Thirteen had been hopping space platforms for the last 6 hours. He had had no rest breaks and already suffered 2 shots; one to the outer thigh and one to the right ankle. Luckily for him, his medibots had been upgraded before the mission and worked fast on fighting infection. Unluckily for him, his death was inevitable anyway.
The truth was, Thirteen was just a Soldier, and Soldiers were only distractions. They were said to be the blue collars of the 22nd century, a militia force that was sent out to perform seemingly trivial duties. And while his current mission promised him something a little more dignifying, Thirteen was not a warrior.
The real warriors were the Engineers— humans that had been genetically tweaked into cyborg-like machines to fight these sorts of missions. And even though there were over 10,000 Soldiers, (Actual human clones of the 21st century) the Engineers had a better fighting chance of not only surviving but actually completing the mission and retrieving the artefact: the star that supposedly held the elixir of life.
Nobody could say for sure which star was the artefact—or how it looked, or how to find it (which made Thirteen wonder if he was just being sent on a wild goose chase) but there was one thing they were certain of it must be destroyed. Destroyed before the Scroungers could get hold of it.
Scroungers were a rodent-like race. Not in appearance, or behaviour, but how they spread disease and multiplied. They had been known to wipe out planets at a time. Their method was to deliberately shift their forms to mingle with other species, infect them and watch them die. But their purpose was not murder specifically, it was possession and harvesting. They would kill off the species, use up their planet's resources and then move on. All it took was one of them to infect the lands, oceans or skies. And heaven knows what would happen if they ever got hold of the star. While it seemed like a good idea to let the Scroungers take it and use it to continuously replenish a large enough planet, it was immoral, unethical. And Thirteen doubted that they would use the elixir ethically anyway. They were killers, after all, and nobody should hold that sort of power over life.
Thirteen, however, hadn't seen a Scrounger in about 45 minutes and he was beginning to think it was a little suspicious. Despite his primary instruction to dispose of the enemy, he still craved the glory of finding the star. So far, he had scanned solar systems and hadn't found a single abnormal star, let alone one that supposedly held the key to immortality. He had seen a few Soldiers and the odd Engineer, but this new absence of the usually confrontational Scroungers gave Thirteen a cold creeping sensation in his neck. He almost wished that they would reappear only so he could feel the satisfaction of blasting a volt of electricity through their snake-like skins. He patted his own armour. It was a simple shuttle suit with built-in repair bots. Good enough to keep his organs from combustion and keep the air flowing, but weak against the Scroungers' own redlead bullets. Thirteen rubbed the sore spots on his legs where he had already been hit.
The star had first dropped into the universe 12 hours before. Seers of all races had confirmed that they had visions of an energy that had whispered through the vacuum of space—d into existence with no atomic or energetic creation. They'd said the only way to find it was by searching the universe. The humans had been doubtful at first but when they had contacted neighbouring species, they had all confirmed that the vision was indeed an interspecial vision— and that the Scroungers had departed in their millions towards the stars.
As soon as he heard about it, Thirteen knew he was in trouble. He had argued with himself that it was a test, or a hoax. He had convinced himself that the whole thing was a load of rubbish, that the age-old seers were losing it, becoming senile. The elixir of life! He had scorned, what a load of philosophical drivel. But a rude awakening of duty sirens just 8 hours later had confirmed Thirteen's fears. Both Soldiers and Engineers were cajoled out of their sleeping chambers and immediately packed into an airship. The trip between home and the intergalactic council lasted just long enough for a briefing.
Thirteen considered the possibility of just dropping out of the mission. He could just cut the tracker out of his arm and find an unoccupied planet to hide in. He imagined having to live out the rest of his life as an outlaw; sleeping beneath the ground, eating animal matter, bathing in rainwater and having no medibots to prevent him from disease. He wondered how such a life would compete with being an unnamed number of thousands. He wondered if anyone would even search for his body if he died.
He removed his right glove and pressed his fingers on the tracker in his forearm. He imagined that he felt a pulsing, or a tell-tale lump that sat just beneath the surface of his skin, but he knew better than that. The trackers hadn't just been implanted in his arm but sewn into the tissues. He could sometimes see the thing flashing when in a dark room but had never really given it much thought until now.
Suddenly, from behind him, a hot breeze of air came whistling past his head, leaving sparks as it disappeared. He turned around to see a group of five Scroungers advancing on him, their scaled bodies sliding through the air like snakes on sand. Thirteen kicked his boots into gear and a blast threw him onto a platform a hundred yards away. A series of bullets followed him.
Despite the ancient superstition, Thirteen's name served him luck and he wasn't hit, but the Scroungers were now within two hundred yards and reloading. He powered up his ray-gun and fired a bolt towards them. They dodged easily, their lithe bodies twisting out the way. Thirteen kicked at the switch on his boots again and teleported to the rear of the creatures. For a moment they stopped. In the half-second it took them to realise what was going on, Thirteen had fired his gun in an arc at their backs. The Scroungers' bodies twitched as the electric worked its way through their bodies.
He would have laughed if he hadn't done this so many times before. Instead, he checked the recharge on his gun. His scanner confirmed that there was no abnormal star within a reachable distance, so he sat and let his gun recharge.
His previous mission had involved dealing with Scroungers. They had taken a small planet and used it as a breeding ground. By the time he and several hundred other recruits had got there, it had been too late. Thirteen remembered the infected and mangled bodies of the Baeleps (the previous occupants of the planet) and how his disgust had bubbled in him then. The Baeleps had been a defenceless and peaceful species, how could anyone just wipe out a complete planet with no remorse? He had seen murder before, had to commit murder before, but it was only ever the Scroungers that caused that kind of destruction. Every other species seemed to be fairly civilised and pacifist. He dreaded to think of what would happen if the Soldiers and Engineers were .
He wondered how many of the other Soldiers were still alive. They had all been trained equally but he knew there would be casualties. But then, there would also always be replacements. The Engineers would take the real glory. with their overvalued reputations and advanced DNA. They were the ones who received all the recognition despite the Soldiers' efforts—despite the Soldiers sometimes losing their lives. It was humiliating to think that if the mission was successful, it would be down to the Engineers, but if it was to fail, it would be the Soldiers' fault.
He wished he had been born into an Earthen family. When just a hundred years before now, the twenty-first century had been oblivious to the rest of the universe. He imagined how his life could have been. He imagined having a home, a job, a family. What it would have been like to not be born into human captivity and having your brain and body pumped with all manners of drugs and medibots.
Less humiliating, he imagined.
Thirteen dropped the thought and worked on hopping a few more platforms. Every now and then, he'd find another Soldier, sometimes injured or dead, but would also find a dead Scrounger or two, which boosted his confidence slightly. On one platform, Thirteen spotted an Engineer collecting bits of bodily debris and throwing it into the nearest star. Very hard at work, he thought grimly. Before these shuttle-suits were made, you could never smell anything in space, but of course, a sensory attachment had been built into the suit. smell of burning flesh was awful and Thirteen quickly teleported away before he was sick. It would take an eternity to search the stars but what did he have to lose? Only his life. Evidently, he would be easily disposed of.
On the next platform, Thirteen found a number of not quite dead Scroungers. He knew this because their scanners were still active. The Scroungers' technology was powered by transmissive molecular . So when the Scrounger's died, their scanners no longer drew the living charge from their owners' bodies. Very advanced compared to the Soldiers' own solar powered scanners. what that meant for Thirteen was an advantage.
He approached the bodies cautiously, should there be a trap. But the Scroungers were motionless. The degressive flashing and beeping from the scanners told Thirteen they only had seconds left, and he quickly darted forward to wrench one of the devices from them. The screen only showed an untranslatable message before shutting down completely. Thirteen swore out loud.
Search the universe, he thought. Why had that been the only prompt? It was unreasonable. It was impossible and quite ridiculous.
He dropped into the next solar system.
As he materialized, he heard several hissing voices drop and a significant amount of shuffling and cocking of guns. As his vision cleared, he saw that he was met with a wall of Scroungers.
Shit, he thought, and froze.
They all pointed their guns towards him, their smugness visible by their slow writhing tails. They had lined the platform and it seemed that they were now working in large groups. Their own scanners were rapidly beeping and flashing.
Had they found the ?!
Then he noticed the bodies around him. Soldiers were scattered everywhere. Well, what remained of them were. There were even the tell-tale signs of Engineer armour glinting from the reflections of the stars. They had all been torn apart and sprinkled like confetti.
They've learnt to track us, he thought. And they're butchering us!
There were so many bodies. How did so many Soldiers and Engineers end up here? Why had they come here? Maybe the Scroungers had brought them here as some part of sick game.
Thirteen peeked towards his scanner but it showed nothing peculiar. Still, the Scroungers' scanners were beeping furiously. And despite their joy in dismembering their competition, they seemed agitated. The ones that weren't pointing their guns at Thirteen were quarrelling over the scanners like toddlers. What was going on?
One of the Scroungers pulled a severed leg from the air and threw it in Thirteen's direction. It missed him by several metres but blood from the severed edge separated and floated into the space by his head. A lump of bile raised in his throat just before he felt a hot redlead bullet pierce through his chest. Another sunk into his hip, and a final through his shoulder. Thirteen blacked out.
'Look,' said a voice. 'Stop trying to give them names. They're just clones.'
'Shut up, Shane. Thirteen's a number, not a name.'
'It's like naming a chicken before you kill and eat it.'
'They are designs!'
'They are built for purpose! Names mean they are entitled to purpose! And purpose means they'll do the job! You want that, don't you?'
Shane sighs. Thirteen attempts to move his fingers or open his eyes, but his body is still acclimatizing. He concentrates on his heartbeat and deep, slow breathing.
'They'll never amount to anything. You've seen number eleven, number twelve on the battlefield?'
'Exactly, they're disposable. They're good enough to fight off a few Scroungers but die easily.'
'You're not even giving them a cha—'
'—A chance at what, Doctor?'
Thirteen feels a cold sticker press onto his temple. Shane stays quiet.
'Look,' sighs the Doctor. 'The identity tag is already on the data imprint. In fact, he can probably hear us right now.'
He feels a sharp point in his bicep. A rush of adrenaline races through his veins.
'He'll respond to us better if you refer to him by name.'
'I bet he will,' Shane scorns.
'Get out, Shane. I have work to do,' the Doctor tuts. 'Soldier Thirteen, please wake up.'
He woke groggily, surprised to be grasping onto life, and found he was slowly moving towards a large black hole. It appeared that the Scroungers had forgotten to tear him apart. A sickening pain bolted through every part of his body as he tried to move his legs to kick the switch on his boots. He wanted to scream or swear but found that he hadn't got the energy.
He hoped that his defence mechanisms would have kicked in by now, but it seemed that the medibots had failed. Thirteen struggled in and out of consciousness as his body began to shut down. He watched the approaching darkness in fear and cursed his stupid body.
As he slipped into the black hole, however, he felt something strange happen. His heart began to thump harder than ever and blood began to rush around his body. His head became straight and clear again and the bullet wounds didn't feel so raw. He felt ... alive.
Thirteen felt a creeping realisation—a wave of mental nausea. This was it. This was the star they had been searching for. A dead star but a star, nevertheless. That explained why he couldn't pick it up on his scanner, and why the other Soldiers would have followed the Scroungers here. Scrounger technology was just a step ahead of the humans', and the other Soldiers must have realised that when the Scroungers had lost interest in fighting them and fled from the other solar systems. They must have traced their teleport signals and, and, and—
And now he was inside, absorbing the elixir of life— and they would never know. If he were to get out, the Scroungers would take him. They'd either hold him captive or find a way to extract the elixir. There were too many out there for him to fight alone. Did they know that the black hole was the elixir? No, they can't have. Otherwise they wouldn't have allowed him to fall into it.
Why hadn't he noticed this before? How could he have not realised that something was going on? He always so slow on picking these things up. Stupid. Stupid!
And how would the rest of the human race find out? Would they keep searching? Or would they only give up when the Scroungers had found a way to take the elixir for themselves? Thirteen tried to access his communications device but the signal was lost.
The star must be destroyed either way. That was the ultimatum. And the responsibility was all on Thirteen now. He couldn't allow the elixir to exist. What was he going to do? What would happen if his body fully repaired itself? Maybe he would become invincible. There was a possibility! But if the elixir lived inside him, a solid mass, a concrete living substance, it could be contained. And that gave not only him power, but anyone who was able to manipulate him.
His wounds sealed themselves.
The Scroungers would torture him, they would do what they could to extract the elixir or control him. And unfortunately, Thirteen was only human. He still had emotions buried deep inside him, he still felt fear. What if he lost his inhibitions?
The burning tastes in his throat disappeared.
He knew he didn't have much time left. He was able to move his body now and only a slight pain was ebbing away in his shoulder.
But how would he escape? And how would he be able to extract the elixir? Maybe the star would implode on itself. Maybe it would have the reverse effect. What would remain of Thirteen? Once he fully regenerated, where would the black hole go?
There were too many unanswered questions in his mind, and Thirteen couldn't see a possible way out of the situation.
He knew what he had to do. Before it became too late.
Thirteen sighed. He'd have to take his chances.
He raised his ray gun to his temple and squeezed the trigger.