When they got up, everything was normal at first. They got up at the same time, had breakfast as normal, and went to their main physical training room. All the synths lined up as normal, TO, DH, and GiDi standing next to the other in their freshly cleaned uniforms. They waited for something to happen, for the screen to turn on and for them to be given instructions.
They waited. The screen didn’t turn on. The three strange synths exchanged nervous looks, and TO was about to suggest that maybe they were all in the wrong place when the door finally opened.
The officer that had come for them was dressed in a gold-colored uniform. They had C12 on a metallic pin over the center of their chest.
TO felt their breath stop in their lungs. They had never seen a Retiree before. They had heard about them, of course, but never saw them. As C12 walked to the center, they noticed that this one had a pronounced limp as they walked. They had also never seen a synth with a limp before. Anything like that was generally fixed if the synth in question was worth the effort. Retirees were different of course - they wouldn't be seeing real combat, so there was no need for them to be in perfect physical form
“You are here to learn the basics of combat.” The Retiree said. “Combat training is a long and dedicated process. You’ll learn basic hand to hand. You’ll be given weapons training. You’ll learn basic survival. You’ll learn aerial flight combat and space combat." They stalked to the center of the room and stood with their hands on their hips in front of all the other synths. “If you learn, you will survive. If you excel, you will thrive. Am I understood.”
“I am not an Officer.” they said, “You will refer to me as “Retiree.”
C12 glanced silently around the room, nodded, then held up a fist.
“First.” they said, “You will learn how to make a proper fist.”
“I think I hate combat training.” GiDi gasped from TO’s right.
“Really?” DH said, their voice dripping with sarcasm much like the sweat was rolling off their face, “I thought we were having a-“ They stopped talking, gasping as they struggled to keep running on the treadmill they were on.
The first half of their combat training had been dull and tedious. Retiree C12 had a dozen assistants who had, at C12’s direction, checked and tested the fist of every single synth in the training hall. TO’s pinky and ring finger had not been firmly set in their fist enough and the assistant had sent a jolt of pain through TO as they squeezed in on their fingers.
Well, at least TO hadn’t been the only one to have messed up their first, and TO had made sure that DH and GiDI at least had their thumbs on the outside of their curled fingers, not like others who almost had their thumbs broken.
Then they had spent time learning how to punch properly. They punched the empty space before them over, and over and over and over again. They stood in one place, punching the air as the assistants walked before them and corrected their movements, seeing miniscule errors in the placement of their shoulders, arms, and hands.
Then, when they were exhausted and sweating, and muscles that they had never considered using before were aching from strain, C12 had ordered that the treadmills that were hidden under panels beneath the floor be brought up, and demanded that they run for the rest of their training.
“This-This is all fine.” TO gasped as they kept running. “This is fine.’
“This isn’t combat!” DH exclaimed, stumbling and nearly falling forward. “This is torture.”
“Not quite, I assure you.”
TO’s ears flicked at the sound behind them. They turned, and saw C12 standing there watching them run. Three sets of ears pinned back in fear as they put their heads down and ran in silence.
“You want real combat, I take it?” C12 said, “You want to go out and fight for the glory of King Deacon?”
“We wish to-“ TO gasped as they tried to talk and run at the same time, “We wish to serve Lord Deacon as well as we can, Retiree C12.”
“I see. But this is torture?”
DH was wisely silent.
TO nearly stumbled when they heard C12 laugh behind them. It wasn’t a loud noise, just a sudden one that startled them. Even the other synths around them turned and looked in confusion. TO glanced first at GiDI, and then to DH. Was this synth, was this Retiree, C12…Strange?
“You’re like children.” C12 said after a moment, amusement still lingering on their voices, “You want to dive into the real work, but you don’t have the tools yet. You do what I say, suffer this ‘torture’ and I promise you, you will excel.’
They kept silent as C12 limped slowly down the row of treadmills behind them until they were well out of hearing range. DH turned to TO, Their eyes wide, “Are they -“
“Potentially.” TO said, frowning.
“We should talk to -“
“No!” TO and GiDi both spoke in unison. They glanced at one another, their ears flicked down and tinged blue. GiDI turned their focus back to their running.
“Strange or not, “ TO said to DH, “They’re an Offic- No. more than an officer. They’re a Retiree.”
“Then they have some sway.” DH pressed, “Then maybe they won’t be afraid to talk to us.”
“Or we’re just misreading this.” TO said, “ Older Synths are more...” They didn’t know how to phrase this, “They are more diverse. They’ve seen more, and experienced more. Maybe this one isn’t strange. Maybe they just had different experiences. I don’t know, but they’ve achieved the highest honor that a synth can receive, and I doubt they’d tarnish that just to talk to us, even if they are strange.”
“Whatever they did.” DH said, “It had to be big to be allowed to stay here with that limp.”
“I can try to find out.” GiDi suggested. TO and DH both turned to them. Through the sweating and panting, GiDi gave them a smile, “Like I said, I hear a lot. I know which Officers like to talk. If I make a comment to my Overseer, I might learn something. My overseer in particular will talk more than others.”
GiDi shook their head, “No no. Always for a reason, but to a greater extent. They will offer more information without being prompted. I just need a good excuse to ask them about C12.”
TO took several deep gasps on the treadmill. Another synth ahead of them stumbled and fell off , landing heavily on the floor, gasping. They hadn’t been the first to do so, and TO was certain that before they were done the three of them would end up on the floor as well.
Still. They would hold out as long as they could. They would excel.
“Tell your Overseer.” TO panted, “That you met C12, and have never seen a Retiree before. You wish to be like them. How can you strive to be like C12? How did they become a Retiree?”
“Do you think that will work?” DH asked.
“I’m assuming you’d want to be a Retiree one day, GiDi?”
“Me?” GiDi stumbled in surprised, but gained their footing back quickly. “Of course, but I don’t hold any real aspirations.”
“That’s fine.” TO, “Say that if you want. You’d like to be a Retiree, but you cannot fathom how to do it. How did C12-“
They cut themselves off as their breath fell short. They put their head down and continued breathing, feeling the pain start to rise up through their legs as they ran on. They didn’t know how much longer they could hold out, but they’d do their best.
TO wasn’t the last one to fall off the treadmill, but they weren’t far off. DH and GiDi had managed to stay on a respectably long time before stumbling and falling, though neither of them seemed to mind. DH was almost giddy when they stopped running and seemed perfectly happy to lay on the ground. By the time TO fell off there were only 7 more synths running. All the other synths sat down on the floor, sweaty and starting to smell as they watched.
In the next few minutes there were 3. The three ran long and hard, each of them wanting to be the last one to fall off. The next one to fall off actually fell unconscious, landing heavily on the ground with their arm twisting behind them unnaturally. An assistant went up and took them away to the infirmary.
Every synth in the room watched the last two synths running. There was relative silence, but even the normal synths were muttering, wondering which one would fall first. A few more minutes passed, and it was the smaller of the two who finally tripped up and fell onto the floor. It took the larger one only a moment to realize this, then they quickly jumped down and doubled over as they gasped for breath.
C12 limped over to the last synth as quickly as they could given their bad leg. When they approached, the synth looked up but was immediately cuffed over their head. Given how winded they were and how little they had been expecting it, they fell over immediately.
“What do you think you’re doing.”
“I stopped, Retiree C12.” The synth said.
“Did I tell you to stop.”
“Then why did you stop?”
The synth looked to the second place synth who was still collapsed on the ground.
“So?” C12 glared down at them, “What they were doing had nothing to do with your goal. I said run. Everyone else ran until they fell. You were the only one who decided to stop.”
The synth’s ears flicked down in shame as they realized what C12 was saying.
“Every other synth in this room ran until they couldn’t run anymore.” They gestured to the door where their assistant had dragged out the unconscious synth, “One passed out. What made you think you could just stop?”
The synth was speechless. TO was very glad that they hadn’t managed to stay on until they were the last synth running as they were positive that they too would have stepped off the treadmill once their competition had fallen.
“Everyone else can go.” C12 said, “Shower before your meal.” They pointed to the first place synth, “This one has more running to do.”
TO, DH, and GiDi slipped out of the training room in silence, along with the others. They were not normally given leave to use the showers in the middle of the day, but nobody wanted to question it.
Bio: A writer and Illustrator with scenes to show and stories to tell