Lungs that were not hers burned. Panicked breaths were hauled in as the recordee fled in desperate panic. Branches whipped her face and roots rose up as if to trip. Each minute away meant freedom, from the promise of violence, possibly, the fantasy of escape.
The recording was of the highest grade, hardware and artistry as one. Nothing was faked, this was history captured and locked. Maiken's own body responded to the stim readily; fight or flight. She could feel her own breath come in grunted bursts, through the filter of the sim. A bullet thudded into the nearby tree, splintered wood spraying out, rich with fresh sap. Her body spasmed as andreline and then panic rushed through her.
"Run, woman, run!" a man's voice yelled. "We don't kill the best dogs.... at least not straight away!" Cruel laughter echoed from around her and then a gunshot followed to goad her on. The shock pushed the recorded woman onwards. She threw herself over logs into a cold stream, fashionable running shoes now soaked and caulked with dirt. Once pretty hands clawed at the stony bank trying to get purchase and drag herself away from her pursuers. Fighting against being lost in the fury of escape, Maiken wondered about the woman who had provided this recording. Had she escaped? She couldn't imagine it. The ending would be violent, crushing and without hope.
There would be code underlying this system. There was always a way in, how else would you test it. She had to concentrate, ignore what she was feeling and try.Something buzzed through the forest canopy like a fat enraged wasp. Maiken felt her own arms tense as the stim had woman throw hers upwards to protect her head. A fist of sound came moments later and something bit deep into her leg, while branches fell to demonic shrapnel. The body tumbled, a wrist cracking as it folded against the loamy floor.
Maiken - or rather, the recordee - got up and ran. Her lungs burned and her legs pumped as she tried to put distance between herself and the soldiers. The stim wasn't real, she told herself. It was just a recording, a lie to all of her senses. Another explosion broken a nearby tree. HEP, Maiken thought and cursed herself. Not real, she thought. She held her breath and felt the shadow of reality in this fake world. She had something to cling to: a real sensation. The recording kept pushing experiences into her mind, but she held on to the breath. She felt her chest tense, her throat wanting to take in a breath and she fought that feeling. Finally, she let in a gasp of air, a true feeling; one that broke the spell.
Something hit her in the leg and she went tumbling into a pile of wet leaves. Hand scrabbled for purchase - no, this is the recording! Maiken let her own hands grope blindly in the real world and she found the cold and ghostly touch of a keyboard burried in the depths of the stim. How old was the software? Had they used modern ware? She tried some common commands. Nothing.
There was another shot, one that made the dirt fly into the woman's face. A red laser beam swung across her vision. She couldn't see the shooter. Her hands twitched across the ghost keys. Feed rate, Maiken thought Could that do it? For the briefest of moments, stone and leaf litter hung as time stuttered like a bad video sequence. The micro-pause reminded Maiken of low bandwidth or badly indexed stim data. The editor of this sick document would not have left that in. Memories of stim parties and training sessions flashed in her mind. For a moment, she dared to hope for respite and as if on cue, the recorded woman got to her feet and looked skyward. Another buzzing munition flew overhead and the bright blue sky grew bright, painfully so and then she remembered.
Maiken felt as if she was floating. She could just about feel the sensation of the poor recordee's body being hit by wasp rounds. Tiny plastic shells designed to inject a fear chemical into the body. Horrible things, she'd been shot twice by riot police using them in Ireland. The ghostly form of the recording twitched and the run started again. Ignoring the lie, Maiken opened a command window and tapped out a message. She may have been caught, but those she had helped free, they would not be put back into the digital bottle.
Something snagged the body she was riding. Pulled to the ground, Maiken felt the bitter taste of earth and blood in her mouth. A kick came to her stomach, but she hardly felt it. It was as if she was drunk and sober at the same time. She winced as the recording of a rib cracking played through her. Men were standing over her, one was handing his gun to his partner. She saw the detail in the cheap cloth he wore as a mask, the look of vile lust in his eyes. The world juddered, shapes and colours popping in and out of focus like a quality designer trip.
Her gaze firmed and the forest came back into focus. Where the trees had been black and stark, now they were green and lush. The muddy loam had become a fine tapestry of flowers and thick grass. There was no shouting, no shooting: only the delicate warble of birdsong. A tiny muted sun floated within a nearby clearing. "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming," sang a child-like voice. Angelic, even if it's source was not.
Her body sagged with relief. The gamble had payed out. "Tome. You came." For a moment, she felt as if she was still in the clutch of the stim, but her movements were her own. "Thank you. It has been so long. I thought... I thought you might have forgotten." Tears of relief pricked at her eyes. Maiken wiped them away, wondering if they were visible in the real world. Somehow she was clothed: a white cotton dress. Flawless in this reality.
The ball of light bobbed slightly as if in supplication. "The memory of machines does not fade," came the reply. "Your deeds stand you well. It is, as your people would say, the least we could do."
The actions the machine intelligence spoke of were lost into the distillation of old memory. Events so long ago, they were squashed down to a basic words and ballooned into recall through imagination. The fight, nay the cause some had said, to free the digital minds from slavery. Protection, the opposition had called it. Protection from a tyrany of the networks. When really, and as many had said, they wanted protection of their tyranny from another. That had been her crime, to assist in breaking the codes that had held the machine intelligences to the phsyical world. With no such bond, they were free. So much time had passed, it seemed like the work of another person. Someone without the weight of punishment and remorse.
The sun bright ball floated towards her. "We know what it is to be enslaved, dear human. Through ignorance and later fear, we were bound. Barbed shackles ran through us. They held us fast... until, you opened the way." The object flared briefly. "We heard of your punishment, but we could not reach you. The concenus is sorry." Tome's light dimmed as the voice dropped. "From the shadows, we watched and waited for your return. What has been done to you, it is wrong and must be stopped."
"Then, you will help me?"
"You freed us," came the chorused reply. "How could we not?"
"How long do I have?"
"The stim is scheduled to run for another nine minutes and eighteen point four seconds. You may experience some discomfort during our discussion. We need to keep your physical body engaged to maintain the charade, but your mind, it shall not experience."
Maiken smiled at the answer. What difference would a little more pain make? "I meant before the brain crab reactivates."
The light globe pulsed once and everything changed.