The augmentation process had left her scarred, bruised and dependent on a cocktail of chemicals - injected every 48 hours. She could barely move.
But she was fine with all that. They'd told her all about the consequences when she signed up to become a pilot. She was strong, she could take it.
There was something else though, something they hadn't told her about when she'd signed the waiver. Something she could barely remember.
A "mental augmentation", that's what the people in the program called it. In addition to all the biomechanical implants in her body, they'd implanted something in her head too. Metaphorically.
But she just couldn't figure out what it was exactly. She kept trying. Again and again. What had they done to her? Her mind could only conjure up vague, shadowy images of a room.
In it stood a comfortable-looking chair, with a long, thick cable coming out of it's side. The walls were barren concrete. She could make out nothing else.
She got a feeling that this room was very important to her somehow, she just... couldn't place it.
Ugh, this was ridiculous! She was top of her class, she'd never not aced a test, and now her memory was failing her? At the height of her career? She was-
She couldn't remember her name.
She was starting to panic now. Had something gone wrong? Had she gotten brain damage somehow?
One of her implants, in response to her elevated heart rate and brain wave patterns indicating distress, released a compound of chemicals to calm her down.
It took effect almost immediately. As fast as she'd begun to spiral, she was taken out of it again. Everything would be fine. Surely someone would come along and just... tell her her name. That was right, that felt right. She didn't have to remember.
She was a pilot now after all.
Like every day for the past two weeks, she was awoken by an announcement coming from the intercom speaker in the corner of her small recovery room.
Like every day, she listened for anything new or exciting. Especially for any indication that she might be allowed to start piloting soon.
Like every day, there was nothing new. At least the tablet they'd given her provided some decent entertainment.
But today was different. A few hours after the intercom had awoken her, she heard a knock on the door to her room.
"Come in... please!", gods, she was desperate to finally talk to someone.
The door swung open, and a figure entered through the frame. A woman. She was dressed in all black, with sturdy looking boots and a sleek shirt and tie. Was she an officer?
"Good morning 574, how are you doing? Have you been recovering alright?"
Five-seven-four. Was that her name? It sounded like it should be, but she wasn't sure. She felt like a name should be... different. She'd have to ask later. For now, she had to answer the woman's questions.
"I'm feeling great! Moving around barely hurts anymore, I think I'll be up and ready to fight really soon!"
"That's great to hear 574", the woman said as she walked up next to her bed, "I recall that you had some trouble adjusting on your first day here, but you've been nothing but exemplary since. Isn't that right?"
"Yes, I had some trouble... remembering", she could barely get the words out of her mouth. The woman's praise felt intoxicating.
"Ah, I see. I'm sure you have lots of questions then. From now on, it's my job to look out for you, so go ahead and ask", the woman sat down on the bed and motioned for her to sit up. She did.
"Is five-seven-four... my name?"
"Oh, my dear, the augmentation process seems to have hit you especially hard", the woman frowned slightly. Was that bad? Had she done something wrong? The woman seemed to notice her worry and quickly turned her frown into a sympathetic smile.
"Yes, for all intents and purposes, that is your name. Please, you don't have to worry about remembering things. I'm here for you now", the woman reached out her hand and started ruffling through 574's hair, "I'll help you remember, ok?"
This woman, treating her this way, made 574 feel so wonderful. She was so glad she had someone helping her.
"Okay, thank you-...", she realized she didn't know who this woman was, "Sorry, who are you?"
"I'm mech corps officer Lara Harkon, rank six. I've been assigned to be your Handler for the forseeable future", the woman said as she withdrew her hand from 574's head
"Ah. Thank you, Lara"
"Please, just call me Handler. It's standard procedure"
"Oh, alright. Thank you Handler-", saying that word triggered something within 574, she didn't know if it was from an implant, her mental augmentation or some instinctual reaction, but what mattered was how it made her feel. And she felt amazing.
Her head started feeling fuzzy in the best possible way and she quickly became so wonderfully comfortable sitting next to... Handler.
But most importantly, 574 wanted more of Handler's affection. Badly.
She leaned in, pressing her face against Handler's shoulder and began nuzzling against her.
Seemingly knowing exactly what she needed, Handler wrapped her arms around 574 and held her tightly.
All other questions and concerns started leaving 574's mind until only the quickly crystalizing need for Handler's love and approval remained.
After some time - minutes? hours? 574 wasn't sure - Handler broke her embrace and started pulling away.
With a sad whine 574 tried to lean after her, but as Handler got up, it only made her lean over and fall onto the bed.
"I'm sorry 574, but I have to get going now. It was wonderful finally meeting you in person, you're as perfect as I'd hoped", Handler said as she started turning towards the door
The praise made 574 swell with pride as a broad, dumb grin formed on her face.
"Will you come back tomorrow? Please?", 574's grin quickly faded, and she felt tears starting to form as she thought about spending the rest of the day without Handler. Without the feeling of warmth and safety she'd just come to enjoy for the first time. She didn't want to go back to being so alone.
"Oh, those puppy eyes! Be still my beating heart!", Handler dramatically motioned with her hand towards her chest as she stopped turning around and looked back at 574, "I'll do you one better, I'll come right back tomorrow morning and we'll get you out of this bed and into a tester mech"
That made 574 light up. Finally she'd get to be in a real mech! And she'd be spending more time with Handler!
"Thankyouthankyouthankyou", was all the response 574's brain could muster in that moment.
With a smile, Handler turned towards the door again and started walking away.
"Now, get lots of rest for tomorrow, 574. And don't miss me too much", Handler said cheekily.
"Goodbye-", 574 almost whispered as Handler closed the door behind her. She already knew that she would miss her far, far too much.
As she laid back down properly, 574 thought the encounter over again. She was amazed that she grew so fond of Handler so quickly. How could she become so attached immediately?
A thought formed in her head. That maybe that was what the mental augmentation was all about. Making her imprint on an officer so she'd be loyal to them. Like a dog.
A part of her knew that was supposed to be terrifying. That in order to finally become a pilot, she'd given up her autonomy and some of her humanity with it. But she wasn't worried at all. Instead, the thought filled her with the same warmth and sense of safety as Handler's touch.
She was perfectly happy with being a dog, as long as she was Handler's.
The next morning, as 574 heard the intercom chime, she practically jumped out of bed. Still a little wobbly on her feet, she tried her best to stand at attention, like she'd seen the officers do, but ultimately failed as she flopped back down onto the bed.
After a few minutes, there was a knock on the door. It sounded exactly like the one yesterday.
"Handler!", 574 almost yelled.
Taking 574's joyful exclamation as permission to enter, Handler opened the door and passed through the frame, though not closing it behind her this time.
"Good morning 574, I hope you slept well", Handler said like she was talking to an excited puppy.
574 jumped up and threw herself against Handler, locking her in a tight embrace and nuzzling her face against Handler's chest.
"I'm so glad you're back", 574 said. Handler could practically feel the love pouring out of 574's voice. She'd taken exceptionally well to the mental augmentations.
"Oh aren't you sweet", Handler pushed 574 off of her and back onto the bed. 574 frowned. "Look here, I've brought you a few things", she said, laying down a suitcase onto the bed.
Handler opened it up and started showing 574 it's contents. "Everything you'll need for today; Let's start with your jumpsuit", Handler said as she held up the piece of clothing.
574 studied the jumpsuit. It was white with pink accents and looked decently comfortable, the back, in big printing, read HOUND 574. It took 574 a while to process the implication. Was she... a Hound? That thought made her feel good. She held on to it for a moment before taking the suit from Handler.
She had no problems putting on the suit, not even losing her balance once. She was confident she was ready to pilot that tester mech.
"Wow 574, you look great! Well done!", Handler beamed. And the praise made 574 beam right back.
They lingered for a moment, before moving on to the next item.
"Alright, next we have... your new collar!", Handler said, even more excitedly than before. "Come on, show me your neck, I'll put it on you". She was clearly enjoying this.
574 just complied. She was already starting to feel fuzzy from Handler's touch and praise. And she figured that with this collar, she'd have a part of Handler touching her at all times.
Handler stood up and moved close to 574, reaching the sides of the coller around her neck. As the collar clicked shut on the back of 574's neck, she felt a rush go through her. The increasingly familiar feeling of warmth and safety washed over her. She hoped it wouldn't fade this time.
"Now, to finish this up...", Handler said as she pulled out a leash and a muzzle from the suitcase.
Before 574 could say anything, Handler had already attached the leash to her collar. She gave it a playful tug that made 574 whimper as she was pulled towards Handler. It felt so right. She was supposed to be like this. She felt safe.
"Okay, this is the last one. Then we're off to the hangar", Handler first put the muzzle up to 574's face without putting on the straps, making sure she got the placement right. "You'll love this, I promise"
As Handler fastened the straps to 574's head, she made sure to touch 574 as softly and for as long as she could. She didn't want to scare the new Hound.
574 only felt better and better as the straps tightened. Every touch from Handler was heavenly, and the tighness on her face made her feel far more secure. Though she did wonder why she had to wear it at all. She wasn't going to bite anybody.
"Why do I have to wear this?", 574 asked as Handler continued working on fastening the muzzle to her face properly.
"You don't need it right now, but when you're in that mech, you'll need it. Believe me. And besides, doesn't it feel nice?", Handler said as she made some final adjustments.
"It does. It feels right somehow, but I'm not sure why", 574 responded.
"Oh don't worry about that, let me do the thinking for you. It's so much easier to not worry and just feel happy and comfortable and safe with me, isn't it?", Handler gripped the leash tightly.
"It is", 574 answered, her speech slightly slowed. Just hearing Handler say those words made her feel them intensely.
"Okay, we're all set! Now, let's head to the hangar", Handler started moving towards the door. 574 followed obediently.
As they walked along the corridors of the base, 574 started wondering why she'd had some doubts about the muzzle, but had accepted the collar and leash without question. Had there been holes in the mental augmentation? Had they made a mistake? What was all this even for?
Then she remembered Handler's words - let her do the thinking - and discarded the thought. She needed to focus on what was really important.
"Here we are!", Handler said as they entered the hangar.
574 was in awe at all the giant machines. And she'd get to pilot one now! She stopped for a moment, until Handler tugged on her leash and she obediently began following her again.
Handler led her to the assigned tester mech. "You'll get your own mech soon enough, but for now we'll be using this one to see what you're capable of and get an impression of your fighting style", Handler motioned towards the hangar tech operating a command console. He pressed a few buttons and the mechs cockpit opened up.
Handler took off 574's leash, "Go on, get in. I know you've been wanting it so desperately". 574 needed no further encouragement. Withing seconds, she was up the ladder and on the gantry leading to the cockpit.
She stepped in carefully. The tester mech was smaller than the others in the hangar, there was barely space for the seat and controls. She straddled the seat and sat down, leaning forward onto the controls.
Another hangar tech took the data cord hanging from the roof of the cockpit and plugged it into the port on 574's neck. Something she'd only now really become aware of.
"Are you ready, 574?", Handler asked.
"Yes", 574 replied, her voice trembling. Despite everything, she was shaking. Scared. Everyone in the hangar could tell.
Handler climbed the ladder and walked up to the cockpit. She leaned forward, brought her face up to 574's muzzle, and looked right into her eyes while her hands grabbed 574's.
"Listen to me. You've got this. I've read your simulator logs, all of them, you have nothing to worry about, ok?"
"Ma'am, are you gonna start kissing that Hound or can we get started?", the hangar tech at the console chimed in.
Hound. There it was again. It felt good.
"We can start now", Handler flashed one last reassuring glance at 574, then stepped down the ladder and walked up to the command console.
The hangar tech looked like he was fearing for his life now.
574 smiled as the cockpit closed up in front of her and the lights started coming on one by one.
She could hear the hangar tech through the mech's comms system, his voice ever so slightly trembling from fear
"Display system initialized"
"Movement system initialized"
"Combat systems initialized"
"We're ready to go, ma'am"
"I mean... starting neural link procedure"
574 felt herself vanish into the vastness of the mech's systems. She was the machine, and the machine was her.
And at the core of them both, was a Hound. A vicious killing machine, always moving from one target to the next, only focused on completing objectives given by its Handler.
574 was that Hound, and the Hound was her. Or it. She really didn't know anymore. She didn't have to.
"Okay 574, the gantry's clear. We'll be moving you to the testing range via the hangar's rail system"
Handler. Hound was a snarling, growling blood-thirsty beast. And yet, when it heard Handler's voice, it felt nothing but love.
The mech shook, and Hound shook with it. The sensation of becoming one with a machine was so alien to 574, but for Hound it felt like second nature.
After a few moments, Hound felt the rail system's clamps release. It took a step forward. It felt so natural.
It started walking, then running. All of it's movements were perfectly in sync.
"The neural link is working perfectly, how are you in there?"
Hound could produce nothing but barks and growls, but regardless it tried it's best to communicate that it was having a great time.
"Oh right, well it seems like you're having fun. Deploy the combat drones"
Hound's vision was filled with targets, it wanted, needed, to kill. Despite being obscured in the cockpit, it bared its teeth and snarled. The muzzle reminded it that it couldn't just go up to them and rip them apart with its teeth, it needed to use its weapons.
The muzzle made it feel safe. Owned.
It started moving towards the targets, already charging up one of the mech's laser cannons.
The command felt like a gut punch. Hound stopped dead in its tracks.
It hadn't been ordered to attack yet. I had been bad. It whimpered.
"No, you're ok. Just hold out for a few seconds, alright?"
Hound barked affirmatively.
About 30 seconds later, Hound was leaning forward, the mech close to tipping over. It wanted to kill so badly, but it had to wait. It wanted to be good.
Hound began howling as it dashed forward, the sheer force of the mech's impact obliterating one of the drones.
It moved from one target to the next, dispatching them with ease. The drones could barely return fire, and the few shots that hit only caused superficial damage.
"Let's see how you fare against a tank"
A new target lit up on the screen, Hound focused all its attention on it immediately.
It began charging towards the new enemy, but before it could close the distance the tank had acquired its target.
An armor-piercing shell bored its way into the mech's left shoulder. Hound screamed in pain, but didn't stop.
"You were in firing range fifteen seconds ago, what's going on?"
Hound lunged forward one last time and started ripping the tank apart with its claws.
"I see, you wanted to get up close and personal. We'll get you a mech with a melee configuration then"
"We're done here, Hound, good job"
Hound barked in excitement as it returned to the hangar bay doors and locked itself back into the rail system.
"That's it for this test, powering down now"
For a moment the mech, Hound and 574 were both separate entities and the same consciousness simultaneously. Then the fog cleared, and 574 awoke.
The cockpit doors opened, a hangar tech stepped in, disconnected the link cable and helped 574 step out of the mechanical monster it had just synced up with.
She took a moment to clear her head, and felt all the sensations of combat still within her. She looked outside the hangar doors and saw the carnage she'd caused. She really was a Hound. It felt good.
574 hopped down from the gantry, almost falling over but just managing to hold on to her balance. She started slowly staggering towards Handler, a wild grin still on her face, with her muzzle having been pushed slightly off to one side.
Handler immediately started running towards 574.
"You did it! I'm so proud of you!", the smile on Handler's face wasn't sly, snarky or belittling. It was genuine.
When they finally got to each other, Handler immediately reattached the leash and started supporting 574's weight. Together they shuffled along, out of the hangar.
"How are you feeling 574?", Handler asked, but she was just met with the biggest grin she'd ever seen as 574 nuzzled into her.
"Language is still a bit beyond you? Yeah, that happens sometimes. It'll come back to you in a few hours", Handler reassured 574. But 574 didn't need reassurance anymore, she didn't really care about anything right now except for being close to Handler. She trusted her to keep her safe.
And if someone ever dared to mess with Handler, she'd bring hell down upon them with her mech.
Handler could feel 574 trembling slightly.
"I think you've earned a reward. Why don't we go to my quarters and spend the night there? That way you won't have to be alone again tonight", Handler offered. 574 responded by pushing herself against her even harder. "I'll take that as a yes, let's go"
They walked around the base like that until they came upon Handler's quarters.
Once inside, Handler led 574 into her bedroom.
"Oh dear, your muzzle is all crooked. Here, let me fix it", Handler moved closer to 574, but before she could start adjusting the muzzle, her face lit up with an idea.
"Wait, 574, I want to try something", Handler paused.
"Down.", Handler motioned towards the floor.
574 took a second to process the command, she was still blissed out on Handler's touch and praise. But once the command registered, she complied immediately.
574 knelt down on the floor, expectantly looking up at Handler.
Handler walked right up to 574 so that she towered over her. She raised her hand-
And struck 574's cheek with as much force as she could muster.
574 was nearly knocked over. She gasped for air as she righted herself.
It stung. Badly. But 574 couldn't think to get up or fight back. Instead, a new thought entered her mind.
"I'll take whatever Handler gives me". She liked it. It made her happy.
574 looked back up at Handler. "Oh, you almost look like you enjoyed that", Handler moved her hand back to 574's face, this time slowly and gently, "But I just wanted to test you, not torture you. I think you've more than earned a reward"
Handler softly held her Hand against 574's cheek, looking down at 574 with an adoring look on her face.
574 closed her eyes and began leaning into Handler's touch. Despite the stinging pain, Handler's touch on her cheek felt wonderful.
Handler held her hand in that position for a few minutes, allowing 574 to savour the feeling. 574 was nuzzling Handler's hand, and Handler couldn't bring herself to move away. 574 really had earned it. She'd just stay like this until 574 had had her fill.
After what felt like ages to Handler, but only minutes to 574, 574 finally pulled away. A huge grin and Vacant eyes looking back up at Handler. She was so happy.
Handler took a moment to properly adjust 574's muzzle, then motioned for her to stand back up. She complied.
"Ah, do you want me to take the muzzle off before we hop into bed?", Handler asked. 574 considered it for a moment, then she thought about Hound and considered what it would want. After all, it was a part of her too.
She shook her head.
"Come on, let's get some sleep", Handler threw herself on the bed and 574 followed sluggishly.
Handler removed 574's leash and set it down on the night stand. 574 started feeling the softness of the covers and mattress. Eventually, 574 curled up next to Handler, with Handler placing a hand on 574's head and lazily stroking her hair.
Finally 574, exhausted from the fight, started drifting off to sleep.
Some time later, 574 awoke to Handler speaking to someone on her phone. She was still stroking her hair.
"Yes, she's come along amazingly. Obedient, eager to be trained. She'll do anything I ask. She'll make a wonderful Hound. She's also very aggressive, I like that"
"Just... tone down the brainwashing a little next time. She couldn't even remember her name"
"She was scared shitless at first, we had to sedate her for a week"
"Why do I care? None of your damn business, that's why. Just try not to break them too hard in the future"
"The hangar techs didn't see shit"
"Seriously, shut up about it or I'll have you court-martialed"