In another world.
"Beta-39, do you see them?"
Beta-39 wraps the fingers of his incomplete hand around the man’s leather harness and curls his toes, bare of socks or shoes. He nods his head, then tucks his face away into the warmth of the skin he can feel through the kevlar and canvas.
"They won’t hurt you," the man says, his voice a reverberating susurration somewhat like the static hum that had come from Beta-23’s chest, before Beta-23 had been decommissioned. Beta-39 hopes that he won’t be decommissioned now, since his left arm lacks the biosynthetic sheathing of his right. It makes him lopsided, imperfect, disposable; he steals an anxious peek at the warm man who holds him so carefully. The man catches him looking and readjusts his grip, laughing gently. "Can you say it? Crows."
Crows. They’re pecking at the scraps of burned flesh here and there, scattered upon the ground. The sight and smell doesn’t bother Beta-39, but it doesn’t seem to bother the man, either. The man isn’t upset. That’s good. “Crows,” Beta-39 repeats, obediently. “Crows.” He says it again, because he can. The man is still not upset. That’s even better.
"God, you sound just like he did when he was your age—" The man shakes. He shakes so badly that Beta-39 tightens his grip on the straps, lest he fall. "Sorry, sorry. Beta—I need to call you something other than a letter and a number. Do you have a name?"
The man doesn’t sound strong anymore. He sounds all brittle. Beta-39 wonders if it’s because of Alpha. The man had found Beta-39 in Beta-39’s little white room. He had stopped Beta-39 from being decommissioned by his favorite guard. He had been too late to stop the decommissioning of Beta-38 or Beta-37, but he cradled Beta-51 in his arms in a way that Beta-39 had only ever seen with the researchers who were handling pieces of Alpha.
Beta-51 always, always cried, but in the man’s arms, Beta-51 was silent. The man had grabbed Beta-39 by the waist, and lifted him up, told him to hang on, hang on to him and Beta-51—they ran past the rooms holding the Betas that had already been disposed of, but the man stumbled once they reached Beta-20. The man reached out and touched Beta-20’s face, closed Beta-20’s cold, clouded eyes. The man hadn’t done that for any of the other Betas, but maybe it was because the man and Beta-20 looked to be about the same age.
They had run some more, but then Beta-13 had stepped out from behind a doorway. Beta-13 fired his gun, missing the man’s head but blowing out Beta-51’s. The man had released a terrible cry, something that could have been no, please, please, no, no, no—it was then that Beta-39 had become afraid. Beta-51’s body was left to the floor, and Beta-39 closed his eyes.
There was a crackling voice from the man’s cowl with a code of some kind; Beta-13’s cardiac motor burst. Beta-13 collapsed to the floor, and the man carried Beta-39 past him and into the next room.
Beta-39 didn’t want to see anymore. He didn’t want to see the high Betas reach critical. They were old, imprecise. The doctors had said that they had their parts replaced, not grown.
The man hadn’t put him down, not until they had reached the laboratory that held the remains of Alpha.
Beta-39 isn’t sure what he remembers more clearly; seeing Alpha’s archaic arm disassembled and suspended in the display upon the wall together with the cryogenic containment capsules for each limb and organ, or hearing the man wail where he stood on the white tile. Beta-39 had never seen Alpha’s face before. It looked sad, even disembodied in ice. Beta-39 wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be in the presence of Alpha, who was Very Important, but he was the last Beta; Beta-39 supposed that made things acceptable.
The crackle in the man’s cowl sounded urgent, and the man wept for a moment longer before he clutched Beta-39 to his chest with both arms—he ran out with fire chasing behind them, and here they are.
The outside is nice, Beta-39 thinks, even if his exposed skin is getting cold. “I don’t have a name,” Beta-39 replies.
"Everyone has a name." The man sounds only a little weak, this time.
Beta-39 reaches up to touch the man’s hair. Lit up by the fire and the sun, it’s bright in his eyes and soft to the touch. He touches the hair with his completed arm because it’s perfect, unlike his incomplete arm. Beta-39 isn’t even done with being constructed. He hasn’t finished his training. He doesn’t know why he merits a name—names are only given for field missions.
"I’m a Beta. We don’t have names."
The man grunts, and his arms pull Beta-39 snug and tight. Around them, the crows flutter. Beta-39 doesn’t know how to describe them, other than, than…pretty. The man is pretty, too. Objectively, the gleam of his incomplete arm is pretty, but he tucks it into the man’s chest between their bodies to hide it from the light. “Can I give you one?” The man whispers. The man turns his face to press his nose to Beta-39’s hair.
It’s a foreign feeling, being held like this. It’s warm, which is nice, but the man is so strong that Beta-39 feels safe, too. He feels secure, which is why he concedes with another nod.
"James—no. Not that one. Jacob? Joshua? Jonah?" A big whirring comes from above, and Beta-39 flinches at the wind that smacks into his face. "Shhh, shhh, it’s ok, don’t be afraid." Beta-39 trusts him. Beta-39 ceases to be afraid, and looks at the machine in the sky. He recognizes it as a helicopter, and when it lands, the man carries him over to it and straps himself in without releasing Beta-39 from his arms.
There are three other people in the helicopter. They are all pretty, and Beta-39 feels so secure that he tells them so. The man will keep him safe. The woman chuckles, but she looks so sad. They all look so sad. They say nothing.
Beta-39 tugs on the man’s sleeve. He wants to hear more names. “Designation,” he states, and the man’s eyes turn from clouds to stars. The man’s big hands are warm on his back.
When he speaks, it’s so soft that Beta-39 has to press closer to hear. “How about…Jesse? Jeremiah? Or maybe a different letter altogether, huh? George, Gabriel, Gregory? Ryan? Thomas? William? Elliot—”
Beta-39 stops him before he gets too far and Beta-39 forgets the one he likes best. “Je-re-mi-ah,” Beta-39 tests. He decides that yes, he does like this one after all.
The man looks like he’s about to cry. That’s fine, Beta-39 has seen him cry already, in the lab that held Alpha. “Jeremiah. Jeremy. Jerry." Beta-39 likes those variations, so he nods to everything. He has a new designation, a new name. It feels, it feels—he ignores the blood flaking on the man’s clothes and tries to burrow into the man’s chest because his face is getting too hot.
"He’s a clingy one, Steve," another man comments, hesitantly. "We might need to pick up a stuffed animal to distract him so you can…wash off."
Beta-39-now-Jeremiah’s man, whose name is apparently Steve, trembles. “We’ll get Jeremy a, a…” He flounders; his face splinters into a rictus of choking laughter. “A bear. A Bu—a, a Buck—”
Jeremiah doesn’t know what to do about the hysterics, and looks to the woman for guidance. She reminds him of Beta-19, who was, oddly, female. “A Jer-Bear,” she offers, and her voice is so tender that Jeremiah blinks in bewilderment. His eyes are getting wet.
Steve laughs. He laughs, and laughs, and his face looks like it’s leaking because he’s crying so hard. “That’s right,” he wheezes. “A Jer-Bear, for Jeremiah.”
Jeremiah wheezes, too. Steve squeezes him. Jeremiah squeezes back. Jeremiah’s sensors are picking up on his stress and they ping, behind his heart, to stop sobbing. Jeremiah doesn’t stop, because everyone at the panels which would display the error is dead. He feels like a toy in Steve’s arms, and they rock back and forth in the helicopter as it lifts higher into the sky. Jeremiah feels very small, and very safe, and very sad, because Steve is very sad. However, Jeremiah is warm. That makes up for the sadness.
Distantly, Jeremiah wonders if Alpha is warm, too. His parts were always kept frozen, and Jeremiah and Steve had left them behind in the fire. Jeremiah wonders if the parts had burned, or if they had melted away into vapor like the ice in which they were encased. Either way, Alpha had been dead for a long, long time. The dead only ever get colder.
shove a knife up my eyes, that would have hurt less.