Tiffany’s quiet entrance to Josh’s bedroom nevertheless got the attention of everyone by the control console. Trev also looked over to see her from where he was perched next to the chair, and he abruptly jumped to his feet and stormed across to her with an anger Tiffany had never before seen in him.
“How could you let this happen, Tiff?!” Trev snapped, approaching Tiffany in such an aggressive manner that Tiffany shrank back in fright.
Suddenly Alice was between them, stretching out her hands to halt Trev’s advance. “Trev!” she snapped at him. “Cool it already!”
Trev’s demeanor changed now that Alice was blocking his way, although it took a few moments. The anger dissolved more to sorrow, and he let out a heavy sigh.
“What’s going on?” Tiffany asked anxiously, her gaze switching between Alice and Trev. Both of them were looking away, Trev breathing heavily, trying to temper his emotions while Alice looked forlorn at the ground.
Erin came over, placing a hand on Tiffany’s shoulder. “We can’t get Lucy’s memories or personality back, Tiff. Nothing we’ve tried has worked.”
As Erin’s words sank in, the world seemed to close around Tiffany, suffocating, smothering. She remembered Ross’s wording as he wiped Lucy’s mind, how he decided to irreversibly erase her. And Tiffany couldn’t stop him, she had been bound and gagged at the time, powerless against his cruelty.
Yet she couldn’t help feeling like that wasn’t good enough. Like there was more she could have done. That it was her fault.
She pushed past Alice and Trev as a hazy fog descended on her. Other people were talking, but their voices were muted and distant. The room felt uneven as she approached the chair and her hands were shaking as she knelt in front of Lucy.
Lucy was wearing the headphones, the specific frequency she needed to go deep into trance undoubtedly pulsing into her mind. The screen was similarly a swirl of mesmerizing colors that seemed to only be affecting Lucy. Her eyes were glazed over, pupils dilated wide, and a line of drool was slowly running down from the side of her agape mouth.
“Lucy,” Tiffany said in a shaky tone, despite the room spinning around her. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Lucy replied in a voice devoid of all emotion, albeit with a strange reverberating echoing quality to it that Tiffany didn’t understand.
“Good. Now, when I —“ she started to instruct, but two pairs of hands gently clutched her by either arm and lifted her away from where Lucy sat.
“Hey! Let me go. I have to help Lucy!“ Tiffany protested.
Then Erin was in her face, shaking her by the shoulders, her voice finally filtering through.
“Tiff, c’mon, snap out of it!”
The room seemed to breathe and relax. The spinning slowed, and Tiffany felt like her mind was emerging from a swamp. “Sorry, what?”
Erin frowned, concern etched across her face. “Tiff! You fucking checked out or something, it’s like you weren’t here.”
“Erin…” Alice said softly, softly prying Josh and Trev’s hands off Tiffany’s arms. “She’s exhausted, and she’s been through a lot.” She then turned to Tiffany. “Tiff, do you need to lie down?”
Tiffany felt the weight of the night’s events press upon her once more. Her body ached, her mind sluggish with fatigue, and she yearned for a warm bed to collapse onto. But she clenched her fists and willed herself to push through. She wasn’t done. People needed to be deprogrammed, Ross and Dillon had to be taken care of still, and now Lucy needed help.
She wasn’t done.
“I’ll be okay,” she said determinedly, shaking the drowsy from her head. “I want to help Lucy.”
“Okay, Tiff,” Josh spoke up from behind her, “but there’s no point in you trying all the things we’ve already tried. Let me give you a run down on what’s not worked so far…”
Josh outlined how they had approached deprogramming Lucy, focusing on reversing Ross’s control and restoring her original memories and personality. Tiffany frowned as she listened, knowing that she would have tried the exact same thing. All eyes were on either Tiffany or Lucy, a smattering of concern and distrust silently watching and judging.
The Algorithm, although running, was eerily quiet, its audio signal being routed through the headphones Lucy wore. The pulsing, changing patterns in the screen were the main source of light, Josh’s dim ceiling lights providing the rest.
“When we realized it wasn’t working, we put her in front of the Algorithm to see if the trance induced by it would be more potent to undo what Ross did.” Josh sighed. “But I’m concerned that we won’t have any luck.”
“What makes you say that?” Tiffany frowned.
“Because of how brutal Ross was when he wiped her. Shit like detailing every last thing she’d forget, telling her that her memories would be lost and scrambled, then overwritten by endless memories of her serving him… She doesn’t even remember her name. She only responds to it now because we forced the association through the Algorithm” Josh looked troubled as he continued. “I don’t think the memories she had are gone forever, but I think he made her unable to remember them, if that makes sense.”
“It does.” Tiffany nodded grimly. “But I don’t want to accept it all the same. Can we wake her up?”
“I guess,” Josh murmured. He walked over to the control console and shut down the Algorithm, the swirling lights on the screen fading to darkness.
“Lucy, wake up now,” Alice said, taking off the headphones.
Lucy blinked and looked around her, a moment of confusion that was quickly replaced by a timid nervousness.
“Before you ask, no, it didn’t work this time,” Lucy said in a tone of voice that Tiffany noticed was different than before. Gone was the slightly irritated, slightly superior tone that was so ubiquitous to Lucy’s voice. It sounded like the same pitch and register, just that tiny bit calmer and less refined. “I still don’t remember you…” Lucy looked at Alice as if she were a stranger, before turning to Josh, “or you”, to Trev, “or you.” When she turned to Tiffany, she scrutinized her. “You weren’t here a minute ago. What happened to your face?”
Tiffany unconsciously raised her hand to the scratches on her chin and felt the tenderness of her nose. Neither stung the way her shoulder did, but all of it reminded her how intense her night had been. “Ross happened,” she said bluntly. “Does that name mean anything to you?”
“Honestly,” Lucy said, scrunching up her face in concentration. “It feels a bit more familiar than any other names you’ve said. Who are you?”
“I’m Tiffany. People call me Tiff.” Then a realization struck her. “Except you. No matter what, you always called me Tiffany, just like you always called Trev Trevor.”
“I wish I could remember,” Lucy said with a resigned shrug. “I’m sorry it’s not working, Tiff.”
Tiffany stared long and hard at Lucy’s face, before burrowing her gaze into her eyes. There was no recognition in Lucy’s green eyes. No look of contempt, no gaze of scrutiny. Lucy regarded her with a nervous curiosity, her expression void of deceit, purely innocent.
It wasn’t Lucy. She was gone.
“We’re going to do everything we can to help you,” Tiffany said in a quiet voice.
“That sounds nice,” Lucy replied with a grateful smile. “Maybe we can be friends?”
Her throat dry and her head dizzy, Tiffany slowly rose back up to her full height and looked around for Josh. “Please put her back into trance.”
“Lucy, back to sleep now.”
“Oh, okay…” Lucy said sleepily as she sank back down into trance.
Tiffany continued watching her for a few minutes, then looked to Trev again, who seemed to be on the verge of tears. She then looked at Alice who was tight lipped and staring at the floor, then back to Josh.
“So what are our options?” Tiffany asked solemnly.
Josh sighed heavily and shook his head. “I don’t know. Keep trying with different wording? Try and find a more effective frequency?”
“We’re not giving up on her,” Trev said aggressively.
“Of course we’re not, babe,” Alice said softly, placing a hand on Trev’s shoulder. Trev, however, pulled away and went back to Lucy’s side.
A strained silence fell over the room. The tension between Alice and Trev was palpable, and Tiffany dared not utter anything, less she made things worse. Hannah wore a distressed expression, and Libby looked shell shocked. Erin’s jaw was tightly clenched, while Marion pinched the bridge of her nose, exhaustion evident on her face.
“Look…” said a voice that broke the silence. “Not to be a total bitch…” Everyone turned to see that it was Izzy speaking. “But… why exactly are we heartbroken that this psycho bitch has been wiped?”
“Don’t you call her that!” Trev lashed out in anger, but Josh held him back.
Izzy saw the looks she was getting from everyone else and threw her hands up in exasperation. “Have you all been fuckin’ wiped!? Do none of you remember Lucy selling us all out to those two creepy fuckers? Three for Dillon, three for Ross, and then an extra one each thrown in!” She looked around the room again, seeing if her point was being driven home. “We meant nothing to her! Less than nothing! Ross wiping her mind just seems like karmic justice to me.”
“Izzy,” Alice said bluntly. “Read the room.”
Izzy scowled angrily at Alice then once more scanned around everyone present.
“Izzy has a point, even if she could word it better.” Erin spoke up hesitantly, earning her a glare from Trev and a surprised look from Alice. Awkwardly, Erin clutched her elbow and continued. “Lucy made some horrific choices, including sending me and Tiff to jump off a bridge. And earlier, before she took control of everyone, she nearly killed Tiff by using the Algorithm to make her unable to breathe.”
“It can do that?!” Marion asked in alarm.
“Apparently.” Erin nodded with her own troubled frown. Tiffany let out a heavy sigh, the memory of her near death from asphyxiation burning brightly in her mind.
Hannah cursed loudly before turning to Tiffany. “So wait, how did you survive that, Tiff?”
“I gave Lucy what she wanted,” Erin said bitterly. “I gave up, I sat in the chair, and I let her brainwash me to save Tiff.” She looked around the room with guilty eyes. “I sold out everyone. It was me.”
“Bullshit.” Izzy scoffed. “You saved your friend- girlfriend- I don’t know what the fuck you two are, but the point is you made a tough call to protect someone. Lucy is the one who came in here and was willing to make us all fucking sex slaves for what?! For what?!”
She then turned on Trev, who was standing next to the chair, shaking his head slightly.
“For you, right?” Izzy said in an icy tone. “This was all for you, wasn’t it?”
Trev met her gaze, a complex mix of emotions playing across his face. “I didn’t make her do this. I didn’t want any of this to happen.”
“Well it did!” Izzy snapped. “Do you know what Ross did to us? Do you have any idea?!”
“Izzy…” Marion said softly. She approached the distressed girl and pulled her into a hug. “It’s okay… I promise it’s okay…” Izzy was shaking, but she let Marion hug her.
Libby was next to speak up. “Trev, Lucy cheated on you with my boyfriend. Well, ex-boyfriend. But… she cheated on you, and then you broke up with her, didn’t you?”
Trev stood in stoic silence. Alice stepped up next to him.
“He did, yes,” Alice said, her own voice wavering under the intensity of the atmosphere in Josh’s dimly lit room. “But that doesn’t mean we can just give up on her.”
“Alice…” Marion said, herself wearing a grim expression. “I know she made you a puppet for Dillon, but you don’t know what it was like being a fanatic slave to Ross… It was beyond a violation of our bodies and minds… Lucy did that to us… it’s… it’s unforgivable.”
“I don’t need anyone to forgive her…” Trev said, his eyes close to tears. “And yes, our relationship is finished, I’m certain of that. But she was my friend since we were kids. I know she lost her way, but she doesn’t deserve this.”
“There’s a difference between ‘losing your way’ and brainwashing people to be fucking sex slaves, man,” Izzy rebutted. “It was fucked up, and you know it.”
“Hold up,” Alice said, holding her hands up to both Izzy and Trev. “There’s something you should both know. Something everyone should know…”
Everyone shifted as Alice took to the middle of the room. “I was standing about here…” she said, furrowing her brow in thought. “It was around the same time Tiff arrived back, I think. I’d brought that pizza delivery girl, Emelia… I’d brought her in here and tricked her in front of the Algorithm, and I’d just programmed her to obey me and Dillon, as well as programming her to pretend to obey Lucy.” She then shook her head. “But look, the point is, Lucy came in, we bitched at each other for a few minutes, and I really laid into her about how fucked up and misguided her obsession with Trev was. When she dropped me into trance, I didn’t remember what she did at the time, but the memories are coming back now…”
Tiffany nodded in understanding. She had released all of Alice’s locked away memories when she woke her up, so now she was curious as to what this memory was.
“When in the trance, Lucy asked me if I had been telling her the truth, about saying stuff like Trev loved her more like a sister, platonically, you know? And I think knowing that I couldn’t lie while in the trance made something in her click. Like, she actually believed me, and she just… Well, she just like broke down.”
“What do you mean?” Trev asked in confusion. “Broke down?”
“Yeah,” Alice said, squinting as if to see the memory more clearly. “I was in trance so my eyes weren’t really focused, but I could make out her dropping to the floor, and I could hear her bursting into tears, muttering ‘no’ over and over, then throwing up.”
“She threw up in here?” Josh said with an incredulous tone.
“Dude.” Erin shook her head briskly.
“Sorry,” Josh said, before muttering, “Oh is that what the smell in the trash can is?”
Alice glared softly at Josh before turning back to mainly address Trev and Izzy. “But yeah, I can’t say I fully understand what was going through her head, but it was something major because of what she said to me next.”
“Which was?” Izzy asked, a skeptical frown on her face.
“To wait until Ross had been put in front of the Algorithm, then sneak Dillon’s gun away from him and give Lucy a signal.” Alice held her hands out as if she were presenting hard evidence on an invisible tray.
“That sounds like a bid for control though,” Marion said with similar scrutiny.
Alice nodded in agreement. “I would say so too, but once I was done, she told me that all my programing would be gone, that I’d be completely free willed again. That’s what stands out to me, that there was more going on.”
Another silence rippled through the room, the noise of everyone digesting this new information.
“It’s awfully convenient though, isn’t it?” Libby said, hints of apology in her tone. “I mean, the idea of just leaving Lucy like this doesn’t sit well with me, but you giving us this possible change of heart of hers to make her seem more… human, it just feels a little off.”
“Well I believe her,” Trev declared woodenly. “She made some really shitty choices, but she’s not a bad person, I swear it.”
“Honestly,” Alice said through a painful wince, “Despite what I just said, I would call Lucy a bad person.”
Trev turned in shock to Alice at this remark.
“I hated her, Trev.” Alice sighed. “I still hate her. I hate her for the way she treated you, for the contempt she held for me, and especially because she nearly killed two of my closest friends tonight and was happy to enslave the rest of us just so she could force you to be with her…”
Trev bowed his head, unable to respond.
Alice continued, more addressing everyone else in the room. “But I wanted to set the record straight. Near the end, I think Lucy understood how badly she’d messed up, and she wanted to make things right. And fuck it, if you don’t believe me, drag Emelia in here. She was staring at the Algorithm the whole time, but she would have heard… You can put her in trance here and have her confirm my story.”
“It’s okay,” Josh spoke up. “I don’t think that’s necessary, unless anyone strongly disagrees?” He waited a moment, looking pointedly at Libby and Izzy. Neither said anything. “Okay then. We’re going to keep trying to get Lucy back, and then we’ll collectively decide what to do with her. But… that will have to wait. We have other matters to take care of, like figuring out what to do with Dillon and Ross, and it’s now stupid O’clock in the morning.”
There was a murmur of agreement, some more reluctant than others.
Josh nodded then added, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to wake Lucy up right now. All her programming is gone, as well as the false memories Ross put in her. She’ll wake up with nothing, but we still have a lot to do.”
“You want to just leave her in trance for convenience?” Trev asked incredulously.
“I want her to get her mind back,” Josh stressed with a diplomatic tone. “But since we can’t manage that right now, when we do wake her up she should have your full attention to help her through the disorientation. We need to make some crucial decisions right now, and I want you here for that.”
Trev frowned, wanting to respond but not finding the words.
“We’re all tired, we’ll be as quick as we can,” Josh said earnestly. “Why don’t you lie her in my bed while we hash this out?”
Trev eventually nodded. “Okay, fine.” He gently guided Lucy out of the chair and over to Josh’s bed, tucking her under the covers and gently telling her to close her eyes as if she were simply sleeping.
While Trev was doing that, Tiffany felt like it was as good a moment as any to share her thoughts. She stepped up to where Alice was, and as she cleared her throat, she felt the sudden convergence of attention on her. It ranged from curious squints to outright hostile glares. She took a steadying breath.
“So I had planned on freeing everyone, giving you the choice of how much you would remember, and then the idea was to destroy the Algorithm for good.” She looked around at Hannah, at Marion, at Izzy, then at Lucy, letting out a tired sigh. “But it’s clear we can’t destroy the Algorithm, at least not yet. Not just because we’ll need it to bring Lucy back, but because it can be used for good, to benefit us all and others.”
Tiffany looked around her, trying to get the vibe of the room. She couldn’t read Josh, Hannah or Alice. Libby and Marion were looking at her with skeptical eyes, and Izzy was downright glaring. Erin, on the other hand, gave her an encouraging nod.
“So I guess you each can decide how involved you want to be…” Tiffany explained. “If you want, you can have the memory of everything Ross did or even the entire evening erased and go about your life like it never happened. Or…” Tiffany trailed off, distracted by Erin tugging on her sleeve excitedly. “Erin? What is it?”
Erin leaned in and whispered something in Tiffany’s ear while everyone else looked on in confusion.
“No.” Tiffany shook her head. Erin frantically whispered some more until Tiffany groaned and drew away. “No, Erin, I’m not doing a red pill blue pill matrix bit!”
“Suit yourself, spoilsport…” Erin scoffed, sticking out her tongue playfully.
“What was I saying?” Tiffany pinched the bridge of her nose.
“You were saying we could forget about tonight if we wanted,” Hannah said, “and then you were going to say what the alternative was.”
“Oh right, yeah.” Tiffany nodded gratefully. “Well the alternative is you don’t forget, or at least you don’t forget what the Algorithm is and what it does. Erase whatever memories of the night that don’t sit well with you as you please, then join us as we work out together how best to use the Algorithm going forward.”
“Tiff?” Alice asked, looking to Marion, Libby, Izzy, and Hannah. “Are you sure?”
“They’ve been through hell because of Ross,” Tiffany said earnestly. “They’ve felt what the Algorithm can do first hand. It’s only fair they have a say as well.”
“That makes sense to me.” Josh nodded before stroking his chin. “The people in this room are the ones who have been most affected. Everyone should get a say in where we go from here, and what we do with the two assholes that fucked up the evening.”
“So what are you saying, Tiff?” Hannah said with a curious expression. “You want us to get involved in, what, using the Algorithm?”
“Pretty much.” Tiffany shrugged. “We came through this together, I think we should move forward together.”
It felt like a nice moment, Tiffany watched as Hannah nodded with a slight smile, Marion looked intrigued, and Libby looked lost in an internal debate. Erin even gave Tiffany a little hopeful thumbs up.
However, an unamused scoff stole Tiffany’s attention.
“Let me get this straight…” Izzy was staring at Tiffany with thinly veiled contempt. “You’re inviting us”—she motioned to Hannah, Marion, and Libby—“to play nice with you and your clique of happy friends so we can decide who to brainwash next, as some sort of consolation prize that we didn’t end up Ross’s doting fuck puppets forever?”
“Well, yeah…” Tiffany said with an earnest smile. “I figured that—”
Izzy’s slap across Tiffany’s face was so sudden and so fast that everyone heard it more than they saw it.
“You utter BITCH!” Izzy screamed.
The next few moments were chaos. Erin lunged at Izzy, her fist colliding with Izzy’s chin. Izzy fought back. Josh and Trev had to separate the two brawling women and barely managed. Through the shouting and hurled insults, a single voice managed to overpower everyone else’s.
“Everybody shut up!” Alice’s furious voice slammed across the room.
As silence followed, Izzy and Erin were breathing heavily, each of them in an arm lock provided by Josh and Trev. Marion and Libby looked at them with bewilderment, while Hannah held Tiffany by the shoulders and guided her to sit on the edge of Josh’s bed.
“What the fuck is your problem?” Erin shrieked at Izzy, still trying to struggle free of Josh’s grip.
Izzy practically hissed in return. “This bitch has the nerve to pretend like she’s all wise and generous when she’s the one who turned me into a slave in the first place!”
All eyes darted from Izzy to Tiffany, who was gently cradling her red cheek. The stinging sensation was surprisingly persistent.
“I had no idea what I was walking into…” Izzy said, her tone incredulous and her expression outraged. “Erin had been acting weird, but I stupidly ignored it. She led us in here where this sociopath was waiting for us. Then that screen turned on and everything went so fuzzy…”
Izzy’s expression changed, as if the mere memory of being under the influence of the Algorithm was enough to take the edge out of her anger. She softly pulled at Trev’s grip, a promise in her expression that she was done fighting.
“Are you okay?” Hannah murmured to Tiffany. Tiffany however was too focused on Izzy to respond, a grim expression coming over her face. She had used the Algorithm on Izzy, it was true. She considered trying to derail Izzy’s account before she could share it, but she was tired, so very tired. And she was also guilty of the act Izzy was about to reveal. She sighed heavily as Izzy continued, resignation washing over her.
“She made Erin do it,” Izzy said, a deep hurt resounding in her voice. “Enslave me, I mean.” She met Erin’s fierce glare with a look of utter betrayal. “I trusted you…”
Erin’s anger stayed in her expression, but the guilt there was also clear for all to see. She said nothing however, and just breathed angrily through her nose while shooting Izzy daggers. Josh, however, relaxed his grip on her, but stayed somewhat between her and Izzy.
“What were the words you used, Tiff?” Izzy asked rhetorically. “‘Make her my completely devoted, obedient, loving sex slave,’ right?” Her words dripped venom. ”‘Make her drop into trance for me, do anything I command… serve and worship me.’ Your words.”
It felt to Tiffany that all eyes now bored into her. She was being judged, measured, and from the look on all the faces she could see she was being found wanting. She wanted to sink into the softness of Josh’s bed and vanish from reality.
“And then you made me turn on Erin, and obey Lucy,” Izzy said with a look of disgust. “But I could tell Lucy had no interest in me other than as a pawn for her game. You’re the one who seemed to delight in making me your slave…”
“Tiff?” Hannah said from beside her, a sadness in her tone. “Is this true?”
Tiffany said nothing. It didn’t matter the good she had done. It didn’t erase the evil. She stared at the floor as tears slowly trailed down her cheeks.
“Hannah,” Izzy said, a more measured tone now. “You’re her roommate, right? Did she brainwash you tonight or before the party?”
As everyone’s attention fell on Hannah, the redhead simply blinked as she stood and looked around her, before looking down at Tiffany, a mixed expression on her face. “Before,” she said with a soft nod. “She didn’t mean any harm, though… She wanted to help me, in her own way…” Hannah’s faltering tone betrayed that even she wasn’t convinced by her lackluster defense.
“Libby?” Izzy turned to the tall brunette.
From her perch on Josh’s dresser, Libby sighed and clutched her arms as she spoke. “It was Erin that brought me through here, after arriving to the party and speaking to Tiff. Erin said she was showing me something that would cheer me up. I remember sitting in that chair, then everything went fuzzy and suddenly I was going with her back to the lounge and everything did feel better…” There was surprise and confusion in her tone now. “It had cheered me up. I didn’t realize I’d been programmed, and I didn’t stop to think what the strange pattern was or what it did. I was letting loose and enjoying myself until Dillon and Ross came…”
“That was something Lucy had planned, by the way.” Izzy shot a sharp look at Trev. “Apparently, Tiff and you lot were using this party as some kind of guise to get Dillon and Ross here so you could use the Algorithm on them. Right?” Nobody replied, both Trev and Tiff drowning in demons of guilt and regret, while Alice and Josh stared woodenly as Libby continued.
“When they came in, Tiff said something and everyone just froze, including me.” Libby looked troubled as she recalled the memories. “I went from feeling terrified to feeling oddly calm, and despite my phone being right there in my pocket, I didn’t feel like using it. I didn’t feel like doing anything. It was so unsettling.” Libby shook her head with a frown. “It was unnatural.”
“I was in that crowd.” Marion spoke up now. “Except I’d refused your earlier offer, Tiff. I didn’t go check out the Algorithm, so I was one of the few who didn’t go all calm and still… It was like a living nightmare.” Marion now looked around as everyone listened to her. “Watching everyone just… stop like that.” She exhaled a shaky breath. “I wish I had been more brave and used my phone when no one was looking, but they had those guns… I just tried to blend in, not get caught.”
“But you did,” Izzy said, albeit apologetically now.
Marion nodded solemnly. “It was watching Tiff say those words that made Alice go into the trance, then seeing Lucy erase who she was and turn her into this puppet for Dillon…” Marion looked at Alice, who stared back in sorrow. “It was too much for me, I started to panic.”
“I remember,” Izzy said gravely. “I was a puppet as well at that point, I helped them brainwash you… I helped them brainwash everyone.” She then turned to Tiffany once more. “And I hate you for it. You did this to us. Ross may have taken over, but you delivered us to him.”
“I know.” Tiffany said in a hoarse voice. Tears trickled down her face, and it felt like razor wire was choking her, but she clenched her fists and tried not to break down. She would face this deserved wrath and accept it.
Josh exhaled a frustrated sigh. “Izzy,” he said with an authoritative tone. “I’m not arguing with you, but I think you’ve driven home your point enough.”
Izzy gave Josh a calculating look. “You strike me as a level headed person. Josh, right?”
“Right.” Josh said, meeting her stare with a stoic expression.
“It’s your apartment,” Izzy said in an almost accusing tone. “Your computer. Is it fair to say you get the final say on what happens to the Algorithm?”
“No,” Josh said firmly. He then looked at Tiffany, head still hung, before giving Izzy a cold glare. “I know you want to wail on Tiff, but she risked everything to set things right, and she’s right that we should all get a say here. Even you. Even her.” His tone left no room for discussion.
“So what, we vote?” Alice said with a concerned frown.
“There’s nine of us,” Josh said, a softer tone for Alice. “Simple majority. No abstaining.”
“Right then,” Izzy said, a fire in her eyes now. “I propose we wipe Tiff’s memory of the Algorithm and everything that happened with it, so she can never abuse us again.”
Tiffany felt her breath catch in her throat as Izzy’s words hit her. Did she really mean to-
“Izzy!” Erin snarled, poised to pounce once more but being quickly dissuaded by Josh’s imposing glare. “That’s not going to happen.”
“You too, actually,” Izzy declared loudly. “I don’t know if you’re brainwashed or if Tiff just has you wrapped around her little finger, but I won’t feel safe if either of you are allowed near that thing.” She then turned to everyone else. “And neither should any of you.”
There was a stunned silence. Tiffany looked up to see the passionate determination on Izzy’s face, and she found her chest tightening. Would they side with her? None of this was going as she had hoped it would.
Alice was the first to speak up. “You can’t just wipe their memories, Izzy.”
“Look at Lucy!” Izzy shot back heatedly. “Clearly we can. You just mean we shouldn’t…”
“Yes, I mean that,” Alice replied curtly. “It won’t fix what’s been done. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“You’re doing it to everyone else out there, so why not these two? And fuck what’s fair!” Izzy scoffed in anger. “The vote decides what’s fair. We all get a say, right?”
Josh was frowning as he looked at Erin and Tiff. He then nodded in concession as he turned to everyone else. “Yes. That’s what we agreed.” His reluctance was obvious as he sighed heavily.
“Josh, no!” Erin protested. “You know this isn’t right.”
“I’m sorry, Erin. Tiff.” Josh shook his head, then looked around the room. “All those in favor?”
Izzy’s arm raised determinedly into the air. She then looked at Marion, Libby, and Hannah, her eyes urging them to follow.
Tiffany followed Izzy’s gaze, Marion looked conflicted, but kept her hand down. Libby raised her hand, glancing down at the floor as she did so. Hannah’s hand started to raise, but partway through she seemed to change her mind, clutching it with her other hand as she lowered it again. Tiffany then looked to see Erin scowling and Alice looking sorrowful, both with their hands flat at their sides. Josh had his arms firmly crossed, but Trev stood there with his hand raised in the air.
“Trev! What the hell?” Alice looked bewildered when she saw his hand.
Trev didn’t return her gaze. Instead, he stared at Tiffany, a simmering anger evident on his expression. “How did Lucy get to you, Tiff?” He said with a tone that oozed accusation. “How did you end up under her control?”
Tiffany gulped. Looking Trev in the eye was hard enough. She simply couldn’t form the words, nor did she think they would sound good if they formed. She instead shook her head in apology, fighting back tears.
“Trev…” Alice said softly as she reached out to him. Trev jerked away, his anger bursting out.
“We deserve to know!” he snapped. “We had a plan to get Dillon, but when Lucy got to you it all fell apart!” His anger and frustration poured out of his eyes. “How did it happen, Tiff?”
Josh stood forward now. “Dude…”
“No!” Trev shouted, throwing his arms out before bringing them back in and clenching his fists. “If we can’t bring her back then she’s effectively dead, isn’t she? The person I’ve known my whole fucking life is gone!” Tears were pouring down his cheeks now. “I just want to know how it happened. What happened when you were alone with her, Tiff!?”
Tiffany felt intense nausea wash over her. Trev was right. If they couldn’t figure out a way to retrieve Lucy’s memories and personality, she was essentially dead. And Trev was blaming her.
What could she say? She let Lucy get her off and in her post orgasm stupor Lucy flipped on the Algorithm and enslaved her mind?
“Trev,” Erin said in confrontation. “Just Stop.” She stepped forward and puffed herself up. “Lucy came to the party of her own accord. She contacted Dillon in advance to warn him it was a trap. She then made a deal with him and Ross to make us all fucking sex slaves!” She then motioned to Lucy in exasperation. “She’s not the victim here, she brought this on herself!”
Trev looked at Erin like she had kicked a puppy. “I’m not saying Lucy is blameless, but I am saying none of this would have happened had Tiff not let her…” he scrunched his face up, then looked at Tiffany in disbelief. “She seduced you, Tiff, didn’t she?”
Tiffany slowly blinked, unsure if there was any color left to drain from her face. She felt a new wave of judgment sweeping towards her.
“Why does it matter!?” Erin seethed.
“It matters!” Trev almost bellows. “You don’t screw around with a friend’s ex!”
“You did say you didn’t want to ever see her again…” Alice said, her tone somewhat sour.
“That doesn’t make it okay for Tiff to kiss her or whatever the fuck they did!” Trev exclaimed. “Algorithm or not, there are some things you just don’t do!”
The tension in the room was palpable. A series of exchanged glances and nervous breaths punctuated an awkward silence that was broken by Marion who cleared her throat loudly before saying, “Look guys, you clearly have a lot of baggage to unpack here. It’s beyond shit that we got caught up in your mess, and while I get where Izzy is coming from, I’m not comfortable wiping memories or anything like that.”
Tiffany felt the tension release from her slightly. The fact that the vote had clearly fallen short was also a huge relief.
“Thanks, Mar,” Alice said, stepping towards her roommate with a grateful smile. Marion’s expression remained stern as she cut Alice off.
“But… with everything I’ve seen tonight, and after everything that’s happened to us, two things are pretty clear.” Marion looked around her, seeing that she had everyone’s full attention. “Firstly, I’m glad we’re doing this democratically, because only by deciding together how to use the Algorithm will it stop any of us from being corrupted by the power it holds.”
There were some nods and a couple of assenting murmurs. Tiffany dared to look up, feeling a slither of hope.
“Secondly, I do think Tiff needs to take a step back from it all,” Marion said firmly. “Erin too, by the sounds of things.”
Tiffany felt the faint hope snuff out within her like a doused flame.
“What?” Erin said through clenched teeth.
“Fucking right!” Izzy pumped her fist. “I’ll take it.”
“So what?” Hannah said with a curious glance. “Let them keep their memories but ban them from using the Algorithm?”
Marion nodded. “That’s what I’m proposing.”
“That’s… You can’t do that!” Erin protested bitterly.
“It’s for the vote to decide,” Libby said dryly.
Erin looked around for support. Alice nodded grimly at her and said, “Okay, let’s vote on it.”
“Okay,” Josh said in a weary voice. “All those in favor?”
Tiffany felt a lead weight in her stomach as she saw Marion, Libby, and Izzy all raise their hands instantly. She then looked at Trev, who was glancing once more at Lucy.
“Trev, don’t,” Alice said urgently. “Don’t do this!”
Trev gritted his teeth as he raised his hand, clearly biting back words that he knew he would regret saying.
Tiffany let out a shaky breath. Trev voting against her hurt deeply, but it was just four votes, right? It was gonna be-
“Motion passed,” Josh said grimly.
“Wait, what?” Tiffany gasped, frantically looking around. Josh hadn’t raised his hand, neither had Alice, and Erin would never. That left…
Tiffany turned around to see Hannah with her arm raised in the air, an inscrutable expression on her face. She met Tiffany’s gaze and shook her head softly. “I’m sorry, Tiff, it’s for the best…”
Tiffany opened her mouth to reply, but Alice’s voice cut across the room. “I can’t believe you!” she hissed at Trev.
“I can’t believe you!” Trev snapped back. “Lucy is effectively brain dead, and you’re wanting to let Tiff run amok with the Algorithm still!”
“Tiffany didn’t do that to Lucy!” Alice replied shrilly. “Ross did, and Tiffany is the one who stopped him from doing it to all of us!”
“The only reason Ross was almost able to do it to all of us is because Tiff couldn’t keep it in her fucking pants!” Trev shouted back.
“Hey!” Erin snarled. “What matters is that Tiff saved us all! So back the fuck off!”
Izzy then stepped forward. “Fuck that, Erin! You’re both back off!”
“Guys! GUYS!” Josh tried to stop the impending clash, but to no avail. Erin and Alice were loudly arguing with Trev and Izzy. Marion and Libby quickly flanked Izzy to back her up and Josh’s repeated attempts to calm everyone down just added to the din that enveloped the room.
Tiffany felt a familiar numbness wash over her. The angry voices that pierced the air around her felt muted even as they hurt her ears.
She was locked out. Exiled from the Algorithm. It felt so bizarre she wasn’t sure if she was going to laugh or cry. Neither. Both?
A fleeting thought entered her mind, a sinister voice that hissed insidiously and in spite.
She should have programmed them all to obey her while she had the chance. She could have bent them to her will as much or as little as she liked. She could have had them drop to their knees and call her their queen while finding it the most natural and sensible thing to do. She could have made them act completely normal towards each other, but every one of them deeply obedient to her. But she had set them free, and they had turned on her.
Was that poetic? Or was it just shitty? She let out a heavy, heartbroken sigh, a juxtaposition of calm misery amidst a sea of furious conflict.
There was one other who wasn’t partaking in the heated debate. Hannah stood next to Tiffany, her eyes flickering between the belligerents, a growing frustration on her face. She clenched her fists, inhaled deeply, and then shoved Josh’s gaming chair so that it toppled over with a loud clatter. “Shut up shut up SHUT UP!”
Everyone froze and looked at Hannah, shocked into silence by her outburst. The redhead, usually known for being more reserved, now fumed at everyone as she spun in place.
“You’re making me want to use the Algorithm on all of you so you’d at least be nice to each other! Can we please stop arguing!” She breathed heavily as she looked insistently into the eyes of everyone around her, a frantic energy within her that she poured into her voice. “Yes, Tiff did some bad things. Yes, Tiff did some good things. And yes, they don’t undo each other! So we made our choice, we cast our votes, now it’s time to move on. If you have a problem with it, bitch and moan in your own fucking time!”
After Hannah delivered her final line, she was left breathing heavily as everyone around her remained stunned. It was Erin who managed to break the silence.
“Yeah…” Hannah let out a deep sigh, shrinking down as if her batteries had depleted. “I know…”
“Well said, Hannah,” Josh said, albeit a hint of nerves in his tone. “We have to move on, and we probably scared the crap out of Janet just now…”
“Janet!” Erin said forcefully. “Let’s get Janet in here, she never got to vote, she can force a tie.”
“No!” Josh snapped, before noticing his own tone. He shook his head, forcing himself to calm down. “I’m sorry, Erin, I didn’t mean to shout, but you can’t bring Janet into this.”
Erin clenched her fists, furiously fighting back the tears glistening in her eyes. “Why the fuck not!?”
“Because she’s not part of what went down here. She didn’t experience what it was like to be under Ross’s thumb…” Josh said softly. “And sure, she helped….” His eyes met Tiffany’s for a brief moment. Tiffany quietly held her breath, fearing Josh revealing that Janet was currently acting on Tiffany’s orders, with only the appearance of free will. Josh’s steely gaze however turned back to Erin and everyone else. “But she’s simply not in the position we are, without our perspective her vote wouldn’t be fair.”
Erin puffed up with determination. “Josh, that’s utter Bullsh—“
Tiffany’s grip on Erin’s arm was soft yet insistent, enough to stop Erin in her tracks. “It’s okay, Erin,” she said through a dry throat. “It’s done. Leave it.”
“No, Tiff!” Erin hissed, “it’s not done, it’s not okay!”
“Erin.” Tiffany said, blinking slowly then staring into Erin’s eyes. Her tone was empty, and her eyes were full of sorry and resignation, but still with a glint of authority.
Erin clearly understood Tiffany’s desire and slumped down sullenly onto Josh’s bed, muttering obscenities under her breath.
In contrast, Tiffany sat on the bed next to her in a slow calm fashion. She reached for Erin’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Erin gripped her tightly back, halting her quiet cursing and instead letting out a frustrated sigh.
Tiffany looked around the room with sullen eyes. Marion, Hannah, and Josh all held looks of quiet discomfort, none of them meeting Tiffany’s gaze, while Libby was staring off into space, completely unreadable. Izzy hadn’t stopped staring at her the entire time, and when Tiffany returned her gaze, she was surprised to see that amidst the triumph in her eyes there was an unmistakable undercurrent of fear. When Tiffany gave Izzy the slightest nod, a silent concession of the shift of power, Izzy’s smile faltered and she subtly tensed.
Tiffany then caught Alice’s expression, one of regret and sympathy. There was also a simmering anger under Alice’s skin, but Tiffany knew that wasn’t directed at her. Trev met Tiffany’s glance with a fierce glare, his eyes conveying equal parts vindication and guilt. Tiffany pursed her lips as she met his eyes, then she looked away, back to Erin who was staring at the ceiling with a disgruntled scowl.
It was funny… Trev had defended Tiffany with such loyalty in the aftermath of the Alice incident, while Alice herself had been particularly prickly. Now here they were in complete reverse, and with a painful grievance that everyone could feel. Lucy had somehow managed to come between them more now, while utterly mindless, than she ever had done before.
“So, um,” Josh cleared his throat, trying to steer the conversation back on track. “I think the next thing is agreeing what to do with Dillon and Ross.”
“Fucking kill them,” Izzy snarled. “Use the Algo thingy to make them do it.”
“No!” Josh, Alice, and Hannah all snapped back in unison.
Izzy scowled as Josh swept his hand through the air and firmly declared, “We are not doing that, we are not sinking as low as they did. I’m not even entertaining that.”
“They’re the monsters who would do that, not us,” Alice said, somewhat more earnestly. “On top of that, it could easily draw attention to us. To the Algorithm.”
“What about making them confess to their crimes or having them do something to land them in jail?” Marion frowned. “I’m not just going to let them walk away after what they did to us.”
“We could easily program them to turn themselves in or hold up a store,” Libby added. “So long as we made sure they didn’t hurt anyone.”
“I was thinking we could make them change their ways,” Alice said, a bit uncertain now. “Make them do something good with their lives.”
Trev scoffed loudly, but when everyone turned to him he simply shook his head and muttered, “Forget it.”
Alice looked at him in silence for a few moments, a deeply hurt expression on her face. “Can I speak to you in private?”
Trev exhaled sharply. “Fine.” He barely made eye contact with her before storming out of Josh’s bedroom.
Alice followed him, her arms clutching herself tightly, pain etched across her face.
“I think we should take a break,” Marion said in way of preventing a new awkward silence from forming. “Ten minutes or whatever. I need water and something to snack on.”
“Water?” Izzy scrunched up her face. “Fuck water. I need… hm… a drink.”
“Just a drink?” Libby looked bemused.
“Yeah, I’ll be more specific later.” Izzy shrugged as she wandered towards the door, Libby and Marion in tow.
“Don’t touch the MacAllan!” Josh called after, before muttering under his breath, “What’s left of it…”
“I guess we’re taking a break then…” Erin sighed. “I guess I do need a piss.” She groaned as she picked herself off the bed, watching Libby leave. She waited a few seconds to say, “Tiff, I’m sorry those fuckers voted the way they did…”
“It’s okay,” Tiffany said feebly. She didn’t believe her own words, but she didn’t want to fall apart into a pathetic sobbing mess again. There’d be plenty of time for that later.
“Like fuck it is!” Erin snarled. “The bunch of ungrateful short sighted cu—“
Once more, Tiffany cut her off by gently grabbing her arm, although this time she motioned to behind Erin.
“Oh, Hannah!” Erin spun around as she got to her feet.
Hannah had moved up to the top of Josh’s bed, where Lucy was tucked in and looked like she was sleeping deeply. Hannah gently stroked Lucy’s hair, looking down at the mindless girl with equal parts curiosity and remorse. “It’s okay, Erin,” she said softly, not looking up or stopping her gentle touch. “If I were in your position I’d probably call me a cunt as well.”
“I wasn’t… I mean…” Erin faltered, scratching her head awkwardly.
“Don’t worry.” Hannah smiled faintly, still focusing her attention entirely on Lucy. “I’m not offended. You’re not afraid to speak your mind. I like that about you.”
Erin gave Hannah a wary look while Tiffany silently observed their interaction. “Fuck it then!” Erin shook off her earlier hesitation and unconsciously took on a more aggressive stance. “That was really shitty what you just did to Tiff!”
“And you,” Hannah said pointedly. “I did it to you, too, Erin.”
This seemed to rile Erin up even further. “Yeah! You fucking did!”
“And I don’t regret my choice,” Hannah said calmly, still staring intently at Lucy. “I think everyone is safer this way.”
“You had no right!” Erin seethed. “After everything Tiff did for you all, saving us all!”
“We can go round in circles forever on this Erin.” Hannah’s voice was soft and gentle, a fact that seemed to irk Erin even more. “But Tiffany saving everyone after endangering them in the first place doesn’t make us feel safe with her, or you.”
Hannah finally looked up, her green eyes shimmering as she gazed piercingly at Erin. “I bet if you could, you’d go back and program us to be just slightly more agreeable, to go along with any plan Tiffany suggests.”
Erin didn’t reply, but Hannah’s face showed a sad smile. “I thought so. I can’t pretend I wouldn’t do the same were I in your position. We’re just trying to protect ourselves, hold onto the free will that you gave back to us.”
Tiffany sighed, placing a hand on Erin’s shoulder while standing by her side to face the soft-spoken Redhead. “Hannah, I get it. I’m hurt and sad, sure, but I understand why you did it.”
Hannah nodded appreciatively. “I just hope we can still be friends, Tiff.”
Tiffany gave Hannah an earnest look. The sting of her betrayal hit Tiffany harder than Izzy’s earlier slap, but she trusted that Hannah meant well. “Yeah, me too,” she finally replied with a long sigh. “You coming?” She motioned to the door.
“No, I’m okay.” Hannah shook her head with a grateful smile before looking back down at Lucy. She stroked her hair again in a gentle caring fashion. “She’s been through so much. I know she won’t know I’m here, but I really don’t want to leave her alone.”
“That’s okay,” Tiffany said softly before turning to Erin. “Shall we?”
“Actually, Tiff,” Josh said from behind them. Tiffany and Erin both turned sharply, having forgotten he was there. He had been looking at the Algorithm interface but was now picking up the chair Hannah had so furiously pushed over. “I need to talk to you quickly. Erin can stay or go, I don’t mind.”
Erin let out a frustrated sigh. “No, it’s fine. I’ll go check on Alice, I’m worried about her and Trev…”
As Erin marched out, Tiffany turned back to Josh, apprehension fluttering in her stomach.
“Firstly,” Josh said in a mild tone, “I’m sorry about what just happened, I didn’t expect that vote to go that way.”
“I should have expected it,” Tiffany said with a hint of bitterness, “but thank you all the same.”
“I wanted to talk to you about Janet,” Josh said with a furrow of his brow, ushering Tiffany towards the corner of the room.
“Look, I’m going to deprogram her, I swear it.” Tiffany shifted nervously. “I just couldn’t take any chances trying to undo everything here. It was safer to leave programming in her…”
“It’s okay, Tiff, I believe you, I voted for you,” Josh reassured her. “But I want you to erase her memory of the Algorithm when you deprogram her.”
“What? Really?” Tiffany felt her chest tighten.
“Yes. Really.” Josh nodded grimly. “That’s the real reason I didn’t want her to be involved in all this decision making and Algorithm discussion.”
“But why?” Tiffany pressed. “Programming aside, she seemed to enjoy being a part of it all.”
“I know,” Josh said, reluctance evident in his tone. “But look what almost happened tonight, Tiff. It’s fair enough letting the girls who Ross screwed with get more involved, but Janet isn’t in that deep yet. I can protect her and ensure she never gets mixed up in mind control nonsense. I get to do that for her, as a friend. She’d maybe choose otherwise, but I can’t have that on my conscience.”
“Are you sure?” Tiffany scrunched up her face. “I wouldn’t mind her hanging out with us more often…”
“I’ll still invite her to things, Tiff,” Josh offered. “I just want to protect her from the Algorithm. Can you do that for her, or would you rather I be the one?”
“No, it’s okay,” Tiffany agreed reluctantly. “I’ll do it.”
“You’ll have to make sure she gives you back all the tablet parts I gave her, and make sure there’s something to fill the gaps in her memory, okay? I’m counting on you.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Tiffany nodded. “You probably want to go catch Bobby before he goes, right?”
“Nah.” Josh shook his head, apprehension shooting across his face. “I’ll… I’ll catch up with him tomorrow. Or Sunday…”
Tiffany placed a hand on Josh’s arm. “Hey, what’s wrong?” She frowned. “That look on your face, I know that look. That’s my look… You’re not breaking up with Bobby, are you?”
“Breaking up?” Josh shifted defensively. “We were never really together, Tiff…”
“Tell that to his lips around your dick!” Tiffany exclaimed. She didn’t know why the idea of Josh not getting with Bobby upset her so much, but it did.
Josh blushed “You- you interrupted us before he did that!”
“Like that makes a difference!” Tiffany retorted in aggravation. “What’s going on?!”
“Look, Tiff, forget it. It’s for me to figure out,” Josh said firmly. “You’ve got enough going on as it is.”
The message was perfectly clear. “Fine!” She practically growled. “I’ll butt out… It’s just another thing I’ve ruined I guess…”
“It’s not always about you, Tiff…” Josh said admonishingly. He then shook his head in apology. “Look, just… Go get something to eat, we need to still deal with Ross and Dillon, then come up with a plan for Lucy.”
“Urgh, fine!” Tiffany reluctantly agreed, turning to leave the bedroom with a dissatisfied mope on her face.
“Hey, Tiff?” Josh called after her, adding when she turned back, “you look good in my hoodie, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Tiffany said, allowing herself a tiny chuckle as she examined her unusual getup. She was too tired to argue anymore, even if she knew Josh was just being scared and ridiculous.
She entered the lounge area and blinked rapidly at the flurry of activity before her. The previously frozen entranced partygoers were now talking and laughing as they rapidly tidied and cleaned the mess left by the party. Only a small handful of them were still in the process of drearily putting their clothes back on as they emerged from their deep trance. Izzy, Marion, Libby and Janet were all huddled in the corner trying to stay out of everyone’s way. Tiffany herself felt nervous about entering the throng, and instead stayed by the doorway, looking around for Erin, Alice, and Trev.
She couldn’t see them anywhere, but was soon distracted by her work colleagues, Bethany and Monika. With a generous hug, they thanked her for inviting them to such a fun party.
Josh appeared at the door too and said farewell to many of his basketball team. Bobby in particular gave Josh a prolonged look which Tiffany noticed Josh deliberately didn’t return. She wanted to blurt out something on Josh’s behalf, but Bobby had already turned to catch up with Marty and Pawel.
The rest of the partygoers slowly filtered out of the apartment, mostly in groups of twos and threes. Emelia left engaged in conversation with Mike, while the last cheerleaders to leave were Cindy and Debora, giggling arm in arm. Soon after that Sydney and June left together, and the apartment was left spotless and mostly empty.
“I think that’s it,” Janet said to Tiffany as she gathered up all the discarded scripts. “I made sure nobody left with these.”
“I’m not convinced everyone left with their own clothes on,” Marion said from the sofa, “but at least everyone was wearing something…”
“Well,” Josh said. “If that’s everyone away, we should get back to it. We can talk in here now though.”
“Here is better,” Izzy remarked, holding up a large glass of an indeterminate liquid.
Josh went and got a reluctant Hannah from his bedroom, and everyone found a place to sit or perch.
“Where’s Trev?” Josh asked while pulling out his gaming chair from his bedroom. “And Alice and Erin?”
“I saw them out in the hallway,” Libby said with a troubled look on her face. “I… I er, wouldn’t disturb them if I were you.”
As if on cue, the apartment’s door opened sharply and Alice stormed through. Everyone watched as she marched into the kitchen, her eyes bloodshot and puffy. She poured herself a glass of bourbon and immediately downed it. She then noticed everybody looking at her and snapped, “What?!”
As seven pairs of eyes simultaneously averted their gaze, Alice fumed where she stood. “Let’s just get on with it already!”
A few moments later, Trev also entered the apartment, his eyes downcast and his feet practically dragging along the floor. He shuffled to the opposite side of the room where Alice had placed herself and watched everyone but her with crossed arms and a grim expression.
Tiffany felt her heart ache for Alice and Trev. Things seemed to have gone from bad to worse for them. Was it to do with Lucy? Was it Dillon? A combination of both? Something different entirely? She peered around to the apartment door and saw Erin there, beckoning her gently. Maybe she had some answers. Or maybe she just wanted a moment alone.
“You all start without me,” Tiffany said. “I need to get some air.” She then walked towards Erin while muttering under her breath, “Like you’d even let me have a fair say anyway…”
“Okay Tiff,” Josh nodded, “we’ll be here.”
As Tiffany joined Erin in the corridor outside Josh’s apartment, Erin briskly shut the door behind her. She then flipped off the closed apartment door and gritted her teeth. ”Motherfuckers!” she hissed, clearly not intending her voice to carry through the door.
“Who?” Tiffany squinted in confusion. “Alice and Trev?”
“No!” Erin replied sharply. “Well, yes actually to Trev, but all those other cunts who voted us out!”
“Oh, that?” Tiffany sighed with a half hearted chuckle. “Yeah, that really sucks.”
Erin looked part bewildered and part outraged. “It sucks?! Tiff, they stabbed you in the back! It’s a total betrayal! It sucks…” Erin repeated in disbelief.
“I did say it really sucks,” Tiffany offered helpfully.
Erin looked at her, her face askew. “You’re taking this a lot better than I am.”
Tiffany scoffed in amusement at herself. “I’m really not, Erin. I’m just too tired and numb right now to let myself feel it all. Honestly, I’m ready to fall apart.”
“Okay, okay, good,” Erin muttered, then realizing what she said blurted out, “I mean not good! I mean good that you give a fuck! Not good that it sucks!”
“Really sucks,” Tiffany corrected her, an amused smile creeping involuntarily onto her face.
Erin slapped her forehead with a groan, then did a double take at Tiffany’s smirk. “Fuck, Tiff! What’s with you?!”
“Would you feel better if I was a pathetic crying mess again?” Tiffany gave her a cool stare, then said with her lip still curled. “I thought you hated that.”
Erin looked bewildered once more. “Yes- No! I don’t know… Bah!”
Tiffany placed a hand on Erin’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Erin. It’s just the way it is.”
Erin seemed to be the one fighting back tears now. “It just isn’t right, Tiff. You set them free and invited them into the club and their very first act is to banish you!”
“They’re just scared,” Tiffany said softly. “Scared of what we did, scared of what we might do.”
“And that’s who we want in charge of the Algorithm?” Erin huffed. “Fear and confusion?”
“I wanted us all to do it together.” Tiffany shrugged. “Because I keep messing up otherwise.”
“Tiff… Mistress…” Erin clutched onto Tiffany’s hoodie in earnest. “You only messed up because other people kept getting in the way. First it was me, then Lucy, Alice, Dillon, Ross… If it was just you… just your voice… your will…”
Tiffany didn’t say anything. The thought had crossed her mind more than once when Izzy had been pushing for her memory to be wiped of everything to do with the Algorithm. It was in some way a relief that the temptation to use the Algorithm has been removed from her. She could now openly admit to herself that part of her really wanted to take control of everyone at the party, despite knowing how wrong that would be.
Erin sighed. “I guess I’m going to miss you in charge of the Algorithm. I know things got a bit hairy at times, but it was…”
“Hot?” Tiffany suggested.
“I was gonna say fun, but that too.” Erin grinned.
Tiffany felt a pang of guilt in her chest. “I don’t think I’ll be able to give you that orgy you wanted.”
“Don’t worry about it, Mistress.” Erin smirked. “I was only mostly joking about that…” She stared into Tiffany’s eyes, hesitating for a moment before saying, “Look, Tiff, I might really like it when you take total control. I might get into the idea of being one of many slaves for you, being part of a family that will always look out for me for once. Hell, I might even like it when you fuck around with your fantasies and let me have a turn of being the badass bitch in charge, but none of that truely matters, not really…” Erin’s eyes were heartfelt and her tone sincere. “I love you, not the Algorithm. Whether you have a harem of hundreds or you have no power at all, I’m game if you are. There’s a ton of kinky shit we can explore together, but…” Here Erin scrunched her face up slightly, fighting through the discomfort. “Well… you know… there’s regular couple stuff too…”
Tiffany pulled Erin into a tight hug. “I love that it’s the regular couple stuff that you’re scared of,” she said with a content sigh. “I love you, too.”
Their eyes locked once more, a mutual longing within each other’s gaze that drew them together into a deep, passionate kiss. It sent tingles down Tiffany’s spine and gave her butterflies in her stomach. Erin tucked her hands inside Tiffany’s hoodie and pulled her closer, biting Tiffany’s lip playfully. Then her hands were running under the hoodie, caressing Tiffany’s skin, grabbing her, pulling her tight.
Tiffany felt a warmth awaken in her as her hands found their way to Erin’s hair, her face, her neck. Erin gasped with pleasure as Tiffany squeezed gently, not enough to cause discomfort, just enough to send a message.
“Fuck, I want you, Tiff…” Erin rasped as Tiffany’s hands moved down her body.
“What, here in the hallway?” Tiffany smiled jokingly.
“Anywhere, anytime, Mistress.” Erin said huskily before their lips locked again.
It was a tempting prospect, though Tiffany didn’t relish the idea of the hard wall or floor for sexy times. As Erin’s tongue danced with her own though, she rapidly felt herself care less and less about locations. Both their hands were under each other’s clothing now, with Erin slipping a hand beneath the waistband of Tiffany’s borrowed jeans.
Pulses of pleasure flashed through Tiffany’s body as Erin expertly teased her soft folds. Tiffany melted under Erin’s touch, her thoughts and worries dissolving like ice in a luxurious steamy bath.
Erin playfully bit Tiffany’s lip again before breaking away in a wide grin, withdrawing her hand as well. Tiffany gave her a pleading look, and considered giving her a firmly voiced command to keep going.
“If you don’t like the hallway, how about we finish this somewhere there’s a bed I can throw you onto…” Erin teased.
Breathing heavily, Tiffany gave her a tired smile. “If you throw me on a bed, I’m falling asleep no matter how horny I am…”
“Challenge accepted,” Erin replied, before turning towards the door to Josh’s apartment. “I’m heading back in, see what stupid decisions my ex-friend Izzy and the rest of those morons are making…”
“I’ll come too.” Tiffany moved to follow Erin, but found herself blocked.
“Don’t worry about it, Tiff.” Erin shook her head briskly. “Take your time and come in when you’re ready.”
“Erin, I’m fine!” Tiffany insisted.
“I know, I know,” Erin replied. “But seriously, Tiff, you look like you could use a minute to clear your head.”
“Erin,” Tiffany said in a deadpan voice, pointing to her temple. “No amount of time is going to clear this head. It would take the Algorithm to do that.”
Erin chuckled softly then leaned in for another deep kiss. “I’ll see you soon,” she said. “Hopefully when you come back in, everyone will be a whole lot calmer and ready to listen to some reason.” And with that, she re-entered the apartment.
As Tiffany watched the door swing closed, Erin’s kiss lingered sweetly on her lips. It was funny that just over a week ago, she wouldn’t have imagined being with Erin this way in the slightest. Now, she didn’t want to be apart from her. But she couldn’t help but feel she was letting Erin down.
Without any access to the Algorithm whatsoever, the power dynamic between them was inevitably going to change. Yes, countless couples engaged in domination and submissive dynamics without using actual mind control techniques, but the truth was from the start Erin and her had gotten their kicks out of either using the Algorithm or alluding to using it. Their relationship was unique, and Tiffany couldn’t work out if it would survive now that she had been phased out.
But they had voted. Tiffany was forbidden. The majority had spoken, the victims of the Algorithm had taken control of their destiny. It was surely a good thing, but Tiffany couldn’t help but feel incredibly bitter about it. They’d all work together on bringing Lucy back, and they’d experiment together in ways to use the Algorithm to help people. After everything Tiffany had been through, to be pushed to the sidelines like this was… was… it was heartbreaking.
But probably for the best. For all her mistakes, she would surely come out of this evening a little wiser and able to take control of her own life as well. No more plotting and scheming to take control or manipulate everyone around her. It brought out a dark side in her. This was probably for the best.
It’s just… She liked her dark side. Despite the turmoil, she felt like she had lived more in the last two weeks than she had her entire life. She’d played an intense game with incredibly high stakes, nearly died, nearly been brainwashed into a mindless fuck puppet, nearly surrendered her mind and body to a psychotic asshole for a chance to retain some power.
And then there was a moment where every inhabitant of the party had been completely defenseless. It was a moment where she could have claimed them all. She could have been their Mistress, their Queen, their Goddess. Erin would have let her. Hell, Erin would have helped her.
But she’d remained steadfast, saved everyone, freed them all…
And then they pushed her aside. She couldn’t be trusted with the Algorithm. She was a monster, just like Ross.
Tiffany wanted to scream. She clenched her fists and hit her own leg as hard as she could. The injustice of it! It made her wish she’d enslaved the lot of them when she had the chance! But she made the ‘good’ choice, didn’t she? And now she could enjoy watching them all shape the future with the Algorithm that was so nearly hers.
She growled under her breath. It was probably time to go back inside and rejoin the circular argument about what to do with Ross and Dillon. She slipped her hands inside the pockets of the hoodie in a moping slouch and turned to the door, but stopped when her hand brushed something inside. She drew it out. Her phone? When did that get there?
The last time she remembered having it was when she activated the app that entranced the whole-
Tiffany feverishly unlocked her phone, and opened the app that Josh had installed for her.
There it was. The big red ‘Hit in case of Algorithm emergency’ button that would turn the inside of Josh’s apartment into a cacophony of dizzying lights and mind draining noise.
She gulped heavily, running the scenario through in her head. They’d all be in as deep a trance as they were when she activated it the first time. Tiffany herself hadn’t been able to escape it, and she had already been in a trance that was supposed to counteract the effects.
They wouldn’t have a chance. She could snare them all…
Her heart started pounding in her chest. They had sent everyone else home with no memory of the Algorithm. Everybody that knew what it was and what it did was inside that apartment.
If there was ever a time to take control and impose her will, this was it. Come tomorrow, Josh would start work to beef up security on the Algorithm, and that would surely include locking Tiff’s app from doing what she was thinking about doing. This would be her last chance to take control.
She started to question everything. All the choices that had taken her to this point, all the mistakes that she regretted. She could undo all of it.
But… Everyone had made it clear that she had made the right choice in freeing everyone. Well, Erin implied she wouldn’t have minded exerting a little control here and there, but they had mostly regarded Tiffany’s actions as the good and right thing for her to have done.
Of course, they patted her on the back moments before stabbing her there. ‘You did good, Tiff. Now fuck off, it’s our Algorithm now’ they may as well have said.
And really, she could accept that reality…
Or she could tap a button on her phone, and change everything.
She sank to the floor. If only it was as black and white as she wanted it to be. A simple choice where one was good and righteous, the other vile and evil. Both of the options her mind could come up with felt like pits in her stomach. She couldn’t use the Algorithm unwittingly on one of them without needing to do it to all of them. Sure, the vast majority of the near victims of the party were free and clear, but it was still just under a dozen people that she would place under her control if she did this. Friends and enemies alike.
Plus, the only way to safely do it was either make them unaware of it, or make them completely accepting of it. And would doing that make her any better than Ross?
She shook her head. Of course she’d be better than Ross. She would be actively ensuring that everyone she cared about came out of this horrific evening stronger and happier than before. Hannah would be empowered by her experience, not traumatized. Alice would never have substance abuse issues again, and her brand new relationship with Trev wouldn’t be rocked so hard by Lucy’s condition. Erin would still be able to find a friend in Izzy, and Josh wouldn’t get such cold feet over Bobby. She’d make sure Marion and Libby were also okay of course, even if she didn’t yet know how.
Ross and Dillion, on the other hand, wouldn’t just set themselves up for an open and shut robbery case or a murder suicide or whatever the endless arguing inside resulted in. They would be her unwitting spies and informants, her way of finding people who would genuinely benefit from the Algorithm’s power. Haunted by Alice’s experience, a passionate and caring part of Tiffany wanted to see if she could find lives that she could save. She had the power, she just needed the bravery to use it.
And she knew the power came with temptations, and she knew she would probably indulge in them. It felt inevitable, but she could control the scenarios, or program preset limits into herself. Hell, with ultimate control of the Algorithm, she could program herself to be exactly who she needed to be. She had barely scratched the surface with her experimental finger-tapping focus trigger… There was so much more she could do if she were given the chance.
No, if she seized the chance…
Exactly how sharp could she make her mind? Exactly how disciplined could she make her commitment to her goals? She was a B minus student not because that was the best she could do, but simply the best she could bother to do. She could level herself up in ways she could scarcely imagine in her current sleep deprived state. The possibilities were endless. The positive impact she could have on the world was unfathomable.
And the fun she wanted to have with Erin… The decadent fantasies of sexual exhilaration they could create together… The orgasmic cherry on top of a cake layered in goodwill and good deeds…
Surely altering some memories and breaking her word was a small price to pay for all the good she could do. Right?
She would have to condition Erin too, of course. Mainly because if she didn’t, Erin would almost certainly encourage her more further toward the dark side, and Tiffany knew she wouldn’t be able to resist. No, if she were to do this, it would need to be a full set of conditioned pawns, and nothing less.
But wasn’t that very thought a red flag in itself? Tiffany furrowed her brow, the hand holding up her phone lowering as she stared at an empty space on the wall.
She had to think this all the way through… What would she truly be taking away from her friends in not letting them walk their own paths? What if Hannah was destined to bounce back without Tiffany’s meddling? What if Alice and Trev could work through all their issues on their own, and come out stronger than Tiffany could ever manipulate them into being? What if Erin was going down a path that Izzy wasn’t meant to follow?
What future would she be denying by imposing the one she felt was better? Who the fuck was she to decide? Were these intrusive thoughts within her genuine aspirations of incredible philanthropy or drowsy delusions of grandeur? Was it even possible to be sure?
They had argued about it, voted on it, and the result was clear. They’d manage the Algorithm together, and Tiffany would be on the sidelines. Who was she to suddenly pull the rug out from everyone’s feet just because it wasn’t the fairytale ending she wished it could be? She wasn’t meant to play god. She wasn’t meant to hold so much power.
Nobody was. They planned to manage it together, checks and balances. Countering the corruption. That was good, surely.
But then she thought of kings and emperors, presidents and billionaires. They weren’t supposed to have so much power either. But they did. And they wrecked and ruined far more than Tiffany had with the Algorithm.
She let out a harrowed sigh. She could let this wild adventure come to a close right now. She could abide by the will of the group, and go on to live a normal life. But it wouldn’t be normal, not really. She’d have Erin at her side, sometimes at her feet, and sometimes holding her lead. It would be its own wild ride, and everything else would work out as it was naturally meant to.
She could do a lot worse.
She held up her phone, staring at the large red button on the app.
Or she could take control, this time for good. Not to go wild, not to lose control of herself in the process, but simply to make sure everyone was taken care of in the right way.
She felt torn in that moment, but she knew that this was a life defining choice. She wished she could sleep on it, but everyone relevant was inside Josh’s apartment right at that moment, and Josh would probably be deactivating her app as early as the morning. She’d likely never be in this position again, so she knew that the decision she made now would require her complete commitment once she had made the choice.
It was almost dizzying, trying to decide. Both paths held so many promises and perils.
She took a deep breath, her finger hovering over the button.