The rumble of the mining bots makes the entire facility tremble, but Inferior Zeytord 4634 is so used to this that it doesn’t even register. ThreeZs (IZ 80090) and DoubleOs (IZ 76001) are monitoring the machines for this darkside shift, so it’s not his problem right now. Or at least it shouldn’t be. 4634 had taught the others carefully when they came, and the still-learning newbie IZ 895601 wasn’t on deck right now. He wouldn’t even be ready to work nightshift for a couple of weeks, until 4634 thought he was ready. It’s been a long while since ThreeZs and DoubleOs needed 4364’s supervision, though.
4634 wouldn’t even be awake right now if the supply shipment weren’t running so late.
He’s tapped into the system interface on the cargo deck, writing reports as he waits. He figures he might as well get something productive done. The Newbie was going to help him unpack the supplies, but 4634 sent him to bed an hour ago, so now unpacking was going to have to wait until tomorrow. 4634 might as well get something productive done.
An alert on the monitor popped up in front of the atmospheric conditions report 4634 had been working. The cargo vessel was finally here, flashing its Zeyfficial Certificate and this week’s security code through communications.
4634 sighed. He sent off the responding codes and pressed the button to open the transport bay as usual, ready to get this over with so he could sleep.
4634’s interface showed the cargo vessel as it pulled into the airlock, and 4634 frowned. It was a different ship than the standard long haul Zeycraft. It didn’t even look like a Zeytoidian military vehicle at all. The vessel was sleeker than the usual bulky style, and it had an insignia on the side that 4634 didn’t recognize at all.
He checked for his gun in his side pocket. The vessel had a Zefficial Certificate, and those were very hard to check, but it was better to be sure. It had been a long time since 4634 had used his weapon, but he was sure he still could.
With the affirmation that his gun was ready at his side 4634 went out to meet the cargo ship and it emerged from the airlock.
The ship’s door opened down with a thunk and a figure stumbled out of it. 4634 blinked. It’s been a long time since he’d seen one of them.
It was a single person. A human person, 4634 could still tell, though he hadn’t seen any of those since his time on the front lines. The human’s eyes were distinctively brown instead of red, his skin and hair were dark, and in general his features different from 4634’s own in both obvious and subtle ways.
“I’m really sorry about the delay,” the human said. He wore a grey and blue uniform much less dramatic that of the green and black style of the Zeytoidian military. The human drew one hand through his hair as he stared down at a notepad in his hand.
The human gave 4634 an apologetic smile, but got only a blank stare in response. Shifting uncomfortably, the human continued: ““My navigational system does not have a good time working this far out from colonized space. I mean,” the man gestured, “not that this isn’t colonized, you’ve obviously got something going out here, but man. The farthest cargo hub is so far- I mean this place doesn’t even show up on the map-”
“You are not a Zeytord Clone,” 4634 inturrupted. “You aren’t any part of the Zeytoidian military.”
“Uh, yeah, no.” The human shook his head. “No, I don’t have any Zeytord in me, no. I work for a communications and cargo company, actually. The Space Frontiers.” The human gestures again, this time specifically to the emblem on his ship. The logo.
4634’s hand strayed to his weapon.
“Why are you delivering the cargo here?” 4634 demands.
“Woah!” The human’s hands shoot up with palms outstretched. “I’m just working a job, dude! We have some good contracts with the Zeytoidian Empire! We’re a neutral, third-party business or whatever you want to call it. We just do basic supply runs.”
4634 took his hand off his holster and shook his head. Everything seemed to check out, and if this man was going to attack he probably would have already.
“We’ve just always gotten our supply from other Zeytoidian ships,” 4634 said, “and you were very late.”
“Yeah,” the human rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry about that. I’ll get here quicker next time! You want your cargo?”
After the cargo was securely dumped 4634 had to sign the proper forms that said that he got it. Double the amount of forms as usual, for both the contractor and the Empire. 4634 still felt slightly off-balance.
“There was no announcement about a third-party contractor coming in,” 4634 commented as he skimmed the paperwork.
“Yeah, well, you know the empire, almost as bureaucratic as the Republic,” the human shrugged as if 4634 knew anything of the bureaucracy of the Republic. “Anyway, it’s a bit embarrassing, isn’t it? They probably don’t have enough troops for this kind of non-combat grunt work anymore.”
“What do you mean?” 4634 asked. “Why not?”
“Not after those recent battles, the ones the Republic won,” the human said. “You haven’t heard? They don’t announce these things?”
“They announce victories,” 4634 said, with a shrug of his own, “sometimes.” And when they did announce those victories this mining facility was often some of the last to know, being isolated and far from any Zeyloidian, Republic, or even fragment colony space.
“Huh,” the human said. He didn’t appear to have any words after that, and for a moment they shared an awkward silence. The human cleared his throat.
“Anyway,” he said, “gotta be going. You’re my last delivery for this run, but I’m running late enough as it is.” He began to turn back toward his ship, but gave 4634 a little wave. “Nice to meet you, though. Stoic as you are, you’re a lot nicer than the other Zeytord clones I’ve met!”
4634 acknowledged this with a nod. Unsurprising. Uncloned humans were considered even lowlier than the Inferior Clones, at the bottom of the Zeytord hierarchy.
“Goodbye,” he told the human.
The human lingered in his mind, though probably because it was the first person he’d seen in over two decades without the same face as his own.
. . .
The next supply run was on time, and Newbie was there to see it. Newbie, of course, had never met a human before.
“You look so weird!” Was the first thing Newbie said upon seeing the human. 4364 shook his head slightly, but the human just laughed.
Newbie was very curious.
“What’s your name?” Newbie asked.
“Xaviera Thresh,” the human replied, handing Newbie a box to unload and pack away.
“What kind of name is that?” Newbie asked, crinkling his face into a frown. “Where did you even get that? I mean, Thresh comes from 3, right? Does Xaviera come from 6?”
The human looked amused. “You know humans don’t get assigned numbers, right?”
“What!?” Newbie exclaimed. “How do you keep track?”
“Through their name, mostly,” Thresh shrugged. “I think the numbers are even more confusing. How do you remember them all?”
“How do you remember all the names? How do you even name things?” Newbie asked in return. “What qualities made you an Xaviera? Or a Thresh?”
“Well, you keep track through families, kind of,” Thresh began to launch into an explanation of names. “That’s where the last name comes from, it’s usually shared by at least one of the parents who raised or made the child. The first name is chosen individually, and many first names are associated with different cultures or genders.”
“What’s a gender?” Newbie asked. Xaviera opened his mouth to explain, but 4634 had to interrupt to give Newbie his next job.
Newbie scampered off to follow instructions. Thresh shook his head, but there was a smile on his face.
“You know, before this I’d say that all Zeytords were stoic, cold even,” he said. “I’d say it’s coded into your DNA, a feature gifted from Emperor Zeytord himself. Now I’m not sure what to think, because there isn’t a bone of stoicism in that kid.”
“He’s a child,” 4364 said.
“Yeah. Too young to be working on a mining facility in most places,” Thresh commented.
“I was on the front lines of the war even younger,” 4364 said. “The facility is safe. It’s a good job.”
Not that Newbie ever believed 4364 when he said that. No, Newbie wanted the glory of battle! To fight for his Emperor, his country, himself! That’s practically the slogan of the learning facilities for Inferior Zeytord. The other four had been all for it too, playing at it all the time when they were younger and first sent to the facility. It’s only Four-Four got sent off and failed to come back that they stopped being quite so enamored with the idea.
4364 hoped that Newbie just grew out of it.
“Oh,” Thresh said softly. Even without his constant gesturing the man was expressive, and 4364 could read the emotions in wide brown eyes. Surprise, some, but mostly anger. And sadness. Perhaps a touch of pity, but small enough for 4364 to ignore. “I didn’t realize they had Clone troops that young.”
“It’s part of why helmets are regulation,” 4364 said. “Children are not intimidating opponents.” The information wasn’t a secret. They didn’t know any Empire secrets, the Inferior Zeytord crew of an isolated planet. Thresh probably knew more of empire affairs than they did.
“Huh,” Thresh said. He sighed. “Well, it’s a nasty world out there.”
There was a sadness in his eyes that made 4364 look away.
Their conversation ended as Newbie came rushing back in.
Newbie went off to deal with the last of the boxes as Thresh and 4364 went through the forms.
“You can really tell he’s yours, the kid,” Thresh said with a small smile, looking after Newbie.
“He’s not,” 4364 said without looking at the man. “There are no Inferior Zeytord fathers, and we are simply both clones of the Emperor Zeytord. There is obviously a resemblance as we are genetically identical, but it doesn’t represent a human biological relation.”
“The resemblance might not represent a ‘human biological relation’,” Thresh said, “but I wasn’t talking about a physical resemblance anyway.”
. . .
Emperor Zeytord decided to make the ranks of his army out of the one person he truly trusted and believed in: himself. There were roughly three ranks of Zeytord clones, though some of them may have subdivisions: Royal Zeytords, Middle Zeytords, and Inferior Zeytords. Royalty was his closest advisors and potential heirs, all based on the Emperor but specifically customized for excellence at their roles. They’re often given incredibly strength, dexterity, healing, intelligence, slow-aging, and resilience. Almost all the most powerful people in the Empire were Royal Zeytords. These Zeytords had one blue eye, like the Emperor himself, and then one green to be clearly differentiated.
Middle Zeytords filled all the rest of the leadership positions and professional military jobs. They were the officers. There are non-Zeytords civilians in the Empire who may hold professional positions, the conquered masses of humans who require Zeytord leadership, but never in military positions. Few even in any government positions, either. Many Middle Zeytords may move on to a comfortable civilian life after successful careers in the military or government. They’re differentiable by their yellow eyes. The standard Middle Zeytord was modeled after the Emperor, but without the same boosts in intelligence and strength favored to the Royal Zeytords. Still some booths to strength, healing, and slow-aging, but nothing like the superhumans that the Royalty often ends up being.
And then there’s Inferior Zeytords. They are pretty much all the same. They are almost all footsoldiers in the millitary, and though there are stories of heroic Inferiors making officer status you never actually see any of this happening and trying to verify the names in those stories will get you nowhere. The only customized line of Inferior Zeytords are the ones that serve as servants to the Emperor, who are given decreased strength. All other Inferior Zeytords get increased strenth and healing, but take a hit to intelligence somewhat. They’re not made stupid, certainly, but they aren’t meant to be all that smart, either. All Inferior Zeytords share the same red eyes and low status, but they may at least count themselves as better than humans.
The Emperor himself is the original of all of these strains. He designed the cloning technology used and is known as a strategic genius even to his enemies, if an amoral one. He certainly uses biotech and nanotechnology to upgrade himself, though exactly how is a secret privy to only a trusted few. It’s certainly true that he hasn’t aged since 30, leaving him looking younger than many clones made decades after his birth.
Especially the Inferior Zeytord.
Targets to the Republic, cannon fodder to the Empire, the veterans that 4364 served with would often say, when they weren’t being watched. When they were being polite.
4364 was lucky, for an Inferior Zeytord. He was reassigned.
. . .
“Do all humans look like Thresh?” Newbie asked 4364 once, as they all lingered in the small dining area before lights out. The mining station was off, as a break for the machinery more for the clones staffing it. The place felt empty without the constant hum of the machines, and they all instinctively gathered together to combat the loneliness the silence threatened to bring in. It was already lonely, here on the outer edge of colonized space, where all real human civilizations were nothing but points of light in the sky if they were visible at all.
It was nice in its way, though. The empty expanse of the planet. The few opportunities they had to all gather together, when the machines were turned off.
There was no lounge area built into the mining facility. There were cramped sleeping quarters, an exercise room to fight the effects of low-gravity, and a make-shift kitchen with a dining area attached. So when they gathered, they gathered in the kitchen, turning a couple of crates into chairs so that they could all sit at the table.
“Don’t be stupid,” Sixes (543666) said. “Humans all look different, they’re not clones.”
“Yeah, silly,” Sevens agreed. “Didn’t you learn anything before you came here?” Sevens only had two sevens in his number, 678973, but he and Sixes came from the same IZ educational facility and were inseparable. From shifts to names they were together.
“Yeah, I know, but they never actually said what was different!” Newbie protested. “Like, they still all have the same amount of limbs, right? And Thresh was a different color, are they all different colors? And why’s Thresh a different shape?”
“Thresh is a different shape because he’s female,” ThreeZs explained. He had a soft spot for Newbie. Well, all of them did really, though Sixes and Sevens showed theirs in odd ways. ThreeZs frowned.“Or she’s female, maybe I should say? I’m not sure.”
“It’s hard to be sure, I don’t know what culture Thresh is from and some of them use pronouns to differentiate and refer to females with she and her.” 4364 said from the kitchen, as the only one of them who had ever been around humans before. He was finishing preparing the food. “Some of them use pronouns in more complicated ways, and often they have more pronouns, though, they often have categories called genders that are associated with but don’t always match up with physical sex.”
“Sex?” Newbie asked, nose wrinkling. “Isn’t that how they make humans?”
“No, he means sex as in the charictaristics that Thresh has that you don’t,” ThreeZs said patiently as Sixes snorted. “That’s because your physical sex is male. All of our physical sexes are male, because Emperor Zeytord is male.”
“I heard some of the Royal Zeytords are female,” Sevens said. “Can you imagine? It must be so weird.”
Sixes shook his head. “Royal Zeytords are all kinds of weird.”
“Female like Thresh?” Newbie asked. “Wait, so are he and him the pronouns associated with males, then, if they’re the ones we use?”
ThreeeZs beamed. “Absolutely!”
“So have we been calling Thresh by the wrong pronoun this whole time!?” Newbie exclaimed.
“Nah, Inferior Zeytords always use he, didn’t you hear?” Sixes said.
“Inferior Zeytords don’t have a choice,” DoubleOs muttered at the end of the table. “Just like with everything else.” DoubleOs was usually pretty quiet, so Newbie blinked up at him. 4364 made a note of it in his mind.
“Wait, humans get a choice?” Newbiw asked. “A choice of gender or pronouns or sex?”
For a moment 4364 watched the table as they all blinked and considered the possibility. They may have all been clones of the same person, but they were all having different reactions. Sixes and Sevens looked taken aback. ThreeZs was thoughtful and DoubleOs stared down hard at the table.
“It can be complicated, and there are often pressures in different cultures, but yes to an extent,” 4364 said as he poured out the Foodstuff(™) he’d been preparing from the pot into a large bowl. Foodstuff was never very good, it was designed to last and be shipped in builk more than taste good, but at least it was better cooked.
“They need medical procedures to change sex, often,” 4364 continued as he brought the pot of food to the table. The others shift eagerly in their seats. “But it’s all doable.”
It was times like these that 4364 most treasured the company of the others.
“How do we know Thresh’s pronouns, then?” Newbie asked, as the others started on the meal in front of them.
“You ask,” 4364 said.
. . .
“What’s your pronouns?” Newbie asked the next time Thresh gave a delivery.
Thresh blinked, taken aback for a moment, and then smiled. He seemed to relax.
“I use they/them/theirs pronouns,” Thresh said. “It’s rather old fashioned of me, I know, but I love the history of them.”
“They/them like plural pronouns?” Newbie asked. “What kind of history do they have?”
4364 let them completely unload the ship before sending anything to the store room so that Thresh could continue his- their conversation with Newbie. They piled the supply boxes high on the anti-grav carts used for transport around the facility maybe a little higher than was advisable.
It turned out Thresh was from a planet near the Solar System, the original Solar System, and they were more tied to Terran ways there. That territory was deep in the Republic, and 4364 had to wonder how Thresh ended up delivering cargo as far from the Republic as you could go for company ignoring the war to make as much money as possible. But 4364 himself didn’t press, and Newbie and ThreeZs wouldn’t know the implications of that information.
Thresh seemed happy and patient to explain, but there was something wrong. Not with the discussions or Newbie’s questions, a feeling that began even before Thresh began talking. It was different. 4364 could feel it in the air. Maybe it was the way Thresh stood, or something in their gaze as they chatted while the rest of them unloaded the supplies. A tension. A sadness.
“You know, you could choose your pronouns too, if you wanted to,” Thresh told Newbie.
“But all Zeytords are hes,” Newbie said. “The Emporeror Zeytord’s a ‘he.’”
“He might be, but that doesn’t mean you have to be, not here,” Thresh turned to look over at 4364 as he continued speaking. “There’s no one to keep track of the six of you here. You could basically do what you wanted, regardless of the Empire.”
“That’s not a very Zeytord way to think!” ThreeZs said, shaking his head. Newbie, however, looked intrigued.
4364 was more interested in what laid in Thresh’s gaze at the moment.
“Go take these to the storage area on your own?” 4364 asked ThreeZs. “Take Newbie with you, go over everything with him. I need to chat with Thresh here about something.”
“Well, just make sure you make it clear that that kind of talk doesn’t happen here in the Empire, okay?” ThreeZs said.
“Does this mean I get to drive one of the carts!?” Newbie exclaimed.
4364 nodded absently to both, and they were off.
He and Thresh stood silently for a moment.
“You can call me Xaviera, if you want,” Thresh said.
“What is this about, Thresh?” 4364 asked, and Thresh frowned and looked away.
“You don’t need to be rude,” Thresh said. They were rubbing absently at their arm, as though more nervous than offended.
4364 sighed. “I don’t mean to be rude, it’s just- something’s up. You’re making me tense, Xaviera.”
Xaviera swallowed, and glanced up at 4364. “Yeah. Yeah, something’s up. I’m not just delivering cargo this time.”
“No?” 4364 asked.
“No.” Xaviera said. “I have a message. All of you here are supposed to report to battle.”
4364 is silent for a moment.
“Why are you the one delivering this message?” 4364 asked. “This should be part of the Zeytord command.”
“It’s too important to send through your systems, which may have been compromised, I think,” Xaviera said. “And all of the other Zeytords who may have delivered it are reporting to battle. All of the other Inferior Zeytords.”
4364 paused for a moment, reading between the lines.
“This battle is going to be a bloodbath, isn’t it,” 4364 said. It wasn’t really a question.
Xaviera breathed in shakily. “Yeah. The Republic’s been winning for awhile, and I think the Empire might be going for a desperate strategy.”
“You know what happens to Inferior Zeytords who don’t report to battle, though, don’t you?” 4364 asked.
“I know it’s not good,” Xaviera said. “But that’s for Inferior Zeytrods who chose not to report to battle. Not the ones that never got the message in the first place.”
There’s a pause, between the two of them.
“Wouldn’t that get you in trouble?” 4364 asked. “Failing to deliver a message?”
“I could have gotten into an accident, lost my message and supplies,” Xaviera said. “At worst I’ll lose my job.”
If 4364 and the others reported to battle they’d probably die. They’d in the very least be seperated. Newbie was young, new meat, and if they were going to send him in without training they had to be very desperate. This had to be very dangerous. The Empire might even fall, and Zeytord himself knows what the Republic would do with any leftover Zeytords.
“If you want to go-” Xaviera said, after several moments of silence.
“No,” 4364 said. “No. Please, lose the message.” There’s another moment of silence.
4364 looked Xaviera in the eyes. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” Xaviera said. “Well, I mean, it’s not nothing, but it’s the least I could do. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself otherwise.”
Maybe they would have said more, but at that moment the doors to the transport bay open suddenly and ThreeZs rushed in.
“Newbie-” ThreeZs panted, doubling over for a moment. “Newbie crashed cart.” More panting. “In corridor five. Are you done with your paperwork yet?”
4634 glanced at Xaviera. “Yeah, I’m done here.”
“Wait,” Xaviera held up a piece of paper. “One last thing before I go. Just in case.”
4364 took it and glanced at it wordlessly. It was extraplanetary coordinates for an area that 4364 estimated feel just outside of Republic space. Above the coordinates was written the word Haven. 4364 shoved it into his pocket.
“Thanks,” he told Xaviera, “for everything.”
“Of course,” Xavier said. “Good luck.”
They both knew he’d need it.