He sat on the edge of his bed, running a hand over the empty sheets before sitting forward and leaning his elbows on his knees. He took in the walls festooned with lasergraphs of him shaking hands with the galaxy's various leaders – the tentacled face of Jaskar Hegren of the Sygar system, Ilir-the-Grand, self-proclaimed king of the Eresgan system, the beautiful face of Uthra Suli, duchess of Tranqua, amongst others – the blank vidscreen on the wall showed his own ageing, stubbled and scarred face staring gloomily back at him.
He noticed the gleam of the medal in his hand and looked down at it. “Hero of the Pokkren System”, it said. His eyes burned into the mocking golden circle, his face turning into a scowl as he tossed the meaningless metal at the nearest wall, cracking one of the lasergraphs in the process.
A hero? he thought, and what is that worth? Your friends are either dead or have left you, your family don't talk to you any more and the only reason you continue to fight is because there's nothing else left to do.
All the medals in the hundreds of worlds. All the undeserved gratitude from kings and the like. Everything. He would give up absolutely everything to go back to his simple life with Faith and the kids.
But they wouldn't even recognise the shell of a man, the monster, that he had become.
To his face, his crew merely called him 'captain' as they saluted hollowly. But behind his back, mistakenly believing he wouldn't have eyes and ears everywhere on his own vessel, that same crew believed the shadow of the Reaper followed him everywhere he went.
Some even believed that Death was somehow looking out for him.
He had lost friends. Good men and women. He had survived the uprising on Advent One, which some had unofficially named “the second Vietnam” as it was brutal and bloody, no side had won. It was a pointless war that spilled more blood than Old Earth's four World Wars combined, all over such trivial matters as political agendas.
Politicians were the reason that Kowalski, Janos, Chris and Ulrich were dead. Politicians were the reason that his soul had died on that godforsaken rock, cradling poor Skylar in his arms as she bled out from a pointless gunshot wound in that pointless fucking war.
He snapped back to the present, making himself breathe deeply to calm his shaking body. Every fibre of his being wanted to reach for a fix of the painkillers, numb the headache he was feeling in his temples and send him gliding on a wave of euphoria – no matter how fake.
Maybe it was time to pack in this life, hand in his resignation to the Council and retire to that old cabin in Canada. Old Earth was almost inhospitable now, one giant frozen ball after the biggest scientific blunder in history – a plan to reverse global warming that backfired in the most epic way, leaving humanity's only option to leave the planet and settle elsewhere. But he could still settle back on Old Earth, his cabin was still standing in the deeps snows and raging blizzards.
Just like he was still standing, despite all the gunfire and explosions that should have killed him like it had his friends.
He sat forward on his bed, rubbing at the stubble before cradling his face in his hands and exhaling loudly into his palms. He knew retiring wasn't an option. He was too far gone for that now.
He stood as the 'mission go' alarms wailed through the ship's corridors. He stepped into the dark, Mark IV combat suit, all augmented Kevlar weaves and Titanium-coated plating, and checked the magazine in his modified Kalashnikov ZK 47 – not an official Kalashnikov, but made to resemble the old AK 47 made so popular at the end of the twentieth.
“Let's see if Death has the balls to claim me this time,” he breathed as the door slid shut behind him.