C12 brought them to a room on one of the higher levels of the center. They opened the door and let TO, GiDi, and DH step inside before they came in after them. There was a beep as the door closed and secured. With their chip, C12 turned on the speakers in the corner of the room which played soft music with vocals in a language that sounded almost similar to the synth language.
“There.” C12 said as they released a breath, “Now you can ask questions.” They stepped in towards a panel in the wall that looked a lot like a mini version of the food dispensers in the cafeteria. When nobody said anything, C12 turned back to see them still standing by the door. “I mean it.” they said, “You can ask your questions now.” they swiped their chip on the panel, then started to put in commands, “The room is mostly secure.”
TO frowned and looked about. The room was different from any that they had seen before; it was a little bigger than the office that Overseer T had, but there was a narrow bed along one wall with a thin pillow and a single worn blanket. There was a table in the center of the room along with two mismatched chairs on either side. There were shelves lining one wall, but there was nothing on them.
“...Is this where you live?” TO finally asked.
“It is.” C12 said. The dispenser in the wall started spitting out meals which C12 put on the table. They gestured to the table as they took another meal from the dispenser, “Would one of you pull that table to the bed? I don’t normally have guests, so there’s not a lot of chairs…”
TO stepped ahead immediately and pulled the table to the bed. DH took the chairs and brought them over while GiDi looked around for something else to sit on. There finally found a small crate in the corner which they pulled over.
C12 sat on the bed after setting the last of the meals down on the table and gestured for the others to sit on the opposite side. As they sat, TO couldn’t help but notice how small C12’s serving was compared to theirs.
“I’m not supposed to burn as many calories in a day as you trainees are.” C12 said as they caught TO’s eyes, “I only lead combat training. If I didn’t do that, I’d get even less.” They slowly broke the cubes in two, setting them on their plate, “Go on, Eat.”
TO frowned at their own plate, “I… I’m not really hungry.” they said, only to be immediately jabbed in the side by DH’s elbow.
“TO doesn’t eat so much when something’s bothering them.” they said.
“That’s been noted.” C12 said, “It’s in their file.
TO looked up suddenly, “Something like that’s in my file?”
“When you’re in training, everything that’s of note is in your file.” C12 said. They ate a half cube, then said, “Everything. How much you’re observed to eat. Who you spend your time with. What you do in your free time.” They glanced at DH, “If you sleep in your own pod, or if others sleep in your pod with you.”
TO felt their wings tighten around them, “Is that bad?”
“Bad?” C12 let their hand hover over their food. Their eyes suddenly seemed far away, their ears flicked down, “It’s observed. That’s all. However, excessive fraternization isn’t necessarily viewed as a positive thing...As you saw.”
“You’re talking about what the Commander said?” GiDi asked softly. C12 nodded.
“Wait.” DH said, “You’re a retiree! Why was the Commander so nasty to you?”
“You know exactly why they were nasty to me.” C12 said with a hint of bitter amusement to their voice as their ears flicked with shame, “At least… From what I understand, 09T-“ They stopped and looked at TO, “Apologies. Should I call you TO?”
“I-If you wish?” TO said.
“Very well… From what I understand, TO told you exactly why they might be so nasty to me.”
The three of them looked at C12 in confusion. After a moment, C12 sighed, “Snout-“ Their ears flicked down, “We were closer than was seen as proper for synths, and it wasn't a well kept secret. Anyone over the position of officer around here has some idea.”
“But… So it’s alright then?” DH asked, leaning forward.
C12 frowned at DH, “Did it look alright?” they demanded, “I’m a retiree. I have achieved the highest honor that a synth can achieve. For all intents and purposes, I am safe to just live. Yet, the Commander-“ they looked aside, “At best, I’m seen as a joke; at worst, a disgrace. Still, I’ve earned the right to my life at least.”
“And that’s just because PQ-.” GiDi stopped, frowning, “Should I call them Snout?”
“That’s the only name I know for them by now.” C12 said, “So you might as well.”
“...Because Snout was your companion?”
C12 seemed to flinch at that word, “Don’t call them that.” C12 said, “Companion... there’s nothing wrong with the word, but there’s a way that the higher ups say that which made it sound…” they trailed off, then shook their head, “They were close to me. They…” C12 frowned at their food, then looked up, their eyes steady, but their ears flicked back in fear, “They were my mate.”
Mate. There it was, out in the open. Mate. A lover. A partner.
“There’s no rules against it…” GiDi said softly.
“There’s also no rules about smearing fecal matter against the hallway walls.” C12 said with a sneer, “That’s been said to me when I was younger, by the way. Before I was a retiree.” They shook their head, “When it was brought up as a reason why I was to be sent off to combat. Even now, despite my position, the Commander, and most of the higher ups here, don’t like me.”
“My Overseer didn’t tell me anything about that.” GiDi said softly, “I asked how you became a retiree-“
“The Overseers are relatively low on the chain of command, to be honest.” they glanced away, “And they would be instructed not to speak of it to trainees if they did know. Wouldn’t want to put ideas in your heads.”
Was that all it was? TO remembered how they thought of DH stroking their ear back in the fight training room. From time to time that image popped back up at inopportune times, distracting TO. Was that all it was? An idea put in their head.
“Anyway… that’s why the Commander was so ‘nasty’ to me, as you put it.” They shrugged, “I’m tolerated for my service, but only just. My position just keeps others from being outright hostile.
They continued to eat, allowing the silence to take over for a few long minutes. It wasn't until they were half done that C12 finally said, “Well, you seemed to have so many questions earlier. Where did they go?”
“...You told us not to ask questions though-“ TO said.
“We were in an elevator, likely being listened to. Here, we’re relatively safe.” They flicked their eyes to the speaker in the corner, “There are some questions I might refuse to answer by the way, for my safety and yours.”
“... Am I going to be corrected?” TO finally asked.
“No.” C12 said firmly, “At least, not unless you do something really bad.”
“But I did do something really bad!” TO insisted, “I disobeyed orders, I-“
“You disobeyed orders. You’ve been trained out of it now. If I thought that there was a real issue there, then I’d have reported it-“ their ears twitched as they said that. Frowning, they glanced aside, “Well, I probably wouldn’t have reported it. But even so, had I reported it at this stage of your training it would simply be seen as poor judgement, not an innate flaw.”
Seeing C12’s ears twitch reminded TO about the elevator, and about how C12 had lied to the Commander. “You lied to the commander.” They’d said in slight awe.”
“That is something I won’t answer more questions about.” C12 said, “That’s for my safety and yours.”
“I thought that something bad was going to happen to TO too.” GiDi said, “That’s why we refused to leave-“
“Which could have gotten you in trouble with other higher ups” C12 said, “If you disobeyed a direct order to leave, I mean.”
“-So if TO isn’t in trouble, if they’re not being corrected… Why did you bring us here?”
C12 frowned as they picked up one of the half cubes on their plate, examining the torn side as though it was something particularly fascinating. “Honestly?” They said after a moment, “I figured that after their training today, TO wouldn't want to be around many other synths. I figured it would be best if they took their meal in a quieter setting; if they didn’t have to go to the cafeteria at all.”
“That’s it?” TO asked. C12 nodded.
“... Do you really think anyone would have said or done anything to TO after what you said to 98G76?” DH asked
“Who’s that?” TO asked as their ears flicked forward.
“The synth who shot you in the simulation.” DH said, “You didn’t know their number?”
“I wasn’t overly concerned by it, no.” TO admitted.
“C12 called them down!” DH said, “I thought they were going to kick them out-“
GiDi suddenly tried to puff themself up, “They were all, ‘If I give you a soldier to use, 98G76, you WILL use them! “
“To do what they did is just as bad as disobeying orders. Maybe more so.” C12 said, “They’re spitting in the face of whoever assigned the soldiers, doubting the judgement of the higher ups, and killing a fellow synth. No, I had every right to chastise them as I did. If anything, I might have been too lenient. I only set them to specialized training.”
“Like you did with me.” TO said softly.
“As I did with you, yes.” They ate a small piece of their food, then stopped as they reached for another. “...I did bring you here to keep you out of the main cafeteria for the time.” C12 said. They glanced about the room, their ears flicking as they listened for something, “That’s the truth...But I was hoping for an opportunity to speak to the three of you regardless.” They glanced at TO, “I just wasn’t sure if TO would be comfortable with you two seeing them upset as they were after the simulation.”
“We are always there for TO.” DH said firmly. Their ears pinned back slightly as they spoke, “If they’re upset, I’d refuse to leave their side.”
TO wanted to tell DH that it was fine and that they didn’t need to get defensive, but they couldn’t. The way DH had just done that, had just said that to C12, had just said to a higher up that they’d not leave them left TO speechless. Of course they felt the same, but to be able to say it, and to say it so firmly….
They wanted to reach out and take DH by the hand. They wanted to embrace them, to wrap their wings around them, to gently run their thumb along their ears-‘
TO looked away as they took a quick drink of water. “It’s fine, DH.” They said when they were done. How could they have thought that? DH was their friend! DH didn't like that kind of stuff among synths! They had literally just been warned about excessive fraternization!
What counted as excessive? TO wasn’t sure exactly, but they were positive that ear-stroking was high up on the list, and most likely kissing too but TO didn’t want to kiss DH.
...Did they? They shook that thought out of their head. No, of course they didn’t. Synths didn’t do that. Well, clearly they did, but it didn’t seem to end well. If they did, then one was treated with disdain even if they got to the level of a retiree and the other apparently just disappeared. TO didn’t want either of those outcomes for DH.
It didn’t matter. They were just thinking too hard about it all now. They were just distracted. Preoccupied. Everything that happened with C12 was fresh in their mind, and DH just happened to accidentally touch their ear the other day. It was fine. TO was certain that they’d forget all about it in a few days at most.
C12 had continued speaking, and TO hadn’t even noticed. They pulled their thoughts back to the present to focus.
“-and anyway, what I wanted to speak to you about was this.” C12 leaned forward, looking at the three seriously, “You’re being watched.”
“...What?” GiDi said, their voice very soft and quiet.
“Well, technically everyone is being watched.” C12 said idly. They gestured to the speakers, “To a point, that’s why I have music on right now, and why I’ve choose the language I did- it’s similar to our language, and it makes it harder for people to listen in-“
“How are we being watched!” GiDi asked, “I mean, we’re alone most of the time-“
“There’s cameras in most public places.” C12 said, “And your chips have microphones and trackers on them.”
TO froze. The chips? They knew that the chips had trackers in them, but microphones too?
“Now… everything is recorded, but not everything is observed- that would take far too much time. There’s certain keywords that the system will pick up and alert Overseers to. As well, if a retiree had specific concerns about a trainee then they could have access to logs as well. And of course upon listening to conversations and finding them to be unconcerning, they would be deleted to make space for future logs. “
“You’re saying-“ GiDi started, but C12 cut them off.
“I’m offering hypotheticals.” C12 said idly, “I’m suggesting that if certain synths are seen to be special, or exceptional, or just slightly concerning, then their logs might have extra attention paid to them.” They looked at them and said in a serious, careful voice, “I’m saying that such synths should be careful about what they said, and to whom. Everything is recorded.”
“...Would such synths be in danger?” GiDi asked, sounding very small and very scared.
There was a look between C12 and GiDi. TO was very confused for a moment, then it occurred to them that perhaps this was a warning for them to stop talking about the romance stuff. Maybe the higher ups had heard something GiDi had said and were considering correcting them to avoid excessive fraternization.
C12 leaned back as they observed the three before them, “I’m saying that given the events of the last period, it could be considered that certain actions, or certain conversations are outliers, driven by the shock of seeing an attack on King Decon. So long as things go back to normal, then I can’t imagine long-term problems.”
A warning perhaps to not help GiDi? A warning to DH and TO to abandon the plan they had come up with?
“...Do synths get corrected for… for having a mate?” TO asked as they remembered the term that C12 had used for snout.
C12 looked at TO, confused. It was almost as though they had been pulled from their train of thought and for a moment TO wondered if they had been wrong about what C12 was saying.
“...Such things are frowned upon.” C12 said after a long moment, “Even outside of mates, as I said excessive fraternization is not considered ideal, and could have a synth sent to the front lines on some hostile alien planet. However, in a highly capable synth it would be overlooked... Provided that synth knows their duty. So long as that synth knows that they must put King Decon’s will and orders over everything else.
I would have run, duty or no.
If you had to choose...would you choose King Decon?
TO wasn’t hungry anymore.
Bio: A writer and Illustrator with scenes to show and stories to tell