The soundstage was filled with a paying crowd. For the last ten minutes, a woman, hired to warm apathetic crowds up, was doing her best to ensure the hooting, clapping and cheering happend on cue instead of semi-randomly. She was relieved by the tone in her implant telling her the stars were ready for their entrance.
As she left, the lights darkened, and a huge screen started showing the into to Honor Guard. Some of the fans, clutching vids, dolls, and blank sheets of paper, mouthed along with the well-known words.
Out in the darkness -
- only a few stand to protect us. These are the logs of the Nightstalker, our mission - to protect and to serve. Our crew, the best and the brightest, serve alongside the greatest heroes of our time.
The bombastic theme music filled the halls as the most exciting moments of the last two seasons flashed by. Jolt, the veteran sex symbol, fired off a dischage of electricity. Hiveloc, thin and rangy, demonstrated how fast he could twirl his swords. Thresher sliced through a door with his robot body's retractable chainsaws before kicking it down with a metal foot. The Eye, a nimble, small woman with mirrored covers over her empty eyesockets and an ancient amulet grafted to the top of her chest, drew a knife and looked mysterious. Finally, Victor, tall, rugged and heavily armed, posed with an expensive plasma rifle.
Instead of launching into the show, the lights came up. After a half a beat, Jolt sashayed on stage. At least one person whistled. Despite the jokes about reinforcements in her skintight battlesuit to fight age and gravity, she was a masterpiece of plastic surgery. She fluttered her long eyelashes as she came to the podium and gently shrugged her shoulders. Slightly more than half the audience carefully studied the resulting movements of her quartet of enormous breasts.
I'm touched you could all make it to our twentieth anniversary. Having been with Honor Guard since the beginning, I can' tell you how much your support means to me.
The screen filled with an image of the very first Nightstalker - a crude corvette, much like the ones used routinely on patrols now.
Ever since we rescued the first Nightstalker - an advanced prototype corvette - twenty years ago from the pirates who hijacked it, we have been travelling through space, protecting the innocent, and punishing the guilty. The ships may have changed -
A swift montage of the next four revisions of the Nightstalker, each larger and more powerful than the last, filled the screen. - but we have always been there for the people who needed us.
Jolt rubbed her left eye, looked up - and stopped cold.
She blinked awkwardly in the bright lights of the stage. Uh-
She looked at the floor, trying to find the contact lens display she used as a teleprompter. Someone cheered when she bent over to look at the floor. A voice boomed out over the public address system.
The clone awakened in a room colored in bright primary colors as a cheerful tune blared from the surroundings. He rubbed his eyes, put on his red coveralls and black shoes, and smiled. Wakey wakey time to go things to learn things to know...
He walked out of the little cottage where he lived, and stood on the thin strip of white material leading out to the spotless street. On all sides were little cottages, just like his, with other clones in various colors of overalls waiting in front. Another day to do and try another day to ask "But why?" another day to learn to be another day to play with me...
A ball of light flew over the street and swept the young clones up into they sky, where they would be whisked to school. He smiled as he was lifted up, his face filled with rapture.
Exec Evan Stain stared at the monitor, and then at the liquid-filled tank behind a wall of transparent resin. Alright, he looks pretty happy. I think it took. Any memetic reactions?
The technician looked up from her display. All reactions nominal. He's within five percent of the normal band.
Does he remember this? Does he feel like he's dreaming?
Not that I can tell.
Keep an eye on the readouts. If he tries to remember something-
- I'll let you know. Evan Stain clenched his fists as he examined Peter Cat's body floating in the nutrient solution inside the containment cell, covered in electrodes and cathetered.
The clones were dropped out at the vibrant shining blue schoolhouse, and formed a neat line before the door. As each approached the door, they said their number.
one-four-oh-three-oh-four! The door opened automatically, and a clone in green coveralls stepped inside.
one-four-oh-three-oh-five! he door opened automatically, and a clone in blue coveralls stepped inside.
The clone stepped up to the door. three-five-oh-one-two-five!
Stop! cried Stain. Freeze his sense of time and let me see those readings, now!
Evan Stain examined the readings carefully. Ok... ok... He wrinkled his brow. All right, that was hard-coded in his series. We can work with this.
The other two technicians looked up expectantly as Evan turned to them and said, Begin the punishment sequence.
Evan fixed his stare on the quizzical technician. We're not trying to make a well-adjusted, happy clone here. We need him crippled, dysfunctional. We need to make him a sad, pathetic loser who does the wrong thing all the time without knowing why.
The technician looked shocked. I...
That way, he stays anonymous. If he remebers his life, it will be easier to write everything off as the power fantasies of a terminally frustrated moron. If he or anyone he knows runs into an old Honor Guard vid, it will work against him - they'll think he just identified too much with Arsenal.
Resume on my mark. Mark.
The clone looked sad and confused as the voice said That is not your number. Your number is one-four-oh-three-oh-six. Say it with me.
Go to the back of the line and try again.
It wasn't the newest corvette, but most pirates didn't have the newest ships. The stripped superstructure of the corvette stood naked in the shipyard as Jinx looked through the portal. Even with the loss of her cargo, she still had almost enough cash to get another ship.
The space station was in one of the first systems colonized by Fe Arrrans. The only habitable planet, Twilight, was a warm, wet world, its surface covered by mats of fungus and algae millions of years old. Since most of the planets found in the forthcoming years were far more pleasant, the colony had almost been abandoned.
Its current number one export was a potent hallucinogenic wine made from a particular species of fungus found only on the surface of Twilight. The resulting mushroom wine had to be mixed with depressants before it could be legally sold. Uncut, the wine was a staple good of the black market.
I need a drink, she thought. No, I need to get drunk.
Jinx walked out to central promenade of the station. Like many of the deep space truck stops she frequented, it was pounded together from war salvage, a patchwork of bits of armored hull and superstructure, its systems a mess of spare parts that definietly did not meet code. She looked at the twenty or so ragged wraiths wandering the open ring around the market circle, where merchants peddled various goods, all illegal.
The bar was just off the promenade. Murray's was well-known - it was the prototypical deepspace dive, famous from movies and vids. Jinx wended her way past the prostitutes working the entrance, though the neon-lit airlock into the bar. Dangerous people milled around in a semi-circular room whose air stayed murky no matter how often it was run through recyc.
Jinx sat down at a round table, alone. The rest of the patrons, wild-looking and dirty, kept their distance. Murray, a huge, bear-like man, walked up to the table. Hey, Jinx. The usual?
Yeah. Murray went back behind the bar. Jinx felt better already. Murray brought her a drink, and she sipped the alcoholic murky grey-blue liquid. Mmm.
Jinx sat a while and drank mushroom wine, when she noticed something, something behind the armored face of Murray's bar. Murray came quickly to her table. Talk to me, Jinx. What is it?
You expecting visitors from the Station?
Murray shook his head. No -
There are two clones outside. Looking for me.
You got thirty seconds to get out of my bar. Don't worry about the tab.
Ok. Jinx dematerialized, reappearing by the dockyards. Over the tents of the market, she could see two nervous figures - one clutching a late-model military plasma rifle, another checking a handheld computer and frowning. Jinx watched as they circled back and came towards her. Her mind reached out to them. For a change, the thoughts she sense were good news, relatively speaking.
They made a quick stop at a mushroom wine stand and bought a hip-flask and a two-liter monster. The clone with the rifle seemed upset as his colleague dug through his pockets for cash.
Jinx rematerialized behind the two clones. Don't worry, Bolly. Here's some cash. The clones looked briefly terrified.
Ms. Bubastis, said one nervously, we have a job offer for you...
Take me to your leader. Jinx smiled.
David White, 1998, all rights reserved