"H-hey, love, you sure about this?" I nod. "Yes." My voice croaks, folds struggling to connect through breath. It's not been used in a while. "I'm sure of it." Even with the harsh fluorescence above obscuring their expressions, I can tell they're not buying my supposed certainty. They're reluctant. Moreso than usual. Under typical circumstances we wouldn't give this a second thought; the process is, much like an insect molting its shell, automatic. But given the rather asymmetrical nature of these procedures as of late, our hesitance-- mine included-- is warranted. Nevertheless these are necessary. Each of us has been under the knife, the microscope, the prod, at one point or another. What's one more time? The hand on my shoulder gives a firm squeeze before lifting, soon to be replaced with aluminum. One by one the clamps lock over my arms, abdomen, shoulders, neck. The largest one surrounds the head like a cage while leaving the top of the skull open to the air, a design whose intimidation is matched only by its intricacy. The freezing grip of metal does not allow much room to shift, and my skin grows clammy up against it. I break out into a sweat as the subtle clicks of tools against tray worm their way into my ears. There is no anesthetic. Such a thing doesn't exist for this kind of procedure. Even as the skin is carefully scored and peeled away, there's not much pain to speak of. There's some discomfort as the bone is chipped away, sure, the unsettling resonance of transient jabs rattling down to your jaw. But it's typically not until after the procedure that the heart begins to ache. There's no medication for that either. A distressingly long period of silence looms. They must've cracked it open by now, and they're simply staring down into it. Studying it. Trying to make sense of whatever it is they're seeing. "She hasn't been very present in a while, what might be wrong with her?" a soft voice poses. A deeper, firmer tone replies; "well, since you two have been taking the lead on the more practical matters, it's left her to... fall into a form of stasis. Shutting down, perhaps similar to hibernation." "S-so the rest of us can remain functional, yeah?" a third chips in. A tool scrapes against the tray. "Presumably. Since we don't possess the energy to properly address such matters of her nature, she's simply chosen to rip them from the conscious and bury them in the unconscious. So they must be in here somewhere..." It's a bit odd to hear the ones you love and trust discuss your inner workings in such a clinical manner. I suppose the lot of us are used to this sort of introspection by now, but I'm not the only one of us who feels this way, surely? The exchange of speculation and argument and theories blur together as I'm left to stare blankly at the tile wall ahead. The four of them continue to pick and prod. It's funny, in a way, that I'm the only one out of us that isn't able to directly observe the contents of her own skull. What's in there, really? Is it folds of gray flesh, like anyone else? Perhaps some labyrinthine mesh of mechanical components, worn beyond repair? Lately it's felt rather empty. Or so I would've guessed. Abruptly my fingers twitch of another's will, as if tugged by microscopic threads that spool back up to my brain. Then it's the opposite ankle that is sent twisting against the harsh embrace of metal. My heart races as I'm made painfully aware of each thread coursing throughout my body, a tortuous web of complex couplings and weavings, each one drawn upwards to singular points in my skull that contract when prodded. I lay anxious as I await the next pull, attempting to predict where next on my body might writhe of its own volition. Not once do I guess correctly. This puppeteering continues for far too long while the threads further glisten with adrenaline. The twitching finally subsides. I begin to catch my breath, restrained exhales to slow my pulse. Though I am not afforded much respite before the oxygen is forcibly expelled, my lungs and stomach and heart all twisting into a nauseating coil. "Ah, I think I've found something." Without warning my insides convulse underneath my ribs. My body, and now my mind, are left reeling. I'm not entirely aware of why. Everything's grown foggy. The metal scrapes and liquid squelches and voices above me swirl into a confusing mess, and my consciousness is assaulted with painful memories, each and every little thing I sorely miss and can never get back, the stings of self-betterment only ever meant to help. The reasons I exist. And perhaps, the reasons I hid them away. None of it makes sense. But it's all bubbling back to the surface, as if the valves of my heart tear open, hissing with steam and molten rock. Something is wrong. Something is very very wrong here. Why, among the five of us, am I here? What role do I fill, what purpose do I even serve? Am I still... here? Or have I buried myself too deep? A worried voice tries to drag me back to reality, back to the metal bed below, but my mind won't fully allow it. Liquid obscures my vision as I blink my way back to unnaturally sharp focus, to find shimmering eyes mirroring my own. "Oh god, fuck, are you okay? Do you need us to stop??" With the prongs of gloves and metal implements still embedded deep within my cranial cavity, I shake my head.