An Eye for an Eye

Clare opened her left eye. There was something wrong with the one on the right. A dull headache, centred around her temples, hammered inwards, blunt chisels shaping memory out of a bedrock of ache. Tap... tap... tap... see the shape... wardrobe door... all broken, smashed to pieces... Tap... tap... tap... feel it... a wall taking shape... a hard wall to be thrown against... Tap... tap... tap... push...

See a finger. The finger. Pushing... Tap... tap... tap... twist... feel the pressure... Clunk... clunk.... clunk... memory taking shape... pressure and pain, deep, slow tearing, turning her inside out, going on forever, tighter and tighter...

Clare screamed and the hammering chisels went quiet. Just the ache now, pounding, bearable, just breathe...

A medic in crisp whites leant over, a reassuring touch resting on her arm. “Easy now...” A detached calm flowed in from somewhere. “Just give the meds a moment to work...” Not just flowing, but positively flooding... "Feeling better?"

"Like shit," she grumbled dreamily. Even in the subdued lighting of the medical suite, she saw reflected silver glints from interface nodes on his forehead.

"To be expected... Nothing we could do about the eye. Not a clean removal. Far too much tissue damage. We’ve installed a visual processor node at the back of the socket. The cortical interface is in and connected. We will start training the neural linkage as soon as possible."

Clare struggled to understand through the happy mush. Her eye was gone – that was solid, agonising memory, smothered in fluffy nothing until the drugs wore off. They had installed an implant – nothing more than a dream.

"How?" More fog and fluff wrapped around until she was not even sure what the question was.

"Don’t worry about it. One of our interface adjustment specialists has volunteered."

"Who?" That was no more than a mumble. The doctor smiled kindly as she slid back under.

# # #

Clare woke again. The medical complex had proper opaque walls, and generous windows to let the morning sun flood in. She sat up and carefully unhitched the sensors of the diagnostic unit, distantly aware that it would sound all manner of alarms, and swung herself unsteadily off the bed before anyone could come to intercept her.

The loose medical smock was chilly and unflattering; her own clothes were nowhere to be seen. A mirror on the wall showed her eye socket covered with a pale pink convex cover, bonded to her flesh with a darker shade of dermafix. The surroundings were almost black with bruising, fading to her normal skin colour at her ear, the other side of her nose, above her lips and into her hair line. The eye-patch lurked as an offensively pink, cheerful heart in a dark and moody sea.

A firm voice made her turn. "You shouldn’t be out of bed." A slender man of medium height, four gleaming nodes on his forehead. “You need to rest.” Faint memories nagged at her but refused to clarify.

"Can I change the colour?" She turned back to the mirror. "Silver perhaps. Or black. That might look OK."

Gentle hands guided her back towards the bed, but her strength was returning, enough to resist. "We’ll fit a prosthetic in a few days," he promised, giving up the fight. "Now, you ought to lie down."

"Black," she said firmly. "And I want out of here. Now. And I want something to wear that doesn’t leave my arse hanging out."

The medic made more soothing noises and retreated. Clare waited for a moment and then followed him, refusing to be embarrassed about the hand-width opening down the back of the medical gown. Two doors along the corridor, she found a general terminal and pulled up a schematic of the medical complex.

"Can I help?"

Clare turned and faced a woman in medical whites, a stern, elegant face framed with greying hair. "I wanted this tinted black."

"It would look better."

Clare allowed herself to be led away. By the time she returned to her room, eye patch tinted with a semi-gloss black finish, Phil Elsworth was waiting for her.

"Not quite the evening I had imagined," he opened smoothly.

"We must try again." Sometime, never. "Just as soon as I’m feeling better."

"I like the eye-patch…" He brought up a screenful of data on the diagnostic terminal. "Shouldn’t take long. The medics have decided to see things your way…"

"Someone poked out their eyes?"

"At least you can joke about it." And that bugged him, even though he put on a show of tolerant amusement. "Time to start training your implant. We’ve arranged a room for you in the staff quarters."

"And Bob?"

"The room next door," he assured her. "We’ve provided a housekeeper for him."

"How long is he staying, now?"

Phil ignored the question, studying her medical notes. "We had a few things done while they were operating. We ran some tests – you will not have rejection problems with mesh implants. Mapped both breasts to check for best layout of the cluster. The medics prefer not to have to re-route blood vessels. Lilywhite has given the go-ahead, so we can start in a few days. Cortical interface is in place, passive mode."

“Great...” A stir of anticipation curled through her belly. "What about the anaesthetic? You said a local?"

"You’ll hardly notice it," he promised. "A localised med-pack, a bit like a standard external sensor net. From here to here." His hands traced a line from the bottom of her ribs to her throat. "Skin tight. Probably a bit warm even in this weather – in spite of the micro-porous sweat transfer system, but it’s only for a few days. There’s a slow release of drug through your skin. Fully adjustable. Need to balance leaving some feeling against minimising the discomfort."

"Great. So, can we go? Did you bring something for me to wear?"

"Over there." He pointed to a bundle of cloth. "Didn’t know what you really wanted."

He had brought her baggy knitted jumper and the Stellex leggings. "No bloody underwear." She fumbled for the ties on the gown. "Well, give me a hand…"

The cloth slid off, although his hands lingered. Clare was too caught up in the sight of the bruising on her ribs and belly to object to his touch. Tiny patches of dermafix highlighted the extent of the damage.

"I took a beating." She finally pushed his hands away. Reaching Mars and the colonies was the priority and Phil Elsworth the price, but at that moment she was not in the mood. "Bastards..." He had a delicate, undemanding touch... “Who were they?” She pushed his hands away again. “What did they want?”

“Security will investigate, but your attackers either died or escaped.”

“They came after me, but...” His hands eased back... just there... no, wait... “Bob. They were after Bob.”

“Probably.”

She shivered suddenly. Delicate, undemanding touch? Wake up and smell the psychopath. This was the bastard who had torn her rep to shreds. Focus, focus, focus… Bastard drugs making her happy... That deceptively soft touch went wherever it wanted, without warning or invitation. Kindness just waiting to be cruel.

"It will heal…" He touched a patch of dermafix on her ribs. "Once you’re dressed, you can start training the optical processor."

Kyla had mentioned the problems of learning to use implants. The details were hazy. External data pumped in… the real key was… something she couldn’t remember. "How?"

"Your trainer can explain." He traced the line of her spine – didn’t she just push those hands away? "The best we have."

He was really pushing. No hint of caring about her health, or how fast she wanted to move. Clare was keen to get moving, but... that was her own driving ambition. Phil was running experimental programs, testing new products, the sort of work that demanded careful, meticulous attention... So why the rush?

She pulled the jumper on, wincing as she discovered more of the bruising. "Who?"

"Miela."

He told her perfectly straight, but there was something in his tone, laughing at a hidden joke. He thought Miela was the best person to train her implant. Phil Elsworth was a complete shit she had mentally tagged as being spooky, creepy, cruel... a total bastard. And he chose Miela to do the training.

"That's nice." Shit.

# # #

Phil drove her the length of the Coriolis site, pointing out the various features of interest – the sewage processing plant, power sub-station and the emergency generator housing, safe behind additional layers of fencing.

"And this is Henwick Pond..." He circled the splendid ornamental water feature, waving at the encompassing conventional and uninspiring architecture of concrete, steel and glass – thankfully far less innovative than the main office building. "Quite pretty now."

Clare stared with her remaining eye – flat, confusing, no depth perception. "Nice. What was it like… before?"

"A festering hole. Believe me. They were still draining it when I joined." He parked abruptly. "Come on. You’re going to love the accommodation suites. The finest part of Coriolis."

Clare gave him a dubious look and followed his footsteps to the entrance, where an automated security check station queried their cards before opening the doors. Two floors up, Phil showed her into a modest suite, grander than the one she had briefly enjoyed at DigiTart, downmarket from the King’s Arms, but with Coriolis security forces on guard.

Clare pushed the door shut – reassuringly solid, multi-point locking, video monitoring. No surprise visitors here...

"Bob is actually a few doors down." Phil took her shoulders to guide her further in. "Take a look round. All the comforts of home. A luxurious bathroom and the beds are superb."

She drifted into the bedroom and sat briefly, a mattress larger and more comfortable than anything she had known since her days at Hunter’s. This was not the time for those memories. She checked the wardrobe; the remains of her clothes were hanging forlornly; the door felt flimsy, fit to crumple if someone threw her around...

"I’ve had the missing items reordered." Phil followed a few steps behind. "Your terminal will have a range of catalogues. Order anything else you need."

“Thanks...” Clare stared at the sad remnants. “I will.” Something in kevlar, perhaps. Or steel-ceramic composites. “Sometime suitable...” Not the open-invitation underwear Emily had picked for her. “Something businesslike...” But that was what Emily had picked - the tools of the trade for seducing her target. “Something...” Now he was waiting expectantly, watching to see how she responded to the room. For a girl from subsistence housing, the result should be transcendent awe. A senior Lilywhite executive would be less impressed.

I don’t like you, Phil. I don’t trust you. I’m even a bit afraid of you, but you are my ticket to Mars. If I can break you.

"Any requests?" She joked deliberately, giving him a light-hearted opening.

"You look good in skin." He rested his hands on her waist, gliding in, a ninja creep. Clare imagined the sound of his wrists snapping. "How about some of the latest Thilk fashions? Those zebra patterns work. Your choice. I have to go. Whatever Bob did yesterday, Una is being co-operative – so long as I watch from a distance. He’s already running some test simulations – apparently downloaded from Lilywhite last night. No idea how he managed that under the circumstances."

"That’s good." What circumstances? And keep your fucking hands to yourself.

"You just settle in." His hands wandered on uninvited, as they had on her rep. There was no hint of violence yet, just a casual violation. Ninja creep – that was exactly it. "I’ll come back later. Things are busy at the moment."

She watched him go, needing a shower, and something stronger than average soap to rinse away his touch. "Can’t start that... Won’t be able to go though with… things."

Clare set the terminal in shopping mode. Thilk was hideously expensive, near transparent and almost as warm as the far thicker Stellex. Surprisingly, there there was a major retail outlet in Wellerbridge. The zebra designs formed over the terminal, wafting films with bold black stripes, apparently naked women wrapped in twists of liquorice. Skin tight suits with only the barest tinting, giving the illusion of natural sparse black stripes to highlight the curves of the body. Further down the list, catching her attention, was a perfectly transparent leotard with silver discs to mimic the nodes of a cybercop.

The model in the projection twisted and posed provocatively – Clare smiled: Kyla would never have done that. Kyla would have a finger raised, or a fist clenched.

There was no kevlar, so Clare ordered a zebra cloud, the densest on the list, and still only a thought away from utter nudity. If that was what Phil wanted, then that’s what he would have. And it was strong enough to strangle the bastard if the opportunity presented.

Phil needed to dominate – the only explanation she could imagine. The way he had broken Miela out of the disconnect-fever: every pass of the data-scrambler was etched in her memory, Miela flinching away from it as if it burned. Dance little puppet. Phil had done it so deliberately. Jigging his toy on strings of pain. It was more than just proving his dominance, he needed to exercise it, even revel in it. He had done the same with her rep – nothing to do with sex.

“I know you Phil...” Driven by power and dominance. “Know your type...” Dangerous and unpredictable, the sort that gravitated to exclusive clubs like Hunter’s Casino. “Know your...” Violence looking for expression.

Clare turned away from the cavorting Thilk model and stamped over to the auto-chef. Deep breath. Calm down. Get a hot Chocaulait. Phil was like food poisoning, a repetitive cycle of nausea.

Take a sip, a breath, a moment... Just smell the chocolate and relax, and don’t spill it on the terminal. She cleared the catalogue displays and transferred the address list from her card to put a call through to Calder Lilywhite. After a few seconds a standard warning symbol floated in the centre of the display. The comms net had been down for an unspecified time, best estimate to repair was late afternoon.

"Odd..." Clare cancelled the request and sipped her drink. “Shit... Bob... The whole fucking cyberwar...” She touched the eye-patch. “They were after Bob...” Gorewar specialists clearing the ground for the cyber assault, and Bob was something that needed clearing. “Comms are down...” If the war hadn’t already broken out, it was close. “Shit...” So Bob was needed back in London, and that was just as much part of the job as seducing Phil.

The terminal was still able to access local and internal traffic – something inconsistent with her hazy knowledge of a cyberwar. Just for reassurance she entered a request to contact Bob. After a brief delay, the system informed her that he was in the Una enclave – direct routing of her call was not authorised. She swore at the terminal and left an activetrack message for him. The moment Bob went near a local terminal, it ought to try to deliver.

The door chimed the moment she closed the message system. The display shifted to the external door camera – Miela was waiting. She must have tapped into the local net without even thinking about it, and had waited until Clare finished her calls before announcing herself.

Clare opened the door by hand, rather than letting the automation do it, just a crack to check what the camera showed. Stupid, stupid, stupid... the likes of Niels would have slammed straight through at that moment... She was tired, not really thinking straight, and really wanted to be left alone. Miela stared at her – not the barging-in sort.

Go away... "Come in…"

Miela had changed into a long-sleeved robe – soft, pure cotton with a subtle ochre marbling, draped to her knees in bold pleats and tied at her waist with a cord of plaited Stellex fibre, tinted ruby gold.

"Interesting… dress." Clare stepped back to appraise – Annie was the fashion expert, but this was nothing current, yet nothing old. "The colours are fantastic but… the style…” It wasn’t a style, or nothing out of any of the commercial houses... “It’s not exactly…" She reached out to finger the lapel. "I like the texture. How is it with the nodes?" Clare bent close –there was nothing beneath the cotton except skin and gold discs. "Wow. Don’t you get static?"

"Specially treated cloth," Miela muttered.

Clare stepped back. She was crowding, making her uncomfortable with so much close attention – spiced with what must have been obvious excitement. And that oddly-stylish robe that was no style at all...

"Sorry. So sorry…" That was Elsworth's behaviour. "That was very rude of me." So why not be rude again... “Is that a custom piece?”

Miela lowered her eyes. “Yes.” She delved into a pocket and and proffered a simple headband, dangling from her fingers. “For you...” She moved, once Clare had taken the offering.

“What is it?”

"You need to put it on." Miela clearly did not understand apology, no matter how sincere. "Get the internode close to your… eye."

Clare inspected the headband: elasticated cloth with a string of processor nodes buried into it and a thin disk which had to be the interface – a device intended to pump specific images into her optical processor, one small step away from Phil’s data-scrambler.

"Is it safe?" The weak joke did nothing to settle her unease; meant nothing to Miela.

"Used properly." Miela pulled a band of black cloth from her pocket, turning it over in her hands. "Put this over your eyes. To block distractions."

Clare took the blindfold. "What if used improperly?"

"Pain. Even if you were an experienced user. Permanent psychological injury would be possible."

Clare turned the headband over a few times, assessing the threat. "And for an inexperienced user like me?"

"Severe brain damage. Possibly death. You need to learn to work with the interface. You will establish protective reflexes…"

Clare shivered. "So, what do I do? Sit? Stand?"

"Sit or lie down. However you feel comfortable." Miela spoke with a forced calm, voice tense, lips pursed, throat tight, all the signs of trying not to vomit. "I will feed images into your processor. You will tell me what you see. Between us...” A hold-it-down swallow... “We will align the processor to your needs."

Clare sat in one of the chairs, a deep and comfortable pool of upholstery. The blindfold fitted well, leaving her the impression that the world was utterly black, not even a hint of illumination through her eyelid.

"We begin."

Brilliant light exploded in her missing eye, more painful than when Niels ripped it out.

"Shit!!!" Clare clawed frantically at the blindfold before perfect blackness slammed down.

"Sorry." That was reflex, with no hint of apology in her voice. "Overload. Try again...” No mercy, no compassion... but the sound of another hold-it-down swallow. “Initial training is uncomfortable."

Clare flinched as a magnesium flare flooded her sight, painful but more subdued than before. "Shit. Turn it down." The brilliance faded to a uniform white radiance, unpleasantly featureless but no longer painful. "Better."

"I will set the limiters there. Now we try a few simple patterns. This is to get the basic calibration. Tell me what you see."

"Grey blob… Was it painful when you got your first processors?"

"Initial adjustments are... are...” More swallowing, punctuated by deep breaths... “They are often difficult. Describe the shape."

Difficult - Miela had decided to be difficult herself. "Sort of vertical smear. Darker in the centre… so who trained you? Why did you start?"

The vertical smear shifted, becoming more compact, an image coming into focus, gaining definition at the edges. "I trained as a system operator. Direct interfaces were essential to progress."

"But you have so many and Phil showed me what they plan to do next."

"I am good at it." Miela was proud, but there was no joy in it. "I work on the biggest systems. The more complex they get, the more processing capacity I need." The image was almost a vertical line, fuzzy at the edges. "Describe what you see."

Clare did her best, but everything Miela did worsened the image. "So now... with everything you know... if Phil came and said implants... would you? Has it been worth it? Shit!!!"

The explosion of light faded rapidly. "Sorry. Instability in the algorithm."

Clare held herself very still. That had been no accident – a deliberate lashing out. "OK.” One hell of a way to change the subject. “What next?"

A horizontal line appeared. Well defined, but still slightly blurred – Clare described it as well as she could. "Phil sort of offered me some basic enhancements. A few processors. I was trying to decide if I wanted them."

Her sight flared briefly, a burst of fake light which quickly died. At the peak, she almost believed she saw a face, bleached beyond recognition. "I hate that."

"Only a minor instability," Miela assured her. "What sort of processors?"

"A pair of arrays. One in each breast and a DerMesh support to stop them hanging down my belly."

"You have the body volume." Was that jealousy? Miela generated a simple chequer-board pattern. "I won’t let them touch my breasts so Phil wants to put the next set in my bottom. He thinks it’s funny."

"Probably. Anyway this looks… oh shit. Make that stop. It’s… I don’t… Thank you." Clare took a couple of deep breaths. "I think I was going to be sick. It kept swirling and… that was bad."

"Enough for now." Miela carefully removed the blindfold and headband. "The interface is coming along well. Rushing will cause problems. Post processing will continue for several hours."

Clare blinked rapidly with her surviving eye, adjusting to the lighting in the room. "How many have you trained?"

"You’re the ninth for optical processors."

"You never did tell me who you learnt from."

Miela shrugged. "Phil...” There it was again – throat tightening, an old, buried nausea. “He was in charge of the early implant projects."

Acting on a sudden intuition, Clare leant forwards and peered closely at Miela, staring into each eye in turn. "Both?" she asked softly, already knowing the answer.

"I was attacked." Miela did the swallow, the tight throat, the pursed lips – bad memories by the bucket-load. "Robbed. There was a gang working the area. They...”

Clare waited – it was like being back on duty at DigiTart. Hey, yeah, like, can I talk about this, like, rash... you know... like, down below... No point in pushing, just wait until they talk. Not everyone’s sex problems was how to get some, and bad experiences were harder to talk about than no experience.

“I didn’t know. Just give them what they wanted. That was the advice. But I didn’t know.”

“Awful...” Don’t ask, don’t push, just invite... “I can’t imagine...”

“Fuel cell electrolyte. In my...” Twisted the interface band into a knot and then visibly forced herself to put it in her pocket. “In my face. In my face...”

“In your...” Clare looked closely around Miela’s eyes. “Oh. My.” Corrosive, carcinogenic, sticky... “I can see...” Scars, faint but obvious once she knew what to look for. Repaired properly, but still faint traces. “When I worked... never mind.” Hunter’s Casino had had their own way of dealing with muggers armed with cell electrolyte.

“Should have just given...” Miela pulled herself together – suddenly detached and distant, shoving the memories back in their box like she had a personal reset button. “I lost both eyes. I already had processor implants and Phil offered me the chance…" She shrugged. "Coriolis paid for the cosmetic surgery."

Cold, calm, detached... throat still tight. Whatever box the bad memories went in, the seams leaked.

"He was lucky to have such a perfect subject." Clare was naturally suspicious – luck like that did happen. Of course it did. And sometimes luck like that got made. Volunteers for experimental implants would have been in short supply.

"I was the lucky one," Miela said firmly.

"Other than getting mugged." Clare changed the subject. If Miela suspected the attack was deliberate, she was pretending otherwise for all she was worth. Another mental box, but with thick walls and solid seams. "How long did it take to learn to use them?"

"Months. And very painful. For you, it should be a matter of days..."

"And Phil taught you?"

"It was experimental.” Miela wrapped her arms around her ribs – how many bad memories did she have that had to be locked down, boxed up, or held in? “No one knew how to do it. I was one of the first and Phil taught us all. It wasn’t easy."

"And I’m grateful for your expertise." Clare was sincere, but the nagging suspicion wouldn’t go away – Phil’s teaching methods emphasised the stick rather than the carrot. His style was more towards making luck. "I’m sorry to have dragged you away from your real work."

"Pardon?"

"Una. Phil told me Bob was already down there."

Miela was suddenly flustered – all those bad memories, but being outdone at work hurt the most... "Probably better off without me. He has a… rapport with the machine."

"Better than you and all your interfaces? Hardly likely."

Miela shook her head slowly. "Una is unique. The interfaces don’t really help as much as they used to. The machine truly thinks for itself. It doesn’t think like us. To make the bond work, I have to try to become like the machine. It’s not easy."

"Painful? Stressful?"

"It is..." She went to the food dispenser, dithering over the choice. "It is different." She finally filled a tumbler from the water spout and took a few careful sips – gaining time. "I can’t explain it. Phil thinks all I need is extra processors. It is not about numbers… He doesn’t see… the more integrated I become, the more like the machine I have to be."

Or he doesn’t care. "You’ve tried telling him?"

"And failed. He doesn’t understand. No one can, unless they’ve been bonded to the machine. Una just... does not think like us..."

Clare rubbed cautiously at her eye patch, chasing an irritating itch which was crawling across her forehead towards her nose. "Perhaps he does understand." You can’t make luck without breaking a few people.

Miela paused in mid-sip. "Pardon?"

"The final enhancement, Miela. Adjust people until they can become part of the machines. Think of the potential of that. Whatever it does to you, your integration must increase the power of Una. I don’t suppose they have managed to build an intuition algorithm yet."

"Part of the non-deterministic cognition subsystem..." Miela was cold and distantly again, lost in the possibilities. "Frightening. And lovely."

"Seriously? Intuition? Does it work?"

"You have to be interfaced to understand." Miela took cold and distant to the extreme and found a personal rapture. "So many connections. So, so many. The data... but not data... not distinct... my mind and Una merge. I can feel my soul, my humanity being skimmed off. I am skimmed until I am cold. No cares. No love. No feelings. Just me and Una. Thinking together. Dreaming together. We are just..."

"So, does the intuition work? Isn’t that like a feeling?" And Una can certainly emulate fear… “Is intuition really cold?” Or is that just you?

"It is just... lovely... when I’m there. It’s like a landscape. A place of warm beauty that goes on forever. And I become part. No boundaries..."

“Sounds like feelings to me.” Clare got up and shook her arm. "Hello? Miela?” Earth calling. Can we have sanity back on line?

"Sorry. I can’t really explain it."

"That’s fine. So you teach Una to think." Clare guided her back to the chair. Was Una teaching Miela to feel? "Tell me more about Phil. It will while away the time until the comms come back on line."

Miela blinked. "Might be days after a cyberwar like that one."

"Cyberwar? Happened already… and I missed it?" Not that there would have been much to see. Phil had mentioned it indirectly, and then glossed over it. "Missed the frigging cyberwar. I thought it would be the end of the world. All the lights go out." She glanced at the auto-chef – could it serve anything stronger than Chocaulait? "How… bad?"

"I don’t know any details."

“Just tell me the basics.” And don’t get pissy because... “You’re part of cyberwar monitoring... they must have told you something.” But Miela was only an operator, not a Bob Critchley, Director of Sticking It To The Bastards.

"There was a briefing for all senior staff – came through about four this morning. They waited until the first estimates of the damage were in. Only a few comms still running. Security have taken over the links. There’s so little bandwidth left that only essential messages are being routed."

"How about incoming?" Would Lilywhite send a message – and would Coriolis or Phil block it?

"Expecting a call?"

"Yeah. Calder Lilywhite didn’t send Bob up here for fun. If it's that serious, there would be messages for Bob and probably a set of outline instructions for me."

"Security will forward it, if it happens."

"Shit. So, now what?"

"Sit and wait."

"I’m no good at this sit and wait stuff." Clare stretched and stood up. "I need to be doing things.” Just a bit of pacing back and forth suddenly felt good. “ At the very least I need to find out how bad things are."

"No. You must wait." Miela paced alongside like a nervous dance partner. "Your processor still has to finish its calibration cycle."

"I can manage with one eye. I want to start with last night. The security reports would be a good place. A chance to find out what happened." She turned to face the terminal. "Can I get them downloaded to here?"

"You will have to go there.” Miela crowded beside her, as if ready to body-block her – an uneven match. “All major systems have been isolated for protection."

"OK. Show me the way to…" Clare stopped and shook her head as a phantom chequerboard floated in front of her eyes. A chequerboard with teeth and claws, a super-hero chequerboard with the power of migraine.

"Close your eyes." Miela murmured soft support, but there was a sly tone – she and the chequerboard were in it together. “Just breathe... breathe... embrace the pain... breathe... let it happen...” Some of Phil’s cruelty had rubbed off on her. "It will make it easier if you just let it happen."

Clare did and the array of squares became her whole world. When she opened her good eye, black and white scavengers pounced on everything until she closed it again.

“Just another peek... you have to...”

Black holes, white holes, all chewing the world. Clare squinted through it enough to stagger towards a chair, closing it again firmly as soon as she was seated. The pattern shifted, improving its focus and adjusting the balance of brightness and contrast. The black slowly washed out until her whole world was gleaming white, growing stronger and brighter until it was too painful to bear. Unable to help herself, Clare clawed at the patch over her empty eye-socket.

Firm hands gripped her wrists, holding her down. She kicked out blindly at Miela who had enough sense to be to one side. Clare was so much stronger and heavier than the system operator, but the pain from her missing eye tugged and tore, destroying her concentration and providing the root for agony to grow from, a tunnelling torment which burrowed through her skull to the back of her head.

It became unbearable. She no longer had the strength to move, although Miela still clung to her wrists. Brilliant white horror filled her and then relented, fading back to the crisp array of the chequerboard, then down into pure black.

Shaking, soaked with sweat, Clare hesitantly opened her eye and stared at Miela through brimming tears. The slender woman released her grip, angry marks left where her fingers had been.

"It takes time," Miela told her. Was that a hint of compassion? "That should have been the worst."

Clare huffed erratically, trying to find her own voice. "Hhh… How… Hhh… how many?"

"Until it’s done," Miela told her unhelpfully. "I will stay with you until the discomfort has become bearable. The later sessions will not be so bad."

"You went through this?" she asked weakly.

"And worse. The algorithms and processors are far more sophisticated now. That cycle should have roughly calibrated the pain thresholds. The feedback sensors are now partially calibrated as well. Your implants will automatically compensate for overloads, and then use the feedback for fine adjustment." Miela let that sink in before adding, "I’m told that learning to use a sensornet is worse."

Clare shivered. Her memory was indistinct, but hadn’t Phil said something about the sub-dermal mesh support they planned to install also acted as a sensornet? Or was that just her imagination?

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