Unsent Letters – Reginald to Kat on the Liberation of Huola

Dearest Kat,

Huola is liberated. To have seen the ridiculous amount of righteous firepower expounded upon the Infrastructure Hub was to see the wrath of God. It was an awe-inspiring display of destruction that finally liberated the system–a system that has been in Minmatar hands for almost one thousand days. I am proud to count myself among the few who braved the complexes for hours so that the Infrastructure Hub could finally be made vulnerable.

But my dearest, I find it difficult to express my utter horror. I can offer no excuse for my actions except that I was ignorant of what I had become–a mindless tool in a more sinister plot. The following freighter was destroyed, its cargo consisted of prisoners of war and their contraband war materials. We were told that they were cleared for execution. And yet… To see my deed would be to know my pain.

Kill: Naxie (Fenrir)

Innocents. 87 innocent deaths. And I took part in their demise. Although I took part in the rescue operations, I failed to find any of the survivors, which I hope have been recovered by other members of the militia.

I feel used, as a child might be. One who doesn’t understand why such cruelty need exist in a world that seems ever darkening.

I feel hollow.

I’m sorry for troubling you with my ramblings.

Yours,
Regi

A Chance Encounter 1

He was nervous. He had been nervous since he had returned to Amamake from Tzvi with pastries for breakfast; he had been nervous since since they had left Amamake for Myyhera; he had been nervous when the shuttle touched down at the landing pad; he had been nervous when they got into the car that would take them to the Manor.

And as the car pulled to a stop in front of the Manor, he was still nervous.

“Are you nervous?” He turned to Kat as a small contingent of servants started making their way towards the vehicle.

She smiled back at him, “Why would I be nervous?”

He liked that about her, her calm demeanor. The car came to a complete stop and then the driver opened the rear passenger door. Reginald squeezed Kat’s hand, managing a laugh, “Good, I’ll be nervous for both of us then.”

He stepped out of the car into the late autumn sunlight of Myyhera IV and offered her his hand politely. She took his hand graciously as she stepped out, her green eyes and copper hair vibrant against the grays and browns of the estate.

She laughed, “It’s not like anything bad can happen, you know.”

He wished, in that moment, he had been more thorough preparing her. He looked over at the servants distractedly, then said, “I suppose. Do you have any questions?”

She returned a puzzled expression, “About what?”

“My family?”

She shrugged, “Is there anything I should know before I meet them?”

“They’ll have questions for you. Um, you should assume all of the smiles are fake. And, when we’re with family members,” He hesitated, then continued, “I won’t be able to hold your hand or display affection in general.”

“In fact,” He shot a glance towards the Manor windows, “I’m sure they’re watching us right now.”

Kat chuckled, “Alright, I’ll behave.”

Reginald smiled, then couldn’t help but laugh a little, “You’re a natural.” He offered Kat his arm, “If you would be so kind, my lady?”

She accepted his arm graciously, then the pair started to make their way into the Manor. The Manor was modest as far as Holder properties went–it was a two-story brick construction in the countryside, outside of Myherra IV, District 2’s population center. The air was crisp around the temperate forests of the estate. In addition to the Manor, servants’ housing was set up in the east of the property, while gardens and a chapel adorned the area behind the Manor. The servants looked nervous as the pair entered the antechamber–non-familial guests were a rarity.

After stepping inside, he inquired with one of the servants about the family gathered there for Kat’s presentation. He had requested it be kept as informal as possible–the family having gathered in the parlor as a result. As he scanned the list of names the servant provided, he breathed a sigh of relief. Although most of the names were members of the family that supported his claim, there was one name that was missing entirely.

“My sister isn’t here, the Lord be praised,” He muttered to Kat as he led her down a corridor towards the parlor.

Kat smiled slightly in response, “I guess that’s good.”

Her response was puzzling, but he chose not to pursue it–one engagement at a time. He stopped short of a pair of wooden doors that led into the parlor. He turned his head towards Kat, who was still on his arm. He took a deep breath, “Are you ready?”

She nodded.

He looked around the corridor to make sure it was empty. Satisfied, he gently caressed Kat’s cheek, turning her head gently towards his own. Once their eyes met, he closed his, then lightly brushed his lips against hers. After a moment, he broke the kiss then said softly, “Whatever happens in there, I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Kat smiled, “I know, don’t fret.”

“Okay.”

He took a deep breath, then opened the doors. As expected, his family was arrayed inside, made up of assorted relatives across various ages. The youngest present seemed to be close to twelve, their expressions polished for the occasion by their parents and guardians. At the same time, the immeasurably old watched through careful, conniving glances as Reginald entered the parlor with Kat. What had he brought her into?

The conversations in the parlor became quiet as his relatives examined them through their false and well-rehearsed smiles. Into the foreboding silence, he walked Kat, introducing her to each family member in turn. To her credit, Kat maintained a smile on her face throughout–he wondered if she had dealt with nobility in such a capacity before.

Finally, one of the older members present, his great aunt Ashessa, gave a long, drawn-out sigh, “Goodness gracious. Is this my funeral wake or a presentation?”

She reached out with wrinkled hands towards Katerina, smiling warmly, “Welcome to Myyhera, my dear.”

He caught Kat grinning impishly at the funeral wake comment, “Thank you ma’am, it’s a lovely planet.”

Ashessa continued to smile, “That boy’s arm will still be there when you return to it.” She pointed to a chair near her, “Please, sir. We have much to talk about.”

The atmosphere relaxed considerably, light conversation slowly returning. Kat laughed a little and sat in the indicated chair, looking like an obedient puppy for all gathered.

Reginald meant to say something, but Ashessa pre-empted him, sending him away towards a number of Sakakibara men. Of course, it would be about the finances regarding the POSes. He cast a worried glance over his shoulder to Kat, though she seemed to be in good hands as he was whisked away towards the opposite end of the parlor.

“Ashessa seems to like her,” A cousin laughed as he poured himself a drink in between comments on profitability in Saikamon.

Reginald kept glancing back towards the pair, distracted, “Yes, it would seem so.”

A distant uncle asked, “I’ve seen noble girls that carry themselves with less pride than that woman.”

Reginald glanced angrily towards him, starting to say, “Her name is–”

“Excuse me, my lord?”

Reginald stopped mid-sentence and turned to the source of the query–a servant.

“Yes?”

“A matter of importance, my lord.” The servant provided Reginald with a hand-written note.

Reginald took it with an annoyed expression, then his eyes widened. It was from one of L’s men–the family member in charge of a starbase in Saikamon had disappeared and the tower had gone dark.

Not here. Now now. 

“When did this happen?” Reginald asked the servant, completely expectant he would shoot the messenger.

The servant merely shrugged.

Reginald turned to the men around him–at short notice, he would need their help. It placed him at a massive disadvantage in regards to Kat, but there were few alternatives. His corporation was embroiled in the defense of Amamake and the siege of Huola. He’d need his family’s help to resecure the starbase.

“Gentlemen, please give me a few moments, then let’s move to my study.”

A few of the men voiced their assent as he brushed past them towards Ashessa and Katerina.

“… And I certainly hope Reginald is treating you properly. If he isn’t, let me know, and I’ll beat some sense into the boy.”

Kat laughed, “He is extremely proper, don’t worry.”

Reginald bowed in respect, “I’m sorry to interrupt Aunt Ashessa. Miss Tzestu, I apologize, but a matter requires my attention.

She smiled back at him, “Attend to it then, I will be quite alright here.”

He bowed again, “Thank you. I should be back shortly.” In reality, he didn’t know how long a private military action could take. He couldn’t let his anger or frustration show–he was the head of the family for a reason and he needed to demonstrate control.

“You see?” He heard Ashessa’s voice cut through the small gathering, “But I suppose it can’t be helped. His mother wasn’t finished preparing him when she left the family.”

Reginald stifled a response as he led the men towards his study. Even though the last thing he had heard was Ashessa’s voice, his mind echoed with his own.

“Whatever happens in there, I’ll be with you every step of the way.” 

Exhaustion

Location: Heart of Pyerite Proving Grounds, Saikamon

Everyone wanted to be a hero, a genius; to see what others could not or did not see. In doing so, they would elevate themselves above their peers and bask in the glory of discovery. The most common arena for such talents lay in Heart of Pyerite’s corps of engineers. The corporation boasted many ambitious engineers within its ranks, each one seeking to improve the effectiveness of a particular hull. There were myriad traits to consider and blend: versatility, cost-effectiveness, specialization, utility, firepower, staying power, agility, speed. But the Ametat and Avetat of any designer was to create an improvement that increased firepower and allowed a hull to sustain more damage while increasing its speed.

And yet, if Reginald had received ten ISK for every “improved” fit, he would have quadrupled the family fortune.

He was resting his head on his fist–a terrible position for posture but one he had picked up as habit in recent months. A lukewarm cup of tea sat untouched on his desk, the backdrop of the proving grounds behind him through a large observation window. He tried to maintain a look of interest as he listened to another bright-eyed engineer rattle off the benefits of adjusting the list of approved corporation doctrine ships to accommodate his design.

“… and as you can see, my design gets an additional forty meters per second in top speed. In conclusion, my design is faster, inflicts more damage, and can last on the battlefield longer than the current design.”

Reginald raised a brow as he finished. It was the dozenth or so in a long chain of suggestions that had inundated the corporation’s inbox, but it was rare for someone to be able to claim improvements in all three attributes.

“All right, let me see the modules,” Reginald managed a smile, mildly interested.

The engineer nodded then provided a list, “You need to use Imperial Navy Energized Adaptive Nano Membranes in order to reduce the stress on the CPU and I’ve also went with the Gistum B-Type…”

Reginald suppressed an urge to smash his face into his desk. It required a great deal of restraint, but that’s what his Holder upbringing was for. Restraint. Calculation. Self-control. He picked his words carefully.

“This is for an Omen, correct? Not the navy variant?”

“Yes! It will last longer, hit harder, and fly faster than anything the Minmatar can cobble together.”

“One of these ships is worth thirty of the current design.”

“Well, that’s true, but cost shouldn’t really be an issue when considering victory,” He added, “And if you think this Omen is durable, then wait until you see my Imperial Navy Slicer–the pilot would need a full understanding of Advanced Weapon Upgrades, the two Genolution implants, and an implant to increase powergrid, but with its DED-space armor modules, it makes for the best fleet brawling frigate in the warzone.”

Reginald massaged his temples. It was a wise man who said “The bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

He looked up at the engineer, then glanced down at the list in a show of interest, “Yes, I’ll send these to the fleet commanders and we should get back to you in due time.”

The engineer beamed, then strutted out of Reginald’s office like he had just defeated the Jovians at Vak’Atioth. Reginald wondered how far from reality the theoreticians actually were, laboring away in their laboratories, churning out “improvement” after “improvement.” No design, it seemed, lasted more than a few weeks before someone made a major “breakthrough.” Unfortunately, most of those consisted of removing propulsion modules or, as in this latest case, required a pricetag so large that the Minmatar would consider killing even one a major victory.

He stood up from his seat and wandered over to the observation window; outside were arrayed a number of vessels that had passed scrutiny. He wondered if Lady Lianne had the same issues in her own corporation, of crash program engineers vying for acclaim with their “ingenious” improvements to pre-existing designs. He wondered if she cared for their interests at all. She was a very difficult woman to read behind her blue eyes, noble expressions, and pretty smiles. His Holder upbringing constantly warned him of her duplicity and yet her actions seemed genuine enough.

As he watched two frigate test pilots duel each other in the proving grounds–no doubt checking the maneuverability of the Federation Navy Comet against the Imperial Navy Slicer–he felt worn. There were still things that needed to be taken care of that he simply hadn’t had the time to attend to–market orders in Jita, reaction towers that needed to be resupplied, mining installations that had to be checked for rogue siphon units, messages to answer, invitations to respond to, and, above all else, a campaign that required planning. All of that, however, was professional work.

In his personal life, issues were abounding–spreading like Drop addicts through an undercity. He could feel his family’s plots manifesting against him with his sister at the helm, leading them forward as their savior against her older brother’s detachment and indifference. L’s reports on their activities were becoming a little less detailed, a little less precise. And into all of that he was planning on bringing Katerina.

He felt selfish for the request. But it was the only way he knew how to protect her honor. His family’s approval, coupled with her own family’s, would allow him to make a public declaration that he was courting her, thus dispelling all erroneous claims of impropriety. He knew he had already acted improperly. Their interactions should have been in public or one of her family members should have observed them as a chaperone. And for this failing, he was forced to forgive Lady Lianne’s statement–even if only an outburst–that he had been “bedding” Kat. Inviting Kat to his quarters at Cerra Manor had been impulsive, a mistake, and he should have considered her honor and public image even if the precious moments they shared were innocent.

And then, far off in nullsec was Vlad. He felt too exhausted to even contemplate the possibility of apprehending the robot. What would become of it? But then, how many letters had he received from the families of the fallen? Each one implored him to take action.

He felt as if he hadn’t thought clearly in an eternity. His thoughts were jumbled, pulled to other corners of his mind before he could properly analyze them. Half-finished musings tormented him as new ones sprung up, the subjects always disjointed, their juxtaposition providing no rhyme nor reason.

He reached for the lukewarm cup of tea and took a sip.

It was cold.

Silence

She leaned back and listened.

::Static from a comms transmission::

“My lady, I have information for you of an incredibly pressing nature. I sent an agent to confirm suspicions but I didn’t think anything was amiss until my agent was kill–“

::Static::

[Naomi to crew] How did they detect us? We need to… NO! NOO!

::Static::

[Naomi to computer] Re-route all auxiliary power to the transmission!

[Crewmember] They’re boarding us! 

[Naomi again] Just a few more… 

[Gunshots, Footsteps, a Man’s Voice indistinctly, Naomi screaming]

::Static::

Naomi smiled at the fabrication. It certainly seemed convincing enough, and it had better be. She nursed the redness on her cheek by rubbing it gently, her hazel eyes glancing over the subordinate who struck her.

“Well done,” She nodded, “Send it to Lady Lianne.”

“And if it reaches your brother?” A technician asked.

She sighed, “Then Reginald will check for authenticity by visiting the transmission location.”

“But then he’ll know it’s false!”

She glanced back over to the men and women arrayed before her, loyalists she had gathered into a cabal to seize the Holder title from her brother. Her brother had always been proud of predicting moves and reading personalities–it was a false sense she cultivated in him from afar. In reality, he was little more than a fool. Perhaps one with brilliant insights and sparks of genius, but nonetheless still a fool. Unfortunately, his stupidity ran through the ranks of the Sakakibara family and their guardians.

She had chosen them not for their capacity to understand but for their dedication to her claim. It was a weak claim as long as Reginald was alive and well–his mother’s dowry had ensured the title would go to him, a title he had aimed to keep for eternity by becoming a capsuleer. Indeed, Reginald’s claim was based on law. But Naomi’s claim had been built on love.

Their father, Ishariel, had adored her to the utmost. And while the holdings and title in name went to Reginald, Ishariel had made it clear that Naomi was to be provided for with his final, sacred, and dying breaths. Nominally, Reginald was the head of the family. In reality, Naomi held sway over Sakakibara property and resources.

Her brother had moved swiftly against her power by establishing a listening tower in Saikamon, harnessing a “box” that intercepted transmissions from across the cluster. With it, he kept the untitled nobility of the family in check, preempting their stratagems and machinations–always at least one move ahead. For Naomi, that meant playing the role of caretaker for the Sakakibara properties and estates, a role she loathed.

But cracks existed in her brother’s sphere of influence. Her spies had managed to infiltrate his vaunted “Project DENT” information network, pinpointed the location of the tower, and made it vulnerable. It wasn’t difficult to find former slaves who wanted to do harm unto him, and so she unleashed Vuld and Crofton upon him.

Reginald, of course, had protocols in place to deal with such contingencies. He was by no means a moron. But while the physical threat was removed, the true victory lay in his paranoia. Naomi knew that to protect the box, he would seal himself away from it. And he had. For over a month he hadn’t been able to listen, to spy, to react. DENT operatives–the ones he used to keep the family in line–had no information support. They were alone and their vision was limited to what they saw with their own eyes. In one fell swoop she had made her brother blind and deaf, slowly picking off wayward agents one by one.

This next attack was a test to see if he had rebuilt his listening post.

“My lady,” A technician said, “Zealot-class vessel in-bound.”

Naomi provided a rare genuine smile. So he hadn’t rebuilt at all. If he had, his listening post in Saikamon would have been able to tell it was a fake within moments and instead of a ship, there would be a fleet to apprehend her for threatening him.

Maybe he had become arrogant? Complacent? Lazy? She doubted any of those were the truth. As she watched the Zealot make a quick survey of the area from the bridge of her cloaked Buzzard-class TES Silence, she wondered if her brother had changed. He was seeing that commoner after all. Was it love that was dulling him?

Speculation belonged in universities specializing in philosophy. She had ascertained her brother’s capabilities quite nicely. She brushed away a strand of hair and gave the order to leave the system. More worrisome was the trust Lady Lianne had in her older brother–she had hoped revealing a “Slave Breeding Facility” would have shaken that faith a little more. It was an underestimation but not a pressing one.

She was about to play the role of hostess on Myyhera IV. She tapped onto a console to bring up a long file on a particular pilot. As the Silence cut across space covertly and without delay, she reviewed the information. Every line made her grin. So, this was the woman her brother was infatuated with? How intriguing. She looked forward to meeting her, this woman with a meaningless name.

Katerina Tzestu.

Lecture

He was wearing a coat over a gray vest, his starched white collar squeezed by a formal black tie. The meeting had dragged on an additional hour and he had since taken to staring out of a window to admire the skyscrapers and highrises of Myherra IV’s District 2. He wondered if Kat would enjoy the place where he had grown up–a country estate a few hours outside of the urban center.

“My lord?”

Reginald turned, almost idly towards the speaker. NO45 shareholder meetings were always dull, dry, and boring. The corporation itself was small, but its shares were rather valuable, leading to only a few people actually owning any stake. As such, every month, Reginald got to interact with the bespectacled representatives of the high and mighty of the Bleak Lands. This particular meeting saw the table divided almost equally between the shareholders that owned public shares and representatives of the untitled nobility of the Sakakibara family. Notably, the seat reserved for his sister Naomi was unoccupied.

Typical.

“Yes?” Reginald tried to sound like he had been listening for the last hour.

The parliamentarian inquired, “We were hoping to confirm that the reaction towers in Saikamon have indeed gone offline?”

There was a murmur of discussion before the parliamentarian called for order. Reginald rolled his eyes. He went to great lengths to provide these men and women with accurate reports of the corporation’s assets.

He stifled a yawn before replying, “Yes, all but one of the towers have been taken offline.”

There was a wave of disapproval, followed by demands. Reginald weathered the storm calmly, taking note that the parliamentarian wasn’t even trying to quell their disputes. The family’s representatives were silent as tempers flared.

Finally, he raised a hand, “In light of the reaction towers being taken offline, my corporation has seized control of a number of mining installations throughout the warzone. We expect that these towers will pick up the slack with far less required manpower.”

As Reginald provided the estimated income numbers to the assembled, it was readily apparent that it wasn’t much. At their height, the combined reactions of the NO45 control towers were generating billions of ISK a month–billions that had gone into military assets. The additional towers, however, provided less than a full billion. At any rate, Reginald made it a point to expound on the corporation being able to take mining towers as a sign of maturity to lay the foundation for future financial endeavors.

This seemed to appease them, if only just.

He watched the representatives take their turns, bowing respectfully before filing out of the boardroom one by one. The table was strewn with papers–namely pages torn out of his reports, numbers and phrases angrily circled with red ink.

“That was pretty terrible,” L said from a seat in the corner.

“It’s not our worst month,” Reginald stood up, reviewing numbers he had already spent hours upon.

“No. But you promised capital ship replacement within six months of putting the towers up.”

Reginald winced at the hopeless ambition, “Yes, I know.”

L, the spymaster of Project DENT, walked over to the younger capsuleer, his eyes running over the sheets, “You’re distracted, aren’t you?”

Reginald didn’t like where the conversation was going, “We’re not talking about this.”

Suddenly L jerked violently on Reginald’s shoulder, then gruffly seized his collar.

“Unhand me!” Reginald snarled, feeling too much like a schoolboy being bullied.

“Understand. Your father was my friend. He asked me to look after you. When you go and bleed out on a terrace because some robot threatened your commoner girlfriend–that’s a problem.”

“She has a name!” Reginald lost his patience, but couldn’t force L to loosen his grip.

“Yeah, Katerina Tzestu. Her name is irrelevant and meaningless,” L said coldly, “There was a time you calculated everything. You could see moves ahead of your opponents and you didn’t walk blindly into traps. If she’s dulling your senses–”

Reginald stared back, his eyes blazing, “You wouldn’t dare.”

L finally let go, Reginald falling back onto the table in an undignified heap of dress clothes and papers.

“Fix yourself,” L started to walk away, “Or is your sister really more fit to rule?”

“Don’t act like you can–” Reginald started, but the boardroom was already empty.

He stood up to smooth the wrinkles out of his jacket, adjusting his collar back to its proper place. He took a deep breath. L wouldn’t have immediately switched sides in the internal feud–he was facing pressure from other family members. Reginald wasn’t expecting his family to move against him so soon. This had been a warning.

He couldn’t afford to show weakness. While he was only the nominal owner of the family’s properties–Naomi was guaranteed an income and those properties as places of residence according to their father’s will–as head of the family, he had a right to review and audit them. He normally took the time as a holiday–glancing over ledgers was far less stressful than managing control towers. He took out his neocom and sent a message to the head of the staff at his family estate on Myyhera IV. It was a simple message, written in the imperative.

“Expect two.”

Altercation – Waking Up

“Wakeyyyyyy wakeyyyyyyyy!”

Reginald’s eyes shot open at the sound of Red’s sing-song voice. When had Red shown up at the Manor’s medical facilities? He rubbed a throbbing headache out of his temples. That was strange considering that he hadn’t had a headache when he lay down for a simple mind-scan.

Everything was still blurry when he managed to smile nervously towards the ghost-like projection, “Hello Red, I have good news for you.”

It was only half good news and half bad news, of course. The good half was that he had retrieved her body–a child-sized humanoid drone. The bad half was that her toys were still in an orphanage in Dam-Torsad.

Red pouted her lips in response, “And I have bad news for you…”

Reginald furrowed his brows as he tried to stand, though, not feeling quite comfortable, he returned to sitting on the edge of the bed. He took the moment to glance over to Red. She seemed slightly different somehow, her ghostly legs dangling over the bed opposite his own. It bothered him that he couldn’t quite grasp what was different about her.

He shook off the feeling, “I’ve brought your body back from Mercy’s Keep. I’ll be working on it today…” He paused after realizing her response, “Bad news for me?”

Red lowered her head, her eyes transfixed on Reginald. She said sarcastically, “I know.”

At that moment, she hopped off of the bed, her feet tapping against the floor. Wait. Tapping? 

“See?” She smiled as she tapped over to Reginald’s bed and tugged at his hand.

Reginald felt the metal and plastic of the humanoid drone against his hand–the one that was sitting in pieces in his quarters. He was speechless. Red had to have either put it together or had another one lying around. Those were the only explanations.

Finally, he managed to utter, “But… how? It’s in pieces in my quarters. Did you put it together in the fifteen minutes I’ve been away?”

She shook her head, “Nu uh. It has been like, twenty hours. You died.”

He instinctively jerked his hand away from Red’s grasp, “What?! That–that doesn’t make any sense. I just put my head down for the mind-scan.”

Red frowned, “No. That was earlier. You died, Reginald. You died on the terrace. Vlad shot you.”

He ran his hand over his face, his breathing becoming rapid. A correspondingly accelerated beeping echoed from a monitor. He shook his head in disbelief, then finally laughed, “This is one of your jokes, isn’t it? Well,” He took several calming breaths then laughed nervously, “That was good. You really had me, there. So, did one of the servants help you with your body?”

Red pointed to a clock defiantly, “Look at the clock, did I change that too?” She walked over tot he window and pulled the blinds back, “And the sky? Did I make it dark too?!”

Truth was one of those things that the unbelieving party found difficult to grasp, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. For a second, his mind wondered if Red would gloat about being right–it was a childish thing to do, after all. Then again, Red was more mature than many of the capsuleers he had chanced to meet in New Eden. The second passed quickly, his neurons lurching forward into his postmortem mental checklist.

Do I need to update my clone? No, this is a soft clone. Good. All fingers. All toes. Vitals look… normal.

 Despite the calming effect the checklist was supposed to provide, he remained pale with realization, “No, that’s just–just–” He checked his hands and clothes a dozen times, “I lost twenty hours?” He turned towards Red again, his gaze fearful,, “I died?”

Red responded matter-of-factly, “You did. And Vlad killed you.”

His mind flooded with a thousand questions, only barely managing to select the important ones, “Why? How?”

Red shrugged, “I only just heard about it, and came to look for you.” She settled back onto the bed, “Did you bring me the other stuff?”

“So you mean it just happened?” He asked, really only to himself rather than for confirmation.

After a while, he realized Red asked him a question. He responded, but his tone was tangential, distracted, “No, the other stuff isn’t here yet.”

“Oh,” Red sighed dramatically. After a while, she asked, “Yes, it just happened a little while ago. Do you want to see it? I can get the surveillance logs for you?”

Recognizing Red’s disappointment, he said, “I’m sorry, I know where they are though.” He took a deep breath, “But, yes, I’d like to see the surveillance logs.”

Red picked up Reginald’s neocom from the bedside table and tapped away. Reginald found it somewhat interesting that they now had something in common–they were both using “new” bodies. He corrected himself–technically, Red’s body was an old one rather than a new one. If something is so old to have been forgotten, is it possible for it to be new again? Then again, he had no idea how far Red’s memory went back–her attention span sometimes seemed that of a six-year-old, but her memories were often as clear as a security drone’s footage. She handed him the neocom.

Speaking of which.

Reginald handled the neocom with trepidation. He had never watched himself die before. It was disconcerting enough to see his corpse flying out in space, but to watch that life end? Some philosophers would argue that the life didn’t end. But he disagreed. This part of him had lived a life. It had lived a life twenty hours beyond his current one, twenty hours that he would never live again. He wondered if that Reginald had had the same thoughts, desires, fears. He wondered if the man he was about to watch die had–he paused for a moment, then continued with the thought–had loved Kat. He shook his head. There were more pressing questions at hand. As much as it pained him, Kat would have to wait.

Red climbed up onto the bed next to him to watch. He considerately angled the neocom so that she could see, though he was certain she had already seen it. All the same, it seemed like the proper thing to do. He hit the “play” icon and the scene of his death played out before him from the perspective of a watchful security drone.

He nearly laughed at his stupidity, though looking back on it, it was certainly what he would have done. Vlad had threatened Kat–that was more than enough to send him over the edge onto a suicide mission. Maybe that was something he should work on. His eyes scanned the datapad intently as he watched as Vlad ruined his dominant hand, then waited on bated breath as his deceased self stood up defiantly. Would he have been able to keep going?

For Kat, yes.

He was surprised, watching the scene now, that the deaths of his men seemed like afterthoughts. But the idea of Kat being, of all words, ‘abused,’ angered him immensely. His gripped tightened as he watched himself fire a single round into the back of Vlad’s head, a useless, futile gesture. And then Vlad shot a knife into his heart. Reginald swallowed as he watched himself start to bleed onto the Terrace–he could also swear he felt the blade in his heart as he sat on the bed with Red, but he knew that wasn’t possible. It was his way of feeling empathy for the man who lost his life.

Red’s brows furrowed when Vlad bent down to whisper something to the dying Reginald.

“What did he say?” She asked, curious.

Reginald’s interest was also piqued, so he rewound the video and raised the volume, making adjustments so that the video zoomed in on Vlad leaning over the helpless man.

“You shouldn’t have done that. Now you die like your men,” The robot said, almost vindictively.

Red frowned, “I wonder what he meant by that.”

Reginald knew exactly what it meant. It was a confession, a vengeful one conducted over Reginald’s helpless final moments, but a confession nonetheless. He grit his teeth in anger at the gesture. Vlad had been playing with him like a toy, then had gloated over his victory.

“He…  He did kill them.”

Red offered reason, “He didn’t say that. He said you would die like they died. And you did die. But he didn’t say he made them die, right?”

Of course. A child’s wisdom. Reginald tried to counter “But how would he have known?”

Red outpaced him, “Everyone knows your men died?”

The exchange prompted Reginald to look at it more objectively. There were connections, some form of evidence he could draw upon. He tapped his fingers on the datapad absentmindedly, then made the requisite commands to view information on the unsolved murders.

“But they were killed by knives,” He glanced at Red, “Do you think they’ve already moved my body?”

“Yup. It is here in the morgue. I went there first, cause I just wanted to see,” She kicked her feet against the bed railing, “It’s all bloody and stuff.”

Reginald smothered a disgusted look, “Would you mind taking me there? If the knife matches that of the other murders, then we’ll have a stronger case against Vlad.”

He stood up, acclimating to his new legs.

Red hopped off of the bed, “Kay. But it’s kinda scary there.” She tilted her head and looked up at him with wide, blue, innocent eyes, “And there’s a ghost in there too!”

She added, watching him wobble, “Can you walk?”

Reginald tried to look normal, “A ghost? Well, this place is full of surprises, isn’t it?” Still unsure of himself, he somehow managed to bow–he could still be a gentleman, that was good. He offered Red his hand, “After you, my lady.”

Red curled his fingers around his own, then started to lead him towards the morgue. The entire time she was a chatterbox. She skimmed over the topics of Ezzy, the other slaver hounds, which were her favorites, and why. She then told him a story about “peeking” in on Ryven’s new room–Kat’s old room–though she didn’t find anything interesting. When they finally reached the morgue, Red, from somewhere in the realm of cyberspace, recalled the pass code, then tapped it lightly on the keypad. The door slid open. She shivered.

Reginald thought it strange that the drone would shiver as well, but he squeezed her “hand” reassuringly. He wasn’t sure if it made a difference one way or another or if she even felt the gesture. He added, for good measure, “Ghosts are only scary if you let them be scary.”

Red shrugged, asking hesitantly as she tiptoed over to where Reginald’s corpse was being stored, “Have you ever seen one?”

Reginald closely followed, “Come to think of it–no.”

Red glanced up at him and quirked a brow, “Then how do you know if they are scary or not?”

He smiled back nervously, “A good question.”

He asked shortly after, “Are you afraid of the dark, Red?” He hoped to explain why ghosts could be scary.

Red moved over to the drawer and tentatively pulled it open using both hands. She wrinkled her nose as she peeled back the white sheet that covered his corpse, “I’m not. But she is.”

Reginald started examining the corpse, searching for the knife wound, “She?”

“Shalee.”

He took out his datapad to make a recording of the wound, “Really? I never thought her to be afraid of very much. But the dark can be scary–it’s the unknown mostly. That’s what tends to scare people.”

Red leaned against the table and flicked her finger against the tab that hung off of his toe, “One time? Our Father chained us up in this very scary room and it was so dark. That’s why she doesn’t like it.”

Reginald nodded, furrowing his brows, “What kind of Fa–” He glanced down at Red, then thought better of it, “That sounds horrific. I can’t imagine what that would have been like.”

Red merely nodded, her expression solemn.

He finished making the recording, then made a note to visit the evidence rooms. “There you see?” He tried to smile, “No ghost.”

Red looked back over her shoulders and shivered, “Maybe. But if there was one here you probably won’t see it. Cause it is a ghost.”

Reginald tried to play along, “And who might it be a ghost of?”

Red looked back at the corpse, fluttering her fingertip across the foot tag, “Lots of people probably. Snake says he has seen a Deteis boy here one time. His ghost, I mean.”

He frowned, surprised at the honesty, “I see.” He tried to be comforting, “Well, do you think we should be going, then?”

Red nodded then dashed towards the door.

Reginald watched her dart away, then glanced around the morgue. He felt a sudden pang of fear at the idea of being left alone, in a room too large to see all at once. He stared back down at his corpse, then saw something move in the corner of his eye. He shot around quickly, to see nothing. He knew he had to be imagining things, now. All the same…

“Wait! Don’t leave me here like that!”

He closed the drawer, then rushed after her, catching up just as she reached the doorway. She paused to look back at him, “Better hurry then.”

Red winced as an air unit suddenly turned on. A stack of papers rustled as a cold gust of air flowed through the room. The sound shattered an otherwise still atmosphere, leafy echoes ringing.

“Was that you?” He asked as he glanced at the rustling papers.

Red widened her eyes, “Nu uh. I promise.”

Feeling uncomfortable, Reginald led her gently out back into the corridor, “Then, my lady, would you mind closing the door?”

Red entered the passcode, the door closing and locking, “Told’ja there were ghosts.”

He said stoically, really more for himself than for her, “I’m still not convinced.”

He tried to change the subject hastily before she became suspicious, “Do you know where the evidence room is? I just need to check something.”

“The security room?”

He nodded, “I want to check the knives. If they’re the same, then don’t you think we’ve got Vlad red-handed… or whatever the equivalent is for a robot?”

Red studied him for a moment, thinking. “You would have to check the bodies of your men, no? Or ask Alexa, she might know?”

Red opened her mouth to continue speaking but froze suddenly. Her humanoid drone became inactive. Shalee must have woken up.

Sighing, Reginald shook his head. He was surprisingly tired after this excursion. He made a note to visit the security room. He suddenly had a strong desire to see Kat, to hold her, to know that she was safe, but his eyes grew heavier and heavier. He felt exhausted. He returned to his bed at the medical bay, hoping this was an issue with the soft clone rather than a problem stemming from his reintegration. He pondered the thought for a few moments–about the implication of a nervous system not quite attuned properly–then slipped back into slumber.

Altercation

A camera drone sits above the Terrace, hovering lightly as it observes the goings-on. It zooms in on the back of a female capsuleer walking towards the landing pad, categorizing the footage for record-keeping. After she is out of sight, it refocuses its lens on a familiar face–Lord Reginald Sakakibara fast approaching the Terrace. 

***

He knew he had heard her voice. Her voice. His sister’s voice. It had to have been.

He rushed onto the Terrace only to see Vlad Cetes sitting at the bar. He stopped for a moment to look at the android–the thing that he was certain had murdered his men. There had been conversations about Vlad, of course–conversations with Tigerfish Torpedo and Ryven Krennel. Tiger had essentially disowned the machine while Ryven accepted that Vlad’s involvement in the murder was probable. Tiger had even gone so far as to give Reginald leave to deal with Vlad, personally–through a trash compactor. Regi had even taken the liberty of moving it onto the grounds in preparation for Vlad being found guilty by Lady Lianne. But his mind was elsewhere walking onto the Terrace.

Still looking around for Naomi, he asked, “Was someone–Was someone just here?”

“Your sister was here.” Vlad responded.

Reginald snapped his attention towards Vlad, fears slowly becoming realized, “What?!”

“Your sister was here.”

“What did she want? Why was she here?” Reginald asked, becoming frantic.

“She wanted the identity of your girlfriend.”

Reginald gave Vlad a hard stare–a piercing gaze on top of his suspicions that his men were murdered by Vlad’s hand, “And?”

“And?”

“What did you say? Did you say anything?”

Vlad stated simply, “We had an exchange.”

“What kind of exchange?”

“Money for information.”

“What did you tell her?”

“Who she was.”

Reginald felt a burst of anger surge out of him. All this time, L had somehow managed to keep Kat’s name away from Naomi, slowly preparing the family’s delicate politics. But all she had had to do was walk onto the Terrace and ask Vlad? And he had volunteered it freely? Everything was falling apart. She would be running “Katerina Tzestu” through databases–her link to Pandemic Legion, her social status, and maybe even the MIO inquiry.

He lashed out at Vlad, “WHY?! That’s–Do you know how complicated that makes things?”

“That is none of my concern.”

Reginald was seething, “Damn you, you bloody murderous robot. I’ll throw you into a garbage compactor myself.”

“All talk, no action.”

Fists clenched, Reginald shot back, “We’ll see about that.”

He took out his datapad and started to write a message. It wasn’t addressed to anyone. He just wanted to give the appearance that he was writing something to someone important–Lady Lianne, Lady Aspenstar, Alexa de’Crux–it didn’t matter, Vlad just needed to believe. He had played this game before and he could play it again, “Let’s see how you like it when I offer to testify on my word as a Holder that you are the guilty party. Your benefactor has abandoned you and you have no allies here.”

“False.”

He didn’t bite.

Reginald lost his temper, “I have leave to throw you into a garbage compactor. If you do anything, ANYTHING that threatens Kat at all–I’ll see to it that that compactor follows every replicated one of your bodies to the end of time!”

“I see your weakness, then,” Vlad responded nonchalantly, “Tell me, would you sacrifice her if it meant you could ‘throw me into a garbage compactor’?”

Sacrifice her? The idea was completely alien. Suspicion and frustration boiled over into sheer anger. He wouldn’t let a robot talk about Kat like that, “Don’t you dare use her as a bargaining chip!”

He tried to return to the murder of his men, “You. Are. Guilty.”

“Anything is to be used. Used, abused, ultimately thrown away. Anything and everything.”

Reginald’s mind was ablaze with unspeakable images. Abusing Katerina? That was unthinkable, anathema to his very existence, of what it meant to be a gentleman, a Holder. He thrust the image out of his mind and focused his eyes angrily on Vlad. He called over for security guards–he would exact vengeance today.

“You sicken me, robot. And it only makes it all the clearer–you belong in a rubbish heap on its way to a star in a disposal unit.”

As Vlad was flanked by the security guards, Reginald added, “As I’ve said, you have no allies here.”

“Do you think I’m stupid? What are we surrounded by?”

Reginald, his mind singularly focused on bringing Vlad to justice, responded stupidly, “Lady Lianne’s security personnel?”

“No. Look up, see those mountains?”

Reginald glanced away at the peaks in the distance, then shot his gaze back to Vlad, “What of them?”

“Do you really think I am alone? Or that only ONE unit exists at a time?”

Reginald shook his head, “Is that how you killed my men?”

Not waiting for a response, Reginald motioned for the security guards to start dragging Vlad towards the trash compactor “And I’ve told you, Vlad. Tiger has already given me permission. There’s a Vlad-sized garbage compactor just over there.”

Without warning, Vlad suddenly rotated, flipping one guard to the ground. The other guard received a palm strike to the shoulder. Both were incapacitated in a matter of seconds. Other security guards started to investigate the scene, some of them preparing to draw weapons. Vlad declared, “I will not kill these men, but do not force my hand.”

Reginald raised his palms to show he was unarmed, “It’s clear to me that you’re guilty, Vlad.”

Vlad dropped a knee on the prone guard and grabbed the back of his neck. As the security guards raised their weapons in response, Vlad motioned to them, “Step away or I will kill him.”

Reginald looked at the hapless security guard. He wondered if his own men had the same fear in their eyes, frightened of mortality. He wouldn’t, no, he couldn’t burden Lady Lianne with their lives as well. He would stand alone against the robot.

“Do as he says, I don’t want your blood on my hands as well.”

Vlad picked up the security guard and threw him at Reginald, who helped him to a medical officer.

He told the guards who were standing around, “My quarrel is with the murderer.”

“You have no proof,” Vlad replied.

“Tiger has given me leave to throw you into a garbage compactor, you murderer.”

Vlad retorted, “And I have leave to disable you and throw you into a garbage compactor.”

Reginald requested a sidearm from one of the guards. Pistols were unwieldy weapons. Like all firearms, they were impersonal, dishonorable. He would have preferred a blade. But a firearm would have to do.

“… or more fitting, turn you into a True Slave, a machine with no free will, and watch a corner of your mind scream.”

Reginald shuddered at the thought. Katerina had already lost someone to the madman Sansha Kuvakei–her fiancee, the reason why she became a capsuleer. He had lost someone too. Was he taking too big a risk? Or was Vlad just bluffing? Regardless, he refused to back down, no matter the petty threats.

He raised the pistol deftly at Vlad–he thought it prudent, considering Vlad Cetes was a weapon. Responding to his claim to have leave to kill him, and feigning ignorance of his True Slave comment, Reginald asked, “Oh? And who might that be?”

“I need no authority, or leave, to conduct my business. Put that pistol away before you get hurt.”

Reginald said, “You’re no longer welcome here–Tiger has said it himself. You have no real contract. So what is your business in this place, aside from murdering the innocent?”

“My business is my own.”

Reginald kept the pistol trained on Vlad, “You’re a threat to everyone.”

“I am not a threat unless paid to be one, or threatened myself.”

“So be a good, obedient robot, listen to your betters, and march yourself over to the garbage compactor,” Reginald demanded.

“No.”

Reginald shot Vlad a cold, icy stare, “You’re going into that compactor one way or another. It’s up to you if you want to go there intact or in pieces.”

“I will not be going into a compactor, if anything,” He took a step towards Reginald, “You will.”

An image of being crushed to death flashed through Reginald’s mind. Instinctively, he released the safety on the pistol, “Another step and I put one through your head.”

Vlad raised his hands in surrender, his left hand roughly even with Reginald’s pistol. Reginald couldn’t suppress the feeling of relief.

“Good, glad that you’re now cooperating,” He jerked his head in the direction of the compactor, “Garbage compactor is–”

But he couldn’t finish his sentence through the sudden burst of pain. Instead he screamed in agony. Vlad had launched a ballistic knife from a hidden compartment right into his pistol hand. He dropped the weapon involuntarily, clutching at the knife that was now embedded in his hand.

“Take him!” He screamed at the guards.

But Vlad took the initiative while the guards remained stunned. He closed the distance between himself and Reginald suddenly and without hesitation. Grabbing the knife, he twisted it into Reginald’s hand until the tendon was severed. Reginald fell to his knees in sheer agony, screaming in pain.

Vlad turned to the security personnel, “Don’t make me do the same to you, stand down!”

Reginald muttered “Bastard. You’ll never–gah–get away with this.”

“Unlike you, I have not attacked. Only defended.”

“I didn’t pull the trigger.”

“No but you aimed, I would suggest you back down, before you get hurt again.”

Reginald forced himself to his feet, “For the sake of my men. For the sake–god damn it–justice. I refuse to back down!”

Reginald barked at the security guards, “Well go on, arrest the bastard!”

One of them responded meekly, his eyes following the trail of blood from Reginald’s torn hand, “We don’t take orders from you, sir.”

“Fine,” Reginald spat back. With his good, he picked up the pistol and trained it back on Vlad, “Now then, garbage compactor.”

“Do you want to keep that other hand? Put it down. Now.”

“I have leave from Tiger to throw you into that garbage compactor. You’re going in, if I have to do it myself.”

Vlad taunted, “How predictable, just like a childrens’ wind up toy, or Nauplius. You go on, and on, and on, about something you simply cannot do.”

Reginald cleared his throat, pain still searing through his hand, trying to hold the pistol as best he could with his non-dominant hand, “On the authority of her ladyship, Shalee Lianne, I am authorized to throw you, Vlad Cetes, into a garbage compactor. You’ve outlived your usefulness, robot. And no one stands with you.”

Vlad responded, “Look at you. A useless hand, no one supporting you. Simply blowing hot air. Put the pistol down.”

Reginald responded defiantly, “No.”

In reality, he wouldn’t back down. He was so close to meting out justice. And what was pain but penance? Penance for disrupting the investigation to start with. Penance on behalf of the souls of the fallen. Penance for betraying Lady Lianne’s trust.

Vlad swiftly lunged at Reginald’s hand. With only inches of clearance, Reginald sidestepped him, conducting a variation on a distance parry he had learned in his childhood. He raised the pistol at the back of Vlad’s head, muttered a prayer, and fired.

Vlad’s head seemed to explode with the impact. But when the effects cleared, there was only a small dent and some scorch marks on the dull gold armor. He turned back to Reginald and threw another knife at him–this time it went straight to his heart.

Reginald dropped the pistol, a look of utter surprise on his face. His mind started racing. Forgiveness. Mercy. Death. Kat. Then he realized that he couldn’t remember when he had performed his last mind-scan. As he fell to the ground, strength emptying from him, he urged his thoughts into a prayer.

Please God. If I have to die, please don’t take Kat away from me. Please. Just this once. Just once.

He crumpled onto his side, his hands fruitlessly clutching at the knife. He was going to die. This part of him. And he’d never live his last hours again. It would be over.

Vlad stepped next to Regi, then whispered into the dying man’s ear, “You shouldn’t have done that. Now you die like your men.”

Reginald tried to respond, his eyes wide, but could only manage a cough and some sputters. He felt his vision grow dark, first at the peripheries then until everything became dim. It felt strange, dying–there was something beneath him that was warm but he felt cold internally, as if something was flowing freely out of him.

The pain started to fade. Sounds and voices disappeared. There was no more color. And then there were no more thoughts.

***

The camera drone swoops down next to the corpse on the Terrace. It runs a scan to check for vitals, careful to not be knocked around by Alexa de’Crux’s kameiras. After a few minutes, it transmits the results to a central computer, to be downloaded into a hard drive at Cerra Manor for record keeping. 

Subject: Lord Reginald Sakakibara

Date/Time: November 11, YC116/03:46:00

Status: Deceased

Altercation – Prelude

Tinkering. That’s what the Sebiestors did. His mother had been adamant that he should never do such work, to sully his hands with grease and oil. Another one of the myriad restrictions placed on his childhood–after all, what gentleman worked with his hands? Then again, she would also probably be livid that he was seeing Kat. He smiled at the thought, then continued on with his work.

He double-checked the hand-written notes the drone mechanic had given him. Most of the re-assembly of the child-sized humanoid drone had been completed off-world, but a few finishing touches were required upon arrival: Some wiring to complete, double-checking the power supply, testing motors, calibrating emitters. All right, perhaps not a few finishing touches. He would never go back to that drone mechanic again.

He stood up, admiring his handiwork. Electrical engineering and applied physics had never been his strengths, but he could at the very least follow hastily-scribbled instructions. He started putting away his tools–next time he wouldn’t do this in his quarters.

It was an absolute mess, with bits and pieces strewn about as if a Tempest-class battleship had dragged itself across his floor. But despite the mess, he was surprisingly satisfied with the job well done. His goal was complete: Red would have her body back.

There was, as of yet, no news on the toys currently kept at an orphanage in Dam-Torsad. Father Ansar had been tight-lipped about the location, fearful that Reginald would unleash his stereotypical sociopathic tendencies upon poor children. He shook his head at the thought–he was a capsuleer, not a monster. Nonetheless, he felt the unsatisfied edge of a quest incomplete. He wondered if Red would be upset at receiving her things piecemeal. He made a note to contact Father Ansar about the re-acquisition of the toys.

After sweeping up the bits and pieces around the drone, clearing the surfaces of his quarters, and washing up, he stepped outside to his balcony to enjoy a glass of lemonade. Breaks were rare these days. There were operations that needed planning, he served as a representative in coalition diplomacy when Lady Lianne or Ryven were unavailable, the reactions market was rebounding, logistics needed to be calculated, and then there was his relationship with Kat.

He wondered where she was, deployed as a Legionnaire to a conflict the details of which even Kat didn’t know. Ryven had mentioned visiting her, though Reginald had not inquired as to where. He respected that Kat had a life beyond his own. In some ways, he was thankful for that–their time together was all the more valuable as a result. He couldn’t wait to see her again. Unexpectedly, his mind turned to L’s warnings.

Reginald understood that L was only looking out for his best interests, though in truth, that’s what frightened him. L had worked for the Sakakibara family years before Reginald had even been born, and his insights into family affairs were generally correct. What if L was right? What if Kat was a poor match? What if–

“No!” He said to himself aloud, shooting out of his seat.

He walked over to the railing of his balcony and gripped it tightly. He glanced down at the foamy waves in their eternal struggle to whittle away at the rocks at the base of the cliff. She was worth it. Why couldn’t they see that he was happy for once?

“Do you love her?”

Red’s question popped into his head as if on cue.

“Do you love her?”

Killawazza Valintine’s voice joined Red’s in a duet.

Reginald couldn’t keep himself from laughing a little. How many people were going to ask him that question? He stared out towards the horizon, the deep blue of the sea contrasting against the azure of the pale sky. Did he love her? The question was a difficult one. Love had been a foreign concept growing up–he imagined that most families didn’t have mothers that struck their sons with switches for not smiling properly or sisters who cared more about a title than about their siblings’ well-being. And then of course, even if he could answer that question of his love for Kat, another question was raised immediately: Did she love him?

His thoughts were disturbed by a sudden flashing of his neocom. It was a message from L. Though short, it filled Reginald with a sense of dread.

“Naomi is at the Manor.” – L

What business could she possibly have? Without finishing his lemonade, he darted into his quarters. He found it strange that his room was so neat, and wasn’t there something in the middle of the floor when he left it? He put it out of his mind and continued out towards the Terrace. He needed to see what his younger sister wanted. It was time to confront Naomi Sakakibara.

 

Into the Keep

“There is a half-frozen, half-rotted head on a pike.” 

He thought it intriguing that he had said that out loud. But there it was, a half-frozen, half-decayed head sitting atop one of the pikes at the base of one of Mercy’s Keep’s massive statues. He wondered if his quest to find Red’s things was attuned to his sense of self-preservation. Shaking away his doubt and suppressing an urge to sketch the Keep, he started walking down the bridge from the landing pad towards the entrance.

The entire structure seemed hewn from the rock itself–an imposing ancient structure with interesting modern juxtapositions. Five statues were visible from where he stood, which he supposed measured the cornerstones of Amarrian culture: A hooded priest, a Holder, an armored knight, a commoner with farm tools, and a slave in chains praying for salvation. Even though each one looked ancient, he wondered if the fifth statue was a recent addition–considering Lady Lianne’s views, after all.

“Our sand castle didn’t quite capture the… enormity,” He whispered, expecting that Red was following him silently.

Two ancient suits of armor stood across from one another at the entrance to the Keep–a mere rectangular opening cut directly into the mountainside. He swallowed back his trepidation, recalled his upbringing as a Holder, then took a step into the Keep proper. A drone activated and floated over to Reginald.

“Good morning. My name is Reginald Sakakibara and I believe I have an audience with Seneschal Hotuban Klimut.”

There was no response from the drone except a visible blue light–what Reginald perceived to be a scan. After finishing whatever it started and apparently satisfied, the drone flew back to the ceiling and went inactive. Once the drone was away, Reginald noticed a flight of stairs. As he approached it, the sound of clinking silverware and shuffling echoed down the steps on the heels of flickering torchlight. Redoubling his resolve, but not without some hesitation, he made the climb.

The staircase opened into a large hall filled with almost a hundred cyber-knights and modestly-dressed serving girls catering their requests for food and drink. The warmth was extraordinary in comparison to the frigid mountain air from the landing pad and antechamber. The walls were lined with murals depicting ancient scenes as well as more modern renditions of spaceships. The ceiling was interestingly low for such a large room, though Reginald suspected that it was due to the ancient origins of the Keep being constructed without modern tools or equipment. The tables were occupied by Khanid cyber-knights of varying ages, some of them shooting questioned glances at him.

After a while a young Khanid got up from his seat and approached him, saying flatly and without smile, “You look lost.”

Reginald suppressed the urge to correct the youth by adding “My lord” to the end of his sentence, but decided that he should stand on ceremony instead. He responded politely, with his court-pressed smile, “Good morning. My name is Reginald Sakakibara and I believe I have an audience with Seneschal Klimut.”

The youth looked surprised, “The Seneschal?”

The youth glanced towards a long table at the far end of the room, elevated above the rest. There were knights of various ages seated there, though what seemed to be Seneschal Hotuban Klimut sat at the center, deftly managing a pair of chopsticks as he ate his breakfast with a cup of tea.

“Yes, indeed. But I certainly don’t wish to interrupt his meal.”

The Khanid flicked his head towards the table, “Come, I will introduce you.”

Reginald smiled, “Thank you, I very much appreciate your assistance.”

They made their way past the tables towards the Seneschal. The ages of the patrons was quite vast–even some children playing in between them. Reginald noticed a few stares in his direction–he was used to such treatment, at least. When they finally reached the Seneshcal, the man in question had not even bothered to look up from his meal. The young Khanid bowed deeply, “Master Hotuban, this man claims he is here to have audience with you. He says he is named Reginald.”

Reginald bowed respectfully at the introduction. Hotuban waved the Khanid away, still not looking up from his meal. As he stood there, others seated at the table threw suspicious glances at him, though they offered no conversation. He was used to this treatment, being a Holder’s son.

He thought to himself the adage, “Never press one’s luck with the higher-ranked, or within their home.” He made an addendum, “Especially if they are surrounded by a hundred cyber-knights. And certainly, never interrupt a meal.”

Hotuban finally finished his bowl of rice and eggs, then took a long drink from his cup of tea. Eyeing Reginald, he asked in a monotone voice, “Your business?”

“Fleet Captain Aldrith Shutaq,” Reginald started, then thought better of it, then started again, “I was informed by Fleet Captain Aldrith Shutaq that you are the Seneschal of Mercy’s Keep. There are several items I have been tasked with retrieving, with your excellency’s permission.”

He wasn’t really sure what the honorific would be for “Seneschal,” so he went with “your excellency.” Hotuban seemed unimpressed. One of the Khanid at the table–a large man with a braided beard–grunted at Aldrith’s name.

“Brother Aldrith informed me of your interest. You will be allowed to reclaim the items in question if we still have them in our possession.”

Reginald bowed, “Thank you very much.”

Careful to adopt Hotuban’s language, Reginald asked, “Did Brother Aldrith inform you of the nature of the items?”

“Yes. Children’s toys and a holographic interface humanoid drone, child-sized. Speak with Father Ansar. He managed inventory when the Order reclaimed this place.”

Reginald smiled, “Very well, thank you very much. Where might I be able to find him?”

“Within the chapel.”

“Thank you.” Reginald glanced around, unsure where the chapel was located.

Thankfully, Hotuban provided him with a guide–a teenage True Amarr boy that had already finished his breakfast, “Take this man to the chapel. Direct him to the chaplain.”

The boy bowed, then beckoned for Reginald to follow. Reginald bowed in respect once more to the Seneschal, then proceeded to follow towards a set of double doors. The rest of the journey was completed in silence as the boy led Reginald to the chapel. Much like everything else in the Keep, the chapel seemed carved out of rock itself–the altar adorned with a black marble slab offering a smooth surface for ceremonies. Holes and shafts had been carved into the ceiling–most likely to provide air, Reginald surmised. Upon entering the chapel proper, Reginald made a traditional reverent sign.

A priest that he believed to be Father Ansar was busy tending to the altar with a female acolyte working quietly beside him. The pair were cleaning icons upon it with laser brushes and other delicate devices. Reginald was loathe to disturb the sanctity, so he approached the altar with rehearsed respect.

Once he had reached the altar, the priest looked up, squinting, “And who are you?”

Reginald bowed, “Father, my name is Reginald Sakakibara and I have been tasked with retrieving certain items. The Seneschal was kind enough to tell me that you oversaw the transition and storage of the items from when the Order reclaimed the Keep.”

The priest responded grumpily, “He didn’t tell me anything about that.”

Reginald frowned, “The items are of great sentimental value and I would be most appreciative if you aided me in locating them.”

The priest grunted, “Let me guess, something the silly capsuleers left behind when this place was run by Aldrith’s pathetic excuse of a knighthood?”

Reginald wore a smile his mother had beat into him, “Quite. That would be an accurate assessment indeed.”

The priest crossed his arms, “All right, what were they?”

Reginald nodded, “A toy slicer, two dolls, and a child-sized humanoid drone.”

Reginald took out a sketchpad from the satchel. It was a rough sketch of the Keep, drawn only from the memory of the sand castle he had made with Red.

He indicated where Eran’s chambers would have been, “The owner of the items indicated that they would be located here, prior to the move.”

Thankfully, the priest seemed nodded in recognition as he took the sketch, “Huh. Well I remember the drone and I do believe I remember the toys as well.”

Reginald smiled, “As I’ve said, I would be most appreciative if you could lead to their whereabouts.”

The priest nodded nonchalantly, “Certainly. I donated the toys to a charity in Dam-Torsad and the drone was dismantled after we found it was being used by some red-haired little girl to befriend the younger students and make mischief amongst the rest of us. She was somehow getting through the security on the fluid router network here. Some flaw the capsuleers left in their systems no doubt.”

Reginald grew pale, his quest lengthening tremendously at the words, “I see.” He tried to salvage what he could, “When the drone was dismantled, were the parts kept in storage? And the name of the charity, if you don’t mind?”

The priest furrowed his brows, “You are not seriously thinking of taking toys from poor children I hope?”

Reginald smiled back, “Not without at least a ten-fold exchange. I operate a fund for a charity of my own–my grandparents wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

The priest crossed his arms, “Are you a capsuleer? Or were you just sent by one?”

Reginald decided to counter with a jab of his own, “A capsuleer, yes, but I am also a Holder. I understand my responsibilities to the people, to serve as an example.” He added, for good measure, “It is my burden.”

The priest let his eyes wander, “Wonderful. One of the most dangerous creatures in the galaxy is asking me for the address of an orphanage.”

He snapped his eyes back to Reginald, “Give me your donation; I will take it to the orphanage myself and try to get your toys back. As for the drone, it is probably still in our cybernetics storage. I will get that for you as well…”

Reginald offered an olive branch, “Father, I understand your animosity towards capsuleers. We have done unspeakable harms since the technologies of clone and capsule were combined. But I have not forgotten my duty, I have not forgotten the path.”

“Good of you to admit that. My offer still stands. Take it or leave it.”

Reginald took out his datapad, “I can transfer the funds immediately, Father.” He did so, then added, “And I certainly appreciate your assistance in obtaining the parts for the drone.”

Reginald decided to take a shot in the dark. He understood that Red was a projection of Lady Lianne’s subconsciousness that took the form of her childhood self. He made a series of inductions–Lady Lianne had mentioned her mother and father in passing though the fact that Lady Lianne was Holder indicated that her father must have died or been stripped of his title. Was she an orphan? He hoped that he wasn’t wishing premature death upon Lady Lianne’s mother when he developed his next few sentences.

“Father, the toys in question belong to a little girl who no longer has her parents or her siblings.” That last part was a stretch, but as Lady Lianne had never mentioned having brothers or sisters, though he added it for dramatic effect, “They are memories of her time here, with her adoptive family. I hope that you understand… they’re very important to her.”

“Well if she’s the little imp that was using it to terrorize Sister Urshii the night we caught the thing, give her a smack on the knuckles for me. But I suppose it would be expected an orphan adopted by capsuleers would have a few behavioral issues.”

Reginald laughed nervously hoping that Red wasn’t listening, “I’ll be sure to convey that to her current chaperones.”

Ends justify means, Red!

The priest rolled his sleeves down, “Wait here, offer a prayer, take a blessing. I’ll be back with the drone.”

Reginald thanked the priest, then sat down at one of the pews. He felt it strange, having gone through a period of unbelief lasting all of two months. He had not even set foot in the Cathedral at Cerra Manor after all. He recited a childhood prayer for the first time in a while, focusing on things he should be grateful for: A corporation that was doing decently, his relationship with Kat, Lady Lianne’s reluctant blessing on that matter, Lady Lianne’s act of forgiveness, Lady Lianne providing a home for his corporation… The list seemed endless.

She cared about her pilots, of course. When he confessed his crime to her, she had every right to throw him out of the alliance or be executed repeatedly. She had held his fate in her hands. And where he had expected retribution, she showed mercy.

“Everyone deserves mercy, Reginald, even the darkest of us all. It’s going to be all right.” 

He swallowed at her words, feeling tears burn at the corner of his eyes. He did his best to stifle them. There was a reason she was the alliance executor after all–and being the executor of an alliance for years couldn’t have been built upon tyranny. Perhaps she really did have their pilots’ best interests in mind, even for the ones that fell from grace.

“Forgive me,” he whispered to God and Lady Lianne alike.

The priest trudged back into the chapel carrying a crate, jolting him out of his meditation. He handed Reginald the crate, “Here, and I’ll visit the orphanage in question in about two weeks. Maybe longer, I can’t foresee when I’ll have the time.”

Reginald took the package gratefully, “Thank you, Father. Please contact my household’s office in Myyhera if we can be of any assistance.”

The priest continued unabated, “Several joint servos and a gyroscope were salvaged from it, and it’s in a few pieces. Find a decent mechanic or drone specialist and you’ll have it repaired in a day or so. Shouldn’t be hard with your money.”

Reginald smiled, “Thank you.”

“Yes. Well. Thank God before His servants. And serve Him above all else. We should be just fine then.”

“I thank the Lord constantly, Father. And in His name, I serve the Crusade.”

“Heh. The 24th? Well, I have a feeling that in a thousand years this one will be mumbled about in dark corners rather than sung about by choirs. But I’ll stay quiet until God has ruled on that one. Now be off with you, I have to prepare for the noontime sermon.”

Reginald bowed again, “Thank you for your time, Father.”

He carried the package back through the maze of Mercy’s Keep and out of its surprising warmth into the frigid air of the mountainside. As he approached his shuttle, he allowed himself a glimpse back towards the impressive structure. The crate underarm, he turned his back on it, but not before hearing a soft giggle from behind him. He turned quickly, but saw nothing other than the windswept bridge and the daunting fortress.

Sighing, he boarded his shuttle.

“Maybe it was the plan all along, he didn’t save you then to save you for this.”

“Save me for this, indeed.”

A Place to Meet

“You’re the best. I’ll see you here tomorrow okay?”

Reginald stifled a crestfallen sigh as he watched Kat disappear through the doorway, wisps of her copper hair offering a final farewell before she turned the corner. He couldn’t fault her and he understood completely why she had to leave–the Legion was deployed, after all. The feeling of her lips upon his own lingered as he glanced down towards her untouched glass of wine. As he started to put away the platter and other garnishing he had prepared, he felt an involuntary pang of longing. He already missed her.

Ryven had been very generous with his offer to open his bar–the Rowdy Stray Jazz Bar above Messoya IV–to the both of them as a place to meet. The bar had wonderful decoration, lighting, and atmosphere. It wasn’t difficult for Reginald to imagine a busy night: couples dancing on the floor and watching the band from private booths, bartenders and waiters filling orders, musicians practicing their trade with a guest performer or two.

Taking up the glass of wine, Reginald walked to behind the stage and retracted the blinds on the observation window, revealing a view of the plasma planet below. The dark turquoise hue of the planet was broken by strands and cracks of brighter whites and blues. He started to wonder what the surface would be like, but reminded himself that only specialized personnel ever lived on anything other than a temperate planet. Nonetheless, he let his curiosity wander for several moments, imagining a tale of a surveyor trudging about the exposed tectonic plates in search of rich deposits of suspended plasma and noble metals.

He took a sip of the wine, surprised at his selection of the vintage. She may have enjoyed it, he thought to himself. After closing the observation window, he returned to behind the bar. Musing about being a bartender, he tidied up the counter–always leave something a little better than when you found it. He re-corked the bottle and stowed it away safely, then finished the glass of wine before washing it carefully. Satisfied with his efforts, he collected his things, then made his exit.

“Already becoming sentimental?” A familiar voice asked from behind him.

He turned to his side, startled to see L leaning against the outside wall of the establishment. The Khanid spymaster wore a light grin on his face, his arms crossed.

“How did you find me?” Reginald asked, recovering a little.

L laughed, “The MIO inquisitors aren’t the only ones monitoring your communications.”

Reginald paled, “Wait, so they know? About here?”

L shook his head, “Not yet.”

“But wouldn’t they have seen the coordinates?”

“Scrambled them. But they tried to follow you.”

“And?”

“Dealt with the tail myself. A little jamming, radio chatter here and there, and a few ghost signatures. They lost you before they even entered Caldari space.”

Reginald let out a sigh of relief, “She’s safe, then?”

The grin fell off of L’s face as he nodded. He looked at Reginald with a disapproving gaze, “You’re leaving yourself vulnerable. And for a commoner.”

Reginald returned a hard stare back, “I don’t understand why you and the MIO are so adamant about addressing her like that. She has a name, you know. Her name is Katerina Tzestu.”

L shrugged, “That’s what she is and it’s not what you are. It’s turning heads–shareholders, directors,” He looked from side to side, then said a little more quietly, “Your extended family.”

Reginald scoffed, “Firstly, Lady Lianne has given my pursuit of Kat–I mean, Katerina–my blessing. Secondly, since when has the family ever looked out for my best interests? And why is that even a question? I’m the head. I’m the bloody Sakakibara with ‘Lord’ in front of their name.”

L shook his head, “Just tread carefully with your frolics.”

Reginald was starting to lose his temper, “You’re an old family friend, and for that, I forgive you the insult.”

L raised an eyebrow, “You haven’t even met her parents, yet. Without their consent and her presentation to the rest of the family, assuming any members actually show up, your whatever-you-want-to-refer-to-it-as is never going to amount to anything legitimate.”

“We’re finished, here.” Reginald said firmly.

“And then there’s your sister–”

“Half-sister.” Reginald corrected.

“Nonetheless–”

“I said we’re finished!” Reginald repeated angrily, he added, a little more calmly, “Thank you for dealing with the Ministry.”

L raised another eyebrow and shook his head again, “I hope that commoner is worth it.”

By the time Reginald looked up to launch another rebuttal, L had disappeared. He looked around for a few moments for the older capsuleer, then started to make his way back to his shuttle. He was losing his temper far too easily these days, though he knew not everything stemmed from his nascent relationship–his family had been a sore point since before his days at the Institute. He turned his thoughts to Kat and how she would counsel calmness. He loved that about her.

Taking a reassuring deep breath, he boarded his shuttle, three words resting on his mind, three words in response to L’s remark:

“Yes, she is.”