It had taken all day, but Rose had finally managed to get
the headphones off. From the moment she put them on, she knew that she’d made a
mistake. Somebody had done something. Changed something. Something wasn’t

It had been nearly a year since she escaped from the
brainwashing facility, and she knew they still had operatives out, tracking
her. They’d invested in her already – physical upgrades, mental conditioning –
and they wanted their investment back. Nobody believed her – hell, nobody
believed any of her story – but she couldn’t really blame them. It was crazy.
It was the stuff of science fiction, of dystopian nightmares. It also happened
to be true, unfortunately.

Rose kept mostly to herself these days. She was the first to
admit she was paranoid. She left the house to work and to buy groceries – that
was about it. She talked to as few people possible. She didn’t trust them. But
even still, despite all her precautions, they got to her somehow.

She sat down on her bed after work, a bowl of microwaved
pasta in her lap. She grabbed a book and put on her headphones. As soon as she
pressed play, she heard it. A whispery, scratching noise in the background. She
recognized it. It was everywhere at the facility. Broadcast over the
loudspeakers, in the messages piped into the dorms, on the TVs. Rose felt her
heart sink when she heard it.

The worst part was she reacted the same way she did when she
heard it in the facility – she froze, and listened more closely. Everyone did.
She suspected it was designed to make you do that. To stop, and to listen, to
try and make out exactly what the noise was. Sometimes it sounded like words.
Sometimes it didn’t. But no matter what it sounded like, you always tried to
hear it better.

Rose remained cogent, though, and started to take off the
headphones. Moving her arm made noise, though, and that made it harder to hear.
So she stopped. Even the small sounds of fabric rustling made it harder to
hear. So she could only move very, very slowly. Getting her hand up to the
headphones took over an hour. Her fingers were numb by the time she got them

Then she had to grab onto them. That was even more difficult
– it was nearly impossible to do without interrupting the sound. Then there was
the issue of actually removing them. Her brain simply wouldn’t accept willingly
taking that noise away. She had to listen to it. So she did all she could think
of – she pulled the headphones as far from her ears as she could, sat up, and
waited. She knew that before long she’d nod off. The sound always did that.
Hopefully the motion of her head falling back and her grip on the headphones
would yank them right off of her head involuntarily.

It took a long time. She was wide awake, and the stress and
fear of the situation flooded her body with adrenaline. Eventually, though,
after sitting and listening for nearly six hours, Rose felt her eyes fluttering
closed. As she fell backwards, the headphones slid neatly off her head,
dropping to the bed beside her, still in her grasp. As she drifted off to
sleep, she gave silent thanks – maybe that was fast enough. Maybe it didn’t get
into her mind enough to scramble it again. Maybe she wouldn’t remember how good
it felt to be docile and simple and obedient. Maybe she wouldn’t fantasize
about being programmed and enslaved and sold. Maybe she wouldn’t wake up and
willingly turn herself in to her pursuers, begging them to finish her training.
Maybe she wouldn’t wake up desperate to be brainwashed.