Nicholas stood in the entrance to the mess tent, the smoke from one of his best lho-stick’s coiling steadily in the moonlight. About an hour ago the tent had been a roaring den of frivolity. His squad had been having a poker night with a unit which one of his men’s cousin was in. It had been his 10 man unit against the other unit which was over twice their size. The rules were the same as always, but the unit which lost all of its members first lost the pot. Everyone had agreed that it was not fair, but they had played anyway; the other unit because they had thought they would win with almost twice the number and his men because they knew they would definitely
win. Amasec had flowed constantly from the start and the noise in the tent had been extraordinary. The night and hands had worn on and Nicholas had counted every card with his usual skill. At one point he had been almost caught out when the other unit’s Corporal had hidden two aces up his sleeve and thought he had Nicholas. In many ways, Nicholas was pleased the man had cheated. It made the game more than just a simple numerical exercise and actually one he had to focus on. For all the man’s cheating, his poker face was not good enough to hide from Nicholas and he had won, as he always did in cards.
Now such noise and laughter had died away and been replaced by the noise of men and women sleeping, the soft voice of the wind and the slow crackle from the burning end of the lho-stick between Nicholas’s first two fingers on his right hand. Nicholas looked up and stared for a moment at the sky. It was clear tonight, one of the first times in many months that he had not looked up into a sky and seen stars obscured by dust and smoke from battlefield fires. The lho-stick came up to Nicholas’s mouth and he sucked in the narcotic smoke. The tip flared angrily and it brushed Nicholas’s face in a light shade of orange colour. Nicholas let his hand drift to his side again, holding the smoke in his lungs for a moment before forcing it gently out with a soft breath. The narcotic smoke coiled and dispersed in front of Nicholas as his eyes continued to watch the constant sky. Nicholas knew it wasn’t really constant and that everything he saw was in constant motion, but from here it looked it and it was nice to just be able to enjoy that cosmic illusion.
Nicholas noticed something in his bottom peripheral vision and his eyes snapped from the sky and its blazing stars to the darkness between the rows of tents where men and women he knew to various degrees slept. Out of this obscurity walked two men, their weapons holstered or hung loosely at their sides. The both seemed fixed on Nicholas and walked swiftly towards him. As they drew closer Nicholas could see that the darkness of their armour was not a result of the darkness around them but because their armour was black and devoid of any insignia. Nicholas didn’t know of a secret police which any organisation held, but it wouldn’t surprise him if one existed. At this point there were only a few possibilities; he was about to be very fortunate and awarded, very unfortunate and arrested or asked for directions and he doubted that the men who towards him with such purpose did so to ask him where they might find someone or something else. Whatever their purpose was, these men would not have come alone, although he suspected that they would be hidden from him behind the endless rows of buildings and tents.
Nicholas took another draw from his lho-stick at the two men approached.
“Nicholas Jozwik?” one of them asked as the lho-stick in Nicholas’s mouth dimmed and dropped once more to his side. He waited a moment and let the smoke escape from his nostrils.
“Who’s asking?” he replied, taking a much shorter draw on the lho-stick at one of the men reached into his pockets and produced orders. More importantly, they were orders sealed with governor Phlintte's seal. The smoke once again exited from Nicholas’s nostrils before he spoke. “I see. Then, yes I am he.” His left hand extended to take the orders as his right also extended to offer the lho-stick to the two men. One refused, but the one with the orders took his lho-stick and gave him the sealed envelope. Nicholas broke the wax seal and read what it said and what it said was not a lot. It was mostly high class jargon basically saying he had been selected for something called Project: Saviour and that he was to accompany the bearers of the orders without question or incident. Nicholas folded the orders along the pre-existing fold lines and then once more down the middle before stuffing them into his pocket. “Seems I’m to follow you two.” The two men simply nodded in agreement and turned to walk the way they had just come. Nicholas walked in between the two of them and reached into his pocket and took his packet of lho-sticks out, putting one in between his lips and then lighting it. He usually had a rule against having more than one at a time, but with such shady orders, he wagered he would not be having one for quite some time. Then, the three of them walked into the darkness and Nicholas’s journey began.
Nicholas opened his eyes, his mind rapidly closing the door on the memory he had just entered and returning to the featureless room he found himself in. With an eidetic memory Nicholas did not need to compartmentalise his memories to retain them, his mind did it on its own. But he found it made for faster recall, like keeping an organised filing cabinet rather than a general morass of papers. The instructors who had pushed his body to near exhaustion had often suggested that it would be good for him to forget his past, focus on the present. Such things were not a possibility for Nicholas, not that he would wish it was. He could not imagine a life where he had gaps in his memory. The idea itself seemed rather horrifying.
The room was a white that was brighter than any shade of white had a right to be. After sitting in this room for so long, Nicholas retreated into his memories for a break in the blinding, sterile monotony of this place. For the first time since the evening he had just recalled, he was actually grouped together with other members of this project. One in the corner was rather disconcerting with his lack of hair and unnatural eyes, but Nicholas didn’t let his discomfort show. He guessed than the man may we have some form of radiation sickness, judging from the external signs, but without blood tests, no evidence of vomiting or nausea, and the fact that he could safely assume that his man had gone through the same trials as him with such an illness made him suppose not. Still, he had not encountered anyone who looked like that man and so radiation poisoning was still his best bet.
Others were rather un-remarkable. The one talking with the man looked like number 128’s more serious brother. One was asleep, exhaustion surely enabling him to sleep in such an unnatural and surely uncomfortable position as he was in. Nicholas watched number 111 eye up each of them and by his glare he could tell he was sizing them up, trying to determine weaknesses. He’s seen the look of men who were trying to learn how to defeat potential foes before and he saw the same look now. Perhaps it wasn’t so obvious to the others, but Nicholas stored that information away in another room. Number 13 was tapping his foot impatiently. Nicholas didn’t mind, it broke the silence which had long since grown past the stage of uncomfortable, but he suspected it would annoy others. Tapping always annoyed someone in a room.
Nicholas sat on the floor, his back against the bench behind him and Number 13 slumped noisily onto one of the one’s opposite him. He tapped Number 111, the man with the killer’s gaze, and asked “Hey. Number 111, right? Don't happen to have any Iho on you, huh? Because if you're going die from exhaustion, be a good man and pass me one before you keel.”
Nicholas couldn’t help but chuckle. They had been stripped butt-naked, all their possessions taken from them and Number 13 thought to ask for lho. Where did he think Number 111 was keeping it? Clearly, Number 111 did not find it as amusing as Nicholas. "I'm curious Corporal. You are sitting in secret base after being spirited away by unmarked transports under orders of dubious intent. You haven't the remotest clue what damn fool errand the Administratum has seen fit to assign to us. The only fact that even I know for certain about our current purpose is that we are dealing with a highly connected and obviously covert operation - and in light of all of that, your first course of action is to sidle up to a superior officer and ask him if he's carrying any spare narcotics. Are you completely insane? Even as a joke that was a dumb-ass move."
The ‘superior officer’ Number 111 made the servos in his hand grind audibly as he tapped the badge that marked his rank. “You know that’s not good for the bionics right?” Nicholas spoke for the first time, with a grin on his face. Both men looked at him. “Grinding the servos like that. You’ll wear them out. Besides, if they’ll kill him for asking for lho, they’ll definitely kill you if you break his pretty face with that hand of yours.” Nicholas lent his head back against the bench and continued to speak. “The thing you have to realise is that our rank doesn’t mean shit here. Otherwise why would they have picked such a wide variety of them. If they are trying to erase our names by assigning them numbers, what makes you think they give a damn about your rank or who you commanded before now.” Nicholas breathed deeply as he stretched his aching shoulders and brought his head back up to look at the two men. “They won’t kill him for asking for lho. Hell, I was smoking a stick when they found me. Plus, they won’t have put us through all this just to kill us over something that everyone does anyway, we just aren’t supposed to admit we do. Although, it was a pretty stupid question. Unless I’m the only one who had the delight of being striped to my bare arse and being given nothing but this…” Nicholas gestured to the clothes he wore which were identical in every way apart from the number embroidered on them to everyone else’s “…, where exactly did you think he was keeping it. Because where ever you thought, I’m not sure I’d want any if it had been there!” Nicholas chuckled and let the conversation continue. Talk, even from these men around him, was much better than the boring emptiness of silence…