Empty Vessels – part one of ten

by Eildon Rhymer

Four people awake separately in the darkness with no memory of who they are, and there is something in the darkness, and it wants them.

Note: Most people do a memory loss fic sooner or later, and I've never done one, so decided it was time to rectify that omission. I started it as a medium-length, non-demanding story, that would pass a few relaxing weeks before I embarked on my next epic, but it proved a lot slower and harder to write than I ever expected. The memory loss issue robbed me of all the usual frames of reference for writing these characters' thought processes. I was three-quarters of the way through it when I got distracted by The Pirate's Prisoner, and once that was done, I almost didn't return to this one, since that story was such a joy to write from start to finish, that it really highlighted how difficult this one was proving. But for better or worse, I've now finished it. Don't expect anything life-changing or deep, but I can promise you team angst and Shep whump, at least. ;-)

By the way, as with many of my shorter, more self-indulgent stories, with this one I'm firmly in the "parts that are called 'parts' and end with a cliffhanger" mode, rather than the "parts that are called 'chapters' and end with a degree of closure" mode. You have been warned.

Part one

He opened his eyes to a dirty stone floor and a pale hand, streaked with blood. Is that mine? he thought. The fingers twitched when he told them to, tendons moving on the back of the hand. Then he shut his eyes, and felt as if he was floating deep under the ocean, or maybe flying, floating far above the clouds, surrounded by blue. There was nothing to ground him. He couldn't feel his own body, couldn't hear, couldn't smell…

"This is not right." That at least he managed to say out loud. He opened his eyes, and rolled onto his back, where he saw a dark ceiling with tendrils of leaves trailing down from between the stonework. He sat up. Something inside him seemed to want to keep his awareness of his own body muted, but he set his jaw, and resisted it. That is my foot, he thought, staring fiercely at the black boot, stained with dark mud and glistening with water. That is my leg. The knees were scuffed, as if he had fallen.

He brought his hands to his head - one wearing a watch, one wearing a wristband, and both mine - and touched his brow. Concentrate. Fingertips curving inwards. Fight it. He was still floating, just a little. He threw all the strength of his will at the blueness - time to land now - and managed to stand.

It was not so bad. His body hurt as if he had been running for a long time. His hands were grazed, and his knees and shoulders hurt, as if he had fallen over more than once, or crashed into walls in his haste. He found no other injuries. When he padded his body, he found that he was wearing a stiff vest that appeared to be almost like armour. It had pockets, and he wondered what was in them, but patting them gave no clues.

He managed a step; managed another step. I don't know how I got here. Another step, then a fourth, then a fifth.

I don't know who I am.

He rested his hand on the wall, and felt his heartbeat speeding up, fluttering at his throat. I don't know who I am.

It felt vast. Then, a moment later, he told himself that perhaps the first thing was even bigger. I don't know how I got here. He was somewhere unpleasant, and he had been running away. Was anyone else around? He stopped, listening for noises. Walking silently, he headed for the crumbling doorway and looked out into a gloomy hallway. As he leant out into the hallway, a pale white glow appeared from the top of the walls, but when he withdrew back into the room, he saw it fading. Creepy, he thought. It was like a dungeon from the games he might have played as a kid, where a place like this usually means monsters. He thought it grimly, imagining monsters that were all too human. The rest could come later. Focus on the immediate problem. Survive first, then work out who you are afterwards.

His heart was still beating fast, though, and his hand was trembling.

He woke up with a start, lashing out at the enemies who were attacking him. For a moment, he saw creatures with pale faces and long white hair. When he struck them, though, his hand went right through them. When he struck them again, they were gone.

He leapt to his feet. "Come back!" he commanded. "Come back and fight me."

There was nothing, only silence. His head snapped from one side to the other. Nothing. Still nothing.

He let out a breath. Only a dream, or maybe a memory…

No, there was something there - something that disappeared like a shadow when he tried to confront it. The enemy was real. Why else was he here? He must have stalked an enemy here, or been stalked by it. It had done something to him and made him forget. Sweat was still drying on his body, so he knew he had run fast and far, and not long ago. The knife…! He crouched down; snatched it up. There was still a faint warmth about the blade, so he knew he had been holding it until recently.

Somebody had done something to him. He had no idea what his name was, and no idea how he had come here. The enemy had stripped that from him. The enemy wanted him to give in to fear and confusion. The enemy wanted him to break.

It wouldn't work. The enemy had left him too much. He had his knife, and there were other blades on his body, too, as his hands discovered, going to their hiding places without a moment's hesitation. The enemy could remove memories from his mind, but couldn't remove them from his body.

He could still stalk his enemy silently, and could still kill.

"I don't know who I am." He said it out loud, as if… "as if somebody else will hear it and will answer me and say, 'You're --'" He stopped, tilting his head to one side, his finger raised. After a few seconds of silence, he let out a breath. "It was worth a try. Subconscious, filling things in." He moistened his lips. Perhaps he'd try it again. "My name is…. My name is…" He closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and charged up against it with a rush, hoping to take it by surprise. "My name is…"

Nothing. It mattered, knowing your name. Of course, other things mattered, too, "like working out where on Earth I am, in this horrible ruined… castle thing, that's probably riddled with germs, and why I appear to have gone for a long jog in the not too distant past, and why I'm dressed as some sort of commando."

He was pacing, almost to the door, then back again. He tried sitting down, and his legs were quite content to do so, but his hands seemed to want something else to do. Pale and dirty, they flapped around in a way that made him think of twitching sun-starved animals. "Which, seriously, is not a nice image, and why did that spring into my mind, and why…?"

His voice trailed away. He didn't know who he was. Focus, he thought. Focus. Names were important. He wanted to be able to stand up and say, "My name is…" and have people look at him with respect. If you didn't have your name, you had nothing.

But aren't there more important things to think about right now?

"Yes. Yes. I guess so. Yes." Like the fact that he had apparently decided to lose his memory not in the safe comfort of his own home, but in somewhere out of a bad horror movie.

"Oh! That's it!" He snapped his fingers. There was the commando gear, after all, and the fact that he apparently had a gun at his side. He was some sort of hero, and something terrible had happened - so terrible that he had blocked it out. Everyone would be going crazy looking for him. All he had to do was sit and wait and somebody would find him.

Just sit and wait. But he drew his legs up to his chest, and carefully took the gun from its holster. His breathing was fast and tight, and he didn't really feel much like a hero. That's because I went through something terrible, he told himself. Even people like -- His mind almost supplied a name, then snatched it away from him. -- are allowed to crack under the strain every now and then. Once I'm safe, I'll remember everything that matters.

But he kept his hand on the gun as he waited.

She had no memory of who she was or how she had come to this place. That part worried her. She was indoors, surrounded by dank stone, in a place lit only by a faint beam of sunlight from far above. As she walked towards it, everything felt wrong. She touched her body, and felt nothing remotely familiar about the clothes she was wearing. She had things that she knew were weapons, but which she also knew were not her weapons. She did not know how she knew this, but she did not doubt her certainty.

She headed instinctively to the place where the light was faintest, knowing that enemies would be least likely to find her there. Facing towards the darkness, she blinked as she slowly gained her night vision. All the while, she explored herself, feeling weary muscles, feeling the signs of someone who had been running not long before. From the dirt on her clothes and the tenderness of her arm and shoulder, she had fallen. She had slept for a little while, and then awoken to this.

The clothes felt awkward on her, almost chafing her skin. She felt as if these clothes had robbed her of her identity - not just stolen her name, but tried to replace it with another. She wondered if someone - cold face, burning eyes - had torn her clothes from her body and replaced them with… "No." She spat it out firmly. She could feel no evidence of violence, just of hard running in a darkness littered with hazards.

Her hands knew how to unfasten the unfamiliar clothing, though. Beneath the solid dark jerkin, there was a jacket, but the blouse beneath that felt familiar to her fingers. The fabric covering her legs made her think of… No, the memory faded before she could grasp it, but the sense of strangeness remained. These clothes were not hers. They did not belong to her people.

Still, she had to admit that the dark jerkin seemed practical, made of a fabric that could likely deflect knives. She put it on again, then turned the jacket inside-out, and put it on as well, on top of the jerkin. It was only a gesture, but it made her feel better, as if she had struck her first blow in the battle to remember who she was.

Then, clothed in her defiance, she closed her eyes, slowed her breathing, and sought herself.

He decided to sit and consider the situation for a while. No use going off half-cocked. He started by emptying out his pockets. "You never know," he muttered out loud. "I might have kept a diary."

There was no diary. There was a small first aid kit, which he hoped he wouldn't need, and some spare ammunition. There was a water bottle, which he took a small sip from, and a couple of cereal bars, which he decided to save, in case he was in for the long haul. There were also a few items which he couldn't identify, which worried him. "As if you didn't know you were screwed already," he muttered, "what with not knowing your name. Not knowing what this is…" He shook his head. "Not such a big deal, all things considered."

He had a radio, though. He noted it, marking it for later thought. Then he packed everything back again, remembering where everything was, even the mysterious objects, in case he needed them again. Nothing was immediately useful, but taken together, they were enough to tell him that he was some sort of soldier. "Yeah. Really clever. Like the gun wasn't a clue." He knew what a gun was, at least.

That left two options, then. One: he was behind enemy lines, and had to find his way back home by himself, which was kind of tough, given that he didn't know where home was. Two: he was behind enemy lines… No, maybe not two options, then. The question was whether anyone he met was likely to be a friend or an enemy. You don't leave people behind, that much he knew. There were probably people looking for him. Maybe people trying to kill him, too, though.

"No," he said, after a moment's thought. There was no need to be unduly negative. Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best - that's what he always said. At least, that's what he said now; he had no idea if he'd ever said it before, but it felt right.

Prepare for the worst, though. The room he found himself in only had one door, so at least it was defensible. "Or a trap," he said, a moment later, not liking to think of himself backed in there with nowhere to run. Then there was the issue of the white glow that probably shone like a beacon saying, 'Here he is!' He edged out into the hallway again, and the light followed him. He crossed the hallway into another room, and the light appeared there, too. "Which really is too bad," he said. "Way to ruin the element of surprise."

Still, he was stuck with it. It didn't mean he couldn't make his room defensible. Set up traps, watch the door, listen, wait…

He let out a sharp breath. Who was he kidding? "I don't know who I am," he said, "but I know I'm not one to sit and wait." No, if there were enemies out there, he'd go find them. If there were friends looking for him, he'd make the job easier for them. Sitting wasn't good.

When you sat still, it was impossible to forget that you didn't know who you were.

He discovered a communication device at his belt. Its design felt alien, and he knew beyond doubt that it had been fashioned by his enemies, and put there to track him. He tore it lose, and threw it as far away as he could. It landed heavily, and a small light came on. Tearing his gun free, he shot it, enveloping it in red light.

Then, smiling grimly, he started hunting.

To Hell with it, he thought, eyeing the radio. Guess I've got nothing to lose.

As he pressed the button that he was fairly sure was 'on', he could almost hear someone impatiently telling him that this sort of attitude was going to get them all killed. "Got a better idea?" he demanded. He refused to be the sort of person who staggered around like an idiot for days, never daring to try the radio that could have called for help right at the start.

"Come in," he said into the device. "This is --" His voice cut off abruptly. It was as if the part of him that spoke out loud hadn't caught on to the fact that he had no idea who he was. "Me," he finished, with a shrug. "If you're receiving this, I guess you know who 'me' is, in which case it'd be good if you… uh… tell me, because…" His hand rose to his ear. "Here's the thing. I've… uh… forgotten. But if you're the enemy, then forget I said that."

There was no answer.

"A little help would be good," he said. "Just to know that you're coming to get me. In either sense," he added, after a pause. "Because I'm feeling some abandonment issues right now." He could feel his heartbeat, still faster than it should be, and the dampness of his palms. "I'm not having the best time of it here."

Nothing. There wasn't even static. Despite the light that came on, the radio seemed dead. Maybe there were secrets to using it that he'd forgotten about, or maybe there was no-one to hear him. Or this place is shielded, he thought, with vague memories of science fiction shows in which communications always failed at the worst possible time.

He switched the radio off, but put it carefully away. He'd try again later. Don't you ever give up? he imagined someone saying, and he pressed his lips together and decided that, no, he didn't. Like the battery bunny, I just keep going.

He stopped; pressed himself against the wall. Somebody was coming!

He kept his gun ready, remembering the charred mess it had made it the radio. In his other hand, he held a knife. He still had no idea who he was, but that couldn't matter right now. All that mattered was slowing his breathing. He had to become the wall - to watch, to wait, never moving, never making a sound…

The enemy was heralded with light. While he, the hunter, moved in darkness, the enemy was preceded with a pale white glow. It was enough to prove to the hunter that this was his domain. He controlled the light, and strolled through with no thought of concealment. Perhaps he thought to find the hunter still unconscious on the floor, or overcome with the terror of not knowing who he was.

He thought wrongly.

Safe in the darkness, the hunter peered round the edge of the doorway. The enemy was not strolling, after all, but proceeding cautiously and quietly, a gun held in front of him. Despite the light that heralded his coming, he was clearly trying to keep as much as possible to the shadows. He was human - and the hunter paused for a moment to wonder why he had ever expected otherwise - but his clothes were entirely different from the hunter's clothes.

Not a friend, then. The hunter paused for a moment, wondering why he would ever have wondered if he was. He had no friends, not any more. He hunted alone. He didn't know how he knew this, but it felt right. He was alone, and this creature was his enemy.

He sighted along the barrel of his gun. But although he knew that he had been completely silent, and although he knew that the darkness still hid him, something caught the attention of the enemy. His head snapped round. He seemed to see the hunter, and something twisted inside the hunter's heart.

"No!" The scream tore itself from his throat. He pulled the trigger, saw the red fire strike his enemy, and watched him fall.

end of part one