The new researcher entered the break room, still having trouble walking. Normally it’s impossible to tell who you’re working with, that was the whole point of the artificial bodies, but every now and then some genius was brought in a rush, without proper preparation. Even the sharpest minds in the galaxy are no less susceptible to being used to their own skin, limbs and voice. Because everyone who worked on Project ET0B was forced to look the same. Using the universal form, so popular around the galaxy, allowed for the researchers to easily go over any bias they may have towards members of another race or species, as well as to any fellow researchers.
The room was occupied by six identically looking gray figures. No matter who you were outside, on the 9th floor of the Acro space station you had two slender arms and legs, topped with four long fingers each. All of the heads turned to the newcomer with their large black eyes. Some kept the natural emotionless look, while others weren’t even trying to hide their want to smile.
“How’s the first day on the job?” asked one of the figures, instantly receiving a soft blow with the elbow of the gray nearest to them. Even when it was blatantly obvious, you weren’t supposed to mention duration of your, or anyone else’s, work here, nor anything else that could help you identify them outside of the lab. They all lived on the same ship, but with over a thousand other inhabitants, and thousands more strolling through every day, it was impossible to find one another, even if you could overcome the memory block of everything that happened there.
“Exciting,” the fresh face tried to bring up a smile, but found it much more difficult than it should be. “Do these bodies have facial expression blocked or something?”
“Nah, you’ll get used to it soon.” A female voice came from a nearby table, where a figure no different than the others was sited. The voices were the only part of them they got to choose, within some range. There was the deeper male tone, a lighter female one, and the neutral tone everyone started with – and changed within minutes of entering the lab. The only other difference between the identical clones were their ID’s – each form had its unique three-digit number that acted as a replacement for names. It would change every time someone would re-enter the facility, as they’d be given one of dozens of pre-made clones, each of which had its own ID.
“Yeah, just don’t expect to look good doing it,” a female voice came from #291 as she made a wide smile, proving that the universal gray smiling was about as pretty as an overflowing trash compactor.
“So, three-o-four, on a scale of 1 to 10, how similar is this to your natural look?” The same figure that spoke when #304 first entered, #572, seemed to be enjoying looking at the attempts of a normal walk.
“A solid negative three.”
Even those that tried to hold a neutral face couldn’t help but snicker. As they did, #112 came up to the entrance “Remember not to say much, you don’t want a warning on the first day,” she quietly said with an emotionless voice and headed out of the breakroom and towards the viewing deck.
#112 Turned around, not expecting anyone to follow her. “Yes, one hundred forty seven, I’m fine,” she turned back around to the viewing window. The large, silver-lined glass allowed them to look at everyone below, without anyone even realizing there is a 9th floor to the station. She watched as hundreds of beings of almost every intelligent species in this segment of the galaxy moved in a gigantic mass of various limbs: arms, legs, wings, tentacles; all moving as one multi-colored blob of beings. Acro housed upwards of three thousand ‘regulars’, but tens of thousands more moved through it daily, some to work, some to buy goods, others to have fun with friends.
“You don’t look fine, and you’re wearing an emotionless suit of a body, so that says something,” he entered the room, door closing behind him with a sizzle. Being surrounded by faces that barely showed emotion all the time, #112 almost forgot there are real beings behind them, beings that could feel empathy for others in a situation similar to theirs.
“It’s really fine, I’m just watching the station before the next batch of requests comes in,” she didn’t even turn around as she spoke – she knew that #147 was in the room, and would hear her wherever he was. What she didn’t know, was that he was coming closer to her, so when his hand landed on her shoulder – those long, sickly gray fingers grasping her, forcing to turn around, she couldn’t help but jump.
“Don’t worry, it’s all…” #147 didn’t finish as he got seemingly lost in the black void of the other gray’s eyes. No, he can’t see it right? He can’t, it’s impossible to- She paused her stream of thoughts as she felt the hand on her shoulder relax, go limp even. “Jay…” No no no, how did he- Before she could finish the question, she had an answer. In the back of those big, black eyes of #147 a small light lit up. Like a tiny lantern turning on inside of the gray’s head, it only took moments for the light to grow, enveloping his entire eyes with an amber glow. “…ren… Oh my god it’s really you I’m so gla-” #147 was interrupted as Jayren’s hand landed on his mouth.
There is surveillance here, it’s not safe to talk. Play along. She passed telepathically to him and to his nod of understanding she spoke, as if nothing really happened. “No, it’s not. You shouldn’t try and figure out who we really are though, it’s against the contracts.”
“I’m… sorry?” The uncertainty of Drakian’s speech did not come out through the voice box. Getting a subtle nod of encouragement he continued “Shouldn’t have jumped to the conclusion, I just haven’t seen her in a while, would’ve been a miracle if she was working here all this time.” Did I do well?
Well enough. You’re also lucky the cameras don’t pick up energy or your eyes would be a dead giveaway. For safety though look out the window.
Drakian complied and turned towards the glass. To not seem in any way suspicious, he continued with the act. “So, what is it you’re looking at?”
A place where we could meet up. “Oh you know, just… beings. I always find the biodiversity of the galaxy fascinating.” How about that antique store with the green entrance?
“Indeed, and who knows what other species will join the council in the future.” Looks as good of a place as any, but how do we do it?
We just take the original bodies of the scientists, I don’t think anyone will recognize us. After a bit without a response, Jayren turned towards #147 “Is the thought troubling you? That in the future this very same station may host completely different beings?”
What’s troubling me is that my host’s body isn’t the best, but I’ll do what has to be done. Let’s go. “No it’s not that, I just don’t feel too well. Maybe I should clock out for the day.” With that, the glow in his eyes disappeared, and #147 collapsed to the floor, only to be caught by #112 before taking a hit. “Thanks…”
“Not a problem,” #112 pulled her fellow researcher up and slowly headed out the room “and yeah, you’re right. I think I’ll clock out too.”
“You were saying how you don’t feel too well and are thinking about clocking out. You’re probably overworked, take a day off, you won’t miss anything.” Jayren didn’t like manipulating these people, but considering they were the ones to imprison them, she took that as a good enough of an excuse. “I’ll take you to the pods in case you fall again.”
“Thanks for the care, but-“
Before he could continue #112 lifted a finger to stop him. “You almost fainted a moment ago. You don’t need to work constantly,” she pulled him slightly to go down the hallway and towards the only exit path from the laboratory. “I’m going to take a refreshing shower, and if you’re not hydrophobic I suggest you do the same.”
The pod room was the least maintained room in the entire laboratory. Aside from the automatic cleaning performed by bots, nobody ever bothered to clean the tubes themselves, or dust off for that matter. The room was sealed away from the rest of the lab by a small sanitation hall, where the white lab on one side contrasted with the dark exit on the other. The room itself held a dozen pods, six on each side, the right hosting empty tubes, while on the left sleeping gray figures were floating in the transparent, green goo. Jayren made sure that #147 entered the pod, before heading in herself and letting the fluid engulf her.
The sound of hot air zooming through the full-body dryer filled the bathroom. The short, white fur that covered Krestean’s body dried out quickly, but she purposefully stayed longer just to feel the warmth. The moderately cool temperatures that filled Acro weren’t a welcome change from the hot and damp climate of Retaya, but at least she was able to have moments like this. Getting out of the drier, she walked towards the mirror to get a good look at herself. For the past few days she felt more drained than usual, but it didn’t seem it was affecting her body – she still looked normal, if that’s even a term in a place filled with countless life forms. Her arms and legs weren’t shaky, both of her long, pointed ears were still standing proudly up, and even her green, double-pupiled eyes didn’t show the extreme tiredness she felt.
As she examined them, a soft glow appeared in the back of each pupil. Within moments it filled her entire vision, causing her to tumble back. “Yuck,” was Drakian’s first reaction as he regained his balance. He used a plentiful of hosts in his time, but they were usually stronger individuals, preferably with a long tail. But here he was, in the dullest and most fragile body to date. Beggars can’t be choosers he thought to himself as he headed out of the bathroom. Krestean’s apartment was composed of a single hallway leading straight from the entrance to the living room, with two doors on one side and wardrobes on the other. Unaware whether or not going out in nothing more than ‘his’ fur was proper, Drakian started looking through Krestean’s belongings for something to wear. He settled on a robe-like dress that went in a gradient from yellow to orange, hoping it could act as a hidden indicator for his color, as he had to cover his eyes with a pair of vision glasses – opaque glass on one side, semi-transparent screens on the other. All ready, he put on sandal-like shoes, which felt way too comfortable for their look, and headed out of the room.
The hallway was quiet, with most regular residents out doing their jobs. He followed the distant sound of the busy center area, navigating through corridors and three flights of stairs, as he loaded the map of the bottom floor on his visor. He found his way to a big, metallic door, which lead out straight into the back of the marketplace. Dreading the weak body that wasn’t able to push others out of his way, Drakian slowly scooted in the general direction dictated by his map, until he arrived at his destination.
The antique store was exactly what he expected – filled with countless relics of varying importance from a multitude of planets and their cultures. The elderly owner sitting behind a desk at the exit was completely consumed by the book in their hand, not paying attention to their surroundings, allowing Drakian to scan the shop without being bothered. There were only four other beings in there, each pre-occupied with something. A pair of silvery-blue scaled leisters, with the water implants on their necks allowing them to breathe, were checking out some sort of a circular statue, possibly a representation of a star system. On the right side a gray-skinned figure was reading some manuscript. While it had a hefty size, it wasn’t fat compared to other hiartels, all of whom weighted well beyond reasonable limits. The final being was checking out the contents of a shelf in the back, it looked almost identical to Krestean, only her fur had orange stripes, most prominent near the almost fully orange head.
Going against his body’s instincts to first talk to something familiar, Drakian headed towards the gray hiartel, hoping its black shirt was something more than casual wear. “Did you have the same idea I did?” he resented how high-pitched his voice was, but changing it wouldn’t be as normal as changing the voice box of the gray bodies Krestean used in the lab.
The being turned to look at him, and despite the opaque front of its vision glasses the rest of its face screamed of confusion. A scream which, after having scanned the stranger, was replaced with an almost mocking smile. “I didn’t, but my eyes do fit to my wear.”
This got a sigh of relief from Drakian as he spoke telepathically to Jayren, not wanting to use Krestean’s voice any more than necessary. Let’s go somewhere where we can talk, shall we?
She nodded to that. But remember we can’t know whether or not they’re looking at us, “It has been a while hasn’t it? Let’s maybe go somewhere to catch up, how about that?” Use normal voice, we don’t want to risk being found.
He frowned at that, but woefully obliged. “Sounds like a great idea,” he said, turning towards the door. I assume you have a place in mind?
Indeed. “There is a really nice bar near-by, let me show you the way,” Jayren put away whatever manuscript she was reading and lead them outside. You know, your voice would sound way better with some cheer in it.
Shut up. Drakian clenched his fists in anger as Jayren struggled to hold back her giggling. They made their way through the crowded station again, and Drakian was glad that they could now do what he was unable to earlier – walk in a straight line towards their goal; even though the realization that he needed someone else for this only made him feel worse. Her name is Krestean. He said telepathically, which was met with another confused look. I figured you’ll need her name if we’re to pretend we know one another.
Her mouth made a silent ‘Ohhh’ motion as she responded to him Smart. My host’s name is long and unpronounceable, but people call her Lya for short. With that, they entered another side alley and headed through a door into a bar that had more of a feel of a wooden shack than something found on a space station. Nearly everything was made out of wood, making the metallic door look as out of place as an iron tower in a middle of a forest. Lya pointed at an empty table in the back.
“This is a very loud place to… catch up on things…” Drakian looked around the place as they sat down. All the walls, floor and ceiling were covered with wooden boards, polished to be as flat and smooth as porcelain. Lining the walls were benches with tables, and in the center there was a bar, around which three bartenders skittered about on their thin, crab-like appendages. Anyone behind this bar had to be extremely knowledgeable, as a standard drink could contain a lethal dose of alcohol for one species, and at the same time be unnoticeable to another. If a deadly drink were to be served to a customer, things wouldn’t look good for the server. However, if someone would take the wrong drink, or one given to them by someone else, then the big notice on the menus made it clear that the bar itself takes no responsibility for it.
“We can open a private channel and nobody will interrupt us,” Drakian intuitively backed away when a hand as big as his head came towards him. In a surprisingly gentle move, she flipped a miniscule switch on the side, soon after which a pop-up appeared ‘Would you like to accept a private conversation from Lyorte-noy’zz-visrtau?You don’t have to actually use it, it’s just a cover up so we can drop the act.
Oh, good. Drakian was relieved, as he never did well with technological nuances. So, how long have you been out?
So long I lost count. With a sigh she poked around the menu that was laying on the middle of the table, causing a bar worker to appear out of nowhere and hand her a large glass of foaming liquid. It hasn’t been all that bad, at least I’m able to take control in the lab without anyone noticing. What about- Jayren paused as she saw Drakian struggle, pressing various items around the menu, only to be met with a red flash of rejection every time. While she found it quite amusing, she didn’t want to waste much time so she took the menu from him, swiping around the various drink lists. You may not know, but inhabitants of Retaya have one of the lowest alcohol tolerances in the galaxy. A single lick of this, she raised her glass would get you too drunk to think straight. Finally reaching the non-alcohol section, she passed the menu back.
“How marvellous,” he spoke, as the irritation he felt would not be given justice if he used telepathy. He chose at random, picking sequawa juice, which was brought to them within seconds. I’ve only been out for six work days. Taking a sip of the drink, he was pleasantly surprised at its sweet yet bitter taste. Why haven’t you left this place yet? I was still making my plan, but you surely had more than enough time to think of something.
I did, but I find it somewhat fascinating what they have going on there in the lab. It’s a little frightening too.
Frightening? I can’t imagine anything more frightening then the possibility of being locked within a zero-dimensional prison.
What if you were locked in a point with even fewer? Drakian responded with such a confused and absent-minded look, Jayren was worried Krestean was somehow taking back control, but knowing it was impossible, she explained. They want to create a box capable of holding things within it in a timeless manner. Between putting something in and taking it out, no time would pass for whatever was inside. Combine that with their current technology on locking energy within a point in space, and you get a prison that’s impossible to get out of without external help.
Wow… Without a word they sat there, staring at one another in a mutual understanding as they drank. I’m really glad I managed to escape then, but it means we have to leave. The longer we stay the higher the chance we get found.
I guess you’re right, but we have to do it without raising any suspicion. That includes making sure the containment’s show that they’re occupied without me faking the daily checks, and doing so under the constant surveillance is not going to be easy.
We can make a pre-recording and I can have it override the actual camera feed. We’ll just need to make sure us entering and exiting synchs with the other cameras.
Jayren raised an eyebrow at that, making it go slightly over the top of her vision glasses. I thought you were a layman of technology.
Camera’s been around for so long even an old dragon such as myself had enough time to learn a thing or two. Drakian proudly smirked, which was quickly brought down by Jayren’s laughter.
You? Old? Oh please, Drak, you know we’re all the same age, don’t make an elder out of yourself.
He crossed his arms on his chest with a puff. When everything else in the Universe is younger than us, doesn’t that make us old? Relatively speaking.
It does, but you don’t get to play that card on me, or any of our brethren. Speaking of which, her face suddenly went dead serious. We need to find a way to help the others.
What? Drakian asked, finishing up his drink.
There are seven of us still stuck in the space-point prisons in that lab, we can’t just leave them! Once the time-less box is finished, they won’t be able to get out.
He nodded in response, before recalling the day of his escape, bringing a frown to his face again. I… I don’t think we can do it…
What do you mean we can’t? It’ll take time, yes, but a delay like that is worth it for the cause. As to taking them out of the prison, it’ll be easy, we just-
That’s not what I meant. Our containment, they are more than just prisons. They’re the power plants of this ship. All of this, he made a wide motion with his arm. All of it runs on those prisons. On us. On our energy. If you still remember your time in there, this is why you feel so weak. Not because we’re held in a single point in space, but because our very existence is used to power this place. I managed to escape when Krestean had me isolated to see just how much of power they can get out of a single prison. The first thing I saw were her calculations, and if I recall correctly they said that 5 of the prisons have to produce energy, otherwise the ship’s systems would start lacking the electricity needed to operate. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to give the Council more reasons to hunt us down. Or rather, a reason. He thought to himself, still not understanding where the sudden hate for them came from. If you’ve been out for months, then there probably is one maybe two others that managed to get out as well. This puts us dangerously close to the minimum requirement. I’m ignoring all the bias we have to one another from the past, I just don’t want to risk it, unless we absolutely have to.
I understand… Silence followed as Jayren stared into her drink, emptying the mug before speaking up again. So we fabricate the recording, force our hosts into the prison-power cells so nobody notices we’re gone, then leave and never come back?
Yes, but I’d prefer to get some other poor soul in the prisons, they could notice two scientists disappearing all of the sudden, even with the gray bodies. He pressed against the menu, and within moments a servant appeared to pick up their glasses and grab the payment. I also wouldn’t mind a better host to leave this place with. No offense to Krestean, but she’s not my type. Jayren gave him a smile in response, no longer mocking, but instead sad with a hint of empathy.
“We can arrange something,” she said, closing down the unused private chat room on their visors. As they left, they passed a thin, green being, gesticulating with all four of its arms. As they walked away they couldn’t hear that he was complaining that his medical record shouldn’t be checked for ‘sanity’ in a bar, especially since he really did see a pair of monster eyes stare into him from the other side of the roof mirror, and it was not a figment of his imagination.