"To Your Good Fortune In Liberty, Sir" - Alternate Universe Edition

Fatigue had taken its toll on Norman O’Brien, and its effects were most prominent when he finally saw the bed in his newly-rented room at a small inn on the distant world of Planet Gran Canaria. The soft and cool sheets were irresistible for any weary traveler, and for a man on the run, they beckoned him like a siren. He fell onto the bed like a crumbling building and promptly passed out from sheer exhaustion. Within moments, he fell into a deep slumber with which came the reminders of what had happened.

Norman felt himself be dragged out of his bed and into a nebula of purple and red hues, lightning illuminating himself and that which dwelled within the sinister gases. Within the iridescent mists lay a Switchblade fighter, torn apart and damaged by some kind of unknown force, and its nose pointing towards some great looming shadow resting within the void. The space around Norman felt like water, and he almost instinctively began to swim towards it. There was some kind of great pulsating attraction, and like a moth to a flame, he was drawn to the alien structure that grew in size and clarity as he approached it. Faint echoes of comrades calling to him from beyond the cloud traveled past him. “O’Brien, do NOT approach the structure!,” ordered the commander of the Presque Isle in his distinct authoritative tone as radio contact faded from existence. “Norman, don’t do it! Wait until I get there, please!,” begged Catherine as her voice was shut out by an overwhelming feeling of desire. “O’Brien, hold position, I’m on my way,” droned the cool and calculated voice of Attano, whose voice joined the others in an oppressive silence.

And then it awesomely appeared before him as most great monuments do: the archaic, venerable gate of ages long past. Photos and conceptualizations from LSF personnel had attempted to describe Nomad structures, but this seemed far older and far more looming than any picture or sketch could do justice. Norman felt himself being dragged further into the gate as he felt enraptured and hypnotized by the siren’s call that emitted from within its center. In a blinding flash of light, he felt his body begin to stretch and dissipate as time and space seemed to meld and intertwine with each other in a furious display of colors that screamed at him like Lovecraftian horrors beyond human comprehension. The onslaught of sensual destruction came in the form of arrival at some unknown locale far away from Sirius, and beyond humanity’s reach. That same pulsating attraction continued to draw him in, and as he felt his skin burn every second he stayed in the system, he pressed onward towards the feeling.

The source of the pulsating aphrodisiac was a structure of utterly alien origin, though instead of terrifying, it was almost homely. New voices began to fill his ears, new voices he had not heard before. They reached at him from within and without, and welcomed him in harmonious tones that dripped with honey in their sweetness. Faces of strangers passed by him that hailed from Malta, Crete, Akabat, and beyond. They all seemed so blissful in this ancient ruin away from civilization. For a brief moment, Norman felt at home. But then something sparked in the back of his mind that slowly began to burn away the whole illusion. No, this is all wrong. This isn’t real, they’re not really happy. It’s all a damn trick. Whether or not it was true, the happiness of the individuals began to fade and be replaced by anger and confusion. Their bodies mutated into fiendish four-legged creatures vaguely resembling humans, and from their backs sprouted a thousand long tendrils that wrapped around his limbs and flung him out of the alien construct into that burning space once more.

He floated, dying in a vacuum that lit his skin alight with searing pain every moment he was exposed to it. The darkness of death slowly crept in, and soon O’Brien found himself in a black void. Norman felt lost, and almost assuredly dead. But a slight knocking sound came from somewhere behind him. A small crack of light allowed hope to seep through into his fate’s dim consignment. He felt the need to fight back against the darkness that crept in, to not allow it to dominate his destiny. He began to combat it, mentally kicking and screaming, refusing to part with any ground and only gain against that damnable blackness. Eventually, a hand began to reach out to him, and a voice whispered to him from the crack it came from. The voice told Norman to keep holding on, to keep fighting on, and to not let the evil win. The moment he grabbed the hand, he was pulled through the crack and out into space, though this time the burning wasn’t nearly as excruciating. A woman in a flight suit of unknown, human origin was pulling him away from the loathsome ruin that had called him to the system.

“Look forward. Keep moving. Concentrate on your breathing,” were the words she imparted to him as they sped through the system. Behind them a great roar across space came as one of the feared scions of destruction that men whispered of in the shadows and trembled at the mention of: a Nomad vessel about the size of a fighter began pursuing them. That sickly blue hue that each shimmered and convulsed with was easily recognizable as it closed in. Its tendrils reached into Norman’s mind, creating thoughts that did not belong to him. It kept echoing a single thought, impulse: Follow. But the woman leading him by the hand would not let him go. Her determination to save him was stronger than the impulses of the Nomad’s attempted seductions. And as they neared what resembled a jump hole, the instinct for survival overwhelmed Norman, and thrown by the woman, he sped head first into the hole. Then a flash made the world white all over and took him out of that accursed system.

As the fringe light of dawn kissed the surface of the moonlit plains of Gran Canaria, Norman awoke in a cold sweat. He jumped from his bed, staring at the window. With the shadow of the night over him, he had felt fearful of what he had seen. But with the rise of the dawn, only a feeling of determination and rejuvenation swelled in his heart as he resolved with a balled fist and a steely gaze that the time for running had passed ever since he left Liberty. Getting dressed out of his standard LSF uniform and putting on civilian clothes, he left the motel room with the express intention of acting on that which he had witnessed. Someone had to fight those things, even if the Houses wanted to ignore them. Norman smirked as he left, knowing that it was time to call up the only favor he still had.

It had only been some days since the man now known as William Faulke had escaped from the hands of the Liberty Security Force and into the protection of the Battlegroup Auxesia. Instead of the warm comfort of his luxurious studio apartment back in New Boston, he had to share a barracks with his former enemies onboard a populous Hellfire Legion installation in the dreaded Vespucci system. If he recalled the control tower correctly, the station was known as America Base. The thought of being surrounded by Legion personnel did not inspire confidence or calm in the fugitive. In the back of his mind, he could not shake the feeling that someone was going to stab him in this place. Out of the many groups that would like to obtain custody of an LSF agent, even an ex one, Hellfire Legion was near the top of the board. He settled uneasily into his bunk, thinking he would be too nervous to fall asleep. But the fatigue of the battle from before, with his constant downing of Outcast snubcraft from one of the Eidolon’s various gun emplacements, had worn him down to the point of letting his eyelids close.

“Come on, Norm! You got it! Don’t let this goddamn bastard do ya in like that! Show him age don’t matter none!”

A fist came flying at Norman’s face from out of nowhere, and with a heavy blow, he fell down. Dazed for a moment, he regained his senses and scanned around him to see where he was. It was the old boxing club where he had suffered many a hit and dealt many a hand. His opponent was a tall, dark-skinned man whose eyes shone with greed like the hungry eyes of a falcon. Around him were a dozen or more faces jeering, smiling, snarling, gasping, and a multitude of other expressions. Two of his brothers, Charlie and Ryan, watched from behind him, with the former’s face livid with anger, and the latter’s mortified with fear. And lastly, in the middle of the ring stood the referee and that oh so familiar action of counting.

“1…! 2…! 3…!,” he yelled, throwing a finger at his face for each number. With each number, the twin emotions of despair and determination dueled within Norman, clashing like two knights jousting at a tourney. On the floor lay a small, growing pool of blood. With great effort, he began to push himself up, spitting out a loose canine that pierced his left cheek’s gums. He didn’t need it anymore.

“6…! 7…!,” shouted the referee as he continued his crusade of counting. Norman was pushed further, and raised his leg, then the other, and stood up once more. He hunched over, returning to that familiar stance he had always counted on to deliver him to victory. With his hands raised and his eyes burning with fury, he was prepared to turn the tide of the match.

“NORMAN! YOU BETTER DECK HIM BEFORE I COME OVA’ THERE AND DO THE GODDAMN JOB MYSELF! YOU’RE THIRTEEN ALREADY, HE AIN’T GOT THAT YOUTH ADVANTAGE!,” boomed Charlie, swigging his bottle of whiskey and grabbing onto the ropes like a madman. Norman heeded his brother’s drunken words with a quick left jab to the opponent’s face, followed by a right hook in the same direction. Not expecting the young O’Brien to still have some fight left in him, the hits managed to connect, and the opponent, once seeming victorious, was suddenly on the defense. Norman sensed his offense growing, and spat in the man’s face, before giving him a cross to his temple, taking him down for a brief moment. Certain that he had won, Norman let himself relax, taking some steps back, and even taking his eyes off his opponent for a brief moment to smile at his brothers. But a heavy blow to the back of the head sent him tumbling into the turnbuckle, knocking him out cold.

By the time he had come to, everyone was surrounding the other man, showering him with praise and prize money. Despondent, Norman couldn’t help but let some tears fall for letting victory so easily escape him. The bruises and broken teeth began to pulsate with pain, and the cuts he sustained had their blood soon stream down his face and sting his eyes. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Charlie and Ryan come over to him, with both of them sharing the look of concern usually given to a child by his loving parents. Ryan, who had not spoken at all, looked at Norman in the eyes and grabbed his shoulders gently.

“Listen, kid… There’ll always be otha’ fights in life. And while winnin’ feels good, it ain’t everythin’. The most important thing is that you get back up when ya knocked down. It’s hard, it hurts… But don’t let anyone catch ya lyin’ down when you still got some fight in ya,” he whispered, helping him up and supporting him with the help of Charlie. Together, they walked out of the ring as brothers. Norman closed his eyes, tired of fighting in that ring that he would grow familiar with over the next few years.

The next time he opened his eyes, before him sat the long azure seas of Gran Canaria. With a cloth jacket draped across his shoulders and an Avenger sitting next to him over a sand dune. His head still hurt from the ordeal yesterday, and as a precaution a bottle of painkillers and a large bottle of water lay on the wing of the former LSF vessel. Norman had already taken some in the motel room, but he kept them with him, just in case. With a sigh, he climbed into the cockpit of the scarred vessel and placed a hand upon the consoles and controls, rubbing them slowly.

“I know we didn’t know each other for long, but… I’m hoping the time was nice. I need to do one thing before I leave, and that’s killing Norman O’Brien. The LSF can’t know that I’m still around, although may find out anyways… I’m sorry.”

He pats the cockpit controls once more, before hopping out of it and reaching inside the cargo hold. Inside was a laser rifle and a collection of shaped charges. He climbed up onto the top wing of the Avenger, leaning against it and taking aim with his rifle at the cockpit. With a pull of the trigger, a flurry of laser fire beamed throughout the cockpit. Sparks and explosions consumed it whole as he unloaded the entire magazine, leaving nothing but a charred wreck where the cockpit used to be. He tossed his old LSF uniform inside the scorched compartment and began to lay the explosives around the hull. When finished, he gathered his possessions and took cover behind a hill far away from the fighter. With a sigh, Norman saluted his beloved Avenger, before finally using a remote detonator to give it one last, fiery sendoff. William then walked away, leaving behind his last companion from the past.

Every morning was easier than the last for William. At least this time, he was able to rest for the proper amount of time. He was unsure if it was the quality of the bedding used by the Hellfire Legion or simply a growing comfort with his newfound comrades. The smell of a traditional Libertonian breakfast broke off whatever train of thought had settled in his head, and William dressed himself in the flight suit typical of an Auxesia pilot. The ring had changed, but the need to keep fighting would always be with him.

“Twenty-three… Twenty-four… Twenty-five…”

If William wanted to be ready for the enemy next time they struck, he needed to be in the proper physical condition. Normally exercise would be a grueling practice that seemed more torture than training, but his penchant for listening to the old hits of Sol’s past during his workout routines made it an enjoyable experience. His legs ached from hanging around his bunk as he continued with his hanging sit ups. Undoubtedly Stone would ridicule him for his technique or efforts or anything he could find. William could see why the man was bitter and trusted him in a fight, though this didn’t mean he had to like him. The Tin Man certainly had no heart.

“Twenty-six… Twenty-seven… Twenty-eight…”

More burning and aching came with each sit up, but it didn’t matter. He was out of shape and needed to use what he had at his disposal to remain in top condition. He never thought he would miss the humble equipment of the gym back in New Boston where he practiced before bouts. He never thought he would even miss anything having to do with those hard years. But anything beat trying to deal with a lack of equipment and only the features of a barracks as a substitute fo-

“Agh! G-goddamit!,” he sputtered, falling to the floor as a migraine overtook him. Stumbling back to his feet, he reached over to a medicine cabinet near his bunk and took out a bottle of pills. Tossing a couple into his mouth, he sipped on some water and swallowed the tablets. Sinking into his bunk, he cradled his head in pain as the migraine pulsated. He had finally thought the migraines from so many shots to the head had disappeared. But this was the first he had experienced in two months, and it was a consequence of all those years of putting his body on the line for a bit of prize money. The medication soon began to take effect, and William found himself sinking into another heavy sleep.

The streets of New Boston were slick with rain and illuminated by streetlights. Norman walked the streets barefoot and ragged, looking like any other homeless pauper that inhabited the paved thoroughfares of the city and any nook and niche they could situate themselves. He had left home for a day now, surviving off the scraps the wasteful New Bostonians left in trash bins and in piles on the road. No one had kicked him out, and no one has forced him away. Running was what he knew best at such a young age. And when disaster struck, it was all he could do to deal with it. He had been running for quite some time, though what exactly he was fleeing from was unclear. All he knew is that he needed to leave home, no matter what.

Norman leapt across a large gutter, then scaled a small brick wall. He dashed for cover from the rain before eventually arriving next to a dumpster and slipping and hitting his arm against the rusty metal container. Feeling the puddles of water and mud up to his ankles, suddenly Norman’s legs refused to move. His mind willed them to move, but something had broken in his body. It was nothing physical that pained him thus, but his spirit simply could not continue. Without even a second to think about the problem, he collapsed into the filthy mire below him, feeling it seep into his clothes and nearly reach his face. A hot stream of water began to fall down near his eyes, stinging those portals to the world. He could not stop crying.

“Norman! Norman, are you there? Please answer!,” called a voice from beyond the alleyway. He had heard that voice many times during his journey through the urban jungle, and many more times before he began his runaway venture. It was the voice of his twin, Chloe, and it was shrill and desperate, just as it had been for the past day. Norman was good at hiding his tracks, but Chloe was even better at following him. Whilst his older sisters would find it difficult to even keep up, Chloe was a natural at tracking him down. And in this moment her abilities had paid off. Norman’s sobbing grew into outright bawling, and she could hear it from down the street. She rounded the corner, and her appearance was almost as wretched and downtrodden as his.

“Please, Norman… Everyone’s worried… I wanna go home with you,” she pleaded, walking over and picking her brother up out of the mud. The two looked identical, save for the differences their sexes had imparted on them.

“What’s home, Chloe? Mom’s… m-mom’s…,” Norman choked, unable to say anything. Instinctively, the two embraced in the cold rain. Norman realized that running wouldn’t work this time. Sometimes you just had to accept the way things were.

“It’s okay… We’ll make it. We always do.”

The small shuttle touched down on the landing pad in front of William. The Serenity it hailed from was unmarked and fast, just the way he had hoped it would be. His escape back to the Battlegroup Auxesia’s main area of operations needed to be unnoticeable to anyone who could be following him. The captain of the transport was a former member of the Coalition that Ashley Bernitz, the pilot William had encountered before, knew very well. With the false papers that had been provided for his crossing by a shady dealer near the spaceport, he was ready to continue on his way. The Sutinga that he had purchased off of a local junkyard vendor was already loaded aboard the Serenity and was ready to be reassembled at the Barrier Gate once the ship had arrived there. All was set to let William Foulke join the only people he knew would keep him safe. At least, for the time being.

“The shuttle is ready, Mr. Foulke. Will you be joining us?,” asked the middle-aged man in that odd Russian-like accent that many Coalitioners exhibited. Around him were some other passengers also hitching a ride to Bretonia and Liberty. William nodded at the captain, smiling as he did so.

Almost out of habit, William looked behind him to see if anyone was there. He knew he was being tracked, even if he couldn’t see it. The captain of the Presque Isle had made it rather clear that the information he possessed was too valuable to lose. Being a rogue LSF agent didn’t help his case, either. It was only a matter of time before whoever was spying on him would catch up. All he could do was delay that time and prepare for when it happened.

“Alright… Here goes nothing,” he sighed, shrugging and stepping aboard the atmospheric shuttle with a small rucksack slung over his shoulder and a certainty in his step. The tiny vessel soon rose into the air, venting air and flame as it lifted off the landing pad and climbed towards the mooring post that adorned the docking ring of the azure jewel of Gran Canaria.

Within a pair of hours, the short rest William was enjoying had been interrupted by a rather noisy Legion pilot returning to his bunk. Slowly rising from his small cot, he rubbed his head, feeling relieved that the pain had finally passed. His conditioning was still not complete, and he still needed to be at full combat strength. He would not allow the Nomads or Wild catch him off-guard or unprepared, and he would not allow anyone to say he was not able to hold his own or pull his own weight. With that singular purpose in mind, he set out to continue his regimen with laps around the areas of America Base he was allowed to pass through.

<“Roland, this is Charlemagne. Come in, Roland. Over.”>
<“Roland here. Reading you five by five. Over.”>
<“Target is moving from Point Navarra. Estimated ETA to Point Roncevaux is fifteen minutes. Evac will arrive in twenty. Stand by. Over.”>
<“Ten-four, Charlemagne. Moving to vantage point. Roland out.”>

The radio clicked off. Acid rain flooded the smoked out ruins of the former textile mill, one of the many relics of industrial decay that pockmarked the surface of Leeds. Fires burned throughout the landscape, little reminders past the horizon of the war that was being waged every day between the Bretonian populace and their Gallic occupiers. Occasionally, rumbling from an explosion miles away from where one was standing would punctuate that violence. But for the most part, the only sound heard this night was the pitter-patter of caustic water droplets colliding with whatever surface gravity dragged them down to.

A lone cigarette lit up the darkness in the rundown shed that Agent Norman O’Brien had taken shelter from the rain in. With each draw, the smoke he blew danced in the air before being whisked away by the cold, laughing wind. After a minute, O’Brien put out the small butt and retrieved his combat helmet from a small wooden crate at his feet, enabling the night vision mode on the visor. Hefting a heavy kinetic sniper rifle over his shoulder, the operative began to stroll over to another end of the factory. After five minutes, he took cover in a small maintenance room overlooking a large avenue. Headlights flashed in the distance as a convoy of Gallic military vehicles rumbled in his direction.

“That sounds like him,” he whispered to himself. The sniper rifle slid perfectly into position behind some broken glass, obscured by the cover of night. There were some advantages to using a kinetic weapon instead of an energy-based small arm. For one thing, the distinctive beams of light caused by an energy discharge would thoroughly encourage the Gauls to light up Norman’s position like a Roman candle on Liberty Day. With the right ammunition and delivery system, it was also more likely to penetrate the armor of whatever was carrying his target. It would be easy to time the shot with any of the explosions in the distance, or perhaps thunder. And with such a wide view of the convoy, which he could still spot from miles away, there was ample opportunity to take the shot at any time and still have time to exfil safely.

O’Brien pressed the side of his helmet, turning on his radio.

<“Charlemagne, this is Roland. Have arrived at vantage point overlooking target convoy’s route. Target convoy is on approach. Over.”>
<“Roger that Roland, you have the green light for engagement. The target’s information is located in your datapad. Use it to your discretion, and RV at Point Andorra for extraction. Over.”>
<“Copy, Charlemagne. You’re buying drinks this time, over.”>
<“Cut the chatter, Roland. Charlemagne, out.”>

The radio cut off, and once again, O’Brien was left in the rain. This time, the sound of oil-fueled motors grew louder and louder as the Gauls neared. O’Brien exhumed his datapad from his rucksack, loading up the target’s information. To O’Brien, the name was irrelevant. All that mattered was the face, the vehicle, and the location. The target was being chauffeured in what appeared to be a luxury limousine, possibly fitted with armor plating and shielding. Possibly.

“Jesus Christ, intel really screwed the goddamn pooch on this one…,” O’Brien groaned, tossing aside the datapad and aiming down the scope. Thunder caused the building to quake, as if the lightning were throwing stones at the windows to shake and shatter them.

“Gotcha, ya bastard…,” he quietly snickered as the target’s vehicle came rolling along the avenue. The bearded Gaul in the backseat, resplendent in his formal military attire, was undoubtedly the man Norman had been waiting for. Aiming down the scope, he waited for the sound of thunder to roll in once again. Lightning impacted a skyscraper less than a mile away, and in the resulting flash of electric hell and explosion of sound blasts, two sounds were buried underneath the cacophony.

A gunshot and the shattering of a window.

Once again, William Foulke emerged from the waters of the past and onto the beach of the present day. This time, he awoke with someone else beside him. Miranda was sleeping soundly at his side, with her left arm wrapped around his torso. The room they were in seemed alien to him for a brief moment, before the revelation finally struck him.

“I’m back. That’s right,” he quietly mumbled, reaching out to the simulated window’s morning sun with his right hand. Even after so many months, he always woke up forgetting that it was but a cold, metal doppelganger of that body part. The Battlegroup’s propaganda of transhumanist transcendence and evolution through technology never actively resonated with him. It was his personal loyalties and fear that kept him there. Fear of what might happen if he returned to Liberty, or if Liberty returned to him. Fear of the Nomads winning. Fear of losing Miranda. And fear of others around him acting towards these goals, intentionally or not. In his mind, he knew it was a rancid cocktail of cynicism and paranoia, but it felt well-justified.

He was at least content to not have to brave the night alone anymore. And grateful for being able to shut his eyes in confidence that he could sleep.

Sleep. It was a roll of the dice whether or not sleep would come whenever Norman closed his eyes. If the past would come back to haunt him in any way, and if it would bring up the memories of yesteryear.

Tonight, it returned in force.

That darkness gave way to an orange-tinted nebula looming over him in the distance. A whole wing of Avengers, Defenders, and Upholders dashed through an asteroid field, dodging tiny pebbles and gigantic boulders. In the distance was a great looming hulk of green blocky metal that dwarfed anything nearby. It was a Rheinland battleship, putrid and wretched in its utilitarian and industrial design. O’Brien looked up, down, and in every other direction. He was merely floating along, looking at the scene unfold. Slowly, the sound of radio chatter grew louder and louder, and eventually, he recognized his own voice.

<“This is Lieutenant O’Brien! I’ve got a bead on the target! Making a break for it, over!”>

His voice was filled with that same naive optimism he had managed to cling to, even past the events that had dimmed his vision of the world beforehand. That little lilt, that tiny vocalization of skipping through a field of daisies… It still existed in that young pilot’s voice. For a moment, it seemed a permanent fixture for the scene.

<“O’Brien, this is Captain Davenport. Don’t be so eager for the Westphalia, you got it? That cockiness might get us all killed.”>

Captain Michael Davenport’s old, grizzled voice broke that youthful idealism into a thousand pieces as the approaching fighters seemed to teleport straight into battle. Upholders formed up for bombing runs, firing their payloads straight down the gullet of the battleship. Some antimatter cannons and torpedoes hit their marks, others missed considerably. One by one, the fighter complement and anti-air defenses picked off the Libertonian bombers one by one, and for each explosion, there came an unholy scream, a plea for mercy, or a faint whimper.

<“I don’t wanna die! Captain, save m-”>
<“They’re on me, I can’t sh-!”>
<“O’Brien! I’ve got one on me! H-”>

Static punctuated their end just as poignantly as the violent eruptions of energy that rended the hulls of each Upholder. Gradually, however, their efforts disabled the shields of the Westphalia. In a sudden ripple of blue, the shields ceased to exist, and the various fighter craft dove straight for the hangar, ignoring all other targets. One by one, pilots emerged from the cockpits of the Libertonian fighters, wearing full combat armor and wielding assault weapons in their hands. And as O’Brien flew in with them, the scene changed yet again.

“We are not leaving! That’s a direct goddamn order, and I don’t care if I have to shoot you myself! I will personally court martial your ass and pull the trigger on the firing line if you show cowardice here!,” screeched the unbearable voice Major George Starek. Once again, Norman was somewhere else, this time cradling the near-lifeless body of Ensign Helen Mendoza, her status only given the benefit of the doubt by some movement of her chest in between spurts of blood shooting out from her neck. Starek leveled a gun at O’Brien, and then at Mendoza. With a look only once found on the Teutonic berserkers of the bogs of Ancient Terra, he unloaded several volleys of energy into the dying woman, completely annihalating what little was left of her torso.

“No!,” Norman yelled, pulling out his own sidearm and firing on the Major in a split-second. The reaction was almost natural, and it was only a few moments before O’Brien realized he had killed his superior officer. Only one other individual was alive to see it. Another Ensign, Cheryl Bronson. And as he looked at her, with a hole the size of the tip of his thumb in her abdomen, the scene changed once again.

“We’re gonna make it out, okay? Keep talking to me. We’ll be the two who made it out, just stay with me…”

“Norman, I…”

Run. The only word that raced through Norman’s mind as he fired behind him at shouting in German. Lasers flew past his head as he carried Cheryl over his shoulder, refusing to look back. He was almost to the sole surviving Avenger in the hangar. All he would need to do was climb aboard and speed away before she bled out. The shouting over the PA systems of the ship advised of another Liberty battlegroup entering the combat zone. If he could just reach them in time…

“Come on, just hold on a little. Help is here, we can make it. Please, please… Live,” he pleaded. And once again, he was teleported into another scene. The hangar of a Liberty Dreadnought. This time, there was no sound. No noise or anything. Just silent sobbing as O’Brien cradled the body of Ensign Cheryl Bronson below the nose of the scarred Avenger.

He received a promotion for that day. The day he became the sole survivor of the 12th Tactical Rapid Boarding Squadron.

He woke up in the middle of the night. Again. This time, it wasn’t a bed. It was that one couch on Honshu, in that fortified compound the Battlegroup’s leadership loved to make their personal retreat. Hastily, William rose from the plush seating and ascended the staircase leading to the outside balcony. It was another rainy night, and the stars could still be seen in the patches free from cloud cover. Space was cruel. And that day in Bremen was just a reminder. William leaned on the railing and closed his eyes. He was thankful no one could see him weep.

Thin, gray smoke. An artificially-rendered view of the stars. Assorted dog tags from fallen pilots hanging over the bunk. The pocket watch of a Temporal Agent. An empty, tipped over coffee mug. A suit of powered armor resting in the corner. Weapons arrayed on a coffee table. And a disheveled cyborg wearing a tank top and underwear sitting on the edge of the bunk. These were what made up William’s room aboard the Blazing Umbra. The smoke rose from one of his cherished Lucky Strikes he had bought on Freeport 11. This had been the first time in a week that he had been able to light one, although he didn’t even know if some alarm would go off for trying to relax himself with that stick of death.

Smoking was curious pastime of William’s. Harmful in a million ways, but addictive. It bared quite a few similarities to a life devoted to the battlefield. It hadn’t originally been William’s choice to smoke. His aunt had continued to shove cigarettes in his mouth when he was little, saying it “built character” and “turned him into more of a man.” Even back then, he knew it was all a lie. The woman was psychotic, and Will felt no remorse in killing her when the maniac tried to kill his sister. That wasn’t the point where things started to go downhill towards violence. In fact, he felt the slope started in a moment too distant to recall. But… it didn’t matter how it started. Much like the smoking, all that mattered was that he kept killing himself over it.

With a groan, he rose to stare out the window, still holding the small, burning paper roll between his lips and teeth. The debris from the battle was mostly cleaned up by now. He had to hand it to the Solus Tempus boys, they cleaned up well. But they were in over their heads with the Nomads. It would probably take a few more defeats before they realized the true gravity of the threat.

His eyes drifted to the small effigy on his coffee table. The little comms officer from the Delta 239 had given it to him. Such a pity one so young as her had to serve aboard a warship. Child soldiers were an ugly reality he was all too familiar with. Despite their attacks on his person, he hoped relations warmed. He didn’t want to shoot more children.

A sigh. He wished he was home. Sirius was apparently far worse than many realities, but he had responsibilities and obligations there. Fighting the Nomads, finding his sister, protecting Miranda…

“I’m never going home,” he uttered, coming to the realization as the words left his mouth.

His old life was gone again. He sank to the floor, putting out the cigarette on his prosthetic left arm. He wept for his homeland.