The Journey of Life – Ch 16 – One More Step

The rain that fell on Targrav carried carried both the cold touch of the day’s misery and the warm memories of past delights. Underneath his gloved fingers, black sand glittered like each grain held a nebula of stars. The faintly shining beach ran down to brilliant azure waves that lit the stormy night with a magical glow that had nothing to do with any spell cast by a sapient.

Targrav had never been to a beach like the one he lay broken on. Across the million, or billion, worlds in the galaxy, he doubted another like it even existed. Despite that, the serenity of that barren stretch called back memories from his earliest childhood.

Midnight swims on a far less lustrous beach with Mera, his best friend and earliest love. Thanks to her, even those early memories sparkled with a light to match the luminance of the otherworldly shore before him.

The rain did nothing to dim the glow of the ocean, or the sparkle of the sands, just as a far distant rain, long before, had done nothing to dim the time he and Mera had spent together. He couldn’t help thinking about her as the warmth in his body faded and a darkness with no connection to the night closed ever inwards around him.

She was above him, above the clouds, above even the night itself, safe and jetting across the vast reaches of warp space. That thought filled him with a fierce heat that the cold rain and the puncture wounds could never touch. It was a heat that could carry his spirit on forever, but unfortunately it offered no support to his body.

The crash had been terrible. They’d hit a storm in warp space that was born from no natural source. Their ship had been forced back to normal space at the perfect spot for the ambush. A distant system, a warp gate close in to a planetary moon. Optimal conditions for attackers to lay in wait for passerby.

Targrav shuddered at the memory of their first sighting of the pirate fleet. Three ships. Broad beamed and running under pure Anima power. No celestial sails for these vessels, just iron plates and engines of fire. Atop the decks of the marauders lay a motley collection of guns and shields that had been scavenged off a dozen better vessels. In place of proper enchanted runes, the pirates had carved crude sayings and blasphemies, as much to inspire themselves as to shock their prey.

Targrav flinched as the storm turned violent. Lightning crashed down from the heavens and split the sea, darkening the waters where it struck them. Thunder followed, booming over the beach and rumbling through Targrav’s flesh to shake his bones. The rage of the clouds was right above him, the storm seeming incensed that he clung to life, despite his injuries and exposure to the elements.

The pirates had screamed in a similar rage. The craft Mera and Targrav flew couldn’t out match even one of the pirate ships, much less three of them. It was a comfortable little bubble boat meant to float on the seas of space and convey the couple to their destination. Mera’s curses couldn’t make it fly faster or dodge more nimbly, but her skills as a pilot almost pushed the little craft’s performance far enough.

As an enchanting engineer, Targrav had known the moment his wife had run to her limit. There were too many bolts, too many beam attacks, too much in the sky to avoid and not enough shielding to cover them. The cascading failure of their meager defenses had left him with only an instant to act and only a single path that he could see.

Warp engines store a tremendous amount of anima. Even for little bubble boats. Without the proper constraining circles, it was still possible to open a portal to warp space but the results were volatile at best. Targrav didn’t have any functional constraining circles to rely on but he also didn’t care if the end result of the transit spells that he cast yielded “energetic” results. All that mattered to him was that the ship’s piloting platform be left in a state where it was capable of acting as a life pod.

In terms of that, every hour of practice he put in, every boring book he ever studied, and every miserable test he ever prepared for finally paid off. The warp portal formed flawlessly. Inside its volume the storm of enemy fire died away, whisked into the aether by the warp portal’s exposed skin.

For a brief moment Targrav felt hope flair that he might reach the flight deck in time but before he could take even a single step in that direction, the warp spell failed cataclysmically, as unbounded warp spells always do.

The explosion rent the bubble ship in half, with the flight deck and what was left of the engines rocketing into warp space and far beyond the reach of the pirates when the engineering deck and the rest of the ship were shot in the other direction, down to the surface of the moon the pirates had made their base on.

It was not an easy descent or an easy landing. The remains of the ship included too many small, sharp objects moving at too high a velocity. Even with the protection of his enviro-suit, Targrav had not been spared.

But neither had the pirates.

The damage the exploding warp portal did to the bubble boat was trivial compared to the effect it had on the three warships.

The pirates were greedy, where proper military tactics were to engage warp capable targets at range, they’d all raced towards the bubble boat, eager to be the first to board, and the first to claim the spoils of plunder.

All three of the warcraft paid for that. Their shields were woefully inadequate to repel a blast of the magnitude that hit them and each popped like a soap bubble. The iron plating they were armored with didn’t fare any better, crumpling to foil and shattered slivers of metal which would have been a danger if any of the pirates had survived being popped and crumpled and shattered themselves.

In the wake of the warp portal’s silent explosion in normal space, there had been only isolation. The remains of the bubble boat had fallen to the surface of the moon, inertial dampening spells struggling to retain their coherency until the impact with the surface dissipated them in one final burst.

The spell burst had saved Targrav from the trauma of the crash landing, a fact for which he would gratefully write a long and heartfelt endorsement for the bubble boat’s manufacturer, except that he could tell from the pain in his side and the numbness in his legs that he wasn’t likely to write anything for anyone again.

All in all though, he felt good. The pain was there but as long as he lay still and let the rain wash over him, the cold helped numb it away. He could picture drifting off to sleep under the rolling, roaring drone of the cloud choked sky. Sleep seemed peaceful and eternal sleep even more so. All he had to do was close his eyes, listen to the thunder and rest peaceful in knowing that Mera was safe.

Pushing himself to a sitting position was agony. Sheer, pointless agony. He was stranded with no ship, no food, no anything on an unexplored moon that was off the standard warp lines and unlikely ever be visited again.

He tried to stand and fell over, fresh waves of pain radiating from the stabbing pain in his side. From his new position, helmet down in the sand, Targrav noticed the faint scent of ozone mixed with the salty tang of the ocean.

The pain was bad but the scents were much worse. The enviro-suit was supposed to be sealed.

Targrav held his breath and looked for the hole but there wasn’t “one” to find. The suit was ripped in a hundred places and the helmet’s visor was missing more pieces than it retained.

On a more positive note, he decided, the air hadn’t killed him in a single breath. Under the circumstances, that didn’t seem to leave him much choice, so Targrav drew in another lungful of air. If the pirates lived here, Targrav hoped the moon’s atmosphere wouldn’t contain anything too toxic. When he didn’t immediately start coughing or choking, he counted the gamble as a victory.

In a few moments, the pain became more manageable and Targrav rolled onto his side. The black nebula sand spread softly beneath him, forming a welcoming bed.

Or a grave.

The thought pushed Targrav back to his knees.

However comfortable the beach was, he couldn’t stay out in the rain.

Strewn around him were pieces of the bubble boat. Bits of glass-steel and fragments of wood. Each was valuable even in their present state, but the thing that caught Targrav’s eye was the smooth and almost intact observation dome from the bubble boat that lay half buried in the sand.

He and Mera had spent many nights together in that tiny space, watching the stars and planning for their future. The cold space outside had done nothing to steal away the warm words they shared or cool the heat of their touch.

Targrav rose again, slower this time, but even more determined. The transparent dome would be cool, the warmth it once held forgotten in destruction of the bubble boat. Even if it was as cold as the rain though, it could protect him. Provide shelter from the wind. Hold in what little body temperature he had left.

The trek across the sands was no more than fifty feet, but it felt like a journey of hours.

With each step, Targrav asked himself what the point of continuing was. Each moment he bought himself was another moment of pain. He knew if the end came like this, if he struggled against it, he’d leave nothing but a messier corpse.

The wind confirmed that belief by spearing through the rents in his enviro-suit and chilling him to the point where he was left trembling.

So much easier to lay down in the soft, inviting sands.

With one wobbling step after another he pushed on though.

The observation dome called to him. It held more than the promise of warmth. It held memories of the future. The one he planned to see with Mera.

Searing pain so bright it eclipsed Targrav’s vision burned through him. He was not all right. Not by any stretch.

But he was alive.

Step by step, faltering, weakening, but always advancing he continued until he rested his hand on the glass-steel dome and discovered it was warm enough to almost burn him through the enviro-suit’s glove.

The ship’s heat had been lost, but the fire of re-entry still lingered in the durable material.

Heartened by that stroke of luck, Targrav eased himself to the ground gently and pulled himself into the dome.

It was shelter. It was all that he had left of home. It was enough for moment.

He rested, blackness sweeping over him for the blink of an eye that lasted either a few seconds or a few hours. However long it was, Targrav felt some of his anima had been restored by the time he opened his eyes. His wounds had worsened, but with the energy he’d recovered and his minimal training in healing magics, he was able to halt the degradation and temporarily deal with the worst of the injuries. Even that small exertion though drained him to the point where sleep overwhelmed him again.

In his dreams, he saw himself, alone on a tiny, forgotten pebble. His struggles for life condemning him to an eternity of loneliness and isolation. Without Mera, he wasn’t sure why he’d fought so hard to continue on.

The storm was raging when he woke next. And the sun was shining.

Targrav took several seconds to fit those two things together in his drained and pain-addled mind before successfully reframing the first of those impressions.

The storm wasn’t raging.

A ship was descending with full thrusters blaring as it screamed into a landing position.

Targrav thought about the pirates and tried to rise. He might have to fight them off.

The ship was on the ground when he regained his senses from falling again and people were running towards him. He struggled to stand once more, but before he could there were reassuring voices and soft hands turning him over so that he could breath more easily.

“This is him,” a woman said. “The enviro-suit matches the description Mera gave us.”

At the mention of his wife’s name Targrav felt new life stir in him. It was either that or the influx of healing anima that the woman sent surging through his body.

“My name is Ilya,” the woman said. “I’m a healer from the Imperial fast response ship Horizon Breaker and we’re here to rescue you.”

“How did you know?” Targrav asked, his voice rough with the damage from sand and wind and rain.

“We got your wife’s rescue beacon signal,” Ilya said. “She jury-rigged it to transmit back both of your locations. Crazy thing I guess. Rescue beacons are the last thing in the world you want to mess around with.”

“Is she safe?” Targrav asked.

“Sort of,” Ilya said.

“What do you mean?” Targrav asked.

“Well, she kind of kidnapped the rescue party we sent for her,” Ilya said. “And stole their ship. She’s about an hour behind us and we’d like you to help us talk her into not breaking any more galactic laws in trying to rescue you.”

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