I became aware of the attack only an hour after I had settled into my new apartment. Before then, I’d been staring in awe at the sheer size of the main living area. On its own it was bigger than any flat I’d ever grown up in.
Did I really deserve all of this? I had only just graduated from college. My college professor, the one that had recommended me to the department, would have completely disagreed I’m sure. Certainly, I’d graduated with the highest honours, but it seemed unfair to those who’d been in the profession for years. I suppose I could justify it be saying I was a speciality in my business. A fringe of a fringe.
I had taken a career pathway where the survival rate after the first year was less than 60%. I tried not to think about that too much.
The call came through on my state-of-the-art phone, standard issue from the DOPD. I answered the call in the way I had been trained to barely a day ago.
“Officer M. Winters speaking.”
“Winters, report to the launch bay immediately.”
My heart leapt into my throat and threatened to burst out of my jugular. It was happening. I was in the real world now. This wasn’t a simulation. I was going to save lives.
It took no time at all to reach the launch bay. Headquarters was a maze, but it was organised chaos. It was the size of a large town, or perhaps even a small city. One monorail ride and three stations later, I was at my destination. My superior, Dr. Bourne, was waiting for my arrival.
Even though I had already been introduced to him, I still felt like a kid meeting his favourite baseball player for the first time. Dr. Bourne was an inspiration to me. He was the reason why I and so many young people had taken on this dangerous occupation.
He was the one who had discovered that they weren’t monsters.
I began to put on in my inner suit as he read the report to me.
“It’s a level two melancholic.”
My mind raced.
“Waxing or waning?”
Dr. Bourne gave me an approving look. I must admit, I felt a great sense of pride from that.
“It’s stable, but there is a potential for waxing. It’s being monitored for now.”
“Have we got a lead on the patient’s position, or the catalyst?”
Dr. Bourne shook his head. “Nothing, all we know is that it’s an exploder.”
I tilted my head in confusion. Dr. Bourne must have realised what he said didn’t make sense to me and he chuckled softly.
“Sorry, work lingo. You wouldn’t have learnt that at the university. It’s what we call patients who blow up out of nowhere.”
That put me off my game for a second there. No one told me there would be extra lingo. Looks like I have a bit more to learn then.
“So, a level two stable melancholy with an unknown background. Can I get a visual?”
A screen in front of us lit up. I saw the familiar city skyline, smoke billowing from a building in the foreground. Beside it, standing 10 stories tall was a teddy bear with a pink bow on its left ear. It clung to the building, its head hung low and its shoulders wracking.
In the sky, several small fighter pilots surrounded it.
“What do you think?” Dr. Bourne asked.
I spoke as I placed my headphones and smart glasses on. I wanted to look as nonchalant as possible when I did this. I didn’t want to stick out on my first day.
“The patient is young, probably somewhere between the ages of 4 and 8. Unknown gender, but I’m leaning towards female due to the accessory bias. A patient that young could have a catalyst of almost anything. What’s its movement path been like?”
Dr. Bourne studied his tablet. “It hasn’t moved from that building.”
“That must be an area of importance to it. We’ll need to tell the rounder to keep the patient near there.”
“Already on it!”
A soft bubbly voice came from the speakers in my ears.
On the screen, I saw the crescent moon shaped aircraft fly towards the building. It approached the teddy bear carefully from behind.
“That’s Suzuka Yamaoka. She’s a new recruit, like you.” Dr. Bourne said.
I watched the ship float around the teddy’s head. It was at this point I began to worry. What if I made an error? I could jeopardise the safety of not only the patient, but Suzuka too.
No, I was going to be fine. I’ve trained for years to do this. I can’t start doubting myself now. That’s when things went wrong.
Wordlessly, I slipped into my exoskeleton. Despite its name, it was more like a complex suit of armour. It had three primary objectives – fly, provide oxygen and protect.
The exoskeleton had been tailored to my body, right down to my waist circumference and spine curvature. I suppose this was why we were on such a strict diet. I miss eating cheeseburgers at Danny’s.
Once it was locked correctly, I walked towards the launch pad. Although the suit looked as though it was made of solid steel, it was about as heavy as a thick jumpsuit. I couldn’t quite remember the alloy it was made of. All that I could recall was that it was something new, and something very expensive.
Dr. Bourne glanced up from his tablet.
“Remember Maggie, we have backups if you need assistance. It’s your first day, don’t be let down if you make a mistake.”
That was not very reassuring. Couldn’t he have at least wished me good luck?
I tapped the flight initiation code into my fingertips. Underneath my feet, I felt the ultrasonic rocket boosters switch on. Within seconds, I was soaring into the sky.
The city I grew up in lay underneath my feet. It was oddly still. I couldn’t see any cars moving or pedestrians walking. Even in my suit, I could hear the sirens blazing.
I approached the patient with caution. It was still in the same pose as before. Suzuka had come within a few dozen metres of its head. Her mech looked like a half-formed halo around the teddy’s cranium. Did teddies even have craniums?
As I got closer, I heard a new voice enter my headset.
“I’ve got your back.”
It was a male voice, deep and smooth. I turned my head and saw the larger humanoid machine floating behind me. It was almost five times my size. I felt my jaw clench. The protector’s purpose was to make me feel safe, but for some reason it just made me more anxious. It may have been the rocket launcher attached to the machine’s arm. I could see missiles in it that looked a little too nuclear for my liking. The submachine gun that was affixed to its other limb didn’t help either.
“Don’t worry, you’re gonna be alright Maggie.”
Hearing his voice again, I felt my shoulders relax. I wonder if they purposely chose protectors with such soothing voices. They’d never tell us this, but I had a hunch. This kind of psychological manipulation is easy to pick up on when you know what to look for.
I flew towards the bear’s head. With a few choice finger taps, I turned on the suit’s inbuilt speaker.
The bear turned to face me. I could see its face now. Its eyes were giant buttons, sewn in place with brown thread. Its mouth was stitched into a small frown.
“I can see you look sad. Do you want to talk about it?”
A few years ago, I did an internship with a child psychologist. I noticed that she spoke quite matter-of-factly towards them. She told me that children are a lot smarter than a lot of adults give them credit for. They know when they are being talked down to. I just hoped that this child understood what I was saying and that it could reply.
In one sudden movement, the teddy shot both its arms up towards me. It’s left arm clipped the building, sending sheets of glass and scaffolding to the ground below.
“Steady.” The protector replied.
I could hear the machine he was in shifting into an aggressive stance through the microphone. I quickly changed my speaker to our inbuilt communication channel.
“Hold yourself, the patient hasn’t shown signs of aggression yet.”
“Counsellor, it’s in an aggressive position.”
No sign of my name there. Looks like he’s in business mode.
“I wouldn’t consider-“
“The patient is moving!” Suzuka shrieked, almost blowing out the microphone.
I glanced forward. The teddy bear was striding towards me, arms out.
“Preparing to fire a warning shot!” The protector yelled.
I spoke quickly, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible.
“No! That will startle the patient. Hold your fire.”
The bear grabbed me in its soft arms. Before I could react, I heard a machine gun being fired in the air. Within the body of the bear came a shrill scream. For one horrible second I thought the patient had been shot.
“Hold your fire protector, that is an order!”
I could hear the panic rising in my voice.
“It has you!”
He sounded just as rattled as I did. I took a deep breath and counted to three before replying.
“I’m fine! The patient isn’t hurting me…”
I felt the bear’s arms press me against its chest. Within its body, I heard sobbing. It was faint, as if smothered by dozens of thick blankets, but it was there.
“I’ve found the patient. They’re in here. The chest.”
“Got it, I’ll come down.” Suzuka replied.
I focused back on the patient.
“Can you hear me?”
I heard a soft snivelling voice from inside the bear. It was barely comprehensible.
“You sound sad.”
“I-I am. I-I’m scared.”
The voice was getting more coherent. This was a good sign. The patient wanted to be heard.
“What’s your name?”
“Why are you scared, Chloe?”
Her voice was crystal clear now. It was as if we were standing side by side.
“I can’t find her!”
As I spoke, I saw the rounder’s aircraft in my peripheral vision. It was moving slowly and with great care towards the bear’s chest. From the centre of the moon-shaped mech, a robotic arm came out. At the end of the arm was a sharp blade. I winced. As far as we were aware, patients didn’t feel pain in this state. I just hoped that was the case for our current patient.
As the voice inside the bear talked to me, Suzuka tried to push the blade into the bear’s fabric.
“It won’t tear.” Suzuka said, her voice rising in frustration. “Why won’t it tear?”
I had a brainwave. Chloe doesn’t trust us, which makes sense. We’re strangers to this little girl We need to find what she’s looking for.
It was an unusual request, but one headquarters was willing to fill out. They’ve dealt with stranger things I imagine. The request only took twenty minutes or so.
They sent her over in a small plane. I made sure to request one with a large window. The woman was distraught, her voice only growing more distressed as she saw the monstrosity before her.
“A-a-are you sure?”
I spoke gently to her through the headset. “Positive. Thank you for helping us.”
We flew together to the bear’s solemn face. I told the plane she was on to stay at eye level to the teddy. Well, button level I suppose.
“Chloe, we’ve found her.”
The teddy’s face gazed at the new aircraft, it’s expression etched in a permanent frown. From deep within the patient, I could hear her small voice speak.
The woman spoke, her voice shaking.
“It’s me baby, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to lose you. There were so many people, but I’m here. I’m here…”
The bear’s stitches began to unravel like snakes. From the openings, stuffing started to pour out onto the street.
“Suzuka, help me find her!”
I began to push away stuffing. Above me, the gigantic teddy began to deflate, it’s body slowly sinking to the ground below.
We found Chloe in a heart shaped pouch deep within the teddy’s stuffing. The small girl slipped out of the pouch and slid into my arms. She felt so cold, but she was alive. I could hear her mother sobbing in my earpiece. I could tell she wasn’t crying tears of joy.
I tried to convince myself otherwise, but it was no use. She sounded as if she would have preferred that her child had been shot dead.
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