He shivered and rolled over again, the pain in his side ignited and stabbed hotly at his chest, his breath lost and tumbling down the cold gray steel of the control room floor. He winced and tried to regain his air, waiting in agony for the pain to subside and fall back down into tolerable numbness. The process was beginning to be overwhelming and his thoughts once again turned to dark places. The time remaining before he would need to turn again would be less than it had been the last time. Winding down. The intervals grow ever shorter. His remaining strength vanishing. It wouldn’t be long now and he would be unable to turn. In that moment his breath would finally leave him. Never to be regained.
He heard the thing on the other side of the room shift heavily and was reminded that, sadly, it also remained alive.
The days and hours were lost to fog and pain, with no idea how long he had been unable to stand. The how was still as clear as the stars he could see out of the control room monitors. A day like any of a hundred days before. Until the fleet had bunched up at his lonely station, requesting immediate jump privileges. It had been months since even a single ship had requested a jump through his gate, much less nearly a hundred ships at once. He had been slow to respond, to even remember the proper codes for processing, when the Battleships began bumping the gate. The shaking caused him to lose his balance and bang his head against the bulkhead, momentarily blinding him. But the ensuing rage had blinded him more than the mere pain. He pushed the Jump Access Granted control in anger without entering the proper access codes, flinging the ill-tempered fleet to a random location in the Universe. Damn them. Damn himself.
In his anger and pain he failed to realize that he was no longer alone.
He lifted his head as far as he dared and tried to steal a glance. He could see it there, not fifteen feet from where he lay, a dark shadow on the other side of the small control room. He watched until he could watch no more, and his head banged lightly back unto the floor. He hadn’t seen the shadow move. He hoped once again that the damned thing had finally died. But his ear to the floor he could hear its ragged breath and knew it still lingered.
Thing. Beast. Man. Cyborg. Whatever you wanted to call it, the Sansha pilot had somehow been transferred during the abortive jump of the fleet. It had literally appeared where he should not, could not, actually be. He had heard the stories, the ancient stories, had watched the Sansha ships circle his Gate in erratic, confusing circles, and had wondered what they were. Men? Machines? Or something more? He still didn’t know, the thing had attacked him in the shadows, lunged at him in a deadly blur and struck him with such force that he actually flew across the room. He remembered pipes wiggling, fluids flowing, wires sparking, as if the thing had been ripped from its ship in one sudden violent action. It snarled, he remembered that clearly. It continued to snarl when he shot it. The echo of the Thunderbolt pistol hiding the growing realization that he had also been mortally wounded.
He almost snarled himself when the pain started. The metal shard protruding from his chest took his wind away, and he too had fallen where he lay now. That was an indeterminate time ago. His thirst was all enveloping. His agony acute. His breath continued to escape him. And help... he coughed at the thought. Help was almost seven months away.
Death and its black release would not come easily. And so he lingered, unable to stand, unable to breath properly, gently turning against the pain every so often and lost in his own thoughts. He stared at the Locker across the room, its white rectangle shape sharply contrasted against the dark metal walls. The Locker contained his only hope of salvation, full of drugs, implants and medicines that would heal his broken body, but it might as well have been located in Jita for all the help it could offer. Once again he cursed the damned creature that lay between him and salvation. But he refused to be the first to die here. If nothing else, he would wait until he was sure the bastard Sansha was dead. Certain beyond a resonable doubt, before he turned the Thunderbolt pistol on himself. No one would mourn his death, no one would even know about it until the next ship attempted passage at the gate. Even then, it might take weeks for someone to show up and check up on him. A lack of Comms this far into Null Space was not uncommon and would raise no alarm. He had no Imperial connections, no Fleet Admirals in the family, no loved ones to become worried. Those types of men didn’t get assigned this type of lonely, pointless duty. No help was coming. He was, as he’d always wanted to be, on his own.
“Man...” The sound was little more than a whisper, a faint rustling of air, but the creature had spoken. Had it been weeks after all, or only hours? His own voice cracked through split-lips and broken lungs, “Die damn you.” He felt the blood slide down his chin, it was warm and wet and he licked at it with his tongue.
It was then that the room exploded in light, filling the shadows and he squinted to see what had happened. Above the Sansha a hologram formed and weird, alien music wafted through the air. He watched as the blurs became shapes, little squeaking Sansha children scampering about a cruiser sized ship. Although alien to his ears he couldn’t mistake the laughter, the joy they showed, as a larger form picked them up and tossed them into the air. They must be his family. His children. The image blurred once again and disappeared. The quiet and the dark shadows descended like a curtain once more.
His hatred of the Sansha was suddenly thrown into question. Mostly he thought that perhaps his own self-hatred had much to do with his contempt of the creature. Still the thing had attacked him without reason. And most likely that attack would lead to his own death. Most likely both their deaths. Eventually. Unloved and unmourned as it might be, death is an extremely personal event. One to best be avoided at all costs. He chuckled at his own dark sense of humor, ‘duh’ he thought. But the damned thing had kids, a family somewhere. Was he loved? Would someone mourn his passing?
His mind raced, memories flashed of a life ill-spent and wasted and he felt the crushing weight of lost opportunities and miss-spent youth. Wasted. He had pushed away all those that had ever tried to be close to him, friends, women, his own family. Until he was left with nothing, only the loneliness of distant duty, far from the lights of Empire. Alone on station, deep on the outer reaches of Null Space. What had he accomplished? What had he added to existence itself, one iota of anything worthy? He remembered and found himself wanting. He sighed with what little breath he could muster.
The shard shifted when he moved and the pain was worse, much worse. It was going to get real bad, real quick. He pulled himself up and blacked out. When he came back around, nothing had changed. The Sansha was looking at him, his cyborg features denying any hope of expression, but he swore he could read hope in his one true eye. The other one blankly stared with its red dot lense. His hand reached out for the Thunderbolt pistol and he felt the cold of the grip beneath his fingers. He thought about ending it all right there, shooting himself or the creature, and calling it quits. Finished. But for once he had some purpose. From deep down in his fractured, bleeding chest came something he didn’t know he had. It might be called courage, or determination, having never experieneced it before he didn’t recognize it. He let it fill him without labeling it.
He raised his weak shaking hand and aimed at the Locker. The blast was terrible and the gun ripped from his hand in a horrible shrek of agony, but his aim proved true. The white door exploded in a cloud of blue fire and the contents spilled forth around the Sansha sprawled beneath it. The shard in his chest moved suddenly. Just enough to touch his heart and he...
After awhile the shadow stood. It wobbled a bit as the injested fluids did their work. A small cloud of nano-bots swirled around its head, repairing the cybernetic circuitry damaged during the raid. Already its Brothers circled the gate in their Nightmares. His mission, which had started so close to failure, was now achieved. He stood and waited for full functionality to return. Stable. In touch with the Nation. His mission sanctioned, he would be given True status upon his return to the dark portal. And this gate, first among many, would belong to the Nation.
Had the creature emotions he may have laughed aloud. As it was, having no such human fraility, he simply stood waiting for rescue.
The hologram they had salvaged from the human ship had done its work well.
His family was the Nation. And the Nation was one.