Well the truth is, you didn’t survive, but luckily we had a spare available.’
‘Yeah’, thought Cas, turning her hand in the dim light, ‘a spare.’
Dawn split through the forest canopy, turning the world grey and allowing her to pick out the pale scars crisscrossing the skin she was wearing. The story that the doctors had told her on waking sounded like a bad fairy -tale, full of holes and easy to pick apart. They seemed to have forgotten that replicates were supposed to be perfect, unblemished. They weren’t created with scars already littering their bodies.
Her’s though? She remembered looking in the mirror and seeing the scar that ran from hairline to jaw, crossing her face like someone had started to draw an ‘x’ through it. The hair had been cropped too close for her to tell what colour it should be but now the ends were growing through blonde, and her eyes… well at least they were interesting.
Curling her fingers into a fist Cas brought her hand close to her chest. Beneath the thin bed roll stones twisted into her spine but she tuned the discomfort out. They were trained not to notice the small annoyances, just like the twinge in her left knee when she walked too far or too fast.
Article Eighty-Nine of the sixty-third Treaty of Amon. No replicated will be used for the housing of additional souls after the initial has been made redundant.’
Cas knew each clause and subsection by heart, couldn’t have forgotten it if she tried. It seemed a little pointless, there was a new treaty every other month and each one was filled with new guidelines for the use of souls. If she thought hard enough she could remember fragments of the old ones, hidden beneath the reprogramming. The current treaty was better than others but it was still flawed. It still held her as something other than human. A chip to be taken and shoved into a new body when the old one wore out. Except there weren’t any new bodies these days. Replicates hadn’t been in production for the last ten years and the stocks had started running low as more and more were thrown into pointless battles and destroyed beyond repair.
Cas knew she wasn’t supposed to remember her old body, or the way in which it was eliminated, but she did. She could still feel the shrapnel piercing her lungs and the way she drowned in her own blood. Then there was just darkness until she woke up in a sub-section lab being stared at by three sets of eyes.
They’d looked relieved and that scared Cas the most. It was like they’d expected the chip to fail.
In the clearing the light was growing stronger. Bats grunted softly, rolling in his sleep, his elbow colliding with Cas’ ribs. She smiled and elbowed him back, squirming as he burrowed the bristles of his beard into the crook of her neck.
‘Wake up you moron.’ She elbowed him again.
‘What- I- urg, oh, it’s you. Thought we were under attack for a minute there.’ Sitting up, he dragged his hands down his face and slapped himself awake. ‘What’s the time? Did we oversleep?’
Cas checked her watch. ‘Quarter to six,’ she said. ‘We’ve got an hour to make it to the meet up point.’
‘Right. You know where that is exactly?’ He pulled a centipede from his hair and flicked it across the clearing, watching her from the corner of his eye as she stood.
‘Due west, we’ll make it in time.’ Cas packed away her roll and strapped it to the rest of her supplies. Standard issue, to be returned to base upon completion of the mission. Her fingers fumbled with the buckles.
‘You okay?’ Bats was looking at her fully now, his own rucksack hanging loosely from his shoulder. ‘You seem a little off.’
‘I’m fine. New body, it’s all this learning how to do everything from scratch. It takes a while.’
Bats nodded. ‘You’re telling me.’ He stretched and Cas heard a series of clicks as he rolled his neck along his shoulders. ‘Took me months to get use to this bad boy. Glad he’s lasted me so long, been running eight years now.’ He patted his stomach.
Cas finished tightening the straps and swung the rucksack up onto her shoulders. One of the downsides of a new replicate was loosing any dexterity you’d had in the old one. A replicate could learn how to pick every lock on the planet in five seconds flat, but swap him out and hand him a set of picks afterwards? He wouldn’t know where to start. Walking, talking, eating, sleeping, that seemed to carry across. The rest had to be reprogrammed from scratch.
They set off west and Cas focused on putting distance between them and their camp site. They were heading back and the idea of it made her stomach roil.
‘You think the canteen food got any better?’ asked Bats. He took the lead and set a pace that left Cas’ knee pinging darts of pain up towards her hip with each step. ‘I mean it’s not inedible but it’s not far off, and a guy’s got to eat.’
He didn’t, not really, but replicates could eat and the superiors like them to sit with the rest of the soldiers at meal times to make them appear less like robot, killing machines.
‘Unless James miraculous found a way of growing vegetables in that effed up soil back at base then no,’ said Cas. ‘Even if he does get some better stuff in, we won’t see it. You know the Reals get the best rations.’ She could feel her breath beginning to shorten. Bats glanced back frowning.
‘You don’t sound too good.’
Cas tried to speak but decided on coughing instead. She felt Bat’s hands grip her shoulders and before she could react he had her crouching on the forest floor, her head between her knees.
‘Christ Cas, what’s going on with you?’ He kept one hand of the back of her neck but he made small soothing motions with his thumb. ‘You got a faulty one of something?’
Slowly, Cas managed to catch her breath.
‘It’s not new,’ she said, still wheezing slightly. ‘They said it was a spare but it’s been used before, it’s been damaged.’
‘No,’ said Bats. ‘They wouldn’t send out a damaged replicate with a soul inside it. It must have been a mistake.’
Cas’ nails bit into her palms.
‘It wasn’t a mistake Bats. We’re loosing the war and they can’t afford to put aside any replicates that might be able to fight. They’re scrounging from scraps and it doesn’t matter so long as they can send us to get the job done.’
The grip on her neck tightened and Cas saw his face darkening.
‘We’ll take you home and make them fix you up. You’ll be fine.’ He stood, taking Cas with him. ‘I’ll make them fix you. Just watch.’
Cas took his hands and squeezed them with her own.
‘They’ll just stick me in another one, one less broken.’
‘You don’t know that, they might-‘
‘Yes! I do!’ Cas snapped. ‘I remember Bats, I remember who I was before this version and I remember what they said when I woke up.’
‘What?’ Bats was frowning now. ‘How?’
‘I don’t know but it’s true. All the blank replicates are gone, used.’ She didn’t mention the conversation she’d overheard about how many replicates in total were left. She didn’t think Bats needed to hear how few remained.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Bats. ‘We have our orders and we follow them.’ He pulled his hands from her and turned west. ‘We need to get back.’
Cas remained where she was.
‘No.’ She managed to keep her voice solid. ‘I’m not going back this time.’
Bats shoulders twitched but he kept walking.
‘We’re going back,’ he said.
‘I told you no. I don’t want to.’ Cas could hear her voice rising. ‘That place is evil!’
Bats hands were back on her in seconds, this time instead of holding he pressed his knuckles into her carotid artery. Cas’ breath hitched.
‘Bats-‘ There was no oxygen for any more than that.
‘We’re going back,’ he growled. ‘Those are the orders.’
She was starting to go lightheaded, her hands beating a desperate tattoo against his arm in an attempt to get him to yield.
‘I will carry you home if I have to.’
The handle of his knife stuck out of a holster on the strap of his rucksack. Cas didn’t mean to find it but her fingers tightened instinctively. She drove in inwards and upwards. The grip on her neck slackened and fell away.
She stared at the blood of the knife, on her hands, on Bats. His heart, she’d managed to hit his heart she realised.
Swallowing the bile at the back of her throat, Cas tucked away the knife.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, hoping someone would find him in time to save the chip. She knelt down, wiped her hands on his shirt and pulled the rucksack from beneath him. ‘It’s for the best.’
Cas steadied herself and turned east. She had to find out what was out there. What exactly she was supposed to be fighting for or against.
‘Forward,’ she told herself. The thought of Bats lying behind her itched between her shoulder blades. ‘We have to move forward.’ She just wished she knew what she was moving forward into. Her feet were moving and she let them take the lead.
The entire world was screwed up with people fighting over tiny patches of land, trying to stake their claim on whatever they could. There were rumours though. Whispers that there was an organisation working to piece everything back together again. Cas pushed the idea away. Even if it was true she didn’t want to throw her lot in with anyone until she’d figured some stuff out for herself first.
She checked her watch. Still half an hour until she was supposed to meet up with the rest. That gave her a little head-start but not enough to make a difference.
She would have to take her chances with Cerberus. He was just as much as a myth as the other stories but if she could find him then he might be able to keep anyone from tracking her.
Cas picked up the pace, aware of how tight her chest still was. She needed someone to fix her up as well. Someone who wouldn’t ask questions.
With the sun still climbing she began to sweat. One problem at a time she decided. Cerberus first and a medic second.
Her heart stuttered slightly. She was actually running away. She was free. Well almost.
There was still a way to go yet.
Thank you to Promptuarium for the inspiration for this post. It took a bit of writing and I’m not sure if I’m completely happy with how it ended but it certainly got the creative juices going. It’s been a while since I wrote something new my Headquarters universe but I kept find myself thinking about how this piece would fit in there and by the end I’d decided to try and tie it in. I still need to write some more for Safe Haven when I get chance but I’m not sure when that will be.
If you liked this you can check out some more Headquarters stories here, or read some of my other flash fiction pieces on the home page under Short Stories and Flash Fiction.
Please let me know what you think or if you’re a writer yourself, feel free to leave a link to a piece of your own in the comments. I do love getting to read new work.
Thank you for reading.