It felt like a long time before TO could speak again. Everything that they had held inside themselves from the moment the tiny little synth had been killed had poured out in strangled sobs and hot tears. They hadn’t been able to explain anything and thankfully, DH and GiDi hadn’t asked them to; they had been content to just sit with TO and hold them. DH held them tightly against their chest, and GiDi had their wings wrapped around the two of them.
Now that they were calmer, TO was worried that they would insist that TO tell them what happened. They really didn’t want to tell them about everything. They didn’t think they could.
“TO…” DH said softly as they gently scratched the back of TO’s head, “Are you in danger.”
“No.” TO said, their voice is soft and weak.
“Are we in danger?”
“No. Not as far as I know.”
“...Why were you going to attack 55H70.”
TO shook their head, “It’s irrelevant.”
“It’s not!” DH said, their voice rising, “You chide me about keeping quiet, about staying safe! What would have happened if you had actually attacked another synth? You had your claws out! You wanted to hurt them!”
“I…” They shook their head. “I had a very… Hard day. They said something that didn’t help.”
“What did they say.”
TO shook their head into DH.
“TO… Please.” They lifted up TO’s head and turned them so they had to look at DH; their eyes big and worried, their ears twitching with concern. “Tell us.”
TO let their eyes fick to GiDi, “They said that they thought that we could still be reprocessed If we didn’t perform well in Combat Training.”
DH frowned, “They’re not supposed to be bothering us.” DH said, “I mean, they said if we beat them in the simulation, they’d leave us alone.“
“They weren’t trying to be a bother. I honestly don’t think they were trying to start anything.” TO said. They clutched at DH. “I almost wish they had been.” Hearing 55H70’s cold voice say those things had been so much worse than if they had been nasty about it. At least then TO would know that they were only saying it to bother them.
“But still. That’s what made you bring out your claws?”
“DH.” TO said, “I saw something horrible today. I participated in something horrible today. I feel sick from it.” They looked at DH, their eyes big and pleading, “They said something that brought it back up. That upset me. Please don’t ask me more right now.” TO reached up and wiped the remains of tears away, sniffing gently. After a moment, DH pulled them back against their chest.
“Will you tell us when you can?” GiDi asked.
“I will.” TO said, “But… Just not now. Please.”
“Are you going to be ok for tomorrow?” DH asked.
Tomorrow. TO’s ears almost seemed to shudder, and they felt like a heated piece of metal had been dropped into their stomach. They had entirely forgotten that they had four more days of work in the labs. The thought made them sick, and caused their breath to hitch.
“We need to get TO out of the labs.” GiDi said, “They can’t go back.”
“Maybe a minor injury?” DH suggested, “A bad ankle, or-“
“No.” TO muttered. “No. NO! I have to do this.”
“You can’t!” Dh said, “Look at you, you-“
“I can!” TO said, sitting upright, “I can and I will! I will go back, I’ll do my job, I won’t be corrected, I won’t be sent away and NONE OF US ARE BEING REPROCESSED!”
Their voice echoed through the room. It was only now that TO looked around to figure out where they were; an old supply room. Sealed crates were neatly stacked around them, and the dust that was normally kept away from all other parts of the training center covered every surface.
At least they were alone.
“None of us are being reprocessed.” DH agreed. They let TO sit up, but they kept their hand firmly on their shoulders. “We’re going to be fine.”
TO shook their head and leaned against DH and GIDi. They weren't going to be fine.
“What if we get sick.”
“We’re halfway through our training.” DH said. “We won’t be reprocessed unless we get really really sick. And that’s not common.”
“It would have to be something really bad.” GiDi added.
“Or if we don’t pass our training.” TO said.
DH pressed their face to the top of TO’s head, “That won’t happen, not with you around.” They said, “You tend to keep us working hard and on top of our training.”
TO wasn’t sure anymore. In their head they were considering the cost of their upkeep and their training. What was a synth worth? Individually, what were each of them worth? How sick could they get before treatment wasn’t considered an effective use of resources? The logic part of their mind said that that was how it was supposed to be. It said that it was best for them, for every synth, and for the galaxy as a whole.
But TO didn’t want to die. They didn’t want GiDi or DH to die. The thought of any of them spread out on a table, their organs being picked over like parts being scavenged from an old machine...
They thought of the child again, and the tears came back.
It was very late when they made their way back to the dormitory. It had been decided that it was best to let TO rest where they were, and to head back when most everyone else would be asleep.
GiDi and DH also wanted to stay with TO throughout the night, but TO insisted that it was needless. “It will be crowded.” They insisted. “Uncomfortable. We won’t sleep well.” They forced a smile, “Like the time we all fell asleep after the combat simulation. We ached the whole next day.”
As TO climbed into their bunk, they wished that they had gotten one of their neighbours to move so that they could keep GiDi closer to them. They hadn’t been able to think of a good reason to ask anyone yet, so GiDi still had their pod further down the hallway.
They’d try tomorrow. They didn’t know who they’d talk to, but they’d get someone to move, somehow. They wanted GiDI to be closer so they could keep an eye on them; so they could have them close; so that GiDi could more easily reach out if they needed help.
They crawled into their pod and pulled off the now dust covered robe, sending it to laundry as they crawled under the blankets.
“Are you sure you’re ok to be alone?” DH asked quietly from their bunk.
“I’m sure.” TO said. Even if they weren’t, they had to do this. Other synths could do this just fine; there was no reason why they couldn’t. They could be just as strong, even if they had spent most of the last part of their day sobbing over a dead child synth. Most others could deal with that. Most others could take comfort in the logic, and in the knowledge that they were working for something greater than themselves.
They excelled in everything else, why were they having so many problems now?
“Alright.” DH said quietly, “But… If you change your mind, wake me.”
“Promise me!” They said, “I don’t care what time it is, wake me. Promise?”
TO couldn’t help but smile at DH’s concern. “I promise.” They said.
“Alright. Sleep well.”
The barrier closed, and TO was left alone with their thoughts. The memories of the
day and images of the dead synth on the table lingered as exhaustion pulled them into sleep.
DH was on the table. With clinical coolness, TO went about the process of cutting them open to categorize the organs. They had to decide what was usable as is, and what had to be broken down further to have any use.
DH was of course dead in this dream, but even so they stared up at TO, their eyes huge and wide with fear, their ears limp. They pleaded silently as their mouth moved but no words came out.
“Vocal cords must be damaged.” TO heard themselves say in a cold, indifferent tone, “That’ll have to be reduced to proteins.”
“What about the eyes?” GiDi asked next to them. They had been alone until that very moment, and in the dream it seemed like GiDi had just appeared there in a smock, with plastic gloves over their hands. “Do you think the eyes are useful?”
TO looked, examining the eyes that were filled with tears. They were so big and wide and scared; It reminded TO of the child in the tank, and how big their eyes had seemed compared to their head.
“Maybe.” They said carelessly. “We’ll do further testing on them when we’ve removed them– See how they function without being attached to that brain.”
“The heart looks strong.” GiDi said as they peered over TO’s shoulder into the pulsing, bloody cavity of DH’s chest. “Good lungs too.”
With machine-like efficiency, TO worked at carefully cutting out the still beating heart. They hardly blinked as they lifted it from DH’s chest cavity and placed it into a canister for preservation.
“Onto the next step?” GiDi asked.
“Of course.” TO said.
There was a blink, a skip in time, and TO themselves were strapped to the table. DH and GiDi were hovering over them, cutting open their chest cavity.
“It’s a shame we cannot preserve this one’s brain.” DH said, their tone so much flatter and colder than they were used to, “They are quite exceptional in terms of learning, versatility, problem solving-“
“They cannot do the work required of them,” GiDi said. “They’ll break one day anyway. Best to stop wasting resources.”
“Correct.” DH said, “Cut the losses, harvest the organs.”
They cut into TO, pulling apart their narrow ribcage with a sickening crunch. TO tried to scream in pain and fear. They tried to scream at them to stop but the muscles around their neck were so tense that they couldn’t make a sound. The screams lived and died in their throat, their three vocal cords vibrating uselessly.
Finally, they managed a noise. A strangled screech that hardly sounded like any sound a synth would make. DH and GiDi looked at them, confused.
Then they woke. The noise they had managed to make in their throat pulled them from sleep and left them scared and confused, looking around the dimly illuminated pod. Their heart was thrumming like it was trying to escape their chest, and their jaw ached from how they had been clenching the muscles. They were shaking all over, and it was hard to catch their breath.
A dream. They had known it was a dream while they were dreaming, but that hadn’t helped.
“Just a dream.” They muttered to themselves, “Stop being so foolish. Just a dream. Just a dream.
They lay back down to try to sleep again but as soon as they closed their eyes they saw the image of the tiny synth in the tank, the tiny synth on the table, and the images from their dream all flashed through their head.
They sat up again, shaking. They turned and hit the button to open the barrier. Everyone else in the dormitory was asleep; all the barriers, closed. They didn’t bother to check the time, but TO knew it was very very late.
They reached down and hesitated only for a moment as they knocked on DH’s barrier. They waited, and knocked again.
They knocked once more, deciding that if DH didn’t wake up, well, at least they had tried to keep their promise, and they’d have to just try to shake this off and go back to sleep, like a proper synth.
DH’s barrier opened. TO heard DH’s sleepy voice echo out through the quiet Dormitory. “TO?”
“DH.” They said, their voice so quiet and soft. They felt foolish and scared and shaken all at once, “I-“ Their voice cracked and cut off as the pain from the silent screaming, and the effort of holding back sobs silenced them.
In a flash, DH had crawled up and into TO’s pod with their blanket draped over their shoulders. As soon as they got in, they reached out and closed up the barrier.
“What’s wrong.” They asked as they reached forward to put their hand on TO’s arm. TO had a flash of the dream, of DH cutting into their skin. They recoiled then held their hands up to cover their mouth.
“I should be better than this.” They whimpered. Their ears were limp, and flushed blue with shame. “I thought I was better than this… Despite everything, I thought I could… I thought-”
DH crawled up to TO, and held them in their arms. Slowly, they lay down with TO.
“Now.” DH said quietly as their arms and wings wrapped around DH “Tell me what happened.”
TO couldn’t at first. They tried, but as soon as they started to describe what happened they couldn’t help the tears burn at their eyes, they couldn’t stop their breathing from picking up. DH assured them that they didn’t have to rush. They could take their time. Whenever they started apologizing for being so irrational and emotional, DH immediately shushed them.
After a while, TO was finally able to tell DH about the tiny synth in the lab, the dissection that followed, and the terrible, terrible dream that they had had.
Bio: A writer and Illustrator with scenes to show and stories to tell