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A note from TheWitchOfTheRock

Thanks again to my patrons; Cannot Account, ColdAu, Cruelfeline, and Sea Jay.

It was sunset on an alien planet. TO had been set in the middle of the wilderness- a hilly landscape of yellow grass as far as their eyes could see, where giant cacti grew in between trees with waxy leaves. The sky was clear, though the fading sun was far too bright for TO to see properly without their helmet. The air was warm, but terribly humid. They took deep breaths as they tried to draw in enough air to be comfortable.

They couldn’t.

They didn’t like this planet; or at least, they didn’t like this simulation of a planet.

A moment later, two other synths that TO didn’t recognize materialized. They looked around, shading their eyes as they winced at the brightness of the sun. Another moment passed and TO sighed with relief as DH materialized in.

That one is with us.” one of the other synths said. TO turned on them, enraged by the disdain in their voice, by the way they spat out the word “that.” TO was ready to snap at them, to tell them that DH was just as capable as any others were- likely more so.

Only they weren’t looking at DH with that sneer on their face, they were looking at TO.

“Excuse you?” TO said as their ears flicked out in confusion.

“You. 09T07.” They gestured to TO’s tag, “You’re the one that deceived the others in the simulation before. We can’t trust you.”

“That was once!” TO said, “And I’ve learned better!”

Their uniforms shimmered and turned green this time. They were being synced to the simulation. Soon they would be given their directives and the commander for this mission would be assigned.

“Have you?” one of the synths who now had S41 on their uniform said, “How are we supposed to believe that-”

“Well, you can check my ears!” TO snapped, “I don’t have a helmet on right this moment.”

“Hey!” DH, now acclimated to the simulation and the light, stepped between TO and the others, “Hey, 09T07-”

“S51.” S41 said as they stepped forward.

“S51 then; if they say they’ve learned, and that they won’t do it again, then they won’t!” They gestured to TO, “Besides, they’re right. Look at their ears; Do they look like they’re lying?”

“Not at the moment.” S41 said, “But once the simulation starts, they’ll have their helmet on and we won’t be able to judge by their ears.”


“We should work without them!” said one of the other synths- this one was taller and skinnier than TO was used to seeing, and had been given the designation S30 for the time “Leave them here. I’d rather be short handed than risk them messing everything up.”

“Hey, I’m back in this now!” TO said, their ears pinning back and their wings puffing up around them, “I messed up once, I don’t intend to do it again!” they didn’t want to go back to days of solitary training while everyone else progressed and learned. They didn’t want to be separated from the others, even if the others didn’t want anything to do with them.

“This could be a test of judgement.” S41 said, “We know that that one cannot be trusted. As such, do we use them?”

“C12 thought that I had progressed enough to come back into the simulations-”

“Or they thought it would be a good testing opportunity.” S30 said.

Before the argument could continue, their mission orders came in. TO quickly brought up the orders, hoping against their better judgement that they’d be made the commanding officer this time. It wouldn’t make sense for C12 to impress upon them the importance of following orders, then put them in a simulation where they were giving orders.

Still. If they were the commanding officer in this simulation, then the argument would be over.

MISSION ORDERS

SITUATION: A group of insurgents have set up camp in the wilds of this planet. They are planning a strike against a major city which could lead to massive civilian casualties. An insurgent support team (Team Yellow) is also searching for the insurgents. Should Team Yellow contact the insurgency first, they will assist them and the strike will commence.

MISSION: Locate the insurgency base before Team Yellow.

EXECUTION: placing the provided marker in the central dias of the base will alert backup forces to the location, and allow for a quick strike to neutralize the insurgents.

SUPPORT: -multiguns provided

-Location confirmed within perimeter marked on map

COMMANDER: S43

Confusion flicked over TO’s face as they looked up and checked the number on DH’s uniform. Sure enough, the patch over their heart read S43.

“DH.” TO said, forgetting for the moment that the other two were even there, “You’re the Commanding Officer.”

A moment of panic flicked over DH’s face as their ears flicked down. They checked the number on their uniform and realized that what TO was saying was right. “No. No that can’t be right.” They said, “I only just got back. I’ve never been in a simulation like this before!”

“I am positive that you were chosen to be commander for a reason.” S41 said as they took a step forward, “After all, if you were chosen for an eye transplant, then the Overseers must see something in you that they wish to strengthen, yes?”

DH looked at them, confused, then looked back to TO.

“IF D- IF S43 is the Commanding Officer, then we should do as they order.” TO said, taking a step back and clasping their hands behind them. They had to obey orders. At least now, with DH in command TO wouldn’t have to worry about being excluded. This would be perfect! They could prove that they could follow orders and hopefully they wouldn’t have the same problems again tomorrow.

The countdown started. Their uniforms morphed into the armor that they had been wearing during scenarios in the simulations. Thankfully, as soon as the helmet went over TO’s head it was easier to breathe and the light didn’t hurt their eyes as much.

Regardless, TO could still tell that DH had frozen. They didn’t say a word, and weren’t moving.

“S43.” TO said in careful common, hoping that DH would understand that it was better to speak common in the armor, “Do you have a plan?”

DH looked from the other two synths to TO, “I… What do you think I should do?”

TO suppressed a curse. DH could lead- they had done it in games; they were just nervous now. TO wanted to tell them that it was alright. They wanted to tell them what to do, but they knew that they had to follow orders, and that DH had to do this for themselves. They wanted to encourage DH, to put a hand on their shoulder and tell them that they’d do fine… but others were respecting DH now, and TO didn’t want to affect that.

“You’re the commander.” TO said. “You have to decide.”

The countdown continued. “Right.” DHsaid, their voice strangely monotone in common, “Alright. We need to find the base. Let’s fly, and circle around. We should be able to find something.”

“Understood.” TO said. “Where do you want us to fly?” They hoped that by asking a simple question, they could push DH into realizing what they had to do next. Thankfully, DH seemed to understand.

“Right.” they said, “There’s four of us, so let’s take compass directions-”

DH started giving orders, telling them all to take a separate direction. TO had hoped that they would have a second, a brief moment to point something out to DH, but they knew that they were being watched, and they didn’t want DH to seem like they couldn’t manage the job.

They also didn’t want anyone to think they were trying to take over the role of commander.

Even though TO knew that DH had made one big mistake, they hoped against logic that they would still be the winners and find the base first. There was nowhere to hide here once they were airborne, so if they didn’t find the base soon, they’d be attacked.

=====

“Is anyone else still in?” DH’s voice came over the radio, panicked and frantic. TO hardly had time to really notice it as they spun away from the oncoming shots of the opposite team, spiraling and frantically searching for a place to hide.

There was no place to hide. The wilderness was too vast. Maybe if they had stayed closer to the ground in the first place - a plan that TO had considered in the beginning- then they could have hidden among the hills.

Well, too late for that now.

“I’m still here.” TO said as they spun out of the way again. They rose up, dropped, and took the moments when gravity guided them to shoot at their attackers. The volley of shots hit one member of team yellow, and sent them down to the ground. That shot seemed to be entirely luck because when TO shot at the other synth, they missed entirely. The other member of team yellow fired at TO who swooped up just in time to avoid being struck.


“I’ve taken one out.” TO said as they swooped and dodged in the air. They felt silly, but they knew that if they flew in a straight line for more than a moment they’d be taken down. “How many of us are left?”

“You, me, and S41.”

“Good. I took out one of theirs; We’re even. I don’t like how we’ve only seen three of them so far though.”

“Maybe they’re shorthanded?”

“No.” TO only just spiraled out of the way of another shot; the synth that was chasing them apparently was starting to figure out the inadvertent patterns that TO was flying in. They cursed and went out of their way to change their movements. “I don’t think they’d be short handed. If I were them-”

TO didn’t have a chance to tell DH what they would have done. The missing opponent suddenly rose up from the ground and went right for TO, firing. TO swooped out of the way and shot back, but they missed.

A shot hit them in the back. They felt pain - like a sudden burning on their back- as they fell to the ground. They tried to rise up again, to fly and get away, but one of their wings wasn't responding.

The ground approached. They fell, but thankfully when they would have hit the ground they instead felt as though they had burst through the world, and it seemed like they were spiraling into nothing. Their sense of gravity returned, their senses reorganized, and they woke up back in the simulation room.

TO took off their helmet, but stayed sitting in the chair. They felt dizzy, and their heart felt like it was about to burst out of their chest. Some of the other synths were walking around, stretching. Others who had just woken up were still sitting back in their chairs.

TO thought they might be sick; the sensation of spiraling through nothingness made them feel queasy, and the image of the ground rushing up towards them only for them to pass though it had left them shaken. They wanted to lay down somewhere quiet, but that wasn’t possible.

TO looked around for C12, and sure enough they saw the Retiree head towards them with a display hovering in front of them. TO felt their ears flick down as they prepared to be berated.

“Not bad.” C12 said as they approached, “Your aim could use some work though. I’m going to put you in a simulation specifically for aim for the rest of today's session, and-”

“But… but I lost?” TO frowned, “The others still might win, but-”


“You followed orders, and did what you were supposed to do.” C12 gestured at their display, and it showed a view through TO’s eyes as they spoke to the others at the beginning of the simulation. It was the point where DH asked TO what they would do.

“Can I assume that you had a plan?” C12 said.

“Yes, Retiree.”

“I understand why, in this case, you didn’t share it. However, you are able to offer advice and give opinions in combat. You just have to be prepared to follow orders even if your commanding officer decides not to take your advice. Understood?”’

“Yes, Retiree.”

“Still, Good job. Stretch for a few minutes before you go back in.” They flicked to another screen, and started towards another synth who had just woken up. TO lay back, too exhausted to stretch just yet. They heard C12 give the other synth a brief rundown of what they did good, where they could improve - in their case, their agility needed work- and then inform them that they were being put in a separate program for the rest of the day. Well, at least that seemed normal.

TO didn’t want to go again. TO didn’t want to do another simulation; they were tired, their muscles hurt, and they felt dizzy. They just wanted to sit there and relax for a few minutes. Maybe take a nap.

With a sigh, they got up and started stretching their muscles. It didn’t matter what they wanted; they had to train so that they could serve King Decon.

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TheWitchOfTheRock

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

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