When the Beating of Your Heart

“Those who can, anchor up on Pred and overheat prop mods! The rest of you, get to gate, jump and get safe. We’ll get you out later!” 

Reginald lay back and closed his eyes. The clock was becoming depressing–a full sixteen hours left until the JMP-N rescue effort would commence. His ship, along with nine other vessels, had happened to be on the wrong side of a Goonswarm Federation capital escalation in the Goonswarm home region of Deklein–an escalation that had cut the JMP-N strategic cruiser fleet in half, stranding them on opposite sides of multiple bubbles. Some of the ships made it back to the wormhole that led to Enaluri, safety, and home. The rest? They had made a mad dash for a gate–a motley squadron of cruisers, strategic cruisers, HICs, and a Bhaalgorn-class battleship. The order from on high, before communication was cut, had been simple: Wait.

After establishing safe-spots in the system, like all of the other captains of the Trapped Squadron–as they had come to be known–he powered down all systems except life support. No lights, no beacons, no weapons, no capacitor signature–nothing could be left on that could give a roving combat probe something to lock onto. He had ordered the crew of his Legion-class strategic cruiser Shalee’s Revenge out of action stations and into emergency standby positions. This meant that they were all waiting in escape pods. And the waiting was killing them.

He had extracted himself from his pod some time before to patrol around the vessel as best he could in the rufescent emergency lighting. Since it was a strategic cruiser and therefore modular in design, its interior, while certainly Amarrian, nonetheless seemed somewhat alien–as if the familiar flowing lines and golden plates could be shed off at any second by the fullerene structure of the Legion itself, as if the gilded interior was masking a breathing organism deep within the bowels of the ship.

He shook his head, then pressed his hand hard against his temple in an attempt to stave off another powerful headache. Feeling along the walls in the dark, he somehow managed his way back to the bridge, where he found an empty seat. He needed to keep his mind off of the familiar passageways into darkness. He pulled a case out of his back pocket: his Righteous Cross medal. After polishing the medal several times, he pinned it to his uniform, its gleam shining even under the dim lighting. He slumped into the seat, completely aware of how dangerous it was to waste any mental faculties on that. And yet, he found himself holding his neocom moments later–a copy of a report furnished to him by Lady Aspenstar brightly displayed on the screen.

//Encode
//Begin Sub Routine
//Open File D//Project_SFRIM//over-watch
//File Running



//Open Sub-sector 67/8P
//Report Retrieved

Dear Lord Sakakibara

I was sent a notice that you seem to have placed a member of Societas into detention due to ‘illegal incursion into you’re holdings’ may I assure you I was unaware of any such plans, had I been Alexa would be in a very different cell. I understand why you saw fit to detain her however as a subject of SFRIM and still under employment by myself as chief of security of my own holdings I request she is transferred back to my custody to be tried under dereliction of duty and various other charges pertaining her actions.

May I suggest we meet in person in order to talk this out in greater detail ourselves.

Lord Lucas Raholan
Legatus

//Close Report
//Add note
-/ Lord Sakakibara previously registered in sub routine D//PROJECT_INSIGHT/recruitment_sleeperagent
//Close Note
//Encoding
//Begin transmission to SV-3 Location – Aband/A–/Kador

His eyes lingered on the notes at the bottom of the file. Lord Sakakibara previously registered in sub routine. Project Insight. Sleeper agent.

He leaned back again, his head still pounding from a combination of restlessness, mental exertion, and rumination. Massaging his temple with his forefinger and his thumb, he wandered down the familiar darkness of his memories of Huola. Charred flesh. Living corpses. A freighter cracked in two–perceived as a sacrifice to the Red God.

Suddenly, a neocom message broke him out of his reverie. The authentication codes were impossible. His eyes widened as the transmission from a Tengu-class strategic cruiser, broadcasting as Explorator, ran through the encryption sequences of the Sakakibara family. Finally, the message loaded.

“Rescue operation underway. Prep for extraction.” – Naomi

It was impossible. She was supposed to be dead. How did she even find him? Questions cluttered and uncluttered his mind as he rushed back to the pod–they would have to wait, he needed to get his ship and therefore his crew, to safety. He ran back into the pod, closing his eyes as his clone re-interfaced with the control mechanisms of the capsule. Subconsciously, he sent a message throughout the ship, “Action stations. Action stations. We’re extracting.”

***

The extraction from Deklein had gone off without a hitch. The Explorator had provided all of the requisite coordinates and had even prepared a safe point for Reginald and his crew in the insertion system. Although still over 80 jumps from Enaluri, the new region was clear of Goonswarm space. The only problem was that it was Period Basis. Blood Raider territory. For now though, the voices and the echoes remained at bay.

He was standing at the entrance to the docking bay, the Explorator having pulled alongside to provide additional supplies. He recognized some of the incoming crew as staff members from the family suspected of being Naomi’s supporters and classified as such by DENT, though they were primarily lower-level grunts.

And then he saw her.

Her face was gaunt, her skin pale, her hair short. And yet she walked with a sense of purpose he would not have expected from a former prisoner. She smiled slightly to him as she boarded his ship. His guards tensed, but as they were literally at her mercy, they did little more than to show that their weapons were readily available.

“Naomi,” Reginald smiled in that practiced way his mother had beaten into him as a child.

“Older brother,” She grinned back.

They stood there awkwardly, neither of them venturing to say anything beyond their initial greetings, let alone move to make an embrace. A number of emotions were pumping through him–confusion, anger, vengeance, gratitude. It was all so disorienting, to the point that he could do little more than stand.

Naomi broke the silence, “Your wife sent me. She was concerned about you.”

Reginald was caught off guard, “Oh. Well…”

“We’re currently negotiating with the local alliance to provide the necessary equipment for your ship to get out in one piece,” She turned back towards the entrance-way, “You would certainly want to take part in the negotiations?”

Still a little unbalanced, Reginald merely nodded, then gave instructions for his crew to power down all systems except life support until his return. He then followed Naomi into the Tengu-class strategic cruiser. He noticed immediately that it was designed entirely for exploration–scanning systems, the ubiquitous Sisters Scanner Probes, and even the high-end Sisters Expanded Probe Launcher. It was also outfitted purely for travel–a covert operations subsystem rendered the ship invisible as it pulled away from the Shalee’s Revenge, the Legion’s lights already dimming. Propulsion was taken care of through an interdiction nullification subsystem. He wondered to himself where Naomi had received the ISK to build such a vessel.

Naomi walked with Reginald to a lounge area, waving off her attendants except for a pair of Achuran bodyguards, who took a respectful distance from the siblings. She indicated tea for Reginald as she took a seat near a coffee table–Reginald took one opposite.

He raised a cup of tea to his lips, eventually forcing himself to say, “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Naomi smiled back, “Will you allow me to apprise you of the situation?”

He nodded, looking at her intently–trying to find a motive behind this act of kindness, this obvious manipulation.

“As I’ve said, we have been engaging in negotiations for your safe passage through this region with the local alliance–Drop the Hammer,” She indicated a wide viewport from which one of the local gates could be seen, “They’ve been very helpful in terms of providing market data. Unfortunately, the closest station with a publicly-available Interdiction Nullifier for your Legion is twenty-eight jumps away. At least, in Stain.”

Reginald shuddered at the thought of entering Sansha space. Naomi seemed to sense this, offering reassuringly, “We are going to check a market in another adjacent region. It is looking hopeful.”

He quirked a brow at her, though his nullsec geography was inadequate at best, “What region?”

She looked at him carefully, then provided a holo-projection of the constellation for him, “The system is CX8-6K in the OK-FEM constellation.” She tilted her head, “Are you familiar?”

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He looked at the projection–systems plotted out in dots seemingly so insignificant and yet separated by vast expanses of empty space. They were color coded–the bright lights of Empire space highsec contrasting against the red of null. Lowsec seemed non-existent in comparison. As he analyzed the constellation Naomi showed him, something stirred deep in his spine. Taking another sip of tea, he tried to shake the feeling off, but it clung to him, unwilling to let go. It was not an itch, but rather the sense of something grabbing onto him, latching onto him, coiling and uncoiling. He shifted in his seat, though it did little to abate the sensation.

“It’s a major hub in this area of space. The parts we need will surely be there,” She smiled sanguinely.

Fresh pains suddenly coursed through his cranium like bolts of lightning. He dropped his cup of tea. Despite his implants, he could feel his eyes unfocusing, voices re-congregating inside of his mind. He pressed both of his hands to his head, as if he was trying to hold it together, to keep it from splitting in two.

Naomi smiled, then rose. The two Achuran bodyguards hoisted Reginald onto his feet and despite his best efforts to resist, dragged him towards the viewport. One of them placed his hand firmly beneath Reginald’s chin, forcing him to gaze out into space.

As he struggled against the cacophony growing in his mind, Naomi’s voice cut through as clean and sure as a sharpened knife, “We’re here. Welcome to Blood Reach.”

***

At first, it was hardly visible through the dust particles produced by asteroids and other debris. But as the Tengu-class vessel fell into line on the approach lanes, structures slowly rose out of the obscurity of the haze.

ss+(2015-06-09+at+04.40.08)

His heart skipped a beat as the structures came into focus. He didn’t even notice the Bhaalgorn-class battleships moored to the complex. His eyes suddenly focused completely on the Blood Raider architecture.

“This place guards a holy site. The Pagera Manton,” Naomi’s voice once again cut through the chorus echoing through his mind.

He felt his body begin to relax into the grips of the Achuran bodyguards. His heart rate continued to flutter wildly, the voices slowly beginning to abate the closer the vessel approached. Finally, after the proper clearances were made, the Explorator docked with Blood Reach.

It was awe-inspiring.

ss+(2015-06-09+at+04.57.09)

It was as gorgeous as any similar structure he had seen in the Empire, the bloody patterns offering a grotesque yet stunningly beautiful alternative to orderly gold. Towering above the complex like a vigilant sentry stood Blood Reach’s Central Administration Structure. Somewhere in Reginald’s mind, he cataloged the intriguing observation that even the Blood Raiders saw value in bureaucracy, but that was a thought buried underneath the increasingly melodious symphony in his mind. The pain seemed to all but dissipate as the guards and Naomi led him into the structure–each step leading towards a crescendo of disorienting euphoria.

There were hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims surging to and fro throughout the building. Many wore masks, others their bare faces. It was all so intriguing, so surreal–most of the pilgrims would have fit in on the Amarr Emperor Family Academy trade floor or even at a ball at Knight’s Mercy. They seemed so ordinary, despite the darkness of their visit.

Hallways, elevators and tramways led to various sections of the Blood Reach complex. Something like a Central Terminal stood at the base floor, regular trains of automated maglevs leading to places such as “Bloodsport Stadiums,” “Slave Pens,” “Altars,” and “Cloning Facility.” He could see signs leading to other, more sinister locations, but couldn’t make out the wording. They probably went to places where one could consume the blood of their choice, and for some strange reason, he was not bothered by the thought.

Naomi and the guards led him to an elevator, flanked by two masked men. After exchanging a few hushed whispers, he was loaded onto the elevator. It was made almost entirely of glass, offering a complete and unobstructed view of many proceedings on the main floor. Slave auctions. The sale of blood wine. Sacrifices.

On a massive screen above one of the maglev lines, a camera drone feed zoomed out of one of the Bloodsport Stadiums. Fights to the death. Unlicensed Mind Clash grandmasters. The schedule was spelled out in full as it rotated around the stadium, crowds cheering as their favorites were announced.

ss+(2015-06-09+at+04.54.19)

The elevator opened into a chamber already occupied by dozens of what he assumed were high-ranking Sani officials. Most were naked, bodies writhing in the shadowy confines amidst the smell of blood. It was all too much at once. He felt a fresh pair of hands and then a body press against him. He turned his attention to a dark-skinned girl wearing a white ceramic mask, a chalice of red liquid–presumably blood wine–in her hand. Naomi brushed her away, then began to lead Reginald through the intensity before them. He would have fallen to his knees had it not been for the Achuran bodyguards. His brain simply couldn’t keep up with the sensations, the sheer physical, spiritual and psychological inputs entirely overwhelming. Lines of Scripture played through his head–lines about sacrilege and blasphemy–while at the same time verses from childrens’ songs from “Dr. Adad’s Wild Time!” swirled through the sea of sin. He could almost feel something shattering, deep in-grained beliefs at risk of melting away.

Somehow they got him through the chamber and into a quieter room. An altar, covered in the fresh blood of a now-pale human sacrifice was bathed in pale artificial light, casting the rest of the sanctuary in shadow. A hooded figure approached them as the distinctive dripping of blood ran down grooves along the altar and into chalices prepared for the occasion.

“So,” The hooded figure said in a masculine voice, “This is the one who married Michael Tzestu’s sister. Our ‘Hero of Huola.'”

It felt as if an Iteron Mark V had crashed into his head, almost knocking him off of his feet. Reginald could barely keep his eyes open through the constant barrage of everything anathema to what he had grown up with. Sensing this, an Achuran guard simultaneously pulled back on his hair and forced him to his knees so that he was looking up at the figure.

“We have such plans for you, Lord Sakakibara,” The figure said as he wiped his hands of blood, licking remnants off of thin fingers. He knelt down to Reginald’s height and lightly drew a bloody smear across the Righteous Cross medal on his chest.

“Plans for you. Your wife. And your son.”

***

Naomi had somehow secured the parts necessary for Reginald’s escape from null. With a rendezvous scheduled and a location for a drop-off secured, they had made their way back through the whirlwind of blasphemy and heresy. Back on the Explorator, Reginald stood at the viewport, looking back at Blood Reach in the distance. He stood alone, unaided, his back straight in the manner his mother had beaten into him–a posture fit for a Holder.

“Well, Reginald?” Naomi joined him, asking in a familiarly sweet voice, “Will you return?”

The answer flickered briefly in his eyes.

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