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by Arbon
Rated: E · Serial · Sci-fi · #2116853
Experience what it feels like to be a biomech combat unit.
My name is Freya Savitri, and I am not a girly girl. And yet …

Cute. That was the predominant thought in my mind right now. Curled up in a blanket. Feeling myself surround the entirety of a little ball of fuzz. I could feel his rapid breath against my fingertips. I could sense the thrumming beat of his heart, every pulse a surge of energy. Even as he slept his thin wisp of a tail twitched back and forth like a string trying to tickle something.

He was adorable, from the floppy side ears to the pointed, angled horn-ears on the top of his head. Such large black eyes that looked so peaceful when sleeping. I could feel his chest sliding against my own, the warmth spreading out. For almost three hours I had nothing to do but sit back against the wall, curl up in my own warmth, and closely examine his biological features.

The hair was shorter than average for most subjects, and the tuft at the end of his tail seemed to be longer than normal by almost a centimeter. His ears were a bit larger. I can’t tell if that corresponds with greater hearing or not, all Gesshru complain about the volume of my voice. His horns were still sensitive as one would expect. Situated on two flaps of muscle just on top of his head and right above the eyes. Able to flex and bend at that joint atop his skull. There were no bones to connect the horn to the skull, while the actual calcium of the horn was solid and stiff. My finger poked against the trail of skin flap connecting the tip of his horn to the top of his head, the reason they’re called ears.

I simply needed to find another test subject, preferably a female example of the species. Then I must, I absolutely must acquire a line of Gesshru fashion accessories and clothing. Testing demands it! The scientific process requires that I put each and every style of clothing onto this one man, and measure the reaction other Gesshru have to the appearance and interaction with him. Was he as adorable to others of his own kind as he was to me? Or is this another strange example where racism might be accused.

Cute. Hehe, Bukur in Albanian, bonitinho in Galacian, nuttet in Danish, sevimli in Turkish, bellus in Latin, milyy in Russian, nani in Hawaiian, maganda in Filipino, linda in Spanish, orotika in Maori, roztomilý in Cztech. No matter what language one says it in, tiny fuzzy sleeping things snuggled against your arm is just the most adorable thing ever.

Wait, no. His mouth opened. There was this long winded squeak coming from the harmless little thing, ears spread wide and his tongue lulling out. Was that a yawn? Did this rodent just yawn in my palm? The more I pondered on this startling revelation the greater the probability of eliciting a girlish squeal myself.

In the back of my mind I tried not to contemplate his nudity overmuch, even if the fact I was wearing more clothes than him did come into play on my assessment of his ridiculous notion that I was some dumb pet to be scolded. From this position it seemed far more likely for me to pet him than the other way around, and the only reason I refrained was the fear he might wake up.

That said, or rather thought, perhaps him being awake would be best. He seemed more resigned now that I’m not an immediate threat in his eyes, but he’s also not bothered to leap for the feeding tube again. Could his plan work at all? Most likely scenario is that he’s captured again, and either killed on the spot with spears or needle throwers or taken out for interrogation. The worst case scenario is that no one opens the tank at all, it could be completely automated so far as I was aware. Then simply slide back out into whatever food bowl they take.

The best case scenario?

Well, he might escape. Going to the west would put him further into Geshn territory, right past army reserves and probably toward the closest concentration camp. Going north would, at worst, put him into touch with the back lines of the northern push, just to be captured and fed to one of us humans again. Or maybe fed to the native wildlife. If he gets past the armies he’d be in the jungle, where few Geshru ever dare to tread for terror of the large predators who reside there.

If he makes it past those, he’s probably going to be scooped up by one of the northern tribes. He might then be stuck trying to live the life of a fisherman … heh, sorry. Fishermouse. Or he could be given a spear and tasked with defending their borders, put right back into conflict with the Gashn who call him scum.

If he goes south he’d be in the bitter cold wastes, where no food grows and only a rare handful of desperate predators exist. He’s a tiny little thing with short fur, he wouldn’t survive the chill for very long without proper supplies, and as far as I’m aware there weren’t any civilizations in the area. Last we scanned from orbit didn’t reveal any obvious signs of advanced culture, but then that was over four years ago. Geshru advance quickly and spread faster.

Going east was probably the safest bet, not so much for chances of survival but rather how safe you’d be if you actually managed it. To the far east past unclaimed and un-militarized cities, all of whom have surrendered to pay fealty toward the empire, one could just find a city there and hide. Live out a normal life, stay away from the Gashn armed forces, wait for this entire capture and invasion to play out all over again the next time his town is late in their tribute. Go further east than that and you’ll meet the ocean front, where the Cavni federation is trying to hold out against a Gashn push for dominance of the continent.

The only other political powerhouse, and the main enemy halting Gashn advance to the rest of the world. Far eastern powers who were more than willing to put up a fight, but couldn’t stand against the raw muscle and size of a human stomping through their cities. Even with just plastic armor and thick clothing, their weapons were useless. And last I was able to hear from rumors, the Gashn have been stopped just short the waters crossing, unable to advance with ease, and unwilling to commit more forces when there were tribes up north who might cut off lines of supply. Meanwhile Cavni armies on the beach are being supplied from across the ocean.

So make it all the way past Gashn armed forces, sneak through Cavni holdings without them assuming you were a spy or putting you to work, then make it to the ocean. Find a boat, sail all the way across without being eaten by a fish or snatched up by seafaring bird predators, don’t run out of supplies on the trip over, land on Cavni’s opposite shore, don’t get accused of being a spy and sneak past their forces for the second time, and finally … finally make it to civilian lands that aren’t directly against some warzone. Suddenly you’re home free.

I glanced down at the adorable little squeak toy, feeling it’s chest rise and fall with each slow breath. He wasn’t going to make it. In my head, in my heart, there was so very little I could do for this man beyond share my comfort. Unless … I needed a plan. I need an out. Something so that I can …

Footsteps?

No, tiny ones maybe. And I could hear voices, high pitched and resonating with a wide echo from just outside the door of my cage. I had no time, and far too much worry about what this was about. If this was to come in and collect then I’d be … no time. My hands moved quickly yet smoothly with the practiced care of someone who handled delicate instruments for a living.

My blanket fell to the side, my arms deposited the sleepy little Geshru into the murky brown folds of cloth. He stirred slightly and seemed to be waking, if not from his movement and the change in temperature then perhaps from the sound of my skin sliding against air.

I had no time.

In an instant I could feel the muscles locking up, my neck went stiff first and my shoulders were bare moments behind. My eyes locked into a forward position, I couldn’t turn, I couldn’t blink, everything was under their control. It wasn’t just a tingle, it was hardening, solidifying, as if my body had become stone or there was something inside that pulled at my bones, stretched at my skin. The unnerving concept that there was a creature within me, wearing my flesh like a suit and moving me about as little more than a decoration to its form. Nothing about this was pleasant.

Lockdown procedure was coming. My knees slam hard into the ground, that sharp tingle in the center of my bones which did nothing to numb the pain. It started at my neck and working its way down to my feet, direct and total control stripped away from my central nervous system and replaced by that collar around my neck. Without a pilot they couldn’t manage intricate movements via remote control, but they could accomplish pre-set limb arrangements like programming in the motions of a robot.

This particular one was for embarking and disembarking, where I’m on my knees and curled facedown into the floor, one hand at my side while my other arm extends outward in a long ramp for easy climbing. Here was how they stopped me from setting up traps or attacking as they came in, standard procedure was always to set me in Lockdown mode before ever getting close to opening that door.

And now, the door opened.

I couldn’t see it, but I could hear. The swoosh of air and the large metal panel sliding past, grinding up into the roof. If I struck at the iron firmly enough I might splinter the sliding entrance to my prison, dent it just enough that the door jams when trying to open. But despite this hopeful theory I’ve never actually succeeded in more than bloodying my own knuckles.

The balance of my stance was off, legs and knees and wrists in the control of someone else. I couldn’t see Soto, and hoped he had the good sense to stay hidden.

“Will you lay out of this you rusty core of a woman!” Tasgal’s voice rings in a squeakity shout, bursting through the awful silence in his explosively angry way.

“You did say this Max unit was unfit for duty purposes, yes?” Came a bass filled tone, with far more gnashing teeth and a ringing chime to it’s pronunciation. Female? I couldn’t see, but the high pitched squeaks sounded feminine for a Geshru.

“Having put this beast to multiple field tests I can say with a certainty that -”

“And you’ve put out a request for a partial lobotomy as your solution, am I understanding this?” Her tone dangerously sweet, and far too happy to be natural.

“This beast is able to fight back against multiple injections of neural dampeners and is an absolute [Expeleative] to control.” Tasgall’s voice was higher, more squealing. He seemed to be getting angrier.

“All while you are the only pilot who requires the use of even one injection for routine operation.” The woman’s tone, it was haughty and overbearing. I couldn’t decide if I liked this or not.

“Listen here you Starflung reject who couldn’t get to the Core if you died with weighted shoes” I could hear Tasgall stomping. I could hear his raspy squeaks from behind my feet. “I am the most experienced and the most qualified pilot this field unit has ever seen.”

A loud, gasping snort from myself shook the two, their discussion stopped as if my roaring snicker was some major distraction. Perhaps reminding little Flits that I was still here, even if the idiot kept assuming I couldn’t listen. He wasn’t the best pilot by a long shot, the original team were far more capable. And to my disappointment that first group of test pilots was long dead.

“The only reason this Max can be operated at all is by my expert hands”

“Maneater seems to disagree with you.” The woman’s tone didn’t waver.

“I will not have some upstart rookie not even a year old trying to criticize my methods!”

“And I.” she said with a dangerous conviction. “Will not allow a risky and expensive procedure to endanger the lives of our very, very limited supply of Max units so long as there is even a slim chance they could be trained.”

“There is no chance! Three injections and I was hammering the button! THREE! Do you have any idea just how much rebellion this slab of dumb meat has?”

“Given the way you treat your coworkers I strongly doubt the unit’s resistance had anything to do with control. But, I’m willing to offer you the benefit of the doubt.”

My nose and my mouth, the two parts of my body I could still control. Breathing was difficult for them to regulate mechanically so they didn’t bother. The heart rate they left alone, not wanting to risk a button that kills us instantly lest it be pressed by accident. Out of the corner of my gaze I could barely see them stepping closer, walking just near my fingertips and almost into view.

Tasgal in sleeping dress and the woman in prim, regulation uniform of bright gray against her white fur. Perhaps he’d been asleep until recently, and it left me rather curious to see why he’d chase this individual all the way to my lair just to have an argument.

Pride, maybe. Considering I was the centerpiece of this discussion I was rather interested in listening. What was his goal here?

“Are you sure you want to do this, you have heard the stories of just how brutal the beast is.” Tasgal took a step back.

“I can be quite assured of my safety.” She turns her nose up, adding an almost snorted “Sir.”

Tasgall’s face. I could see this feral grin, the delighted mania in his eyes and the cutting teeth of his smile. I can see him fiddling with the controls, a thin plastic remote in hand with dull, boring buttons that presumably had some label I couldn’t make out.

The woman turns, side ears folded against her cheeks, the smooth head devoid of any horns seemed all but expressionless when compared to male Geshru. Her twitching tail made up for this deficiency, a mixture of amusement and annoyance.

“Yes, yes, all very scar-“

“AARRGGGHH!!” I shrieked in pain. Fire! Burning! It was like a knife being stabbed into my throat and twisted while a melted iron was injected directly into my lungs through the still gaping wound. Pain! Everything, it was all pain!

The woman holders her arms up toward her head to cover the ears, and even before I’d finished my howling scream she’d continued as if nothing had happened.

“Electrocuting the poor Max to try and make it roar was unnecessary.” She mutters through gritted teeth. “Sir.”

“And yet you know exactly what will happen to you if I take this remote with me and walk out that door. Remove the safeguards, get her out of Lockdown, and this [Expletive] of a Max wi -”

“She will do exactly what she’s done to the easterner, and I will be in no danger.” The woman doesn’t even turn to look at him, instead walking … no. Forward. She was walking to the blanket. No! Ohgodno please leave him alone.

Even through the burning agony as that collar’s shock faded away, my muscles tensing and flexing without any capacity to move, to even lift my arms up and massage the injured throat, I could hear. Her calm movements were drowned out by panicked squeaks, the voice of that third Geshru echoing across the halls in a half whisper.

“I didn’t do anything, I swear. Just … no! No I’ll do anything, please. Please don’t kill me!” Soto begged, and I could see nothing of what she was doing to him. Forced instead to stare at a half naked Tasgall at my feet, unclean night clothing and a remote control in his hand. His face a bright red, all four ears turning pink through his bristling rage.

“Shhh, shhhh. You’re not in trouble, just come here.”

The young man I’d just spent the better part of a sleep cycle with walked forward, food paste staining his fur and the nude rodent all the more exposed when standing between people with a uniform. Though neither had weapons intended to kill a Geshru, there was no illusion to hide the fierce reality of this situation. If either of these people wanted Soto dead, there was a full military compound at their beck and call just waiting to make it happen.

“Eastern scum. Worthless Starskimmer. You should have been eaten and your soul turned to shit over a day ago.” Tasgall glares at what has become my most recent room-mate.

“And yet this Maneater here, if that is indeed her real name, has refused to take the soul of any easterner. Now why is that?” The woman asks with decidedly not charming sincerity.

“Because she can’t tell the difference between food and not food, that’s why! You saw the footage, she will eat people.”

“She attacked a failed operator who had beaten her, abused her, a pilot so incompetent he would run his Max into the wall because of a slip at the controls. Now what has this Easterner done to her? Sit in her food bowl, naked and shivering?”

The woman grabbed at Soto’s shoulders and propped up the naked prisoner as if he were a trophy, or some key piece of evidence. With an almost tender motion she wipes some of the nutriment paste away.

“This is training, and you know that. We have to get these beasts to tell the difference between – “

“I think they already know the difference.” This woman grins. “Because you see, none of the other Maxes will take a soul either. They always wait, they always suffer themselves before taking a life. They even go so far as to give their own food to an Easterner, this Max included. I think the reason they attack you, the reason they attacked those other pilots, is because you’re bad at being a pilot.”

Tasgal Bristled once more, his composure vanishing completely under so many repeated insults. She was pressing his buttons and he knew it.

“That’s absurd conjecture, these creatures are nothing more than mindless meat slabs, custom built to serve the Gashn empire. I. Am. The. Best. Pilot! I will not have you besmirch my honor, nor my abilities! I shall have you court-martialed for this injustice and slander! Do you hear me Doth, you will not get away with- ..”

“Care to make a bet?”

“Unless you’re on your knees and begging in the next ten seconds, I’m going to call the general.”

“Funny. That same general who just selected me for this next supply run? Over you I might add.”

“Oh you think you’re funny don’t you?”

“I think I’m serious. After all if I lose this bet, then I’m never going to make it out of this room alive.”

That stopped his rage.

“I’m listening?”

“I believe that we’ve been wrong about these Max’s. That they’re smart enough to understand commands, and that they’re innately peaceful. They don’t attack anything unless you give them a good reason for it.”

“They have plenty of reason, it’s an easterner. Every good Gashn knows you kill them on sight.”

“And so I, as a proud Gashn soldier, should have nothing to fear. Can you say the same?”

“You’re … you’re crazy.”

“And yet to get access to this Max, I’m willing to stake my life on it.” The woman steps forward, her movements swift and forceful. Soto was tripped in passing and clatters into a sprawl on the metallic tiles, this Geshru pilot not even offering him a backward glance. All eyes, all focus, all her passion poured directly into my owner’s gaze.

“You’re going to die here.”

“Or I’m going to walk away inside the cockpit. We won’t find out until you release the dampener controls.”

“You … you really want this? Want to be alone with Maneater here?” Tasgal grinned. Lifting the remote up and taking a step back.

“We could try being together in here, close that door and just release the Max unit right now. I believe I’ll have less to worry about than you.”

“Fuck this. Fuck you. And may the Core reject your soul.” He all but shouts, lifting his tail high and bounding for the doorway. He didn’t look back as he entered the open halls. He didn’t look back as the door was closing. And he gave this woman one long, knowing smile, before the door clanks shut with an obnoxious grinding.

Suddenly I could move. My belly flat onto my knees and my head almost impacting the floor, I had to brace against my own weight when there were no controlling signals holding me up. My breathing was normal, my hands shot up to massage the burning ache in my throat. I could move, I could feel, my eyes were under my own control once more and I could gaze upon any part of this room I chose.

Freedom in a prison, the tight confinements of this pale and uniform room were nothing compared to the existential horror of being trapped in your own skin.

And yet I was trapped together. Having had those moments to regain my bearings, to step back and examine these two, I could finally see them clearly and under my own initiative. Soto laying back on his hands and knees, looking fearfully between the woman in uniform and myself in little more than a bra and shorts. The man looked miserable, his pupils wide and his horns splayed back. The woman looked brave.

I unfurled from this prostrate crouch and rose to my full height, standing up quickly and baring my gaze down upon her. The bravery cracked into a nervous twitch.

Taking a step, then another, my toes deliberate in their placement, getting closer and closer until I could reach down and snatch. Her bravery shattered into a terrified stance, her eyes all but a single color and her tail stiff behind her.

“Ohplease be right. Come on girl, you’re a smart one. I know it. You don’t want to be lobotomized.” She pleads, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was trying to convince herself, or to convince me.

“You are right you know.” My voice crackles out, everyone flinching as if this were the explosion of a cannon’s volley.

“M-my … my name is Doth. I am D-doth Renfi of the Gashn Max devision.” She stutters, forcing herself closer to me and holding up a single paw as if offering to grasp at my hair. I couldn’t help but grin. “And now that formalities are out of the way, it is my absolute pleasure to make your first acquaintance miss … miss Maneater.”

I raised an eyebrow, bending down onto my knees and folding up with a low squat, my arms reaching down to extend a single finger at her outstretched palm. She didn’t flinch back despite clearly being nervous, she held her ground and forced her grip close enough to touch. My one finger dwarfing the entirety of her arm.

“You are a strange one, and I’d like to say you were the first. The pleasure is …” I paused. For emphasis or for thought I wasn’t sure, but her breath hung until my next words. “The pleasure is all mine, miss Doth. Call me Freya.” Of course she didn’t understand a word I said, and from the folds in her ears would have preferred to never hear me at all.

“You aren’t going to eat this little prisoner over here, are you.” Doth questions with a motherly chime.

“Do I get a say in this?” Poor Soto …

“I’m not going to eat anyone if I can help it, but if you can convince Tasgal to walk into the room right now I’ll end the monster faster than you can blink. You can bet your whiskers on that little cutie Gesshru, yes! That’s right. Who’s a smart little cute Gashn that can open that door for me~” I whisper back in as pleasant a tone as I could manage, deliberately sweet. Given her smile it was clear she didn’t understand this either.

“So how about this Maneater” Doth squeezed, leaning forward to plant her chest on my fingertip and smoothly stroke along the crease of my palms. “I want to help you, none of the older pilots here can think their way past a cloth sack. But I’m different. So I might be young and new, but I can see you in there. Brilliant and kind, none of you want to fight in this war at all. You’re safeguards are too strong for that.”

“You’re correct right up until that last bit, such a shame you’re not the first to notice at all. Not by a long shot.” I whispered sadly.

“If you bend over and let me get access to your neck, I’m going to hop inside the cockpit and take us both for a ride.” She intones with all the caring sweetness of a vet trying to calm down a stranger’s pet.

“And if you had any idea how awful that was you’d know my answer is go fuck yourself.” I said just as kindly, with a toothless smile and a sweet infection. Soft whispers to avoid damaging her bruised earlobes.

“I’ve been watching you, I know how caring you are. And I know you’re not as vicious as command likes to claim.” She keeps petting me as if she’d only just taken control of some dangerous animal. Ignoring the confused, quivering Soto as he steps back toward the blanket or glances at the doorway.

We both want that door to open, Soto. Only you would probably kill far less people than I would if we both managed to escape.

“They’re going to do it.” Doth squeaked. Her voice almost breaking. “They think you’re too hard to control. Command is considering the lobotomy, alright? But we can stop it. You can stop it.”

“I know exactly what your plan is soldier, I’ve been through this song and dance before.” My fingers curled around her waist and in an instant I’d scooped her off the floor. The woman was stunned and speechless, simply gazing up with a stiff tail and frightened whiskers. She looked as if she were afraid I’d kill her, here and now. Despite all her bravado in the face of Tasgal, I could tell by her eyes, by the way her chest heaves, by the nervous grip in her claws, she actually felt as if she were risking her life right now. And perhaps to some extent she was in regards to me …

Such a shame she wouldn’t know where the real danger was until it’s too late.

I stood tall and held her aloft, the boots of her feet dangling beneath my fist and my nose level with her face. I could still see Soto, his expression alight with awe and terror as I once more assumed the height of their tallest spires.

“If we can handle a simple mission, if I can safely pilot you without any difficulties, then we won’t have to zap your brain. They won’t risk killing you, or making you useless, they’ll just get a better pilot to run you.” She said quickly, urgently. Pushing through her fear to plead the case in as sweet and chiding a tone as I’d ever heard. Being spoken to like I was a rabid dog and her soothing voice might convince me not to bite.

“Tasgal will lose favor!” She squeaks out, and suddenly my eyes light up with thought. “He’s the most aggressive in pushing to your torture, he can’t handle you as well as he’d want and it’s embarrassing him. In turn he’s embarrassing the entire Gashn army. If you can safely handle another pilot, Tasgal could be fired, he’ll be mocked for a lifetime, he’ll never get to pilot a Max again.”

I smiled.

“Now THIS is what you should have lead with little miss Doth speak too much.” My teeth and my breath were clearly having an effect on her, years of not brushing my teeth and eating uncooked corpses of Geshru prisoners weren’t doing a good deal of benefit to my hygiene. But she was pinned between my fingers and knew better than to try and escape.

“We’ll just go out for a relaxing, simple job. Okay? It’s just moving boxes and carrying supplies. We need rations and spears carted to the eastern front, so we’ll be passing a few towns and stopping off at the halfway army base. We’ll be back before nightfall and you won’t have to fight anything, I promise.”

“You had me at show up Flits, you know. You can stop selling it to me.” My thunderous voice rose, both Geshru in the room trying their best to paw their ears shut. For the moment I didn’t feel like offering much sympathy, after all my part in this ‘plan’ still involved giving up my body for the rest of the day. The only difference between her and a more typical pilot is the fact she’s asking me, hoping to coax me, all while assuming I’d just listen to the tone of her voice with no care to what’s actually being spoken.

If she could have done this with a remote and walked into my collar without a word, she would have done so. But she’s not allowed to. The higher ups are hoping she’ll make some mistake, and that I’d kill her for the fun of it. Perhaps to enact some revenge. They would think like that. This is a test she’s supposed to fail, and I suspect it’s a test as to what I’d do as well.

Be gone and back before night’s end. Assuming this is the morning, early or otherwise, based on Tasgal being awake but undressed, then we can assume roughly 8 hours of daylight until the woman has to sleep. In this planet’s system a single rotation was somewhere between 37 to 40 hours, with twentyfour or twentyfive spent in daylight under one of the two suns, and a full twelve or so hours of darkness.

If we’ll be back before dark and before either pilot needs to rest, then at maximum I’ll be out walking for twelve hours. It’s a two way trip so that means a highest of six hours to the base and six hours to get back, if we assumed I wasn’t doing anything of note once I arrived. Or if I’d be instrumental in significant loading and unloading, then at best a five hour trip to handle the walk there and back. One hour of travel for me, would be fifteen hours of travel for them on foot. Though I’ve not managed to compare a human walking speed with the speed of their armored vehicles or cargo haulers.

In retrospect I suppose I was one of said armored vehicles, despite vehement protests against the categorization.

Four or five miles to the east. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the continent, cross referencing satellite imagery and maps we’d collected with landmarks and general territory discussion I’ve picked up since my transfer. Five miles isn’t close enough to see the ocean, but would be close enough to supply forces along the coastal borders. Or to enable a stronger naval push at some later date. Going strait east it’s also closer to the northern tribes, but that’d be a redirection rather than a primary goal.

Why would they focus on the east coast now? Have they had some victory to the north that makes them feel safe enough to prepare a push into Cavni territory? I would have thought they’d hold any strong eastern response until they’ve made sure their supply lines can’t be choked off by tribal raids or beasts from the northern jungles. What exactly could they be planning?

I breathed. My eyes opened to the expectant little Geshru.

“If y-you do this … I can promise your pet won’t be harmed.” Doth murmured quietly, a glance down at Soto.

“HEY! I’m not a pet!” Soto’s shouts went ignored by all, and my eyes narrowed.

“If you do this, without the remote, I can promise we’ll stop feeding you live prisoners. You’re pet won’t be harmed, and you’ll get to keep him for as long as you like. Maybe even let some new pets inside?”

“I can hear you asshole!” The naked Geshru prisoner got to experience the frustration of getting to talk, but no one listens. It almost made me smile if it weren’t so sad, but I desperately wanted to stop getting corpses in a doggy bowl. She could see it. She was reading me like a book and I was letting her, because for the first time in months someone could see I had emotions at all.

With a shaky breath I lifted her past my cheeks, uncurling my hand at the back of my neck. With a ploof and a squeak, the rodent wasted no time in popping the button to my collar.

Plastic shifted, I could see a clear sheet unfold in front of my face and cover my eyes into a biker style T shape. With clicks and whirs the entire collar expanded and stretched, enveloping my head in the usual embrace of terror and imprisonment. I could hear my own breath, see the shallow gasps leaving mist along the bottom of my black tinted visor. And just like that, I could feel something crawl inside.

Not inside the brain itself, but into an unfolded control box, a lump at the back of my skull that sealed shut and locked from the inside. A place where any Geshru could press the right buttons, feed their senses into the right controls, and play me like a fiddle. Overriding my spinal column with electrical pulses of their own design, taking direct dominion over my muscles. My body. My everything.

I could feel my muscles stretching, my head turning first to the left, then to the right. My arms flexed and bent, the hands curling into fists and then stretching toward the roof I could just barely touch. Then she took a step, and my legs obeyed her will. Moving lightly yet mechanically, a stuff grasp on the concept of balance with finicky controls that never did quite handle the weight all that fluidly.

“This means I get to live, right? You’re not going to kill me?” Soto calls up after the both of us, and as my head turns to look at him I could almost feel like I was in control.

“That’s the plan short stuff.” I mumbled with a depressed whisper, the squeaks distorted even further beyond recognition through the loose seal of my folding helmet.

“You’ll get to live for as long as the Max wants you here, Easterner. I don’t really care either way, but if you make her feel better, then it’s worth the cost of feeding you.”

Her words didn’t exactly inspire kindness from me, if I’d been that racist we’d have simply dominated the Geshru upon landing. And in retrospect that might have been a better strategy than humanity’s failed attempts at peace. Just need to wait until the next voyage comes out to investigate our disappearance. Stay alive until then, stay sane until then, there’s going to be a way out of this.

My feet stepped forward, the woman’s control once more reminding me that any escape was impossible when my every action was dominated by the whims of someone else. My lips were my own, my breath was my own, and I could lick at the helmet whenever I chose. That was the extent of my power in this moment.

My body stops at the door and the door opens, I could tell that Soto wasn’t exactly hurrying to dive past my feet and brave the entire compound on his own. My head tilts, and I’m greeted to the pleasing sight of a terrified Tasgal, the man now standing with two other Geshru and flinching back at my appearance.

“Pilot Doth Renfi of the Gashn Max division. Reporting for duty with high respect, sir!” A voice echoes from my helmet. Her words carried through a speakerphone near my throat, the electronic yet still loud and intimidating squeaky chatters shook my owner’s resolve.

But the two next to him were entirely nonplused, the typical Geshru in a lab coat and yet another in full military regalia. Probably the current commander given he’s so much younger than the last I’d managed to witness. A year old? Maybe two? He could not have been working here long, but he seemed to know exactly who was in charge here. And exactly what was going to happen very soon.

“No Twitch, pilot Doth. Assemble standard armor and report to cargo for loading. Dismissed.”

Without another word my body turned and walked down the halls, seeing rows of doors entirely identical to the metal slabs locking my own cage. And in the back of my mind, the literal back of my skull, I could hear the whispered squeaks of a Geshru pilot who thought she was being too quiet for anyone to hear. Geshru ears being far less sensitive than a human’s, I could make out her awkward and nervous chitters easily. Even catch that strange, no … that painfully familiar twinge of hope.

“You’re not a monster at all, are you maneater. Stick with me and we’ll show them, we’ll prove to everyone that you Max’s are kind and gentle. Just think of it, no more cages, no more dampeners, no more remote control caution every ten seconds.”

“I’ve heard it all before, kid. And if you can secretly understand my words then you need to listen. Right. Now. Okay? Tell me you can understand this.” I spoke in Gashn common, their language of clicks and squeaks and snapping my teeth, the sounds and inflections identical while the boom and bass were much too low. It was possible for one to understand if they simply translated, I know their ears could hear something and it was biologically feasible for one to make that connection.

“I’ve been with the other Max’s too.” She continues, no acknowledgement, no confirmation. I was just making sounds as far as she could tell. “The big guy was a sweet one, even with no controls locking him still, all the Max did was poke my tail and pet my ears.”

That must have been Toris, probably just feeling her fur or trying to be comforting. I miss seeing his face without this helmet in the way.

“Every Max I speak with, every Max I trust. None of you want to take souls, not even when you’re starving. All of these paranoid commanders and idiot biologists. No one has taken the time to speak to you, to get to know you. I’ll bet you’d even work for us if we took the collars off entirely.”

“You’re half right. Or a third right.” I responded sadly, my feet still walking like a dead man heading to his own execution. Her feet. My own legs might as well have belonged to her right now.

“But with you I can prove it, and everyone will have to listen to me. So I’m … I know you can’t hear me, but I’m really counting on you. I’ve wanted to be a Max pilot ever since I was a little girl, and this? This is my big break. My chance to make a splash, my chance to improve things for everyone.” Her unbridled glee might have been infectious if I hadn’t seen how little regard she felt toward the Cavni easterners. They weren’t even different species.

But that wasn’t even the sad part.

“I’ll be the first one to ever figure out the real truth behind Maxes. I’ll show everyone this torture and restraint isn’t necessary, that you’re smart and your gentle and you can do anything we ask. Just … just work with me okay? I need us to be partners. Not master and slave, but real, cooperating partners. I know I’m the first to ever really try, but you can trust me.”

“No. You aren’t.” my voice thundered, sad and forlorn. “Galno. Twali. Prolam. Notla. Elak. Reanma.” I listed them all, the names I could remember. The names of every other Geshru pilot who had come to me with this same plan, who had reached the same conclusion, and who tried against all odds to be my friend rather than my owner. “You’re race isn’t stupid miss Doth, you aren’t some special genius to managed to see what everyone else was missing. You aren’t the first, you aren’t even the second, and you aren’t the third.”

I could see it now, other Max units. My partners, my colleagues, in the same control with the same lack of dignity, being moved toward the same pillars for armor fitting. There was Kell, being fitted in her dark green armor with a silver tint. Her muscular frame showing clearly when in nothing but underwear, yet all individuality vanishes behind the plastic covering.

“Everyone else who figured out humans were smart, was killed. In the original team. In the team after that. In the team after that. Your government wants idiots who will believe what they’re told and ignore what they see.”

“From here on out, everything is going to get better. You’ll see.” I could feel her stroking the back of my skull, her palms reaching out to brush against my short trim hair. It tickled slightly.

“They’re going to kill you Doth.” I tried to shiver, closing my eyes and simply letting her movements take me. “If you push for exposing the truth, they are going to kill you … and quiet this up. And then get a new pilot in. And the entire song and days plays all over again …”

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