Pocket sleep was always an unpleasant experience for Jade. The human mind wasn’t designed for travel in this twisted dimension; if any crew had to be conscious for the trip, blast doors prevented any sort of exposure to the outside and the eerie radiation that was constantly emitted. Scientists speculated it might be exotic energies left over from the dawn of the universe, though little study had been done on the subject after the first teams who explored this realm returned with their minds as equally warped. Better to sedate yourself, let a computer handle the navigation, and not think too much about the fabric of reality being incompatible with your biology.
Jade had the misfortune of being particularly sensitive to these things. It made her a perfect candidate for her role as a witch, her mind capable of syncing up with the bleed-through energies of this realm, but it also meant it spoke to her while she was in stasis. Eddies and ripples translating themselves into speech in her dreams, the countless deaths and births of stars across the universe bringing her nonsensical visions to keep her from getting any sort of rest on the voyage.
Miss. A voice echoed in the void. Navigation has informed me that we’re ready to emerge from the Pocket. Are you ready?
Five more minutes.
If you insist. We may be in the wrong galaxy when we emerge.
A groan. Pull me.
Jade lurched forward, her head feeling not unlike it did on Sunday mornings at the Academy. Her exposure suit was dripping with stasis gel as she stumbled out of her pod, pulling her helmet off and gasping for air before immediately collapsing and throwing up. When her vision cleared, a familiar set of boots was in front of her, along with hands cleaning the mess up.
“Miss.” The doll in front her looked down at her, offering a hand. “Pleasant dreams?”
“Only the best, Rifle.” She stood, doing her best to compose herself as two other dolls continued to scrub around the pod. “Are we in the Real?”
“Two hours off of target. Navigation is getting us back on course. Should they enter the Pocket again?”
“God no. I’ll take the time.” Jade pulled her exposure suit off, grabbing a pile of folded shipwear while she started towards the mess. “Did we receive any communications from headquarters while we were in?”
“None. We are at the edge of communication range however. Any transmissions will be text only.”
She nodded, remaining silent as the two made their way through the cramped halls of the vessel. A number of service dolls had been activated, handing technical tasks around the craft while it began its burn in the Real. None of them seemed to pay her or her companion any mind, tinkering away with singular purpose, though on occasion one would look up and monitor them for a moment before returning to its work. Travel through the Pocket could make service dolls act… odd, though it seemed to have no long lasting effects, nor did it have any affect on higher functioning dolls.
The ship’s mess was as meager as the rest of the facilities on the vessel, a single dining table in front of a bar of rations and a blocked window indicating when fresh meals would be served. No port supplies left; rations only. Instead there was an assortment of meal bars, the “chef special” today being peanut butter and mushroom.
“Any word on long range sensors?” She mumbled, half-heartedly tearing the foil off of a bar and tearing a chunk off.
“Planet’s activity is consistent with Pocket contamination. Oversight Council reports two provinces lost thus far in the southern hemisphere. Local ground forces have maintained a containment shield utilizing prior planetary defenses, which is estimated to hold for twelve hours.”
“Ten to do our job, then.” She coughed, the doll handing over a water packet almost immediately. “Well… no time to waste, then. When we get in range, have a composition analysis sent to my room.”
“Five minutes to drop.” A soft voice came over the intercom, jolting Jade back from her thoughts. She was always a bit out of it after a jump, but this time felt different. Still, no time to call out when you were in orbit over an invasion. A gleaming orb could be seem beneath her feet, a world of purple and blue with strings of light along its coasts. For all the times she had done this, the surrealness of being above another world never did fade. Something she could only dream of in the Academy was a reality for her, actually going to other worlds, protecting them…
“Miss, are you alright?” Jade blinked, her Rifle standing beside her. “You seem distracted.”
“I’m fine, just a little hungover from the stasis is all.” She shrugged, pulling her gloves on and reaching for her helmet. “Are we ready?”
“Entry pod is fully prepped. You may engage the interface at any time.”
“Right.” She breathed, closing her eyes and putting a hand on her doll’s face. A moment later she could feel a familiar presence in the back of her mind, a certain calm and order coming over it.
Hello Miss. The doll’s lips were immobile, though its passive smile remained. The link is successful.
Well, no time like the present then. The two stepped into the waiting pod, Jade pulling her helmet on as the restraints interfaced with their respective suits. Hardened interfaces covered the sides of the pod, diagnostics of all sorts reporting on the status of the pod and its occupants. Seal the hatch, drop on navigation’s command.
Dropping. Jade blinked, looking at a now closed pod door. Had she missed it closing? They couldn’t be in position already-
The explosive bolts let loose, sending the pod away from the vessel and towards the planet’s surface. She breathed deep, trying to calm herself as the atmosphere began to glow around the reinforced windows. Out of them she could see two other pods let loose, the other witches on board following them to the surface. They were supposed to operate independently, but with these sort of blackouts, maybe they should link up on the ground.
Miss. Her doll’s thoughts came through clearer than anything else in the pod. You’re anxious Miss. Is something wrong?
I’m having blackouts. What’s my neural profile saying?
No anomalies Miss.
Run it again. I don’t want to be losing time when we’re on the surface.
Of course Miss. One moment…
The pod lurched, the sky turning a sickly pale as they slammed through the transition layer of the Contamination. Jade’s vision blurred, her Rifle’s thoughts growing more and more distant. Could she hear… panic? What was happening? The world continued to twist around her, reds of diagnostic panels bleeding across her vision while sirens overtook everything else.
“Your scores are extraordinary Recruit,” an older woman sat in front of her, an intricately carved desk separating the two. “There’s only maybe a hundred born a year on Terra that have this sort of connection. Was this never detected during your primary education?”
“I was completely unaware of it ma’am.” Jade stammered. “My parents never noticed anything. Two of my classmates were found during the Third year testing, but the specialists never said anything to me.”
“No bizarre dreams, odd reflections in mirrors, that sort of thing?” The colonel seemed stunned. “With these scores, you could do anything. Navigation, Drops, Exploration… the options are really limitless.”
“Well, if it’s all the same to you ma’am… I joined to do my service in the diplomatic core. It’s what’s in my contract. I think my test scores in negotiation and outreach speak for themselves-“
“Recruit, you are in the top, ninetieth percentile of witch candidates. There are only a few dozen like you that come through these halls each term. I’m sure we can find something that combines all of your skills, but the diplomatic core is not where you belong.”
The world came back to Jade, along with the pain. Her Rifle was hunched over her, applying bandages around her body. Don’t move Miss. Before she had a moment to react, it pushed her knee back into place, shrieking at the pain as the doll held her still. Medical gel is being deployed in your suit. You should be able to walk now.
“What happened?” She coughed, blood splattering the inside of her helmet. Her HUD was offline, and part of the glass had cracked near the top. “Where are we-“
Don’t talk. We are in the Contamination zone. Rifle is unable to contact the other Rifles. Ship communication is limited. Last transmission was approximately ten minutes ago- An earthshattering boom came through the air, their transport ship streaking across the sky engulfed in flames as it disintegrated in re-entry. They both watched it for a moment as it faded out of sight, her doll quickly turning its attention back to her legs. The ship has been compromised. Miss needs to activate her Pocket beacon.
“In a-” Cough. In a Contamination zone?! I could get us trapped, lose my Sensitivity, or worse!
Protocol demands that if a transit ship is lost-
Fuck protocol, we need to get to get to the edge of the zone. We’re sitting ducks here.
Miss, the nearest edge is two hundred miles from here. You will not make it. We have to shelter here, until-
“So… she wasn’t always a doll?” Jade murmured to herself, looking through a viewing screen to an exercise room with a half dozen Rifles in it. One, a shorter doll with a long braid, had her attention.
“You shouldn’t use words like with these Rifles.” The quartermaster was filling out paperwork on a nearby desk. “Whoever, whatever, they were before… they aren’t the same anymore. They aren’t human anymore. They’re dolls. More complex, more intelligent, than your usual service dolls but… dolls all the same.”
“Does that Rifle not use feminine pronouns?”
“It wouldn’t object if you did, but I’m telling you, don’t do it. You’re a Witch, you’ll be alive to see my great grandchildren go senile. They’re Rifles, they could live as long as maintained, but they won’t. You’ll go through at least dozen before they finally give you a pension. Some colonial or xeno is going to get a lucky shot off at you, and your Rifle is going keep you alive. That’s their sole Purpose. They are your Rifle, your doll, they are an it and a thing. If you let them be anything else, you’ll eat yourself alive by the time the third one cracks its core saving your life.”
“Okay, so… it wasn’t always a doll?”
“What do you want to know Warrant Officer? Do you want to know what fucked up childhood it had that made it go to a Depersonalization Center? What it had to tell the committee to get them to take its brain and put it in a core? Do you want to know if it had a family before it became a living weapon?” The quartermaster sighed. “I know you mean well ma’am. This is your first Rifle, everyone reacts the same way. You see the spark in their eyes and think there’s still something there. There isn’t. There’s the shadow of a person left, nothing more. They left that behind the day they decided that this was the best option for their life.”
Her Rifle looked up through the glass, nodding at her before continuing to calibrate itself on a set of weights. “I… understand. When will it be ready for me?”
“Give me, 1800 station time. I’ll make sure its core is ready to pair by then.”
She blinked back awake, the roof of a survival tent over her. Her Rifle was sitting near the entrance, holding a coilgun in its hands as it watched the darkening sky. It turned back to her, blinking as it looked her over. Are you feeling better Miss?
“My head feels like I’m having have the universe crammed into it.” She lifted herself up, groaning. “What’s our status?”
Five hours have passed. No contact with the other Rifles. No enemy contact. Predictive algorithms indicate the Contamination will spread beyond the shielding within the hour. Our initial analysis was incorrect.
“Any contact with the planet’s militia?” She pushed herself up, feeling the effects of the medgel in her joints. She was going be out of commission for months after this mission, but she could fight for now. “We need to find a gate and get this under control before the whole planet is overrun.”
Absolutely Miss. Unfortunately, no contact with the local forces. A pause. Might this Rifle make an observation?
“What is it?”
You’re dreaming, Miss. This doll can’t enter them, but it knows that you are dreaming. They appear to correspond to your blackouts. What are you dreaming?
“I’m… not sure, honestly. Memories? I think?” She grabbed her service rifle, looking out of the shelter to the twilight sky. “It’s been like this since we jumped. Flashes of things, the past, I think.”
Miss, are you being affected by the Contamination?
They were both silent at the thought. Witch protocol was extremely clear; if a Witch was suspected of being Contaminated, it was an immediate death sentence. A Rifle was programmed to immediately turn on its Witch if it had any evidence. The risks were too great to not.
“…no.” Jade said slowly, forcing confidence into her voice. “This began after I came out of stasis, two hours travel time away from the planet. If the Contamination reached that far, there’d be no planet here.”
…Understood Miss. It gave her another look, and for a moment, she thought she could see… concern? on the doll’s face. The nearest gate is approximately half a mile from this location.
“Well, best not to waste any time then. Let’s go crack a core.”
“This is extremely unorthodox Miss.” The Rifle was standing in the center of the arena, its Witch in front of it. “Rifles do not usually spar hand to hand with their Witches. The risk of harm is too great.”
“Oh comeon, it’ll be fine.” Its Witch was young still, and it was her first doll. Even so, she was unlike anything it expected. “I have wards up to keep you from punting me across the room, and I’m quick on my feet too. Do your worst.”
“Do you want this Rifle to under-perform, or to attempt to grievously harm you?”
“I-you know what I meant.” Suddenly the Witch sprung forward, attempting to knock it off its feet. It dodged with ease, barely straining its frame. With a rebuttal it kicked its now exposed Witch, breaking her stance and dropping the girl to her stomach.
“This Rifle’s reaction time is approximately fifty times faster than that of a Witch’s, which already exceeds human constraints. You are physically incapable of catching a doll off guard.”
“Hmph.” Its Witch groaned, flipping onto her back. “Incapable of catching a doll off guard,” she imitated the monotone of her doll. “What about…”
The doll barely dodged as a spear of crystal formed in its Miss’ hands, nearly skewering its abdomen. “Miss! Use of unauthorized magic on this station is strictly-” Another spear, clipping through its left hand and pinning it to the floor. “Miss!” Another spear, trapping its other hand.
“What were you saying again, ‘fifty times faster-‘” Her gloating was cut off as it freed itself from the crystalline spears, tackling and pinning its Witch against the ground with a hiss. “-yield! Yield! Yield!”
It released her, watching the crystals evaporate back into the air. “You violated station regulations Miss, as well as Witch’s protocol for the non-combat use of magic. This Rifle is obligated to-“
“This was combat though, wasn’t it? I was sparring with my Rifle.” She smiled. “I wasn’t fighting for my life, but I was fighting you. That counts, doesn’t it?”
“…This Rifle is unsure.”
“Then we’ll chock it up to a tie and not think about it anymore.” She looked at its hands, taking them in her own. “Come-on, I need to patch you up. Can’t have you running around with broken hands and dripping fluid everywhere.”
We’re here Miss.
Jade came out of her? thoughts, looking at the scene in front of them. A massive distortion was in the valley below, engulfing it in an eerie light as shapes moved about within it. Local vegetation touched by it had twisted, some of it more resembling crafted structures than wild fauna now. Crafted by what hands was anyone’s guess, the shapes completely eclectic and without immediate meaning. It was a physical manifestation of the Pocket in the Real, and just looking at it made her head hurt even worse than it already did.
“Rifle, start the recording. Bury the box here.”
Her Rifle obliged, pulling out a pitch black casket from its pack. The surface was etched with countless runes, and its seal glowed gently.
“This is Warrant Officer Jade Mankiller, accompanied by Rifle designation PHCM-7432-594255. We are entering the Pocket from a terrestrial Contamination Portal on planet BC-2686 “Bountiful Opportunity.” Our ship has been shot down by unknown forces. We have had no contact with all other Witch teams; suspected KIA. If this message returns to Terra, assume the planet lost.”
Her doll clicked something on the casket, ending the recording and quickly making and filling a hole in the ground, concealing the casket. She breathed a spell under her breath, the ground glowing as its latent energies surrounded the casket. If they died, the casket would return, and make sure no one else fell to this corruption.
They quietly began their descent, knowing full well that they were likely never going see the outside world again.
“Can I ask you about your past?” Jade looked over at her Rifle, chipper at the fresh food on her plate for once.
“This Rifle was manufactured five years ago, and inducted into your service three years ago. This Rifle has undergone extensive training in space based and terrestrial combat-“
“I mean… before that.” She coughed a bit. “Your old life.”
Her doll stopped, looking at her curiously. “Why would Miss want to know about that?”
“Just curious I guess. We’ve been serving together for years now, but I’ve never learned anything about what made you, well, you.”
“This doll is a Rifle, Miss. That is what this doll is. It is highly irregular for a Witch to inquire about their dolls’ prior human life.”
“If you don’t want to talk about it, I respect that, I just… was curious.”
A moment of silence.
“This Rifle lived on Terra, before its Conversion.”
Jade nearly spit out her food. “Terra? I’d never heard of anyone who lived on Terra choosing to become a doll. It’s about the luckiest planet you could be born on.”
“Lived, not born.” It shrugged. “This Rifle lacks memory of much of its childhood, both before and after its conversion. It knows it was brought to Terra’s surface from an orbital colony while still young. It knows that it found no satisfaction in the job it was assigned. It knows it lacked direction. It chose to convert for these reasons and others.”
“Oh. That… makes sense, I suppose.” She blinked. “I’d just… never heard of anyone feeling like that on Terra.”
“Seeking purpose is a universal trait Miss. Some humans are simply better at convincing themselves that they’ve found it, when they very clearly have not.”
“Did you know I joined the service to be a diplomat?” Jade laughed a bit. “They punted me here when they saw my Sensitivity scores. I expected to be going on expeditions to rebellious worlds, instead I’m dropping feet first into reality distortions.”
“Do you lack purpose Miss?”
“Apparently I’m going live well beyond the mandatory service times for Witches, so… no, not really. I’ll do my time here, and then, I don’t know, go exploring? There’s a market for civilian navigators. Hell, maybe I could be a merchant captain, go bargain my way around the cosmos.”
“That doesn’t sound like a purpose.”
“Just not a very purpose oriented person I guess. I just want to meet new people and see new things, really. Maybe I’ll bring you with me. A merchant captain and her Rifle.”
“This doll has never heard of a Rifle leaving the service.”
“Well, I’ll make you the first. How about that?”
Miss! Her Rifle screamed in her head. Wake up!
She snapped back to reality, taking their situation in. They were surrounded by militiamen… but that couldn’t be right. The sky was clear. The city was here. This couldn’t be Pocket space. What had happened? Obviously she had walked here, her Rifle wouldn’t have dragged her deeper. Was she conscious during her blackout? What was happening?
Miss, your Rifle needs orders. Please answer.
“Who’s the commanding officer here?” She looked over the formation, trying to spot who had rank in it. “I’m Warrant Officer M-“
What looked to be an officer stepped forward, and it was then Jade realized what was happening. The officer’s eyes were distorted, and upon seeing that, she could see through the rest. Their forms were drifting in and out of existence, mutating and returning in blinks of the eye. This was the city consumed by the Contamination, its people with it. But the only way these defenders could have retained forms like this was if…
“Praise the Goddess,” the officer spoke, simultaneously distant and near, lifting a service pistol. “We accept Her offering and Her blessing. May you return to Her embrace in bliss and-“
A bullet collapsed the man, Jade holding her rifle up as it smoked from the shot. This Contamination was intentional. The gate had taken them to the source of it as planned. Behind them, an alter had been risen, a perfectly preserved corpse hanging off of a makeshift cross.
These people had murdered one of her sisters and pulled the Pocket into the Real. They had forsaken their own, sacrificed their own, to court the voices beyond reality. To summon a false god.
I have determined that these individuals are Pocket Cultists. I am giving you my authorization to engage human combatants. They are attempting to expand the Contamination. Eliminate them all.
With pleasure Miss.
She immediately dove to the ground as her Rifle raised its coilgun, the air cracking as the carnage unfolded. Her only goal was to get to the alter now, but she could see through the corner of her eye as her Rifle did what it did best. The distorted militia fighters opened fire, but they were rapidly disoriented by the sheer ferocity of her Rifle, every slug fired finding center of mass in a cultist. There were hundreds of them, and none of that mattered.
Holding a defense ward over her head, she dashed up the steps, feeling the force of the bullets ricocheting off of her armor as she skirted from cover to cover. She drew a combat knife with her other hand, breathing an enchantment onto it. With a final ward of protection she pushed herself from cover, charging the alter and plunging the knife into the crucified corpse. So close, she could see the expression of the Witch, shock and pain frozen as her body was made into a conduit for this corruption.
For a moment she could have sworn she heard a whisper of thanks, just before the entire world blinked out of existence.
“Don’t you ever stay in bed miss doll?” Its Witch came up besides it, embracing it. “Leave traveling to the navigator, enjoy the perks of having captain’s quarters.”
“This one gets itchy, miss.” It shrugged, a small smile forming. “Traveling the Pocket always leaves it… uncomfortable.”
“Hmm. That’s a fairly human thing to say miss Rifle.”
“In the last seven hundred years of Pocket travel there have been two hundred fifty four thousand six-“
“Okay, that’s a very rational thing to say miss Rifle.” Her Witch laughed, nuzzling into its neck. “I don’t think you being up here is going keep us from getting eaten by some eldritch space worm though.”
“…Maybe not. Should this Rifle rejoin its Miss?”
“Your Miss would like to get some good sleep so yes, please do. Otherwise I’m going have to go cuddle the first officer and he hates it when I do that.”
“He should consider himself lucky to have Miss even consider it.”
“Of course miss doll, I just don’t think he sees it that way.”
They turned to walk away, it turning back to look at the blast door and the glimmers of light still somehow making their way through. For a moment, it was unsure why it was here. It felt like there was something else here, something distant, something… familiar. Something it had felt before, in the depths of its Miss’ mind. But it shrugged, paying it no mind. An anomaly, nothing more.