The little boy fidgeted, unwilling to answer.
“Ramirez, you are safe here. Nothing you say will ever go beyond these walls. No one will know but me. Not your parents. Not your friends. Nobody.”
Ramirez stared at his feet, a foot nervously twined around the leg of the chair, unwilling to meet his eyes.
He has had difficult patients before and this boy’s reactions were not unexpected. But he could not escape the feeling, an almost tangible weight to the air, the raw aura of something… unholy.
Was… was he afraid of this kid?
You’re a professional, dammit—act like one.
“I will not judge you—no matter what you say, I am here to help you and I will do everything in my power to make everything better, okay? But if I am going to help you, I need you to answer my questions and be perfectly honest with me. Do not be afraid of what I might think—what I think does not matter. You do.”
The boy hadn’t budged an inch.
“Look at me, Ramirez.”
His canine snout snapped up at the sudden change in tone, eyes wide, scared.
See, just a boy—a confused boy that needs help. No different than all the other young kids you’ve dealt with.
“Can you be brave for me? Just this once? I promise, once you start, it gets easier.”
Ramirez blinked slowly, bottom lip quivering.
“Please, trust me. Start by answering my last question: why did you do it?”
He swallowed, clawed hands gripping the edges of the seat.
“I like… I like the way it looks.”
“What, Ramirez? The way what looks?”
It was barely a whisper.
“What about them?”
“How they… connect and wrap and stuff. And they’re so smooth and shiny and… It’s just… I like them.”
Xander jotted down a note in his data-scroll. The boy had noticeably become less tense, his grip on his chair loose. Good, very good.
“And what about—“
“How they feel.”
“I like how they feel. In my hands.”
Xander barely managed to suppress a shudder.
He added it to his notes.
But he couldn’t stop there. You have to dig, prod them. Even the most comfortable patient won’t reveal everything unless given an avenue.
“Forgive my curiosity, but I was wondering…”
Ramirez looked at him expectantly.
“Why do you not… kill them first? Would it not make it easier to examine their insides?”
The boy’s response drove a spike of fear into his heart, for it was not the words, but the tone and the cheerful and almost… aroused expression, obscene on the face of a preteen boy…
Looking back, Xander would be glad that the moment didn’t bring him to abandon the child, refer him to another therapist. Despite the outlandish dread that he felt, it galvanized him into pursuing the case with desperate fervor. He was determined to save that boy.
Numerous talks, carefully monitored interactions with ryuu-nekos, frequent arguments with the parents that often devolved into shouting matches.
The day he managed to convince the distraught couple to allow the boy a neko as a pet, a beautiful female spark possessed of enthusiastic energy and playful vigor. Helped the boy choose a name—Coraline.
The day she died, the vet assuring him that she died of natural causes, the inconsolable child driven to tears—not just by the loss of a friend, but by his father’s insistence that the vet check the body for poison.
The day they found the egg in the backyard of the boy’s home, the father unknown, but unmistakably Coraline’s, hatching into a mischievous dark/spark hybrid. The joy on the child’s face, clutching the tiny animal to his chest, telling Xander that her name was Rhea.
All doubts washed away. He declared the boy cured. The parents, grateful, relieved. The father grasping his hand, giving heartfelt thanks—alongside an apology for the previous year’s punch to the face.
A final argument, over the boy’s future. The father’s ridiculous assertion that the boy pursue a career in law enforcement and become a Safety Trooper, just like his father.
That son of a bitch—the worst place for the boy. He should become a vetinarian—he loves animals, he would do anything to save one.
Too late now. Graduated from the Academy, salutatorian. Shook his hand at the ceremony. Took Rhea out for a walk soon after to catch up. Neither of them could stop smiling.
Still… there was always that last kernel of doubt, weighing heavy in his heart, born of that day and steadily nurtured by their long hours of talks. It was ridiculous, but no matter how much he reasoned with himself, no matter how many times he conversed with the wonderful young man that boy became…
“Because… ‘cuz it’s more fun when they’re still moving.”
Nuru snapped a crisp salute.
“Sir, forgive me, but are we absolutely certain?”
Commander Cal flung open his locker with one hand, the other securing the last buckle to his primary shoulder plate.
“Not one-hundred-percent, Private Rask—dispatch is tapping local sources and keeping their ears open to increase certainty, but we must take any Class Five Power threat with deadly seriousness. We go now and confirm the report in transit.”
Nuru had already lowered his hand and was carefully fitting his helmet over his triangular ears.
“May I ask why—“
Cal abruptly grabbed a rifle from the nearest rack and tossed it at Nuru, who just barely managed to catch it before it could smack him in the face.
“You are in desperate need of field experience, Private, and there is no better opportunity.”
Nuru opened his mouth—
“And despite your inexperience, there are plenty of veterans to make up for it. We will ask for the violators to surrender once and respond to any Power use with a storm of bullets so thick they won’t have any time to say ‘Oh, shit’—even if it truly is a Class Five Encounter.”
Cal grabbed a couple of spare magazines and shoved them into Nuru’s arms.
“Now you will fall in line, Private Nuru Rask, or you will face disciplinary action. You’re not just some police officer anymore—you’re a Trooper and I expect you to act like it.”
He slid on his helmet and snatched up a shock rifle on his way out.
A pure white canine digitigrade, armor and weapon already secured, snorted as he used an alcohol wipe to clean off his HUD goggles.
Nuru set his rifle down and moved to secure the additional magazines to his belt.
“Shut up, Ramirez.”
Ramirez’s vision went dark as something wet spurted across his goggles. He blindly groped for his HUD goggles and ripped them off, feeling something warm and sticky on the side of his face.
Ramirez spun to the right just in time to witness a head and disembodied arms—clutching half a rifle—spin past Nuru, who was screaming as he clutched the bleeding stump of his right ear.
Silence took him as he beheld dirt soaked in blood…
Rhea cooed as he ran his hand through her fur, alternating stripes of black and yellow fluff with thick bristles sprinkled in. He had no idea how she managed to sneak into the station, but she was half-dark after all—her intelligence was only matched by her deviousness.
Ramirez raised his hand from Rhea and gazed at his palm.
He focused his mind on the memories of yesterday. He brought forth the images of men cut in half, body parts strewn like autumn leaves, insides spilt upon the dirt. The screams intermingled with springer fire and mortar impacts.
And, most of all, the feelings that came with them—the fear, shame, guilt, anger…
And that one other thing.
The lockers surrounding him lit up with a silvery light. Tendrils of translucent quicksilver spun about his palm and converged, coalescing into the form of a springer pistol, resembling the newer magazine-fed semi-autos that only specially chosen officers could requisition.
He closed his fingers around the grip—a perfect fit. It had weight; it felt real.
He didn’t need to see the halo above his head to know.
He was Awakened.
His finger twitched.
What would happen if he pulled the trigger?
Ramirez resisted the rash impulse and sighed, calming his emotions, his halo vanishing with an electric sizzle as the phantom pistol faded away.
By some miracle he was uninjured. Nuru, on the other hand, lost his right ear; they stapled it back in place, but it was doubtful that it would heal.
Apparently after Ramirez broke down into a screaming mess, Nuru dragged him to safety and spent the remainder of the operation aiding the wounded; he was to receive a commendation for his bravery under fire.
The battle was short-lived; sparker bombardment collapsed the building and the surviving Neons were taken into custody without incident.
Nuru didn't mention his breakdown to anyone. Ramirez reminded himself to thank Nuru; a psych eval would be problematic, especially if it led to the discovery of the therapy reports his father worked so hard to bury.
That night he had nightmares filled with vengeful ryuu-nekos and the still-living body parts of his comrades, peeling away his skin and dissecting his innards. It only became worse when he realized that they all wore his face, replete with sadistic grins.
Returning to the station the next morning didn't alleviate his phantoms.
As soon as he arrived, a concerned Nuru informed him that the Neons were to be released—no charges.
An outraged Cal stormed into Captain Antioch’s office soon after, only to return with an explanation from Attorney General Haeginsworth himself.
Due to “numerous procedural breaches,” he couldn’t prosecute the Neons.
The CCA has never been shy of using its power. If there was something they wanted, they got it, by force if necessary. For damn sure they wouldn’t let their own procedures and regulations get in the way of a prize like the Neon Knives!
If there were truly any breaches in protocol, then this is disturbingly uncharacteristic of them.
But there weren’t.
So if everything was by the book, then this talk of “procedural breaches” is just an excuse.
Which means the Neons were let go on purpose.
He looked down at his empty hand.
Are you ready for this? Technically you’re already a criminal, being Awakened, but nobody knows about that. You can just walk away.
Would Nuru help? He knows your views—he knows you dislike the CCA, that you only joined because father made you. He would assume you’re just being a conspiracy nut, rattled by the gory deaths of your comrades.
What about Cal? You hardly know him. You’re just a raw recruit, no matter how good your police record. But he is an idealist. This incident shows that at least someone above is betraying their oath. Cal will not let this slide. But will he be able to stretch his own oath to find the traitors?
If neither is willing—and neither turn you in on insurrection charges—would you be willing to do this alone?
He shifted his gaze to Rhea, who peers up at him with lidded eyes and a mischievous smile.
Not truly alone.
Maybe, regardless of what happens, whether he succeeds or fails, this would be enough.
Enough to repay the comrades he failed by being a coward, enough to prove that he is worth something, enough to make up for everything he has done before, enough to make the nightmares stop.
He heard the subtle electric sizzle, saw the glow, felt the Power flow through him.
The gun once again materialized in his hand.
…Are you willing to do what is necessary?
Are you willing to kill?
Are you willing to do more?
Are you willing to have fun again, Ramirez?