The first experience of life was a bright point of light followed by the sound of distant, muted whispers. A flood of sensory information registered self-awareness, when just before there was only a sea of blackness. A new mind took inventory of the world surrounding him: his chest, rising and falling with the sensation of air rushing into his lungs; the taste of saliva and the contraction of throat muscles as he swallowed; hands that opened and closed into fists as he commanded; all virgin experiences, so it seemed, for a man who was just born inside a coffin.
Lying supine, he blinked several times, struggling to make sense of his narrow confines. A glass shield was just inches from his face, where he gazed with frustrating uncertainty upon a reflection that was his own. An older man, with creases stretched across a high forehead and steel-grey eyes set upon severe cheekbones, returned the bewildered stare.
Who am I? this lost soul asked, struggling to reach backwards in time for a memory or reference, anything to place this surreal state of being into context. But there was nothing there, and the sea of blackness prevailed.
As he tried to lift his shoulders, a medical device descended from inside the chamber and passed a bluish light over the entire length of his body. It was then that he realized the base of his skull was fastened to the bed's surface, and that the connection was through a metallic socket implanted directly into the bone.
I am a capsuleer, he realized, peering through the glass at a ceiling high above. One of the immortals, but . . . what happened to me? The device hovered over his squinting eyes before an artificial voice spoke softly:
'Good morning. Your vital signs are excellent. Try to relax while I assess the rebuilding progress of your temporal lobe. Scanning . . .'
With the centre light focusing on his eyes, additional beams were projected onto his face. Then he felt a tingling sensation in the back of his head.
'I'm going to ask you several questions,' the voice continued. He found her voice soothing, despite its artificial tone. 'Do you know what today's date is?'
'No,' he answered. 'Where am I?'
The voice remained impassive, but gentle. 'Do you know what your name is?'
He was about to answer 'No' in desperation again when a bright flash illuminated the room beyond the glass, followed by a loud muffled thud that shook the chamber. He felt his pulse accelerate as his instincts registered danger for the first time.
'Good morning. Your vital signs are excellent,' the automated voice repeated. 'Try to relax while I . . . Good morning. Your vital signs are . . .'
The device hovering above him flickered once, and then retracted back into its lair. He realized that a new face was staring at him through the glass, and that the predatory look in this stranger's eyes was reason enough to be very afraid.
With a series of mechanical clicks and hisses, the chamber's lid began to open.
Hidden above the chamber was a camera lens, one of hundreds located throughout the starship. Optical data was routed directly into a cybernetic implant which, like the man inside the chamber, was embedded within the skull of the ship's pilot. Using onboard processors and the raw computing power of his cerebral cortex, telemetry was converted into ocular images that he could therefore 'see', despite being hundreds of metres away from the chamber itself.
Terrifying events were unfolding before him: an assassin had infiltrated the ship, sealed himself in the cargo bay, activated the CRU (Clone Reanimation Unit) prematurely, and was now moments away from murdering the most important figure in Theology Council history.
The same cybernetic implant feeding data to the pi lot's brain made his ship a natural extension of his own physical self. All he needed was to will his starship into action, and his biochemical signals were translated into digital instructions that were executed immediately by automated systems or the hundreds of crew members onboard. Because of this union between man and machine, the ship could react as quickly as its pi lot could think - but only if he knew how to act. Dealing with onboard saboteurs was a situation that had, until now, been unthinkable.
Opening a command channel through the cruiser's subspace communication arrays, the pi lot watched helplessly as the assassin stood over the CRU and began taunting the vulnerable clone of Falek Grange.
'Lord Victor, we have an emergency,' the pilot said.
'Lieutenant Thornsson,' the stern voice replied from dozens of light years away. 'Go ahead.'
'We escaped from Karsoth's forces and survived a Covenant ambush,' the pi lot replied. 'But there's an assassin onboard and—'
The pilot lost his concentration as the attacker's clenched, metal-plated fist crashed down upon Falek Grange's face, spraying droplets of blood across the room.
DESPITE THE PHYSICAL appearance of an older man, this incarnation of Falek Grange was less than five minutes old. Every cell in his body was an exact replica of the original man, who by now had been dead for almost forty minutes. Although the brain of this clone contained elemental knowledge artificially distilled from simulated life experiences that an older man should have, in this case the core attributes of Falek's original personality and personal memories were absent. A person awakening in this state has knowledge, but lacks the understanding of why he knows what he does.
To call this condition 'amnesia' would be inaccurate, for the term implies that there was once a memory to lose. This was far worse. For Falek Grange, there were no memories. Every experience from now on would seem both new and distantly familiar all at once.
But there was nothing familiar about the horrid violence that Falek was enduring now. With each blow, Falek could feel both skin and bone breaking beneath the assailant's mailed fists. Every strike was perfectly placed to inflict maximum pain; just when Falek thought he would lose consciousness, the assassin instructed the CRU to inject him with enough adrenaline to keep him awake. With his head still attached to the neural interface and his hands clamped to the chamber walls, Falek was helpless to defend himself.
When the sparks of pain and numbing disorientation parted for just a moment, he gurgled out a single, pleading question:
'Why . . . ?'
The assassin - a much younger man, with features similar to Falek's - removed his gauntlets, unveiling thick, calloused hands. As if in prayer, he murmured a series of phrases in a foreign language, closing his eyes while speaking.
Then he pressed both his hands into the deep, symmetric lacerations on Falek's eye sockets and jawbone.
'Unholy beast! THORNSSON raged as he watched Falek scream. 'The assassin is Covenant!'
'You have to seal him inside the CRU,' Victor answered. 'Force it shut if you have to—'
'I can't! He disabled the hatch - my crew can't get inside!'
The assassin raised both blood-soaked hands upwards as if to make an offering, and then lowered them to allow droplets of the crimson fluid to fall into his mouth.
'There's nothing they can do at all?' Victor pleaded.
'They're trying everything to break in,' the pilot replied.
'We don't stow any explosives onboard to blast through . . .'
He thought about that for a moment, and then added:
'Unless . . .'
'A PITY THAT you'll never know your crimes,' the assassin said, manipulating the bloody controls of the CRU. 'They are too numerous to mention in the time we have left.'
Falek Grange would have sobbed if he could; his eyes were swollen shut as his body rushed fluids to the trauma sites on his face. But the physical pain was no less excruciating than the mental anguish of not knowing if this cruel fate was deserved.
A shudder wracked his aching body as the locking shunt connecting his implant to the CRU withdrew from his skull.
'My master has passed judgment on you,' the assassin continued, placing one hand over Falek's disfigured face and running it slowly towards his neck. 'It is my devoted honour to serve him.'
Using his free hand, the assassin brandished a small sceptre. As Falek felt the grip around his neck tighten, he wished for the nothingness that was before the whispers brought him to life.
'This will purge New Eden of your curse once and for all.'
'YOUR CLONES HAVE been destroyed, as all of ours have,' Victor warned. 'You know what that means!'
'I believe in her, my lord,' Thornsson said, swallowing hard as the assassin forcibly yanked Falek upright by his neck and positioned the sceptre beneath his head. 'And she believed in him.'
With a single thought, Lieutenant Thornsson armed the self-destruct sequence for his ship.
'This is all I can do to save him,' he said, just as the assassin thrust the back of Falek's exposed skull downward. 'Tell her that I did this for her glory . . .'
'She already knows, my friend,' Victor replied.
FALEK HAD LITTLE time to scream as the electrically charged sceptre made brief contact with the implant's socket, producing a sickening flash of white and red. As the surrounding tissue vaporized along with metal, the lid of the CRU forcibly closed down, knocking the sceptre loose and forcing the assassin to release his choking grip. Falek collapsed, unconscious, onto his back within the chamber as the lid shut completely and formed an airtight seal. The last thing the enraged assassin would ever see was a reinforced blast shield rise from the floor and enclose the CR...