Words. Sounds. Images. Words. Sounds. Images. The loop thundered on as Maiken floundered, tumbling through waves of what was and what might have been. She was lost in a fever of memories and her hands clawed at facts or faces, trying to slow down the barrage of recall. Hotel rooms, stakeouts, data runs, sex, friends, food, children.
In the memory dream, she opened her eyes to find herself strapped in a hard plastic chair. The room was slightly too cool and smelt of antiseptic. Grey tiles lined the walls and the floor was a blur of blended plastic. By the door, there was a drain set in the flooring: a chrome mouth greedy for fluids. Thick binds held her arms, hands bent palm up and open. There was something around her knee, but she could not move her head. A firm collar held her neck in position. Behind her, there was a buzzing noise. Her eyes flicked around, trying to pin point the sound, but she could not. Someone placed a cool gloved hand against her neck and then the buzzing increased. Maiken saw clumps of her hair fall to the floor. The hand continued to push her around and the trimmer did its work.
The technician clicked off the trimmer and for a moment the room was silent. Another man moved from behind her and removed a gown from her by pulling the hem hard with his hand. He tipped her locks to the once clean floor and Maiken realised she was naked. She wanted to cover herself, but the binds would not move. With her head locked into a new position, Maiken made out the shape on her leg. It was a speed-cast, a fat bandage of medichines and healing drugs. They had repaired her, at least, in a basic way. A gasp escaped her lips: one foot was wrong. The skin was pink and chubby like that of a new born. Her eyes tracked up the shin, to the knee and to where the bandage was. Further up the skin had cured along its length. Corpse white, a half leg pulled from the vat. But it was distended and... just wrong. It was not hers! It seemed alien, a freakish thing that was both right and horribly wrong at the same time.
The view was pulled from her as the masked technicians turned her head to the ceiling. One of them pressed a cold object against her scalp, Maiken felt the pass of air as he swept his sleeve over her head. There was a high pitched whine and then the world seemed dimmer, quieter too. Her implants, the ones said to be EMP resistant, went off-line. "No," she whispered. She had not meant to talk, but the protest had slipped out. She had hoped to take this punishment and ride it out. There had been worse violence, but the threat of banishment. That was proving to be too much. She bit her lip and tried to focus on the simple nature of the pain.
To her side, the man put something down on the metal tray. It clinked against other objects and then he fixed something to her bald head. Maiken pushed against the collar, but it would not move. "Not long now," the man said. His tone was like that of a doctor soothing a child. In front, the second technician wheeled a long mirror in front. His green scrubs swept back like a curtain, revealing a women with blackened eyes and many bruises. Small tufts of dark hair stuck to the frightened woman's head. No, there was something else. A fine crown of black metal. A tear threatening to leak out of one eye and as it hit her leg, Maiken realised the reflection was her. "You may experience a short loss of consciousness," one of the men said to her.
Maiken could not speak. Something had frozen her face. Only her eyes where her own. The man look something from the tray and fixed it at certain points to the crown. There was a flash of laser and the stench of burnt pork. The dark shape at the front of the crown stared to empty. Something pushed at her scalp like a thousand mad ants. The technology crept and burrowed into her.
The mirror was gone and one of the technicians had left too. Now, two men in black Security armour stood against the chipped grey tiles. They held carbines that absorbed the light. Neither of them looked at her. "You are free to go," the senior technician said. Maiken felt her neck and realised the collar and the hand bindings had gone. There were no bumps or scars on her head. Just the odd tuft of hair or smooth patch of skin. She had read about the process, in a published diary of a New York dissident. His unit had been fitted through his hair. Apparently the process had been amended to upgrade the degradation. Maiken turned one hand over. There were specks of blood against her wrist and pale globs of skin-putty where her data plugs had been. She was disconnected. There was nothing in her. No systems answered to her commands. Parts of her were dead. "The officers will escort you outside of the building," the man added. "You may collect a new set of clothes from the office and a ticket to the border of the city. In three hours, you exclusion unit will activate. If you are not outside of the communications network by that time, it will begin to stimulate your pain centres. Gradually at first, but each sensation will increase. We will give you time to get out of the city. We are not monsters." Maiken stood on her bad leg and walked over to the UN guards.
Hours and streets passed by as she made her way out of the city. The terminus of the final robo-transport dropped her in a dead industrial park outside the Safe Zone. Rusted machinery and broken buildings had fought against the burning desert sands and had lost. Maiken checked her watch. A cheap plastic thing from a road-side vendor. The face showed north, but it also showed the final bar of the Network. A mile or so and she would be out of the city and her exile would begin. Shouldering her bag, she set off west towards the mountains. The walk would be harder, but on the other side, they'd shelter her from any signal backwash. She was on the cusp of what felt like a migraine, but if that was the brain-crab or the stress, she couldn't say. Foot followed foot as she walked down broken roads and as the land rose, along thin tracks in the hard pan. Her new leg was sore and she was spent. Pausing to take a drink of water, she checked the watch. Still one bar of signal. Maiken cursed and the watch peeped. No, it wasn't the watch. The beep sounded in her ear and then the exclusion unit made itself known to her. A spike of pain arced her back and she almost dropped the water. Gathering her things, she tried to pick up the pace towards the ridge up ahead. She cleared more ground and then it hit her again. It was like a metronome of punishment, stabbing her ever onwards.
Eventually she made it over the ridge and she tumbled over the lip to land in gritty sand and small rocks. Panting, but still alive, Maiken checked the watch one more time. No bars. In front of her, empty desert stretched away from her. The mountains ran north and south. Far in the distance, she could make out a small township. Really, not much more than a couple of buildings that clung to the black road that circled through the seared valley. Walking carefully through the steep drops, Maiken made her way towards it. She hoped the hamlet would be free from the communications. The irony wasn't wasted on her, all of her life had revolved around being on-line and now? Now she craved digital solitude, less the claws of the brain-crab would tighten their grip. Somehow she would beat this. There must be a way, she thought. All systems can be broken. Water, her throat, begged. Sleep next, her body added.
The memory ended and darkness took her away again. She lay, her bad leg twisted under her in the red sand, her body shaded by a large sandstone boulder. A way away, the wrecked lift-craft burned hot and a drone circled on the thermals. Maiken did not stir, not even when footsteps crunched or whispered in the sand.