The ringing in his ears died down by the time Nick opened his eyes. He was still dangling, fastened to the gunner’s chair. Suspended in the hemisphere under the gun turret, it was not the best place for sleep. His arms and legs were numb, his head was buzzing, but for the first time in many weeks he seemed to have slept. No cries, laments, moans, conversations. Nobody stumbles over you, nobody wakes you up to beg for food. In the reflection of a silent instrument panel, he was met by a still unfamiliar look, lost in a pile of dirty hair.
The Doomed Flotilla greatly changed him, probably even more than the army had had once. Was there even anything real inside, beneath all that filth?Was there something left of that naive boy?
It’s been four hours since the attack. Sooner or later, someone would want to know what the gunner was still doing at his post. Nick unfastened the straps and fell to the floor with the grace of an engineering frigate. At least one thing was simple at the station — the floor is where artificial gravity’s pulling you. Even if it used to be the ceiling of some unfortunate ship. Nick went down the ladder and moved towards the hangar. There he found the deserved reward for his effort — half a protein ration.
The gunner was casually walking along the station’s contorted corridors, winding between improvised beds, carefully, but quickly stepping over the bundles of cable and people. People lived on shelves, cluttering the corridors of the station, in technological hatches and niches. The ability to straighten his legs on his bed was considered a luxury. Only the elite — onboard engineers and scientists could count on some kind of a separate cabin — they were allowed to live in rescue pods. Nick did not even dream of such a privilege. When he was just beginning his service in the Imperial Infantry, they were specifically taught not to be afraid of enclosed spaces. But even with this preparation he was uneasy at the station.
During the Fall, people fled the Empire sectors to escape the outbreak of Liu Virus — the biomorph virus. They used whatever they could to escape. Most of the ships were not suitable for interstellar jumps. Few survivors were still trying to survive — plotting courses to each other with minimal fuel expenses, dismantling the dead ships, building nameless semblances of stations. There was a whole flotilla of such stations and ships. And everyone on them is doomed to a long and painful death, because of lack of oxygen, water, food or everything at once. At some point, someone thought of calling this all the ‘Doomed Flotilla’. Not the most cheerful name, but it reflected the essence of things.
Nick himself did not want to remember how he ended up here. All his colleagues, most likely, were long gone. And he survived, if what was happening to him at the station, could be called a life. By his own cowardice, thanks to vile treachery, the first-rate Gunner Sergeant Nicholas Finigan, was trapped in this accursed tin can with hundreds of people more worthy than himself.
Inside the hangar, Nick sighed with a kind of relief. It was really spacious and it helped drive away heavy thoughts.That’s why Nick liked to look into the emptiness of space through the windows of the gun turret. New pieces of the station were being built in the hangar. They were assembled from ordinary space debris, then to be driven outward in tugs and at least fixed to one of the station’s numerous modules. The latest addition was the ‘garden’, where survivors tried to grow at least some food. It was terrible to think what the ground consisted of.But for the time being there was normal food at the station. At the far wall of the hangar was a ‘refrigerator’ — a Federation transport with a load of rations, which saved hundreds of times more lives at the station than all the weapon systems combined. There, the promised reward was waiting for Nick. But before he reached his goal, another ship drew his attention, laying on the hangar, next to the gate. The design seemed to be Jericho, but… for a few seconds Nick tried to understand where he could’ve seen it…
- Oh no, - Nick whispered, and then cried out: -You’re all crazy! What if it’s contagious? What are you doing!
It was one of those ships that attacked the station today. The hull had torn openings from a kinetic gun, but it had more than that - a flock of engineers with circular saws and hydraulic scissors was already zealously cutting the vessel. Only one of them broke away from work and looked at Nick. It was a pretty tough little girl about twenty years old. He thought her name was Sam.
- Well, obviously, it’s not a biomorph, - she shrugged.
To be continued…