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“Why did you accept!” DH cried as they made their way to the combat simulation center. “It’s too big of a risk, It-“

 

“I know!” TO snapped as they rubbed their forehead. This was by far the stupidest thing they had agreed to. “I know, I know. But I just didn’t want them hurting either of you again, and the way they were talking about us just bothered me so much–”

 

“What do we do if we lose.” GiDi muttered, their wings wrapped tightly around them as they walked behind TO and DH. “It's all my fault. If we lose, and we go to get corrected-“

 

“We won’t lose.” TO assured them.

 

“What if we do!” DH said, “TO, what if we lose!?”

 

TO stopped and took a deep breath. Slowly they lowered their hands and set them on their hips in what they hoped was a confidant gesture. “If we lose.” they said as calmly as they were able ,”We go to our overseers, and tell them that we have concerns about our mental well being. We go through their tests as well as possible, and hope that we’re not corrected.” They stopped and turned to face GiDi and DH, “But we won’t lose.”

 

“How do you know!” DH demanded, their ears twitching madly as their hands formed tight fists. TO was a little worried that if they weren’t careful, they might cut into their skin with their own claws.

 

“I know because we have more to lose than they do!” TO said as a mix of panic and fear raised their voice almost up to a yell. “We’ll fight harder. We’ll work harder! We’re smart, we’re resourceful and we can do this! We WILL do this!” They couldn’t keep the worry out of their voice, or keep their ears from twitching in fear, “We can do this.” they said again. “And when we do, the rest of the synths will leave us alone. They’ll never touch any of us again, and-“ They turned to DH, “Q10 will see they were wrong about you! They’ll see that you’re smart and fast and strong and resourceful and they’ll regret EVER making you feel bad!”

 

DH looked aside with their ears down, their wings wrapped tightly around them. Without warning stepped into TO and pulled them into a firm embrace.

 

“In case we do lose.” they said, “In case we do lose, and we have to march to our Overseers.” They turned to GiDi, “You come here.” they said, holding an arm out.

 

“I’m so sorry.” GiDi said as they crept closer. “I shouldn’t have-“

 

“You didn’t do anything wrong!” DH said. They pulled GiDi in and squeezed the two other synths tightly, as though they expected that they might slip from their arms. 

 

If they lost, would they also be seperated? Would they care? Would they even miss this? Would they miss their friends?

 

“I was taking too long.” GiDi said, their soft voice a stark contrast to this hissing, angry tone they had used back in the dormitory. “I was thinking about things, and I got distracted-“

 

“That’s no reason for them to act as they did.” TO said firmly. “And... And no reason for me to do something as stupid as to agree to their challenge.” TO sighed. “Is it too late to back out? TO just not show up?”

 

“That’d be like admitting that we should be corrected, wouldn't it be?” DH said, “If we lose, and we think there’s nothing wrong with us, then it’s not a big deal, right?”

 

TO nodded. “I suppose.”

 

“And to be fair.” DH said after a moment,“I suppose if you had turned them down, that would be as bad as admitting that you think we need to be corrected.”

 

That made TO feel a little better about the situation they had gotten them in. It still didn’t fully dissolve the painful lump they had resting in their stomach. They held GiDi and DH close, wrapping their wings around them for as long as they dared in the empty hallway. “Alright.” TO said as they released their friends, “Let’s go and beat them.”

 

========

 

The training simulation system was an advanced VR which could sync with a brain and make someone feel like they were in an actual combat situation. It was sophisticated, but it was also very large and needed it’s own room to hold the specialized pods and the heavy helmets that ran the simulations.

 

When the three arrived, Q10 and 55H70 were already in the combat simulation room with 45H56; The synth that used to sleep in the pod below TO. 45H56’s presence didn’t surprise TO as they had expected a three-on-three challenge. What was surprising was that there were several other synths there to observe. They supposed that the whole situation in the dormitory had created some interest.

 

Were they all here just out of curiosity, or were they hoping to see some strange synths get defeated?

 

“You’ll take command?” DH whispered as they stepped into the room.

 

“Sure.” TO said. Normally, in team battles the system not only set the scenario and the location, but it also chose the team leader for each group. TO would often encourage GiDi or DH to take the lead if the computer chose them, but that was when there were no real risks.

 

When Q10 saw them enter the room they simply nodded and went over to the simulation pods, helmets under their arms. There would be no talking now; there was no need for conversation.

 

TO grabbed a helmet for themselves, and settled into a pod. As they put the helmet on, they felt the familiar tingling as the system interfaced with their brain. There was a feeling of vertigo, a slight disorientation, and then-

 

======

 

It took TO a moment to orient themselves as they opened their eyes on a strange, simulated alien world.

 

It was beautiful.

 

Sometimes TO would end up in a place which was so beautiful that they didn’t want to do the scenario; they wanted to sit and enjoy the scenery. Under normal circumstances, this would be one such world. It was nighttime on an unknown planet with three visible moons. The grass had a slight purple bioluminescence, same as the trees that covered most of the land. TO, DH, and GiDi seemed to be sheltered in a grove, hidden in the middle of the glowing trees.

 

Their implants beeped, and their orders came up.

 

Capture the flag

Team A: Assignment

Team B has a flag atop a natural fortification to the north. Locate the fortification, retrieve the flag, and return to your safepoint before the time runs out.

 

Scenario stars in : 30s

 

“Great.” DH said. They prepared the laser gun that had appeared at their waist– a simple, unrealistic device only meant for practice in the simulations. “They have a natural fortification? Mountains? Giant trees?” They frowned, “Just our luck that they’d have the advantage.”

 

“It’d be fastest to locate them from above, right?” GiDi asked, stretching their wings.

 

“Fastest, but they know TO is exceptional in flight, and they know that TO has been training us.” DH said as they frowned, “They’ll be expecting an aerial attack.”

 

“Exactly.” TO said, beaming with pride at DH’s logic. However, even as proud as they were for DH’s thinking through the pitfalls of a plan like that, a new plan spontaneously formed in their head. 

 

TO turned to their friends, “let’s give them what they want.”

 

======

 

Team A spread out, keeping close to the treetops and soaring only from branch to branch as they searched the area to the north. Despite the darkness, the natural excellent eyesight of the average synth and the illumination of the moons would make them easily visible if they flew too high. They didn’t want that. At least, they didn’t want that before they knew where Team B was.

 

TO’s ears flicked as they heard a very quiet chirp come from nearby: the signal. They silently flew from branch to branch amid the trees until they found GiDi. A moment later, DH caught up to them.

 

Wordlessly, GiDi pointed at a jagged plateau that burst from the trees and into the sky. They had seen several such plateaus as they searched, but atop this one they could see the other team circling as they kept watch for their opponents.

 

TO nodded. They didn’t need to discuss their next move; they already had everything planned, and TO knew it would work. It had to.

 

With a quick gesture to the plateau, they initiated their attack.

 

=========

 

DH soared up into the sky, gaining height as quickly as they could. Team B saw them of course; They were well illuminated by the moons overhead. The opposing team fired a volley of well aimed shots at DH’s silhouette, but they missed with each shot. DH twisted and dove seemingly randomly in the sky, drawing their attention, avoiding the blasts, and confusing them.

One of B team’s members soared towards DH, their wings flapping frantically as they gained height, trying to get closer in order to take DH down. The other two members of B Team were still guarding their flag as they watched the battle overhead, their lasers ready, their gaze flicking from the battle to their flag. They had to keep an eye on the flag, but if DH managed to neutralize their teammate, they’d be at a harsh disadvantage; they had to be ready to assist.

 

There was too much they were focused on at one time. That was what TO wanted.

 

TO soared up along the very edge of the plateau– a potentially dangerous maneuver as they could have easily smashed into the uneven edge– and made their way to the top. They were unseen thanks to how close they were soaring to the plateau, and thanks to the distraction caused by DH they also remained unheard. It wasn’t until TO burst from the shelter of the rocks and slammed into the flagpole that the others noticed that they were under attack. TO tumbled, hitting the ground with the flag clutched in their hands. The others took aim, but TO dove down off the cliff and into the trees below, disappearing beneath the canopy before soaring up again and flying frantically back towards their safepoint.

 

A stupid stragety, TO knew. They had a height advantage, and they had their lasers. TO was just a moving target now.

 

The cliff was abandoned, the fight with DH forgotten. Three synths chased after TO who was still flying as close to the surface of the trees as they could. TO had sustained an ‘injury’. It wasn’t a real injury, but they could feel pain in their wing and it slowed them. The other synths were higher up in the sky, so they were able to dive and use gravity to gain speed and catch up to TO.

 

55H70 approached TO first as they aimed their laser. TO waited, listening to the laser charge, and twisted out of the way at the last moment, twirling as the shot passed them inches from their face. If any part of them got hit by the laser, they’d be removed from the simulation.

 

They heard the laser charge up again, but the first shot had provided DH– who was now forgotten by B Team and flying overhead– with a perfect target. They aimed, fired, and hit 55H70 in the back, driving them out of the sky and to the ground before they were removed from the scenario

 

Unfortunately, DH’s shot drew Q10’s attention. They turned, fired, and hit DH in the chest with their laser. TO glanced backwards as they saw DH fall through the trees and hit the ground, crying out before being removed as well.

 

Keeping one hand balled up tight to their chest, TO spun and fired their laser, sending a shower of unaimed shots backwards into the other two synths before diving back under the canopy for cover. 

 

When they rose up they could see Q10 following them overhead, using a combination of vision and echolocation to keep track of their opponent. TO did their best to try to maneuver around the branches and get some height, but Q10 dove down into the canopy feet first and landed heavily on TO’s back. TO was able to smack Q10 in the face with their wing and knock the laser from their hands with their clawed feet, but it wasn’t enough to get their determined opponent off of them.

 

TO hit the ground, and the air was driven from their lungs. Gasping for breath they fumbled for their laser, but couldn’t find it. Injured, in pain, and weaponless, they curled themselves up into a tight ball, their clenched fist held tightly to their chest, and flapped their wings frantically to distract Q10. 

 

The other synth snarled, and clawed at TO, leaving deep gashes in their skin. TO had never been clawed by another synth before- that was absolutely forbidden in the center- but even the simulation of the claws against their back and wing caused them to cry out in pain. Q10 kicked them over and over in the back until TO felt a painful spasm run through their body, making their limbs go suddenly limp.

 

Q10 was then able to quickly pin TO to the ground. The fight was over.

 

“Give me the flag.” Q10 hissed, “Or don’t. I have no issues ripping open your throat to neutralize you.”

 

TO was in too much pain to properly respond. All they could manage was a weak, gasping chuckle.

 

“You laugh?” Q10 snarled. Their eyes narrowed. They grabbed TO’s closed fist and pressed between the knuckles, drawing a yelp from TO as their hand opened helplessly, revealing only an empty palm.

 

Q10 looked at the empty hand, confused. They pried the other hand open but saw that it too was empty. There was no flag. They growled, and planted their knee deep into TO’s stomach, causing them to gasp with pain once more and cough as they tried to catch their breath.

 

“Where did you hide the flag!” They snapped, looking over TO as though they might still have it behind their back.

 

TO caught their breath, and managed to gasp out, “Who said I had it at all?”

 

The world shimmered around them. A voice echoed in their heads.

 

“Simulation complete. Winner: Team A. Flag Bearer: 45G70.”

 

TO smirked, “I didn’t have it,” they said, “GiDi did.”

 

Q10’s confusion was the last thing they saw as they faded from the simulation.

 

=========

 

Awakening in the VR pod, TO pulled their helmet from their head and was just getting up from the when Q10 stormed over, their ears pinned back in rage.

 

“You broke the simulation!” They snapped, “The flag disappeared.”

 

“We won.” TO said calmly. “And you said you’d never touch us again, never bother us again if we won.”

 

“You didn’t win. You broke something!” Q10 snapped. “You had the flag. I saw you take the flag!”

 

“I can’t believe that worked!” GiDi said as they sat up from their pod, their ears twitching with joy. They glanced over at Q10, “I can’t believe you fell for it!”

 

“I can. It was a good plan.” DH said as they got up from their pod. They frowned at TO, “But next time, you’re the distraction. That landing hurt.”

 

“I was a distraction too, and I got injured just as much as you did.” TO said. The pain was gone, but the memory of it was still sharp. The worst of it was those claws against their skin. 


TO shuddered to think of what it might feel like if they had actually been clawed

 

“I demand to know what happened before I concede defeat.” Q10 hissed.

 

“You don’t get to concede defeat.” TO said. “The system determined that we won. But, I’ll tell you nevertheless.” They grinned. “I did have the flag for about 15 seconds. When I dove into the trees the first time, I left it on a branch. When I had drawn your team away, GiDi took it and flew back to our safezone.”

 

“Deceit.” Q10 hissed, “That is not how you’re supposed to win!”

 

“Oh?” TO asked, a mocking tone of confusion in their tone. “How were we supposed to win?” TO rose themselves up to their full height, letting their wings puff out around them slightly. “I used my ‘strange’ mind to come up with a plan. It’s not my fault you couldn’t counter that. It’s not my fault you didn’t think of something clever first.” They tilted their head, “Now then, I believe we had a deal?”

 

“You cheated.” Q10 hissed.

 

“We did no such thing.” GiDi said, standing next to TO, “There’s nothing saying we can’t trick you. You just didn’t expect it.”

 

TO gave Q10 one last, withering look, then turned away from them and looked to DH and GiDi. “Shall we get back to our research?” TO asked, “I don’t think we’ll be interrupted again.”

 

Q10 stood before TO for a moment longer before stepping out of their way. TO, followed by GiDi and DH strode to the exit.

 

“That was cheap.” Q10 hissed. “You should have no pride in winning this.”

 

“I didn’t realize that personal pride was a factor we should take into account when plotting out a battle plan. I suspect that you’re simply irritated that we outsmarted you.”

 

They left the room, and the door wooshed shut behind them. The moment they were alone, TO released a deep breath, and started laughing. Their laughter was low at first, then grew to an almost manic cadance. GiDi and DH weren’t much better; anxiety, fear, and adrenaline had apparently left them senseless. They pulled themselves together as they made their way back to TO’s pod. After everything that had happened, they couldn’t possibly focus on their research, so they spent the rest of the day watching the musical that DH had found in the cultural archives.

 

They never finished watching the musical. They were so exhausted that they fell asleep against one another as the music played on.

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TheWitchOfTheRock

Bio: A writer and Illustrator with scenes to show and stories to tell

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