This story is featured in the Emptied Spaces anthology!
“Just one survivor, ma’am. IFF showed it as yours.” I stared down the secured container in front of me and the terrified quartermaster holding out the tablet for me to sign. “Fuck. This is going to be a mess, no way around it,” I said to no one in particular. Combat unit recovery was never pretty, even under ideal circumstances, and mine had a history of slaughtering its prior handlers. The dipshit troopers had gone out of their way to sedate my doll – insufficiently, too, probably – and then crammed it into a transport container with no communications or company?
It probably thought it was on-route to yet another battlefield again.
I signed off on the delivery and braced for the worst as the quartermaster and his crew vacated the hangar as quickly as possible. No one likes being around for recoveries, even the routine ones; then started the release procedure a moment later. Deadbolts slammed open and mechanisms spun to life, slowly opening doors meant to withstand artillery fire. As a precaution – procedure, really, at this point – my own defensive wards flickered to life on instinct. Barely a thought.
Not like they’d stop the full onslaught of my doll, but they’d give me enough time to calm it. Hopefully. The container was dark. And…no sign of the doll. They’d actually captured it, right? It couldn’t have broken out in transit…
A bullet slammed into my wards, spinning off into the floor, before a substantially larger projectile hit me directly in the chest, knocking me to the ground. Four hundred and fifty kilos of killing machine, aiming its rifle right at my head and screaming those terrifying screams, while I gazed back up at its tear-stroked face. They can cry, did you know that?
Anyway, right – the part about how I didn’t die. I did promise to not take your entire lecture time. The usual stand-down phrases didn’t work – they never do in these situations. You aren’t going to be able to wrestle one off of you, either.
So, I did the only thing I could think of to do. I hugged it and told it where it was. “Home.” And that…that worked. It picked me up – I thought I was surely fucking dead then – and hugged me back so tight I had to spend a few weeks in the infirmary for those ribs she – it – broke. None of those other handlers I’d mentioned had bothered to treat it like that.
They say to not treat your dolls like people. There’s a point to that. They don’t think like people, they don’t act like it, they’re on a fundamentally different level. But they do have feelings. They were humans once, and already terrified and traumatized ones at that.
Care for them. Show them affection, and they’ll do more than just die on your command. The devotion those things are capable of is more than anything else I’ve seen. And that, cadets, is how I ended up fu–hm? Oh, we’re out of time?
Ah, well, I’m sure you’ll find out how this story ends yourselves, if you follow in my shoes. I hope you enjoy your time as Handlers.
//>>Caitlin Steele, Major, “The First Witch”
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