Trapped on an alien planet, kept under control by neural dampeners, will Freya escape?
|My name is Freya Savitri, and I am not a soldier.
Soldiers. This was the place where Gashn soldiers worked. Soldato in Italian, jagunjagun in Yoruba, vojnik in Bosnian, soldat in Catalan, sundalo in Cebuano, No matter how many different ways I said the word, the fact these were tiny rodent soldiers never escaped me. The fact that these were people trained to kill, or the stark realization that I was nothing more than a weapon, a vehicle, something for them to wield, could never be forgotten.
The room hadn’t changed at all since I’d last been here, tall and gleaming with a pristine metal, the scent of plastic and burning rubber strong even through my visor. The human before me, Rodan if I were to judge by the dark skin tone, walked with a stiff and awkward gait up toward two thick spires rising all the way to the shoulders.
He stepped between them to see jointed arms with an equal mechanized movement extend forth, holding bits and pieces of fitted armor like a child’s toy. Quick assembly, snapping plastic into place and spinning screws tight, covering the shoulders and feet, fitting a kneecap over the legs. Thick pauldrons on his shoulder that looked light and bouncy as if it were little more than a costume.
Fully outfitted, the man, my colleague, resembled a toy soldier in cheap plastic with the make and design of some fictional space marine. He didn’t turn to glance at me when his armor was fitted and not a crease or a seam on the man’s skin was visible. Nor, upon his leaving, did I turn my head to watch him.
The eyes. The hardest part about all this was not having control of your eyes.
“You’re getting anxious.” Doth said, my body pushing between those same spires, my arms lifting up for ease of access and my legs spreading wide. I didn’t get to watch while numerous hands all surged about my mostly nude form, sliding plastic sheets into place and fitting the gelled foam comfortably against my skin. The fingers sealed completely, the toes cut off from the cold chill of this tile floor when boots snap into place.
Everything was warmer, and in this armor everything was so much more claustrophobic. I felt silly. I felt like a Halloween costume playing pretend, and someone else was wearing me for the holidays.
Of course this comparison was apt in more ways than one. The armor was completely worthless to any traditional human weapons. It wouldn’t stop a sword, it won’t stop an arrow, it certainly won’t stop a gun, and it’s less than useless against a heat ray or a radiation beam, or even a soundcannon. The plastics will simply melt and scald onto bare skin, dealing lasting damage where the burns of a beam might have cut off.
But the Gesshru as a whole, even with all the economic might and power and formidable technology of the Gashn empire, didn’t have anything in the way of weapons that could penetrate it. Not reliably, not enough to injure a human. Certainly never enough to kill one, save that glorious special circumstance in which one lucky soldier managed to find a weakness. A jugular, a major artery, the eyes, something. That’s what the armor was for. To make even those potentially harmful blows as useless as possible, and to drive home the idea that fighting a Max is suicide.
That fighting a Max was to lose your very soul.
“You aren’t responding now.” Doth muses with a twinge of worry, and I could feel her hands fiddling with my controls.
My chest was constricted in padded foam, the unyielding plastic a tight mold across my body while the soft material inside provided enough leeway to breathe. To bend and flex, to move with as much fluid grace as my operator could manage. But I was ignoring Doth right now, I didn’t want to think about what this armor was for. I didn’t want to consider why we had to suit up each time, or the fact that my breath was billowing into my own nostrils as I gasp into the helmet.
To my surprise my eyes moved. And I blinked. I didn’t feel someone else blink those eyes for me, I didn’t feel them moving of their own accord, I blinked. My eyes turned, no. No they didn’t, I turned my eyes, and got to focus my gaze on the distant Toris already suited up and near the door. Seeing my armored coworker leave, watching the strides through this tinted visor and fogged vision. I could breathe and I could speak and I could see, she’d given back control of my eyes!
I try to move my arm, but no response. Simply the tight twisting screws as plastic is locked into place and clamps are sealed shut.
“No no, don’t move, you’ll injure yourself if you move during outfitting.” The voice whispered into the back of my skull. Doth knew. She was watching the monitors, keeping track of my thoughts, my impulses. I let out a nasally huff.
“Right, of course. Thanks for my eyes I guess.” I looked away. My head wasn’t turning but my eyes focused elsewhere. The armored human left and a sprawling doorway swung to a close behind him. Now my gaze lingered to the numerous technicians scampering at my feet, loading supplies, plastic sludge, metal screws, all fitted into the spires for rapid assembly. Still others were dragging out ammunition, wood and plastic for their spears. Yet more were stretching and hauling slabs of rubber, the banded tubes their form of projectile weapon.
The whole of Gashn weapon’s technology could be fitted across the desk of a bored office worker. And was somehow less dangerous than the human equivalent. And these guys were the most advanced people on this planet, with the most aggressive and warlike culture.
“So that’s what you’re trying to see. No one really lets you get a good look at the compound, do they?” She asked with a soft sincerity, dripping with pity.
It baffles me how badly my team of explorers lost to these bundle of squeaks. Too trusting. Just too trusting …
“I saw when this place was being built. About what, three years? Nothing’s changed.” My voice boomed in the squeaks and chitters of her language. Yet even as I remained stoically immune to the wanderlust she thought the sight of these technological marvels to the Gashn should have instilled upon me, I knew that she was much too young. How many months ago was she born? How ancient and venerable did this building appear through the eyes of someone that went to school for less time than I incubated inside a womb? More to that point, if she came across as childish in her words and her wonder, did I have the right to compare?
I’ve personally lived longer than the entire Gashn empire has existed, and even the longest of their dynasties spanning multiple generations would come and pass before the end of an average human life. These people were young and fast, and the only way anything remained stable in their culture was by some force compelling it to remain static.
“Okay here’s how this is going to work.” Doth mutters, my legs pulling forward before I’d realized the outfitting was complete. I might have been standing there for too long and never noticed, but it’s not as if I could have moved forward anyway. “I’m getting vision from your eyes, so whenever you don’t look where you’re walking it makes things harder on me. And I think harder on you as well.”
I looked down at my feet, to make sure no Gesshru soldiers or production workers were in the way. Far too many were, scampering about my feet and hauling materials into smaller side doors.
“I want you to try and pay attention, cooperate with me here. You guide your own eyes and look at what you think is important, make sure I can see as much as possible, okay? We’re going to move forward …” she pushed my arms to my side, and my legs took yet another step. And then another. Heavy awkward stomps as she clearly didn’t know how to handle the weight, but of course few pilots ever did. The flat-footed crushing romp of a human in motion compared very badly to the bouncy swagger and easy hops of a Gesshru on two legs.
I looked down at the technician’s once more, Gesshru in lab coats and civilian dress. My eyes piercing hard at those who strayed too close to my feet, or whom had a trajectory that put them in my path at the time of a boot coming down.
“No, I want you to look … huh. Look at … at what’s important.” Doth muttered softly, gazing through my eyes from her little screen even as she carefully maneuvered my feet. She started to get less mechanical and more deliberate, widening the stance to position my legs away from some pedestrian, using my feet to track the movement of my eyes. Any time I spotted and stared at a Gesshru Doth would hold me there, making sure to keep a safely wide birth as if at my behest. When my eyes lingered on an empty spot, she’d rise and lower my feet to plant it there.
For the first time in over a year I looked less like some uncaring machine striding forward with a bold purpose, expecting all others to get out of my way. I looked more like an annoyed parent tip-toeing their way past sharp toys, my stride and my careful steps actively avoiding what could have ended very badly for someone.
It didn’t get us to the exit doors faster, but by the time they opened I could tell Doth was amused.
“Of course.” She mutters. “I say important, and you focus entirely on Gesshru. Hah! Well that is very sweetly touching of you man-eater, but those guys were all poor workers or eastern slaves. You don’t have to worry too much about replacing them, we can always just raid a settlement and find more.”
“If I’m going to step on anyone, I’m stepping on pilots and soldiers. That’s the deal, take it or leave it.” I growl back.
“I know, I know.” Her palms, I could still feel her palms stroking my scalp. The sensation pleasant and soothing, if so annoyingly localized it became a tickle. “I’m not saying you have to, I’m not even saying it’s a good idea. Just … don’t worry about it too much? No one’s going to blame you for accidents in transit, I’ve got everything under control.”
And then as if this were a lollipop to come before she shot, the petting into my hair was the fore-runner to my eyes moving on their own. A glance left, then right, finally back to left. My body twists on its heels and strides with all the swiftness of a steamroller toward an indistinct grey building.
Wait, maybe it was brown. It seemed to be built out of dried mud and some poorly mixed cement, a domed building held up by tin foil and plastic support blocks, lighted by tiny LEDs. The entire stricture, and others like it, barely went up to my knees. To say nothing of how massive the main holding compound was by comparison, doll houses next to an aircraft hangar.
I glanced back down to those who were nearby, numerous Gesshru in full uniform standing smartly to either side. I turned my eyes another way to spot them unfolding a massive tarp, three or four feet in length and tied off by ropes at the end. Each side sprawled onto the rocky dirt next to this small storage block.
Wait … my control was back?
My eyes turned to spot those behind me, to see where my arms were at the moment and to make sure I had room while backing up. Legs bend down, control of my waist and shoulders entirely subsumed for my arms to swing the plastic doors open and my body to fall to its knees.
But then control had indeed come back to me, my vision peering into the dimly lit storage hold and spotting multiple crates of dried seed, plastic weapons, crude rubber, and bottles of water. Military supplies, rations and weapons, heading toward the eastern front. I could even control my own eyes when glancing over to the soldiers standing ready at my feet. A tiny squeak of a voice shouting up.
“Routine verification, Max unit four please identify yourself and your purpose.”
“Pilot Doth Renfi, reporting for routine supply run to Galm Outpost. Sir!” An electronic voice billowed from my throat, squeaks played through a tiny speaker outfitted into my armor. Pilots had to be able to talk after all.
“Orders confirmed then.” Another soldier shakes his head. “Did old Flits get eaten by maneater here? If so then Calpa owes me ten seeds.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Doth’s confused professionalism broke immediately.
“Don’t worry about it, just scoop up twenty of each crate and set them on the tarp.” One of the Gesshru by my feet stalked closer, motioning to the open hanger within. “They’re color coded so this won’t take long.”
“Just a bit surprised woman, unless you’re actually Flits and old maneater just removed a few parts.” The first one sniggers, and in retrospect I realized that he probably had a good idea there. If only I could just get five minutes alone with the bastard.
“Pfft- Not quite” Doth’s laugh felt so strange coming from my throat. And under her control my arms were reaching into the hanger and pulling out boxes to stack. Awkward and clumsy like a small child just learning to play with toys, slow and mechanical as anything else. It left me frustrated in all honesty, she was taking three times as much time as she needed. “Made a bet with the commander actually, he thought I’d not be able to pilot his Max at all and Tasgall assumed I’d be dead by now. But nothing to worry about with this sweetie right here, Maneater wouldn’t hurt a baby.”
She wasn’t giving me control of my eyes anymore, and at being called sweet I let out a deliberately throaty growl. The nearby soldiers shuddering at the sound, their bones shaking and their lungs jostled from just my wordless disapproval. I’d be rolling my eyes right now if someone let me, though Doth seemed far too intent on watching the boxes.
Apparently she needed to concentrate. And this just made me feel like I was in kindergarten being put through basic shape recognition and color pattern exorcizes.
“You have seen what happened to the last pilot, right?”
“How about the guy before that. We’ve got video.”
“Just keep a tight leash on this ‘sweetie’ here, I’m not gonna take my chances.”
“Well of course.” Doth chides. “And you’ll notice she was eating soldiers, not babies. It’s all just a matter of not being threatening, treat a Max right and I’ll bet you won’t even need the collar.”
I tried to wince. My mouth and lips curl, my nose wrinkles, and my face scrunches. But the eyes remain locked open and staring into the dark recesses of a cargo hold. More boxes gripped between the plastic outline of my gauntlet covered hands, set ever so gently into a neat little stack. The soldiers around offered mixed results, some terrified, another curious, at least one appeared thoughtful by the back and forth swing of his tail, still another burst out laughing.
“Yeah, just keep those dangerous ideas to your own experiments. When you’re out in the field, go with what’s field tested. Not some new theory you haven’t worked out all the kinks to yet.”
“Of course.” Doth’s voice was dripping with glee, her movements gaining traction and her speed picking up a more fluid pace. She was having a lot more fun using my hands than I was being the heavy lifting equipment.
“How many times have you gotten behind those controls, miss … Doth, was it?”
“Doth Renfi, and this is about my fifth or sixth time. I’ve never been in Maneater’s cockpit until now, but she doesn’t seem any different from the others.”
“A bit smaller I’d say.” A soldier mentions while leaning past my outstretched arm to peer inside. Another steps up to the tarp and begins counting the boxes.
“Well naturally.” Doth’s voice, it felt as if I were talking whenever she spoke through that speakerphone. Uusually pilots were never this casual with ground forces when actually inside their rig. “She’s a female of the specimen and engineered for child rearing instead of combat. I’m pretty sure that’s how you build new max units.”
“Why not just give it the same design as the other ones?” A geshru brings up.
“Talp you aren’t thinking strait, you have to build the girls different from the boys otherwise they don’t have the right parts.” Another chides, though I couldn’t look at him to describe the features.
“Muscle mass isn’t one of those parts though, the men are clearly bigger and stronger than the girls Naol.” A third brings up.
“Why would anyone design that though? It’s not like a smaller body is a necessary feature.”
“Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?”
“Yeah, men are stronger than women, it’s just a fact.”
“Okay wait, wait.” I heard a female voice pipe up, their squeaking chitters from at my sides and behind my back enlightening to sift through on this otherwise monotonous task. “How are you able to tell she’s a girl at all? I look at these things all the time and they all look pretty similar.”
“Well some of them are a different color.”
“But not even the males have horns, and it’s not like there’s a tail you can look at. How are you guys able to tell gender apart on this building sized monstrosity?”
“Hip width and shoulder width mostly, the girls have to have a bio-production facility inside them and the men don’t really need their specialized organs to be large enough to fit a developing max unit. I think their bio-engineering is done somewhere below the belly, so wide hips means it’s a girl to fit all the equipment and wide shoulders means it’s a boy. Because, I donno, they decided to put muscles in all that extra space.”
“Then shouldn’t it be the legs that are more muscular?”
“Eeehhh, can go either way. The girls seem to have stronger legs.”
“If we can just build one whenever we want then why is there even a gender divide at all? Wouldn’t a self replicating asexual species be more efficient?”
“Maybe if the eggheads up top knew how to do that.”
“It’s been three years though, these things are ancient and no one has produced any new Maxes at all.”
“Maybe we don’t need to?”
“I think it’s because we don’t let them breed. I mean, sure we have male and female Max units but it’s not like they even share a pen together.”
“Can you picture this monster with a kid? Hah.” I felt a tap on the back of my shoe, someone striking none too gently and hearing that echo trail up my padded plastics.
“Oh core.” Another soldier shudders, stumbling back to lean against the side of the cargo hold. “Just imagine a baby Max.”
“It’d take after it’s mother probably.”
“Trapped inside a predator is one thing, but if your soul was bundled up inside a child? By the Core no spirits would ever let you live that down.”
“Huh, sounds like something we should be looking into actually.”
“Yeeaah, we’ve got a hard time trying to get these maxes to eat any easterners. Maybe if we just train a baby one?”
“I didn’t think baby Max units existed. Last I heard they come fully formed out of a vat of chemicals, they shouldn’t need to be able to reproduce at all.”
Doth’s voice rings out from that speaker tucked inside my armor, grainy and loud but with a different bass than what my lungs could produce. It was smaller instruments after all. I could feel my arms swing in and tuck under my shoulders as if I were preparing for a chicken dance. One leg swings forward and scrapes through the mud, a painful dragging that might have torn flesh or left bruises for its poorly managed suddenness if not for the smooth plastics.
My head bobs, swinging left and right as I get another short look at these various speakers. No idea which one was which or who said what, even from context clues I couldn’t begin to guess.
“Good timing. Just grab the corners and start heading east, we’ll finish up the rest.” One soldier states. To my utter dismay I could not differentiate his voice from any other voice, it was all squeaks and tooth clacks and too much of my thought was spent trying to translate it.
But I could understand the words. I took pride in how well I understood those words.
One leg shoves down, the soldiers back away from heavy grinding as boots part dirt and dust rises over their heads. Desert locale, dry and open and very annoying to clean up after. I could feel Doth struggling with the controls like an infant learning to walk, spreading wide for balance and keeping the knees locked strait. She positions me to one side of the tarp and suddenly my entire upper body lurches wildly, bending at the waist and nowhere else leaving my head down near my knees. Arms don’t so much probe as they do slap, smacking down onto one side then the other, fingers curling up in a movement that would have made a carnival claw machine embarrassed.
But it worked, if painful to watch her try. The tarp slides over one side, then folds above the other, tying up these cargo containers in a neat little bag. All it needed was a hobo stick and the image would have been complete, if only the Gesshru were so cultured. Two fingers curl through a loop in the center and my arm lifts up to leave all the jumbled mess of boxes crashing onto one another. The food shifting wildly and the weapons making a soft clatter.
It felt for all the world like I was picking up a bag of groceries. Perhaps if I ate more rice …
“That should be everything, are you going to open the main gate?” My pilot’s voice thunders, my hips arch back, and in moments I was back to my full height. Towering over the storage buildings, requiring more space than the carts or wagons they used as vehicles. Me carrying what amounts to a plastic shopping bag of rice was more raw war materials than four dozen of their soldiers riding across the path on wheels. And I could deliver faster. They could be certain no raiding party or assault force could dare mount an attack even to steal the supplies away.
I didn’t get to do this often, but even knowing this grim purpose I still preferred working logistics far more than I ever would combat.
“You’re clear to move! Pilot Doth Renfi, and I repeat, you are clear to move!” a voice shouted up, cackling loudspeaker from somewhere far off. The doors to the main compound, our enclosure, opened up to reveal another human stepping out. Full combat garb and robotic movements as always, while my body was forced to turn away and step eastward.
Wide roads with those domed shapes of military dollhouses lining either side, the base might have been the scale of a large back yard if one were to be generous. Stone walls standing about chest height that likely seemed intimidating to the Gashn, but could have been jumped easily by any teenager looking to hop a fence. It was built less to keep us in, and more to keep enemy invaders out. Middle age combat designs they could only have accomplished using the raw engineering capabilities of human workers. Which is to say slaves molding cement into a rough mound shape.
I almost wished the walls could be assailed one day, if only we weren’t so far from the front. While a Max unit in combat was too much for anything the Gesshru as a race could do battle with, it wouldn’t have been hard at all to slip through and steal our remote controls before any of the pilots could mount up.
A heavy creak, the door opened. Wood barricade held up by metal chains, made just large enough for a human to step through and swinging on a long hinge. Sand scraping away at ground level and entire teams of Geshru working a turn crank to make it move. When I could have managed with just a handle and a good shove.
But I was through.
I was open, in a restricting suit on an alien planet walking in the crisp morning light.
One could have almost enjoyed the walk if you just don’t think about a mind control soldier sitting on the back of your head.