said gravely, looking into Tiffany’s eyes. “My mom had been doing so well, but she relapsed hard when my gramps passed away. He had been the only one capable of getting through to her. He had put her life back on track when it had gone off the rails. With him gone, things just…”
A tear dropped down Erin’s face, but she gritted her teeth and continued. “My dad had been out of the picture for years at this point. We didn’t know how to contact him, not that we really wanted to. But she lost her job and got in debt with this local loan shark to fuel her binge… Well, when it came time to collect, he threatened her… I was scared he was going to kill her.”
Tiffany blinked several times. She hadn’t noticed it, but her breathing had slowed. Her throat was dry, but she still managed to whisper, “What did you do?”
“I was a stupid kid,” Erin said, a bitterness underlying her voice. “I went to him late one night while my mom was off her face. I offered him my life savings, a pathetic few hundred dollars. I offered to pay him the rest with interest as soon as I could, but he told me that what I gave him barely covered the interest for that week. He invited me inside, poured me a drink, and explained to me the only way I could possibly pay him back.”
Tiffany felt an icy chill spread down her spine.
“I won’t go into details.” Erin shook her head. “I was young, I was naive as fuck…” She exhaled heavily. “The point is, once he was done with me, he told me to see myself out and come back the same time the next day. I went and cried on his sofa first. I was a mess. When I was about to leave, I realized I’d left my bra in his bedroom. I went back there to find him passed out, and I saw his gun on his dresser.”
Erin’s hands gently pried Ross’s gun out of Tiffany’s hands. “You see, I took his gun and held it to his head while he slept, like this…” Erin then pointed it at Ross’s head, hovering just a couple inches from his skull.
“And… did you?” Tiffany asked in a weak voice.
“No.” Erin sighed, lowering the gun from Ross’s head. “But I did pour vodka all over his room and drop a lit cigarette onto it.” She took out the magazine of the gun and placed both clip and pistol on a nearby shelf. She then walked up to Tiffany and wrapped her arms around her. “I never want you to feel how I felt that night.”
Tiffany melted into Erin’s embrace, and a feeling of safety overcame her. She was safe. It was over.
She promptly burst into tears.
Erin held her as Tiffany sank into her arms. “It’s okay,” she murmured. “You’re okay.”
Tiffany felt like the dam had burst, and she wailed her eyes out. It was as if the tension of the last few hours had released all at once. She felt like she might throw up she was sobbing so hard, but minute after minute in Erin’s arms and she started to feel calmer, like the storm was finally passing.
She didn’t want to move, she just wanted to exist in that moment forever. The danger had passed. Everyone was frozen in trance. Josh’s app had done its job.
She had won.
Erin let go of Tiffany to quickly rummage through Josh’s drawers, returning with a pair of scissors. Slowly and carefully she cut and peeled away the duct tape that had restrained Tiffany’s wrists before wrapping her arms around her again.
“Oh Tiff, you’re shivering!” Erin exclaimed. She hurried over to Josh’s wardrobe and pulled out some pants and a hoodie. “Here, this’ll do for now…”
Erin took the bundle of Josh’s clothes in one hand and grabbed Tiffany’s hand with her other, pulling her gently towards the bathroom.
“Here,” Erin said softly, sitting Tiffany down on the edge of the bath. “Let’s get you cleaned up. That shoulder looks like it might need stitches…”
Tiffany looked at her shoulder and was surprised to see a trail of dried blood running down her naked body. So much had been happening, and then she had been pulled into trance that she hadn’t really noticed it until then. “Oh…”
“Yeah, your roommate is fucking vicious, Tiff!” Erin remarked as she started nursing Tiffany’s skin with a warm washcloth. “I mean, Ross didn’t specifically program her to bite, did he?”
Tiffany didn’t say anything. She hated how she was now actually scared of her once sweet and bubbly roommate. She didn’t know if she could look at Hannah the same way again, even though none of it was her fault. She simply nodded as Erin kept talking, wincing from the pain of Erin wiping the scratch marks on her legs and the bite on her shoulder. Erin cleaned all the blood from her skin with care before drying her off and applying a dressing to her shoulder.
“You might need to get that seen to later, but that’ll keep it clean for now,” Erin said, before grabbing Josh’s clothes so she could help Tiffany dress.
“Thank you…” Tiffany said distantly, offering her arm up as Erin fed it through a sleeve.
“You understand, this goes against all my instincts to put clothing on you, right?” Erin joked as she guided Tiffany’s arm through the baggy hoodie sleeve.
Tiffany wasn’t ready for jokes. She didn’t feel ready to be conscious. There had been a wonderful simplicity to her tranced, mindless state. There had been no guilt there, no shame, no self loathing over letting down so many people. She longed to fall asleep again and never wake up.
But Erin kept her in the room. Tiffany looked into Erin’s eyes, seeing them full of care but also concern. Hope, but also pain.
“That story you told…” Tiffany whispered. “About your mom, the loan shark… Was that true or just something you said to stop me from shooting Ross?”
Erin chewed her lip for a moment. “It was true,” she said heavily.
“What happened next?” Tiffany asked. “Did he survive? What did your mom do?”
Erin shook her head, bitterness and sorrow playing over her face. “Okay, Tiff… I’ll tell you. After what happened here, after what you did in order to beat Ross… I don’t think I can say no to you ever again…”
“You can.” Tiffany nodded briskly. “In fact, I want you to. Don’t tell me unless you want to. That’s an order.”
“Heh.” Erin smiled to herself, before looking gratefully up at Tiffany. “That there, that’s why I want to tell you.”
As Tiffany finished putting Josh’s clothes on, she sank to the floor of the bathroom, sitting against the wall. Erin sat cross legged in front of her, taking a deep breath.
“I didn’t look back as I ran out of the burning house,” she started. “But I had grabbed a bunch of cash before I did. I ran straight home. I was actually excited as well as terrified. I woke my mom up and told her what happened. I wanted us to run away together, to have a fresh start, somewhere new, somewhere better…
Erin paused, and Tiffany saw the pain of the memory play across her face. She reached out a hand and held Erin’s, who was fighting back tears as she continued.
“My mom… She just saw the money and took it from me to go find her dealer. She was so far gone, Tiff… Further than I realized. Further than I knew what to do with.”
“I’m sorry,” Tiffany said solemnly. “You deserved better.”
“So I lost it at her,” Erin said bluntly. “I screamed and I shouted and I told her I hated her. We exchanged hateful words until she smacked me in the face. Then she left to get high, and that was that.”
Tiffany shook her head, tears running down her own face as much as they were Erin’s. She had no words that could make any of it right.
“Luckily for me, I had kept some of the money hidden from her, and she had dropped some when she hit me. There was enough there for me to survive on for a few weeks, so I packed a bag and left.” Erin stared off into the distance, before returning her daze to Tiffany. “I haven’t seen her since. That was four years ago…”
“I don’t know what to say…” Tiffany shook her head slowly. She struggled to imagine what that must have been like. Certain things she knew about Erin made more sense within this new context, but ultimately, she was still Erin.
“There’s nothing to say, Tiff.” Erin shrugged. “It is what it is…”
“Where did you go? Did you come right here?”
“It was a couple of years before I made it here.” Erin bowed her head. “For those first few weeks and months, it didn’t feel real. I cut and dyed my hair right away, in case anyone was looking for me. I used to have such long girly hair, you’d laugh if I had any photos of me back then…”
“I wouldn’t,” Tiffany promised, giving Erin an earnest look. “Besides…” She chuckled sardonically. “Your hair is longer than my hair now…”
Erin glanced at Tiffany’s crude close cut and sighed heavily. “Tiff I’m so—“
“Don’t you dare apologize!” Tiffany interrupted sharply. “With everything that I nearly inflicted on everyone tonight, a haircut, some scratches, and a bite mark feels like a remarkably small price to pay.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Tiff,” Erin said solemnly. “Not this time.”
“Like hell it wasn’t!” Tiffany scoffed. “Lucy came to me practically begging me to trance her, and yet I basically drooled over her and let her sucker me in front of the Algorithm!”
“Wasn’t your fault,” Erin said bluntly,
“No, Tiff, we’ve already been through this!” Erin pleaded, jumping to her feet and pacing around the room. “I got careless! I didn’t clear out my suggestions from the other night, I had you programmed to think everything I said was a great idea, regardless of how stupid it was or if I was joking or not.”
Tiffany sighed. “I get that Erin, but that doesn’t relate to what happened between me and Lucy…”
“But it does!” Erin insisted. “We don’t know how many of your thoughts I influenced over time. If I had been more careful you might have done things differently!”
“It’s all ‘if’s and ‘might’s, Erin.” Tiffany shook her head. “I appreciate you trying to absolve me of blame, but—“
“The orgy!” Erin interrupted, smacking her hands together excitedly. “What did you think when I joked about everyone having a massive orgy?”
“I thought it was a great idea…” Tiffany admitted glumly. “But that doesn’t pro—“
“Do you really think you would normally have thought that it would’ve been a great idea?!” Erin said with passionate scrutiny. “A bunch of brainwashed folks just going at it with wild abandon… Really?”
Tiffany took the time to properly think about this. It didn’t seem like a particularly well thought out idea to her right now, but at the time of the party being in full swing before Dillon and Ross showed up, Tiffany was drunk with the power she was welding over almost everyone at the party. “I don’t know,” she finally admitted.
“I’ll take it.” Erin smiled faintly. “Seriously, Tiff, I know you want to blame yourself for what happened here, but I won’t let you take all of that responsibility for yourself. I played a part in it too… As the only person not under any programming yet with full knowledge of the Algorithm, you could argue that I’m even more responsible for the shit that went down… I had accidentally compromised you. I don’t have the same excuse for myself.”
“Erin…” Tiffany said. “You let Lucy trance you to save my life… I couldn’t breathe, I literally thought I was going to die.”
“Yeah, well… I couldn’t let that happen.” Erin looked away. “But if I had, Tiff… If I had let you… let you die and focused on stopping Lucy, then everything with Dillon and Ross wouldn’t have happened. So can you at least concede that I have to take some fucking responsibility for that?”
Tiffany bowed her head. It really had all gone so very wrong. “Honestly, Erin, we can go further back than that moment. I was the one that decided we’d host the party to try and trap Dillon. I knew at the time there were other ways to go after him, but it felt the most direct, and it had the added benefit of letting me brainwash so many people.”
“Dillon knew about the Algorithm, Tiff. He knew what it could do, and he very nearly brainwashed us all with that voicemail in Alice’s apartment…” Erin dropped to her knees before Tiffany and tenderly put her hand on her cheek, encouraging her to lift her gaze. “I would have wanted to take care of him at the earliest possible opportunity as well.”
Their eyes met, Tiffany looking so full of sorrow and doubt. “Even though if I had waited just a few days longer, Janet would have had a working tablet that we could have used?”
“Yes,” Erin urged firmly. “Tiff… Your plan was solid. I messed up the execution of it, along with Lucy I guess, and we very nearly lost, but do you know fucking what?”
Tiffany shook her head in apathy. “What?”
“We brought it back. We had enough backup plans that we’ve done what we’ve set out to do! Dillon and Ross are both in trance as we speak. They’re harmless now, and we can program them however they want. You did it, Tiff, you won.”
Tiffany scoffed derisively. “By sheer luck, really.”
Erin scoffed in reply, albeit in a more lighthearted way. “A bit of luck, sure.”
“And I only managed it because of your help and Josh’s app,” Tiffany said, still downcast.
“My help executing your plan,” Erin stressed. “And Josh’s app, that was your idea…” She stood up and flourished her arms. “Face it, Tiff, it wasn’t some dramatic moment where you overcame the Algorithm through sheer will or some bullshit like that, but you still did this! You still kicked ass.”
Tiffany desperately wanted to be more like Erin in that moment. More positive, more upbeat over the situation. But she simply felt shame and self loathing on a level she had never experienced before. It felt like she had pulled someone from a burning building after setting the fire herself. It felt like she had delivered the antidote after administering the poison. She wasn’t exactly going to pat herself on the back for fixing a mess she made and leaving a trail of trauma in her wake. She slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Erin… I just… can’t…”
Erin nodded grimly. “I get it… I really do.” She sank down next to Tiffany as she quietly sobbed. Erin waited for a while before adding, “Take it from somebody who knows… There’s a big difference between almost doing a terrible thing and actually doing the terrible thing. In your case, you avoided the terrible thing, Tiff. It may not feel like it now, but that matters a fuckton.
“I know it should make me feel better, Erin, and maybe I will feel better with time, but right now… Right now I don’t think I have the will to stand up, let alone twist all my shitty decisions into a positive light.”
Erin breathed out heavily. “Well, in that case, I’m sorry to have to do this to you…”
Tiffany’s heart skipped a beat. What was she talking about? Do what exactly?
Erin grabbed both of her hands, pulling her instantly to her feet.
“I’m sorry,” Erin repeated herself, “But I completely fucking refuse to let you mope around like you’re some kind of monster after everything you’ve done.”
“Erin…” Tiff said wearily as Erin dragged her through to the lounge. She offered token resistance. “Look… putting me in front of the Algorithm is just recycling my old mistakes…”
“Who said anything about the fucking Algorithm, Tiff?” Erin looked at her, mixing incredulous with amused. “No, your condition requires something much more powerful…”
She dragged Tiffany to the center of the lounge and motioned for her to stay. She then weaved her way through a throng of entranced naked individuals all staring at the now blank tv screen before arriving at the mixing deck. “Alright! What do we have here…”
Tiffany blinked a few times and then looked around the room. Everyone was stuck in trance, sure, but at least they weren’t under Ross’s direct control anymore.
That, she had to admit, was something…
Music started playing, a slow mixture of finger snaps, deep bass hits, and subtle, rhythmic hi-hats. Erin glided over to Tiffany, taking both her hands and encouraging her to move as she started singing along.
“I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh…”
Tiffany smiled despite herself, rolling her eyes at Erin as she nevertheless let herself be led in a slow sway.
Erin’s fingers interlocked with hers, her eyes biting into Tiffany. Tiffany felt so much adoration coming from Erin that it made her dizzy. A little over a week ago they were at each other’s throats, and now she couldn’t imagine a day without her. Erin’s hands slid up Tiffany’s arms and then down to her waist, pulling herself closer so her lips brushed her beck. Tiffany’s hands ran into Erin’s hair, and she felt her heart beating faster in her chest.
The world seemed to fade away as Tiffany slowly danced in Erin’s arms. She felt every stroke of Erin’s fingers on her skin, every breath on her neck. As the song continued to play, it felt like she was coming home after being caught in a storm.
Erin sang softly into Tiffany’s ear. “We’re bigger than we ever dreamed.” She then drew back, staring at Tiffany with a beaming smile on her face.
“And I’m in love with being queen,” Tiffany continued, looking at Erin’s dazzling smile as she did so. It was more than just singing along. It was a confession.
Tiffany and Erin locked eyes and spun slowly, singing together, smiling like there wasn’t a care in the world.
Towards the end, Erin let Tiffany sing by herself. “Let me be your ruler… you can call me queen bee… And baby I’ll rule…” But they both finished with, “Let me live that fantasy.”
Tiffany laughed and fell into Erin’s arms, feeling the tension ebb away from her body. Sure, she could wrestle with her guilt and her shame until doomsday, but it would be okay to cut herself some slack as well.
She still felt an indomitable weight upon her, but at least for now her head was above the treacherous waves that had nearly drowned her.
A new song started playing, and Tiffany felt her head clear enough to address the fact that there were about a couple dozen naked young men and women standing and staring at a blank screen.
“I guess we need to do something about everyone.” Tiffany nodded her head slowly as she appraised the situation.
Erin also surveyed the scene, a grin spreading across her face. “You mean like giant orgy time?”
“Oh dear god no!” Tiffany replied with wide eyes. “I think there’s been quite enough excitement for one night, don’t you?”
Erin made a play of pouting, giving Tiffany puppy dog eyes.
Tiffany rolled her own eyes and wrapped her arms around Erin’s neck, gazing seductively at her. “Erin, after everything you’ve done for me, I promise I’ll give you an orgy experience you’ll never forget.”
Erin grinned. “Thank you, Mistress.”
“But…” Tiffany gave Erin a coy look, “It’s on the condition that you come home with me for thanksgiving this year.”
Erin blinked in surprise. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m really not.” Tiffany pulled Erin in close. “You think you can bullshit your way through life without a family, but life doesn’t work like that. Josh, Trev, Alice… We’re all your family now… And that, my dear, comes with certain obligations…”
Even as she rolled her eyes, Erin couldn’t hide her smile. “You’re not getting soppy on me again, are you, Tiff?”
“Far from it!” Tiffany smiled devilishly. “You now get to weigh in when my mother asks me if I’m still in my, and I quote: ‘cute confused bisexual phase.’”
Erin gave Tiffany a wide eyed stare.
“I know!” Tiffany nodded enthusiastically. “What really helps is that I can use this haircut of mine to pretend I’m making a statement, committing to lesbianism as a fashion choice as well as a general way my brain is wired…”
“I dunno, Tiff…” Erin said in a mock voice of warning. “Your cute confused bisexual phase may be on its last legs…”
“What doesn’t help…” Tiffany continued in an accusatory tone, “is that I’m bringing home a girl who likes to dress like a guy most of the time and has really short hair…”
“Not as short as yours!” Erin burst into laughter as Tiffany tried to attack her. She jumped onto the sofa, avoiding Tiffany’s playful wrath with glee. “Face it, Tiff! I’m the girly girl now, you’re the butch lezbo with the muscles and the tats! Ha!”
Tiffany chewed her lip as she watched Erin taunt her. “Y’know, a tattoo doesn’t sound so bad…”
“Ohmygod!” Erin nearly squealed in excitement. “Let’s get you a tattoo! Right now!”
This time Tiffany blinked in surprise, looking at Erin with scrutiny.
“Or after we reprogram the room full of naked people.” Erin shrugged, looking around them. “That works too, whatever…”
“Yeah,” Tiffany said, her momentary joy dissolving away as the reality of their situation hit them. “We ought to get on that… We have a lot of work to do…”
Erin continued looking around at the naked statues, frozen in thought. She let out a long whistle before shrugging. “So, what, tell them to ignore Ross’s programming and obey you instead?”
Tiffany let out a heavy exhale, staring at Erin with genuine disbelief. Anger flared in her eyes.
“Tiff? What?” Erin shook her head in confusion. “What is it?”
Tiffany’s voice shook as she spoke. “Obey me instead?” She shook her head violently. “Erin, do you want me to break down into a guilty mess all over again?!”
“N- no,” Erin replied.
“Erin…” Tiffany said with a grave intensity. “We are freeing these people of all their programming and then erasing their knowledge of the fact that they were brainwashed against their will. We’ll program them to remember a wild fun party and that’s it, okay? You and I, we can explore any kind of relationship we want together, but it’ll be between us, and it’ll be based on mutual trust and consent. Anything else involving the manipulation or brainwashing of anyone else is completely out of the question.” She took a determined step towards Erin, barely containing the torrent of emotions within her. “And once we’ve made everyone else forget, we’re wiping our own memories of the Algorithm and destroying it.”
Erin’s jaw was heavily clenched as she listened to Tiffany’s words. It was clear she didn’t like or even remotely agree with what she was hearing. Tiffany saw her visibly tense when she said the word ‘destroy.’
“Erin…” Tiffany said insistently. “We- we have to destroy it. How could we not?”
Erin shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Tiff… I think… I think you want to do the right thing, but please hear me when I say destroying the Algorithm isn’t the right thing. They’d be better off with you in control of it, in control of them.”
“These are people!” Tiffany said heatedly. “Not some prizes to be won!” Tiffany wished she believed her words as much as she was trying to convince Erin she did. She was reminded of her confrontation with Ross, the way he coaxed her into calling all of them tools, to be used and discarded as needed. Prizes, tools, slaves, toys… They would all be whatever Tiffany wanted them to be, or whatever she needed them to be. It would be so easy to make them all hers.
“You’d take good care of them!” Erin insisted. “You’d only do what you want to do…”
“Erin…” Tiffany said wearily. She needed to remove the temptation and fast, as Erin’s words were a sweet nectar that a part of her wanted to get drunk on.
“No, Tiff,” Erin argued defiantly. “You think you’d be helping by just wiping everyone’s memory of it all, but you’d be wrong.”
“You weren’t here,” Tiffany snapped back. The pace at which the mood had changed was dizzying for her, but in truth, everything that had happened was still raw, the possible outcomes narrowly avoided hanging heavy on her mind. And she needed that. Without it, she could easily convince herself that it would be perfectly fine to use the Algorithm for all her desires. “Erin, I was about to become an unresponsive paralytic. He was going to lock me like a prisoner inside my own body.” She shuddered at the thought of it. She shuddered at the thought of being able to do that to someone. She shuddered at the thought of using it as discipline to properly motivate a slave to bend to her every whim.
“I know, Tiff. I could hear most of what was going on from where I sat,” Erin said solemnly. “I’m glad your plan worked. I’m glad I could stop him before he did that to you.”
“But nobody should be able to wield that kind of power.” Tiffany shook her head hopelessly. “It’s… it’s unnatural.” And seductive, she omitted.
“No, Tiff…” Erin grimaced. “Life is full of power imbalances. The Algorithm, like anything, is just a tool. It’s the person using it that matters. It’s your choices that matter.
“Right!” Tiffany nodded curtly. “And I choose to destroy it!” That or be destroyed herself… She was sure of it.
“Tiff, please…” Erin whispered over the deafening silence. “Don’t.”
“I’ve made up my mind, Erin. Now, I can do this next part by myself, or I can do it with you. I know what I’d prefer. Are you with me?”
Erin slowly walked up to Tiffany, still shaking her head. “I cannot stress enough how much I disagree with your conclusion, Tiff… But you kneed Ross in the balls like an absolute fucking boss, so fuck it, I’m with you to the end. If… If this is what you choose, I’ll help.”
Tiffany felt tears in her eyes forming as she pulled Erin into a hug. “Thank you. I… Erin… I…”
“I love you, Tiff.” Erin sighed, holding her tight. “Algorithm or not, I love you.”
“I love you.” Tiffany felt a wave of relief wash over her. It felt that more than ever, things were going to be okay. She had gone to the edge of the abyss and stopped herself from being swallowed by it, and that was good enough for now.
“So what’s your plan?” Erin asked after they embraced each other for a long moment.
“We do this slowly and carefully,” Tiffany said with a solemn nod. “And we start with the people Ross didn’t get his hooks into. Janet, Alice, and Dillon. Maybe Emelia…”
“Dillon?!” Erin gave a look of utter disgust.
“Yeah…” Tiffany agreed. “Let’s maybe leave him til last…”
“Well, Janet is right there.” Erin motioned to the sofa that Tiffany had made her sit on. “And Tiff, I know you don’t want to hear this, but while we’re trying to sort out this mess—”
“Keep everyone under some conditioning to keep them calm and focused?” Tiffany finished for her. “I’m okay with that, so long as the end goal is free minds and happy memories.”
“Shiny happy people…” Erin muttered, walking over to Janet. “So, umm, do you want to do the honors?”
“It’s best I do…” Tiffany murmured. “Coming out of that last trance so suddenly was super disorientating. I’m going to try and make this a bit smoother for her.”
“She’s cute, too.” Erin mused. “Would hate to see her suffer I guess.”
Tiffany tried to ignore how much she agreed with Erin’s assessment of Janet, coupled with how naked Janet just happened to be at that moment. Truthfully, the shooting pain in her shoulder, coupled with all of her other cuts, bruises, and complete exhaustion kept Tiffany’s mind mostly out of the gutter. Her body craved rest and reprieve more than anything just then, but she was determined to fix everything that she had broken. She had to.
“Janet… In a moment, when I say your name three times and tell you to wake up, you will do so in a very gradual manner, as if your thoughts and awareness are slowly sifting back into your mind like sand through a hourglass, taking several minutes to complete.” Tiffany paused, looking to Erin for reassurance. Erin gave her a supportive nod, placing a hand on her shoulder, spurring Tiffany to continue. “The process will be very calming and centering, and you will find that as you are able to slowly think and act more, you will gradually and carefully find your clothes and dress yourself as you were dressed before you stripped. You will find your phone and then find a comfortable position to sit or stand while you completely return to awareness and alertness. Do you understand all of that?”
“Yes,” Janet replied, her voice flat and eerily void of all emotion.
“You don’t need to add any programming to her?” Erin asked?
“No.” Tiffany shook her head. “Nothing I need to remove right now either. Can’t say the same about everyone else…” She sighed deeply, before facing Janet once more.
“Janet Janet Janet. Wake up.”
Tiffany and Erin both watched with curiosity as awareness trickled slowly back into Janet, bit by bit, thought by thought. Her fingers started to flex, then her eyes began to blink more and regain focus. Soon, she was searching around the room for her clothes like a zombie shambling about looking for fresh brain.
“It’ll be a couple more minutes.” Tiffany remarked. “Let’s go and see about starting the process with Alice, then we’ll see how easy it is to remove Ross’s control from the rest.”
Erin nodded, following behind. “One down…” She sighed. “Three dozen to go…”