Sleep deserted him that night, and left him paralysed in the chasm between consciousness and unconsciousness. He lay bolt-straight on the bed, wrists and ankles crossed as if they were bound with rope. His fingers twitched: first his trigger finger, then the rest; the jagged nails of his thumbs scraped the skin from calloused fingertips. Although his leaden eyelids remained closed, his eyes saw the fires.
It was many years ago when a younger Iskander stood in the main hall of the Kalaakiota Assembly Plant IV. Enraged fires piped billows of smoke through ventilation ducts. Emergency damage control had been sabotaged prior to the attack, causing the scorching fumes to choke and smother all personnel in the facility. Of it being an attack, there could be no doubt. The "accidental" ignition on the assembly floor, the sabotaged damage control, the simultaneous murder of the plant manager, the theft of blueprints from the company safe - it was a meticulously planned attack but who would have sought such a tragedy? Sukuuvestaa Corporation was the obvious choice - they were historical rivals. The Fiend? The arch-terrorist targeted pharmaceutical factories, not weapon manufacturing plants. Guristas?
Iskander pondered these things as he walked briskly from the facility manager's office, a rifle casually resting in the crook of his arm. He walked, not ran, treading carefully to avoid stepping on the dead and the dying. He checked his rebreather. His filter had another half hour before expiry. The other factory workers were not so fortunate. KK-issued rebreathers lasted only half an hour...
Iskander's still had another half-hour left.
He was lying motionless on his bed. The smoke from that day's incident had burnt his eyes, damaging them irrevocably and leaving the skin around the socket nightmarishly wrinkled and deformed. Instead of eyes, Iskander had top-grade ocular implants, they were subtle artificial organs resembling normal human eyes but on closer inspection, the inner machinery was observable. Beside these eyes and the capsuleer socket at the base of his cranium, Iskander had no other visible implants. Without conscious thought, his jaw started to grind side to side, left to right. His real teeth had for a long time been replaced with artificial teeth - ones he could grind endlessly. The grinding was now a habit, an effect of countless years of hard drug abuse. Although Iskander had long foregone the use of the recreational 'Crash' powder, he was addicted to the legal synthetic version: the synth Crash booster.
Iskander was suspended in the viscous fluid of his capsule. While he was physically numb, being mentally connected to his ship kept him alert and awake. His Manticore-class Stealth Bomber, fitted with the latest and most classified cloaking systems on loan from the Crielere R&D division, lay in wait tens of kilometers from a stargate. The stargate roared to life with a golden flash of sunlight as yet another traveller passed through. He had chosen a busy system to set up his insidious ambush, but this would be the spot his mark would come through. The gate flashed again. Another stargate activation, another pilot utilising the jump gate network, another man going home.
In the tubes of his torpedo launchers, three miniaturised 'Doom' Inferno torpedoes waited impatiently. They were the grand prizes of a bet made with a living incarnation of the Devil. A bet made between Iskander and the Master Bounty Hunter Kyokan. A bet Iskander won and Kyokan lost. Kyokan: a mercenary most infamous for his penchant for destruction. He was one of the finest, a name that would be long remembered in the Legion among heroic legends such as the Magdesh family or the Niaga brothers.
Iskander was grinding his teeth. No astral observer would ever see, but in his capsule Iskander's face grimaced and twitched, contorted with a repressed urge to just simply pull the trigger, to unload, to fire. After all, it was easier than firing a real firearm. There was no trigger to pull and unlike the inner mechanics of a rifle, Iskander could mentally manipulate his weapon system. All it took was a simple mental command:
Killing came easy, distant and remote. The feel around the second knuckle of a trigger offered more temptation than to merely just fire on an unspoken word. Being a capsuleer required a different kind of discipline, training and routine. For Iskander routine was statistics: ammunition loaded, baseliners killed, muzzle velocity, capsuleers killed, missile acceleration gradient, ships destroyed, ISK paid, ISK destroyed. Statistics calmed him down and focused his hyperactive mind.
His cold dead heart beat slow and steady.
Without warning the inbound stargate roused to life and activated several times in quick succession. Two cargo freighters jumped in and began navigating away immediately to avoid collision with traffic coming up behind. Behind the security-hires for the two freighters was a stream of civilian class shuttles. Then the stargate flashed again, and the target's shuttle emerged from the abyss. Deactivating his cloaking field device, he began to acquire a hard lock on the target shuttle as it meandered through a queue of travellers. He hesitated to fire. Any incoming fire would cause tragically high levels of collateral damage but soon a man, his wife and his son would cross the border and be safe from his wrath and the wrath of his employer.
Iskander heard the funeral bells tolling as the ship's computer bleeped to warn him that he was not cloaked. He was visible and the window of opportunity was closing. He could load Scourge-class missiles, whose highly penetrative warhead would shred the shuttle from the inside out with minimal collateral. This would require repositioning, and also the luxury of time, which Iskander simply did not have.
The target began to swim away further from the Manticore and into safety. He could not restrain himself any longer.
The psychic outburst caused the electronic ignition systems to spit out the first salvo of 'Doom' torpedoes with venomous vengeance. Hemmed in front and back by traffic, the target was trapped in a kill zone. Three missiles soared towards the convoy of ships, creating spiralling contrails in space. Each missile expertly guided by hand detonated on mark sending a typhoon of fire rippling through space. Iskander looked on dispassionately as the shuttle, for a brief flicker, glowed white hot as the blistering heat washed over it before evaporating from view entirely.
A man, a woman, a child. Vaporised.
Collateral? Iskander did not care. CONCORD police sirens wailed, but even before DED special forces began to arrive on the scene Iskander had already vanished, warping away into the emotionless darkness of space and slipping out of system through a collapsing wormhole.
The communications terminal beside Iskander's bed rang twice, casting its disembodied female voice into the room.
Iskander did not leap to his feet, nor do anything more than force his drowsy eyes open. He breathed in deeply and exhaled nasally.
His inaction was not rooted in drowsiness or torpor. He breathed again. The pain was still there. An inner pang rising up from the gut and to the heart. His breathing began to become shallower, as his previously calm heart began to beat briskly. An old friend had come back to Iskander, and his name was Doubt.
Doubt and fear of death are the feelings a pilot has as he navigates his way from the relative security of low-security space and into the Pure Blind region. He stumbles in the dark, lost and pursued till he finds his way to the renowned system, 5ZXX-K. It was a beacon for many damned souls all searching for new purpose, new life, a new identity.
But doubt is not the first feeling a fugitive feels as he triumphantly steps out of his ship and onto the docking bay of Mordu's Legion Testing Facility Planet V, Moon 17. In fact, hope is the predominant feeling, as the fugitive peers out of the shuttle car's windows, gazing out into the station's vast promenades and what will be his new home. He has hope that he is free and safe, along new brethren who will accept him for who he is, and who will shield him from his pursuers.
The moment the shuttle car landed in front of the main administration building, and a young frightened Iskander stepped out and began to walk the fateful march up to the registration desk, hope hid away and was replaced by doubt. He stepped into line and joined a queue of fatigued, ghostly men. They wore their stolen dirty clothes loosely, hanging about them like misfits. Gaunt and with glazed eyes, they were a far cry from Iskander who stood up straight, chin up, and although it had been a few days of use, his clothes were respectable and clean.
"Of which category, do you fall into?" This was the first question asked. Taking an old-fashioned paper form in hand, Iskander looked at the boxes and classifications: Criminal A (minor offence), Criminal B (major offence), Criminal C (war background), Civilian, and last of all, Military.
Iskander was no petty thief or murderer. He may have pulled a trigger but he was no killer.
"Civilian." He replied, maintaining a straight face.
The administrator merely looked up bemused and simply asked.
"Show me your hands." After a pause and inspecting the scabs on Iskander's hands, he concluded. "No civilian comes to the Legion with clean hands."
Defeated, Iskander replied honestly with resignation, hesitating to eject each syllable from his lips, "Criminal B."
"Welcome to the Legion. We will protect you."
"We will protect you," were the words venerable Father of the Legion, Muryia Mordu spoke to him.
If protection meant attaching to his neural cortex capsuleer-class implants and then later an upgrade to classified infantry-level capsuleer technology, then yes the Legion had done him great charity. If protection meant being sent around the universe gun in hand with just one reserve clone back-up deep in the Legion's headquarters, then yes, the Legion protected his interests.
Iskander rose from the bed and activated holographic communications. Muryia Mordu, eccentric and fragile in his old age, appeared coloured electronic blue before Iskander dressed soberly in a lounge suit with a funereally black tie.
"You have instructions for me."
"Yes, go as a messenger. It is time. Go as an angel."
Iskander closed communications, took his final shot of Crash booster and left all his worldly possessions in his quarters behind, taking only the clothes on him and concealed, a bayonet, pistol and a grenade.
He boarded a planetary shuttle to the surface of New Caldari Prime, fingering the detonation ring of the plasma grenade tucked into his sleeve. A young married man with his wife and child sat in the seats opposite him. The blissful child admired the stellar view from the shuttle's windows, oohing and aahing as the shuttle began to descend.
Iskander's target was in the far end of the shuttle, flanked by bodyguards. He was an Amarrian consular and wore the robes of one, his hood masked most of his face but Iskander knew from the high-profile security that this was his man.
When the shuttle landed, Iskander pushed and shoved his way to close the widening distance between him and his target. He manhandled the husband and his wife much to their annoyance and continued to stalk the consular through the busy landing bay. When he was so close he could smell the Amarrian fragrance, Iskander primed the grenade and placed his hand on the pistol ready to draw.
Killing came easy, but this was close, personal and intimate.
Iskander inhaled once then sprinted at the consular, drawing and readying his pistol in the same motion. He elbowed one of the Household bodyguards, knocking him aside. Jabbing the pistol in between the ribs of the consular he fired one shot into the heart then activated the plasma grenade.
Killing came easy, but how was dying?
Iskander never was woken up to find out.