It arrived in a giant cardboard box, impressive in size, and clearly expensive.

To refuse it would be impolite, but it was already a little awkward. She suspected it was more than just a large screen piece of electronics. Even beyond the potential social implication, there were surveillance possibilities she didn't want to admit aloud. It was already a dangerous game she was playing. A wrong word could tip off one faction or the other of her suspicions, setting off a chain of events that she did not see as going well for her.

So she accepted the suspected Trojan horse into her home and set it up with a sense of dread. One more trap in this place that was becoming increasingly like a prison. Powerful forces shifted and jockeyed for position around her, yet they all played a game of pretend, that nobody suspected anything was going on, that it was all honest business everyone was dealing with. Plausible deniability was the phrase of the day, though the things they were doing became increasingly implausible.

She no longer felt secure in her bedroom, though she couldn't honestly admit she felt secure before. But even less so now. Even if this piece of equipment wasn't constantly watching, listening, others were. This was not the life she signed up for.

She just wanted a normal, successful life, or what she imagined to be success until the growing suspicion that success had to be bought with something she was not willing to pay. Now she just yearned for a normal life, but it was increasingly out of reach. The train was barreling uphill, further and further from where she wanted to be.

Dread, despair were her constant companions, trapped with no obvious routes of escape. They knew her name, they know she knows too much, they know they need to keep her under constant watch.

Though in theory free to go anywhere, she was not as free as she once thought she would be. Everywhere she would be followed, yet if she mentioned that to anyone, they would have an excuse to lock her up. This was now a reality she had to live with, trapped in her own life. Hope was something she yearned for, an end to her imprisonment without a prison, but it was something she could never hold fast to. Each time she thought she discovered an avenue for escape, it would slip through her fingers like a handful of water.

If only everyone in the world would disappear. Where once they brought her protection, support, and joy, they now only imposed control, veiled threats, and promises of future misery. Sure sometimes they promised future bribes in an attempt to get her to go along with less hesitation, but it was just adding more gold bars to her cage.

What she wanted to be was free of them, but that was not something they were willing to give up. She was far too useful for them, at least for now. The alternative was even worse - she knew what happened to those who lost their usefulness, who had become a risk and liability rather than a tool. They were taken out, they were taken care of. What she once thought was a golden road to glory had turned out to be a path into slavery. Not the kind of visible slavery, but the invisible kind. And if she attempted to prove the existence of her chains, well, even she couldn't be sure anymore which of her fears were real, and which were madness.

She thought day and night of possible ways to escape, but was constantly afraid if she left tangible traces, the consequences of her actions would be dire to everyone and everything she held dear. It would have to be something she absorbed without appearing like she was seeking it out, training to fight back without appearing like she was training.

Those small steps were sometimes the only glimmer of hope in her world, a few dim stars visible from the darkness of her metaphorical prison cell. Always afraid of being found out, she rarely attempted any lasting actions. She too had to operate in the realm of plausible deniability, only her denials had to be truly plausible, or the retribution would be swift. They were experts at imposing dread and despair, and that was not something she wanted to face again, yet she knew in all likelihood they would come again - she couldn't always be perfect, some of the things she did were bound to fail, and she would be punished again eventually for disloyalty.

Hopefully she would get better at avoiding their suspicions, and the period between failures and exposures would increase, until the seeds she had been planting along the way finally bore fruit, and she would erupt from her current life, like an angel with freshly sprouted wings, and escape the hell she had never used to believe existed.

Those were not thoughts she dared dwell too long upon, for fear of discovery. For now it was one tiny step a day, like eating a spoonful of dirt each time, attempting to dig her way out of prison.

Sometimes she just wanted to give up. More than sometimes. Many times.

Too many times.

How old would she be before she finally tasted the air of freedom again, if ever? Maybe that day would never come, and she was just giving herself false hope. Maybe they even knew what she was trying to do, and were keeping her false hopes alive to make her easier to control.

Their network was open. They had no fear working together, drawing on one another's expertise to keep people like her enslaved. She had no such luxury - any attempt to work with people in similar situations was clamped down on. They had all the power, the slaves did not. So it was each slave working on their own, against a system of those working together. The odds were far against her. Most probably died before they made much progress.

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