I was blind.
My thoughts were blurred, a racing mess of vivid images yet vague detail—disconnected memories spanning more than a dozen decades remembered in an instant but seen through a muddy lens. I attempted to cough out whatever wormed its way into my lungs, to no avail. Helplessness. Too familiar a feeling.
My son. My son? I have a son… That’s right. His name was–
I nearly blanked out against the torrent of exhaustion. Am I drugged? Dying?
A stream of fragmented memories from twin lives flashed in the dark, both familiar and foreign, sparked by the recollection of a name. The sudden flare of the direst of headaches forced out of me an anguished hiss.
Think. Of the most important things. Your family. Little Sivhar, heart of the clan. Beautiful Maliyya, her eyes purest moonlight. I won’t be able to fulfill my promise to them like this. My brothers-in-arms, who spat in the eyes of the heavens when it tried to bloody their noses! The war had turned! The damned Legion is on the brink of being driven back and the Sands need every available hand!
Damn this accursed torpor. Damn me for being so powerless.
Days passed—or weeks, for all I could tell—in the dark and exhaustion and ache, combating the same endless cycle of worry and tedium. Clarity came in fleeting bursts yet slipped through my fingers like sand in breeze, try as I might to keep it.
How long? How much more of this before I can be freed?
“–ost there…” a tiny voice, calm, but muffled. “Should be awake real soon, but I honestly still don’t see the point in all this.”
I strained my ears at the sudden appearance of another voice aside from my thoughts.
“Extra pair of hands, at the very least,” rasped another, sneering in a harsh, syllabic language. A language that I shouldn’t be able to understand. “Unless you haven’t noticed, we’re in pretty bad shape. We’re probably the only ones left.”
“Quit bickering!” barked another. Rough, like stormy waves to worn rock. “Looter, keep looking for anything useful. Twos! Productivity’s sake, I thought you were the best Troubleshooters on this side of the Blocks?!”
“We are, by process of ratesdamned elimination!” argued a similar voice to the first, different somehow in tone and attitude. Panic, with a hint of irritation. “We weren’t expecting to break into a damned vault of some really depraved shit owned by higher nobility!”
“Less lip, more Work!” the rough voice roared. “With the fiasco from Looter’s mess earlier, it’s only a matter of time before they catch up to us.”
“Calumny! Slander!” a sneering, blighted voice rasped in feigned indignation, letting out what I surmised was a twisted attempt at laughter. “It was all part of the plan. Did you see the look on their faces when the freight elevator shattered?! All those chassis, gone in a snap!”
I listened closely, surprised at the sudden clarity of my senses. Trespassers of some sort, the lot of them, hounded by local forces. Every now and again I could hear the dull beeps of whatever I was trapped in, punctuated by the sickly voice’s hideous laughter and boasts over the others’ protests.
The sudden, shrill sound of machinery surrounding me interrupted his swaggering, followed by the audible draining of what must have been several dozen liters of liquid. A solution I seemed to have been floating in, as my forehead felt a bitter chill from the sudden exposure to air.
I instinctively opened my eyes and saw a group of six amidst ambient green light, each dressed in shabby, frayed work fatigues underneath body armor. All wore a variation of modified jackets with sky blue stripes sewn in. Three short, androgynous figures, identical in all save for their hair color and style, all manning consoles. A rugged, broad bull of a man, heavily scarred, clean-shaven with short-cropped black hair. A tall woman that towered over everyone else, a silent yet stalwart presence.
They noticed my breathing—Gods, I didn’t even notice I was holding it in—and fell silent.
The last one approached from the corner, stick-thin under an excessively baggy overcoat, carrying half a dozen lasrifles strapped to his back while dragging two heavy duffel bags. He wore an opaque, black helmet that covered his entire face save for a horrifying, burn-scarred mouth missing most of its lips around chipped, yellowed teeth. He tapped the glass a few times and cleared his voice with a wet cough.
“Good morning!” he rasped. “Today is your lucky day, sinner! You’ve been drafted to the rebellion!”
“Ratesdamnit, Looter!” the rugged man rebuked as he approached. “Quit with that ominous shit!”
The skeletal man cackled, or at least attempted to, and instead broke out in a coughing fit. He languidly waved away the rugged man’s chiding as he rummaged through cabinets and desks.
One of the shorter figures, androgynous both in voice and appearance, hastily approached my tube and keyed a series of buttons. The glass prison smoothly and soundlessly slid apart for me as the rugged man hurried over to catch my fall.
I shivered as the short one wrapped my kneeling figure in an overcoat while I coughed out the rest of a translucent violet liquid out of my lungs. I felt light, not in the good sense, and dizzy from the sudden movements.
“Nvom sve malren Calendulan?” the rugged man asked, in a musical tongue ill fit for his voice. I tilted my head in confusion. He grimaced and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Dammit. Noblespeak’s no good.” the gruff man grimaced, defeated. “I don’t think we got the right one. We’ve failed. Shit!”
“Wait, wait! Right one? What do you mean?” asked one of the triplets further away, wearing their black hair in a tight bob, visibly panicked.
“We were supposed to be looking for the backup clone of Her Ladyship for a needlessly elaborate and onerous devil of a scheme or some such.” Looter merrily rasped as he absentmindedly picked through storage lockers, indifferent to the group’s failed mission.
“What… what kind of name is ‘Looter’?” I coughed and spat violently, stuttering and shivering from the cold. “A c… callsign? Are all of you military? Where… am I?”
“The lady speaks our language! What fluency and eloquence, to boot! Excellent!” Looter exclaimed, voice pitched high and scratchy. “Look, Four-Four, isn’t this already better than kidnapping some absolute noble prat?”
Lady? I looked down and gasped, uncontrollably staggering back in surprise.
“What in the Hoary Hells?!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, using a voice too shrill, too high-pitched, and too wrong. I stood up, only to use too much force on a body I was unfamiliar with, and slipped.
“Easy! You just woke up from the vat!” yelled the closest of the triplets, who wore a bright blue pixie cut with the left side of their head shaved close.
“What happened to me?” I wasn’t in this… this body before…” I stammered.
“Before? Ah, yes, you’re a clone with implanted memories. Probably.“ Looter calmly explained, taking my bewildered silence as a cue to keep talking. “Common practice with the upper, upper rungs of nobility. All clandestine, mind you.”
He gestured, arms comically wide, both pointer fingers aimed high and above his head.
“A fallback in case of something catastrophic happening,” he continued, “like the death of the head of House or what have you. Doesn’t explain why you can’t speak Calendulan, though. Mighty odd, that. A botched experiment, perhaps? Wouldn’t be the first.”
My blood seethed at the accusation. I rose and circled towards him, fists clenched and shaking.
“My memories aren’t false, you insolent, gruesome thing.” I hissed. “My son! My wife! My entire clan–”
I halted and coughed violently, the short girl rubbing my back. I pushed her away, much gentler than I’d intended.
“–are likely the facsimiles of someone else’s memories, squeezed out and put in a different mold.” Looter rasped, undeterred by enmity. I flinched at the genuine apathy. “Likely someone dead, twenty nutrio bars on it. Any takers?”
“I’ll take that bet, Loots.” said the final triplet in a monotone, wearing shoulder-length black hair with lowlights of silver, as they looked through the screens. They sighed. “Assuming we survive. We’ve got enemies. They’ve picked up our trail. We gotta go.”
Four-Four and the silent woman were instantly alert, checking their lasrifles’ capacitors and taking cover behind desks. Looter walked towards me and opened one of the duffel bags. Bits and pieces of equipment, mostly handheld weapons and mismatched pieces of armor with a dull, dark red sheen. He carefully set down the lasrifles he carried, each bearing a unique silhouette.
“My lady. Though my skills are meagre, I would provide you with these choice pieces of regalia.” the wretch ceremoniously bowed, the platitude ruined by his rasping and black-with-silver-highlights’ snickers.
My anger reached its peak, hands ready to wring the life out of the hideous snake. Hands that didn’t truly belong to me. I took a deep breath and steadied my form, wrestling the anxious, enraged, and frightened parts of myself. I shoved it all to the back of my mind to deal with later and observed, taking in every detail.
I dug through Looter’s ill-gotten equipment, looking at the rifles first. I tested their aim and weight while inspecting each part, their power sources fully charged alongside plenty of spare batteries in case of emergencies. Old, the lot of these. Worn but well-maintained, though despite their apparent age their designs seemed newer than any I’ve used in service to the clan. A harrowing observation, but one I managed to keep from showing in my face.
I settled on two. One of the sleeker models, a long blaster with multiple settings: coruscating, short-lived but lethal beams for more intimate skirmishes and a subsonic projectile for longer shots. Even comes with a holosight. In contrast to my first, the other had a stubby, short frame, more battery than gun. A personal mass driver. These things were rare, back home. I strapped its munitions, a dozen metal stakes half the length of my forearm and as thick as my thumb, onto a bandolier over my shoulder.
“Oho? Four-Four, Three-Six-Six. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a fighter! Wonderful!” exclaimed Looter. Four-Four and the towering lady looked at me and I nodded back as the rest of their party took cover. I carefully stood, putting on the asymmetrical, mismatched pieces of armor, then slowly stretched, testing and tensing every muscle and tendon. Light and reacts well. Tall, good reach. Slender and flexible. Passable. What I lacked in strength, this body could more than make up for in agility and reflex.
I clenched a gloved fist and put it over my chest in prayer.
“I was—no, I am—Jegu Chormakhan Nthakhachur Chaghai, dain-ghabat and captain of the Fourth Spear of the Sapphire Sands. I have experienced hallowed battle-joy and hardship in equal measure, laying low Old Harrison’s hordes of devils and unholy machinations. I rode to battle the great, steel titans that tore through their walls of iron and misery as blade to worn parchment. This is but another trial set on my path to Ascension by the Burning Gods, whose ranks I will one day join.” I spoke, the latter part in my mother tongue.
“Good to have you on our side, then.” Four-Four hesitatingly replied, taken aback by my ardor.
“They will cower. They will weep. They will witness their everything turn to naught but sand and ruin.” I cursed, etching bitter hatred deep into my heart. “Whoever inflicted this blight upon me will be so thoroughly broken that future generations will shiver at the mere mention of their name. This Vow of Reprisal, I offer to the Gods and swear to the names and memories of my forebears, wherever in Existence and Ascension they may be.”
Cocksure as he was, Looter had the sense and common decency to quiet down as we fled. Save for the occasional snickering, his presence was made all the better by his silence, if only temporarily.
To avoid confusion as we made our way through the facility, the triplets introduced themselves. The calm one with the blue pixie cut was called Two-Four. The skittish and easily panicked one with the tight bob was Two-Eight. The aloof and irritatingly derisive one with shoulder-length black hair and silvery lowlights was Two-Nine. All male, apparently, though weak-looking and pitiful besides. All six of my rescuers bore odd names. Sets of numbers. Four-Four. Three-Six-Six. Two-Four, Two-Eight, and Two-Nine. Looter’s was unique but no less odd. Something to question them about later.
The Twos stole as much data from the facility’s computers as time allowed before we left as consolation for freeing the wrong person. All of the cloning tubes save for mine were empty. I shuddered at the sudden reminder of my reality; my memories were vivid, so much that they truly felt mine. My mind clearly remembered being in a different shape. Dark, broad-shouldered and sinewy, tempered by decades upon decades spent at the sparring yards. Not this pale thing. Despite that, I felt lucky to wield a body kept in good condition. A different warrior’s, silent and swift and lithe. Unnaturally perfect, and judging by my stride, very close to the same height as its predecessor.
“One does not gaze at moonlight and protest the cold.” I absentmindedly quoted in Khagatai, accompanied by the involuntary quirk of a slight grin. Oh, how nostalgic it felt to speak my native tongue.
“Pardon?” asked Four-Four.
“It’s nothing.” I mumbled in the harsher language I shouldn’t know. “Plan?”
“Two-Four has the map in his holo,” whispered Four-Four. “He’ll point us the right way. Our original exit is under heavy guard, thanks to a certain bloody idiot.”
“Shame on them, stopping us from being surrounded and turned to Yoweyoran cheese by ratesdamned mechs,” wheezed Looter without skipping a beat, undeterred by Four-Four’s glare. His teeth twitched in what was likely a smirk. The two broke into a fierce argument.
“Only option is to go deeper inside,” ignored Two-Four. “There’s another freight elevator at the basement of this facility where the nobles bring in the larger valuables in their collection, according to Cockatrice’s map.”
I nodded. A significant part of me burned with anger, teeth ready to tear through those that put me here for Gods know how long. I clenched a fist to reign it in.
“Cockatrice? Your leader?” I asked.
“No. The smug bastard is an information broker and an alleged historian,” spat Two-Eight. “Smarmy prick.”
“He’s one of the last connections the Wraiths have,” added Two-Four. “Been helping us for a near three years.”
“Is he... reliable?” I replied.
“Until very recently.” Two-Nine shrugged. Looter wheezed an agreement. Four-Four sighed. I dropped the issue.
As soon as the Twos finished we quickly left the room, dodging armed patrols while running through a maze of narrow and dimly lit halls. The place was built much like a fort with thick, windowless walls, though it was grander in scale; a dozen wings, seven floors each and placed around a central hub. We bumped into several locked doors, though the Twos made short work of their safeguards, digital or otherwise. Good. At least they could pull their weight outside of a fight.
About a bell’s worth of running and still no sign of pursuers. Looter and the Twos were tired, though Four-Four and Three-Six-Six seemed mostly fine. Resistance was light, so I prepared for the worst. They likely figured out where we were headed and massed their forces there. We were nearly found by two stray groups, though Two-Eight found a way through an industrial waste chute that led to a lower floor.
I was surprised at how little my newfound allies complained about the filth. The Twos wordlessly grimaced, while the rest merely ignored it. Covered in rubble and stinking in grime, we ended up in a large room; an ostentatious, ornate maze of shelves and glass. Two-Four peeked through the chute’s slats and quickly unscrewed its bolts. We crouched and squeezed through, thankful that the owners’ skillful maintenance made our shortcut relatively quiet and free of creaking. Various odds and ends in decorative glass displays embellished the room ranging from weapons—an anachronistic assortment of old and new, ceremonial and practical—to books and holodiscs and other mundane objects. Eight armed soldiers donning dark red armor much like my mismatched own patrolled the room, alert, wearing helmets with tinted blue visors. Blessed Sands, we’re already outgunned and I didn’t even know my enemy yet.
Judging by the way they held themselves, the Twos didn’t have the martial skill that Four-Four and Three-Six-Six had. They seemed unreliable in a fight, though a liability currently beyond my means to remedy. Looter was an enigma, ever unflappable even by this turn of events. The Gods truly loved their trials. I shut my eyes in exasperation then focused my thoughts.
“Double back,” said Four-Four. “Too many guns on the other side.”
“Impossible,” he nervously replied. “Only way out is through here. Place is built to be easily sealed off just like they’re doing now. Any other ideas?”
“We’re pincered in,” I grimly contributed. “We had a squad after us earlier. The longer we wait, the sooner they’ll nip our heels. Safest way out of this is to push through before we can get surrounded.”
I took a deep breath.
“This body is nimble, even for dain-ghabat,” I murmured. “We’ve been running for nearly an entire bell and I still don’t feel a thing. I’ll run in, cause a commotion, find some cover, return fire. Can I trust you six to go around and flank for me?”
“How very brave!” panted Looter, sweating profusely as he tried to calm his breath. I sneered.
“A fantastic plan,” he continued, unabashed, “though one that puts you in an awful lot of danger. But don’t worry, despite how I look, I’m a pretty good shot!”
He grinned, probably. Three-Six-Six shook her head and wordlessly joined my side after looking at Four-Four. He sighed, but reluctantly nodded.
“Three-Six-Six says she’ll tag along with you,” grunted Four-Four. “She says ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m plenty quick and good in a firefight’.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“She’s mute. Has a device that lets her speak, specifically to members of the Wraiths.” he explained.
“I see. Glad to have you along.”
She nodded back.
“Let’s go. Gods guide our hands.” I solemnly prayed.
We skulked low on the ground through rows of shelves and displays. Most contained impressively well-preserved documents, ranging from ancient, yellowed stacks of parchment and leatherbound books all the way to scrolls of alien texture and tablets made of unrecognizable materials. There were tools from various fields, from medical to mechanical, practical to fantastical. Trinkets, curious bits of carved metal or stone, ceremonial clothing of countless styles from just as many cultures. The rest were weapons, some pristine, others broken beyond repair. All from different time periods.
A treasure trove of memorabilia spanning eons; a twisted collection of achievements-turned-curios.
“Repulsive,” I hissed quietly in Khagatai. Three-Six-Six scowled in agreement.
I’ve likely been dead for a long time, revived by some unholy experiment by some equally foul villain. What would’ve been the alternative, had Four-Four and his group not found me? A sobering thought, one worth ruminating on once I have time to meditate.
The first two soldiers came within sight, wary of the trophy room’s main doors. I nodded at Three-Six-Six, pointing my beam rifle at the one on the left. She aimed hers at the right and nodded back.
I quietly lunged out of the row we hid behind, low to the ground and out of their peripherals. They turned at the sudden screeching beam of blue, my lasrifle burning through the soldier’s unarmored leg halfway before she was within arm's reach. She screamed as it tore a hole in her thigh and crudely cauterized the gaping wound, but not before she was shoved into another shelf and put in a stranglehold. In the confusion, I put her screaming form between me and her ally. The other soldier called for help and hesitated before firing, only to get rewarded by a volley of pulsating green from Three-Six-Six that chewed through his armor. He yelled in agony as the next barrage overwhelmed his protective gear. They had good equipment, I’ll admit.
I kicked the female soldier’s good leg and we dove together into the ground, a sickening crack of the neck silencing her for good.
Several voices called for their allies, a warning for me to scramble on all fours and leap behind a wooden shelf. They found no response. The first one in sight barked for everyone to take cover as I grabbed their attention by taking potshots at the nearest enemy. It struck a glancing blow at an armored shoulder and the soldier briefly winced in pain, though it didn’t slow him.
Three-Six-Six and I dove prone as harsh, green bursts of light violently sailed through the air, shattering cover and filling the area with splinters. One scratched my cheek and I flinched as we crawled away from the center of the room in an attempt to find a better vantage point. Where in the Hoary Hells are Four-Four and the rest?
Half a minute passed and the firing receded. One of the soldiers tossed a grenade where Three-Six-Six lay moments ago. She quickly clambered away in terror, but the Gods found her worth saving as it billowed out roiling clouds of noxious smoke instead of painting her all over the walls.
“Hold your breath! They’re trying to flush us out!” I snarled, face stuffed into my shoulder as I pulled her away. “This place is expensive! They’ll be careful about where they fire!”
Eyes watering and breathing labored, we cleared the black clouds by feeling our way through the shelves. I coughed out the worst of it and offered a wordless prayer, mad laughter escaping my lips after managing not to run into enemies on our way out. The soldiers’ position was assaulted by fire from a different corner of the room, netting anguished cries from the now-surrounded squadron. The thickest parts of the plume dissipated half a minute later revealing two dead soldiers and one with a mangled arm yelping in pain. I wheezed in a deep breath as Three-Six-Six and I moved in on them under allied cover.
“Hands up and behind your heads!” I bellowed, annoyed. My voice was too high-pitched to be threatening. “I don’t take prisoners, but Gods forbid I’m willing to let you live if you throw down your weapons!”
“Think you’re funny, wraith?!” a soldier yelled back from behind a shelf. “All that commotion you’ve caused and you don’t think you’re gonna be surrounded by the entire ratesdamned Lower Blocks the instant you’re out of here? How about you surrender instead? I promise I won’t make your end as painful!”
“Hahaha! Good bluff! Good bluff, warden!” Looter rasped out a sneer. “What are the odds that the rest of your forces know about this place? We didn’t find out about it until a month ago, and we know more than you ever will!”
“Wanna bet, then?” the warden laughed mirthlessly. I gave them a few moments and solemnly prayed.
I took out a spare power source for my rifle and tossed it overhead, where it lazily trailed through the air out of the veil of clearing smoke. I silently bolted towards the soldiers, low on the ground. A warden cursed loudly as the battery bounced and clattered harmlessly on the floor.
I was on them before they saw through my bluff.
Several flickers of my rifle at maximum output—too close for any personal armor to defend against—and a barrage of scalding blue tore through two of the soldiers. I threw a jab at the third’s face to disorient him, cracking his visor, followed by a tackle that knocked him winded and to the ground. He blindly raised his weapon, only for it to get swatted away before he could press the trigger. I attempted to fire, only for my rifle’s battery to beep empty. I clicked my tongue in irritation and threw it aside in favor of mounting him, landing half a dozen well-placed blows that shattered his visor and drove him unconscious.
I added a few more for good measure.