Recovery? II

“The thing is… something horrible is happening, within the alliance.”

The carefree atmosphere of learning how to swim had suddenly been replaced with the tepid administrative air with which he was all too familiar. He shared that with Shalee–the weight of leadership upon their shoulders: He operated the most active corporation in her alliance, and she ran the alliance itself. He greatly admired her dedication to Imperial Outlaws. Under her guidance, the alliance had taken its place among all other militia entities as the most powerful. And yet, her eyes lacked the pride they should have held.

It took him several moments to get past the pride, the warm feeling of knowing that all of their hard work paid off by strengthening the Crusade and therefore the Empire. Systems fell when the numbers of the alliance ground into gear. The name of the alliance was feared by the Minmatar and respected by the entire militia. So what was this horrible thing?

“But you were just on vacation with Tiger,” He began, “And I haven’t been informed about anything.”

That sentence was a joke. How could he have been informed about anything? He had become a recluse and shut himself away in his quarters, creating that insanity-driven piece of chaos on his floor.

He tried again, confused, “What do you mean?”

Shalee shook her head, “I’ve not been with Tiger. I’ve been… well. I cannot say. Clearance, and all of that. But, the fact of the matter is that the alliance, and even my own corp, has been infiltrated.”

He quirked an eyebrow, wondering why the DENT spy network had failed to notify him. He asked frantically, requesting a sea of information, “Infiltrated? By who? For what purpose? How much do you know? In my corporation as well?”

He realized how selfish all of that was, trying to force out of Lady Lianne what his own resources had failed to provide. He took a deep breath, then asked the question any truly loyal pilot within the alliance would have asked their executor.

“How can I help?”

But the gesture was meaningless as Lady Lianne began responding to his deluge, “Yes, infiltrated.”

She seemed hesitant, continuing slowly but deliberately, “By a Sani Sabik cabal–a rival group of my Father’s. If you think my Father’s sect was bad, it was nothing compared to the Aposi. They are worse than Blood Raiders, even. You’ve never heard of them, I am sure. Because that is how they operate. In the shadows. And yes, in your corporation too.”

The words rammed into him. So that was it. His corporation had been infiltrated by the Sani Sabik. He had suspected it, of course, but he had received no confirmation. He would need to speak with L about the network’s failings. He felt blind, deaf, and stupid without the usual stream of intelligence. And now innocent blood was on his hands.

He wanted to be sure, his hands curling into fists, “Is that… is that how slaves got onto the freighter during the liberation campaign for Huola? Innocent lives?”

“I believe so, yes.”

That was enough. She had confirmed his suspicions. His corporation–the organization he had constructed for nearly a year–had been corrupted by the Sani Sabik. There weren’t many solutions, and he didn’t like any of the options. The directorate and the shareholders would likely not be pleased that he would be conducting a purge.

He pressed for more information, “Do you know why they’re targeting your alliance?”

“Our alliance,” she corrected him, “And from what I can gather, it is to settle an old debt with my Father. That is only one reason. The other is because we are the most powerful alliance in Amarr. And… and that is why I have to shut it down.”

“Shut it down?” He sat upright, completely alert, “What do you mean shut it down?”

That was crazy. He had only meant to begin a purge of his corporation to remove potential suspects, keeping the loyalists and the trustworthy. A full alliance shut down was on an entirely different level. It spoke to Lady Lianne’s fears–she couldn’t even trust the CEOs of her corporations. That was ridiculous. After everything they had done for her, she was going to throw it all away.

He watched her rake her fingers through her damp hair, “I have to disband it. to weaken their power. And then I’ll disband my own corporation.”

Disbanding a corporation was no easy decision, especially for a CEO committed to what it meant, what it represented, and the pilots that called it home. In his opinion, she was committing suicide. He couldn’t and wouldn’t let that happen. He needed to talk her away from the cliff’s edge.

“That’s… that’s insane. We all look up to you for leadership.”

He could feel her mind cemented against his argumentation, so he started grasping at straws, “Wouldn’t shutting down the alliance be giving?”

He tried a personal appeal, “You’re the best executor that I’ve had the pleasure of serving under!”

He wasn’t gaining any ground.

He pointed at the sky, “For God’s sake, we just retook Huola?” For a moment he forgot about the blood sacrifice at the infrastructure hub, his voice falling into a whimper, “Please, Lady Lianne, don’t let them win.”

He corrected himself, “Shalee, please don’t let them win.”

After his frantic harangue, she responded, “I can’t help it, Regi. It has to be done, it is the only way to weaken their power, to nullify their threat. If I can put distance between them and myself–then I can figure out which ones are a part of it.”

She frowned at him, “Please understand, I haven’t made this decision lightly.”

He shook his head in disbelief, “I can’t believe it. We’ve done what no militia has been able to do in nearly three years and now you’re just calling it quits because some crazed blood lunatics got past the standard background checks?”

She turned her head away from, letting her shoulders droop. It was as if the facade of happiness she was wearing slid off her body. She no longer seemed like the executor he had come to know and serve. This was not Lady Lianne, who commanded the most powerful alliance in the militia. This was Shalee, who was not in control, who looked weak and vulnerable. Her voice trembled.

“You don’t understand,” She looked at him, “You don’t understand anything, Regi. You don’t understand what they are capable of.”

He softened his voice at her accusations, realizing that he knew nothing about the Aposi. She looked frail. He wanted to save the alliance and he knew that she felt the same way. But if her conclusion was to shut it down, then what possible solution could he form?

“I know I’m the youngest CEO in the entire alliance,” he started, “But isn’t there anything we can do? At all?”

She didn’t answer his questions. Instead, she whispered a sentence barely audible against the ocean’s waves. He strained to listen, but the words were clear.

“They murdered my daughter…”

He grew silent, left speechless. In an instant he had a thousand questions for her, all of them inappropriate. You had a daughter? How did they kill her? Who was the father? When did you learn of this? In the same instant, he quelled his desire to know. There was only one thing he was meant to do.

He drew her into an embrace and tried to share her grief, “I’m so sorry.”

That was the only thing any gentleman could have done in that moment. The answer wasn’t to get angry, to vow revenge, to grit teeth, or to shake fists. It was to cry. Mourning had to come first.

Her voice was broken, choked, “I thought I had protected her by giving her away. I never held her. I never even saw her, I never heard her laugh or watch her take her first steps. I wasn’t there for anything and I wasn’t there… when they took her and killed her.”

He felt her warm tears run down his shoulder as he held her, taking in the sorrow, the guilt. How long had she been carrying this burden by herself? That didn’t matter. He was thankful he was here for her, at least, though he felt terrible he wasn’t available sooner. She had taught him how to swim so that she could talk to him, to have someone with which to share the agony. He should’ve been there for her at the beginning. He held her a little closer, completely unable to fathom the depths of grief of a parent losing her child.

“It was a message from them, of their ruthlessness,” She sobbed, trying to explain everything in between gasps of air, “I don’t know what else to do now.”

She continued to cry while he held her, shaking her head every so often at some painful thought, likely blaming herself for a memory she didn’t share with her daughter, for a moment she wasn’t present for. He dared not speak lest he say something clumsy, but he also couldn’t stand by and watch her soul be consumed by darkness. He needed to pull her away from that, from the path of self-destruction.

“Pray. First, we should pray for her.”

“Okay,” she nodded, pulling herself away from him and wiping away her tears, “Her name was Karlee. She was four.”

She continued, fresh tears glistening on her cheeks, “I never told anyone about her. Not even her Father. I just wanted her to have a good, normal life, away from all of this.”

He nodded quietly, taking Shalee’s hands in his. He started reciting a prayer from memory, one that Shalee would recognize, about protecting children from New Eden’s temptations. He thought it fitting to pray for their safety. He continued through the prayer delicately, trying not to choke on the final verse. It was about God’s eternal embrace and the Empress’ mercy on the souls of innocents.

Shalee sniffled, “Thank you for that.”

He watched her lean back, relieved that he had been there to help her, “Think nothing of it. She was far far too young.”

“I will find out who did it. I know that it is someone in the alliance, but that is all I know,” She made a gaspy little noise, holding back fresh sobbing.

That was the ultimate betrayal. Someone in the alliance? Someone they had once called a comrade? Unthinkable. Suddenly, he too was swept up in the current of righteous vengeance. At the very least, he would not let her walk the path alone.

“If you require anything of me, do not hesitate.”

“Help me investigate,” She slanted her tear-stained gaze towards him. “Help me find them.”

And then I’ll kill them.

She hadn’t said the words outright, but he knew they were there, lingering in the air between them. He nodded, understanding, “Tell me where to go and I will be there, either in person or through my spy network. This, I solemnly pledge as one of my final acts as one of your CEOs within your alliance.”

“I don’t know yet. I have to get things sorted first. I know that I have to weaken their power. I have to disband the alliance. And then my own corp, though there are a handful I still trust. They will probably follow me.”

“It would be foolhardy,” He said, “To put all of your loyalists in the same corporation, though. I could go elsewhere after scattering my own corporation.”

She nodded, “I know. I will ask some of them to go elsewhere. But Regi I cannot ask that of you, I cannot ask you to give up your career.”

If the Sani Sabik had infiltrated his corporation, then how could he call it his own? His career was a joke. And the punchline had been the freighter in Huola.

“My corporation was never truly my own. A Sani Sabik influence of that magnitude bypassed all of our security protocols and resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocents. Who can I trust in such an organization?” He added, “I’m glad you were spared the radio frequencies on liberation day–no one in the militia seemed to care. Instead, they celebrated.”

Shalee frowned deeply, “Huola liberated. It should be the happiest of time, but instead I feel like all of New Eden is crashing down around me.”

He took a step further, “Maybe this whole thing… The entire Crusade has been corrupted to its core. The celebratory comms were in every major alliance, Shalee.” He looked up towards the stars, “And now they’re heading north towards Metropolis and Heimatar.”

“I can’t believe that. I still have to believe in the crusade. It’s all I have left.”

Shalee!” He looked at her, his turn to scold her, “Supporting this crusade is slaughtering innocents. How long has Nauplius been able to operate with no real opposition? And this cabal is darker and more influential than him a thousand times over.”

He calmed down a little, his voice softer, “If you think you can stop the decay of the 24th, then you can stay on the inside. I’ll leave and fight it from without.”

“Where will you go?”

“Far away enough to escape their influence, but close enough to strike down those they have corrupted.”

She squeezed his hand, “Not too far, I should hope. I need you here.”

He grinned, “Kamela isn’t so far away.”

“With Pred?”

“He’s been sending me offers for a while, now. Without a corporation, I think I should take him up on it. He’s been seizing moons throughout the South… if they aren’t in militia hands, maybe we can slow them down a bit.”

Shalee nodded, “I trust him. It is a good choice.”

A cold gust of wind swept up the beach, storm clouds in the distance. She said, “We should get inside.”

“Oh, and Regi?”

“Yes, my lady?” He asked as he followed her lead back up the path towards the Terrace.

“Will you stay? At the Manor, I mean. I need to be around people I can trust.”

He smiled in response, “I would love to stay.”

[OOC: For more information about Shalee’s daughter, go here.]

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